Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is there any point to preventing your child from being digitally recognised?

In Slate, Amy Webb proudly describes the fact that they have kept all pictures and information about their daughter offline. The reason is: option value. They want their daughter to choose her online identity.
She’ll have the opportunity to start cashing in parts of her digital identity, and we’ll ensure that she’s making informed decisions about what’s appropriate to reveal about herself, and to whom.
This is in contrast to a friend of theirs who posted all manner of pictures of their daughter online thereby "essentially robbing her of a digital adulthood that’s free of bias and presupposition."

As regular readers know, this is an issue I have long been concerned about. Unlike many other parent bloggers, I have not posted recognisable pictures of my children to this blog and not used their names. I had the same idea as Webb that I would give them options to control their identity. I also thought this blog would be so famous that I needed, prior to my inevitable fame, to protect the kids. It is safe to say that the dire consequences of fame have not been forthcoming but at least I planned for it.

What is interesting to me is apparently how useless that has been. Child No.1 has pictures that identify her all over the place, mainly on Facebook. Now those aren't visible publicly (apart from a grainy profile image) and the only other ones that are clear were posted by her school. Google Images reveals that those ones contain her but you would have to work out who she was from a crowd. And what is the best way to do that? You look at which of those kids look the most like me. 

Somewhat surprisingly, Child No.2 only appears in a cartoon created form which only looks like him to people who know him. But the clearest picture of them all is of Child No.3. A single Google Image that we have no idea how it got there. But it is her and it comes up with a search for her name.  

Webb talks about being able to choose the age that her child is old enough to choose her online identity. But what age is that? Child No.1 has done that by age 12. We try to educate her on such matters but when you see what her friends are doing, it is hard to image that anyone knows what the consequences of these things are to make an informed decision. Giving her the option of control is all well and good but you can't imagine that there is a magic day whereby you relinquish parental responsibility. 

Moreover, the horrors Webb describes of facial recognition seem strange.
That poses some obvious challenges for Kate’s future self. It’s hard enough to get through puberty. Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates? If Kate’s mother writes about a negative parenting experience, could that affect her ability to get into a good college? We know that admissions counselors review Facebook profiles and a host of other websites and networks in order to make their decisions. 
There’s a more insidious problem, though, which will haunt Kate well into the adulthood. Myriad applications, websites, and wearable technologies are relying on face recognition today, and ubiquitous bio-identification is only just getting started. In 2011, a group of hackers built an app that let you scan faces and immediately display their names and basic biographical details, right there on your mobile phone. Already developers have made a working facial recognition API for Google Glass. While Google has forbidden official facial recognition apps, it can’t prevent unofficial apps from launching. There’s huge value in gaining real-time access to view detailed information the people with whom we interact.

But baby pictures are hardly going to matter there. You need to recognise the child as an adult and, moreover, the consequences of those pictures (like getting into college) are surely not going to be harm because of poor parental judgment. In the meantime, Webb cowers in secrecy and prevents any interaction with a broader social community on parental sharing. Facebook provides that opportunity and, as far as I can tell, there is little leakage from that interaction.

In any case, the protection from facial recognition is hopelessly naive. Skynet won't need pictures of her daughter if they have pictures of Webb. That should do the trick. So the cat is out of the bag.

What we are left with is common sense. You post pictures and try to keep them secure. You teach your children about what these things mean. And then you watch as they take the most ridiculous photos of themselves and post them to SnapChat so that their friends can view them for 10 seconds before they are automatically deleted. And you realise that the kids themselves have some ideas about how to manage this one.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What to expect from an expecting economist

It is not every day that a new book about parenting comes out from an academic economist. This time around, however, the book was not about parenting but pre-parenting. Emily Oster, a University of Chicago Booth School economics professor, became obsessed with the rules being laid down for her when she became pregnant; so much so that she decided to research them and now write a book about what she found. The book is called Expecting Better and I have to say that I picked it up with relish in the hope that I could start this review with "well, I was expecting better" but instead, I have to say, upon reading it cover-to-cover in a single sitting, "I was expecting worse."

Here is what I was expecting: a fairly dry review of the medical basis behind lots of pregnancy advice with a high degree of qualification that would really only be of interest to people while they or their spouse was pregnant. In other words, I didn't think it would be interesting to me as I was more than done with pregnancy but I did hope it was something I could recommend to the pregnant.

Instead, what was delivered (pun intended) was quite a personal account. Here is the story of a woman who finds herself completely at sea and out of control in what is most likely the major transformational event of her life. She receives a raft of rules set down by convention and medical dictate that have the immediate effect of making her life worse and more stressful. And so to cope she does what surely many have done before her and asks, why? 

The problem most people face when they ask "why" is that they are not equipped to wade into the medical literature and sort something useful out. There is a raft of terminology, a myriad of journals (if you can get access to them) and then there is the methodology behind the studies. Oster believes that it was her training as an economist that gave her the skills to take on the challenge of answering the why question but, in fact, she was much more than that. Oster is a health economist and one who has already delved deep into the medical literature for her research. To do so again for this task was, in fact, quite natural. Indeed, as I'll come to in a bit, Oster has received huge amounts of criticism for her findings, many of which claimed she had no right to write this book as an economist. However, when you look at her research, that charge is completely unfair. Compared to some of us who make pronouncements on things outside of their economic expertise, Oster was close to her core speciality here.

But it was the style of this book that gives it power. It is a narrative of Oster's own pregnancy with her first child and takes us through those stages. But along the way she explains to the reader statistics, the importance of distributional assumptions, selection bias, correlation versus causation, and decision theory. While the subject matter is special, the explanations are first rate. A great example is the chapter on prenatal screening and testing. This involves the decision to undertake noninvasive and invasive tests for chromosome disorders in your baby. This is actually a situation where parents have some discretion over what to do. But Oster convincingly takes the reader through the real probabilistic calculations (including conditional probability) in a very accessible way. That entire chapter would surely be one of the great cases to give to MBA students. I only wish we had thought about half of the issues there when making our decisions 15 years ago on this issue.

Not all information was as hard to parse as prenatal screening and when it is easy, Oster is straightforward about it. Even so, she finds the underlying studies and presents them. There is hardly an issue from conception timing to choosing whether to induce that she does not touch on. To be sure, she skirts the entire subject of whether to prepare the baby's room prior to pregnancy and also whether her pre-birth house changes actually ended up making sense but, for the stuff where there is a medical literature, Oster is there. That said, she never touched on the issue of whether father's should deliver their own babies (as I ended up doing) but I suspect there just isn't a literature on that.

Inevitably, coverage of this book has been controversial. Not surprisingly, her publishers put out extracts, not on whether gardening is a good idea or even whether to take anti-nausea medication (although one wonder's what Oster's mother-in-law thought of the chapter title "Nausea and My Mother-in-law"!) but instead that it was OK to drink alcohol and have coffee in moderation. This flies in the face of the general blanket advice and also the cultural lore on pregnancy. And before Oster, millions of mothers have forgone much for the "good of the baby" and surely had built a mindset that it was all worth it. Here, Oster was saying that maybe it wasn't worth it and, it was hardly surprising, that this was seen as an affront; the sort of affront that can get you many one-star Amazon reviews from people who clearly had not read the book.

I can sympathise with that. I've been there. I mean, I suggested that parents should think about themselves when getting a baby to sleep. How dare I!

There is, however, a deeper issue here. I know many people who like to understand where blanket rules come from and to decide for themselves. This is hardly surprising as academic economists constantly are asking why and challenging one size fits all approaches. However, there are also people who prefer to be told what to do, especially when it comes to medical issues of which there are possibly consequences. Do you really want to have personal responsibility for issues when you can leave it in the hands of professionals? After all, when it comes down to it, in no place did Oster give advice that it was OK to decide what to do when the baby's health was at risk. Whenever that happened she unambiguously advised against breaking conventional norms. Instead, what she does is reduce the set of rules that you have to obey. For some people, being given discretion may not give them satisfaction.

This book is not for them. It is for, I guess, those on the more neurotic side of parenting who want to know what is going on. Oster serves them well. She takes her own angst and has generated a public good that may actually go along way towards making people's pregnancies easier, more understandable and less stressful. We could have used this book 15 years ago and my spouse would have had more sushi as a result. 

But I couldn't help but think what is coming. Oster is a parent now and if you think the advice is ambiguous prior to birth that is nothing compared to what it is post-birth. I can only imagine Oster is devouring those studies and will in a year or so produce the next volume in the series. For me, that involved a more rigorous application of economic theory than books on parenting had ever done. However, I look forward to the data on those issues being neatly synthesised. It will be doubly interesting because Oster's parents, both academic economists, did the same thing using Oster as a three year old subject; finding that baby babbling in a crib was actually coherent. Actually, make that triply interesting, as Oster's husband, economist Jessie Shapiro, will likely be a stronger part of that (he was kind of hands-off during pregnancy) and has already, as pointed out on page 1 of Expecting Better, delved into controversial parenting subjects in his own research. I definitely have high expectations for that work now.

Monday, August 19, 2013

5 Core Elements Of Interactive Storytelling

Over the past few years I have had a growing feeling that videogame storytelling is not what it could be. And the core issue is not in the writing, themes, characters or anything like that; instead, the main problem is with the overall delivery. There is always something that hinders me from truly feeling like I am playing a story. After pondering this on and off for quite some time I have come up with a list of five elements that I think are crucial to get the best kind of interactive narrative.

The following is my personal view on the subject, and is much more of a manifesto than an attempt at a rigorous scientific theory. That said, I do not think these are just some flimsy rules or the summary of a niche aesthetic. I truly believe that this is the best foundational framework to progress videogame storytelling and a summary of what most people would like out of an interactive narrative.

Also, it's important to note that all of the elements below are needed. Drop one and the narrative experience will suffer.

With that out of the way, here goes:

1) Focus on Storytelling
This is a really simple point: the game must be, from the ground up, designed to tell a story. It must not be a game about puzzles, stacking gems or shooting moving targets. The game can contain all of these features, but they cannot be the core focus of the experience. The reason for the game to exist must be the wish to immerse the player inside a narrative; no other feature must take precedence over this.

The reason for this is pretty self-evident. A game that intends to deliver the best possible storytelling must of course focus on this. Several of the problems outlined below directly stem from this element not being taken seriously enough.

A key aspect to this element is that the story must be somewhat tangible. It must contain characters and settings that can be identified with and there must be some sort of drama. The game's narrative cannot be extremely abstract, too simplistic or lack any interesting, story-related, happenings.

2) Most of the time is spent playing
Videogames are an interactive medium and therefore the bulk of the experience must involve some form of interaction. The core of the game should not be about reading or watching cutscenes, it should be about playing. This does not mean that there needs to be continual interaction; there is still room for downtime and it might even be crucial to not be playing constantly.

The above sounds pretty basic, almost a fundamental part of game design, but it is not that obvious. A common "wisdom" in game design is that choice is king, which Sid Meier's quote "a game is a series of interesting choices" neatly encapsulate. However, I do not think this holds true at all for interactive storytelling. If choices were all that mattered, choose your own adventure books should be the ultimate interaction fiction - they are not. Most celebrated and narrative-focused videogames does not even have any story-related choices at all (The Last of Us is a recent example). Given this, is interaction really that important?

It sure is, but not for making choices. My view is that the main point of interaction in storytelling is to create a sense of presence, the feeling of being inside the game's world. In order to achieve this, there needs to be a steady flow of  active play. If the player remains inactive for longer periods, they will distance themselves from the experience. This is especially true during sections when players feel they ought to be in control. The game must always strive to maintain and strengthen experience of "being there".

3) Interactions must make narrative sense
In order to claim that the player is immersed in a narrative, their actions must be somehow connected to the important happenings. The gameplay must not be of irrelevant, or even marginal, value to the story. There are two major reasons for this.

First, players must feel as though they are an active part of the story and not just an observer. If none of the important story moments include agency from the player, they become passive participants. If the gameplay is all about matching gems then it does not matter if players spends 99% of their time interacting; they are not part of any important happenings and their actions are thus irrelevant. Gameplay must be foundational to the narrative, not just a side activity while waiting for the next cutscene.

Second, players must be able to understand their role from their actions. If the player is supposed to be a detective, then this must be evident from the gameplay. A game that requires cutscenes or similar to explain the player's part has failed to tell its story properly.

4) No repetitive actions
The core engagement from many games come from mastering a system. The longer time players spend with the game, the better they become at it. In order for this process to work, the player's actions must be repeated over and over. But repetition is not something we want in a well formed story. Instead we want activities to only last as long as the pacing requires. The players are not playing to become good at some mechanics, they are playing to be part of an engrossing story. When an activity has played out its role, a game that wants to do proper storytelling must move on.

Another problem with repetition is that it breaks down the player's imagination. Other media rely on the audience's mind to fill out the blanks for a lot of the story's occurrences. Movies and novels are vague enough to support these kinds of personal interpretations. But if the same actions are repeated over and over, the room for imagination becomes a lot slimmer. Players lose much of the ability to fill gaps and instead get a mechanical view of the narrative.

This does not mean that the core mechanics must constantly change, it just means that there must be variation on how they are used. Both Limbo and Braid are great examples of this. The basic gameplay can be learned in a minute, but the games still provide constant variation throughout the experience.

5) No major progression blocks
In order to keep players inside a narrative, their focus must constantly be on the story happenings. This does not rule out challenges, but it needs to be made sure that an obstacle never consumes all focus. It must be remembered that the players are playing in order to experience a story. If they get stuck at some point, focus fade away from the story, and is instead put on simply progressing. In turn, this leads to the unraveling of the game's underlying mechanics and for players to try and optimize systems. Both of these are problems that can seriously degrade the narrative experience.

There are three common culprits for this: complex or obscure puzzles, mastery-demanding sections and maze-like environments. All of these are common in games and make it really easy for players to get stuck. Either by not being sure what to do next, or by not having the skills required to continue. Puzzles, mazes and skill-based challenges are not banned, but it is imperative to make sure that they do not hamper the experience. If some section is pulling players away from the story, it needs to go.

Games that do this
These five elements all sound pretty obvious. When writing the above I often felt I was pointing out things that were already widespread knowledge. But despite this, very few games incorporate all of the above. This is quite astonishing when you think about it. The elements by themselves are quite common, but the combination of all is incredibly rare.

The best case for games of pure storytelling seems to be visual novels. But these all fail at element 2; they simply are not very interactive in nature and the player is mostly just a reader. They often also fails at element 3 as they do not give the player much actions related to the story (most are simply played out in a passive manner).

Action games like Last of Us and Bioshock infinite all fail on elements 4 and 5 (repetition and progression blocks). For larger portions of the game they often do not meet the requirements of element 3 (story related actions) either. It is also frequently the case that much of the story content is delivered in long cutscenes, which means that some do not even manage to fulfill element 2 (that most of the game is played). RPG:s do not fare much better as they often contain very repetitive elements. They often also have way too much downtime because of lengthy cutscenes and dialogue.

Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead comes close to feeling like an interactive narrative, but fall flat at element 2. These games are basically just films with interactions slapped on to them. While interaction plays an integral part in the experience it cannot be said to be a driving force. Also, apart from a few instances the gameplay is all about reacting, it does have have the sort of deliberate planning that other games do. This removes  a lot of the engagement that otherwise come naturally from videogames.

So what games do fulfill all of these elements? As the requirements of each element are not super specific, fulfillment depends on how one choose to evaluate. The one that I find comes closest is Thirty Flights of Loving, but it is slightly problematic because the narrative is so strange and fragmentary. Still, it is by far the game that comes closest to incorporating all elements. Another close one is To The Moon, but it relies way too much on dialog and cutscenes to meet the requirements. Gone Home is also pretty close to fulfilling the elements. However, your actions have little relevance to the core narrative and much of the game is spent reading rather than playing.

Whether one choose to see these games are fulfilling the requirements or not, I think they show the path forward. If we want to improve interactive storytelling, these are the sort of places to draw inspiration from. Also, I think it is quite telling that all of these games have gotten both critical and (as far as I know) commercial success. There is clearly a demand and appreciation for these sort of experiences.

Final Thoughts
It should be obvious, but I might as well say it: these elements say nothing of the quality of a game. One that meets none of the requirements can still be excellent, but it cannot claim to have fully playable, interactive storytelling as its main concern. Likewise, a game that fulfills all can still be crap. These elements just outline the foundation of a certain kind of experience. An experience that I think is almost non-existent in videogames today.

I hope that these five simple rules will be helpful for people to evaluate and structure their projects. The sort of videogames that can come out of this thinking is an open question as there is very little done so far. But the games that are close to having all these elements hint at a very wide range of experiences indeed. I have no doubts that this path will be very fruitful to explore.

  • Another important aspects of interaction that I left out is the ability to plan. I mention it a bit when discussing Walking Dead and Heavy Rain, but it is a worth digging into a little bit deeper. What we want from good gameplay interaction is not just that the player presses a lot of buttons. We want these actions to have some meaning for the future state of the game. When making an input players should be simulating in their minds how they see it turning out. Even if it just happens on a very short time span (eg "need to turn now to get a shot at the incoming asteroid") it makes all the difference as now the player has adapted the input in way that never happens in a purely reactionary game.
  • The question of what is deemed repetitive is quite interesting to discuss. For instance, a game like Dear Esther only has the player walking or looking, which does not offer much variety. But since the scenery is constantly changing, few would call the game repetitive. Some games can also offer really complex and varied range of actions, but if the player is tasked to perform these constantly in similar situations, they quickly gets repetitive. I think is fair to say that repetition is mostly an asset problem. Making a non-repetitive game using limited asset counts is probably not possible. This also means that a proper storytelling game is bound to be asset heavy.
  • Here are some other games that I feel are close to fulfilling all elements: The Path, Journey, Everyday the Same Dream, Dinner Date, Imortall and Kentucky Route Zero. Whether they succeed or not is a bit up to interpretation, as all are a bit borderline. Still all of these are well worth one's attention. This also concludes the list of all games I can think of that have, or at least are closing to having,  all five of these elements.

Here is some more information on how repetition and challenge destroy the imaginative parts of games and make them seem more mechanical.
This is a nice overview on how many storytelling games give the player no meaningful choices at all.
The Last of Us is the big storytelling game of 2013. Here is a collection of thoughts on what can be learned from it.
Visual Novels are not to be confused with Interactive Fiction, which is another name for text adventure games.

Thirty Flights of Loving
This game is played from start to finish and has a very interesting usages of scenes and cuts.

To The Moon
This is basically an rpg but with all of the fighting taken out. It is interesting how much emotion that can be gotten from simple pixel graphics.

Gone Home
This game is actually a bit similar to To The Moon in that it takes an established genre and cuts away anything not to do with telling a story. A narrative emerge by simply exploring an environment.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Advances (?) in data-driven parenting

I don't have a lot to say about two items that appeared today on data-driven parenting. Suffice it to say, they say more about the parents than the child. That said, how can I, as an academic economist, be adverse to gathering more data.

First, there is this article in Slate about obsessively keeping data on your child. The point is (a) you can do it and (b) it is nice to get to know your child. The classic quote:
It occurred to us that while our baby daughter couldn’t communicate directly beyond crying, we could have a deeply intimate, beneficial conversation with her through data. We realized that we could quantify and study her in an attempt to optimize all of her development.
It also has the point that the primary driver of parenting behaviour is the ability to judge over parents and this article has that in spades.

Second, and I am not making this up (click here) the New York Times reports on a new innovation to help data-driven parents out; a digital diaper. Apparently, the idea literally came to him:
“I was driving with my wife and daughter one day, when my wife asked if the baby had wet herself,” said Yaroslav Faybishenko, Pixie’s founder. “I realized she was sitting in data.”
And here it is:
In contrast to those things, the technology behind the diaper is relatively simple, and it owes as much to the quality of smartphone cameras as it does to clever chemistry. 
At the front of the diaper is a patch with several colored squares. Each square represents a different interaction with a protein, water content or bacteria, and changes color if it detects something is outside of normal parameters. There is also a neutral white square, to more easily check for color changes in the other squares. 
A smartphone app takes a picture and can make precise readings of the chemical data based on  color changes. The data is uploaded to a central location, where physicians can get information about how the child is doing and whether the baby needs further testing.
Suffice it to say, if you aren't doing this you aren't really data-driven. If course, if you are doing this, then good luck to you. My personal opinion is that even with this it is pretty hard to get data. In the future, we need a sensor in the diaper along with a bluetooth connection and we will get some results. It may also forecast the "rate of smell explosion" so that you can work out how urgently you need to change the diaper.

Anyhow, I have written about "data-driven" parenting before and probably will do so again.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Lemonade Stands and Entrepreneurship

This article in Slate appeared this morning and soon after an email pointing to it appeared in my inbox. The sender thought the article's author, , was just baiting me. They were right.

The article claims that having kids run a lemonade stand teaches them nothing about capitalism, entrepreneurship or, I guess, hard work. The evidence for this comes from a single experience from the writer's own children. 
My kids had a lemonade stand, and it didn’t look like any version of capitalism I’ve ever seen. If we really want our kids to learn how the modern American economy works, we’re going to have to take off the kid gloves.
Here is what happened. Her kids aged 4 and 6 wanted to set up a lemonade stand. With what appears to be a considerable amount of help from their father, they set up their stand and were charging 50 cents per glass. No explanation is given as to where they got that price point but as it turned out lemonade was only part of the product these kids were selling.

The kids then just started shouting out their ads onto the street. But it was the location that proved important. 
I suspect that location may have had more to do with their success than advertising. We set up the stand across the street from our house, in front of a community center with a park and heavily used basketball courts. On that busy corner, their lemonade sold out in less than half an hour. 
There was no explanation also given as to location choice. Again, I suspect there was no thought given to that, it was the parent's choice of convenience. 

But it turned out the sold out lemonade was no barrier to profits.
One woman stopped her car, rolled down the window, handed over a dollar, and then refused to take the plastic Solo cup offered to her. An older couple out for a stroll bought a round for three twentysomething strangers who were already on their way to the corner 7-Eleven to get change. The pitchers were empty by the time the three guys got back, but one of them handed my daughter three bucks anyway. And not a single person who bought lemonade from my children would take the change owed them.
And apparently with that, capitalism died. Lemberger claims that when their kids were obviously making money from a combination of cuteness and community, they then didn't get to learn the lessons of capitalism. But I have to ask, in what friggin' world did they not learn those lessons. They learned that they only have to stand outside a look cute and life will be a lot easier. And from the economics of the labour market this is pretty much borne out everywhere. Just check out this book by Dan Hamermesh, aptly titled Beauty Pays, if you want evidence of that.

This happens all of the time. We were once at a bakery buying bread. I was with my then 7 year old and 13 year old daughters. The baker then asked me: "She is so cute, can I give her a cookie?" She was talking to the 7 year old with dimples blaring. I said sure. The 13 year old then exclaimed, "you know I am right here!" I said, "I know. Cuteness wears off. Your time has passed." Now that is how you teach your kids about the harsh realities of capitalism.

In any case, Lemberger never really set out to teach his kids about capitalism or entrepreneurship. The only idea her kids had was to have lemonade stand. First, she doesn't appear to have let them set the price. That would require them to understand and pay for the costs of their business but there appeared to be a complete family endowed subsidy -- although in a Mitt Romney way that is pretty much how many entrepreneurs get started. Nonetheless, when my kids went to the streets, they set the price and, as it turned out, did it innovatively as well. There wasn't even a maths lesson there.

Second, the kids didn't choose location. This is the other dimension of entrepreneurial choice for the lemonade business. Worse than that, she knew that they had an easy location near a park. So it just wasn't going to be hard. The same applies to the time the stand was open. In other words, there was hardly any risk of failure here. Again, when my son took to the streets last year, location was the thing he had to consider.

Third, if your concern is that the kids were plying their wears for charity, then send them out to do it again. I am pretty sure, the cuteness factor will wear off if they are out there everyday. There was no return outing and Lemberger appeared reluctant to ever let it happen again. But it was doing it again and again that would teach them what was going on here. The problem with most kid-entrepreneurship is that it is once off. Real entrepreneurship is about sustainability but these kids were given no opportunity to work that out.

Finally, in the end, Lemberger, apparently disgusted at the lack of true capitalism, ended up taking the kids profits and donating it to charity. In what world would that teach them about capitalism? It might teach them about socialism. But in any case, as Lemberger found out, the kids actually didn't think of this at work at all. Despite having no profits, they wanted to do it again. But denied the opportunity to continue until it was out of their system, they even failed to get a lesson about over-consumption (that is, the law of diminishing marginal utility).

These days there are many opportunities for kids to learn about entrepreneurship. From the traditional lemonade stand to the new application development. But don't dress up a parenting activity as some broad statement about the world and how it has changed. That is what Lemberger did here and I suspect she was the one distressed that her kids had an easier road in life. The point here is that one of the key parenting choices is how to make that road a little harder when it is in your control. Lemberger has not exercised that choice and should be ignored.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Thoughts on The Last of Us

I have now finished playing The Last of Us and feel it has quite a few things worth discussing. Overall it is a great game and there is a lot that can be learnt from it. Especially noteworthy are the nerve wrecking encounters. When at its best they top even the ones in Resident Evil 4 (2005), which I think features some of the best action gameplay ever. It also manages to use just about every trick in the book to tell its story. It is a very solid package and masterfully crafted. At the same time, while wrapped in an emotional plot, it is really just a game about combat and part of, what I think is, a worrying trend in video game storytelling.

Before The Last of Us can be properly analyzed, we need to go back to the early days of the game industry. At the beginning of videogame history, games were just about doing a few simple actions over and over. These games did not have a recognizable story as such, but simply provided a rough context for the action.

In Asteroids (1979) the visuals consisted of simplistic line drawings, but in the mind of the players they controlled a spaceship blasting incoming chunks of rock. While this thin veneer of story was not really important for the game as such, it greatly enhanced the experience. This was clearly shown in early advertisements where the screenshots are small and concept art showing off this fantasy takes up most of the space.

For the remainder of this article I will refer to this extra high-level concept as the story layer. This essentially refers to any part that does not directly support the core gameplay but is there only there to add an extra sense of purpose and narrative. Important to note is that the gameplay can still incorporate parts of the game's story; all of the narrative experience does not reside in the story layer.

While these high level concepts were (and often still are) very simplistic, it is pretty clear that they are essential. There are very few games that do not share this quality and just go 100% abstract. Even a weird game like pacman has some form of story layer to it.

This slowly gave rise to storytelling in action games. Rudimentary plots were added, for instance a summary of the background story at the start, and this eventually expanded to cutscenes in between the levels. The extra story content was not connected to the gameplay as such but simply provided context and rewards. But while it did not directly influence the gameplay in any meaningful way, cutscenes and an explicit plot could still improve the feel of the game.

The biggest evolution in storytelling came from Another World (1991) where the story layer and gameplay fit almost flawlessly into one another. No longer were the narrative elements superficial, but instead carefully ingrained with the gameplay. Actions that were made in gameplay smoothly transitioned into a cutscene and vice versa. The interactive scenarios were also carefully designed in order to make sense in the games story. Despite this tight coupling, it is important to point out that the focus of all gameplay segments was still about challenge and "fun". The game contained a number of mechanics and each section tested the player's skill in one or more of these. While the non-interactive plot elements improved the experience, they were still not crucial. Were the story layer to be taken way, the gameplay sections would still work fine in their own right .

Another World was a ahead of its time and it took a lot of years before the rest of the industry got up to speed. But when it did, the idea to close the gap between the gameplay and the story layer really caught on. Earlier, the story layer had mostly been seen as an extra, but ultimately superfluous, feature. But it rose in prominence, and was seen as increasingly crucial. Along the way, a host of new ways to add a story layer emerged. The audio logs from System Shock (1994), in-game cutscene from Half Life (1998) and the omnipresent narrator from Portal (2007) are probably the most important ones. All of these provided tools to merge the two conflicting elements. Along the way, the complexity and maturity of the story layers increased as well.

Even though modern action games now come with a wide variety of stories, the basic format is still the same as in the early days. The player is given a narrow set of mechanics that needs to be skillfully used in order overcome the challenges provided. On top of this is an extra narrative wrapping, the story layer, that helps shape the experience into something more meaningful. This is a recipe that most recent high profile games use, including Dead Space (2008), Uncharted (2007), Tomb Raider (2013), Halo 4 (2012), Portal 2 (2011), Bioshock (2007), and many more.

Here is where The Last of Us comes in; it is the latest step in this evolution. It is probably also the game that, so far, managed marry the gameplay and the story layer most elegantly. This makes it into an emotional journey, but it is crucial to remember its pedigree. It is still an action game with an additional story layer.

Just like a number of recent games with narrative ambitions, e.g. Spec Ops (2012) and Hotline Miami (2012), it takes the gameplay as a starting point for the story. This is different from a game like Uncharted where the high concept came first. In Uncharted's case it was to replicate an Indiana Jones-like adventure movie. Because of this, the gameplay's need for constant bloodshed has a hard time fitting the happenings in the story layer. This caused a very noticeable discrepancy in the game's narrative, the so called "ludonarrative dissonance". The game's protagonist would slaughter hundreds of people and afterwards crack a joke and worry about his relationships. But in a game like Last Of Us, the violent gameplay is taken as a given and the whole world shaped accordingly. The game is set in a story where butchering hundreds of people makes sense, giving the holistic experience a strong feeling of consistency.

There are still a few problems between of the story layer and the gameplay, but on the whole the played narrative is quite coherent. It has been rightly celebrated for doing this, but few voices have been raised by the troubling development it is part of. If we agree that The Last of Us represent a high note of videogame storytelling, an example to follow, then our boundaries for telling stories are very narrow indeed.

The game has a lot in common with the recent Spec Ops: The Line. Both feature a dog-eat-dog world, takes place in the destroyed remains of a city, and have you play as violent and deranged characters with no qualms about butchering countless people. Both of these games have also been praised for their mature and intelligent storytelling. And sure, they both feature deep and nicely portrayed characters, but what it all really boils down to are neat ways to justify a lot of violence. If this represent the future of videogame storytelling, then we are doomed to play as broken, murderous protagonists living in worlds populated by antagonists.

When faced with the problem of reconciling a character like Uncharted's Nathan Drake with the massive violence, the proposed solution is simply to make the character better fit with the killing. I find this close to giving up on the problem altogether. In a way games like Uncharted are, despite their gameplay and story layer discrepancy, much more interesting as they try to be about something other than raw survival. Embracing that videogames is all about violence feels very cynical and uninspiring to me.

It is also crucial to keep in mind that the core gameplay has not changed much over the years. These games are still about doing a few actions over and over. When these actions do connect to the story, like they do in both Spec Ops and The Last of Us, it is not so much because they are proper narrative devices, but that the story has been shaped to fit with them. The repetitive action is still king, the need to have a massive body count is still a must. This is not bad as such, I thought Last of Us was a great action game. But, I have problems with it being seen as good interactive storytelling, it is really just good usage of the story layer. This might seem like play of words, but there is an important aspect to have in mind: Like games of the past, The Last of Us would have worked very well with its story layer removed.

When taking a closer look at The Last of Us, its action heritage is quite evident. It is very clear that at the core lies a straightforward game about looting, sneaking and killing enemies. Here are a couple of examples:
  • The goal of the player is always to go forward to a place highlighted early on. Once there, a cutscene takes over and reminds you of your next goal. It is basically a modern incarnation of the the ancient "walk left to right"-mechanic.
  • Every non-combat challenge of the game is a combination of a few simple elements: ladders, planks, pushable dumpsters, floating pallets and generators, all used in predictable and streamlined ways. This is typical of what you see in old actions games; there are a few well tested puzzle devices that gets reused throughout the game.
  • During gameplay, NPCs turn into combat objects and are streamlined to support the action above everything else. This is evident in how they do not affect your ability to sneak, can stand a lot more damage than the protagonist, have infinite ammo supplies, etc.
  • The game features plenty of looting and crafting which is just a revamp of what we have seen in Dead Space, Resident Evil 4, and many more. It is there to give the player something to do when going through the world and is used as a way to provide more variety to the combat. 
  • Environments where combat encounters occur are almost always crafted in such a way that it is possibly to know that a fight will ensue long before it actually happens. Strategically scattered bottles, carefully placed cover spots and early depots of ammo are among the things that hint that the game is now all about making sure the core mechanics of an encounter work.
There is more that can be pointed out here, but I think this is enough. The takeaway is that this is the core of the game; all of these elements are what sum up the game's underpinnings and what provides the central experience. I think it is an incredibly important point. Before we speak of the game as some highpoint in storytelling we must realize where it comes from - it is an old fashioned action game. And if we do not realize this, we will be stuck in a dead end, because there is not much in terms of storytelling that can be done with this. The Last of Us probably represent as far as you can go with stories that are based on this foundation.

This is when things get interesting. We can now see that the emotional narrative is not part of core gameplay, but comes from a totally different direction. Here The Last of Us has a lot that can be learned from and be inspired by.

First of all, the game uses just about every trick in the book to get the story across outside of the cutscenes. And not only that, pretty much every one of these elements has an excellent implementation:
  • Notes. The game feature scattered diaries, audio logs, manifests, letters and more, almost all of which have believable content and placement. They also have great length so they feel very fluent to pick up and read through. 
  • Overheard conversation. This can either come from hostiles in combat situations or from the characters in one of the few non-violent section with other people. They are effectively used both to convey the state of the world and to give more information about the characters.
  • In-game cutscenes. In a few areas, events takes place as you walk past them. For instance, at one location the military can be seen rounding up infected people. And if you go in for a closer look, the armed personnel act accordingly and push you away. This makes the scene feel alive instead of becoming some kind of carnival ride (as was the case Bioshock: Infinite (2013),  for instance). What I also think makes them work is that the game use these events sparingly and make sure they happen in appropriate places. For instance, in the above military scene it makes perfect sense why the player cannot get close to the civilians.
  • Artifacts. Various artifacts can be picked up that tell something about the world. These are things like maps, dog tags, photos, etc. All help to build up setting and are lot easier to fit in than notes (which easily feel contrived).
  • Protagonist and partner banter. As you walk through the environment there are conversations back and forth between the protagonist and his partner (for most of the game a teenage girl). This is also one of the few places where some of the responsibility is placed on the player. Once a conversation starts, the protagonist can be made to go off in whichever way; it is up to the player to act in a way that makes sense. Because of this a lot more and varied content can be put in these dialogs.
  • Graffiti and billboards. Here and there, texts are placed on the walls that help explain what has happened to a place or to just give some more texture to the environment. Survivors scratch words of warning, a settlement have lists rules and so forth.
  • Environments. The environments themselves is a great source of the storytelling. Abandoned homes, fortified warehouses, etc, all help to build up the world the game takes place in and tell the story of what has occurred.
None of these are new or revolutionary tricks, but they are put together really well and are never overused. It is so easy to just use one trick for everything, but Last of Us show restraint and use its devices where appropriate. Much of the time these devices work in tandem and that is when they really shine. A common example is walking around in a derelict building while the characters comment on the surroundings and notes found; this really increase the sense of presence and feeling of being inside a narrative. 

One has to have in mind that the world of Last of Us fits perfectly for the above devices, but there is no inherent problem with using them in just about any sort of story. Also noteworthy is that, apart from the overheard conversations, the narrative devices have very little connection to the core gameplay; they are all part of the story layer. It is incredible how many elements that make up this layer now. What began as a simple intro text or just a painted image is now a large collection of systems. While the story layer was once a fragile structure, merely having a supportive role, it is now so complex that is can pretty much stand on its own. In fact, that is just what it does a few times in The Last of Us. And it is now that we enter the really intriguing territory. We have now come to a point in the evolution of videogames where a once upon nonessential element has gotten enough substance to branch off and become something in its own right.

The best example of this is The Last of Us' opening. Here the player takes on the role as a young girl who finds herself home alone while it becomes increasingly apparent that something terrible is happening in the outside world. Just about all interactions here has something to do with the story and minor details like the girl's animations help set the scene. It features just about all the narrative devices mentioned above and uses them to tell the player a story through play. 

The opening is also a good showcase for how and when to use cutscenes. I normally see the goal with interactive storytelling is to let the player play from start to finish. However, in order to play certain parts properly you need to be in the right mood and have certain background information. The opening cutscene helps establish just that, and makes the gameplay so much more effective. While I still feel that cutscenes should be used sparingly, I am thinking more and more that it is wrong to dismiss them entirely. Many interactive scenes are not just possible to jump right in to, but require some kind of setup. Many times this setup is just not possible to play through, and needs to be carefully directed. In these cases a cutscene is required and lets the player play through a scenario that would not be possible otherwise. I think the main rule is just to make sure that the interactive part is where the engaging actions occur. The cutscene should not be the main attraction, it's role is merely to be there as support. It is also worth mentioning that the opening cutscene works so well because it happens at the start of the game; the player has not become used to being in charge yet and is much more willing to be passive.

The next great story layer sequence is the deer hunting scene. Here you are hunting a deer in order to get food. The first arrows are not enough to bring it down, so you need to find it again and take additional shots. As you are doing this, you will eventually figure out that the best way to find it again is to follow its tracks. Having hit it once the deer will also leave a trail of blood, making tracking easier. While following the wounded animal you will eventually find yourself right outside a previously unseen building, the deer lying dead nearby. By letting you track the deer, the game has managed to lead you into finding a new location all on your own. This transition is really awesome and great way to progress the story simply by playing.

One could argue that this scene use the combat system and therefore part of the core gameplay, but I argue that is not really correct. It does use some combat mechanics, but the scene itself contain none of the dynamics of an enemy encounter. Therefore I think it is okay to say that this is scene is almost purely part of the story layer.

The final sequence I want to discuss is the giraffe scene. Like the previous scene, it is quite simplistic but extremely effective. It starts with the protagonist's companion, the teenage girl Ellie, getting excited over something she has seen and then running off. This starts sets up a mystery, and gets the player curious over what it is she has spotted. She continues to run ahead of you, seeing the mystery object more times and getting increasingly excited. You run after her, but are never able to get a peek of what it is she is seeing. Finally you come to an opening and see that what she spotted is a herd of giraffes. It all ends with a serene scene as the couple watch the herd walk among a city block overtaken by trees. The build-up and final comes together very nicely.

Worth mentioning is that part of the power comes from all the hazards you have had to face earlier, but I do not see that as evidence that the core gameplay played an important part. These hazards could just as well have been made using other techniques.

The scenes I have described takes up a tiny part of the The Last of Us. Most of the game is about combat, looting and solving repetitive puzzles, elements that you are expected to find in a classical action game. But these sequences and a few others shows that there is much more to this medium than repeating a core gameplay mechanic. The truly poignant and yet fully playable moments of this game is a testament to this.

So when talking about how well The Last of Us does storytelling, it is not productive to discuss how consistently it manages to merge its gameplay and story layer. I hope to have shown that this is a dead end. What is important are the other things, the elements that used to be fluff but has now become a force to be reckoned with on its own. There is a lot to learn from The Last of Us, but it is important that we look in the right places. It might be an classical action game at heart, but also contain elements that show the way forward.

In case you are in need of more info on the game, wikipedia is a good place to start.
To get some more insight into the workings of Spec Ops: The Line, I recommend this Errant Signal Episode. It is an excellent overview of how the game uses its violence to send a message.
In case you enjoyed this critique of The Last of Us, you will probably also like my thoughts on Bioshock Infinite. There are a lot of similar topics discussed.

  • My history of videogames is a very quick and dirty overview. For instance some early games like Project Firestarter have some of the story integration seen in Another World, but I skipped those in order to make it a bit more clear. Also, many of these early games never really caught on and did not have nearly as much influence as the games I mention. I would have liked to do a more in depth article on the history of violence and storytelling in games, but not sure I will have the time in the near future, so this will have to do for now.
  • Once the story layer got more prominent the discussion about "story" versus gameplay started to grow. Many people thought that the extra story segment was really distracting and that games should only focus on the core gameplay instead. I cannot recall this discussion ever being about the incoherence between the two, but simply that the extra story elements were not very engaging. It took a lot longer for the idea to pop up that there was a sort of friction between the story layer and the gameplay.
    It was not until the story layer had grown quite a bit until the idea of "ludonarrative dissonance" was brought up. First coined by the Far Cry 2 (2008)  lead designer Cliff Hocking, the core issue that it address is that the storytelling layer and gameplay disagree with one another. This of course has always been the case, but in a game design equivalent of the uncanny valley, it did not become apparent until the gap was small enough. So while the problem is true, the whole idea is kind of a truism. The gameplay and story layer has always been separate elements, and are conflicting in their very nature. I am not really a big fan of the term, as I think it is a bit backwards way of thinking. If the goal is to do interactive storytelling, all is already lost once you start dividing gameplay and narrative into different categories.
  • As I played The Last of Us, it also hit me that sometimes cutscenes work best when you there is no need for interaction. First of all, it makes the project so much easier to manage. Scenes with extensive dialog often require quite a lot of preparation and if they are to be highly interactive, then there is a constant need for tweaking. If the interaction is very simple (like button mashing), or not present at all, then you can evaluate these bits of the game at a much earlier stage and save a lot of headache.
    It may also be good for the narrative if the player does not have anything to do during certain sections. In most cases a real life dialog is not a very active experience as many utterances come almost automatically. So not having much for the player to do might actually feel more natural. Also, if the player is forced to perform actions then it might detract their attention from what is being said. So instead of trying to make the dialogs highly interactive, it might be better to just make sure they are short and keep them free from gameplay.
    This is actually an approach that we are taking with our new Super Secret Project. We scrapped many of the more wild initial approaches because they were too hard to do and often made dialogs less engaging.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Economists arguing over child enrichment

The story: Economist 1 writes a piece "Defending the 1%." Economist 2 writes a blog post criticising that article on the basis of "equality of opportunity." Economist 1 returns fire noting that Economist 2 doesn't have kids and so at least on one point doesn't know what he is talking about.

So now the details. At the basis of some arguments defending income and wealth inequality is that the rich are getting what they deserve because of effort in at least exploiting their naturally endowed skills. The objection is that that outcome does not occur because there is inequality of opportunity and so the rich are getting more than they deserve because their parents were and are rich. A pretty simple and old story really.

What about going to the evidence? Economist 2 in the above is Paul Krugman and he displayed this graph. 

It shows what parents spend on enrichment activities for their children. You know, piano lessons, high quality child care, private school and summer camp. Krugman then writes:
Maybe all that spending is wasted — but I doubt it. We have become both a more unequal society and a society with more unequal opportunities.
Economist 1, Greg Mankiw, then countered:
I am a parent of three, and as far as I know, Paul does not have any children.  So I have probably spent a lot more on this category than he has.  And I can report that much of it is consumption, not investment.
A book I probably should have cited in my article is Judith Harris's The Nurture Assumption.  The main thesis of this great book is that, beyond genes, parents matter far less than most people think.  Raising three children has made me appreciate Harris's conclusion.  It is frustrating how little influence we parents have.
Since we are going mostly on experience, it is clear to me that Economist 1 is right here. My kids are just being packed off to summer camp and I know it is pure consumption. They are very happy and we are very happy to have a month off. That said, I am hoping one of them can come back with a marketable iPhone app.

I think it is a reasonable hypothesis that Economist 2 didn't know what he was talking about because (a) he didn't read the actual evidence which tips us that most of these expenditures do nothing and (b) he doesn't have kids. There are times where that matters.

But here is the thing: so frigging what? We are now going to move what some people thought of as investment into the consumption bundle. But consumption for whom. If it is consumption for the parents, then it is I guess part of the 'reward' for 'high effort' if you believe in that. But if it is consumption for the children, then it is just an early passing of the rich wealth to them. In other words, they are rich right now because their parents are rich. If the basis for defending the 1% is that the individual gets the reward because self-interest matters but you have to tweak this to the individual's dynasty getting the reward to make it hold together, then that seems to make Economist 2's point that there is inequality of opportunity for consumption at least. Either way, if the goal of all this discourse is to educate the public on the debate, we aren't quite getting anywhere with this one.