Archive for January, 2007

Serena asks “What’s My Name?!”

Halfway through the first set, #1 ranked Maria Sharapova had an easy return. Serena Williams was out of position and, with the ball floating towards her racket, Maria could have hit it anywhere on the court. But she hit it straight at Serena’s body. And it hit her. Hard. Sharapova turned around. Surprise flashed across Serena’s face, replaced quickly by a certain kind of stare. Did the Russian really want to risk making the American angry? Apparently so. Gutsy or obnoxious, Sharapova had done it.

I have to say after so many years of injury, I’d written off Serena. Too many fat checks, apartments in the Meat Packing District, too many clothing lines to manage. It seemed life had moved on.

From her first few matches in the Aussie Open, though, the unseeded and 81 ranked Serena looked different. Gone were the over-the-top outfits, jewelry, and hair. Just a pair of hooped earrings gave a nod to her more indulgent past. This was the stripped down, angry Serena. Watching her matches, she only got more intense, more electric with each one. And in the final, it boiled over — every winning point was greeted with an expression that said “What’s my name?!” It didn’t read like arrogance, it read like confidence. It read like getting back the respect you know you deserve.

When a match is this lopsided, it usually becomes the worst kind of boring. Watching Serena’s show of sheer omnipotence, though, was just the opposite. I couldn’t look away. Seeing her so dominate the Russian (okay, Floridian) in the final, one 120 mph serve at a time, was a beautiful thing. Too good, too strong, too determined. 81 to 1. What a fantastic story.

image grabbed from espn

It’s Only Fun When You Ain’t Learning

Fun with delinquency in Rockstar's Bully

Out of the UK comes a fantasy role playing game that cost twice what a typical high-end title (like Gears of War) does to develop. So, the selling point is top-notch production values and seriously epic story, right? Not so much. The big deal with this game is that it was designed to teach literacy and math skills to kids. Before you get into that “Games and learning? Blech!” look on your face, stick with me a minute.

At the recent Games for Change Salon at Parsons, I talked to many people who were psyched about serious games, but I also heard from a surprising number of folks who weren’t. The unimpressed said things like: “the more learning you put in a game, the less fun it is.” It’s really not an unreasonable position considering how many examples support the argument (and how few don’t). Raph Koster puts it like this:

Games work best at teaching when the challenges are organic to the experience, rather than out of left field. This is why so many educational games suck — just strapping an incentive structure on rote practice doesn’t work very well, compared to instead building a long-term goal structure, and then presenting challenges on the way. The “fill the hold” example works because the students have a goal that isn’t learning. I think this is the fundamental error many educators make — they think that everyone finds learning for learning’s sake to be engaging.
The path for educational games is to start with something that users care about, and just take care to select a goal that naturally offers up the sorts of challenges that we want to teach.

But isn’t that also the fundamental problem? Creating fun game challenges that naturally convey specific (and significant) educational content ain’t easy. That’s because, while some content is fairly easy to teach through in-game challenges (solving logic puzzles being a particularly popular example), others are much harder. How would we make learning the parts of speech fun, for instance? Surely it’s possible, but finding that perfect game element it fits naturally with might take some work.

And this brings out a central challenge for the serious games community: game design is an art. It’s really hard enough to design a game that’s “merely” fun without having to service particular learning goals as well. Doing both is a daunting task and likely explains why more serious games don’t come from the traditional game industry. Fortunately, that’s changing. Nintendo’s Brain Age has been huge, Square’s chief strategist is keynoting this year’s Serious Games Summit, and I’m sure there’s more just over the horizon.

It’s encouraging to see these heavy hitters interested in making learning a central aspect of new games. As the industry grows, diversification becomes an increasingly important survival strategy. And diversity keeps the games interesting, too. Imagine that. If diversity is essential, could it be that some significant part of the the future of games hinges on making them educational? How’d that be for turning the tables?

Pixar Models Ratatouille

Wandering through Design Life Now, I was shocked to see these Ratatouille maquettes (another angle) set in a wall alongside an army of better known Pixar properties. Most of the rest had been seen at MoMA’s Pixar exhibit back in 2005 (Cars was the mystery project then) but I believe these models of rat and culinary pals appear for the first time at the Cooper-Hewitt.

The pompous overstuffed chef, the skittish undersized chef, and R?my laughing all the way to the cheese chest. There were a couple others (including a giddily menacing chef) but the guards threatened bodily harm before I could grab those shots. Truly lovely stuff. Can’t wait to see Brad Bird (Incredibles, Iron Giant) back in the director’s seat!

Find more on the mouse at Wikipedia


As we rounded the corner for the last wall of the African comic show at Harlem’s Studio Museum, one of our group sat down, exhausted. Not physically, mind you — after 35-odd comics, though, he was mentally done. It’s that kind of exhibit. It demands a lot. But it gives back more. It’s a fair trade.

Going in, I expected the intensity of the show to derive from the difficult political and socio-economic messages of the comics, but it’s not quite that. Rather, Africa Comics is a roller-coaster ride from laughter to tragedy, slapstick to slap-back, utopia to genocide. And it’s held together by some truly diverse and stunning illustrations.

There’s something about a good comic that transports you. I was reminded of Joe Sacco’s fantastic Safe Area Goražde, a journalistic comic that reports on the war in Eastern Bosnia. The framing of most every cell makes you feel closer to the people there, and more amazed at their ability to somehow live life under constant, terrifying siege.

Africa Comics transports you, too, but to so many places all over the continent, each with its own story, each told from a different perspective. So, while Goražde gives you love and sorrow over the course of a book, Africa Comics works every emotion you’ve got in an afternoon. Its geographic and emotional coverage is astonishing.

Take “Tintin au Congo,” for example. Anton Kannemeyer (aka Joe Dog) presents the Belgian classic infused with racial stereotypes, and uses Tintin’s disarming style to portray a racial attack that’s not what it seems. Yet it somehow manages to walk the line between comedy and tragedy. And so goes the show. For every comic that brings you near tears, there’s another that does just the opposite. Or does both at the same time. That’s what makes Africa Comics one of those exhibits you can’t miss. Even if, like my friend, you have to sit down before you reach the final strip.

Africa Comics is at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 18. For more, see the Times slide show.

The Online Identity Inversion

Not too long ago, online community meant one place — you’d go to a BBS (remember The WELL?) or your favorite MUD or Usenet if you were fancy. Back then, it seemed like you left one place for another when when you wanted to leave that identity behind: the straight-laced professor playing whip-wielding dominatrix by night and all that kind of thing. It took work, but it was hip to have secret screen names. It was hip to fracture your identity.

And it still is. What’s different now is that our identities get fractured even when we don’t want them to. With the daily arrival of new web 2.0 gadgets, we’ve got pieces of our identity everywhere — photos, blog entries, bookmarks, music, comments, calendar events, movie reviews, each on a different service or three, each with its own community. Online community has gone mainstream but, with your artifacts spread across a myriad different services, online identity seems to have done just the opposite. That’s fine if you want to maintain multiple identities, but what if you want to bring all those pieces of yourself back together again?

Where we once worked so hard to maintain multiple identities, now pieces of ourselves are so far flung that we have to work equally hard to compose just one. Online identity has been inverted. Once whole, we wanted to be fractured. Now fractured, we want to be whole.

And boy do we want to be whole. Take blogs, where folks have cobbled together their far-flung online artifacts in sidebars for some time. And Gravatars let us maintain one identity from blog to forum to chat. More recently, Jeremy Keith’s Lifestream initiative has managed to pull all your bits into a single textual stream. What’s next?

It’s early days, but this has the potential to lead someplace very interesting. Imagine being able to present your recent pictures alongside your discussion posts alongside music you listened to alongside news stories you dugg, each collected from a different service. Then, imagine allowing visitors to dive into that history, seeing all facets of your identity as one coherent whole. There’s a richness here that the right glue could really bring out.

But the higher level point is that online identity isn’t just a profile on myspace or a catalog of photos on flickr or a blog on typepad. Online identity is all these things. And giving people control over the artifacts of their experience is as important as the experience itself. It’s the history of you. Grab hold of it.

image grabbed from hands

Active Sculpture Animals

Smoothly undulating mechanical forms grab you the instant you step into the gallery and won’t let go. I’ve seen a good number machines that claim to evoke organic, but the creatures in U-Ram Choe’s show at Bitforms are the most compelling.

Each piece has its own disposition: hanging from the ceiling, clinging to the walls, hovering over the floor. And each reacts to your presence: pulsing, slithering, looking at you. Fabulous lighting allows all to be seen from multiple perspectives at once — the animal and its shadow. And each is accompanied by a clever museum-styled plaque.

But, where many works that emulate the natural with the mechanical feel antiseptic and scary (can you say uncanny valley?), Choe’s work somehow finds a way to feel soft and meditative.

Perhaps it’s something do do with the finely grained motion, seen particularly in Echo Navigo, which swings itself from ropes so it snakes side-to-side, floating a foot off the floor. Just so. Or perhaps it’s to do with thoughtful lighting that takes away the sharp edges, making each piece seem all the more organic. Or maybe it’s just that the space, populated as it is with what feels like underwater life, brings back memories of the sea.

U-Ram is at Bitforms in Chelsea through January 20. For more, visit Bitforms online and see the artist’s full portfolio at

Also fabulous in Chelsea are Robert Pruitts’s butcher paper drawings, which juxtapose modern with ancient, African with African-American. In keeping with tradition, we managed to catch that on the last day, but shots of the work remain at and don’t miss this interview with the artist.

photo via jellisvga

Games That Rocked 2006

“Is it fun?” It’s been a while since I’ve heard that question in game shops. But this year it stealthily slid in, replacing more familiar fare like “How are the graphics?” or “Which has the best processor?” The fact that it seems increasingly trite to point out games matter more than technology only highlights how far we’ve come in one year. And, honestly, much of the thanks goes to Nintendo for refusing to join the pec-flexing hardware race and, hell, refusing to even release specs. Whether this trend will continue is another question but, for now, the success of games like Guitar Hero II and the triumph of DS over PSP have proven that reaching beyond the hardcore can be rewarding indeed.

So, while not all of my favorite games of the year are games “for the rest of us,” I certainly hope to see many more of them on this list in years to come. Diversity matters. And so does fun. Here’s what I loved in 2006…

Continue reading ‘Games That Rocked 2006’

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