damonpackwood

Posts Tagged ‘Diversity in Games’

LUCiD, An Original Game Concept by a Bunch of Crackheads

In Education, video games on September 17, 2014 at 7:45 am

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It was the year 2003, I think, and a few buddies of mine — Shawn Johnson and Jesus “Chuy” Quintero — were working as Resident Advisors for the USF Upward Bound Summer Program. For six weeks, we lived in a college dorm with a bunch of high school/aspiring college students taking classes at the university, but that’s not the important part. We had a weekend off so, we decided to create an activity around a newly discovered guilty pleasure: video games. We rented a bunch of games from Blockbuster Video (remember them), brought our game systems to the dorms, hooked them up to a bunch of televisions in one room and PLAYED ALL DAY.

At the time, we were still single and chasing women. We wanted to keep the video game thing a secret so we came up with a nickname. We called them Crack. Yes, sounding like we were discussing an illegal drug was somehow better than saying video game, but there it is. We used the name Crack because we thought a good video game was one that you couldn’t put down. A good video game was addictive like an awesome book. Thus, a good video game was like Crack, and our little event, which soon became a tradition, was our “Crack Session” where we “Cracked Out.”

We did our little events for only two more years but we stayed friends. Chuy bought his first console, got married and drove his wife crazy with his brand new hobby. Shawn worked for a year as a tester and hated it. A few years later, I did a stint as a video game journalist. To this day we still use the same words to describe video games. Actually, over the years we came up with a completely new lexicon because A) we were admittedly nuts and B) we absolutely hated how nearly everyone that wrote about games was white, male and geek. I was a Black dude from poor, working class San Francisco. Shawn was a brotha from Oakland. Chuy was a Mexican-American who grew up picking peaches in rural Yuba City, California. The way people talked about games on IGN or Kotaku just didn’t vibe with us.

A few months ago, I started teaching a class on principles of video game design with a small group of youth. I’ve learned a few things since the summer of 2003. During the first lecture, I talked to them about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, his Theory of Flow and it’s influence on video games. His theory, as I explained to my class, is the reason why a good game is like crack.  I explained it. They totally got it. I had come full circle. 

A few weeks later that small group of young people created a concept for a video game, called LUCiD, a game about dealing with grief. They used Little Big Planet 2 to create a concept demo and Weebly to create a website around it with character profiles, concept art and a YouTube video. And, they call themselves The Crackheads. On Moday, they submitted their game to the ESA LOFT Video Game Innovation Fellowship. No word on the results just yet, but I couldn’t be more proud of this small band of Black, Yemini and Latino youth.

Ain’t it funny how ideas develop?

Diversity Contributed to Better Video Games in 2012: Sound Shapes

In video games on January 19, 2013 at 8:20 am

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Co-designer Jonathan Mak and composer and co-designer Shaw-Han Liem have made a that brings new meaning to the term “playing a song.” The design of Sound Shapes makes so much sense as that you have to wonder why no one has done it yet. As a matter of fact, the only thing wrong with the game is that despite albums by DeadMau5, Beck, Jim Guthrie and two albums by Liem’s alias, I Am Robot And Proud there damn well should have been more. Hell, I’d pay for more albums if they’re of the same quality.

Despite the attention this game gets for its music and its smooth platforming people rarely mention the visual artists that “drew” each level. The art of Superbrothers (who made the excellent Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery), PixelJam, Colin Mancer, Vic Nguyen and Pyramid Attack make you feel like you’ve fallen into one of those awesome album covers you’d see thumbing through an old crate at Ameoba Records.The visual cool-ness of playing through a level that is a visual artists’ interpretation of a musicians music is a fantasy that I didn’t know I had.

Sound Shapes is a great example of what you can do when a diverse group of folks (visual artists, game developers, and musicians) get together to make a game. And, I love the fact that it was lead by two Asian cats from Canada with a love for electronic music and quirky aesthetics.

Diversity Contributed to Better Video Games in 2012: The Walking Dead

In video games on January 11, 2013 at 12:05 am

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The best African American protagonist to grace any video game ever is Lee Everrett in arguably the best game of 2012. I’ve been familiar with voice actor Dave Fennoy’s work for a few years now, and I didn’t really care for it. There is a tendency  to take a black male voice actor with a deep voice and direct him to speak like an over the top tough guy. It’s annoying. I mean, who talks like that?

What is so great about Fennoy’s character in The Walking Dead is he’s allowed to speak like a normal person. It helps that he is paired with Melissa Hutchison (the second best voice actor of 2012) who plays Clementine, the little girl that Lee stumbles into and becomes her guardian and surrogate father. This gives the actor a clear motivation for his performance. Everything he says is inevitably for the purpose of protecting Clementine. You can hear it clearly in his voice. When he is angry, nurturing or inquisitive his motivation for it is clear. Also, this has the unexpected effect of allowing the player to wonder who he really is or to decide based on their tendencies.

Dave Fennoy’s amazing voice work will (and should) hopefully propel him to the same level as Nolan North and Troy Baker. And, by the way, I love that we can discuss voice actors the same way we discuss movie stars.

I haven’t discussed the gameplay because I don’t think my short blurb would do it justice. The Walking Dead is a point-and-click adventure game so the first impression is that it’s gameplay is fairly simple. The user places the cursor over a thing, hits a button and something happens. However, if you take a closer look at you’ll see some gameplay decisions that contribute to the tension. (like shortening the time limit for simple decisions in episodes 4 and 5, creating the feeling that time is running out) And, oh my God, the tension in this game is teeth-grinding.

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The Walking Dead is a great game starring a little girl and a black man in the American south.It is riddled with a wonderful mix of other diverse characters who are young, old, homeless, racist, handicapped and so on. Now, if that doesn’t wake people up to the critical and commercial viability of diverse characters in video games I don’t know what will. This is a great game that has arguably ruined this years zombie games. Telltale Games have created a game changer, and if you don’t rush out to play this, you suck!

I’m kidding, but seriously, you gotta play The Walking Dead.

Diversity Contributed to Better Video Games in 2012

In video games on January 11, 2013 at 12:02 am

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I love playing games. Well, actually I love visual storytelling and I think video games have produced some of the most interesting storytelling experiences of the last 15 years. I would place my enjoyable experiences watching a season of The Wire in the same sentence as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and a playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. I’m not saying they are the same experience. They’re completely different. However, what they do have in common is that I thoroughly enjoyed watching each of their respective stories unfold. I loved the mastery of acting, cinematography, narrative, and programming that went in to making them all fun to watch, to play and to experience.

So, yes! I have a lot of fun playing video games and experiencing interactive storytelling, which is why I’m such an advocate of games that avoid the derivative narrative of goblins, wizards, military shooters, scantily clad women and the omnipresent white male protagonist. Make no mistake, there is a time and place for playing as a white knight who blasts monsters with his fire staff while a sexy princess waits for him in the bowels of a castle somewhere. I’ve played those games. They’re fun. But, there are far more things to make a game about so let’s see them already. Further, considering how diverse we are as a group of developed nations and the possibilities inherent in interactive entertainment, the untapped story telling opportunities are exciting.

Therefore, it is with great shame that I realized after seeing the advertisement for The Journey Down that I haven’t written about any of these exceptional games, particularly those that I have played recently. These are games that get diversity right. They are thought out, well written, designed, and executed. So, allow me over the next few posts to talk about why I loved them and why you should go out and buy them today. No, today!

1. Papo & Yo

2. The Walking Dead

3. Sound Shapes

4. Journey (coming soon)

5. Spec Ops: The Line (coming soon)

 

Diversity Contributed to Better Video Games in 2012: Papo & Yo

In video games on January 10, 2013 at 11:56 pm

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Here is a game whose lead character is a Afro-Brazilian boy named Quico who lives in the favelas. It has a beautiful soundtrack by Venezuelan composer Brian D’Oliveira. It is based on the personal story of Creative Director Vander Caballero who also co-founded  Minority Media Inc., the development house of Papo & Yo. And, their web address is weareminority.com.

I love it. I love it because it’s an inherently Latin video game. l love it because it’s really good.

Papo & Yo is a puzzle platform about a young boy who is trying to make sense of real world problems, namely his abusive father. He imagines that his father is a big pink rhino named Monster who is a harmless sloth when he’s eating yellow fruit but becomes violent when he eats frogs. To help Monster, Quico and a mysterious little girl decide to lure him to a mystic to cure him of his problem. The subtext of course is that Monster is Caballero’s alcoholic father.

The result is a wonderfully magical and tragic experience that rekindled memories of my childhood. Yes, like many people who were moved by the game, my father was an alcoholic but that wasn’t what really moved me (my pops was more a lazy drunk). As a young boy I grew up in low income communities that were filled with real world problems that affected me but that I had absolutely no control over. So, I did what most kids do: I imagined my own fantasy world. We see these type of fantasy world all the time in mass media. I reminded of childhood classics like The Neverending Story or The Goonies. I loved those movies but I was always aware that as enjoyable as it was to watch Bastion defeat the It (coincidently an unknown, unexplainable enemy) his fantasy was not mine. I was a black kid from the hood. Where was my fantasy at the movies, on television and in a video game world.

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The favelas of Papo & Yo is that fantasy world. It’s a world where project homes stack on top of each other to form a bridge. It’s a world where a cheap toy robot is actually a jet pack that lets me fly above trash cans and broken bottles. It’s a world where the Monster isn’t a threatening outsider, he’s my father turned monstrous by things that are out of both of our control.

Diversity in Games

In Culture, video games on September 27, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Video games tell far too many stories about white guys and in my latest article I dig into some pretty credible research to discuss why this isn’t a good thing. Diversity in games is a fun topic and there are number of things that would make for interesting discussion. The narrative potential. The relationship between low national  math and science scores between some minority groups and the lack of those groups in the industry. What are the concrete reasons why diverse characterization is not considered important to publishers and developers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t dive in as much as I wanted to. I turned in more than my required 1200 words on this piece so you’ll be reading not only a stripped down version of what I wrote but a piece of what I think is worth exploring. Nonetheless, I came upon some good research to at least begin a conversation and in today’s web journalism age, that is the whole point isn’t it?

Most of the article revolves around the research of Dmitri Williams, an associate professor at USC. He did some research on something that has been painfully obvious for years now. Most games that are released in a given year feature largely white male characters but he put some actual numbers behind it. That part of his research was good, but I have a problem with his belief that it is because the industry is largely filled with white males.

He is right about the industry demographics but his research was not about the behavior of video game developers so I’m not sure why he believes, as he said at the DICE Summit in 2010, that developers make game characters that look like them. I think it’s an insult to the intelligence of game developers to assume that they are not aware that all of their characters look the same and they are incapable of doing anything about it. I’m a bit surprised that no one is challenging Williams’ opinion. It’s obvious that he is making an educated guess.

As gamers like my self get older, we start expecting more from the games that we play, more than prettier graphics and more enemies on screen. We want to play a game that has something else to say. I know that is hard to believe for such a young and somewhat juvenile entertainment medium, but games do say something even if it is something simple.

Take this year, for example. I enjoyed the hell out of playing Hispanic demon hunter Garcia Fucking Hotspur in Shadow of the Damned. He had a cultural identity in the game that was unique to the genre. Witty but not very smart, the scenes of him struggling to read are priceless. Charming but not very attractive, like an old boxer, he looks like a dude that tussles with demons. And, he’s a tad chauvinistic but a hopeless romantic for a girl who has one hell of an ex-boyfriend.

Hotspur was a thug but not in a urban street crime sort of way that is common in depictions of Hispanics in games. He was more like Daniel Craigs’ version of James Bond in Casino Royale, a brute well on his way to becoming a legend. The experience had a slightly different feel to it than the typical white-anglo-saxan-protestant hero that we’re accustomed to seeing. Hotspur isn’t a virtuous character. He isn’t trying to save the world. He’s attempting to rescue a girl that no normal person would dare go out with, someone who is just perfect for our tattoo covered hero.

On the flip side, playing Cole Phelps in LA Noire just made me wonder what Easy Rawlins was up to while I drove around the city of angels. I realize that they’re trying to sell people on the experience of playing iconic Hollywood films like LA Confidential, Chinatown, The Two Jakes, even movies set in Chicago like The Untouchables. But, why not sell people on experiencing something much more unique, the underbelly of Los Angeles from the perspective of a wholly different perspective? It is a quality that made Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas so appealing and Team Bondi could have borrowed from great cinematic and literary material that isn’t obscure but also isn’t as widely familiar.

And, Issac from Dead Space 2, a wonderful game but one that left me wanting to experience more. I mean, Imagine if that character removes their helmet at the end of Dead Space 1 to reveal a girl. Suddenly, the player realizes they’ve been playing a queer woman the entire time. Sure, it would be risky but no less cool as shit. There would be no need to change the core gameplay, the emphasis on gore or anything else for that matter. But, at its center is a slightly different story that gives the player a fresh perspective on an old genre.

But, again, that is not what the NAM article is about. In this one I’m simply stating that the demographic of gamers is changing and perhaps it’s time that the characters we play and the worlds they inhabit should change as well?

UPDATE: Apparently, the NAM piece stirred some discussion on N4G where someone reposted it. The 91 comment discussion is fascinating and it supports an idea that I discuss with my buddies a lot. Too many gamers look at diversity as an “other.” I’ll leave this idea for another post but I do find it fascinating that despite the various ethnic groups that comprise the U.S., particularly states where these video game developers preside  (California, Washington, Texas), many gamers still view a person who isn’t white and male as an alien.