They’re Not Just Playing!

I was called to an area elementary school to perform a psychiatric screening on a 12 year old male threatening to harm the school staff. I was familiar with Alfonzo (not his real name) as a current client that I have screened and worked with over several years. Upon my arrival, I met with Alfonzo and his dad as well as his homeroom and special education teachers and the assistant principal.

As we entered the conference room, Alfonzo sat down and immediately started spinning in his seat. I was quickly reminded of his hyperactivity and my need to direct that energy. I gave him paper and a pencil and asked him to write, draw or fold something for me.

According to the special education teacher, Alfonzo kicked open the front door, flew down the hall into his classroom and dove into his seat. When confronted, he went back out, gently opened the door, walked to the classroom and sat in his seat. The homeroom teacher reported that as Alfonzo was given scissors for a craft project, he told her he would cut her like he did a teacher last year but then said he was “only playing.” And the assistant principal added that at the start of the school year when she asked Alfonzo to remove a straw from his mouth, he complied but only after telling her about the plate in his neck after being shot multiple times.

I asked Alfonzo about these behaviors and he readily admitted to each. I asked him to show me what he had done. One side of the picture was four figures with firearms and the other side eight figures with arms outstretched. I asked him to tell me about the picture. He described the scene as zombies versus the survivors, each zombie with differing characteristics and the survivors as he and his friends.

Being an avid gamer, I knew he was describing the zombies from Valve’s Left 4 Dead series. And I know these are games rated as Mature by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). But what I also remember about Alfonzo is that his father is a former gang member, his brother is incarcerated for a drive-by shooting and several other family members as victims and/or perpetrators of urban violence. The horrors in his front yard have been much worse than what he has witnessed in a video game.

I asked what he likes to do in his free time. He said “go outside to play basketball and tag or play video games.” I asked him what are his favorite video games and he mentioned Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row and Left 4 Dead.

The picture that Alfonzo drew is but one example of creative expression that has sent many school kids to psychiatric facilities around the globe. Too often, it is misinterpreted as a precursor to violence or a cry for help. In this case, Alfonzo’s picture represents his attempt to overcome and conquer his circumstances.

As he chooses and engages in his video game play, we can use that to develop rapport, assess strengths and weaknesses, explore sensitive areas and modify his thoughts, feelings and actions. As therapists are able to integrate music, art and movement into their therapeutic skill sets, video games should be seen as an evolutionary tool for multisensory engagement and behavior change.

Originally published over at In Defense of Mental Wellness

Influence and Control

2011 could be the breakout year for video gaming. With Nintendo releasing their Wii Motion Plus peripheral and Microsoft and Sony due to release their motion controllers later this year, things are looking bright for the evolution of game interfaces for interactive media.

Now I know that Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’ Move controllers are due out for the holiday season, but it will take another six to eight months at least for quality titles that fully exploit the capabilities of the hardware as evidenced by the stellar game play of Red Steel 2 and The Conduit on the Wii.

As a lifelong electronic gamer and technophile, I have witnessed the advancements in software from text adventures and midi songs to ultra-realistic graphics and full orchestral scores. Though, in order to enjoy these technical wonders, I have had to use:

  • Joysticks with one, two, four, six, eight or ten buttons;
  • Keyboards, ergonomic and not;
  • Mice
  • Dance pads;
  • Joy pads with one or two joysticks and up to ten buttons;
  • Flight sticks and throttles; and
  • Others best forgotten.

My hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills have never been stellar and I have been sorely challenged by games that interest me but I have struggled with the interface. Remembering lightning fast button presses or using complicated keyboard templates does not help to foster immersion within the experience.

As I have matured and been able to see benefits in video gaming as a tool for learning, parenting, enrichment and skill development, I realize that the game interface is as important, if not more, than any other media content. Which is why I am personally excited about motion controllers and their potential to provide truly immersive experiences.

We interact with video games very simply – through what we see, hear, read, feel and do. These sensory inputs provide great potential for interactive media experiences. I have bought and used many game peripherals that seemed promising but turned out to be “horripherals” or “pooripherals.” I haven’t decided which term to use yet.

There was the baseless flight stick that you extend like a beer bottle twisting and turning until your carpel tunnel kicks in or you spill your beer, whichever is first. And the Sega Activator. And the P5 Virtual Glove that I really didn’t give much of a chance because it wouldn’t fit my girthy fingers. Or the Xbox 360 Max Shooter that I’ve been too lazy to configure to improve my FPS performance online.

With the new generation of motion controllers, I can hardly contain myself. We own a Wii and give it a good workout as a family. The nunchuck cord is too short for my wingspan and I can’t use a wireless nunchuck with the Motion Plus accessory. The sensor bar and Wii speak have to be finely adjusted for maximum response. Even then, the controller creates authenticity when bowling, hitting and throwing baseballs, fishing and a host of other game challenges. Sony’s Move controller with the Wand looks to copy the look and feel of the Wii, capture much of their motion control market while retaining the PS3 faithful.

Ah, the Microsoft Kinect is a beast of a different controller. A motion camera with at least two microphones, this could be the game changer I’ve waited for. Actual movements translated directly into the game for success and improvement of game play. Most importantly, no worn out, broken or chargeless controllers. Woo-hoo!

It is a great time to be a video gamer. As an adult, my media interests have not changed much but now I can pay for my own toys. And I can dream about the future of interactive hardware and software in the hopefully near future. Like a next generation computer/game system with a built-in projector, surround sound system and motion controllers. Within my budget. Now you can wonder what I’ve been smoking.

Sebastion A. Williams

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

Just Cause 2 Review

XBOX 360
Square Enix
2010
10 hours played

Relishing my fond memories of playing Just Cause several years ago, I have been casually excited about the release of the sequel, have viewed many online game play clips and have been impressed. What I hadn’t expected is starring in my own action serial.

Just Cause 2 (JC2) comes to the gaming public by way of Square Enix for the PC, PS3 and XBOX 360. You are Rico Rodriguez a.k.a. Scorpio, a cold-blooded WMD sent by the Agency to the island of Panau to find and eliminate your mentor.

In typical Hollywood fashion, an African-American male is killed in the first five minutes. Your adventure begins with a cut scene where a fellow agent is shot, falls from a helicopter and you, as Rico, dive after him to retrieve your PDA. JC2 is an adrenaline sandwich with thick slices of action and liberally garnished with travel. My teenage son heard me playing and had to see what I was so giddy about. I asked him to play a particularly challenging chase scene early in the game so I could witness his frustration. Nonchalantly, he shot out the tires of the pursuers, handed back the controller and left. I reared him to resist gloating.

The dialogue in the cut scenes is witty enough to keep you engrossed as characters deal and shuffle off-handed while the accents are merely functional and frequently distracting.

Audio effects surround you with convincing gun reports, explosions and other melodic mayhem. The music helps to establish and maintain dramatic tension throughout.

Cut scenes are somewhat stiff but in-game characters animate well. Environments are detailed with varied foliage on land and under the sea. I spent a great deal of time scouting locations in a helicopter and was awe-struck by sense of scale. Although there is a noticeable scarcity of fauna, it does not ruin the experience.

Renau Island is vibrant with diverse locales from snowy peaks to sandy beaches. Day and night cycles, and varied weather effects surround you. The mapping function thwarts most efforts to get lost and provides the ability to set waypoints. Your surroundings behave as they should. Ragdoll physics bring life to death animations as you snatch snipers with your grappling hook and watch them pinwheel to the ground. My personal favorite is targeting the tires. Whereas blowing out the rear wheels slows the vehicle down, popping a front one flips and cartwheels them and scattering occupants like a sneeze. The artificial intelligence convincingly has villagers going about their business until the bullets fly, fellow insurgents cheer you on and regime forces hunt and try to kill you. Luckily, you have a decent assortment of equipment available to postpone your elimination.  Activities earn you cash and permit Black Market drops providing you with much needed support. I tended to be too generous with bullets and frequently ran out of ammo.

As your goal to destabilize the region by supporting the rebel factions and cause general pandemonium, I was amazed by the massive amount of methods to obliterate the surroundings. Chaos earns you cash and notoriety as you shoot, blow up, run into and pull down the symbols of oppression.

All is not well and there is some disapproved content including graphic violence, mature language, presence of narcotics and opportunities for injustice toward innocents. Most buildings cannot be entered and are indestructible. I was disappointed that I could not set off an avalanche to destroy a mountain encampment.

Move over Sam Fisher, there’s a bigger holster on the scene and Scorpio wears it. His displays of physicality are amazing as he chariot-rides and jacks vehicles on land, air and water. I could imagine the Govenator kicking back and playing Just Cause 2, if only to forget about the real Hollywood for a little while.

Recommended for:

  • Dialogue
  • Sound effects
  • Musical themes
  • Animation
  • Palettes/textures
  • Scale/perspective
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Climate/weather systems
  • Day/night cycles
  • Environments/ exploration
  • Navigation/mapping
  • Physics modeling
  • Displays of physicality
  • Strategic depth

Disapproved for:

  • Dialogue
  • Character growth/development
  • Range of interactions

Features of Interactive Media continued …

As I continue to advocate for the positive aspects of video gaming and fresh from my rant to Roger Ebert’s “Video games can never be art” blog post, I realize how many intelligent, influential but ignorant individuals are really unaware of the work that designers put into interactive media and its ability to create moods, inspire growth and enrich one’s experiences. Maybe, someday, they’ll catch on but until then, I’ll continue with more features.

Things

In order to be fully immersed in interactive experiences, users are taken away from their normal circumstances to exotic locales to accomplish remarkable feats. Within those experiences, if users are unable to pick up a reasonably sized box, watch as characters without phase shifting abilities pass through walls or enemies that don’t react to clear visual threats, the illusion of adventure is shattered and may discourage further play. Natural circumstances convincing and dynamic to maintain the suspension of disbelief includes:

  • Climate and weather as visible environmental changes,
  • Environments and exploration providing a sense of vastness,
  • Equipment to manipulate and modify to achieve goals
  • Biologic processes as appearance of organic growth
  • Mechanical processes as display of non-organic change
  • Day and night cycles
  • Artificial intelligence in life forms
  • Navigation and mapping and 
  • Physics modeling as realistic actions and reactions between objects in the environment.

Actions

Video game input controls have evolved a great deal since the advent of joysticks and joy pads. Kinetic learners absorb information by doing and are inclined toward athletic and physical pursuits and prefer first person perspectives, fighting and action games and sports simulations. The entertainment industry is now recognizing the market for motion controllers by getting consumers off the couch into the games. To this point, a glut of hardware and software merchandise has been hastily designed and foisted onto consumers hungry for new products. It is time for hardware to be rated as well. Action features include:

  • Fine and gross motor skills which improve play or development,
  • Balance, coordination, dexterity, endurance, precision and speed,
  • Range of inputs including mice, keyboards,  joy pads,  flight sticks, light guns, etc.,
  • Displays of physicality as exhibitions of athleticism or acrobatics,
  • Feedback such as rumble effects and
  • Input fidelity as the game interface simulates realistic actions.

Many of my league bowling friends have reported markedly improved play after quality spent at the Wii Sports Resort.

Others

Much of the controversial aspects of media interactivity relates to social functioning. These include:

  • Competitive and cooperative play dynamics,
  • Networking as a function of interacting with others in the same room or on the other side of the world,
  • Attribute or trait options providing the ability to personalize characters’ appearance and behavior,
  • Range of interactions between virtual characters, as well as opportunities for interactions such as voice chat and Avatars/virtual selves to recreate oneself or others in the experience and
  • Web cam and voice chat options for audio and visual communication.

Ideas

Figuring things out is at the core of gaming. Media content can exercise the gray matter like no other media through:

  • Strategic depth or tactical methods used to improve success,
  • Cause and effect or choice and consequence dynamics that influence game play,
  • Economics or financial modeling,
  • Humor,
  • Puzzles or brain teasers that support the experience,
  • Character classes and
  • Moral dilemmas providing weight to game decisions.

Self

One can find many opportunities for self-exploration and expression in interactive media. These include:

  • Character depth and identification with iconic personalities,
  • Character growth and development,
  • Historical simulation as you try to influence the past and
  • Sandbox options to utilize developers’ tools to modify or create content and new game experiences.

I’d appreciate you taking a minute to respond to my poll. Next up, I rate and review Just Cause 2 with my slant on judging and evaluating interactive media content. And yes, that was the sound of a tree falling.

Features of Interactive Media

Since the dawn of computer and video gaming, adults – responsible, upright and uptight – have predicted the collapse of civilization because young minds are being polluted and corrupted by these negative influences. Most can agree that there is a stronger correlation of childhood trauma caused by certain clergymen than to video gaming.

The game development industry must shoulder a great deal of responsibility for the stigma associated with gaming for many reasons.

As it is well-known that sex and violence sells products, the industry has released its share of candy-coated cockroaches. Fat Princess™ and Fairytale Fights™ are examples of titles where cute cartoon characters engage in violence with graphic displays of blood and body parts. Unless your parents were grave robbers or home-based surgeons, these images would be outside of the norm and should not be played by younger children.

“Educational” game is an oxymoronic term. All games are educational. You learn the rules, play and apply this learning to eventually win. Linking games and play to educational objectives is an effective way to engage users through a variety of learning and intellectual style content.

Sayings

Verbal communication descriptors include:

  • dialogue as verbal exchange between characters,
  • accents used to suggest geographic and cultural characteristics,
  • commentary in describing action and events
  • voice control as a means of managing the media
  • voice clips to personalize experiences
  • narration in story telling and
  • lyrics in songs and music.

Sounds

Acoustics induce feelings and affect us in a variety of ways.  Descriptors include:

  • Effects as sound properties within the media,
  • Ambience to create virtual environments and surroundings,
  • Dimensionality to add realism through stereo, surround and other enhancements and
  • Equalization and balance options to adjust for personal taste and enjoyment 

Acoustic features are most important for the visually impaired or physically limited user.

Tunes

Game play is dramatically affected by music. Canned, electronic tunes makes one reach for the mute toggle while artfully directed orchestral scores can transport the user to worlds vast and exotic.

  • Harmonies/melodies as part of the experience,
  • Rhythm, beat or tempo to control game play and
  • Virtual instrumentation as how closely does the interface simulate actual activity

Much of the criticism of guitar and instrument simulation games comes from actual musicians and enthusiasts who protest that success as a guitar hero does not translate to shredding and slashing like the best of them.

Writings

As a pen and paper gamer from way back then playing Champions, DC Heroes and anything GURPS, I was excited when we could manage stats and dice rolls with spreadsheet and random number generators. Written communication has been the staple of gaming and remains a primary mode of conveying story elements in interactive media. From “choose-your-own-adventure” storybooks to collectible card games and interactive fiction, writing has been the mainstay of independent game publishers with small budgets and big ideas. As evidenced by the popularity of books and magazines, high-quality prose sells and can greatly expand the scope of any interactive media. Other aspects include:

  • Text quality such as font styles and sizes,
  • Subtitling to support alternate language or hearing impaired users,
  • Reading level appropriate to the material and
  • Writing/keyboarding input as how closely does the interface simulate actual activity.

Sights

Graphics are very important to the success of many game products. Anyone who has seen the artwork in a deck of Magic: The Gathering collectible cards can understand that effective images can immerse the user in game play. Visual information features include:

  • Animation, cinematography, photography and art in conveying story elements,
  • Dimensionality for creating locations,
  • Palettes and textures for themes/styles,
  • Scale/perspective for dramatic effect,
  • Icon manipulation in the control interface and
  • Drawing/sketching input how closely does the interface simulate actual activity.

Visual features become even more important for the hearing impaired or physically limited consumers as the experience should be richer in content and scope.

Part Two of Features of Interactive Media to follow shortly.

What’s in your video game?

As consumers, how do we make informed choices about product purchases? We are bombarded by advertisements, our kids tell us about what they’ve seen on TV and what their friends have while we consider about what we can afford.

Food products have labels with ingredients and nutritional information. Toy boxes indicate whether assembly is required and how many batteries to feed them. How do we know what’s in a video game? A few screen captures, game features and a prominently displayed warning label from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) on the front and content ratings on the back of the box. Alcohol reference? Bad! Comic mischief? Not so bad. Blood and gore? Very bad! Sexual violence? Horrible!

The ESRB was established by the Entertainment Software Association in 1994 as a non-profit, self-regulatory body to give computer and video game ratings. Publishers pay a fee and submit a DVD with the most objectionable contents to the raters to determine the most appropriate rating. The raters are never required to actually play any of the games.
The content descriptors provided by the ESRB on video game boxes provide valuable information about content that would be objectionable to many parents. But it is akin to the surgeon general warning and implies that video gaming could be hazardous to your health.

As a parent, therapist, consumer and avid gamer, I find these ratings ignore content beyond the objectionable –interactive media experiences that are engaging, stimulating and enriching.
Internationally, interactive media content ratings lack critical information that can provide effective guidelines not only for parents and players but for educators, legislators, mentors, tutors and therapists. Just as a chef will judge a dish by tastes and smells and a composer will evaluate a concerto by the sound and feel, video games and interactive media should be rated on the richness of content present by actually playing them or watching others play.

Rating methods and systems for non-interactive media such as movies, music and books are inadequate for interactive media such as games, software and hardware. Users have opportunities to alter their experiences by their choices within the media. These choices are based on what information we perceive, absorb, retain and how we use that information.

After several years of research and design, I feel the best method of rating and reviewing interactive media content is based in cognitive models of information processing and thinking. I propose ten areas of content ratings:

  • Sayings –verbal communication
  • Sounds – acoustic information
  • Tunes – musical information
  • Writings – written communication
  • Sights – visual information
  • Things – scientific processes
  • Actions – body-kinesthetic information
  • Others – social exchange
  • Ideas – thought processes
  • Self – reflective processes

These areas allow for a broad range of judging content based on users’ learning and intellectual style preferences, permit recommended and disapproved ratings within each area and provides content descriptors that are more accurately describe what is really present.

Future postings will include video game ratings/reviews, content descriptors and future implications for use. Stay tuned.

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