Since 2006, I've been following the adventures of the team at Pure West--filmmakers researching and journaling MMO game culture for a documentary which would come to be called Second Skin. The team's blog gave a behind-the-scenes look at the trials of the documentarians and their evolving subject-matter, but I was fortunate enough to meet the filmmakers first-hand during one of their many journeys across the U.S., Canada, and overseas. These guys weren't just trying to cash in on the swelling interest in MMOs, or exploit players as objects of curiosity or ridicule--it was clear their mission was to seek out and reveal some compelling human stories at the intersection of real and virtual worlds.
The Second Skin trailer makes its debut today, and I'm not excited about it simply because of my brief on-camera appearance :) I feel like this will be a topical, socially-relevant documentary that will make a lasting mark. Something that may end up as course-material some day (certainly I'll be buying the DVD). The filmmakers clearly poured their blood and sweat into Second Skin, and at first glance, it really shows. Congratulations to the Pure West team and everyone (it seems like dozens) they interviewed. I think you have a hit on your hands.
A couple of projects I was involved with late last year are now fully operational. Although each project was for a separate broadcaster, each puts the player in the role of a secret agent. Must have been something in the air in 2007.
The Border: Interactive, which supports the new CBC TV series The Border, was produced by White Pine Pictures in association with Stitch Media, and is comprised of a series of narrative-driven mini-games. I'm pretty sure this is the first major project launch for Stitch Media, founded by Evan Jones, former Creative Director of Xenophile Media. As Game Designer on The Border: Interactive, I worked closely with Evan and his team during the pre-production phase, developing high-concept game ideas into executable design documents. Jam3Media worked with Stitch to develop the games in Flash.
M.I. High, a CBBC TV series, is now supported by an episodic web-game. I helped out as a game design consultant on the project, but I can't say more than that until I hear back from my client.
"Our ambition is to harness the power of video games in the service of humanistic principles, or human values, knowing that their work can have a tremendous and wide-ranging impact on our world." Yes, but will publishers buy in?
"Hint: Don't tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life." If true, most MMOs are preparing a legion of youth for future success
CNet.com: "Kids who are active members of virtual worlds are learning how to socialize, how to be technologically savvy, and how to be good little consumers." Last year, I did some concept-development for a consumer-driven kiddie-world. Feeling a bit sheepish about it now.
List of 10 indie game competitions, including the obscure "Arcademy Games Awards," allegedly part of the equally-obscure Toronto Future Play conference, and the dreadfully-mismanaged Vortex competition (also Toronto-based).
MedPage Todayreports that Wii Sports, a game for the Nintendo Wii console, wasn't found to contribute to recommended daily exercise standards set in Britain, according to a Liverpool University study. Nintendo has been hoping its console would be seen as a fitness aid, releasing the Wii Fit controller and Wii game in Japan earlier this year (due out elsewhere in 2008). A number of academics, researchers, and consumers around the world have been looking at the console as a potential fitness device, with varying results. A Canadian hospital is even using the game console as part of a physical rehabilitation program.
The Liverpool study--ironically, funded by Nintendo's UK marketing arm--might have dashed the game-maker's health-hopes if it wasn't for the fact that only eleven subjects were reportedly involved. The teens--six boys and five girls--were physically fit to begin with, and were studied playing only two games: Project Gotham Racing for the Xbox 360, and Wii Sports. The study found that active games like Wii Sports burn about 50% more calories than passive games like PGR, but that ultimately this only represented a 2% increase in energy expenditure in a typical week.
I'm no scientist, but it seems clear that a larger-scale study might be in order. A more diverse, and larger group of subjects; a wider range of games, particularly some which could be considered more active than Wii Sports. In my own experience, playing 30 minutes of Raving Rabbids on the Wii reminded me how atrophied my spaghetti-thin arms are. While the Wii may not appear to affect fitness levels according to this study, I'd rather play an active video game than a passive one, and I suspect most parents would rather buy an active video game for their kids. Perhaps the next study will involve the Wii Fit peripheral, hopefully with more promising results.
Almost 7 years ago, a team of creative Canadians launched Broken Saints, an online motion-graphic novel which evolved over 24 chapters and garnered a massive international fan-base. Series creator Brooke Burgess described the series as "cinematic literature" in a 2002 interview. I'd call the series "groundbreaking" in that it pushed accepted boundaries of web-based storytelling as well as the technical limitations of Flash as a production tool. Unlike cartoon "webisodes," Broken Saints used a painterly, textured approach more at home on film than the web.
The award-winning series has since been remastered and released on DVD through 20th Century Fox, but the project team hasn't stopped there: The "band" reformed to produce a series of mini-films as part of a promotion for the Will Smith sci-fi thriller I Am Legend.
According to a press release Brooke Burgess sent my way, he and cohort Ian Kirby have been secretly producing the animated shorts since last spring, when they were approached by Will Smith's production company. The mini-films range from 3-9 minutes each, and feature original music, sound design, and voice talent from the Broken Saints audio team. Apple is hosting "Awakening" and "Isolation," which echo all the best Broken Saints production values in the I Am Legend universe.
Applications are due February 1, 2008, for next year's Producers Institute for New Media Technologies, a 10-day program designed to give eight teams of documentary-makers a taste of new media, gaming, and cross-platform possibilities. Hosted and organized by the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) in San Francisco, the Producer's Institute is intense, energetic, and highly productive. The program runs May 30 - June 8: For complete information, or to submit an on-line application, please go to: bavc.org/producersinstitute.
I was a mentor at the 2007 Institute (held earlier this year), and thoroughly enjoyed working both with BAVC and the invited documentarians. It was a fantastic opportunity to teach, learn, and cross-pollinate, and I'm sure the 2008 event will offer more the same.
American watchdog group Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood isn't happy with how popular kiddie-world Webkinz has begun running external ads atop its already-commercial service. According to GamePolitics.com, "A current Webkinz campaign is promoting the film Alvin and the Chipmunks (screen shot at left), while similar ads ran for the recent Bee Movie." Virtual Worlds News reports that Ganz, maker of Webkinz has since pulled one of the ads, although it's not clear to me if this is a response to public pressure.
The ethics of advertising to children aside, Ganz's choice to blast ads at kids whose parents are already paying for Webkinz access comes off like a crass cash-grab . It's the same story with in-game ads found in many of today's video games--the consumer isn't sharing in the publisher's increased cash-flow. A more reasonable approach to advertising via Webkinz (again, irrespective of the ethical issues) would be to offer a discounted or free service in exchange for client-side ads.
PaRappa was delight to play (particularly the first installment in the series) and the paper-doll aesthetics were great fun. A Gotland University student even did a thesis project which addressed the idea of how a game "feels" through the live reenactment of one of game's levels. I'm counting on Majesco's upcoming Wii game to involve performance elements using the motion-sensitive Wiimote controller, allowing me to kick, punch, block, and chop to the beat.
Microsoft has announced its 2008 "Games for Change Challenge," where students around the globe will submit serious games which address the theme "Imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment." I didn't think much of the competition when it was launched earlier this year, based around the theme of global warming.
In both cases, I see the best solution to environmental rehabilitation as reducing (ideally eliminating) the use of Microsoft-created technology altogether. Stop making so many faulty consoles--or any at all, given that computing hardware such as the Xbox 360 eats too much energy and ultimately ends up in landfill or the hands of poor recyclers. If you must make consoles, ensure full backwards compatibility with previous software libraries and hardware peripherals such as controllers. Increase power efficiency, not power demands. Reduce packaging. Require contest entries to be presented remotely.
The ultimate test for these environmentally-themed games is whether or not the player does more good than harm in playing. Ideally, this means motivating a gamer to go outside and make a real difference, but it could be as simple as reducing household energy demands by turning off hungry hardware (such as the game console). The contest's mission is to have student technologists "actively contribute" to improving the world--I'm not sure this can be accomplished using Microsoft's proprietary game console as a platform.