Archive for March, 2012

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

Geekscape talking to Joss Whedon at SXSW about Cabin in the Woods


A Conversation with Joss Whedon


I just bloody love Joss Whedon, what an absolute legend. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to hear him talk at SXSW. I didn’t take lots of notes as I just wanted to sit back and listen, and I had faith that it would be fairly well covered, which it was. Some links to the coverage below.

He’d just opened the SXSW Film Festival with his new horror, Cabin in the Woods, which sounds like it went down a storm. My recommendation: do not watch the trailer, do not read ANYTHING about it, avoid all possible spoilers. I already feel I know too much. Opens in the UK on the 13th April, I personally can’t wait. Whedon + horror is a kind of geek perfect storm for me. Inevitably, he also spent some time discussing the new Avengers movie which I’m less excited about, not being a huge Marvel fan. I don’t see how a movie with 7 superheroes in it that isn’t Watchmen could be anything other than a mess, but if anyone can pull it off, he can.

I was most struck by what an incredible fount of creativity he is, moving between genres and media with a never ending stream of ideas and a totally infectious enthusiasm for what he does. For example, he had a week off after completing Avengers, so made another movie, Much Ado About Nothing. In a WEEK.

There was a nice moment when the first questioner said that they were playing SuperBetter (see my earlier post) and had a quest to high five Joss Whedon. Well, said Joss, we’d better do that then. And so they did. Someone did ask the Firefly question, to which he responded that he kept waiting for the suits to realise they could make some money out of a Firefly reboot and make that call to him, but it never came. My plea: for the love of God, someone make that call.

There is a really nice full talk write up at Flavorwire.

Hollywood Reporter covered the Cabin in the Woods premiere.

A live drawing from Unified and StumbleUpon.

A live blog of the session from leakynews.

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

Adrian Hon – Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary


Since they started, I’ve been very interested in the work of Six to Start, founded by brothers Adrian and Dan Hon following their work for Mind Candy on the groundbreaking ARG (Alternate Reality Game) Perplex City. I was due to work with them on Spooks: Code 9 before I ducked off to join the Wellcome Trust instead in 2008 but have been keeping an eye on their projects in the years since. They always seem to be up to something interesting.

Dan has since left the company, but Adrian remains and the company continues to produce things that sound intriguing and novel, the latest being the Zombies Run Game. Last year, it was The Code, a BBC show about maths, presented by Marcus du Sautoy, that contained a hidden transmedia treasure hunt created by Six to Start. I signed up for the kick off, which involved receiving a postcard which had part of a visual clue on it and would require collaborating with the other postcard holders to solve. I hate to admit it, but that was as far as I got, I didn’t immediately get what I had to do and put it aside and forgot about it.

When I saw Adrian was speaking about it at SXSWi, though, I thought I’d go along and see what I’d missed. And, as I’ve worked with the BBC previously on a similarly large project around a TV property, I was interested to see what their experience had been.

From my understanding, the postcard clue needed to be put together with all the other post card clues, which then formed a shape. The players did this via the Facebook fan page, and the animated composite image is here. When turned into a 3D model, this unveiled the shape of the prize, a mathematical sculpture by artist Bathsheba Grossman.

This was all part of the pre show/pre game build up. With the show transmission, the treasure hunt proper began. I’m not exactly clear on how this worked, but it involved looking for clues in the BBC show itself and there are more details here. There were also four flash mini games and a puzzle book to solve. The three finalists who were first to “crack the code” were invited to a live event at Bletchley Park (viewable here) where they had to solve clues against the clock to find the overall winner.

It sounds like an absolutely mammoth undertaking, so was it successful? From Six to Start’s own site, here are the stats for The Code:

  • 1,000,000+ players of The Code Flash games
  • TV show significantly outperformed benchmarks on iPlayer and 7 day viewing figures
  • 100,000+ treasure hunt players engaging in the overarching meta-puzzle
  • 300,000+ interactions on the Facebook fan page
  • 1000+ photos, videos, 3D models, and a wiki with 100,000 views and 2000+ edits – all created by users!

The whole thing was really involved and quite complex, not to mention on a traditionally unpopular subject, maths, so over 100k players for the meta-puzzle is impressive. I do wonder how many stuck through the whole thing, ie, how many truly dedicated players there were, and would be interested in more stats on that. But still, it does seem like quite an achievement.

To pull this off required quite an operation behind the scenes of course, and we heard some instructive stories about how they did it. It was especially impressive since it sounded like they had a not massive budget, with little in there for marketing, and had to rely on their own twitter following for the pre-game puzzle solving.

There were a number of advantages about working with a TV programme. There is crossover and synergy and a flow, between the TV and online audiences. The media are complementary – video is good for explaining science, but games can be richer. However, there are disadvantages too.

There is considerable uncertainty about what will make the final programme, and a huge uncertainty about the transmission date. TV schedulers often decide the TX date late on, and even then it can be changed at the last minute. They just had to be flexible to deal with this. To deal with the uncertainty about the edit, they made sure they picked out quite a lot more shots per show than they needed to use as clues, knowing that several would get cut and they’d be left with probably just enough.

Another problem with working with a TV show is that they are usually an entirely separate production team. Moreover, they are a separate production to the BBC commissioning team that you will be working with as well. Six to Start’s solution to this was canny, they embedded a producer at the BBC, and a web producer in the programme production team. That meant that they had someone who was effectively both part of each of the other teams as well as their own, and that the communication problems that could otherwise arise were averted. Smart.

These weren’t the only challenges with creating something like this though. The solution had to be kept secret, and Hon recommended that only two people should ever know the final answer, that it should never be written down and that data relating to it should be encrypted. That sounds a little extreme but I guess when you think that the whole project is scuppered if this is given away, it’s quite reasonable.

Balancing the game is a challenge. They needed it to be done within three weeks, but equally it couldn’t happen too quickly. So to keep it challenging they made multilayered puzzles, but also provided encouragement along the way (but no outright hints) such as suggesting that users set up a wiki. Though the game was challenging, he did suggest that you can never make it too easy to actually get into at the start.

Failure of some sort, he suggested, was inevitable. The puzzle would be broken in some way, people might do something unexpected, and things would go wrong. So it was important that they, and their partners, were all prepared for this.

Really interesting to hear all this, lots of great insight and a fascinating project. Sadly, it sounds like the BBC is likely to produce few one offs like this in the future, instead moving towards using just one platform for their online content of this sort. There wasn’t much detail on this, so if that’s true I’d love to be pointed in the direction of some more information about what this would be. Anyone know more?

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

Superbetter trailer

Jane McGonigal – A Crash Course in Becoming Superbetter


Thursday’s keynote speaker was Jane McGonigal, a woman whose work has been a huge inspiration to me, but who also provokes a very mixed response from people who make and play games.

She has created some truly innovative games such as I Love Bees, World Without Oil and Superstruct. The power of a game like I Love Bees to bring strangers together to collaborate on a seemingly impossible task, or the potential of games like Evoke to make an actual difference to people’s lives, is extremely exciting. Her TED talk on how gaming can make the world a better place has had hundreds of thousands of views.

That said, I didn’t read her recent book, Reality is Broken, in part because of the negative response to it from people I respect and in reviews that I read. The feeling seemed to be that it went too far, was overly optimistic and that her use of statistics and science to back up some of her points was deeply flawed.

As I’m following her on twitter I was aware that she’d been unwell after a serious concussion and that she’d created a game to help her recovery. I was curious to find out more and therefore very interested when I saw she was going to be speaking about it at SXSWi. The game that she developed during her illness became SuperBetter, and her talk gave us the rundown on what it was, and what she thought it could do for people.

Her talk started with a framing device that actually made me a little uneasy. She told us that the number one smartass comment she gets about games is, “yeah, but on your deathbed are you really going to wish you’d spend more time playing World of Warcraft/Call of Duty/Game Blah?”. Well, she told us, just look at this list of the top 5 regrets of the dying as reported a few weeks ago:

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

All of these, she said, sound a bit like “I wish I’d played more games” (I think this is what she said, but don’t have the audio to double check it, this was what I wrote down). And yes, McGonigal is right. Games can be social, can make us happy, can allow us to express ourselves in a safe environment and give us time to relax and play instead of work. However, “I wish I’d played more games” isn’t actually what people said to the palliative care nurse, even if games could potentially have played a part in that, and so using their dying regrets to make a point about games in this way seemed a little crass to me.

However, thinking about this example got me to what I think is the nub of many people’s problem with McGonigal. She is an evangelist for games. For the rationalist, that is uncomfortable. She is the uber optimist, and many of us who are more sceptical or cynical find that hard to deal with. I think she really believes in what she is saying, and the paramount importance of what she’s doing, and using the dying regrets of terminally ill people seems entirely reasonable within this world view.

She is also someone who uses “super” a lot and gets very excited which is all very un-British and could explain why some people on this side of the pond find her irritating. It certainly wouldn’t be my style, but she has created some great work and won a lot of people over with this attitude, and perhaps that’s something to be valued rather than ridiculed. Even if many prefer taking a rather more logical and measured approach.

With that in mind, I found it a lot easier to enjoy the rest of her talk.

So, whilst recovering from her brain injury, McGonigal found herself really struggling and realised that she needed a extra motivation to help with her recovery. Naturally, she turned to game creation to help with this, and created Jane the Concussion Slayer, which later became the far more refined SuperBetter. It’s a game about improving resilience, and is apparently based on genuine scientific research and created in collaboration with scientists. Moreover, it’s being subjected to clinical trials to test its efficacy. I’ve searched for this, but they don’t appear to have been completed yet.

The idea that games can provide motivation and enjoyment during a difficult time does seem reasonable and interesting, and I will be particularly interested in the results of those clinical trials. She appeared to go further, saying that anyone who undergoes a challenge is better for it, whether it’s a negative or positive challenge, and that what the game will provide is genuine growth. That’s quite a claim, but certainly an exciting prospect. See for yourself, SuperBetter is now in public beta here.

McGonigal went on to list a number of other projects in a similar space, about achieving goals and personal development and repeated Will Wright’s assertion that what we were about to see was a gaming equivalent of the Cambrian explosion which saw species diversity increase massively and resulted in some weird and wonderful creatures. She suggested this should be called the “Gambrian” explosion but for God’s sake let’s knock that one on the head right away. Here are the other projects she mentioned.


Lift (from Twitter’s Biz Stone)

Mighty bell

Daily Feats

Google Schemer

Dream (couldn’t find the URL, nice work on an ungoogleable name there)

We “played” a bit of SuperBetter during her talk, which involved shaking hands with a neighbour, concentrating on clicking our fingers a certain number of times, picturing a cute baby animal and so on. The idea being that each of these covers an aspect of positive behaviour that can increase our resilience (growing our social ties, exercising our brain etc), and I can believe that on a bigger scale this could be true.

McGonigal then rather blew it by producing some dubious maths to “demonstrate” that our “playing” of SuperBetter had increased each of our lifespans by 7.5 minutes during her talk and whilst I sighed to myself that this was at best an average increase and that perpetuating misunderstanding about medical data and risk vs benefits was really unhelpful, I was still thinking that I’d be giving SuperBetter a go when I got home.

The talk was being filmed, so I will update this with a link when it appears. In the meantime, you can read this interview from CNET with Jane McGonigal carried out after her SXSW 2012 talk.

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

David Eagleman – The Secret Lives of the Brain


My first session was neuroscientist David Eagleman who is, according to his own website, “best known for his work on time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw”. Somewhat outside the tech/digital programme I was expecting but since we’re doing lots about the brain at the moment, and since I needed a bit of a pick me up after spending over TWO HOURS queuing for my badge, I thought I’d give it a go as it sounded fascinating.

He’s a hugely engaging speaker, witty and full of fantastic case studies to illustrate his point. Which was this: our conscious brain is just the tiny tip of a massive iceberg, and it’s what goes on behind the scenes that actually determines what we think and do. You may think that the decision you just made is borne of free will and rationality, but you were utterly unaware that your brain was whirring away below the surface, making that decision well before it apparently formed in your consciousness.

A difficult idea to swallow, no? But he had some cracking examples to back this up.

Nominative determinism is the theory that your name can affect your career choice and other aspects of your life that you’d hope were actually based on sensible, logical decision making. For instance, Eagleman pointed out that people called Dennis or Denise were disproportionately likely to become dentists. People also have a tendency to partner up with people who have a name that starts with the same first letter as theirs.

He also cited an example where they showed men two batches of the same photos of women and asked them to rate their attractiveness. The only difference between the two batches was that in one, the pupils had been dilated. The men overwhelmingly picked those with dilated pupils as being more attractive, and yet would not have been able to articulate that this, a sign of sexual readiness, was the reason why. They simply weren’t aware that this is why they made that decision. (I think he might have been referring to this study)

Our consciousness, said Eagleman, is like a broom cupboard in a mansion, or a tiny part of a steamship which is taking credit for controlling the whole thing. But in fact, it’s just aware of headlines produced by the rest of the brain’s machinations such as “you like dentistry”, and is spared some of the troubling reasons as to why that might be. Perhaps we may have a sense of being conflicted about something as these subconscious processes battle it out.

He discussed other examples of activities where we use the unconscious brain, such as playing the piano, or tennis, or trying to draw your name and its mirror image in the opposite direction at the same time. All of these are difficult or impossible once you try to think about them consciously. On which note, if someone is playing very well against you at tennis, compliment them and ask them how their excellent serve works – it will fall apart as they start to think about it.

Even our perception of reality is constructed by processes that we aren’t aware of, as demonstrated by optical illusions and also by synaesthesia, a subject Eagleman has studied in depth. He suggested that we may all be a little synaesthetic, and he showed this with the audience using the Kiki/Bouba effect. One hundred percent of the audience identified the spiky shape as Kiki. The test for true synaesthesia is all about consistency in responses, and can be found at synesthete.org.

Neuroscientists can use our responses to illusions as well as phenomena such as synaesthesia to study our vast subconscious depths. Another useful, if unfortunate, method is to see what happens when the brain is damaged in some way. The story of Phineas Gage who lost part of his frontal lobe and became a drastically different (and unpleasant) human being is well known, but he also cited the example of Charles Whitman, the “tower sniper” who killed 16 people at the University of Texas, just down the road from the Austin Convention centre where we were sat listening to Eagleman’s talk. He knew something was wrong with him and that his personality was changing to something angry and dangerous, and asked for an autopsy after his death. He was found to have a very aggressive brain tumour.

Eagleman had another fascinating and disturbing example, that of a patient who had suddenly developed paedophilic urges and when examined, was founded to have a frontal lobe tumour. It was removed, and the urges went, only to reappear some time later. It was found that a small part of the tumour had been missed and was re-growing.

In a case like this, these bizarre symptoms can be used for diagnosis. He gave the example of Parkinson’s disease, the treatment for which affects dopamine levels as it attempts to compensate for the diminished dopamine caused by the disease. Overcompensation can lead to decreased risk aversion, one effect of which can be to turn patients into gambling pleasure seekers. This behaviour can be used by doctors to see if they’ve given too high a dose, and they can therefore dial it back down until the behaviour stops to get the correct amount.

So, what are the implications of all this for our society, our conceptions of right or wrong behaviour and how criminality should be punished? If we don’t really have free will, what affect should this have on our legal system? This is another area that Eagleman seems to have a particular interest in. If I understood him correctly, he suggested that explanations of bad or “immoral” behaviour are not necessary exculpations but should lead to better sentencing, better rehabilitation and incentivisation. He has set up the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law to address these issues.

A fairly mindblowing start to SXSW for me, and you can hear the whole talk here. I think much of this is from his book, Incognito, I will definitely be taking a look at it after hearing him speak, absolutely fascinating.

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Posted in haste from my phone…

So far, SXSW has been eye opening. From the sessions I’ve been to and the people I’ve met, I’m discovering that there is a ton of work and thinking being done in the area of games for formal and informal learning across the US. At the same time, I’m finding that there is little awareness of what’s being done in this area in the UK.

Also, there has been a lot of discussion about how to make this innovative work more mainstream. It seems like pooling information, resources and learnings could be a good start, and that everyone working in this space could learn from each other. I know I could. So, this post is a plea for suggestions about how to do this, or for directions to places where this discussion might already be happening.

A google group? A wiki? both? Something else altogether? Suggestions in the comments or @ me on twitter and I’ll add them here. Thanks!

Updated after twitter discussions:

Museum games wiki as possible model: Museum games wiki

Q: are there not some serious games lists already out there?

Yes, lots of people working in this area in us but because it’s multidisciplinary it’s fragmented.
So q: is how to bring that all together.

any other thoughts from people?

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