Symposium brings gamers together

Owen Sound Sun Times (On)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

This past week I had the privilege of attending Playing the Gallery at the University of Western Ontario.

The event was not all what I expected, but I still came away with some new and valuable information and insight.

According to the symposium’s website, at Playing the Gallery “invited experts from creative industries, social sciences, humanities and applied sciences discuss their current work in computer games with a perspective on what the implications of this dynamic form of cultural expression might imply for social change.”

In my opinion this description was not accurate. The event would have been better billed as a symposium dealing with interactive media as it dealt with various media all linked by use of the Internet. Some was art, some was science, and some were video games. I thought it was all going to be games, so I was a bit thrown off.

I wasn’t too taken with the presentations that didn’t directly deal with video games, as I felt they often displayed a lack of understanding or interest in a field I hold dear, but there were three game-themed presentations in particular that were quite stellar:

prof. peter vorderer: “is virtual violence appealing”

Dr. Vorderer presented a take on video game violence that was new to me. He asserted that the reason people are so attracted to violence in video games is identifying and identifying with violence is easy.

When conflict is presented in a game it’s easy to identify; a player sees two or more sides physically fighting and knows how the game works, at least on a base level. Furthermore violence is easy for the player as a method of dealing with conflict.

It’s much easier to portray violence than negotiation.

He went on to say that violence will be prevalent in games until games present themselves through something more easily appealing than violence.

I thought the presentation was interesting first because it was clear and easy to follow, and was related to a fairly major topic in video games, and second because it addressed a somewhat tired topic (i.e. video game violence) in a new and non-demonizing way. He didn’t talk about blaming people for making or playing violent games, merely some reasons why they’re appealing.

mark daley: “pushing the procedural palette”

Mr. Daley talked about procedural rendering; the process of programming a computer to draw or render things in 2D or 3D. This has huge implications for games.

Parts of a game that are rendered procedurally have the capacity to be much more interactive and lifelike and can be altered much faster and more drastically. If a portion of a game is drawn by programming, more data can be inserted to later change it. For instance trees can be generated by an algorithm, then have wind generated. The wind can be regenerated ad infinitum, allowing the wind to seem natural and dynamic.

Essentially procedural rendering allows the visuals in games to change much faster and have that change be initiated by the user much more often than before.

Mr. Daley’s presentation didn’t go into much detail about the implications, however. That’s mostly my thoughts. He did a wonderful job of presenting the concept of procedural rendering so that everyone in attendance could understand it and some of its possible uses.

We will see this sort of rendering more and more as it become better implemented. It’s the future of games, and is in fact often used in CG.

Much of Pixar’s films, are generated this way. Fur on animals is a good example. Fully 3D fur would be impossible to realistically render by hand, but can be very realistically generated by writing a program to “make” the fur. I think it’s pretty cool.

nick dyer-witherford and derek noon: “sneaking mission: games and politics of empire”

This presentation used Metal Gear Solid in contrast with America’s Army to show that video games can contain relevant messages in varying degrees of subtlety. America’s Army is a FPS made by the American Army as both a recruiting tool and a game – it glorified the army in hopes of recruiting young people.

Metal Gear is also militaristic, but betrays vague anti-militarist sentiment, vague to the point of being glossed over by gamers that don’t care to take it in. The presentation used footage of the games, a menu resembling Metal Gear and audio commentary to make a clear, concise and convincing case.

Not all these presentations were met with universal positive feedback, some of the more “techie” and game-related presentations were not accepted by some attendees with formal art backgrounds, but for the most part I found the presentations for those sorts of people unconvincing, so I guess I’m a techie. Furthermore the point of the symposium was to bring together differing schools of thought and that definitely happened.

Playing the Gallery was a very interesting first event of its sort. I think it was somewhat incorrectly billed as video games. They were not the focus of many presentations. I think many attendees were happy with the approach however, so perhaps a healthy medium can be reached. I hope the event is held again next year and I personally hope the video games theme is stressed more in future, but that’s just me. It was fun.

Calen Henry is a fourth-year student of Japanese studies and multimedia at McMaster University. He grew up in Owen Sound, has been a gamer since childhood and is also interested in music and film.

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