Archive for category Video Games

Video Games – A Child’s Friend or Foe?

Doom Having worked in the video game industry for many years, I’ve been exposed to a wide swath of individuals that brand video games as detrimental to children and claim these games promote violence.  I grew up with video games – from Pacman on the Atari 2600 through the PC revolution with Sierra games like King’s Quest and more hardcore fare such as Castle Wolfenstein and Doom – and shared these gaming experiences with my family and friends.  I generally tend to disregard the doomsday scenarios about video games and attribute them to the over-protective instincts of parents and orthodox religious groups.  After all, my brothers and friends and I all turned out to be relatively well-adjusted individuals with no criminal records, so obviously the fears are overblown.  A recent event in our apartment made me start questioning my beliefs and “I couldn’t help but wonder” (*wink to my wife), are video games a child’s friend or foe?

Sonic Free Rider My wife and I invited a friend and her two young boys over for breakfast (to protect the innocent, I’ll call her Ribbon and her two boys Abel and George).  With childhood exuberance, Abel discovered my stash of Xbox 360 games and naturally wanted to play.  We first started off playing Sonic Riders for Kinect, or, I should say, he started off by showing me how to play Sonic.  As a Kinect video game, there are no controllers required and the game involves the child pretending to skate through an imaginary world (harmless enough).

children-reading-books-ny10x9 During breakfast, we had a philosophical discussion about video games and books, and their respective merits and limitations.  What many people may not realize is that video games teach kids crucial skills and lessons that cannot be learned from a book.  Books are great to learn vocabulary and grammar and to spur the imagination.  However, their greatest limitation is that they are completely linear and the reader cannot affect the outcome of the book (with the exception of those Choose-your-own-Adventure books I grew up with).

Video games, on the other hand, are completely dependant on the user’s actions because it impacts the narrative and the outcome of the game.  Kids can learn some very useful skills, such as collaboration, strategy, improvisation, logic, and deduction (depending on the type of game, of course).  Additionally, I’ve read about some studies that show that surgeons with video game experience excel beyond surgeons without this experience because of the improved hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and reflexes developed through video gaming (I really need to start documenting things I read so that I can reference them appropriately).

lego-star-wars-the-gameAfter breakfast, Abel continued his search and uncovered Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga.  Now Ribbon wanted to make sure that Abel wasn’t exposed to any violent or shooter type games
(such as Halo, Gears of War, Oblivion, and dozens of other games in my collection).  Lego Star Wars seemed harmless enough.  After all, it’s designed for this age group.  So I popped it into the Xbox and we got started.

halo_reach_controller_final Abel had never used a dual-analog game controller before (he’d only used the Wiimote and Kinect), so I was astounded at how quickly he learned to navigate his character on screen, jump, and wield his light saber with the Xbox 360 controller.  According to Ribbon, he thought the controller was only used for starting a movie as he hadn’t gamed with it before.  In any case, he got into the game with gusto.  He began to dispatch the enemies at a phenomenal rate, with just a swipe or two of his light saber.  This is where the transformation occurred that prompted me to write this blog post.  Once he was fresh out of enemies, and with no one left to dispatch, he turned on me and his other in-game companions, whacking away until we were nothing but little Lego bits.  And even though I spent years playing on a controller, in just the few minutes of playing the game, he was able to kill my character twice before I could get away.

At this point Ribbon intervened and told him that if he killed his friends, he couldn’t play anymore.  That was sufficient for him to hold his light saber at bay for the rest of the game, although I could still see how antsy he got when there was nothing left to dispatch on screen.  When we finished a level, he asked to make sure that the next level had as many enemies as possible.

This all prompted me to start questioning my long-held beliefs about video games. What had turned this mild-mannered, well behaved child into this feral, single-minded killing machine?  Did exposing him to Lego Star Wars the video game open the door to the Dark Side in this youngster?  Do video games really teach kids to be violent, no matter how innocuous the game may seem?

I pondered this for over a week before I decided to write this post.  After a lot of reflection, I began to surmise that it wasn’t the video game that caused this reaction, but some kind of baser instinct that emerged when he was given the power to be destructive.  After all, if you give most little boys a stick, they will wield it like a sword and hack away at anything in sight.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with a stick.  Similarly with Lego Star Wars, there’s no instruction nor incentive for anyone to attack their own teammate (aside from the cool animation of seeing the characters fall apart into little Lego pieces).  So does the act of turning on your friends with a sword reflect upon the game or the individual?  Do we keep the stick away from the child for fear of how they will put it to use, or teach them how to use that stick responsibly?

As a gross generalization, I’ll hypothesize that if I put a young girl in the place of Abel in this situation, the outcome would’ve been completely different.  She probably would have wanted to explore the world in a collaborative manner versus trying to destroy everything in sight.  If this is true, his reaction could be attributed to an inherent difference between the sexes that one can evidently see when little boys and girls play with the same physical toys, or their predisposition to select certain toys over others.

So, if the hypothesis holds and the video game is just a tool that can be used for good or ill depending on the individual, the next logical question is – is it a good thing or a bad thing to give children access to these tools?  Does a violent video game (or even a non-violent one) lead to violent behavior, or is it a useful outlet for these natural tendencies?  If not video games, do these behaviors come out in other ways, for example, schoolyard bullying, screaming sessions, animal abuse?  I don’t have the answers, but I would love to see a study of child bullies and how that correlates with exposure to video games.  If they let it out in a game, can we prevent it from coming out towards others at school or does it exacerbate the situation?  I know as an adult it’s a great outlet to kick back with Gears of War in Horde mode and slaughter wave after wave of enemy monsters.  How does that translate in a less-developed and more impressionable mind? 

Mazes and Monsters VHS CoverA lot of these issues and questions remind me about Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in the early 1980s.  I would contend that the D&D role-playing game probably best captures the benefits of both books and video games (the strategic thinking and improvisation skills coupled with the tons or reading required to learn and master the system).  And yet, I still vividly remember the fear-mongering that occurred in that time period as parent groups and religious organizations decried D&D as a cult that had negative psychological consequences on players, especially children.  I played D&D and was even a Dungeon Master, and recall how my very religious half-sister tried to convince my mother that we shouldn’t play the game because it promoted Satanism.  This hysteria was best captured by a made-for-TV movie Community Dungeons and Dragons Episodewith a young Tom Hanks called “Mazes and Monsters”.  It seems after 30 years, the hoopla has died down, and D&D role-playing was fondly featured in VH1’s ‘I Love the 80’s’ (skip to 4:21 in the video) and more accurately portrayed in a recent episode of the TV series “Community” entitled “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons“. (Read a very good article on this great episode by clicking here).

I predict that in the next 10-20 years, the hoopla around the perils of video gaming will also simmer down as a new culprit for childhood depravation emerges (holographic immersion or direct synaptic connections anyone?).  There will still be parents that will judiciously decide if and what games their children can play, and I believe that it is a good thing.  Since I don’t have children, I would love to hear any stories from others about how video games have impacted their children, whether positively or negatively.  Ultimately, the answer to the titular question, like most things, is probably “it depends on the child and the game”.

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Kinect and Xbox 360 Setting Records

250GB-Kinect-Bundle As the Product Planner for both the Xbox 360 Kinect (originally called Project Natal) and the complete redesign of the Xbox 360, I was thrilled to read the latest news about these two amazing products:

1) Kinect sets the Guinness World Record for the fastest selling consumer electronics device in history, selling 8 million units in its first 60 days and over 10 million units to date, beating out Apple’s iPhone and iPad (read the source material directly from Guinness World Records here and The Hollywood Reporter here).

2) Xbox 360 has its biggest non-holiday month ever in February 2011, up 27% from last year, ahead of both Nintendo Wii and Sony PS3 (read the source material from cnet News here and from Joystiq here).

As a business case study for New Product Development and Product Management, this is a great example of the results achievable when two things happen.  First, the overall Corporate Strategy, in this case, to broaden the appeal of interactive entertainment, drove the Product Strategy. Second, aligning all of the internal resources to execute on the Product Strategy to create a holistic and compelling consumer experience (in this case, the hardware, the games, the user interface, and the services all align to bring together the “magic” that is Kinect).  A great piece that captures this is available from Wired Magazine’s article – Kinect for Xbox 360: The inside story of Microsoft’s secret ‘Project Natal’.

To further share this story, I’ve organized an event entitled “Microsoft Presents: The Engineering Behind Kinect and the New Xbox 360” scheduled for this Wednesday, March 16, 2011.  Full details are available at the registration link (http://kinect-shpe.eventbrite.com/).  The General Managers for both the Xbox Hardware Division and the NUI (Natural User Interface) HW team will be presenting the technical development of these products to local engineering students and members of professional organizations in the Puget Sound, including:

  • ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers)
  • SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers)
  • SWE (Society of Women Engineers)
  • NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers)
  • CIE (Chinese Institute of Engineers)
  • NSHMBA (National Society of Hispanic MBAs)

Congratulations to the full team on the success of both Kinect and the new Xbox 360!  It’s been an honor to work with a great team of outstanding individuals to develop these products that are being enthusiastically embraced by millions of happy consumers around the world.

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Massive Bioshock Sale on Games for Windows Marketplace

1I’m not a fan of writing about limited time promotions, but I was too astounded by this one to pass it up.  The newly redesigned Games for Windows Marketplace (which in and of itself is a great site) has a sale on today only for Bioshock for $1.99.  Check it out here http://www.gamesforwindows.com/en-US/dailydeal/day6/

Now, I have already played and completed Bioshock on Xbox 360 and I don’t know if I will ever replay it again on the PC, but even that is too good of an offer for me to ignore.  For those friends who have never played it, I can just whip out my laptop and show them what they’ve been missing.

Of course, it took me a bit to warm up to the game when I originally played it.  I had heard so many great reviews about the game that I decided I had to give it a try.  I wasn’t completely impressed when I first started playing.  It’s a different kind of first person shooter.  However, once I started getting new abilities and new weapons, I became completely enthralled.  The plotline, the ingenuity of design, and all of the elements of surprise came together into a truly delightful gaming experience.  So, while I already own it on one platform, this deal is certainly worth taking for the flexibility of trying it again in the future.

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Dance Central Causes Marital Rift

image I haven’t seen Xboxbride so taken with a game since “Kung Fu Panda”.  I received a brand new Kinect for being on the Kinect launch team and brought it home along with 4 Kinect game titles, including “Dance Central”, “Kinectimals”, “Kinect Sports”, and “Joy Ride”.  I popped in Dance Central per my wife’s request and she immediately jumped in and was absorbed by the game.  She used to be on a Dance Team at UC Berkeley, so that’s probably one of the reasons why she was so excited about this spectacular dance game that uses the Kinect sensor to evaluate your moves as you try to imitate the in-game dancing avatar.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay very long since I was running off to the Kinect launch party at Cirque in Seattle.  I left the house but she was too engrossed in the Break-it-Down mode of the game to turn around to say good-bye.  By the time I got home, she was already in bed, so no time to ask about her experience (although I read about it the next morning in her blogpost,”Young MC Made Me Sweat”).

The next evening during dinner she asked me to turn on Dance Central.  A request for a video game on Xbox during dinner?  Unprecedented!!  So, while I dropped some food into the hot pot, she turned to the break-it-down mode for the HARD level of Young MC’s “Bust A Move”.

Now the hard level of “Bust A Move” is very difficult, yet she was getting a bunch of diamonds for getting the routines on her first try.  “Very impressive, sweetheart”, I encouraged, while picking out mushrooms and chicken strips from the hot pot.  After finishing the break-it-down segment for the song, she waved her hands in front of Kinect to select “Perform It!” and danced the entire routine, scoring a very impressive 760K points and 5 Stars.  “Wow”, I offered, with noodles and shrimp in my mouth.  With a smugly satisfied look on her face, she finally left the Xbox and Kinect to eat some dinner.  Over dinner I told her how that was probably one of the hardest routines I’d seen in the game.  She looked quite content as she polished off her dinner.

We finished dinner and she jumped straight back to Dance Central to try some new songs.  I watched her for quite some time, quite impressed with her natural dance abilities.  “I’m done, I’m tired”, she proclaimed after several songs.

OK, so now it’s my turn.  I select one of the few Latin style dance songs of the game, “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” by Pitbull.  This is fairly easy for me as I used to be on a professional salsa dance team.  So I selected the “No Flashcards” mode and put the song on Easy level to gain an achievement.  Success!

After that, I decided to try the very same song that Xboxbride had mastered, so I put on “Bust a Move” in break-it-down mode on Hard.  It was indeed very hard.  “Nice job honey”, chirps Xboxbride from the far corner of the room where she is snuggling with the dog on the floor.  After finishing the tutorial, I decide to perform it on Hard.

I certainly started working up a sweat with this song.  Xboxbride continued to chirp various words of encouragement throughout the song, similar to how one encourages a child who can’t really get the grasp of something.  As the song draws closer to it’s end, I stop hearing the words of encouragement.  I finish the song with a quite impressive 730K points and 5 Stars.  “Yes!” I proclaim in victorious elation at having completed such a difficult song with decent results.  I turned to my wife who was by then on the corner of the couch.  She’s deadly silent and gazing at me with cold, hard eyes.  “Sweetie, what’s wrong?” I ask.

Silence.

I go over to offer her a kiss.  “Is everything alright?”  She sits up on the couch, squinting her eyes at me.  “This is not fair.  You didn’t even do it right.  I need to try this again” she growls, getting up off the couch and jumping in front of the TV screen.  “I though you were tired”, I offered.   “Hmph” is all I got in return.

She dances to “Bust a Move” again on Hard mode 4 times until she finally beats my score (which was already lower than her original score), and breaks 800K points.  The smug look of satisfaction returns to her face.  “I’m done now”, she declares, with a tone of finality.

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Addendum to my Video Gaming Journey

My blog post on my history with computer and video gaming (found here) sparked some great conversations with my friends and colleagues on their own journeys and experiences in this realm.  These interactions reminded me of a couple of key moments and products that I forgot to mention.

Commodore_64One key system I neglected to mention was the Commodore 64.  At about the same time that I was using the TRS-80 Color Computer at home (roughly the 4th or 5th grade), I asked my mom to enroll me in the Saturday Enrichment Program.  This program was designed for kids who were not being challenged enough in their regular school programs, and allowed them to go to certain Public Schools in Brooklyn (probably all of New York City) on Saturdays for additional coursework.  I chose to take the computer classes at a Public School on Avenue L and Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn.  Every Saturday for several months (I can’t recall if it was only in the summer or during the academic year) I would either walk to the school with my mom or my dad would drop me off and pick me up later.  And in that program we exclusively used the Commodore 64.  I recall enjoying the enrichment program a great deal, but I can’t say that I developed a strong affinity for the 64, probably because I only used it once a week for several months. I would still go home to my trusty TRS-80 Color Computer and hone my skills on that machine.

Apple IIe However, in the 6th grade, I did develop a great affinity for a new computer system procured by Ms. Kofsky at P.S. 195 – the Apple IIe.  Since she remembered my affinity for computers when I was in her class two years prior, she invited me to come back to the classroom (she was still a 4th grade teacher) to learn more on the Apple IIe and to show the younger children (4th graders) how to use it.  I was astounded by the graphics of this compared to the Commodore 64 and my TRS-80.  Where_in_the_World_Is_Carmen_Sandiego_1985_CoverI became completely hooked on the only title I recall them having… “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego”, which came complete with The World Almanac and a Book of Facts which one would use to deduce the whereabouts of the titular character.  I spent all of my free time on that computer.  If it weren’t for the debacle with the Apple IIgs that my parents purchased, I probably would have had a much greater and more positive affinity for Apple products.  Instead, I think the Carmen Sandiego game planted the travel bug in me at a very early age, although I didn’t get to truly explore that until my mid 20’s when I moved to Germany. *sigh*

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A not-so-brief history of my video gaming journey

Before I write about why the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live are my favorite consumer/technology products, I feel I need to provide some context by describing a bit of my personal history and journey through the realm of video games.

Atari2600a Like many people my age, my first exposure to video games came when my father bought the family the Atari 2600 when I was roughly in the 1st Grade.  Combat and Pac-man were our first games, and I became completely fixated on them.  My older sister and I duked it out on 2 player Pac-Man and we played for so long (if I recall, getting to nearly a million points) and got such a high score (my sister beat me), that my father threw us a party complete with a Pac-Man cake.

Many years of enjoyment on the 2600 followed, with games such as Pitfall, Yar’s Revenge, Space Invaders, Pole Position, and Star Wars.

TRS80mod3When the 4th grade rolled around, I was introduced to my first real computer, the TRS-80.  I remember well Mr. Jacobs who was a guest teacher for computers brought in by my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Kofsky.  I was enthralled and learned BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) and began coding simple programs and games (like text-based Choose-your-own-adventures similar to Zork).  As part of Mr. Jacob’s class, I wrote a computer program that displayed the flags of different countries of the world in dazzling black and white.  Mrs. Kofsky was amazed and showcased it to the class.

TRS80 Color Computer2big My propensity for programming led my father to purchase for us the TRS-80 Color Computer from Radio Shack (actually, if I recall correctly, TRS stood for Tandy Radio Shack, or at least I always thought so).  With this computer, I was able to go all out.  I clearly recall a program that would fill the screen with random circles in random locations and fill them with random colors (I guess I really liked the RND function of BASIC).  Back in those days, I would save my programs for the TRS-80 Color Computer on an audio tape cartridge.  We have certainly come a long way.  I yearned to get the joystick and some game cartridges for the Color Computer, but alas, that was never to be.

Kings Quest II Romancing the StoneI used that Color Computer for many years since we didn’t have the means to purchase a more sophisticated computer.  I hoped to take computer class at Cunningham Junior High School but was not chosen for the limited classes.  Instead I was given typing (which has served me well to this day) and photography.  Fortunately, I got kicked out of photography class (a story for another day) and reassigned to computer class.  I clearly and fondly remember my first day and first assignment in that class in the 8th grade: Play, solve, and complete the computer video game “King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne”.

At the time, I was astounded by the graphics and “3D” nature of the game (being able to walk in front of or behind objects) and the clever puzzles based on fables and children’s stories.  I became a big fan of Sierra for many years after that (King’s Quest Series, Space Quest, Heroes Quest which became Quest for Glory, etc).

NES2 Fast forward to high school.  I applied for my working permit when I turned 16 (a little blue card that New York State required of children under 18).  I got my first paying job at this age and finally had disposable income.  With this job I purchased my next video game console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  Many hours of The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, and Duck Hunt followed.  Still to this day I love the original Legend of Zelda and one of the follow up games, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.  I just recently cleaned out the attic in our house in Brooklyn and found my original NES.  I brought it back home with me, and the TSA agents at the airport all had a good laugh about it.

appleiigs The first computer we got at home at the TRS-80 Color Computer was the Apple IIGS, which my parents were suckered into purchasing by a retail salesman.  Within a month of bringing that computer home, Apple had cancelled the series and all support for it.  I was fuming when I came home to find an Apple instead of an “IBM PC-compatible” computer.  We tried to make the best of it with Deluxe Paint.  I went so far as to purchase Space Quest for that computer to get some use out of it.  I recall my father being angry that we were using his $2,000 investment for computer gaming.  It’s kind of funny now considering that half of his children went into the video game industry.  Gateway2000_386

By the time I was 17, I decided I had enough of this Apple and saved up enough money to purchase a real computer.  I went all in knowing that I would need the best machine available for my upcoming college days as an engineering student, so I ordered a 386-25MHz “IBM PC-compatible” computer from Gateway 2000. Aside from my Camaro, this was probably the biggest and most exciting personal purchase I had ever made.  Oh how I loved that Gateway.  Massive footprint, curved arches, and a full 15”, 256 color CRT monitor!  Life couldn’t be better (until the 486 came out a few months later).

Wolfenstein-3D-008 This Gateway led to my first true 3D graphics PC game, Wolfenstein 3D, which blew me away (as well as my brothers) and consumed countless hours of my free time.  Wolfenstein led to Doom.  FPS led to RPG (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale), RPG led to RTS (Warcraft, Warcraft II, Starcraft).  I also graduated up from NES to Sega Genesis at around this time, but I slowly lost interest in console gaming and became thoroughly engrossed in the PC gaming world.  So fixated was I on the PC realm that I never even purchased a PS One or PS2.

Now this was well before the days of laptop computers, so being on a computer at all was still a treat, which is why I was an avid PC Gamer for so long. Fast forward many years to a point where I owned a bunch of computers and several laptops, and used computers every day at work.  It started to lose its luster.  The last thing I wanted to do when I got home was to stare at the computer screen for more hours.  TV was the preferred medium for entertainment.  I also steered clear of World of Warcraft all these years because I knew I would get hooked and lose countless hours of my life.

xbox1 Enter the original Xbox.  When I first read the article about Microsoft getting into the video game space and the specs that were planned for the Xbox, I knew I had to have it.  Built-in hard-drive, so no need for expensive memory units.  Ethernet connections.  The power of a PC.  My yearning for console gaming began to resurface and in 2005, I succumbed to the temptation and purchased a used Xbox v1 along with Fable and Halo.  Fable gave me confidence that RPGs could work in console gaming, and Halo did the same for First-person Shooters.

Not to long after this, I saw a promotion to get a free Xbox 360 through internet promotions.  I was skeptical at first, but gave it a shot.  They made one jump through a lot of hoops to fulfill the offer, but I stuck with it and got two good things out of the promotion: a free Xbox 360 Pro console and a subscription to Netflix.  Within a week of getting my Xbox 360, I started working at the Xbox group in Microsoft. as a Product Planner.  The rest, as they say, is history.

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New Xbox 360 and Kinect

So two programs that I have been working on for quite some time were announced at E3 2010, and just today the pricing of these programs was announced.

http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2010/jul10/07-20kinectpackagepr.mspx

The newly redesigned Xbox 360 250GB Console retails for $299.  The just announced Xbox 360 4GB will retail for $199.
Additionally, the controller-free experience Kinect (which used to be Project Natal) has been announced at $149 with the game Kinect Adventures.  It will also come in a console bundle with the 4GB Xbox 360 for $299.

Lots of games for Kinect were announced at E3 as well.  The one that most caught my eye from the Microsoft E3 Media briefing is Dance Central from Harmonix.

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