Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Toontastic Animation Contest

Toontastic is a terrific iPad app that allows kids to make animated stories. It is currently only $0.99 at the iTunes App Store so it is a no brainer if you have an iPad plus a minimum of one child. We bought it when it was $2.99 and haven't regretted it one bit. I reviewed it a few months back here.

Anyhow, Toontastic are having a Summer Animation Contest asking kids to animate a favourite storybook. My 10 year old son immediately took up the challenge and animated The Giving Tree. You can see the result here. The amazing thing is that he did it from heart as we don't have the book itself here in the US.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cars 2

Cars was a good movie. I had to pop back to my review to remember that I thought that at the time. Pixar have been so successful that we rely on them to produce the best animated feature of the year. They may do so with Cars 2 but it will be with their worst ever movie. More disturbingly, it was a movie that did not at all justify a G-rating.

While Cars was a maverick needs a lesson in humility type tale, Cars 2 was a spy thriller in the mode of the Pink Panther. The main character switches from Lightning McQueen to Mater and as Mater is an innocent soul, there isn't much to work with in terms of character growth -- perhaps a little confidence although that is a stretch. Mater is a comical character but the movie fails in comedy. It is visually spectacular and the plot isn't awful and mostly makes some sense but what it lacks is 'investment.' You don't become invested in this movie the way Pixar normally does. And at almost 2 hours in length, that was a shame. It also meant that it wasn't that entertaining for the kids. I wonder if this is the first Pixar casualty of Steve Jobs' illness.

But strangely the movie was given a G-rating. It was not a G-rating. As my son pointed out it had both the suspense associated with death and death itself. It was gruesome. Cars -- admittedly bad guys -- were meeting terrible fates all over the place. Maybe because it was cars, it met some violence threshold. But really? Something was amiss here. There was also no reason for it. Let's face it, a cars spy thriller doesn't have to be 'realistic'.

The best part was the Toy Story short at the beginning. That was more like what we were expecting.

Pixar have had a strike. I guess it was coming. Hopefully, they can get back on track.

Summer Camps and Freakonomics

I drop up to New Hampshire today to deposit Child No.1 at summer camp. She had such a good time last year that this time around she will be away for 4 weeks. As with all pre-teens she was able to put on a good performance over the last week minimising our expectations of missing her.

Anyhow on our long drive, I selected some podcasts to listen to. Last year we had much success with This American Life's Summer Camp episode which actually was first aired before she was born. This year, I had saved up some of the old Freakonomics radio podcasts. Of course, the first we listened to was about the economics of parenting. Then this story came on:
We would go to the park and our child, this is our then-eldest child was probably around four, would invariably not want to leave. So, we would have this big song and dance about, we have to go now, you can’t keep on playing, she’d run off, you know it would be costly, let me put it that way. So what we did one day we were sitting there and she was doing it yet. Again and we said, you know, we keep threatening that we’ll just leave, why don’t we get in the car and just leave? And so we said, you know, you come or we’re going to go and we’re going to get in the car and drive off, and that is actually what we did in front of a full park, other parents as well, we had a screaming child running after us going, you know, no, don’t leave me, exactly to get that message across. Now, to be short, you know, while that might not have been obvious to the other parents standing there, I tell you, it was a tough thing for us to do, there was another family at the park that was going to at least watch out that she didn’t do something silly as a result of this like run on to the road or something like that. So, we weren’t totally crazy, but then again, we did drive off leaving our child thinking she’d been left behind.
She asked "which child was that?" "It was you." Suffice it to say, no lasting trauma there but also a prime on why she shouldn't miss us too much; not that she needs many more reasons.

Anyhow, she came out of it thinking that she would probably prefer Bryan Caplan as a parent (mostly for this):
People call them electronic babysitters as if it’s a bad thing. But babysitters are good, and nothing wrong with being electronic. So, I mean the idea that there’s some awful harm done when you’re children watch TV or play video games, there’s no evidence of that. 
This leads me to believe that Bryan Caplan, who wants to make more kids, should actually want to liberate more kids. That way he can export his cool parenting style without increasing population. Or maybe he should just open up a Summer Camp. It seems to me that that is where the people who like parenting end up. All to the good.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Is the player an artist? - Redux

In case you did not follow the comments on the last blog post with my views on the player as an artist, you might have missed that James Portnow from Extra Credits responded and he and I had a brief exchange. This discussion is now up on the Escapist in case anyone is interested in checking it out:

The articles has lot of interesting responses from the readers. I think I have already said what I have to say, so I will not discuss it further here. However, do feel free to continue the discussion in the comments!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Player - the artist?

In this week's Extra Credits it was argued that we should treat the player of a video game as an artist and co-author of the game. One major point was that other media can be said to be valid without an audience, but not so for videogames. In video games a player is needed for the work to fully come to life. The other point was that players have an artistic role in this co-operative creation and that understanding the feelings that drive an artist can be used to make better video games. You can watch the whole video here:

While I think that Extra Credits is an excellent show, I do not really agree with this. The hypothesis of player-is-artist sound quite plausible at first, but I think that if you take a closer look it does not really hold up. I also think that if we choose to design games with this mindset, we might be missing out on very important things that can be done in the medium.

Why an audience is crucial
Consider the information that a novel transfers to its audience. More than often a few words is all that is given as base for the reader to imagine a scene. It is assumed that the reader is able to fill out large informational gaps, make assumptions and to even retroactively dress earlier scenes as new information comes along. A novel also throws a lot non-trivial concepts at the audience. Just consider something simple as a person being labeled as "depressed". In order for the reader to understand the state of mind of this character, a personal knowledge in human behavior and psychology is necessary. The reader simply cannot understand literature without a certain amount of experience.

What I want to say with this is that books cannot be enjoyed in a void. They have to be processed by a human with a certain amount life experience in order to come alive. An alien would be completely unable to understand any literature even if it could decipher the language. There are just so many prerequisites needed that a deep study of humanity would necessary for full comprehension. And even then it might not be possible for the alien to understand; the very workings of our minds is probably crucial for a proper enjoyment of the work.

Further more, the mental image painted up in our mind is not merely an opinion-based interpretation of the written text. It is a full blown world, populated and maintained by ourselves. We are not just doing a trivial text to sensory input conversion when reading. We are doing an actual simulation, constantly adding and updating details based on the written words of the novel. The book helps us a long on the ride, but at the end the heavy work is done by the audience.

This mental construction work is not passive exercise either. We choose where to read, what to skim, where to put focus, if something should be skipped and so on. This is even more evident in other media. When watching a movie, interactions with other audience members can help shape the experience (a simple example would be laughing during funny moments). When listening to a piece of the music, the settings, our own movements, etc all change the way in which we experience the piece.

Enjoying a work of art is a very human experience and I argue that in this regard videogames are not different from other forms of media. What is so special about video games is that data flows in two directions and that the audience can help shape the output to an extent far beyond any other media. However, that does not mean that experiencing a videogame is totally different kind of activity.

Why players are not artists
Unless a game is incredibly linear (e.g. Dragon's Lair) everybody who play it will come away with their own personal experience. Because of this it is easy to imagine that videogames differ a lot from other media by essentially making the player a story-teller. And as being story-teller is essentially equal to being an artist, it leads to the conclusion that players are artists. I do not think this holds up though.

Consider doing a trek through the woods. Even if several people follow the same route in the same forest, each one will have with very different experiences. Some might take side-tracks, have some unique encounters, do the trekking at a different pace, etc. The possibilities are essentially endless. The person doing the journey shapes his/her experience in a unique way and has a big responsibility in how it all turns out. Still, this is not an artistic endeavor.

That is until the hiker decided to write, paint, talk, etc about the trek. Once a narrative, in whatever media, is created of the personal experience, an artistic process takes place. The art is not in living the journey, the art is in conveying it to other people; to create a work that expresses the very personal sensory input, actions and emotions evoked.

The same is true for videogames. Even though the player posses a great freedom in shaping their path through the virtual world, this does not equal the player to an artist. Likewise, even though readers of books create and simulate complex worlds, this does not make the reader into an artist. It is not until the personal experienced is expressed in some kind of medium, be that a written narrative of a game session or a painting from a scene in a novel, that art is made.

Sure there are videogames that give great opportunities for creating art, Minecraft being an good example. However, this artistic creation is a side thing and is not a requirement. The players can simply just let themselves be one with world, build a shelter, etc. It is not until the player simply sees the game as tool and foundation for their own work when the line between player and artist really blur.

With all this I am not saying that the activity of enjoying art is void of creativity. As explained when discussing how we read books, I made it quite clear that it takes a lot of effort to do it right. However, this does not mean that the act of reading a book is categorically equal to writing one. Instead it is more like the difference between solving a puzzle and creating the puzzle in the first place. Both activities are creative and challenging, yet quite different.

Why this matters
Why even have this discussion? Is it not just a silly debate over semantics? Well in part it is. But if we do not take care and use the words properly they will start to loose meaning. If we would say that the activity that players participate in during play is the same as artistic creation, then I think we simply stretch the concept of artistic endeavors too far, making far less usable.

A more important reason is that the way we see the relationship between players and videogames greatly shape the direction we choose we take the design of videogames. Even though video games have a very different voice from other media, we should not think of the activity of experiencing it as completely different. I fear that if we see players as storytellers and artists, we will miss out on a lot of opportunities at expanding the videogames medium. If the player is an artist, then our focus on game developers will be on creating brushes. This implies a bottom-up design, were short-term effects trump the bigger picture. If we want make games with a deeper meaning this is not the way to go. Instead we must focus on a higher level, something I think the player's role as outlined here greatly encourages.

Also, saying that the player is an artist and storyteller shift the burden in the wrong direction. If we grant the player a large artistic role, we make it easy to blame the player for any lack of meaning in a videogame and discourage the creators from trying to add it. A painting should not require a painter to enjoy it, a play should not require you to act for it to be engaging, and so forth. Like great works of art in other media a videogame can require a lot from the player. However, this does not mean it is up for the player to create meaning and depth, it should instead be there for the player to find and become immersed in.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Last weekend, Child No.1 and I went to Orlando Florida to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. It turns out that the HP part is in one of two parks there called "Islands of Adventure." It had more adventure than islands which was just fine.

We actually started out by going to other non-HP Universal park. This was the park based on movies and it was very similar to the one we visited in LA last year. The shining light of that park is The Simpson's ride. It is basically a short episode that starts in the queue and ends with one of those simulated roller coasters. It is just great -- true to the series without any gratuitous things. It demonstrates that rides need good writing and production. We did a ton of other rides including the now, getting old, ET ride and the Twister ride which was very cool (you got to kind of experience a tornado) but let's face it, was based on a movie that died 15 years ago.

But the main deal for us was the next day with Harry Potter. Because it was just the two of us, I splurged on the VIP experience so as to avoid all queues and make sure we saw everything. I wouldn't recommend this for families with young children but between the 12 year old and myself, it was well worth it. Basically, we had a guide for about 5 hours who took us past all lines and also through bits and pieces ordinary souls couldn't reach. That meant my daughter could ride the Hulk to her hearts content and I could sit in the shade and watch. It also meant we got to see behind the scenes at the Spiderman experience -- first going on a ride, then getting the inside tour and then going back for another ride to appreciate some of the technical details. For instance, the designers thumbed their noses at Orlando inspectors requiring an "Exit" sign in the ride with a "This is not an exit" sign hidden comically within. 

This park was apparently based on books rather than movies. So there was a Dr Seuss world that was very well done, plenty of comics -- including an entire 'Toon Lagon' devoted to comic strips that even I was too young for! I guess they are targeting the resident Florida demographics with that one. There was Jurassic Park although the ride seemed more movie than book based. And finally there was Harry Potter.

I would not say that Universal have gone all out with Harry Potter but, as these things go, it is best practice. They have recreated the village of Hogsmeade set below a clearly not to scale but impressive nonetheless, Hogwarts. Hogsmeade has the Three Broomsticks restaurant as well as the Hogshead bar where you can get yourself a butterbeer -- it's good but sweet. There is an overpriced candy store -- consistent with the monopolistic retail practices set in motion of JK Rowling. And there is Olivanders selling wands. Now as any self respecting fan will tell you, Olivanders is in Diagon Alley not Hogsmeade but there it was. You go into that and you get a little show and then they stiff you for some wands. Suffice it say, they do a roaring trade in wands converting what must be a $5 top cost toy at $40 a pop. They also outfit kids in robes which many of them wear for the remainder of their visit in the Florida heat -- thereby causing a virtuous Butterbeer payment cycle. We didn't go that route but my daughter, who always saves and never spends, cleared out her deposits with a ton of T-shirts, Quidditch equipment and a couple of wands. Which wand? The elder wand of course.

There are a couple of gratuitous roller-coasters based on Harry Potter. The best part of them are the queues which take you inside bits and pieces of Hogwarts. Of course, the best queue which we experienced at leisure rather than by waiting was for the main Harry Potter experience ride. That queue had a moving portrait gallery and Dumbledore's office. But it was the ride itself that was fantastic. It was another one of these immersive rides but where you sit with feet dangling apparently like riding a broom. Broom riding isn't smooth especially when you are chased by ever single villan in Harry Potter in the space of six minutes including pretty darn large spiders. But it was good and it would be one of those rides well worth the 90 minute usual wait. 

If there is a sad part to this, it is clear how much more they could do with Harry Potter to make it a bigger experience. For instance, really creating Hogwarts and other common scenes. But I guess it would just cost too much and they are getting as many visitors as they are going to get anyway. I suspect that when the crowds die down, some expansions may occur to get them back. For the moment, if you are going to DisneyWorld it is worth siphoning off one day to go to Harry Potter as well.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The sadness around a Tiger child

My son has a friend at school who for the better part of a year has been at the top of his list for playdates. But we have been told that this boy isn't allowed on playdates. We tried but his parents were adamant. When my son's birthday came around, we invited him to the party but he wasn't allowed to go to parties. This was important to our son but our efforts failed. 

I've seen this kid and my son together. They get along very well. He hangs around a little after school so they can spend a little more time together. A few minutes late getting home is something he doesn't get in trouble for; so we hope. I watched them today at an end-of-year in-class event. They are inseparable at least at school. A rare connection.

It is readily apparent that this kid is a Tiger child (and yes, he is of Asian decent but that it isn't something that exclusively defines this parenting style). He gets great grades and plays the violin exceptionally well. The whole Tiger parenting debate has focussed on various elements -- from self-esteem, to discipline, to free choice and then to social isolation. It is the multi-dimensional nature of this one dimensional term that makes it difficult to disentangle. Each parent is attracted or repelled by one or more dimensions. 

So how do you explain to your child why he can't see his friend outside of school? We tell him the truth: that it is a parenting choice of how they want their child to spend their time and efforts but one that we think is misguided; at least on the social dimension. But to him it doesn't add up. "So he can't play because he has to work? But why then does he get to see movies and do other things?" And he is right, it doesn't add up. And to those concerned, this kid is not a social misfit. At school, you wouldn't pick that he is isolated outside of it.

We tend to think of parenting choices as a private one impacting only upon the families concerned. In this particular instance it spreads beyond. My son is missing out on having a friend outside of school and when we move to Toronto the same factors will likely mean that he misses out on having a life long friend. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Long Freakonomics Parenting Show

The Freakonomics podcast, “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting” is out. It is an hour long tour of economists and their views on parenting. I'm there worrying people about the sanity of economists among other things. Suffice it to say, if readers of this blog were going to listen to one podcast this year, I am guessing that this would be it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Freakonomics Podcast: A First Taste

This week the Freakonomics podcast delves into fatherhood. They put in a bit from a longer interview with me that will be part of a longer special on the economics of parenting. You can listen to this initial one here. The theme of the podcast is lessons from fathers. My lesson was apparently about what you can learn through discipline. From that story you'll imagine that Father's Day may not be a big deal in our household. (And yes the story is absolutely true). But Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner contribute the main stories.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Franklin Park Zoo

The upcoming movie -- Zookeeper -- prompted us to finally visit Boston's Franklin Park Zoo where the movie is supposedly set. Now you would think that this type of thing would be a boon to a zoo. A major kids movie released all about talking animals in a zoo at your zoo. It would be time to roll out all stops, spruce it all up and prepare for the hoards. Alas, that was not the case and so begins this blog post which is designed to ward all and sundry away from this particular zoo. If you live in Boston or are visiting Boston and are thinking of making the Franklin Park Zoo a stop because you may see or (if you read this in a month or so) have seen this movie, don't.

The movie's premise is that the animals talk. But the fantasy is that the Franklin Park Zoo is anything like what is in the movie. It isn't. It is large enough to be sure but you can map the budget cuts. The first obvious cut is clearly in gardening. Very little attempt has been made there and the whole set-up in a mess. The next obvious cut is in the animal environment. There aren't any elephants that appear to feature prominently in the movie. And many of the habitats look depressing. There were zebras sitting there seemingly desperate for someone to let loose a lion into their area just for some excitement. But then if you look at the lions, it was pretty clear that in that event there would not be much excitement provided. Yes I know the whole zoo -- animals in cages and whatnot -- may never be appealing on lots of levels. But the more successful zoos at least make some attempt to ensure an illusion of contentment in the air. What else? Oh yes, don't eat anything. These attractions are pretty dodgy at the best of times but this one was far from what you want. 

But it wasn't all bad. For starters, there was ample parking and nothing was crowded. 

And there was a tropical pavilion that was quite good, if a bit old. The gorillas and monkeys were out and about and so that provided something you may not see everyday. There was also an 'Aussie Aviary' with a whole lot of budgies, some cockatoos and a kookaburra or two. Of course, as Australians know, that means you are mainly concerned about being pooped on. Then again, it was not like we were going to be eating soon.

To my mind, what was offensive is that nothing had been done to leverage the movie. The movie clearly is set in some different and more interesting zoo. But that shouldn't have stopped some marketing person at the actual Franklin Park Zoo from cashing in. Try to make it all look like the movie and lavish the park with movie references. Instead, there was the same small Kevin James poster on the light posts but that was it. No attempt to pretend animals were talking or anything. Here was opportunity to get a faded glory back on track and it was passing them by. And surely there was something coming from the use of the whole name in the movie? Where is all that going? A bad look for the actual Franklin Park Zoo is a bad look for the movie too. The complementarity runs both ways and so Hollywood would pay for the Zoo's poor showing. None of my kids wanted to see the movie anymore after visiting the zoo.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Straight A reward at DisneyWorld hotel

From GeekMom,
Walt Disney World’s Swan and Dolphin Hotels offer a little-known perk just for smart kids: The Straight A Club. 
Kids who show a straight A report card at check-in get a souvenir hat as well as a voucher for a free cup or cone of ice cream at the hotel’s ice cream parlor.
This makes some sense as there are likely quite a few kids who are getting DisneyWorld as a report card reward. I wonder if some enterprising hotel will offer a similar thing for kids who can prove they toilet trained

Next week, I'm taking Child No.1 to Harry Potter world in Orlando. That isn't a report card reward but some compensation because we are uprooting from Boston to Toronto. That is, it is literally a guilt trip.