Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Nintendo Action Games

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 2, 2015

Nintendo Action Games by Christopher Lampton reviews twelve action games for the NES.

nintendo-action-games-cover

It’s incredible that not so long ago a book such as this could be published. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of it–brief reviews and miniature strategy guides was also the format of Jeff Rovin’s excellent How to Win at Nintendo Games series, after all–but there are only twelve games included in the book, and the entries are far from thorough.

The average entry contains one full-page screenshot and about two pages of text, half of which is a description and review, and half tips, passwords, and trivia. The reviews are brief sketches at best. The tips are often useless, too; for Tetris, Lampton offers:

The rows that you fill in don’t have to be at the bottom of the screen. They can be anywhere in the pile. If there are holes you can’t reach because of the pieces on top of them, see if you can’t remove the rows that are in your way.

Another tip informs us that the line piece, though rare, is useful. Gee, thanks.

The ‘Fascinating Factoids’ are no better. From the entry for Ninja Gaiden:

The Japanese word gaiden means “telegram” or “message.” At the beginning of the game, the Ninja Ryu receives a message from his late father telling him to go to America. Hence, the title means, roughly, “Ninja message.”

Nice story. It’d be nicer if it were true. The gaiden (外伝) in the title means, roughly, ‘side story’. There is a word gaiden (外電) meaning telegram, but it’s not the one that is used in the game’s title. Better luck next time.

In the future, I’ll take a look at Rovin’s work for an example of this kind of book done right. As for this one–well, don’t trust it more than any random blog on the internet, I suppose.

List of games

  • The Adventures of Lolo 2
  • Batman
  • Bubble Bobble
  • Contra
  • Double Dragon II: The Revenge
  • Duck Tales
  • Ninja Gaiden
  • Super Mario Bros. 2
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Tetris
  • 1943

Bibliography

[Lampton1991]
Christopher Lampton, Nintendo Action Games. (Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1991).
[Rovin1988]
Jeff Rovin, How to Win at Nintendo Games. (St. Martin’s Press, 1988).

Posted in 1991, Book | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Classic Nintendo Games are (NP-)Hard by Aloupis et al.

Posted by Tracy Poff on June 21, 2015

I came across an interesting paper on arXiv, “Classic Nintendo Games are (NP-)Hard” by Greg Aloupis, Erik D. Demaine, Alan Guo, and Giovanni Viglietta. The paper is originally from 2012, but it’s been updated in February of this year with additional results. It’s been mentioned a few times on the web, but I didn’t see anyone give a satisfactory explanation of what the paper is really about. I’m not an expert, but I’ll give it a go.

First, though, the abstract:

We prove NP-hardness results for five of Nintendo’s largest video game franchises: Mario, Donkey Kong, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon. Our results apply to Super Mario Bros. 1, 3, Lost Levels, and Super Mario World; Donkey Kong Country 1-3; all Legend of Zelda games except Zelda II: The Adventure of Link; all Metroid games; and all Pokemon role-playing games. For Mario and Donkey Kong, we show NP-completeness. In addition, we observe that several games in the Zelda series are PSPACE-complete.

What does it all mean?

I’ll go into some detail shortly, but I’d like to describe in broad strokes what this is (and isn’t).

The authors look at how hard it is to answer the question: given a particular level layout, a starting point, and a finish point, is it possible to get from the start to the finish?

This isn’t about the levels actually in the games–in fact, it isn’t really about the level design at all. What it is about is the rules of the games. Super Mario Bros., for example, has several well-known rules:

  1. Mushrooms make small Mario big.
  2. Touching enemies (or some other hazards) makes big Mario small, or kills small Mario.
  3. Mario can break bricks only if he’s big.
  4. Stars make Mario temporarily invulnerable.
  5. Mario can jump to a height of 4 tiles, or 5 when running.

There are more rules, but you see the point. Importantly, the authors specify that their results are about an idealized version of the rules. In other words, glitches don’t count. Sorry.

What the authors prove is that if you turn someone loose with a level editor, they can design a level for which it is very hard to determine whether it’s even possible to complete.

They do this by showing that you can implement a problem called the 3-satisfiability problem (or 3-SAT) in each of the games. Think of someone using redstone to make Tetris in Minecraft, and you’ve got the general idea. 3-SAT is known to be NP-complete (read as: difficult), and the game it’s implemented in must be at least as hard as 3-SAT. Those problems are called NP-hard.

Details

The 3-satisfiability problem is to determine if, given a boolean formula of a certain form, it is possible to set the variables (which can be either true or false) in such a way that the whole formula comes out true. A two-variable example of 3-SAT might be:

(y is TRUE | x is TRUE | x is TRUE)
    AND
(x is FALSE | y is TRUE | y is TRUE)
    AND
(x is FALSE | y is FALSE | y is FALSE)

(Don’t be alarmed by the duplication. The reason for writing that way will be apparent later.)

The 3 in 3-SAT means that each clause (the parts in parentheses) can have at most 3 components. In this case, each has only two distinct components–one is repeated.

All three clauses must be true for the formula to be true, and a clause is true if any of its components (which are separated by pipes) is true. In logic-speak, it’s a conjunction of several disjunctions.

It’s pretty easy to see that this expression is true if y is true (satisfying the first part) and x is false (satisfying the other two). But what if there were fifty or a hundred or a billion sub-expressions? That would be harder to tell.

Requirements for 3-SAT

To be able to implement 3-SAT, you need a few components. You need:

  1. A starting point
  2. A finishing point
  3. A way to pick whether a variable is true or false
  4. A way for those choices to either impede or allow progress
  5. A way to let paths cross without being able to change from one path to another

That last one is so that you can build big, complex paths. Without it, you’d be able to backtrack and mess things up.

The authors implement these components in ‘gadgets’, which are basically self-contained rooms or screens that can be connected to each other. They’re the building blocks of the satisfiability puzzle.

Gadgets in Super Mario Bros.

I’ll take a brief look at how the authors build these gadgets for Super Mario Bros., as an example. This is going to be pretty much the same as what the authors say in the paper, so if you’re feeling industrious, you can look at the paper and see how they put it.

Start

The start gadget is just where Mario starts the level–there’s nothing to it. In general, the authors want Mario to be big throughout the level, so they put a mushroom at the beginning that will be required at the finish.

Finish

Again, this is trivial. It’s just the flagpole. To make sure Mario stayed big throughout the level, you have him enter the screen with the flagpole in a corridor with a brick he must break to reach the flagpole.

Finish gadget

Variable

To pick whether a variable is true or false, Mario is given a screen with two possible paths–a vertical drop to either the left or right. Say left means “x is true” and right means “x is false”. It doesn’t matter which. The drops are long enough that Mario can’t get back up, so once a choice is made, Mario can’t go back and also take the other path.

Clause and Check

This is the most interesting (and important) gadget in Super Mario Bros. Take a look at it:

Clause and Check gadget

After making a choice and dropping from the Variable gadget, Mario will be led to a series of Clause gadgets. He enters one of the small open areas from the bottom–each one of them will have a path from a Variable gadget that leads to it.

Each block contains a star, which will be trapped in the ‘fence’ when Mario hits the block. Later, Mario will come through the top part (that’s the Check part of the gadget) and collect the star so that he can run through the Firebars. If Mario gets to the Check gadget without having hit the star block (thus satisfying the disjunction), he can’t proceed–the Firebars will kill him.

Remember our example of 3-SAT from earlier?

(y is TRUE | x is TRUE | x is TRUE)
    AND
(x is FALSE | y is TRUE | y is TRUE)
    AND
(x is FALSE | y is FALSE | y is FALSE)

Imagine that the gadget pictured corresponds to the top disjunction, (y is TRUE | x is TRUE | x is TRUE). Then Mario will reach the left star block if he picked “y is TRUE” by dropping down the left side of the corresponding Variable gadget, and the middle and right star blocks by picking “x is TRUE” by dropping down the left side of that particular Variable gadget.

But what if Mario picked “x is false” and “y is false”? Then he’d never get to the blocks and release the star, so when he got to the Check gadget, the Firebars would kill him. That means that both variables being false isn’t a solution to the expression, and (equivalently) taking the right path at both variable gadgets won’t let Mario finish the level.

Crossover

This is just a utility to let paths cross without Mario backtracking and making two different choices for one Variable.

Crossover gadget

If Mario comes in from the lower path, he can break the bricks and keep going up.

If he comes in from the upper path, he can run into the Goomba to become small, head to the right, pick up the mushroom from the block, break the brick, and continue to the right.

Small Mario can’t break the bricks in the middle to go up, and big Mario can’t get through the narrow paths to go to the right. Big Mario also can’t break the bricks and then go back, because the drop on the left is too far for him to get back up.

Putting it all together

You can string together as many Variable, Clause, and Check gadgets as you need to make as big of a problem as you want. Since we know that 3-SAT is NP-complete, and we’ve just implemented 3-SAT in Super Mario Bros., we know that SMB is NP-hard.

Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, then you’ve got the major idea of (part of) the paper. Pick up your CS degree on the way out the door.

Other games, other problems

I won’t go into detail about the other sections of the paper, but if you’ve read this far, you should be able to read the paper and see what is being done. The proofs for other Mario games just make some modifications to the gadgets we looked at above.

The proofs for the Zelda games are different. They still work by implementing an NP-hard problem, but it’s a different problem, and they implement it using the sliding blocks in the Zelda series.

If you want to know about the other games, or get more details, take look at the paper.

Caveat lector

I’ve done my best, here, but I’m not an expert. I’ve got a BS in math, not a doctorate in computer science. If I’ve made some terrible mistake, it’s all my fault (and I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know!), and I apologize for anything misleading, confusing, or dangerous that I’ve written. Always wear proper safety equipment when proving theorems.

Bibliography

[Aloupis2012v3]
Greg Aloupis & Erik D. Demaine & Alan Guo et al., Classic Nintendo Games are (NP-)Hard, (2012-03-08).

Posted in General Commentary | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

TIS-100

Posted by Tracy Poff on June 19, 2015

370360_2015-06-17_00004

Recently, I saw a new game from Zachtronics Industries, TIS-100, which was released on Steam as an early access title on the first of June. In some ways, calling it a game is overstating it: it’s little more than a collection of programming problems, with a little story to give it some structure. The catch is that you’re programming in an assembly language on a virtual machine with unusual architecture; problems beyond the simplest will generally require you to take advantage of parallelism (which is the primary distinguishing feature of the VM), resulting in novel solutions for ordinary problems.

370360_2015-06-17_00005

Obviously, a game like that has a rather limited target audience. Case in point: I have myself previously created a little VM with a fake assembly language to play with. The game is clearly made just for me, but how many others are likely to be similarly interested? About 11,000,1 so far. It’s a minor hit.2

The concept of programming as gameplay isn’t new. Indeed, Zachtronics’s earlier game, SpaceChem, is also an exercise in parallel programming, though dressed up in fancier clothes. Way back in the mists of time,3 Robot Odyssey challenged players to program the titular robots to solve puzzles. And on the more-programming-than-game end of the spectrum, we have Core War4 and a multitude of web sites in the vein of Project Euler or CodinGame.

I’ve been enjoying TIS-100, but more than that, I think it’s singularly impressive to release a game of this kind. Certainly, there are games that trade on their difficulty (Super HexagonI Wanna Be the Guy, etc.) and some that take pride in their difficulty of interaction (Surgeon SimulatorAmpu-Tea, QWOP, etc.), and simple ‘retro-style’ graphics are de rigueur for indie games, but the very minimalistic functionalism of TIS-100 is astounding.

TIS-100 is difficult because the thinking required to solve the puzzles is difficult. It is perhaps inaccessible, because it consists of nothing else but the tools to solve the puzzle. Its graphics are simple because everything you need to solve the puzzles is a text-mode interactive debugger, and that’s what you get. Like a sudoku puzzle or a crossword, TIS-100 is a completely pure puzzle game: the game takes place in your head, and the software keeps score.

It is not by chance that TIS-100 so distinguishes itself from other games. During the production of Infinifactory, Zach Barth, the founder of Zachtronics, wanted to make a game with a smaller team–something more-indie-than-indie–to get back to his roots as an indie developer. The project turned out to be too great in scope, but from its wreckage was salvaged a programming minigame which became TIS-100.5 Viewed as an indie developer’s attempt to make something even more indie, with the understanding that it was a small part of something larger, the design makes sense.6

The game’s manual, too, reflects the niche targeted by the game. Who reads a manual, you ask? When it is positioned as a technical document describing the instruction set of a virtual machine, the answer to that question is: programmers. The manual is presented as the in-universe manual for the TIS-100 computer, previously the property of the player character’s Uncle Randy, including handwritten notes and highlighting. This was part of Zachtronics’s attempt to make a game with “an irresistible value proposition. For us, that’s a game with a 14-page technical manual that we designed, printed out, marked up and scanned back in again.”7 The manual is reminiscent of the feelies accompanying Infocom games, among others, in years past.8

370360_2015-06-18_00001

Like its predecessor, SpaceChemTIS-100 encourages players to perfect their solutions, optimizing for either execution speed, least number of nodes used, or least instructions–goals which are often contradictory, requiring multiple solutions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it is a game about programming, the players of TIS-100 have created some auxiliary tools, including TIS-100 PAD,9 which allows users to more easily share solutions, and a variety of TIS-100 (the virtual machine, not the game) emulators.10

In addition to this unsolicited community participation, with the release of the specification editor, which allows players to make their own puzzles, a puzzle design contest was announced. Twenty-five puzzles will be selected from the submissions for an official bonus campaign.

The feel of TIS-100 is both nostalgic and quite modern. It’s an intriguing combination, and I recommend it to anyone still interested after hearing me call it “a collection of programming problems.” Coders, no prior experience with assembly is needed. Others, if you like this game–try coding. You’ll probably like that, too.

Bibliography

[Barth2012]
Zach Barth, Postmortem: Zachtronics Industries’ SpaceChem, Gamasutra (2012-06-13).
[Dewdney1984]
Alexander K. Dewdney, In the game called Core War hostile programs engage in a battle of bits, Scientific American 250, 5 (1984), 15–19.
[McIlroy1971]
M. Douglas McIlroy & Robert Morris & Victor Vyssotsky, Letter to Aleph-Null (1971-06-29).
[Wawro2015]
Alex Wawro, ‘Things we create tell people who we are': Designing Zachtronics’ TIS-100, Gamasutra (2015-06-09).

  1. According to SteamSpy
  2. As of this writing, it has 270 positive reviews and 2 negative reviews on Steam
  3. 1984, actually. It was released a year later for DOS, according to MobyGames
  4. Also from 1984, described in a Scientific American article, [Dewdney1984]. It’s based on a still earlier programming game, Darwin, which was played in 1961 and described publicly in 1972. See [McIlroy1971] for more. 
  5. The details of TIS-100‘s inception, and more, are discussed in an interview published by Gamasutra, [Wawro2015]. 
  6. However, Barth wrote in a post mortem of SpaceChem, [Barth2012], that SpaceChem was too difficult and inaccessible. New titles were forthcoming: “New titles, I might add, that are hopefully more accessible than SpaceChem!” 
  7. From [Wawro2015]. 
  8. Back when you got something for your money! Even application software used to have much more bulk to it
  9. Source available on GitHub
  10. Just have a look at the results of this search. But watch out, if you’d like to avoid spoilers! The puzzle solutions are code, after all, so a number of people have posted those, as well. 

Posted in 2015, Full Review, Good, Puzzle, Windows | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Bleed Out Sakuretsu

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 5, 2015

I don’t believe I’ve written about any remotely popular games for at least two years… and I’m not about to change that. But I am writing about a good game, at least: Bleed Out Sakuretsu, a vertically scrolling shooter for the Sharp X68000, by Gold Cats Project.

Bleed Out Sakuretsu - title

First: yes, the title screen says ‘sakuretu’. But the common romanization of this game’s title seems to be ‘sakuretsu’, and as goes TOSEC, so goes my nation.

Bleed Out Sakuretsu - ingame

Bleed Out Sakuretsu has a powerup system reminiscent of Gradius. As you continue scoring points, you can purchase a shot upgrade, a barrier, or other, even more powerful powerups. The opposition is a variety of ships, small shots, and guided missiles.

Bleed Out Sakuretsu - boss

The boss sprays out bullets danmaku-style, and periodically fires a pair of front-facing lasers. You’ve got to deal with this while avoiding guided missiles, and since you are destroyed in one shot (unless you buy a barrier), this, like the rest of the level, provides a good challenge.

Here, an unfortunate revelation: the boss is, as far as I can tell, invulnerable, because the available version of Bleed Out Sakuretsu is a trial edition, and I can find no evidence that any full version was ever created. I would love to hear otherwise, if anyone has better information on old doujin games than I do, because it’s a very fun game.

It’s hard to do a shooter justice with just words and screenshots. The video above shows (I believe) the entire game, which should give a much better picture of it.

If you like shooters, I’d say Bleed Out Sakuretsu is worth a try. It’s only about two minutes long, but it’s fun, and I believe there’s a place for brief games, too.

The Touhou series looms largest on the doujin shooter landscape, of course, but there’s a huge and fascinating variety of games (of all genres) stretching back decades, which I think could use some more attention from the English-speaking web. I’ll probably be looking at a few more doujin games in coming weeks, so I’ll try to shine a light on whichever titles catch my eye. Maybe there will be some hidden gems, or maybe just hidden failures. We’ll see what comes.

Posted in 1996, Full Review, Good, Vertical Scrolling Shooter, X68000 | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

History Mystery

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 12, 2015

In the early eighties, the sudden popularity (and, indeed, the recent existence) of home computers gave rise to a new kind of publication: the disk magazine. These periodicals were published not on paper but on computer disks (and sometimes cassettes), and although the content varied, they generally featured computer programs (including games) in addition to, or even in place of, articles. The most famous of these are perhaps Softdisk for the Apple II (launched in 1981) and Loadstar for the Commodore 64 (launched in 1984). The medium flourished1 alongside more traditional magazines which might offer (inconvenient!) type-in programs. There was a price to be paid for this convenience: a single ‘issue’ of Softdisk cost about the same as an annual subscription to a paper magazine.

Among the many disk mags was Scholastic’s Microzine for Apple II. Featuring (as you might expect) primarily educational content, Microzine began publication in 1983,2 continuing for about a decade. It also inspired a spin-off series, Microzine Jr., which was launched in 1988. Each issue of Microzine included four programs, one of which was a game.

Microzine18.Sid_000000004

Which all brings me to the subject of this article: History Mystery by David A. Bowman and Mark A. Malamud, which was included in Microzine #18 in November 1986. According to the ‘Letter from the Editor‘ in that issue:

You’ll have fun reading The History Mystery Twistaplot™ adventure. A priceless hourglass has been stolen from the Microville History Museum. Some of the ghosts in the museum will help you find it. (Yes, the museum is haunted!)

You play the part of “the ace reporter of your school newspaper, The Chronicle” (incidentally, of selectable gender), out to get a story about a stolen Babylonian hourglass. After chatting with the ghost of Mark Twain about the situation, you find yourself in the lobby of the museum.

Microzine18.Sid_000000014

The museum consists of 29 rooms3 which you must navigate, gathering items and clues to solve the mystery of the stolen hourglass, which the museum’s ghosts believe is actually located within the museum. Each room has a description, seen on entering the room, and an entry in the self-guided tape-recorded tour, accessed by pressing T. The tour often contained educational information4 which might be used to solve the game’s puzzles.

Microzine18.Sid_000000019

Some rooms have items to be collected, while others have ghosts to talk to or other objects to interact with. The game is in two parts (purely for practical reasons, I presume). Selecting the second part from the menu requires the player to input the password given at the end of the first part (“The Sands of Time”) and begins the second part, in which the player must collect the hourglass and escape the museum while being chased by Winsome Slugg, the criminal who had stolen it.

Tracy's Gift Shop

Upon completing the game, the player gets a rather neat reward: the museum’s gift shop, called “Amy Minkley’s Gift Shop”,5 will be renamed after the player. Not only in the ending text, either: in future playthroughs, the in-game name is changed. Which, I suppose, might make this the first game with a New Game+ feature.

History Mystery took me about an hour to complete, though I suppose it took me quite a bit longer when I was a child. I remember having a lot of fun with it, back then, and it’s still neat as a bit of nostalgia, today.

My copy of the game is this 1987 compilation, Tales of Suspense.

My copy of the game is this 1987 compilation, Tales of Suspense.

I’ll try to look at some more games from Microzine and other disk mags in the future. There’s a lot to be said about them, and the resources on the internet are scarce at best. This post has been several years in the making, during which time I’ve been contacted a number of times by people who, like me, had fond memories of a game which might have been History Mystery, but who couldn’t be sure. My thanks to them for providing me the impetus to do my civic duty and get this out there. Fans of old educational games, you are appreciated!


  1. Wikipedia has a substantial list
  2. According to this article: “The first issue of Microzine was first displayed at the January 1983 Consumer Electronics Show, and was available in stores by March 1983.”) 
  3. I mapped them out here 
  4. “…Welcome to the Telephone Exhibit. The first telephone call was made by Alexander Graham Bell. As he was calling, he accidently spilled acid on himself and yelled for his assistant: ‘Mr. Watson, come here. I want you!’….” 
  5. According to the game, “named after one of the great school reporters” (probably the editor of your school newspaper, Amy Minkly), but likely actually named after Amy E. McKinley, the editor of Microzine–though perhaps she was a school reporter, once. 

Posted in 1986, Adventure, Apple II, Educational, Full Review, Good | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Thoughts on Ferguson’s Media Violence Paper

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 9, 2014

My attention was directed to a paper by Christopher J. Ferguson, to be published in the Journal of Communication, which argues that the common belief that there is a positive correlation between media violence and societal violence is false. The abstract:

This article presents 2 studies of the association of media violence rates with societal violence rates. In the first study, movie violence and homicide rates are examined across the 20th century and into the 21st (1920–2005). Throughout the mid-20th century small-to-moderate correlational relationships can be observed between movie violence and homicide rates in the United States. This trend reversed in the early and latter 20th century, with movie violence rates inversely related to homicide rates. In the second study, videogame violence consumption is examined against youth violence rates in the previous 2 decades. Videogame consumption is associated with a decline in youth violence rates. Results suggest that societal consumption of media violence is not predictive of increased societal violence rates.

The article, briefly

Since the full article is about twenty pages, I’ll summarize it here, with a bit more detail than the abstract.

Ferguson begins by establishing that there is not general agreement in the literature as to correlation (much less causation) between media violence and societal violence. He particularly argues that that laboratory studies which show an increase in aggression (e.g. an increased tendency to fill in missing letters in words to create violent words) following consumption of violent media may not correspond to increased societal violence (e.g. homicide).

The first study analyzes the relationship between violence in movies and homicide, between 1920 and 2005. To assess violence in movies, the top five grossing movies per year were taken at five-year intervals, and graded for violent content. This data was compared to statistics for murder and (non-negligent) homicide during the same years. Ferguson concludes that:

Taken together these data suggest that perceived correlations between movie and societal violence were associated with a chance concordance during the mid-20th century. Given that these phenomena were not in concordance in either the early or latter 20th century, it appears that efforts to establish causal connections between movie and societal violence based on a select set of decades were an ecological fallacy.

The second study analyzes the relationship between violence in video games and youth violence for the years 1996 to 2011. Ferguson uses sales data from IMDb and the ESA and takes the ratings assigned by the ESRB as a proxy for violent content. He concludes that there is a “remarkably strong” inverse relationship between violent video game consumption and youth violence and that, although this is no indication of causality, “Evidence from societal data does not support claims of dramatic videogame violence effects on violence among youth.”

Finally, Ferguson argues that alternate methods should be used in the future when assessing the effect of media consumption on behavior, and that professional organizations such as the APA should “retire their policy statements on media violence as such statements tend to be misleading and may cause more harm than good.” Furthermore, “Arguably, given that the results from the effects paradigm have been weak and inconsistent, it may be time for scholars to make less rather than more conclusive statements to news media regarding media effects on society.”

Unaddressed questions and other problems

Ferguson’s conclusion in the first study (namely that positive correlation between media violence and societal violence is limited to a mid-century concordance) seems undeniable. I am not similarly satisfied with the second study.

The most obvious problem with the second study is that it addresses a period of only sixteen years, and in particular that it does not even consider whether the change in rate of youth violence differed before and after the introduction of video games. Given that Ferguson strongly criticized reliance on data from a limited time span in the first study, this is fairly damning.

Second, the second study does not argue that generally increased video game consumption corresponds to an increase in the consumption of violent video games by youths. I freely admit that it is likely that this is true, but the study makes no mention of it. In general, I am not convinced by Ferguson’s ‘just look at the top five games according to IMDb’ approach to analyzing the state of gaming.

Third, the study blithely dismisses any correlation between increased incarceration and decreased youth violence, on strength of a paper by Stahlkopf, Males, and Macallair. Based on its abstract, that paper only concludes that increased juvenile incarceration does not lead to reduced crime (specifically in California). It is possible that the full paper has more useful (for Ferguson) conclusions, but I do not have access to it.

Fourth, the graphs in the paper are unclear as to what exactly is depicted. Figure 3, “Societal videogame violence consumption and societal youth violence, 1996-2011.”, is a double chart with yearly figures for the two measures in question, with scales ranging from 0-9000 for one and 0-40 for the other. 9000 what? 40 what? I have no idea.

Fifth, without commenting on the sensibility of the suggestions Ferguson makes, I would say that his statements in the “Theoretical implications” section are not supported by the studies. Ferguson argues that different theoretical approaches should be used in studying the relationship between media violence and societal violence, essentially by mentioning a variety of alternatives without arguing for their particular effectiveness. Such arguments would be better suited to a paper which actually considers the relative merit of the various approaches.

Sixth, the “Policy implications” section reads like a conspiracy theory. Selections:

As a matter of policy, consistent with the statement by the Consortium of Scholars (2013)…

…media-based policy statements released by professional organizations have so often been revealed to be flawed (e.g., Ferguson, 2013;Magid, 2011).

…it has been revealed that past policy statements were typically
developed by specially selected researchers heavily invested in antimedia views, with no dissenting voices (Ferguson, 2013).

That is, problems have been ‘revealed’ by the author of this paper. The ‘statement by the Consortium of Scholars’ mentioned is an open letter of which Ferguson is a signatory, and the source of which is Ferguson’s personal website.1

The reference to Magid links to a paper published in Pediatrics (by O’Keeffe and Clarke-Pearson), but the actual reference listed is to an article in Huffington Post which responds to (and disputes) the journal article. Why Ferguson would obfuscatingly link to the article in Pediatrics rather than the one in HuffPo to which he actually referred is a mystery.

Additionally, take note of “…some scholars have argued…(Males, 2013).” That reference is not to a scholarly paper, but what seems to be simply an opinion piece published by YouthFacts.org.2

Conclusion

The results of the actual studies in the paper seem fairly inoffensive, but do not support the discussion. It seems very like Ferguson wanted to pontificate about perceived problems in his field, and conducted a couple of very minor studies in order to have an excuse for publication.

Caveats

First, I have not studied psychology. I studied math at uni, so except insofar as the paper uses statistical analyses, I have no formal education relevant to this paper.

Second, as I do not have access to a university library, I have not been able to review all of the paper’s references. It is possible that some or all of my objections were answered by the cited papers.

Third, I am (obviously) a gamer, and inclined to agree with the results of the studies in this paper, despite my objections to the academic rigour of the paper. It is possible that I have been too lenient with the studies for this reason.

Bibliography

[Ferguson2015]
Christopher J. Ferguson, Does Media Violence Predict Societal Violence? It Depends on What You Look at and When, Journal of Communication 65, 1 (2015), E1–E22.
[Magid2011]
Larry Magid, ‘Facebook Depression': A Nonexistent Condition, The Huffington Post (2011-03-30).
[OKeeffe2011]
Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe & Kathleen Clarke-Pearson & Council on Communications and Media, The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families, Pediatrics 127, 4 (2011), 800–804.
[Stahlkopf2010]
Christina Stahlkopf & Mike Males & Daniel Macallair, Testing Incapacitation Theory Youth Crime and Incarceration in California, Crime & Delinquency 56, 2 (2010), 253–268.

  1. Which, incidentally, looks more like the geocities homepage of a teenager than the website of a professional academic. 
  2. And a broken link, besides–here’s a working one

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IFComp 2014: One Night Stand

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 19, 2014

The third game I’ve played from the 2014 ifcomp is One Night Stand by Giannis G. Georgiou. You play Sandy, a woman who is trying to discover the name of the man she just spent the night with.

One pre-spoiler note: the download from the comp website just has an HTML file with a link to a web-based version of the game, but the story file can be downloaded, if you follow that link. You’ll need a Quest interpreter to play it.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

First, a note about online play: the online interpreter was rather slow to react, occasionally taking many seconds to complete a command, and usually missing the first few characters of each command I typed, since it was still scrolling the response text. This was irritating, but it otherwise worked fine, and it was at least visually attractive. Not ideal, but better than nothing, given that I don’t actually have a Quest interpreter.

ONS is a short comedy game with one puzzle sequence. I spent about 35 minutes prodding everything in the game before I finished, but I imagine 10 minutes would more than suffice, if you just proceed toward the goal–and particularly if you aren’t using the rather slow web-based interpreter.

I appreciate the customized responses to trying to take various objects, and the randomly chosen sections of text (e.g. when knocking on Mara’s door) are a nice touch. The ending, though not entirely unexpected, is a good enough payoff for the few minutes the game takes to complete.

On the other hand, you don’t have any real options–either you proceed linearly through the story, or you don’t proceed at all. I wanted to try tricking the dude into saying his name. To break down in tears to avoid the situation. To call him Rumpelstiltskin, if his name is so important. Anything to have some choice–but I had none. More mundanely, there are few objects implemented, and no real, interactive NPCs. The parser is a little obtuse, too: you’ve got to knock door or use bottle on floor, which aren’t exactly the first commands that came to mind.

Overall, an average-quality game, which would probably be more at home in the first ifcomp than the twentieth.

Post-review pre-posting note: Okay, I think this review needs an addendum. Other reviewers seem to be unanimous in despising this game. It was my assumption throughout the game that it was a work of parody–the several-inches deep layer of grease on the kitchen floor not a greater exaggeration than the PC’s absurd internal monologue. Surely the game is so stupid exactly because it’s undermining its nominal position. Of course, while writing the review, I was under the impression that the author was a woman (Wrong! Giannis is a Greek name which is the masculine form Gianna. The more you know.), and that therefore the PC must be a parody of the ridiculous caricatures of women we see in games and other media (maybe not?).

It’s against my policy to change my judgment after reading other reviews, so I’ll let this review stand as-is. I’d rather be too generous in my assumptions about other people than too harsh. In retrospect, though, if you take seriously the bits that I assumed to be failed comedy, then the game really does become rather unpalatable… so take this review with a grain of salt.

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IFComp 2014: Raik

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 17, 2014

The second game I’m looking at this year is Raik by Harry Giles, which is written with Twine. According to the blurb, it is “A scots fantasia about anxiety. Battle kelpies, watch TV, avoid your emails and find the magical Staff of the Salmon.” Sounds amusing!

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

My spoiler warning above goes double for this game. Really definitely don’t read this without playing the game. I mean it.

When you start the game, you’re advised that you can “Learn about Scots and use a translator at Scots-Online.org“, and you are presented with a pair of links: gang and go. It looks from the outset as if the game is simply available in two languages–Scots and English–for flavor, and the “Translate to Scots” and “Translate to English” links that appear reinforce this. The text is even very similar in shape in each language. However, this is only a facade: there are two stories being told, and they are superficially unrelated.

In the Scots-language story, the PC struggles through the day, trying to fill time: “If ye can get tae hauf five, mebbe ye can get tae dinner, than mebbe ye can get tae bed.”

In the English-language story, the PC is on an epic quest: “You are searching for the Staff of the Salmon, whose magic alone will release your clan from the withering curse of Black Edward.”

At the bottom of each page of text is an option to ‘translate’ into the other language, which actually presents not a translation but the section of the story which is in the corresponding position in the other language: the stories are structurally the same. They are related in more ways that one: at the end of the English-language story, “You imagine another version of yourself, who stayed in bed that fateful day and even now lies frozen in time, unable to act, an endless scream seeking only relief.” In the most recent corresponding part of the Scots-language story, the PC is paralyzed by a panic attack.

My interpretation: the Scots-language story is ‘real’, and the English-language story is the PC’s way of dealing with life–or of not dealing with life, as the case may be.

The duality of the stories is very cool and well done. Though you could (mostly) play them separately, the English-language story serves as commentary on the Scots-language story. For example, when the PC of the Scots-language story is (figuratively) lost in a panic attack, the PC of the English-language story is (literally) lost in a maze. It’s an impressive way to use metaphor.

The individual stories are well-crafted, too. I particularly liked the use of links to pace the story. Early on, links interrupting the text make the story seem to move slower, but later they make the pacing seem more frantic–well done!

You’ll note that my praise is all for ‘meta’ aspects of the game–this is not an accident. The actual game isn’t all that interesting. The Scots-language story is dull (but it’s supposed to be, since it’s the ‘real-world’ part of the game) and the English-language story is far from engaging. However, the game is quite short (about fifteen minutes for a single playthrough), so this wasn’t a problem.

The language aspect could prove something of a problem. It’s easy enough to tell the general sense of the Scots-language story, but for most readers there will be many specific terms that require definition. It’s certainly the author’s intention to induce readers to learn more about Scots, which is fine, though I wonder how much effort the (non-comp-judging) general public will be willing to expend on comprehension. My own experience with Scots (other than Robert Burns) is limited to an encounter with the Scots Wikipedia, some years ago. At the time, I judged that the editors were treating Scots as a somewhat more dignified version of leet-speak, and put it from my mind. It seems to have done better since, though it still has very few editors.

According to the author, Raik was inspired by Depression Quest, which I have not yet played. I’d like to come back to this game after playing Depression Quest, to see how it affects my opinion. At any rate, I foresee myself continuing to revisit and think about this game in the future, which is about the highest praise that can be given to a ‘serious’ game like this.

Play time: about 40 minutes for several playthroughs.

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IFComp 2014: Hill 160

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 17, 2014

A new year brings a new ifcomp. The first game, this year, is Hill 160 by Mike Gerwat, billed as “A World War I Adventure in Terror”. This appears to be Gerwat’s first comp entry, though he has released another game, Genesis Quest, which is available on the ifarchive.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

Sadly, this first game is one I couldn’t finish. The author indicates that this game has been made easier to comply with the comp rules (the two-hour rule, I suppose), but I sincerely doubt that anyone will finish the game, because the walkthrough is a bit over 700 commands long. To complete the game you’d need to execute one (correct!) command every ten seconds. Judging by the walkthrough, in 48 minutes I got through about a sixth of the game.

If the game were only too long, I would have continued to play for the full two hours games are allotted. Unfortunately, the game has three crippling flaws: first, it is tedious; second, it is unfriendly (more on this later); third, it is buggy.

The tedium is, I presume, intentional: it’s intended to reflect the tedium of war. To that end, the game involves plenty of actions that are boring, repetitive, or both. The walkthrough contains (from about 700 turns) 57 turns of waiting, 19 turns of sleeping, and 16 turns of ‘again’, which are mostly sleeping or waiting. When you are acting, you are often doing something like drop pants / crap in trench / pull up pants.

The unfriendliness is the main reason I gave up. Any little thing you do that isn’t according to script will generally end the game. Leave the latrine without using it? “You didn’t take your shite! GAME OVER MATEY!”. Walk onto the battlefield without cleaning your rifle? “You didn’t clean your rifle! GAME OVER MATEY!”. Try to take the supplies you’re after, rather than asking for them? “GAME OVER MATEY!”.

It’s not generally obvious what you’re meant to do until you’ve already failed. How was I to know I had to clean the rifle? It’s description didn’t mention anything. For that matter, how was I to know I had to attach the bayonet myself? The game over message tells me that “Your rifle is missing a critical part.”, but attempting to examine it again gives me “You’ve already examined the rifle.”. The game won’t let you examine anything twice, or talk to anyone twice. If you don’t have a transcript, you’d better have remembered the names of the members of your platoon–you won’t be seeing them again!

It’s not always obvious how to accomplish things, either. When you’re sent for supplies, trying to simply take them from the supply party gets you killed, but talk to party gives “You can’t talk to the supply party.” In fact, you must ask party for supplies. But talk to grant worked, earlier. The requirements are inconsistent. Once, when talking to Grant, you must salute (or game over!), but later, saluting isn’t necessary.

Finally, the game is buggy. If you talk to Grant in the Main Trench before going out on the recon mission, he gives the speech that he gave earlier about you needing to go pick up supplies. Waiting repeatedly will repeatedly give the text about Grant arriving. Sometimes waiting will just do nothing with no message at all. And it’s not strictly a bug, but take all should not open up every container and fill my inventory with several screens worth of cigarettes and grenades and things. It should just pick up the items I dropped. Very irritating!

All that said, the game does have its good points. The author indicates that it’s intended to be fairly realistic, based on his over 40 years of study, and there are plenty of interesting details. There are some detailed descriptions of certain items, and the language and situation are (apparently–the first World War is not my forte) also intended to be realistic. For my part, I’d enjoy it more simply exploring the environment than having the game nag at me about every minor detail (and the author promises that “When it goes up on the archive, it will be much harder with Release 2.” Not necessary!).

Hill 160 has potential, but I won’t be returning to the current release.

Play time: 48 minutes.

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Software in the Age of Sneakernet: A Pictorial

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 9, 2014

I’ve spent the last few weeks fighting with a screen recorder to get a good demonstration of a hypertext word processor. A power outage caused me to lose my carefully prepared sample document, so while I recover from the pain of loss, let’s take a look at something different: packaging.

These days, a lot of software is distributed digitally, and even software distributed on disk is often packaged in no more than a keep case, but it used to be that when you bought a piece of software, you really got your money’s worth. Boxes, manuals, stacks of disks–you could measure software by the pound.

DCIM100MEDIA

Item number one: an upgrade kit for OS/2 2.0. I’ve scanned the front and back, if you’d like a better look. It’s a fairly unassuming little box, but inside…

DCIM100MEDIA

four different manuals (“Migrating to the OS/2 Workplace Shell”, “Getting Started”, “Using the Operating System”, and “Installation Guide”), a pile of legal documentation, a rather shiny proof of license, twenty-one 3.5″ diskettes, and, to top it off, a roll of stickers.

wpwin

My copy of WordPerfect 5.2 for Windows came with a catalog (Issue 4–collect them all, I suppose) full of ancillary material, including fonts and instructional videos, a heavy cardboard folder containing a license certificate, and, most importantly, one of these:

wpoverlay

A plastic keyboard overlay! Once, keyboards had room above the function keys for one of these, and for complex software, they were very necessary, at least until you got used to the software.

wpmini

Of course, you didn’t always need a hefty manual–particularly if you already owned one. This ‘additional license’ version of WordPerfect 5.1 (suggested retail price: $295 US) contains a license certificate, a keyboard overlay, and not much else. From the back of the box:

This Additional License Package is sold to you based on your certification that you are an authorized and licensed user of this version of this WordPerfect Corporation (“WPCorp”) software product.

This package includes a license and templates, but does not include manuals of disks.

A full-size software box for basically just a piece of paper. Dead tree edition, indeed.

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