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January 9, 2006

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Drop me in the water

Electroplankton comes out today in the United States (it'll be on shelves tomorrow). Obviously, I recommend it to musicians and open-minded gamers. It was my first software import, and since the US doesn't seem to be getting the special edition package with headphones and a Iwai-designed box, I think that was a pretty good deal.

Here's a retrospective: Electroplankton still isn't a game, and people who try to review it as such are still missing the point. When Davis complains about the lack of replay value, or the fact that you can't save the music (except through the analog hole), he's trying to fit it into a mental framework that's ill-suited for its purpose. Gamespot has no more business trying to review Electroplankton than Keyboard Magazine should be reviewing Dance Dance Revolution.

I haven't hauled it out for a while, because I've (as usual) gotten distracted with other projects. I did try to do some soldering work on the adapter for the microphone the other evening, but my ColdHeat iron just doesn't have the juice to get it done, and I've misplaced my plug-in iron. The contacts on the adapter are also only a few millimeters wide, and I'm just not that dextrous, frankly. It's forcing me to consider the idea of using the software more as a beatbox and lo-fi sampler than as an actual performance looper, at least until better hardware arrives in the US. However, I continue to believe that the potential is great for combining EP with live performance, especially if you could get the visuals projected up for the audience.

Previous posts on Electroplankton:
Initial impressions
Composing with Electroplankton series

Update:

The Electroplankton manual, translated from Japanese but retaining the hand-drawn charm of the original, can be found here. I like Iwai's notes at the end, for a glance into his mental process when he wrote each piece.

December 30, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Composing with Electroplankton, Part Five: Rec-Rec

You may remember that when I first started this project I decided on three Electroplankton types that would be useful on stage: Hanenbow, Luminaria, and Beatnes. After spending some time with Beatnes, it became obvious that it had several notable drawbacks live. In contrast, Rec-Rec (which is quite similar in some ways) has been shown to be much more powerful.

Rec-Rec

Basically, this plankton is a four-track recorder with drum machine and variable speed. To me, as a looping artist, that's very exciting. I paid $300 for the Line 6 looper, which includes a speed shift and up to 30 seconds of recording, but generally I use it for a recording/overdub of only 2-4 measures. Rec-Rec provides the minimum of functionality for about a fifth of the price, and includes some features that the Line 6 doesn't have (such as the ability to erase and rewrite distinct tracks). I can already see ways to create pop and rock music this way, and I'll put up some .mp3 samples at the table of contents post when I get a chance.

If it has a physical equivalent, Rec-Rec is a lot like a tape loop--the recording time is technically inflexible (two measures), but you can speed up/slow down the playback with an accompanying pitch shift, using left and right on the d-pad. Each of the four fish represents one track, or a tape loop distinct from the others. The drum pattern in the background is the fifth track, since it speeds up or slows down along with the others, but you can't record over it. Instead, using up or down on the d-pad will change between different beats, which NTSC-uk's excellent translation defines as follows, in ascending order:

  1. Regular
  2. Analogue
  3. House
  4. Pop
  5. African
  6. Industrial
  7. Metronome
  8. No beat
Over the top of this beat, by tapping on a fish as it swims from right to left, it will turn red and begin recording when it hits the start of the loop at the right of the screen. The auto-cue ability is very useful, since you can tap a fish any time in the previous iteration and quickly move your hand back in time to play a lick or progression. This does mean that you can't create loops that operate in syncopation of different time signatures. It's also difficult to record sounds that must overlap the end and beginning of the loop, since Rec-Rec will not overdub at all. However, by tapping one fish, and then tapping another when the first enters the recording pass, you can continue recording, but at the cost of multiple tracks.

The time-shift feature is useful and a lot of fun, but it does have a few imperfections. First, the shift isn't very musical--although it's close to a half-step in pitch, the inaccuracies add up, and quickly become atonal. I'm pretty sure that the 200% and 50% shifts will remain in key, but it may be best to use this sparingly. Second, when recording, the speed will always revert back to its normal pace of 120bpm. You can't record something while shifted up or down, thus applying different pitch shifts to different tracks. This is too bad, because one of my favorite looping tricks on the Line 6 DL-4 is to shift the speed down, record a rhythm chord part at half-tempo, then shift it back into normal speed, leaving my chords sounding like a ukelele.

It goes without saying that all of this looping and recording is easier if you've got a clean patch into the DS through the mic jack. The sound is much cleaner. However, if you do run directly into the audio bus, you will need to split the signal--Rec-Rec only outputs the "wet" part of the loop. It doesn't pass what the mic hears, even when recording, probably to avoid feedback. It also drops the output signal while recording a track. You should probably be using an A/B box with Electroplankton anyway. I recommend using the Boss LS-2, an excellent pedal-based line mixer. Set it to "A+B Mix/Bypass" mode, feeding the DS from A Send and routing its output to A Return. You'll always get a clean instrument signal from the B Send or from the Output in bypassed mode, and you'll get the DS and instrument mixed while the pedal is on. You can also route another instrument into the B Return if two people want to play along, but the second person won't be able to record onto Rec-Rec. A second instrumentalist who triggers Rec-Rec while playing another DS (with Marine Snow, Beatnes, or Lumiloop) into B Return would really make for an interesting experience. With three DS systems (one on the LS-2 Input to Rec-Rec instead of an instrument), you could have a complete electronic band going.

November 29, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»class_and_race

Nintendo is the reddest sun in our hearts*

*a play on an old Maoist slogan.

Last year at some point I noted a particularly nice turn of phrase by the writer at Broken Saints: "This is the sound of four lines dropping." It's the kind of clever reference to Tetris that evokes both the concept (oh, how sweet it was to engineer those four-minus-one-block lines) and the peculiar honk of a Gameboy. You have to have a certain level of cultural penetration to make a reference like that. Most gamers probably get it, and according to Nielsen an increasing amount of non-fanatics are seeing games as a common cultural experience, similar to books, television, and movies (via Brinstar).

What nobody seems to be asking is: a common cultural experience for who? The Nielsen study conveniently breaks it down by gender and race, and tells us which groups have greater potential for video game purchases, conveniently sidestepping the class issue. See, with console prices going up even in the cheaper realm of handhelds (the DS is $5 to $10 more per game than the GBA, and don't get me started on the PSP), I'm beginning to wonder if this hobby isn't becoming a cultural experience for the rich, leaving the poor behind.

Most modern culture, at a basic level, has a cost of entry. You have to buy a TV to watch anything from Seinfeld to PBS. DVDs are extra money, and so are movie tickets. Libraries are basically free, but you have to pay transportation costs to get there. It's not fashionable to discuss the digital divide in this country, but (as I've pointed out before) minorities and the poor have far lower access to computers and the Internet--and my inner Socialist notes that those facilities in particular grant great opportunities for leaving poverty. The gap between rich and poor is wider as the technology grows more current and more powerful.

Can you be a member of the wider mainstream culture without taking part in these media artifacts? To some extent, yes. Having access to several information streams can even compensate for a lack in others: I don't watch much TV, but I catch up on shows I like via Netflix, or read about them at Television Without Pity. If you're missing too many streams, however, you may end up a bit culturally out of sync. I'd propose that being able to connect with your work cohort culturally at a certain level is a significant factor (among others) in advancement through white-collar employment. You need to have a common cultural ground to communicate with others, to understand their position, and to appeal to them.

In a country with a shrinking middle class, I worry about the non-material factors separating the rich from the poor. Videogames may not be a primary cultural experience yet, but they are increasingly useful as metaphors and as an introduction to other technological interfaces. In the same way that the expense of compilers and documentation creates a high proportion of White, upper-class software developers, a rising cost of videogames may begin to prune the population of gamers as well. If the more thoughtful community is really going to treat gaming as a cultural artifact, an art form, and a force for good, we need to pay attention to which audiences can afford that good--and which ones are being left out in the cold.

November 9, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»gender

The fixation on Erasmus isn't doing much for me either

Two weeks away from the keyboard while I was in France, and I got itchy fingers. It's still wearing off, so in the meantime I am feeling irresponsible, as the wise Green Day noted on their first album. And then, like a dachsund in the Iditarod, I ran smack into the snowbank of Chris Crawford's website and was irretrievably mired.

Because hey--really vague design documents are funny. But what's really hilarious is the overwrought musings he's tossed out on the response to his Escapist train wreck. And you know what? I thought my letter was pretty even-handed. After this, I feel like living up to his straw man and being cruel. Will this be productive? No. But since I left my old band, I've had too few letters to mock, and I feel like my chops might be aquiring a patina of disuse. What follows is Crawford's complete text (I won't be accused of misquoting)--but with value added through careful and ill-tempered snark! These economists must really be rubbing off on me. Before I start babbling about capacity-building and public sector governance, let's take a quick whirl through his fevered imagination:

I recently published an article in The Escapist Magazine on applying evolutionary psychology to the problem of designing games that women might enjoy. The article was pretty straightforward stuff -- nothing particularly odd or inflammatory. Nevertheless, the article triggered a freshet of criticism. There were plenty of admirers, of course, but there were also lots of people who took exception to my comments. "Took exception" is a bit of an understatement: they were considerably more forceful in their evaluation of the intellectual merits of my work. One commentator, for example, suggested that I should have a rusty spike rammed up my anus. I infer from this that the writer did not fully agree with everything in the article. Taken together, the commentators spanned the entire vocabulary of vitriol.

Let's all give Chris a hand, because that is a really fantastic first paragraph. No, seriously, take a bow. There's a little of everything here: tactless misstatement ("The article was pretty straightforward..."), pretension and arrogance ("There were plenty of admirers, of course..."), needlessly purple prose ("...a rusty spike rammed up my anus. I infer from this..."), and a total lack of contractions. He won't use any of the latter until the third paragraph, perhaps in an attempt to sound scholarly. His actual tone is reminiscent of a Heinlein novel--and not the good early books, but more the sexual fantasies Rob scribbled later on in life to distract from his terminal illness.

Is Chris lying at points here? Through his teeth, his hat, and possibly several feet of brick wall. We could give him the benefit of a doubt and assume that he really is simply this oblivious, but there's a repeated pattern of self-deception in his writing that makes me suspicious. Take his insistence that there was nothing particularly odd or inflammatory in the article. Even if we assumed that the article's thesis (girls don't play games because we don't let them enact 1950's stereotypes) was a) based on logic and reason, or b) not unbelievably insulting to women, Crawford's continued use of words like "twit" or "idiot" seem a little inflammatory to me. But then, I'm not a woman, and so I probably just lack the genetically-honed social skills to understand his subtle point.

While I am not unaccustomed to criticism, I was taken aback by the fury of their reactions. Why would people get so angry over a purely intellectual question? I probed several of them, trying to understand what was going on inside their heads, but all I got for my trouble was even more furious abuse. I felt like an animal shelter worker trying to calm a rabid dog.

I want to single this paragraph out, even though it is puny and otherwise unconvincing as an argument, because I think it's telling in regard to Crawford himself. In a theme repeated throughout his writing here and elsewhere, Crawford doesn't regard his critics as actual human beings. He refers to them in clinical terms, saying that he "probed several of them, trying to understand." Detractors are rabid dogs, and Chris is the animal control worker calming them down. The portrayal of enemies as the Other is not only condescending, it's a little sociopathic. The idea of Chris as a superior human among philosophical zombies will recur frequently, and makes you wonder if he hasn't been spending too much time applying pop psychology to simulated people.

Of course, the most abusive writers are quite young, reacting more from youthful foolishness than mature cognition. Their reactions were determined by testosterone and adrenaline, not serotonin and acetylcholine. I suppose that it's silly to give any consideration to the untamed verbiage they like to sling around; the intensity of the expression is only a symptom of their inarticulateness. They rely on flamboyant vitriol for the same reason that poor cooks overspice their dishes. As they say, on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog; it's also true that nobody knows that you're just a kid, and so these kids sling around nasty verbiage that they wouldn't dare use in the presence of adults. It must give them a real Oedipal buzz to verbally assault their seniors, and so we should not take their antics too seriously. Boys will be boys.

Chris--can I call you Chris? Chrissie? Craw-daddy? C-Dog?--I am duly impressed by your psychic powers. Through the magic of the Internet, and possibly a decoder ring that you found in the dumpster behind the 7-11, you have determined the age of anonymous writers! You might want to recalibrate your ouija board, though, because while some of us may be driven by testosterone and adrenaline many of your critics were female. Particularly the commenter at Old Grandma Hardcore who asked you to (what was it again?) "have a rusty spike rammed up [your] anus." She's not a dude, dude. And all those other commenters, with names like "Becky" and "natalie" or "nikki"--maybe they're all just the exceptions that you claim prove your rule, but it's starting to look a little shaky...

(In case you follow that link to the commenter, note Chris's utterly craven response when he learns that Tim, the site's author, is transgendered. "Anonymous, thanks for pointing out Tim's background, as it certainly explains the intense hostility." he writes. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Crawford also has some inoffensive opinions about the LGBT community--from an evolutionary standpoint, of course. Combined with a completely non-defensive article on how his hero Erasmus WASN'T TEH GAAY!, I'm starting to doubt that Chris should be making Oedipus jokes about anyone.)

Moreover, Crawford's disdain for the use of the vernacular and vitriolic--hang on, there's someone at the door. Oh, what a surprise: it's Mark Twain, Hunter Thompson, Dorothy Parker, Charles Bukowski, and the rest of the American literary tradition. They've come to take your language back, since they say you're not using the best parts of it. Come to think of it, even Shakespeare was a pretty filthy guy in his time--but then, Chris doesn't seem to understand that tricky "context" very well.

However, on the assumption that some of my assailants had to be adults, I came up with a number of hypotheses to explain how my piece infuriated them:

Don't make me wait!

1. Good, clear, non-mushmouthy writing is guaranteed to infuriate some people. The only way to please everybody is to keep your writing grey and muddy. "You can please all of the people some of the time", etc. Therefore I should accept the anger as an indication that I'm writing clearly. This seems especially justified in this case because the anger seemed evenly balanced between those who were outraged that I would make such extreme claims, and those who declared that I really didn't say anything new (But why then were they mad? Go figure).

Can't they both be true? Personally, I'm upset that he's just regurgitating the same outrageous claims about women as every other self-important amateur geneticist online.

You know, I don't think I wrote in a muddy or mushy fashion for my turn in the Escapist. I'm not thrilled with the way the article turned out, but it's not because I was too vague. In fact, I was writing about a similar hot-button issue (race), and I got only one letter in direct response--they were more upset about the fact that I even used the concept of race than anything I wrote about that concept. But perhaps that's because I, like many journalists, actually researched my topic and presented that evidence to the audience--mushiness, in other words. In the future, I'll be more clear about my views. I could just make up some evidence ("people don't like snakes, ergo racism," perhaps) and use that for support instead.

2. My writing is too subtle for some people to understand.

You have got to be kidding me.

For example, take this sentence from the article:

Unfortunately, the field is often attacked by dogmatic fools who think evolutionary psychology amounts to some kind of genetic determinism.

Some commentators claimed that I was labelling anybody who disagrees with me a dogmatic fool. They seemed to view the qualification presented in the relative clause as probabilistic rather than boolean. They infer that that the insult "dogmatic fools" applies with lesser force to people who don't quite satisfy the terms of the qualifying clause. This inference is, of course, an incorrect reading of the sentence.

Here we come up against one of the central problems of language usage: prescription versus description. Good language is whatever people take it to mean. I may be technically correct to insist that "arrogant" does not mean the same thing as "proud", but the fact is that most people consider the two words to be synonymous. So what am I to do? Write slovenly English that any Neanderthal can understand?

But the problem goes beyond style and to the very core of our thinking process. Consider the use of subjunctive mood. Some people have real problems understanding subjunctive statements, watering down the hard boolean logic into some sort of probabilistic statement. To alter the previous example, consider the statement, "If you think that evolutionary psychology amounts to some kind of genetic determinism, then you're a dogmatic fool." Some people are insulted by this statement, even if the subjunctive clause excludes them. They don't appreciate the "what if" aspect of subjunctivity, the fact that it addresses not what is, but what could be. We cannot abandon the use of subjunctive thinking merely because some people are too stupid to appreciate it.

It just so happens that I speak Spanish tolerably well, a language that actually uses its subjunctive tense, while its usage in English has atrophied considerably. So I'm not exactly a stranger to the idea. In contrast, Chris seems to have something else completely in mind. See, when you make a statement like "If X, then Y" in English, there's not an implied "maybe" before the Y unless you put it there. And I find it very strange that someone with even a passing familiarity with programming wouldn't understand the contradictions of boolean and probability. A boolean value is one that is True or False. So when readers interpret an If-then statement as true or false instead of some goofy "what if" that he's made up on the spot, how is that "watering down the hard boolean logic?"

I can't even read that without getting a headache. There are so many misconceptions of rhetorical theory, linguistics, logic, and human nature that the words should self-immolate. The problem is not that your critics have watered down your conditional statement, Chris, it's that they take offense at the condition itself. Referring to actual practice of clear, expressive writing (i.e., noting when a word might give the wrong impression to a reader who lacks your exact experiential background) as writing "slovenly English that any Neanderthal can understand" only underscores my point. Self-respecting Neanderthals would hide their thick-browed and hairy heads in shame if they had penned this essay.

By the way, that last sentence was a real subjunctive statement, expressing a desire or mood through "would-if" instead of the more concrete "if-then." Just in case you needed an example.

3. What I consider to be elegance in writing strikes some people as pretension. The culture seems to have developed a distaste for the use of advanced language. Anybody who writes with a vocabulary of more than 10,000 words must be pretentious.

I can understand how this feeling arises. We all use language as a social sorting mechanism. The vocabulary you use allows others to categorize you into some defined social group. Youth have their special cant that they rely on heavily to differentiate themselves. Academics festoon their writing with the jargon of their field so as to gain acceptance (and expose interlopers). Thus, when somebody uses elegant or educated language, they unavoidably set themselves apart as superior to the monsyllabic morons around them. And the morons reciprocate with anger at being exposed as such. Note that there need be no pretension on the part of the elegant writer -- it is the act of writing well that sets off the morons, regardless of the intentions of the writer. The elegant writer may indeed be pretentious -- I have certainly known people to retreat into in inky cloud of polysyllabic gobbledygook when challenged. I can't even vouch that I have never done so myself. But elegant writing does not prove pretension.

Indeed, the argument can be reversed. For example, one of my critics complained that I had used the word "belabor", suggesting this as an example of pretension. I suppose the critic's reasoning was that I used this word knowing that most normal people don't use it, hence I must have used it to show normal people that I'm superior. The counterargument is that, had I toned down the writing, confining myself to single-clause sentences with a tenth-grade vocabulary, then I would surely have been talking down to my audience (something I am often accused of anyway. *sigh* ) The truth of the matter is that I use an advanced vocabulary in order to sharpen my writing. I don't use "belabor" just because it's a high-falutin' word -- I use it because it expresses an idea that no other word in the English language expresses quite as well. On the question of how I think my vocabulary will be received, I figure that most people can recognize a great many more words than they use, and that most really will be able to figure out what "belabor" means, using the context and their own recollections. And if a reader doesn't recognize the word, then this would be an excellent stimulus to look it up. Everybody wins.

There's an ex-girlfriend of mine, sharp girl but spent too much time hanging out with autodidacts. When she writes, it's with an outpouring of vocabulary that's embarrassing, and it reminds me of Crawford. In fact, this point really bugs me, because I like words. I like using them, and I like knowing them. Yet there's a limit to the erudition that you should employ in clear writing--not necessarily because you're talking down to the audience, but also because flashy vocabulary is distracting. The best writers employ it sparingly, mixing in the occassional flowery term for effect. Reading a passage filled with rare--but precise!--terms is exhausting, and it treats the audience with disrespect. It implies that the author is desparately trying to impress readers.

I'm pretty sure that the critic using "belabor" as an example of pretension was probably noting Crawford's use of the word in yet another construction that denies anyone equal status with his planet-devouring intellect. I expect to hear any day that Crawford has Sublimed into a being of pure energy, since no-one is capable of matching wits with him. Yet "belabor" is hardly a high-falutin' word, nor is it even the low-hanging apple of Crawford's purple prose. After all, is "stimulus" really the word that best expresses his point at the end of the third paragraph? Wouldn't "incentive" or even the pedestrian "reason" get the job done without the needless connotations of high-school biology classes?

And now comes the fun part:

A special irony attends this mess I've gotten myself into: it's an exact replication of the trouble that Erasmus
Ha!
often got himself into with The Praise of Folly. In it, Erasmus poked fun at the follies of various groups. Of course, the groups he described were always qualified in such a way as to circumscribe their population to those were clearly were fools; that's part of what made it funny. But the precision of his rapier wit was lost on blunted minds, who reacted with a torrent of anger and abuse. Erasmus protested that he never singled out any person for criticism and always left room for any individual to exclude himself from the spotlight of Erasmus' derision, but it wasn't enough for the clods of his age. I ruefully acknowledge that I have failed to learn this important lesson from my personal hero.

Another deficiency I share with Erasmus is my thin skin. In both of us, it's really a consequence of a naive idealism that assumes that all people share a basic decency and reasonableness. I still find it difficult to dismiss these vicious ravings with the observation that the writers are beneath consideration. So when one of them observes that I should have a rusty spike rammed up my anus, my sense of fairness requires me to give the proposition due consideration -- perhaps I really am such an evil person that I deserve that punishment. I end up rejecting the proposition, but it still takes an emotional toll.

A moment of silence for the deep introspection Chris has just shared with us. Oh! The emotional toll it has taken! Why, he may never jot down another poorly-considered article again!

We have truly lost a visionary. Yes, just like his hero Erasmus (who finally gets name-checked, as if Crawford hasn't tried to label everything else within line of sight with him), Chris is too much a genius for his age. One must hope that, like Erasmus, Crawford will be obsessively seized upon by a future martyr-complexed sage for constant reflection. Only then can we realize that his attempts to dehumanize and denigrate his opponents were merely the sign of a naive idealism and not a combination of deep insecurity and rage.

So what is the conclusion of this meditation? After duly considering the outrage of this group of people, how am I to amend my ways? I have decided that I must be more careful to refrain from either unnecessary or insinuative slanders against people. For example, the example sentence that I offered earlier should have been written like so:

Unfortunately, the field is often attacked as some kind of genetic determinism.

This is a much better formulation, and had I written it as such, there would likely have been less inflammation of the blogosphere.

On the other hand, I shall not yield an inch on the matter of precise and elegant writing. I shall continue employing subjunctive mood, selecting the most precise word, and even resorting to the occasional foreign expression. To the morons who don't like that, I have a reply that even they can understand: go to hell.

You show us, Chris. Even the occasional foreign expression? Duibuqi, wo ting bu dong zhe ge waiguoren!

...why does anyone take this lunatic seriously, again?

November 3, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»gender

Women gamers are music to my ears

Nowadays I'm amused by the perpetual question of "where are all the women gamers?" As a musician who used to hang out in the Bass Player forums, every now and then the same basic thread would wind its way up. "Where are all the female bass players?"

Well, there's Sheryl Crow, for a start. Yow.

The real answer to the question always ended up being something along the lines of "if you weren't such a jerk, you'd probably see a lot more of them." There are plenty of female musicians of all stripes out there, at all levels. One of my personal influences, Clatter, is fronted by bassist Amy Humphrey. My friend Lee Flier, guitarist for Atlanta-based What The? comes highly recommended. And then there are people like The Great Kat, seen there in a terrifying Guitar Player interview. If speed metal had script kiddies, they'd be The Great Kat.

More importantly, all three of those are very different people, and react very differently to their situation as women musicians. Amy has been in grrl rock groups, but would rather be known as a bass player than a female. Lee, if I remember correctly, tends to feel the same way, possibly more strongly. In contrast, she's said that she passed on events featuring women rockers, because she doesn't really care for the issue. And the Great Kat is insane, but I'm pretty sure that the feminine dynamic in her work should be taken with a pretty strong dose of irony.

Man, it's almost as if they were distinct and complicated human beings, with their own thoughts and opinions, just like men. Perhaps something similar could be said about gaming. Maybe Josh is right after all.

And while I am guilty of firing off an angry e-mail in response to Chris Crawford's unfit-to-evolve editorial, it may help to step back and remember that there's a parallel in rock music for his kind as well. Believe it or not, serious people have tried to state that women just couldn't play rock music, because it required too much testosterone and aggression (anyone who thinks women aren't capable of aggression hasn't dated much). It was ridiculous then, and it's ridiculous now.

I mean, all I wanna do is have some fun, right? Nothing wrong with that from either gender.

November 2, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»gender

The Bell Curve comes to gaming

The following letter was sent to the editors of the Escapist in response to Chris Crawford's "Women in Games" from Issue 17.

Dear Editors,

If Mr. Crawford is interested in fighting what he's aptly described as people that "just don't get it," then more power to him. But frankly, attempting to address the problem of women in games by literally reverting back to the role of women in primordial times is counterproductive. Likewise, perhaps he shouldn't be advocating the use of bodice-ripping romance novels, a genre filled with restrictive gender roles and rape, as insight to the female mind. It's patronizing and insulting--not just to women, but to the men who are presumed only to be good at hunting and killing.

Moreover, as Harvard president Larry Summers found out when he also tried to base a speech on the dubious assertions of evolutionary psychology, the research isn't quite as supportive as he'd like to think. Isn't it suspicious that the field seems to unequivocally confirm the status quo and restrictive roles that feminism has been fighting for decades? At its best, real evolutionary biologists like P.Z. Myers (blogging at pharyngula.org) are doubtful of evolutionary psychology's conclusions. At its worst, EP is used to "confirm" the inferiority of women and minorities through deceptive statistics and blatant racism, as in Charles Murray's The Bell Curve.

I'd love to see more women playing games, the same that I'd like to see more female CEOs and female politicians. But the way to do it is not through stereotypes masquerading as dubious scientific research. As the Escapist noted in its Issue 12 article, Crawford hasn't designed or been responsible for a game in more than fifteen years now. If this is his idea of winning design, perhaps it's best that he stays out of the field altogether.

Sincerely,

Thomas Wilburn
www.milezero.org

P.S. Contrary to his example, there are plenty of people who do not immediately leap away from snakes, offering evidence that it is, in fact, a learned reaction. Children love to play with snakes, in my experience, and only fear them after being warned. I'd like to see his evidence for this point sourced. I'm not buying it.

October 20, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»class_and_race

Guns, Gangs, and Greed: Gaming's Hip-hop Diversity Gap

I've already gotten one letter from a reader over at The Escapist, so I guess it makes sense to open a discussion thread after all. Please feel free to use this space for comments. I'll try to check in, but since I'm in France the chances of any real meaningful discussion are, after all, pretty small. Keep it clean though, kids.

If you're visiting from The Escapist, you might want to take the time to look through the Gaming category, where (among other items) you'll find my belated series on integrating Electroplankton into a live music context, as well as thoughts for Corvus's Round Table and some other random reviews and perspectives. I happen to think my writing outside of the the video game context is also pretty keen, but it can cover a pretty broad range sometimes.

France is great. The food's wonderful, the people are perfectly willing to work around my bastardization of their language, and I finally found a charger for my PocketPC (HP loves their proprietary connectors) so I'll be able to do some serious writing. Maybe I'll post some travel notes after all.

September 1, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Composing with Electroplankton: Table of Contents

Finished chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Luminaria
  3. Beatnes
  4. The Mic Jack Hack
  5. Rec-Rec

Audio:

  1. Rec-Rec Amateur Hour Blues Jam

Coming soon:

  • Lumiloop, Tracy, and Nanocarp
  • Hanenbow
  • Legal Issues for Musicians (copyright, royalties, and sampling)
  • Interviews with other creators
  • Samples of Rec-Rec, Luminaria, and Hanenbow, accompanying the stylings of bass guitar.

Have any ideas for articles or questions about previous segments? Leave them in the comments, or send me an e-mail.

August 21, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Composing with Electroplankton, Part Three: Beatnes

In the second part of this series, I said I planned to contrast Beatnes and Rec-Rec against each other. I was overhasty to do so. Although both Electroplankton modes have a lot in common on the surface, their musical purposes are very different. As Kathy Griffin would say, let me walk you through it:

Beatnes
  • Both Beatnes and Rec-Rec boast preset drum patterns. However, as we'll see, they produce and manipulate those patterns in distinctly different ways.
  • Beatnes and Rec-Rec will both repeat the input that you give them, but they accept completely different kinds of input--one is a synth sequence, and the other is an analog recording.
  • Either plankton can provide a repeating, eight-count pattern of drums and user input. Yet as we will see below, Beatnes is perhaps most useful as a standalone instrument, while Rec-Rec can be used as a powerful backing looper.
Because of these differences, I'm going discuss these two separately. Since it's my personal belief that Rec-Rec is more powerful (and because proper exploitation of its abilities will require some hardware hacking), let's explore Beatnes first.

When you load up the plankton, you'll see what look like five floating kites against a blue/red background. Each of the plankton has a head, a tail, and eight segments in between. The head and tail play short sound bites from NES games. The middle eight segments are diatonic notes, starting with the lowest at the bottom (so for the key of C major, from bottom to top the segments would play C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C). The notes are the same across all five columns.

After a little chirp, the star music for Super Mario Bros. will begin playing. Pressing the select button will scroll the plankton offscreen, replacing them with a new set against a different colored background. Unfortunately, there is no "blank" background. Note that all the modes share the same loop length (8 beats), but have different sounds, key signatures, and beat patterns. In order of selection, here are some of their individual features:

  • Blue/Red (Mario): Set in the key of C major, the first Beatnes pattern is the invincibility powerup music from the original Super Mario Bros. It's a bit hard to use this one in a song, unless you're the Minibosses--your audience will immediately know the theme and the sounds. If you do decide to use it, the sound effects at the top and bottom are as follows:
    Coin Jump 1-Up Powerup Pipe Down
    Synth Note Segments
    Koopa Hit Fireball Block Hit Jump? Mario Damage

  • Black/Red (Metroid?): Unlike the others, this Beatnes theme is set to the key of A minor, which makes things a little more interesting. Also unlike the others, I can't really peg the sound effects for this one. If anyone can identify them for me, send me a note or leave a comment and I'll update it. I also understand that this mode may actually be Kid Icarus.

  • Red/Yellow (Duck Hunt): The Duck Hunt Beatnes is set to the key of C major, and contains the following sound effects. Again, these are pretty familiar to anyone who owned an NES (most of America, I'm sure).
    Coin Laughing Dog Shot Hit Duck Flight
    Synth Note Segments
    Notes Up Notes Down Missed Explosion Score Chime

  • Blue/Grey (Robot): The Robot theme is creepy, with several voice samples (in quotation marks). It might be good if you were a square dance caller. The segments produce notes in the key of C major.
    "Left" Score chime "Up" Arpeggio Up "Right"
    Synth Note Segments
    "Open" Item chime "Down" Arpeggio Down "Close"
So for each of these themes, you're given a background drum-and-synth line, and the ability to play short sequences on each of the plankton, which will then repeat. However, the five plankton have a Memento-esque memory problem: whatever you tap into them within the eight-count loop will be repeated four times, and then it will vanish. You can have multiple sequences going at one time, to create harmonies and different melodic or percussion parts, but anything you play will fade after four repeats. This makes Beatnes a little unsuitable for easy background accompaniment--you'd have to keep keying in your bassline or chords over and over again.

Like Luminaria, Beatnes will quantize your sequences for you to the nearest 16th or 32nd note, so that nothing will be off-rhythm. Between the waving motion of the segments and the automatic quantize approach, however, the notes may sometimes trigger a 16th after when you think you keyed them in. Because you can't stray from the tempo, they won't be too jarring, but it may add a little accidental swing to your lines. Luckily, you can alter the tempo of the Beatnes by pressing left and right on the d-pad. Altering the tempo does not change the pitch of the samples or sequences. Like all the Electroplankton, you can also pause the song by hitting Start (Iwai has cheekily labeled this "Intermission").

Between the two primary drawbacks of Beatnes (limited memory and preset drum patterns from familiar NES cartridges), it can be hard to integrate this into original music. Since you can't access the samples without the intrusive background sounds, you pretty much have to use these ridiculous drum patterns, even if you just want to use the synth functions. Depending on your audience, this will either make you the hippest girl or guy at the party, or you'll be accused of copyright infringement (more on that in a later installment).

The role I can best see Beatnes play is as an extra electronic instrument, perhaps played by a vocalist or multi-instrumentalist. The player would need to have an A/B switch handy, in order to match the Beatnes tempo to the song using in-ear monitors, much like a DJ. Once that's done, it could be used to build a nice cheesy synth solo. You could also use Beatnes as a portable synth band-in-a-box--but you're not going to get very much variety out of it, and it's unlikely that you could play it and sing/play another instrument at the same time. Although I originally thought Beatnes had a lot of potential as a jamming tool, I think the NES source ultimately limits it too much for use by aspiring electronic musicians.

August 18, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Composing with Electroplankton, Part Two - Luminaria

Luminaria pose an interesting problem for musicians compared to the other Electroplankton. First, they are the only exhibit with a definite beat but no way to change the tempo. Luminaria tunes must all run at the same speed. It's really too bad, because this is probably the busiest and most musical of the plankton types, and by far they are the most accessible. Luminaria are well suited to fill in background space, since they basically generate cyclical chord patterns in the key of Bb major.

Fig. 1
Any songs, therefore, built around Luminaria must accept those two limitations: you can't change the pace, and you can't change the key. Additionally, musicians should know that each of the plankton (there are four, one beginning in each corner and colored differently) has a separate voice and tempo.
  • Red: The red plankton is the fastest of the four, traveling to new grid nodes at a rate of 360 bpm (beats per minute). I generally think of it as the equivalent of a 16th note. Red sounds like a piano.
  • Yellow: Yellow travels at half the speed of Red, 180bpm or 8th notes. It sounds like a metallophone.
  • Green: Triggering every quarter note at 90bpm, Green sounds to me like a chime or a bell. There's a lot of treble to its sound, and it almost drops out in the lower registers.
  • Blue: As far as I can tell, Blue and Yellow use the same sound samples. This plankton also sounds like a metallophone, but it is the slowest of the four. In fact, it moves at 60bpm for a dotted quarter note sound, which means that Blue usually adds a bit of a shuffle to the rhythm. If it's started on the same beat as Yellow, they'll match up every three Yellow beats, which can be a very nice effect. When they're out of sync, it'll be much less driving, but there will be a lot more sound.
I'm not sure if Iwai used separate samples for each of the 36 nodes or if he's just running a pitch-shift on them, but you won't get a lot of bass out of Luminaria--odd, since the DS speakers themselves are very bassy (so much so that you can hear excessive treble through the headphones in games that don't compensate). The plankton become muddier and blend together near the bottom or top of the range, while any running through the middle rows of the grid will be much more defined. This can be very useful if you want to accent a certain sound, and if you have a lead pattern to generate you'll want to do it there.

Speaking of the grid, it's a 6 by 6 space composed of arrows, each aiming a plankton to one of the eight surrounding grid points. The arrows will wrap the screen on all four sides, so a plankton can exit left and enter right, for example. Arrows can be set manually by tapping on them, in which case they'll increment clockwise with each tap, or they can be set to spin automatically with the 16th notes by holding the stylus on them. The latter basically creates a random effect, but since the spin is regular (completing two full spins each measure) it can be predictable. You can use the randomness to sort the plankton across overlapping paths, since they'll hit it at different times, but since it is hard to time precisely, you won't necessarily know which plankton will end up on which path.

It's also possible to adjust the arrow pattern with the d-pad. Up and down will cycle through set patterns that may be useful, although they may change the time signature, since the paths change lowest common denominator. Left and right will align all the arrows in the same direction, starting pointed up. Arrows set to spin automatically will not change with the rest, but will keep on spinning. The arrows will remember their last aligned state shift and base their mass rotation on that, ignoring all other changes and set patterns made since the last left/right press.

As I've said, Luminaria are tuned to Bb (which makes them well suited for band and orchestral instruments, particularly clarinets and other woodwinds in the key of Bb or Eb). There are five octaves contained in the note grid, with the lowest in the upper left and highest in the lower right. They increase in pitch reading left to right, just like text. The following table details the pitch of each grid point. I've colored the starting points for each plankton.

Fig. 2
Bb C D Eb F G
A Bb C D Eb F
G A Bb C D Eb
F G A Bb C D
Eb F G A Bb C
D Eb F G A Bb

I should note that because of the locked rhythm, defined key, and easily-abused set patterns, Luminaria compositions will tend to sound very similar. Using manual, point-by-point settings will help avoid this tendency, as will active involvement in the paths for the plankton. Remember that you don't have to use all four at one time, and grid spaces can be occupied by multiple moving and stationary plankton--use the d-pad to shift arrows underneath the corners if necessary. Setting up new paths for the plankton manually before you start them off will also break up the monotony.

Next up in the series: I plan to explain the contrast between Rec-Rec and Beatnes for sequencing and drum patterns. I'd also like to talk about hard-to-use plankton, such as Tracy and Lumiloop, and their role as musical accents.

Future - Present - Past