Donnerstag, 30. November 2017

A Glimpse of Games - An Introduction for the Curious

Image result for monument valley game art

Video games are just childish experiences to indulge the power fantasies of basement-dwelling teenagers. In some form or the other, this is a prejudice we as game developers have to contend with on a regular basis. It is unfortunate that a large part of my generation (and beyond) is still oblivious to the depth and cultural impact of what is now the world’s most consumed media. So many times I have found myself explaining the power and diversity of computer games, that I have decided to create an easily shareable summary post to hopefully bring this wonderful medium closer to friends who have yet to discover its joys.

To that end, I’ve gathered a small selection of titles that showcase what video games are capable of. None of these are selected for their quality of gameplay and design, visual splendour or sheer “fun value”. You also won't see any "core" games here. Instead I want to highlight games that stand out for the impact they leave on players, personal or otherwise.

Games are Art 

Although the European Union and other institutions have recognized video games as an art form, this sentiment is not necessarily present in public consciousness. This betrays the fact that video games and their surrounding culture have become the cutting edge of artistic expression in an increasingly established palette of traditional art forms. This is true both in makeshift game hangouts such as Bar SK in Melbourne as it is in more established institutions such as New York’s MOMA or London’s Barbican, all of which recognize interactive and playful media as a new frontier of human artistic expression. The fact that many contemporary critics loudly proclaim that video games cannot be art only cements their status in a long tradition of past artistic movements.

Personally, I have always defined art as a creation that provoked my thought, taught me something new, surprised me with unique execution or simply had the power to make me feel a certain way. Do video games meet this definition? You’ll be the judge.

Games will make you feel

When all you see is tabloid newspaper headlines, one would be forgiven for thinking computer games are all violent killing sprees bound to raise a society of homicidal sociopaths.
Games that strike subtler, more personal tones get significantly less limelight, in the same way that a French arthouse film rarely garners the same publicity as the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Make no mistake though: the following are considered masterpieces within the gaming community and have touched the lives of thousands of people within it and beyond.

That Dragon, Cancer (multiple platforms, including phones)

That Dragon, Cancer was created to help developer Ryan Green cope with the death of his one year old son Joel. It is a deeply intimate, moving experience that will leave you speechless and in tears.

Papo y Yo (PC and Console)

Another game hewn from the designer’s personal experience, Papo y Yo puts you in the shoes of a young Brazilian boy, escaping his alcoholic and violent father. Veiled in dreams and symbolism, Papo y Yo is an unconventional exploration of abusive family relationships.

Gangbeasts (PC and Console)

It’s not all sophistication and gloom. While film comedies can certainly make you laugh, there is a special joy of input to output that is only reserved for interactive media. Gangbeasts, despite its martial name, encompasses this unadulterated feeling of mischievous delight best experienced with (or in this case, on) fellow human beings. Players wrestle each other with barely controllable jelly creatures for dominance of high places. Impossible to understand until you do it with your bare hands.

Games will provoke your thought

Watching someone do is not the same as being the one who does. The psychological effect of having to make actual decisions in a moral dilemma will have you questioning yourself instead of simply a protagonist. 

This War of Mine (Multiple platforms and phones)

Putting you into the shoes of group of civilians in an Eastern European warzone, This War of Mine is a game of survival and tough choices. When players have to choose between their starving friends and the food supplies of their elderly neighbours, the interactive nature of the games medium exacerbates moral conundrums like no other.

Papers, please (PC and iOS)

Stamping papers at a border crossing may not exactly sound like an exciting proposition for a game. If, however, you ever wanted to experience the total despair and sociopathic machinery of a bureaucratic Soviet dictatorship first hand, this is your game. It might not look like much, but its moral depth and the questions it leaves you with are well worth putting up with its (intentionally) dreary visuals.

Bury me, my Love (iOS and Android)

What is it like to be a refugee? We will (hopefully) never truly know, but relaying you an approximate experience based on real accounts is likely as close as we will get. The added effect of interacting with the characters on your phone in real time adds to (cloer to hokme)

Games offer unique experiences

You could argue that all the above could be achieved, at least to some degree, in film or other media. Where games rule supreme, however, is the creation of truly new experiences through unique modes of interaction.

Journey (Playstation exclusive)

Just like the studio’s predecessor Flower, Journey is a meditative and wordless experience. Being teamed up with a another human stranger from the internet, players share a spiritual pilgrimage to the top of a looming mountain, with no means of conveying more than the simplest information to each other. Zenlike and beautiful.

80 Days (iOS and Android)

What games add to traditional fiction is interactivity. The autonomy that comes with choosing your own fate in a story told by someone else is something that book and film cannot offer. 80 days isn’t the genre’s best writing, or its most visually pleasing. It is, however, quirky and entertaining, and most importantly, native to phones and hence easily digested. If you lust for more, you can find bigger and more graphically involved interactive fiction games in the appendix.

Minecraft (multiple platforms)

If you have children (or tech friends) you will probably have heard of Minecraft. It’s not only the second best selling video game of all time (with 122 million copies), but also has been used to make movies, virtual computers and has its own annual convention.
While some would argue that it is simply digital Lego, the key difference is you can live within the very world you have created. It is limitless creativity you can inhabit.

Games will teach you things

Often people think of games as mere entertainment, but the ever-growing application of games to a variety of problems from cancer research to better teaching methods shows their true potential. Games by their very nature engage people to partake, to explore and to feel good about a certain activity, making them ideal tools for learning or crowdsourcing of complex problems.

Kerbal Space Program (PC and Console)

Can accurate astrophysics be adorable? Kerbal Space Program certainly says so, and international space agencies agree. By trying to get the nascent space program of a bumbly alien race called Kerbals off the ground, players can understand and replicate actual space missions. Even Elon Musk approves!

Plague Inc. (iOS, Android, PC)

Have you ever wanted to be a disease and eradicate humanity down to the last person? In Plague Inc. you can, and take some key learnings about disease control and mutation with you. It’s a slow but oddly entertaining game – particularly when you manage to infect Greenland and Madagascar before they close their ports. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention considers it a good way of raising public awareness on public health issues.

Foldit + Play to Cure (multiple platforms including phones)

Instead of infecting humanity, how about curing real life diseases? Not many people associate computer games with the advancement of medicine and human wellbeing, but it’s exactly here where the engaging nature of games shines. When the university of Washington released a protein folding game in hopes of expediting its algorithmic research, it was met with 57000 enthusiastic players who significantly improved its research speed. Foldit does not stand alone, cancer-researching game Play to Cure, among others, has had similar success. The players are actually helping scientists spot patterns in gigabytes of genetic information from thousands of tumors. By finding the best route to pick up the most Element Alpha, players plot a course through genuine DNA microarray data. Players end up analyzing significant amounts of genetic data that would have taken scientists years to do.

Final Words

I hope this will give you some insight into how interesting, thought-provoking and powerful games are as artworks, immersive story devices and teaching tools. Maybe it even encouraged you to try a few of these yourself!
Finally, here are some further leads: reading tips, links and other games that were list contenders. Thank you for reading, and enjoy!


Further Reading

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal – a great little book about the power of games - a popular one of the many games charities - a review site for video games that teach science - one of the industry’s key outlets and discussion forums (if you want to dive deep)

Non-exhaustive list of contenders 

The list could be endless, and I’m sure you’ll find a favourite that isn’t on here. Some of these were repeatedly mentioned, so I've added them here. Feel free to recommend more in the comments!

Never Alone – A game funded by Inuit tribes to preserve their culture.
Facade - a AI based interactive experience featuring you visiting an awkward couple
Year Walk -  Swedes making a Horror game about forgotten Swedish traditions.
Papa Sangre – A game entire in audio, you are dead, there are no visuals
Her Story – solve crime fiction based on a set of witness videos…are they lying?
Last of Us – Probably the most traditional game on here. Famed for its emotional story.
Inside – A young boy trying to escape an Orwellian world of death. It’s like going to work.
Katamari Damacy – so you are a sticky glue ball trying to grow by sticking skyscrapers…on behalf of the disco king of the universe….okay, this can’t be explained. Just play it.
I am bread – Be a piece of limp sliced bread. For some of you, thin might be new.
Dear Esther – Wistful and haunting, dear Esther is interactive poetry on a barren island.
Firewatch – an acclaimed mystery adventure set in the surrounds of a firewatch station
Octodad – you are an octopus trying to pass of as a normal human dad. What could go wrong?
Loco Roco – the designer’s mission was to “create happiness”. Mission accomplished.
Doki Doki Literature Club – what if you were dating a sentient AI?
Monument Valley - A beautiful phone puzzle game that would make M.C. Escher proud

Sonntag, 19. April 2015

The Travelogue, Part XLIV: New Zealand - Aotearoa

When you start writing, whether it be articles, books or humble blogs such as this, you always hope that somehow you will convey some unique experience, some special insight to your readers. Unfortunately, unless you are among the most gifted, imaginative or intrepid of writers, the fulfillment of this desire is actually a rare occurrence. By a stroke of luck and hospitality, however, I feel I can for once actually speak of an experience that is indeed rare and unique.

My awesome guide Adria in front of the Whangara Marae

Most of this adventure I owe to my friend Adria and her family, who kindly invited me to join the family reunion festivities of her native tribe, the Ngati Porou of New Zealand's northeastern-most coast, a location made famous by the film Whale Rider, which gained international acclaim. Occasions like these are normally off limits to most non-Maori, and unless you have close friends or become family, even most New Zealanders will never have this experience. It has challenged a lot of my conceptions about not just Maori or tribal culture, but about my native European cultural traditions as well.


 First of all, contrary to frequent Western belief, being Maori is not tied to ethnicity. The only requirement to be considered Maori is to be able to trace your lineage back to a Maori ancestor. Spouses and children of Maori partners are automatically Maori as they are now connected to the ever-expanding web of Maori ancestry, and are subject to the same benefits and duties any other family member would. And it's quite a sizeable family you got yourself there!

The festivities span four generations, here are the Kaumatua

Maori concepts of family are quite different from Western ones. Including only your close relatives under the 'family' umbrella is positively offensive to Maori sentiments. Every single member of your iwi (tribal nation) is family and treated with the same care and appreciation. To exemplify this, if any number of your tribe rocked up on your doorstep at 4 am you would be expected to give them food and a sleeping place as long as they liked to. These are essentially complete strangers (although a Maori would not see it that way), possibly linked to you only by some great-great-great grandfather you've heard a story about once in your life. While this might seem unsettling to anyone growing up in a northern culture, it creates a massive web of support and mutual assistance that spans the whole globe and has been key to the survival of Maori culture.


Paikea, the founder of the Ngati Porou arrived to NZ on whale

Understandably a culture with such intense ties to its members holds ancestry in high regard. While ancestors are obviously important to most cultures to some degree, Maori culture revolves around it to a measure I have not seen anywhere else. The very first thing that two newly meeting Maori will do is to trace their ancestry line back to a common junction to establish familiarity. As you can imagine, this requires solid knowledge not only of your immediate family, but also lots of distant and sometimes ancient relatives who precede your parents by many generations, all the way up to the mythical gods Tane and Tangaroa. As a consequence, remembering your ancestors is a fundamental part of Maori culture and permeates life both as casual accounts in daily life and hour-long storytelling at the big gatherings on the marae (meeting place).

The inside of the Wharenui communal house

In these accounts, the mundane and the mythical blend into one, and tales of grandfather's farm work are treated with the same sincerity as those of Tawhirimatea who gave Flounders and Hammerheads their shape by hitting them with a paddle. No difference is made between the living and the dead either, and Maori can be seen on the graveyard happily chatting with their dead relatives over a pint of beer. This familial web that transcends both space and time creates a sense of belonging and partnership among the Maori community that is admirable, and probably the only thing that carried it through decades of mistreatment and broken promises by the colonial government.

Carved ancestors protect the walls of the Wharenui

A living culture


Part of the initial greetings queue. Yes, you have to greet everyone!

Most New Zealanders and certainly almost all visitors experience Maori culture as entirely ceremonial in nature. Maori cultural performances abound, and Maori culture has entered the public consciousness mostly in the form of tribal tattoos and haka-dancing rugby players. While this surely helped raising awareness to an endangered culture, it belies the fact that Maori culture permeates everyday life of its members in the way they think, act or understand concepts. From the definition of family and the way elders are treated to the role of story, song and dance in the culture, Maoridom is a bona fide different way of thinking about the world, and it is a shame that it is only the most flashy parts ever reach the surface of New Zealand's cultural landscape and identity.

Stories are told throughout the day

Being Maori means subscribing to the familial web, and putting yourself second. It's a concept fundamentally different to Western individualism, and requires a commitment to the common good that most people growing up in western culture would not be willing to muster. Because the web stretches beyond your immediate surroundings and time, maintaining the mana, or prestige, of your family line is an important driver in Maori interactions. If you want stories about yourself be told and  your family integrity upheld, you will need to leave your mark in Maori history. So strong is this system of honour, that many of the Maori I asked said they would choose their iwi's needs over their own, and Maori cultural identity over that of that of a New Zealander. That might sound intense, but you don't become a carved guardian tipuna in your family's wharenui (communal longhouse) by just sitting around. Outstanding individuals can even become legends within their life-time, and such elders are respected and cared for with unquestioning commitment, whereas they are readily signed off and sent to old people's homes in many Western countries.

The centerpiece of Maori culture is the marae, the central meeting place of an individual's ancestral homeland. Your standing among the many tribes, your genealogy and your eternal home is tied irrevocably to this place, and regardless of your deeds and whereabouts cannot be denied to you. Hence Maori society knows no exclusion, and regardless of your failures in life you can always return to your marae and expect to be helped and be taken care off. Mind though that despite that forgiveness, Maori culture is rough, and your return to your hapu (sub-tribe) upon serious behavior failures will not be an easy ride. To say that Maori social interaction is straightforward would probably an understatement - and I'm German!

Song and Dance


 As most of their tradition revolves around ancestors and tribal integrity, Maori art and culture mainly seems to serve the purpose of recounting the life and deeds of its ancestors. As a result, Maori culture fosters showmanship and storytelling which makes family reunions a lot more fun. I was positively impressed by the amount of creative horsepower that was put into the remembrance of those gone before you. Songs are sung, ancient lives acted out in performances, and the many carved tipuna ancestor statues are explained. Haka, by many people perceived purely as war dances, are also a popular expression form chosen for such occasions.

In fact, Maori culture centers heavily around singing, which is used to welcome guests, express support for public speakers (if after you speak the singers are silent, you have a problem) or praise the singer's ancestral home. Each marae has its own song, extolling the beauty of its surroundings and the mana of its tribe. Considering that Maori culture is traditionally associated with cannibalism and ceaseless warfare, that's a lot of happy singing and dancing.

A difficult future


Maori food for special occasions is cooked in a Hangi, a impromptu earth oven

It is only due to the unyielding dedication of a few individuals and the support of their tribe that Maori culture still lives on today, and in fact experiences some kind of revival. Maori language is taught in schools, and the extensive history of the people preserved outside the oral tradition. Maori are still a far cry from being accepted as part of New Zealand's culture on an equal basis, but inroads are clearly made. My personal impression is, however, that not New Zealand's pakeha (white New Zealander) government but rather the demands of a globalized society are the biggest threat to the existence of Maori culture. As it is very much tied to the land, Maori tribes and marae cannot be formed outside the traditional locations on the New Zealand land mass. Tribe members, however, are scattered across the globe and rarely have the opportunity to visit their far-flung homeland. Many of them are already so disconnected from their identity that they cannot even trace their ancestry back to New Zealand. The Tikanga (tribal laws) are thankfully very fluid, and maybe they will allow future generations of Maori to connect with their identity outside of Ao Tearoa, so that its beauty will not be lost.

I'm genuinely grateful that I got to experience an actual live tribal culture from the inside. Maori culture is engaging (if potentially socially taxing) and succinctly different enough from Western ways of life to have given me a new perspective on a variety of ideas I considered a given. I sincerely hope it thrives, and becomes a strong part of New Zealand's cultural identity on par with that of its pakeha newcomers.

I would like to thank Adria's family, the Ngati Konohi Hapu for their hospitality, their helpful explanations and their patience with my inquisitiveness.



To anyone interested in Maori culture, here are some bits to get you started.

Whale Rider - the story of a young girl who wants to become chief of her tribe

Once were Warriors - a drama about the struggles of impoverished Maori

The Dead Lands - a pre-colonial Maori war movie, fresh from this year (2015)

Freitag, 10. April 2015

The Travelogue, Part XLIII: Fiji - Namu Levu!

 With its main islands named Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, the unassuming obsever might assume that Namu Levu is just one of the many Fijian islands, one that struck me with its particular beauty or remoteness. It might conjure up images of lone coconut palms softly swinging in the soft breeze across a turquoise-coloured bay. It is, however, in fact Fijian for 'lots of mosquitos'. For some reason Fiji's resident vampiric insect population took such a liking to me that the Indonesian jungle seemed like the perfect place to have a naked dusk snooze in hindsight.

Now that that's out of the way, what's to say about Fiji? Originally In wasn't meant to travel here, merely to sit on the veranda of my Fijian friend's newly built house and drink copious amounts of Kava while I watch the tide carry the surfers out and the coconuts home. Unfortunately said friend had to leave for New Zealand, and I was left with no plans. From a travel perspective, Fiji is a resort destination. If you just want to lounge for two weeks on a proprietory beach and have burgers and beer, Fiji will embrace you with open arms. If you are looking to travel and experience all the beauty it has to offer, however, without plans you will struggle. Because falling into the resort trek is so easy here, it's hard to get both information and determination to venture into the less accessible areas of the country.

If you consider coming to Fiji for anything but just chilling out in a heavily curated package holiday experience, I suggest you either a) go and live there for a while or b) have pretty solid plans of what you want to see and how to get there on time and budget. While that sounds like pretty general travel advice, I found it particularly hard to get to the (non-beach) sweet spots in Fiji.

Fijians are fishing experts, finding marine life even in 5 inches of water

Having said that, a lot of the attraction lies in its bountiful marine life, which offers amazing fauna both to divers and simple tidal walkers. If you have never done the latter, I encourage you do venture out to the reef when the tide is low - chances are you will see just as much if not more interesting animal life in the tidal pools than in a dive.

Sea snakes can be seen as close as as few meters from the beach.

Mosquitos aside, it's easy to imagine to retire here, and many do. This is made partially possible by Fijian labour being incredibly cheap, with an average builder earning a meager 3 FJD (1£) an hour. When one is bunkered up in a orchid-studded white sand beach resort it's easy to forget that Fiji is a third-world country with high income inequality and its fair share of social problems.
Fijian Breakfast is flour balls cooked in coconut milk

Fijians, like most Polynesians tend to be strong-framed

All in all, Fiji is a wonderful place. Its slow pace, stunning nature and lack of hassle makes it one of the most relaxing places I have ever been to. It is, however, so relaxing and easy that doing anything else becomes a lot harder, and if you don't want to spend all your time in a pretty but plastic Bula resort I suggest you do solid research.

Donnerstag, 5. März 2015

The Travelogue, Part XLII - Australia: Conclusion

I didn’t originally come to evaluate Australia for its tourism value, but since I kind of got sucked into it, so I guess I might as well. As usual don't take anything too seriously. All pictures are mine this time round.




Australians will tell you that Melbourne is Australia’s most European city. I think what they mean to say is: it’s the least like a Queensland bush town. Because a suburban sprawl with little to no centre is probably as un-European as it gets. They might also allude to the fact that it has something akin to good public transport, which is apparently quite European. It is also called it the cultural capital of Australia, when truth be told it doesn’t have much more (public) culture going on than Sydney.
If I was to label Melbourne I’d call it the big hipster country town. It’s sort of a mixture of Portland and Berlin, designed by a 90s architect who wanted to raise kids. If you ever wanted to live in a pretty city that always felt smaller than it was, Melbourne is the spot.

Favourite thing: chill in the Royal Botanical Gardens
How to fit in: grow a beard and have a very very strong opinion on coffee.


Run, Sydney, run!


If Canberra wasn’t around, Sydney would probably be Australia’s capital, and is the only place on the continent that feels like an actual Metropolis. There is more life in the streets, people are busier and there’s a higher ethnic diversity. 

Nowhere Australia’s obsession with fitness is more evident than here. Sydney people don’t understand the concept of going to a park to find peace and tranquility in nature. A park is for exercising! Like herds of stressed cattle they are driven across the hills of the Botanical Gardens by neon-clad personal shepherds in pursuit of that elusive beach body.
In terms of style, Sydney is Melbourne’s ditzy teenage sister, and whoever sells peroxide, little dogs and aviator sunglasses in this town must be the richest man in Australia.

Pick a card

Favourite thing: ferry ride around town
How to fit in: post selfies of your abs and your puppy on Tinder.


Byron Bay

Described to me as a “chilled out hippie town”, Byron Bay is Australia’s backpacker tourism personified. If even Thailand sounds like a place too daring to go and you cannot cope with even the slightest immersion into a foreign culture, this is the destination for you. It’s got all the cheap drinks and bikini contests your easily entertained heart could want, and if that’s not your thing you can still buy a few crystals, dreamcatchers or natural fiber beachwear to take home to your parents’ house. I have no doubt that this was once a cool place, but the reality is that you could have all of what it has to offer elsewhere better and cheaper.

I call them "Goblin Flamingoes", they're everywhere.

Favourite thing
: Watch teenage Europeans trying to learn surfing while they get drunk on Goon
How to fit in: Try hard to look like an Aussie beach bum while spending as much money as you can afford.



The city of Brisbane woos you with free library Wi-Fi and cat-sized lizards in your backyard. Will it succeed?

Another testament to the Australian fitness obsession

Favourite thing: Going for Japanese barbecue with Mister D. and hanging out with Miss L. (Thanks to you guys!)
How to fit in: Found a family


Cairns (pronounced “Kee-airns”)

Being the gateway to the Daintree Rain Forest and the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is a pretty faceless tourist town. It’s not a bad place, but it’s not exciting either. I recommend to skip it entirely though for one single reason:
Wildlife likes tourists as much as hungover retirees like screaming children, and will avoid any of the popular routes like the plague.

Diving from Cairns will take you to the most over dived spots on the reef without exception. If you want to dive the reef, DO NOT GO from Cairns. Instead pick smaller towns along the coast which will offer a better experience. Secondly, since the vast majority of Queensland tourists make Cairns their center you won’t get a singular experience even for a visit to the Daintree forest. I would here too recommend going up to Daintree and finding your own bearing there and not book a tourist tour. 

Favourite thing: Hiking the Daintree Forest by myself
How to fit in: Buy a package tour or run one


Aussie Slang

Australia has quite a few unique slang words. I’ve listed just a few in case you get lost.

Sanga: not a relative of Laksa or a Buddhist school, short for Sandwich
A(r)vo: short for afternoon, not avocado
Doona: could be sand-boarding equipment, is actually a blanket
Nature Reserve: Australian for park, often the ‘reserve’ is the size of a vegetable patch
Tucker: food
Occa: anything “very Australian”
Bogan: Hillbilly, Idiot
Pots and Schooners: beer measures, a Schooner is bigger than a pot. Probably because it’s actually a type of sailboat.



The Good:

- Beautiful nature
- Good weather
- Abundant and ubiquitous Wildlife (this might be a negative for some) even in cities
- Friendly residents
- Excellent food in the big cities
- Lots of quality local produce

Australia's government hates nightlife almost as much as refugees

The Bad:

- Nice but uninspiring cities
- Food outside the big cities can really hit rock bottom
- Often socially backwards and bro-sy
- Australia’s law system is positively fun-inhibiting (especially in central Sydney)

All in all I love Australia. However, I love it mostly from a prospective resident perspective than that of a tourist. Not that it wouldn’t be worth visiting. It’s got plenty of beautiful nature to offer, and both residents and weather are friendly and welcoming. On the cultural end, however, there isn’t too much to see and Australia’s grid-cities, despite fantastic architecture, are only occasionally charming.
With it’s great food, easy lifestyle and open people I’d move here in a heartbeat, but for a more well-traveled person it’s just slightly short of being a great tourist destination. This is probably proven by the abundance of teenage gap yearers and package tourists, with a distinct lack of more intrepid traveller types. If you are one of these I would recommend doing Australia as part of a bigger trip in the region to make it worth the journey.

Oh, and I haven’t even seen one deadly dangerous animal. Just saying.