The Content and the Form

In 2000 a psychologist asked me which things in my life defined it’s Form, and which things it’s Content. The answer remains open and changing until the present day. What became clear to me today however is that the value of my life, and all that I could possibly pass on to others, do belong to the Content side, and that anything defining the Form had to stay subordinate to it. Merely was the Form a means to establish Content, and Content was always the goal, but never was Form.

Tsuchiura Hanabi 2012

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Katakana transcriptions

Japanese like to transcribe imported vocabulary using their Katakana syllabary, which comfortably maps all strange foreign phonemes to those native to the country’s language. Every country does that, one way or the other. And it makes sense for long term domestication of words, provided speakers of the original language are no longer expected to understand the meaning, which is given in most cases.
I was however shocked today when I saw Katakana transcriptions in a recently released English language self-teaching book, the editor a Japanese.
Fact is that Katakana-transcription is a non-injective mapping of phonemes, resulting in many transcriptions that spell the same even when the original words spelled and sounded quite different. Past tense here to indicate that it is a one-way street you can’t travel back safely. Classic example is a Japanese native proud of speaking English but failing to audibly distinguish between “to work” and “to walk”. This is not the persons fault but the teacher’s who suggested Katakana transcriptions are an adequate way to pick up original pronunciation. But it is still being suggested today in manuals that seem well-conceived otherwise.
How do you learn a foreign language the right way when your teacher tells you it is enough to speak it the Japanese way? Now, what’s the “right way” of course is a philosophical questions: How much adaption do you expect from your interlocutor, and how much are you ready to adapt yourself? And national pride may play a role when trying not to assimilate too much. But pride might wanna end when learning efforts go to waste.
Learning a foreign language is embracing a different culture, but half-hearted embracements always leave a funny aftertaste with me.

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Luigi, you are just a Marionette!

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Time-savers (Part 2)

[Addictive Recreation]
The argument of “value doesn’t depend on time” only holds when neglecting the recreational aspect of gaming. After an intense time of highly involved brain-work playing “Tetris” for some ten minutes can feel quite balancing to my cerebral functions. Many games can extend these relaxation periods to hours. I doubt though that the brain – or since the Wii even the body – would require that much re-balancing. Or that there is novel experience aplenty in those games. There is a point where continuous gaming gets the smell of addiction. I realize I passed this point when I wake up from gaming feeling sorry for the waste of time.

[Byte-sized Content]
Time matters for movies, as the attention span of average consumers is limited to about 2 hours. The attention span of consumers of video games in the past seems to have been considerably longer, but today’s crowd of casual gamers tells us that byte-sized game content might simply be better digestible for everybody. If anything, this “fashion” extends the medium with new expressive tools, the same way that a TV-show narrative profits from segmentation when developing characters over longer periods of time. I am not saying we should all start selling our games in episodes, but we could take advantage of these tools to convey whats on our mind to a wider audience; an FPS-mini game inside a 2D-browser game comes to mind ;). The key point here is that if we fret over the way the “new Core user” wants to play we should not devalue the experiences we want to convey by thinking about how much time we can make players spend with making them, The mere fact that in games “XP” is a numerical value hints towards an absence of actual experience.

[Serious Games]
If the “Experience/Time”-ratio were the actual value of a game, we would pay $50 for games like Braid, or even for Angry Birds, and $0.99 for “Avatar”. A serious high-value game IMHO is self-conscious and takes no more time than neccessary to convey it’s experience gracefully. Sometimes even a Haiku is enough.

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Time-savers are a popular means of monetization for Freemium games today. We, video-game “sommeliers”, may detest this mechanic because we see it as an inferior mechanism within the meritocracy that is a good game. Players who appreciate good games are there to play, not to wait. We can’t complain, of course, about time-savers in front of players that enjoy those games – waiting or not – since Freemium is what makes those games available for free in the first place. Many people enjoy them, regardless of waiting times, or even in anticipation of such: It suits the taste or schedule of many to play in little bytes distributed over the day. The same holds for tobacco by the way.

Simply a matter of  taste then? No, let’s dig deeper a bit: I would argue that Core gamers appreciate depth in games and therefore disregard the superficial game mechanics that “time-saving” Freemium games often come with. We want to dive into a game and enjoy the carefully authored rich experience in full, and here short sessions simply won’t do. We paid for the game in advance, to not be kept waiting or be teased into the next micro-purchase, we want it all, all-you-can-play! But then, who is saving whose time?

I often had the feeling of wasting time with gaming long before the advent of Freemium. I hoped for a game that, after a good session, would say: “Stop playing now for a while and do something useful to get some real life satisfaction”. I was surprised when it actually happened with “Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training” and indirectly in “Swords & Sworcery”. Most games however are still designed to keep you playing as long as possible, in order to establish a perception of value.

But what IS value in a game? The time I used up playing it? Surely not. It’s more the experience I had while at it. Of stomping my best friend’s troops into the dirt, of improving the life of hundreds of Sims by revamping city infrastructure, and also of being involved into a narrative. And rarely these experiences would require a lot of gaming time as such. “Braid” is a great example of how rich experience can be conveyed with limited assets, and no time-burning repetitiveness (like, say, a “Quake 4″). Coming back to Freemium games I conclude that their time-saver items are actually saving my time – if I don’t purchase them.

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