Review: Volume

I really love physics puzzle video games.   The general pattern for physics puzzlers is that you have a fairly small set of tools that alter some fundamental law, like gravity, and you use them to get to the other side of the room.  The puzzles are quite separate from each other, and there is no metapuzzle.  You walk into a chamber, you solve the puzzle, you walk out.  None of this wondering if you’re did the puzzle wrong or it’s just a tree you walked in to, no metagame (I’m looking at you, The Witness.  Either be a book of mazes or have a story, doing neither is annoying), just a puzzle to solve with a little reward pellet when you’re done.  I have enough things in my day where it’s not even clear if I’m solving the correct problem, I don’t need that from my leisure activities.

The example you’re most likely to be familiar with is Portal.

But my favorite is Thomas Was Alone, a game about rectangles making friends.

Thomas Was Alone uses a couple of my favorite themes, including disparate people (rectangles) bonding together to solve a problem, and entwined moral and practical leveling up.  The puzzle solving of using different rectangles to get them all where they need to go becomes a metaphor for social cooperation in really impressive ways.  It is the first game I ever went through to get the collectibles not because I wanted the reward pellet from getting 100% completion, but just because I wanted to spend more time in the world.  So you can imagine my excitement when I found out the creator, Tom Bithell, had a new game coming out, and by coming out I mean came out a year and a half ago and was in a Humble Bundle, because I am not super up on my video game releases.

Story wise, Volume is no Thomas Was Alone, and I think that’s true even accounting for the facts that I was playing during a truly awful week, and Thomas was Alone‘s story couldn’t have targeted me better if it tried.  If you removed the story from both Volume is clearly the better the game, but part of what made Thomas Was Alone work was the superb integration between story and mechanics, so that’s not really fair.

But Volume‘s gameplay is excellent.  You play a thief playing a AI-driven simulation of stealing  (but are also actually stealing? To be honest I wasn’t paying attention.   Oh, apparently you’re simulating it to show other people how to steal and then they do?  That explains the moralizing at the end) from people who totally deserve it.  If you filmed the results it would look a lot like a wireframe of a Bugs Bunny Cartoons.  Guards can only see in a very prescribed area, so often the best thing to do walk directly behind them.  If you enter their line of sight they will chase you, but if you leave it for long enough they will give up, which led to a couple of really entertaining chases where I ran around columns perfectly opposite them until they gave up.  The game pokes fun at the simplifications it made- “I didn’t have the money to illustrate a bunch of objects so just pretend each of these identical gems is something different”, “Yes, transporters are impossible, but stairs are hard to code please just go with it.”

You’re given a variety of tools to manipulate the guards, like a bugle to create sound far away from you, and a way to generate a ghost of you running away so the guards will chase it (this one is a mixed blessing because it makes the guards more vigilant).  The tools vary dramatically in entertainment value: I found the stun gun was no fun at all, because it removed the need for planning.  Encounter a problem?  Shoot it.  It doesn’t even take that long to recharge.  But the stunning tripwire was fantastic.  Figuring out where to place it so you have as much time to run past the guard to your goal as possible and then lure them to it without getting shot is hard.

Like Thomas Was Alone and unlike every other puzzle game I’ve ever played, I completed Volume without once looking at a walkthrough.  For Thomas this was pretty clearly because the puzzles were easy; for Volume I think it’s at least partly really excellent design.  I didn’t know how to solve everything right away, but I always had more ideas of things to try.  None of this staring at a brick wall wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do (I’m looking at you Fez).

If I had one complaint about Volume that wasn’t about the lack of the magic of friendship, it would be that you don’t get enough time with any one mechanic.  I wish the game had had more confidence that the puzzles were fun and it didn’t need to keep feeding me novelty.  Luckily there is an ecosystem of user-made levels that I can only assume solves this exact problem.

So I heartily recommend Volume.  While I’m at it, if you like this type of game you’ll probably love Swapper, which might be more fun mechanically than even Portal and has narrative/mechanic integration to rival Thomas Was Alone, although this time the narrative is about watching your body die horribly over and over again, which is somewhat easier to represent in gameplay.  And for people like me who will enjoy even mid-tier representatives of the genre, Q.U.B.E is totally adequate.

 

Educational Games

There’s a lot of games that attempt to be educational out there.  I break them down into the following categories.

Gamification:

You do the exact same work, but receive stickers or points or badges for doing so.

Example: Kahn Academy badges, arguably all grades.  Extra Credits describes an intricate system here.

I was a grade grubber for years, and I’ll admit I still kind of miss the structure of school.  But gamification wears off really quickly, and Alfie Kohn has made a career out of arguing that extrinsic rewards are inherently harmful.  The one benefit I see in Extra Credit’s system is that it would reinforce students for other students’ performance, cutting down on bullying the smart kids.  It may also encourage the strongest students to help the weakest ones.  Or it might make everyone hate the weak students or help them cheat so they can get a pizza party.  Kids will do a lot for a pizza party.  And they may start to resent the smart kids for not helping enough.  So I guess I’m against this, but that may stem from years in the worst possible educational environment.

In that same video EC suggests the much less likely to backfire benefits of tailored difficulty curves and immediate feedback.  These strike me as much more valuable, but they will mostly fall in another category.

Familiarity Builders:

These are games that don’t really teach you anything you could use on a test, and often have fictionalized elements, but do build conceptual fluency, which can make it easier to learn real things later. Pretty much any game set in the real world qualifies for this, but my personal favorite is Oregon Trail for introducing millions of school children to the concept of dysentery.

died-of-dysentery
Counterpoint: I misspelled dysentery when uploading this photo. Twice.

A lot of the games on Extra Credits’s steam shelf fall into this category.  I was initially pretty dismissive of this, but I’ve changed my mind.

There are a lot of reasons that middle class + white children do better at school than poor + minority children, but one of them is the amount and type of knowledge they’re exposed to at home.  Poor parents flat out talk to their children less, which gives them less time to transmit knowledge.  They’re also less likely to have the kind of knowledge their children will be tested on at school.  As Sharon Astyk so heartbreakingly puts it, her foster children needed to be taught how to be read to but had a highly developed internal map of food-containing garbage cans.

There’s no video game for learning to not chew on books.  But there are lots of video games with maps.  A big part of my 6th grade social studies class was blank map tests, where we would be given a blank map and have to label all the countries.  We had a decent teacher, so I suspect this was fluency building and not drilling for drilling’s sake: when we read about Egypt and Greece and Rome, she wanted us to be able to put events in geographical context.  I didn’t know where every country was, but I did know, or at least recognize, the names of most countries.  This put me strictly ahead of the girl who called Syria “cereal”.  When we took tests I only had to put effort into remembering locations, she had to put effort into locations, and names, and possibly what a country was.  And it’s really hard to put in that effort when you don’t see a point and this other girl is doing so much better than you without even trying.  Carmen San Diego, or any video game with a strong sense of real-world place, could have given her a way to catch up.  Even if it wasn’t fun, it wouldn’t have had the same ugh field around it that studying did.

This is related but not identical to what Extra Credits describes as “familiarity builders“, where the goal is basically to make something interesting enough people look up the actual facts on wikipedia later.

Drill and Killers:

These games overlay what they’re trying to teach on top of typical game mechanics.  These are more than fluency builders because they use the same skills you’d use on a test or in real life, but they don’t teach you anything new, they just give you practice with what you already know.  Examples: Math Blasters, Mario Teaches Typing.

How good these are depends on who you ask.  I suspect you need a certain minimal fluency to make them at all fun, which makes the difficulty curve important.  And they’re less fun or game-like than the other types on this list.  But some things just have to be drilled, and video games are a more fun way to do that than flash cards.

Abstract Skill Builders:

Games that teach useful skills.  They would need translation to be anything useful on a test or in real life, but it does build up some part of the brain.

Example: Logical Journey of The Zoombinis, which teaches pattern matching, logical thinking, and arguably set theory.

On one hand, abstract skills like these are very hard to teach.  On the other hand, people are very bad at transferring skills from one domain to another (which is why some people can make change just fine but have trouble with contextless arithmetic, or can do arithmetic but not word problems).  On the third hand, people are very bad at transferring skills from one domain to another, so if there’s a tool that helps than learn that, it would be very valuable.

Incentivizers

You don’t technically have to learn anything to play these games, but you will be rewarded if you do.

Example: Sine Rider. Technically you can get by with guess and check, but you will win faster if you actually understand trigonometric equations.

Seamless Integration:

A step further than skill builders or drillers, these games have both flavor and mechanics based in the subject you are trying to teach.   These games are not necessarily complete substitutes for textbooks because it’s hard for them to be comprehensive, but they do completely teach whatever it is they’re trying to teach.

Examples: Immune Defense, from which I actually learned several things about the immune system.  Dragonbox, which teaches algebra.

I am *this close* to remembering which is antibody and which is antigen
I am *this close* to remembering which is antibody and which is antigen

Video Games for Good

Extra Credits is a video series on game design and the game industry.  It has interesting insights I don’t see elsewhere, but it is also… low density.  You could compress most episodes into a single written paragraph and lose nothing.  I tend to watch them when being told the same thing over and over with completely unnecessary accompanying graphics is calming, rather than annoying, which isn’t very often, so I only just caught this video on whether games can induce empathy.

If you are not in the mood to be reassuringly talked down to, they helpfully provide a summary:

Many studies have investigated whether or not there is a link between video games and violence, but few have looked at the bigger picture. What is the correlation between video games and empathy? Since games put us, as players, in the role of characters who are not ourselves, asking us to understand their situation and the problems that they face, they have the potential to teach us about how to empathize with others. While many gamers have anecdotal evidence about games that made them feel a character’s pain, there’s a disappointing lack of formal studies into that side of the question.

Examples: This War of Mine, Cart Life

I didn’t think anything of it until a week later at my Effective Altruism meetup, when we were discussing egalitarianism/maximization.  In a nutshell, EA believes that all lives are equally valuable, so if you can save two lives for $n each or one life for $2n, the most moral thing to do is to save the two lives.  Phrased that way I don’t understand how it’s at all controversial, but in practice it comes up against many people’s instinctive priorities.  For some, passing over a homeless person to give to GiveDirectly doesn’t just give them fewer warm-fuzzies, it feels actively immoral.  Someone at the meeting suggested it was a matter of empathy- people naturally feel more empathy the more often they see someone, or the more they have in common with them.

This is  of course obvious, which is why so many charities try to up the empathy you feel for their beneficiaries, by implying you’re helping a particular person when you’re not, or just sending a letter with a few heartwarming stories of all the injured dogs they’ve saved that year.*  They do it because it get donations, but it’s very hard not to slide into poverty porn. I find those examples really manipulative, but I loved the ability to choose out specific recipients when donating to Modest Needs so clearly I’m just as susceptible.

This is where I thought of that Extra Credits video.  What if instead of telling people how awful extreme poverty is, we gave them a video game demonstrating both the difficulties poor people faced and the resources they used?  Some things I would like to include:

  • Trade offs, trade offs, trade offs.  Do you invest in your child’s schooling or new farming equipment?
  • Bee Sting theory– demonstrating how it is easy to do the right long term thing when you have a few problems, but when too much is wrong sometimes palliatives are all you can manage.
  • The importance of social capital.  The poor (both in the US and the 3rd world) get a lot of criticism for spending so much on alcohol and ceremonies, but the fact is that that builds social relationships that can be crucial later on.  This doesn’t mean spending a lot on booze and parties is optimal, but that the change must come at a societal level.
  • How many well intentioned NGOs fail.  E.g. my continuing hate for the play pump.
  • Ideally you’d like to convey the scope of preventable deaths.  I don’t know how to do that respectfully.  You could do something like Shelter or The Oregon Trail, where you go in knowing some characters will die and the goal is to save as many as possible, but that seems a little horrifically callous.

I have several ideas for how to do this.  You could do the trade offs with a choice mechanism like that of Depression Quest or Long Live the Queen.  Soha Kareem has has apparently done some great work with video games to express her experience of microaggressions and sexual abuse.

EA strikes me as having a real comparative advantage when it comes to producing video games, relative to other charitable movements.  And by “real comparative advantage”, I mean “lots of programmers”.**  None are games programmers specifically, but it might be a skill worth picking up.

*Pro-tip for my local humane society: this may not work as well on cat owners as you were hoping.

**We were up to two non-programmers at the last meeting.  High five.

Review: Immune Defense Video Game

Medical-inspired video games have a long history of disappointing me.  For example, real pathogens don’t ride rocket ships around your organs (Trauma Center)

nor does every single member of the species worldwide suddenly develop a new trait all at once (Plague, Inc)

And Surgeon Simulator does not follow Atul Gawande’s best practice surgical checklists at all

Plus Trauma Centers’s difficulty curve is insane, and they found a way to make repeating unskippable cutscenes worse. But one of the nice things about game development getting cheaper is they can make games for me and the four other people who will appreciate a cross between an immunology textbook and Majesty, which is the best way to describe Immune Defense.  In Immune Defense you play as the immune system, releasing various immune cells (each with different skills, and customized to different pathogens), which you do not directly control (it isn’t pac-man) but can lure over to the bacteria with antibodies if the %^&*ing macrophages will stop eating them.  In place of the usual Hit Points it has an inflammation count, which is actually pretty reasonable.  It has some biological inaccuracies (I’m reasonably certain real neutrophils don’t change receptor types instantaneously), but it’s still overall educational. Note the lack of rocket ships in this trailer.

That said, it’s obviously still in beta, and if the phrase “immunology x majesty” doesn’t grab you, you’re probably better off waiting.  The tutorial is really lacking and they need to smooth out some of the controls.  But I had a ton of fun until tendinitis forced me to stop playing, and if “immunology x majesty” does inspire joy in your heart you will probably enjoy it a lot, so check out the IndieGoGo and demo.

Review and Science: Thomas Was Alone

Humans have an amazing ability to ascribe intention and emotion when logic tells us there could not possibly be any, a fact demonstrated most succinctly by this clip from Community

but proven somewhat more rigorously by An experimental study of apparent behaviour (PDF), in which experimental subjects were asked to watch and describ a short film showing some shapes moving around.  If you would like to play along at home, I’ve embedded the video below.

The first subject group (n=34 undergraduate women) was given no instruction beyond “describe what happened in the movie.”  Exactly one subject described it in purely geometric terms.  Two others described the shapes as birds, and the rest described them as humans.  19 gave a full story.  The stories people told  (in this treatment and another where subjects were primed to view the shapes as people) had a shocking amount in common, suggesting there was something innate in the interpretation.*

My point is, humans will bond with anything.  In many ways it’s easier to bond with/project onto simple objects than actual humans or almost humans.  This can be used to great effect in art, to evoke desired emotions without all the messiness of using real people.  A simple example is an extremely short, simple game whose name I’m not going to tell you, because it would bias your experience of it.

Did you play it?  The game’s name is Loneliness.  Can you guess why?

I like to think the shunned little square from Loneliness grew up in to be Chris in Thomas Was Alone, a game about rectangles making friends.  Thomas Was Alone‘s premise sounds kinds of dumb: it’s a puzzle platformer with some narration ascribing emotions to the rectangles you solve puzzles with.  But it pulls this off so masterfully I actually bought branded merchandise of it, which is something I can’t say about a single other game.  The story is genuinely sweet, but the real skill is in how the puzzles reinforce it.  Each rectangle has slightly different skills, some more useful than others.  Chris is a shitty jumper whose initial story revolved around resenting the better jumper, and who is nothing but dead weight in the first puzzles (the other rectangles could get through without him, but he could not with them) suddenly becomes indispensable, I felt pride and relief.

TWA starts out a little slow.  If you want to play, finish the first world before deciding whether to continue or quit.  But I highly recommend it both as an interesting example of human psychology, and as a piece of happy art, which I don’t think we see enough of.

Okay, fine, I don’t see enough of because I’m a severe subscriber to the dark and edgy trend.  But that just makes Thomas Was Alone more impressive.

*Attenuated by the fact that women attending college during WW2 is a narrow subset of the population.

Depression in video games

Okay, apparently psychology and video games is my niche and I should just accept that.

If you ask most gamers for a game about depression they’d say Depression Quest*, partly because it has depression right in the name and possibly because one of the designers, Zoe Quinn, has been targeted for massive harassment.  DQ is the world’s most morose choose your own adventure novel.  The descriptions of depression and they choices it leaves you are very accurate, but I left the game thinking “Boy, I am good at fighting depression.  Why don’t actual depressed people do as well as I did on this game?”  Which is of course massively unfair, and I assume not what the developers were going for.  I know other people who have liked it a lot, and it’s short and free, so certainly give it a go if you’re at all interested, but I don’t have much to say about it.

And then there is The Cat Lady.

The Cat Lady is a horror game.  If you hate being scared, or don’t want to see violence, sexualized violence, and gore, you should not play it.  I found it well done, artistically merited, and not exploitative, but it is pretty gruesome.

I like horror video games but no genre misses its mark more often.  Many games are never scary.  Of those that are, most rely purely on jump scares, which make me twitchy but not scared- the opposite of what I want.*  The best part of being scared is when it is over.  Of games that are successfully atmospherically scary at first, most are not by the end. You’re too used to the mechanics, you’ve acclimated to the monsters, your brain has noticed none of this is actually happening.  This can ruin the experience.

BEGIN SPOILERS (not scary)

The tempo of The Cat Lady can roughly be described as spooky-creepy-CREEPY-creepy-TERRIFYING-weird-scary-spooky-….and then every scene is less creepy than the one before.  You could call this a failing, in the pattern of many horror games before it.  Or you could call it a brilliant use of the mechanics of a game to induce a particular psychological state in the user,** in this case with the goal of demonstrating the improvement in the main characters psychological state as the game goes on.  The game starts with her suicide.  It ends with her finding her voice, making a friend, and standing up for what she thinks is right.  It felt very organic.  The player is given a lot of choice in Susan’s dialogue.  At the beginning I chose the most withdrawn and passive options, and at the end I chose the most active and courageous ones, because it felt like that’s what the character would do.  The lessening of terror felt like Susan coming into her own.

END SPOILERS

The negatives are mostly mechanical- for an atmospheric narrative game, the lack of autosave is puzzling.  The inability to manually save during dialogue, which can go 15 minutes at a stretch, is unacceptable.  The lack of even quicksave, meaning I must hit three buttons and then type the name of a new save, and do it compulsively because you never know if I’m about to crash or hit another 15 minute unsavable section, would be unforgivable even if the game hadn’t crashed twice at the same spot.***  The game is very talky, and it’s paced badly.  It was a very poor choice to block saves between chapters, and then start every chapter with a bunch of exposition, because it meant I was leaving the game in medeas res, rather than at natural down beats.  The talky bits were sometimes very interesting but sometimes very painful to get through- a lot of plumbing through dialogue trees to get the option you already know you’re going to use.

Would I recommend this to a person who wanted to know what depression felt like?  Only very a specific person.  You’d have to be a horror fan or you’d never get past the second chapter.  And if you don’t naturally get the genre I’m not sure it would have the same effect.  Would a recommend it to a depressed person looking to see their experiences reflected in art?  Same caveats, with possibly a wider net, since depressed people will more naturally get the depression in the beginning.  The writer/designer apparently has personal experience with depression, and it shows.  Would I recommend it to someone who likes horror games?  Yes, definitely, without reservation.  It is so good.

As a side note, I think is another piece of evidence for my evolving hypothesis about women and horror stories.  I don’t what the statistical distribution is because I watch a very nonrandom subset, but in a world where most major movies don’t even pass the Bedschel test, horror films address a lot of “women’s issues”.  Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body are about female competitiveness as they come into sexual power, Mama is about being raised by a mentally ill parent, and Drag Me To Hell is about an eating disorder.  And now The Cat Lady is about depression, and the way depressed middle aged women are treated by society.

*There is a very slight chance they’d say Shadow of the Colossus, which is an excellent game, but any connection to depression is buried deep in metaphor.

MORE SPOILERS

*I discovered something interesting when I played Condemned.  Originally the contrast on my TV was so I couldn’t see enemies (which, for maximum discomfort, are crazed homeless people) until they’d actually attacked me.  This was startling, but not scary at all.  I then upped the contrast so it was theoretically possible for me to see enemies ahead of time, although they were still mostly hidden.  This was much scarier.  It’s like I don’t feel fear unless something is preventable through my own actions.  Ironically the fact that The Cat Lady is a puzzle game, and thus you are never on a clock and can only die when the story says you’re definitely going to die, makes it easier for me to be scared.

**Papers, Please is the only other game I think of that does this.  It takes the mundanity of a lot of casual games and makes it a manifestation of working a soul crushing job.  I was impressed with them too.

***Non-gamers: I know it sounds like I’m overreacting, but I’m not.  Imagine if you had to walk to another room to save your place in a book on every page.

Reality is Broken and how to fix it

I am very into video games.  This does not mean I play many video games- I’m below average for people I know, although that’s a skewed sample.  But I do a lot of reading about video games , because I find economics interesting and the business of video games has a confluence of factors that allow me to understand it.  Plus, it’s going through some interesting transformations on both the monetary and art fronts.  That is why I read Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal.

Much like researchers of heroin and cocaine before her, McGonical’s approach is to look at something addictive and, rather than declare we’re all weak for liking it, study why it is so addictive/satisfying and what we can do to bring that into our lives in a healthy way.  Her list of things video games provide us- flow, challenge, ownership, accomplishment- read like a list of things my job doesn’t do.  Which I already knew, and has led me to start researching other careers, which led to among other things this blog.  This gave me the idea to start alternating work-type tasks with video games targetted to give the satisfaction of having done work (e.g. Harvest Moon, which is about running your own farm).  For the moment the work type task is “reading books I already wanted to read”, but it nonetheless raised my satisfaction and endurance level significantly, and I’m hopeful it will help when I return to work as well.*

But then McGonigal shifts tacts, and talks about all the ways we can use video games to improve the world.  One example is Foldit, in which players are given the primary structure of a protein and attempt to find the lowest-energy tertiary structure for it.  Scientists actually use these results in their research. **   She also designed World Without Oil, a collaborative fiction game where people brainstormed how to adapt to an oil storage.

She also talked about her prolonged recovery from a concussion.  I identified with this a lot: the lack of tangible progress, the alternation between not having the energy to do what you’re supposed to and being desperate to do something but not knowing what.  In my case there’s also juggling several different problems, and wondering if you’d be happier if you just concentrated on one until it was done, and trying to manage containing the most urgent symptoms and investing in long term solutions.  I responded by writing “this is hard” in my diary.  Jane McGonigal responded by making SuperBetter, a website/service that gamifies convalesence (think fitocracy but for actual health, rather than health-as-codeword-for-skinny).  This was kind of a revelation for me on two levels.  One, it solved a problem I had recently been whining about, and enables me to take better care of myself.  I’ve been using it for a week so far, and while it’s not magic, it is helpful, and it is most helpful when I am least able to act on my own.

Two, it has me thinking about my future.  My volunteer thus far has me very convinced I want to work in adolescent mental health.  I think that is my special talent and while I feel stupid saying it, I genuinely think I could change the world.  I want to do that.  But so far my research has focused on existing career tracks I could jump into (psychiatrist, counselor, etc).  I’d considered programming for a company that made meaningful software but dismissed it, in part because I’d done it before and found it lacking.  But maybe there’s a hybrid.  I could have made SuperBetter.  I mean, the last webpage I made was written in notepad, but I’m capable of learning the skills to make SuperBetter.  Hell, I could probably get a job to pay me to learn the skills to make SuperBetter.  There’s no credential holding me back.  And I think I would be really proud of myself if I did something like that.

MoodGym already exists, so off the top of my head I don’t know what I could create that would add value to the world.  I definitely need more volunteering and reading to find out, and may quite possibly need more formal education.  But my eyes are open to the broader range of possibilities for me to change the world, both now and in the future.

Which is extremely convenient, because the money that would have gone to taking off work and soul searching has gone to taking off work and holding an ice pack to my jaw.  It was a good trade given the circumstances, but it may set formal school back years.  This was an excellent time to acquire hope I can do more in place.

*According to Reality is Broken, this is common strategy among top executives.

**This is how I got through the analytical section of organic chemistry.  I hated all that stuff that was never going to be relevant to me as a behaviorist until I realized it used exactly the same part of my brain as the game Set, which I loved.  I went on to nail that test and enjoyed it more than any other part of orgo.