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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