Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why games are hard to explain.

Kotaku posted an article recently about how it's difficult explaining some games to people who aren't gamers. I constructed a comment in response to this, and I liked what I said, so I'm sharing it here.

The article can be found at  My response is as follows:

Everyone understands gameplay. Everyone understands story. Each of those is easy to understand by itself. That's why games such as Tetris, Mario, and Grand Theft Auto are so easy to talk about. Tetris has no story. Mario's can just be ignored. Grand Theft Auto's story can also just be ignored, like many 'sandbox' games.

When these two aspects become entwined, inseparable, things become difficult. It is like trying to explain a 3-dimensional world to a square (a-la the book Flatland). These two dimensions, gameplay and story, combine like two number lines to form a cartesian plane which is infinitely more complicated than the sum of its parts. Unless you play video games, explaining this two-dimensional space is difficult because most people have only experienced the two concepts separately.

Fallout and Bioshock are also unique in that the main character acts like a paint brush who paints upon the canvas that is the setting. Although they are major players in the story, they act out your wishes. You aren't observing their actions, you're controlling them. This complexity only exists because of the combination of interactivity and story that video games provide. It allows the players to see and feel the consequences of their actions, and gives video games a new layer of depth.

Finally, people expect video games stories to be stupid and infantile, but in reality they can express very complicated concepts. However, when you tell people "It's a game about the failure of Randian Objectivism", they are going to look at you like a baby with a briefcase, and you suddenly feel awkward.

It's not a problem with games, or the nomenclature associated with it. It's a problem in that other people just don't understand what modern video games are. On the surface, all they see is game, and it's what they expect. However, there is much more to it than that.

Congressman Drinking Bird

So I came up with this idea for a website, I call it, although the name is subject to change. The idea is that the website asks each visitor what state they are from, whether they identify as Republican or Democrat, and then asks polls their opinion on 10 or so topics that came before Congress, yea or nay. Then, Congressman Drinking Bird casts his votes on the topics by selecting at random, 50-50. Then, it will show how you, Congressman Drinking Bird, and the congressmen (and women) from your state voted. This would allow you to gauge how accurately your representatives are representing your interests.

Other polling topics are possible, such as gender. However, it is good to keep in mind that people don't like to spend much time answering stupid questions about themselves and can also find those questions intrusive and may be turned off by them. So it's good to keep the survey small, unobtrusive, but still giving you good information about the visitors.

Congressman Drinking Bird acts as a gauge of how good your representative is, because at 50% randomness, he should agree with you 5 out of 10 times. If your representative does worse than that, then their interests are clearly opposed to yours. So theoretically, Congressman Drinking Bird can win, and possibly represent you better than your congressman.

The site would keep statistics on how people voted on issues, on how well the congressmen represent their people, keep track of each congressman's win percentage against Congressman DB, and keep track on CDB's overall win percentage. The site would also provide a list, ranking each congressman by the average number of times they agree with a visitor from their state.

I have come up with a few monetization schemes for the site.

1. Congressmen can pay to have a link to their website from the results page. As in, when the site shows how your opinions compare with your congressman and CDB, their would be a link (possibly even a banner) next to your result that would point the user toward your page.

2. Groups can pay to have access to portions of the polling data.

3. People who are running for office can take a full survey of issues, and then when someone from that state comes to the site, it can show just how the candidates rate on the issues versus the other candidates/incumbents. Naturally, this service would cost money.

EDIT: It could also have a cute/funny animation with a caption that says "Congressman Drinking Bird is carefully weighing the issues."  Perhaps some webcomic artists could be troubled to add their look/skills to the design.

Pug Stories: Fail Tank

Sarah and I decided to play some WoW. So we got on out Rogue/Warlock team and decided to fly around turning in random things and queue for a dungeon. Simple, right?


We got into Sunken Temple, and the Pally tank had no idea where he was going. But did that stop him from pretending like he knew where he was going. He also wouldn't stop and turn around to the suggestion of the rest of the group. Only when the first healer dropped did he finally ask, but he kept fucking off anyway.

Also, while we were playing, I turned on the voice recorder app on my phone. You can hear me ramble and moan about this guy for quite some time. Here's the download link:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Math Textbooks are Stupid

I opened up the cover of a student's Algebra textbook when I was at Sylvan the other day and I flipped forward to the list of authors, plural. There were 8 authors of this textbook, as well as 2 contributing authors.  I read the description of the 8 authors and found myself outraged.  Of the 8 authors:

  • Most were college professors
  • One or Two were also Deans at Colleges
  • A couple were professors of education
  • Some were administrators at school districts or worked for state departments of education
  • Only two were described as being 'teachers'
  • And one of those teachers had founded a couple publishing companies since his retirement.
This disgusted me.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Email Conversation

From Sarah:
Subj: I am a hero

I stopped a man from stealing a soda.  I'm pretty sure that makes me some sort of hero.  A super hero even.  Either way, I'm awesome.

From Henry:
Subj: Re: I am a hero

you deserve a hero's dinner

From Sarah:
Subj: Re: I am a hero


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Summer Projects

Summer is nearly upon us, and I've decided that I should take upon myself some summer projects.  These will vary in scope and in discipline and will hopefully give me something to do while I'm not taking any classes.

Project the first:  Statistics Project
I don't know what the topic of the project will be, it's scope, or what.  But I feel that I should do some sort of statistics research this summer.  I could expand upon my WoW project, or the 'Cars of Little Rock' project that I did for last semester, or I could do something entirely new.

Project the second:  Finish/Update This

Project the third: Program a mathematical drawing program
The program would empower the user to create mathematically defined shapes/pictures.  Plotting points, connecting them with lines, drawing circles of defined radii, etc.  The program should automatically detect where lines and circles intercept each other, and allow the user to place a point there.

It's basically a program that I've wanted in the past, and I feel that I could program.  It would also do me well to help retain why programming skills.

Images should be exportable to either an image format, or offer a text interpretation that would be usable in TeX.

Project the fourth: A gaming marathon for charity
You see lots of people doing gaming marathons to collect donations for charity (specifically Child's Play).  I'd like to do one of these, but instead of playing several games from the same series.  I would play several 2D platformers from different series.  Some of the games could be newer releases, some of them older releases.  I think it could be really fun. 

Project the fifth: Viking RPG
After I saw "How to Train Your Dragon" I was inspired to create a simple RPG system that was suited around Vikings and Dragons.  Since having the original idea, it has deviated quite a bit from "How to Train Your Dragon," so thinking of it as being related to the movie isn't the best analogy.

  • Vikings
  • Dragons
  • d10 system
  • 4 classes
    • Defender - a brute force warrior.  Hearty, and skilled with shields.  Can even use them as weapons.  Has defensive and shield related magic.
    • Fighter - skilled with all manner and configuration of weapons.  Can use special attacks and buff type magic.
    • Archer - especially skilled with ranged weapons.  Can use special attacks and debuff type magic.
    • Mage - skilled in a wide array of magical abilities.  Most vulnerable when unprotected, but most deadly when left alone.
  • Stat/Combat System details
  • Spell details
  • etc.
 Project the sixh: Algebra Book
I've spent the better part of a few years now teaching Algebra to all types of people.  This one is a big maybe, but I might work on an Algebra book typeset in TeX.  None of this pretty pictures and fancy schmancy charts and graph stuff.  I feel that much of what they put in Algebra books these days is a distraction, and only serves to increase the cost and size of the books.

Project the seventh: Secure employment
Pretty straightforward. 

Project the eigth: Find some way to make money from the internet
Also self explanatory

I bet all of this could easily keep me busy.  I'll clearly not get all of it done, but it's nice to have goals.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Interviews With Hideous Men

Yesterday, Sarah and I watched "Interviews With Hideous Men," a movie based on a novel by David Foster Wallace. In it, the main character, a female grad student of Anthropology, interviews several men who have severe issues.

When the movie was over, we didn't really like it.  I felt unfulfilled, and Sarah said she didn't like it.  However, it stuck in my head, kept turning over and over, developing, fleshing out.  New revelations about the material and its presentation kept coming forth in my head. The movie eventually sparked a long discussion between Sarah and I where we discussed and analyzed various parts of the film. We talked about characters, their flaws, motivations, whether their actions were justified, etc.

Long story short, now I want to read the book.

How I failed and how I learn.

There are a few reasons why I do math.
  • I suck at memorization.  This makes science, history, and literature studies hard for me.
  • I'm very good at learning by doing.  I can remember a procedure very well after just doing it a few times.
  • I'm clever. I have been using my wits to work my way through math classes for the longest time. Why study when you can re-derive all of the things that you would need to know?
All of this concluded in the Differential Equations comprehensive exam (which I failed, again). The way that the professor that I took Advanced DE from tests is strictly about wrote memorization.  The test format is at follows:
  • define X out of these Y terms,
  • state what X out of these Y theorems are,
  • and prove X out of these Y theorems (findable in the book).
There are no 'problems' to work.  There are no original theorems to prove which would require the use of the student's intuition. This is the only math class that I have ever taken that has ever been this way, and it's very hard for me. Compound that with the fact that I hardly understood the material when I took the class 1.5 years ago, because of the teacher's accent and the natural abstruseness of the material, and you might be able to understand why I did poorly.