Games and disabilites: Thoughts about suitable games

If we are to practice what we preach about games as a central part of our culture, we need to think about accessibility as more then access to large customer groups with credit cards.

To my knowledge there are no games specifically designed for mentally disabled people (but would more than anything love to be proven wrong! If you know of such titles: please notify me). Considered what a small, yet diverse group we are talking about, it is perhaps not surprising that players with handicaps (particularly mental ones) are not considered a “hot” market. However, with the ongoing changes to the games industry, with the rise of both indie games developers and a serious games industry, we might be at a time where we can truly embrace the idea of games as something for everyone.

Just because I don’t know of any specific game titles for this group, doesn’t mean that there aren’t suitable titles out there. So I am considering some game features that could be suitable and in such; help my search in finding the right games.

Of course these features are based on my personal perceptions and understandings of mental disabilities. As I said, it is a very diverse group that covers anything from requiring assistance with pretty much everything, to those with their own jobs and houses (though usually within a supported framework). For this little mental exercise I should therefore point out that I have the latter in mind, with the idea that the game should initially be played with assistance –but with the goal of it becoming an independent activity with time/training/play. A mentally disabled person may have the cognitive capabilities of a child, with limited literacy (both digital and traditional), but will still have a lifetime of experiences that means that their actual cognitive abilities are higher than that of a child.

The things I have considered as important features for a game that could work well for mentally disabled players might first come across as a list of traits for casual games or childrens games. And honestly I think the solution is somewhere in between. However, casual games can be quite complex, just not require much time or intensity, and children’s games can have themes or other features that are simply not suited for adults. So, getting the “right mix” will be the key.

Here is my first attempt to make a list of game features that support mentally disabled players:

  • -          Recognizable themes (sports, music, hobbies, movies, celebrities)
  • -          Game pace is set by the player
  • -          Low demand for eye hand coordination
  • -          Minimal interface
  • -          Minimal text (preferably voice acting)
  • -          Easily translated/adapted into other languages
  • -          Intuitive/easily recognizable game rules (low level of abstraction and complexity in the game rules)
  • -          Little need for strategic choices (as in planning ahead, min/maxing)
  • -          Forgivable design (the possibility to redo important choices if wanted)
  • -          Co-op functionality
  • -          “Show and tell” features (f.ex automatic screenshot at the end of a level that is kept in a photo book)

I believe that the main obstacle in designing games for mentally disabled people, is making sure that the designers understand their target audience/users/players and their special needs. However, the call for specialized knowledge might also be the solution to the problem:

There are many interest groups, companies and researchers working on how to generally improve the quality of life for the handicapped. I also know that there are many budding indie game companies out there, just looking for an investor, partner or niche that can give their business an edge.

Perhaps we should get them on a date?

3 pieces of software that made my life easier and my work better

I love the discovery process that precedes new additions to my everyday life. There is something special about finding a new fascination, interest or tool that is intriguing enough for me to make it a permanent thing. It is of course more fun when I can delude myself into thinking that the discovery is due to my own excellent sense of style, trends and design – but like most other people  I rely on lists of other peoples favorites.

It wasn’t until I started listing my favorite software programs that I realized they all had one important thing in common: they were all about synching data between different computers. That, and they are all free.

As someone with flexible working hours and workplace (and a somewhat underdeveloped sense of organization), I often found myself missing files when and where I needed them. Loosing edits on papers or photos of family because I simply could not remember where it was saved on what computer. However, with these small, free programs, I stay “in synch”.

Dropbox

Dropbox lets you basically have a virtual folder for all kinds of files, which is (like the others) based on cloud computing. It is easy to install and the design is intuitive. No need to remember to synch, or do lots of logins. Just save what you want in the dropbox folder, and the rest is automatic.

For me it started with just a few things like news stories and backups of current work, but it quickly ended up as my primary folder for all of my documents and pictures. This month I paid for an upgrade, increasing my storage capacity from 2GB (free) to 50GB, and I am currently uploading files from all three of my computers – watching in delight as it is all gathered in one spot.

tl;dr Before: Lots of similar sounding folders on several computers at home and work but with different content – so things get lost Now: Its all in one place and I am actually able to organize the quickly growing documentfolders.

Evernote

Everynote is simply a program that lets you make notes, with the possibility of adding both pictures, pdfs, links and more into the notes, and sync it between different units. It has many fancy functions I have not really checked out, but the basic features are easy to use (making notes, adding content, organizing them) and best of all: it is also available as a smartphone app.

I have tried similar programs before, but it was the cloud computing+ smartphone app that made it an actual working combo for me. I make to-do-lists, keep a list of good quotes, note down names of good wines, lists of articles I want to read to lists with ideas for blogposts. And since I have my phone with me at all times, I also have these notes and lists with me at all times.

tl;dr Before: Scribbles everywhere, stressing about trying to remember anything important Now: Open phone, then read what to do or add a thought for later

Zotero

Zotero is a citation tool that is installed as a browser and wordprocessor plugin. It is compatiable with most common citation formats, allowing for the digital import of references as well as websites and other documents. You can put on tags, attach files and make your own notes. You can import libraries from other referencing tools, and

I am not going to make a big argument for Zotero over any other referencing tool, but argue the need to use one in the first place. It changed how I read academic literature (immediately adding the rerence to my zotero library, making notes while I read cause I know I will be able to find them again) and how I write (doing literature searches in my own library, citing easily and more freely then without it).

tl;dr Before: Lots of paper drafts with “fix it put in reference here” notes. Now: Reference is put in straight away, making the bibliography is pressing a button

Discovering these programs was a joy. I hope they will bring some joy for you too!

PS

As an STSer who continually fights the good fight against technological determinism I need to comment on my own title. Because it does imply that somehow these technologies changed my life on their own, and that is of course a false assumption.

Friends, “AI” and everyday life. Immediate reflections about Sims Social aka Facebook Sims

The Sims was released in 2000 and its popularity baffled both game designers and players. Games were supposed to be about fantasy, adventure and challenges no? At the time we conceptualized games as an escape from everyday life, but in the middle of this was The Sims: a successful game about cleaning the house and getting married. Eleven years later The Sims Social is released for Facebook. But, in a time where seemingly everyone goes online to do repetitive and mundane tasks (such as harvesting tomatoes) –  does this game really have something new to offer?

I am on Day 4 of playing The Sims Social (TSS). So far I have done pretty much the same as I have done before in other Sims games: expanded the house, learned skills and talked to neighbors. The interface is clunky, the bugs are plentiful and most features from previous Sims games have been dumbed down. So why on earth play this game?

Found at http://www.reallifecomics.com/archive/110830.html

It’s not only that I can compare the value of my own house to that of my friends (allowing for a competitive game), it’s the fact that my neighbors are my friends. After all, one of the more enjoyable aspects of Sims was to model oneself, family and friends and see what happened when you put them in a digital playground.  Now that there are real people behind the Sims I’m sure the need to put them in pools and remove the ladder (so that they get exhausted and drown) is lessened, but hey – can’t have it all.

So what does it mean to play TSS with your friends?

The only direct contact between you and your friends playing TSS is through gifts and status requests. The rest of the time you are playing with scripted representation of your friends. They have the look and personality that your friends chose, but it’s not your friends you are actually interacting with. To call these Sims representations of AI would be to stretch the word in the very longest of directions, but it is some beauty in how the majority of social interactions are actually between humans and computers.

Slutty sims?

The fun part here is how a Sim can behave completely different during its script, and during its “active” play. Also, since you don’t control your Sim when other people are visiting – things can get a bit interesting. How are we going to relate to avatars that do stuff outside our control?

For example: My Sim went to bed with one of my neighbors in TSS, and the only reason I found out was because I happened to be talking to my this friend at the time. It was one of the more absurd conversations I’ve had, so I figured I should share (a slightly edited version of) it:

Me: How is the pickup going?

Neighbor: we are getting there rather quickly. just a couple of clicks

Me: oh teh lulz…. Somehow I am no longer your neighbor [meaning I cant visit or interact with her]. I can see the bugs getting annoying.

Neighbor:i wont let it get between us

Me: easy for you to say. You’re getting all the action.

Neighbor: you are quite easy if dont mind me saying so. although my char is running to bathroom every 5 seconds

Me: l2 invest in steel bladder

Neighbor: I took it to the “next level”. oh lol. too much caffeine + this = awesome

Me: I also find it funny how it is non-concentual

Neighbor: we exchanged numbers

Me: I am clearly a bit of a slut

It seems that while my Sim in TSS is not an AI, she still has a life on her own. I’m not offended, or on a crusade against game pickups of digital scripts, it was a very funny evening as we were figuring out what the game could and could not allow. But there is a tension here in regards to what the player can and cannot decide when it comes to her/his avatar.  On one hand TSS “railroading” of avatar actions in certain cases is not different to what happens in many single player games where you cannot decide the outcome. Still, I have been used to at least an illusion of an avatar that is always in my control.

“ Vampires and the woman they love” –Why it doesn’t make sense

I am outright stoked about the current revival of the vampire genre. Hansom, pale and powerful men with mysteries, sex appeal and fangs. What is there not to like?

Well, how about their obsession with teenage girls?

I get the initial reasons for this obscene pairing.  Innocence vs sin. Evolution vs standstill. Light vs dark. A man who lives forever chooses this one, young, pure soul to share eternity with. Need I go on? It has epic written all over it.

Except the part where you are dating a teenage girl.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Buffy is brilliant and find Sookie only mildly annoying (let’s leave Twilight out of it). They are characters to identify with and are fully capable of showing femininity as well as power.

But, if you were centuries old -  would you date a 17 year old girl?

The gender isn’t important here. The age is. I remember how I was when I was that age. It was not pretty. I’m not even 30 and the idea of getting involved in the everyday drama of a teenager makes me cringe.

Now imagine you have lived for several lifetimes. You have travelled the world and have explored all kinds of arts, philosophies and cultures. You might actually have made decent headway into the infinite list of “Books I should read before I die”.  In that setting, would oh-my-god-my-teacher-suck  and should-I –go-to-second-base type of conversations and dilemmas really be any kind of interesting?

Abstract galore

It’s abstract season again. That means I am forced to sum up current or future work on a single page, and somehow simplify months (or years) of ideas into one brief, coherent piece.  A fellow virtual worlds researcher coined it nicely in one of his Facebook statuses:

“There should be a Hugo Award category for conference abstracts. It’s the most practiced genre of short-form science fiction. Or, in some cases, epic fantasy.” John Carter McKnight

I find it a very strange notion to write abstracts. When I propose work I have not completed (usually, not even started), it becomes a promise that is hard to live up to. As usual, the data material and analysis seem to take on a life of its own in the attempt of putting it down on paper, and what I want to produce is rarely what I end up making.

However, should we meet up at a conference sometime this summer/fall I am likely to talk about something related to these topics (or atleast my abstracts say I will):

a)      Theorycraft as game-science

“The focus of my analysis will be the phenomenon known as theorycrafting. In line with the instrumental approach of the powergamer it frames play as goal oriented and effective (Taylor, 2006). It can be described a reverse-engineering of the game where the underlying mechanisms are revealed and used to calculate the optimized outcome of a play situation (Mortensen, 2010). The precise calculations can then mathematically prove how one approach is better than another, pushing play toward a standardization based on scientific principles. This knowledge is not without consequences and I will argue that it is in part a remaking of the game to one that is focused on numbers rather than storytelling, and on performance rather than experience.”

b)      Localized player practices in casual, softcore and hardcore playergroups

“In this paper I will present three different player groups at different levels of progression in World of Warcraft (Blizzard 2004). By using the domestication framework I will show how they have developed localized ways of learning to play, in addition to different ways of organizing and performing the game. While working as a example of how the domestication framework can be used, it is also a comparative study of how different playergroups (casual, softcore and hardcore) within World of Warcraft have developed individualized player practices. “

c)      Everyday life as shaping for player practices

“The boundary between the virtual and physical is constantly being transgressed and shifted (Taylor 2006), yet the physical context of play is often overlooked (Bryce et al. 2006). In this paper I will discuss how player practices are not only the result of the game mechanics and online community in which they are engaged. It is also the everyday context in which play happens.”

d)      Between code and playerpractice. Case: Ensidiagate and The Treacherous Code

“Code can hold opposing meanings, as well as hidden ones creating a tension between rules, code and practice in games. Haraway’s cyborg thought us how these hybrids can be both treacherous and unfaithful (Haraway 1991), an aspect I wish to bring forth in this paper. To explore this feature I will present a case study from the game World of Warcraft. Coined by a blogger as “Ensidiagate”, the event refer to a temporary ban of the elite guild Ensidia recently after they announced their world first kill of the Lich King monster. The players claimed this was a misunderstanding of the code, not a deliberate attempt to cheat. “

Abstract season will end soon, and maybe I have become slightly wiser as to what my own work is actually about. Or maybe once again, it will turn into something else when I reshape and remake it to suit the conference format.
I guess we will cross that bridge when we come to it. Presuming my abstracts is accepted of course.

Metablogging instead of gaming

Any serious game studies scholar would have a hard time arguing that games were a waste of time. In fact, we spend quite a lot of time telling each other how important it is to play games, to stay updated and involved. It’s not that I disagree. In fact I agree wholeheartedly. I just don’t seem to have the spirit these days.

It’s a bit shameful really. I tell people that I study computer games and they go “That sounds great. You play a lot then?” at which I smile and nod. This summer I bought a PS3 and some games. Since then I have primarily used it as a media player. And by primarily I mean 99,7% of the time it’s simply used to play my beloved tvshows and movies.

It’s kind of the same with blogging.

As soon as you stop, it just get increasingly harder to start again. I haven’t developed some adversarial relationship to blogging, it just becomes a perpetual feature on my “to do list” next to “work out more”, “quit smoking” and “remember your family’s birthdays”.

In these cases it’s funny how little is required to prevent you from actually getting things done. I blame my lack of PS3 gaming on my crappy TV. It’s really quite old and blurry. Just like the theme of my blog isn’t really what I want it to be. And my site is so slow it drives me up the wall.

But instead of doing something about it, I do it the internet way; standing on the sideline shouting “Y U NO LIKE I WANT U 2 B!?!?!?!”

Confessions of a girl gamer

I usually try to keep this blog kinda academic, bringing in my experience as a game researcher into the topics I see discussed in the general blogosphere. When it comes to feminism in WoW, I find it hard to stay detached and distanced. As a WoW player and feminist, it just gets a bit personal.

So, I will share a few WoW moments which for me have defined the idea of what it means to be a female gamer.

-         There is another girl in the guild. She is skilled enough, but not really my kind of person. She takes things too personal, and she makes giggly noises on Ventrilo (where I am shouting at people to “STEP OUT OF THE F*** FIRE!”). Other players makes fun of her behind her back about how bad she is, more then she really deserves. I feel sympathy for her, knowing that one of the reasons for her getting so much crap is because she stands out as a female player. If it was a guy I wouldn’t try to defend him, but as it is a girl I feel I should. Feminine solidarity isn’t easy…

-         I lead raids and work hard as an officer. In my opinion I have proven my worth as a player and as a policymaker for the guild. Still, I can see that I have to work twice as hard (or atleast harder…) for people to respect my opinions about the game, strategies, gearing and specs. I don’t know if it has anything with me being a girl, or if it is simply something about my demeanour that they don’t find authoritative enough. The trouble with gender is that it’s always there, but it’s hard to know when it’s a decisive factor.

-         I have just joined a small guild on one of my alts. I don’t tell anyone about me being a girl, as I feel it is completely irrelevant in that setting. After a discussion where I was making a decent amount of sexist jokes, I was told off for being a misogynist. I explain that the jokes were told with a certain amount of ironic distance, and that I am in fact a girl with quite feminist ideals that should be allowed to have a laugh too. As soon as I have “outed” myself as a girl, the GM approaches me in whisper. He asks about my RL name and what I do (which I gladly share, as my work demands a certain amount of openness). He then proceeds to tell me about his depressions and suicidal thoughts. Until that point we have had no personal contact, but as soon as I tell I’m a girl I get showered with unpleasant personal details. It’s not the first time it has happened, and after giving him advice about where to seek help I leave the guild and tell myself that I really should just keep secret about being a girl. But then again, why should I have to keep that quiet? Shouldn’t I be free to tell about myself too?

-         I meet up with a girl at a party, she is really funny and smart – and we have lots to talk about. Then I find out that she plays WoW, does hard mode raiding, and is accepted by her guild based on her ability to perform well. I am over the moon. So rarely do I meet girls who are not only into WoW, but also care about being good at the game (which is kinda given based on how many girls play WoW and how many people are into hardmode raiding). I feel really happy that I have found another girl that I can relate to in this sense, but at the same time sad that I have played the game for more then 5 years and it’s only happened a handful of times.

Changing the world by gaming. One kid at the time?

Recently returned from the Games+Learning+Society conferance I find myself quite motivated to think about games in a different way. Not in terms of theory or definition, but in terms of how they can be used.

Taking one step further from arguing how games can teach us something, it was great to see how games were actually used as a context for learning.  Why just argue that virtual spaces are filled with learning, when you can show it?

At risk teens: Learning with the Lich King

A project that inspired me greatly was afterschool programs for teenages where online games such as World of Warcraft to get them engaged in different types of problem solving and advancing literacies. By building upon the existing game design in which being knowledgable is supported and rewarded, these virtual game spaces become sites where kids can learn in a different way.

In many ways, these game spaces have qualities that the classroom is trying hard to construct. Such as difficulty changing based on individual performance, ensuring that tasks are “just right” in terms of challenge. The game gives distinct feedback if you are doing it right, and you can keep on trying to get it right.

By using these game spaces, instead of a classroom, the idea of learning gets reframed. The students enjoy themselves and are allowed to see learning as something enjoyable. The teens will voluntarely read up on guides and sites in order to get better at the game, and will engage themselves in how to manage resources and fellow players.

What I want to do about it?

I wish to try this out myself. Not quite sure where to start yet, but as far as I know there is nothing like this happening in Norway. So the next step would be to find some partners for this. Do you know someone?

Read more: Abstract from a session, paper based on after school program by Constance Steinkuehler. Well worth reading!

Returning to the big issues: A change of direction

For a while now I have been blogging specifically about WoW related topics, going into details, news and other current events in the WoW community – and by doing so also directing the blog towards a WoW playing audience. While I still enjoy ranting in writing about the things I see, experience and discuss with other WoW players – I recognize that I have strafed away from my intial goal for this blog; discussing academic approaches to computer gaming with a wider audience.

This insight have been dawning on me for a while, but got confirmed properly today when a old friend approached me on Facebook. During our catching up commented that she had been browsing my blog – but even with the aid of others, were not able to decipher it or understand what I was writing about. With that comment I realized that the failboat had been filled and had set sail for fail.

So, with that in mind I will return to more general discussion about digital games and gaming culture. This semester I have been lecturing about new ICTs (including games) and I’ll draw upon some of the points I have been making there to showcase research on computer games, and my take on it.

Of course, I can’t claim to be an expert in anything related to computer games, but after a few years dabbling with Game Studies related work – I wont be clueless. F.ex. I wont be have my own research on “computer game addiction”, but will have read enough about it to express an informed opinion.

With that in mind I’ll start off by tackling some of the big controversies surrounding games; are computer games culture? Does it cause violent behaviour? Are computer games addictive? And why don’t girls play computer games? Or do they? Based on a series of lectures I’m doing this semester I’ll present some bite sized perspectives into these rather big and intangible questions. Further more I’ll start presenting some initial data that I have been gathering as my own analysis slowly moves forward. This include some recent (and rather tasty) interview with raiders in casual, hardcore and proper progression guilds (including players from Ensidia). Are there traits that is recognizable across the board? What are the differences? What does it take to get a world first? What do people do to combine raiding with a busy everyday life?

In short: Stay tuned!

What if GearScore wasn’t an addon?

If your WoW account recently expired (or you never got one), you would have missed out on the GearScore phenomenon. GearScore (GS) is simply put an addon (user made software modification) that assess the quality of  other players gear at a glance, providing you with a score that indicate the level of items that player is wearing. The addon in itself isn’t that remarkable, players have always been concerned with gear and evaluating other players. What have grabbed me is the surrounding controversy -that seemingly any mention of GS is a possibility to spark a debate over it’s use.

The controversy is at it’s core very simple: Those pro GS say it’s an easy way to make sure that undergeared players don’t waste your time, while those against it say it can be falsely inflated (as it doesn’t actually check for intelligent choice of equipment, just it’s quality) and more importantly that it is not a gauge of player skill.

I understand reluctance towards being boxed up and reduced to a simple number (especially for those of us who have literally spent years in game honing our skills), as well as the growing culture of efficiency (previously only held by powergamers) which have become quite normative. In such, I see a tool as GS as a expected kind of development. For a long time we have had guilds use application templates or require you to answer questions to join. It has not been uncommon for PuGs to have standards for how much health, spellpower or damage is needed to join the group. Players who are unable to communicate in English have been refused, or even players with really bad names. All in attempts to ensure that the players on your team are the best possible.

In such, is GearScore really that different?

In the light of this conflict, I wonder how we would perceive a gear score if it wasn’t an addon? What if it was simply a feature installed by Blizzard?

Limitations based on gear have been a way of locking of player areas for a long time. In Molten Core you needed equipment with suited stats (Fire Resist) and all along the game’s evolvement there have been encounters specifically designed as “gear checks”. Now, these “gear checks” are not as obvious as a gear score. They are made so that if you do less then X amount of damage, don’t do Y amount of healing or can’t take Z amount of hits the group will not succeed. While those checks were largely mitigated by the ability of the player, it’s not correct to say that the gear score have at any point been irrelevant.

Further more, there is already an internal kind of gear score system in place from Blizzard. It’s simply hidden. It’s used on several occasions, through rarely explicit. When entering certain vehicles (notably on the first boss in Ulduar) the vehicles healthpool will scale with your gear, and further more; if you recently dinged 80 you would have noticed how several heroic dungeons will be locked for you in the LFD (Looking For Dungeon, an automated group searching tool) until you acquire better gear.

In such, the problem with GearScore is that it doesn’t have the legitimacy that Blizzards features have. While it’s ironic that much of the hate against GearScore is how it is used when excluding players based on a simple number, which means that hate should be directed towards silly player practice rather then some code which is quite clearly labelled as a tool to estimate player potential, I do wonder how GearScore would have turned out if it was Blizzard who designed it.Or better yet – if it was a feature that existed from day one.

Would we call it unnecessary? Unfair? Or would we simply accept it as one of the many ways we evaluate players around us?