Friday, March 26, 2010

The Spectrum

You sit in a crowded restaurant and listen carefully to the person across from you. Around you are dozens of people holding their own conversations, some louder than yours, yet you have no trouble hearing the person who's speaking to you. Some mechanism in your mind is tuning out all that noise so you can pay attention to just one person.*

And that sounds all well and good. It seems like the kind of thing your brain ought to be doing. But then again, it also means that you are missing most of the moment. That "noise" isn't actually noise, it has meaning. Things are happening around you, and your mind is letting you miss it.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing, I'm just saying it's significant.

Your brain is trying to find things of significance. Things that you can't interpret aren't of significance. Thus there may be many things, even important things, that your mind is writing off as noise-that get tuned out completely.

To illustrate my point, consider the following:
Now in this particular case it is a physical limitation, not mental, that's blocking the relevant information. (If you can't read the above image, it says "Colorblind people are awesome.") But we're still dealing with the same conceptual animal. This image contains a whole band of data that some people simply can't interpret.

And when you miss layer of the world around you because you weren't well-educated enough, emotionally sensitive enough, or culturally aware enough, the limitation is no less real.

*Except sometimes you do pick up a word or two, which makes me think that your mind is also scanning all that noise. I've often wanted to do experiments where I'd go into a crowded place, softly-but-clearly say various dirty words, and see how many heads I can get to turn.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Not that I don't own one

People that are really into video games, the sort that read Joystiq and Penny Arcade (which is to say, people like me) are often mystified by the moves that Nintendo makes, especially concerning the Wii.

That may seem odd to a more casual gamer, who knows the Wii as a global phenomenon, one that long ago surpassed its competitors in sales numbers.

But you must understand that for us, the system has always been something of an anomaly: No HD support, when the whole market is going that direction; No hard drive, when downloadable content is just becoming a big thing; A design that's just a boring white box, when all the other systems are starting to look like part of your home theater.

When these things were announced, months before anyone in the general public would know or care, "hardcore" gamers were already predicting it as Nintendo's folly.

And then, like a latter day Seward, the Wii took the world by storm, and they're competition is playing catchup.

Yet even now I see gamers and media questioning the company's maneuvers, certain that this time Nintendo's made a fatal error. But long ago I realized that Nintendo's decisions for the last few years make perfect sense when you see it through the filter of extensive, comprehensive market testing.

See in order to make something that appeals to everyone, you often end up having to make it rather bland. The search for the universal product is, in effect, the search for the product that is universally inoffensive. Not good, mind you, just inoffensive.

So with that in mind, think about the Wii. The device is small and unobtrusive, most dvd players have more buttons on them. Even the simple memory card reader feature is covered by a panel, you don't know it's there unless you go looking. Aesthetically it's plain, not pretty but not an eyesore either. You'd barely notice it.

It doesn't have HD, it doesn't have a hard drive, but for the average consumer those are almost a burden. Were you to market test the general public on those things, I'll bet most wouldn't have a solid understanding of HD, and wouldn't know why their game console would need a hard drive.

Even the Wii logo, grey letters on a white background, is nothing except inoffensive.

Nintendo has market tested their product into a grey paste, and they're making a ton of money as a result.

This concept, that wide appeal means making a bland product, is something I think about a lot. I think about it every time I see "Citizen Kane" on the top of a "best movies of all time" list, or "Ulysses" on a similar list for books. I think about it when I drink a Coke. In each case, I have the same reaction: rather bland, but wholly inoffensive.

So then to make something daring, something unique and interesting, I suppose you've got to accept that you're probably not going to be the most popular.*

*I'll take it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The biggest one they can

You have a lot of freedom when you create something. This property is simultaneously the most wonderful and most troublesome aspect of our authorial capacities.

In other words, I can write anything I want to. Absolutely anything. Here, I'll show you:


But on the other hand, I could also write words that inform, words that entertain, or words that make you think. There are simply a lot of options open to us when we sit down at a keyboard, a piano, or a blank patch of beach sand.

And that sounds wonderful, right? Romatic even. Free reign of the human imagination.

But there are two problems:

Problem 1: Paralysis by options - If I give a person materials and tools and ask him to build a table, that's fine. Most people understand the parameters of what makes a table. But if I give a person those same things and ask him to build "whatever you want," he'd probably stare at me blankly. There are no parameters for "whatever you want," so it's hard to know where to start on that kind of project.

Problem 2: When you give people the ability to make whatever they want, the first thing they make is a penis. Just ask anyone who's ever run a message board.

But that second point doesn't surprise me. Our collective obcession with sex is hard-wired into our minds. Perhaps the best evidence for this is the fact that you mentally giggled a little when you read the word "hard-wired."

What surprises me is the particular branch of creative works I call "swing music about food."

And this is just a sample, there's much more to be found.

These writers looked at the page, saw all the possibilities, and started reading from a menu.

*I think it's worth noting that, while writing a line of gibberish, I still felt the need to follow the rules of capitalization and punctuation.

Friday, March 5, 2010

This post may be edited later at the discression of the author

This week I played through Heavy Rain: a gripping, emotionally powerful work of interactive fiction. It puts game mechanics into tasks like a panicked search for a lost child, mending another person's wounds, or desperately fighting to get away from an attacker. Heavy Rain is the first game in recent memory where, when the outcome was assured, I literally* collapsed in a heap.

*Roger Ebert would like me to pause here and remind you that video games are not art.*

So I guess, if I'm going to write a post about a game, seems like Heavy Rain would be the natural candidate.


It's about Portal, a game that came out nearly three years ago.

See this month a patch was released for Portal that added an extra line of dialogue to the ending! It's thought that this addition is a setup for the sequel, or possibly a tie-in to another franchise by the same developer.

You don't see the big deal, do you? Well let me add another spice to the mix.

Most of the people who own this game got that patch automatically, without their consent. This kind of delivery is a perfectly normal thing for gamers. Most modern game consoles check for updates to your games each time you play them. And many people who own the PC version of Portal bought it on Steam, a digital distribution program that, like the consoles, updates your games without any effort on your part.

Still don't understand why the patch is significant? Let me bring it a little closer to home.

The Amazon Kindle is capable of working in a similar way to these game platforms. When you buy a new book, it downloads passively in the background, even when you're doing something else with the device. And it doesn't get talked about much, but it's also possible for Amazon to remove a book from a connected Kindle. If they can do that, there's no reason they couldn't edit a book, or replace it with an edited version. Now imagine if a book publisher decided to fix a typo in one of their novels, or reconcile an inconsistency in the story, or add a line of dialogue to the ending. And then they made this change to everyone's Kindle edition of the book, all at once.

Now you get it. Now you see why making a narrative change to a game that's been out for three years is so interesting, troubling perhaps, but interesting.

This is maybe the most important distinction between physical and digital media: When you buy something digital, it doesn't have to be a fixed, dead entity. What you have bought is rights to a potentially living document. While the internet hive-mind was distracted by questions of ownership over digital goods, they missed the more amazing point: that digital goods can evolve.

*And not figurative literally. Literal literally.