The Importance of Giving Back: Video Games and Charity Streams

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On April 1st and 2nd, Gamers for Giving will host its annual charity tournament at the Eastern Michigan University Convention Center. Start in 2008 by Gamers Outreach, the tournament is one of many video game events held across the nation that use video games to raise funds that go towards helping others. For Gamers Outreach, the funds go to creating portable GO Karts, medical-grade karts that can travel to hospitals and provide bedside entertainment for kids unable to leave their room during long-term care. In an interview for  engadget, head of Xbox games marketing and Games Outreach donator Aaron Greenberg said:

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The Gamers Outreach Foundation supports over 105,120 children across the nation per year. (Rob Schilke, Creative Commons)

“We play our games, and we love gaming as an art form. To be able to tie it back to something where [games] mean even more to kids in hospitals? I don’t know how to describe the feeling I get.”

In most cases, however, the funds are donated to local and national charities.

One of the largest and most well-known of these events is known as Extra Life. Powered by the streaming site Twitch, a live streaming video game platform, Extra Life is a way for gamers to raise money for their local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital. The challenge, and fun, of Extra Life is creating a team to play video games for a full twenty-four hours.

Since 2008, Extra Life has raised over 30 million dollars for local Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Just in 2015, the collective streams of 5,500 solo and teams raised around 8.3 million dollars. These dollars are used by the Miracle Network Hospitals however each hospital sees fit, from purchasing life-saving equipment to helping pay for treatments families otherwise couldn’t afford.

Although the charitable cause is the main purpose of these video game streams, for most viewers, the main draw is the streamers who participate. Roosterteeth, an Austin-based production, entertainment, and video game company, attracted over 1 million viewers during their 2016 Extra Life Stream. In 24 hours, the stream raised over five-hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

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The Rooster Teeth set featured at RTX 2015. (Daniel Benavides, Creative Commons)

One of the most important things to come out of these video game charity events is the changing perception of what it means to be a gamer. These events, by raising support for important causes, show the positive impacts of playing games, and highlight the charity and generosity that exists within the growing community. In an interview with CNBC, the coordinator for one of the largest Destiny charity streams of for St. Jude hospital Kevin Murray said:

“Millennials get a bad wrap but I think this charity event will prove that even those who can only give a dollar, will.”

A look at the Nintendo Switch launch and the bar set by Breath of the Wild

The gaming industry has been abuzz this weekend with the launch of Nintendo’s much anticipated new console, the Nintendo Switch. Included among the launch titles for the new system was the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is currently the 4th highest-rated video game of all time. 

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The Nintendo Switch, launched March 3, 2017. (BagoGames, Creative Commons)

The Switch has launched with high hopes, looking to bridge the gap between Nintendo’s home console, the Wii U, and the company’s portable console, the 3DS. Even Nintendo’s biggest gaming competitors, Sony and Microsoft, offered their congratulations to the new console via Twitter.

Video game news organizations even hosted livestreams of the new console, such as at Gamespot and GiantBomb, testing specs and getting the first look at many of the launch day titles.

One of the launch day titles was a little game known as 1-2-Switch. Designed entirely to show off the new Joy Con controllers unique to the new console, 1-2-Switch is a party game designed in the style of Wario Ware and Mario Party. 1-2-Switch features an assortment of 28 unique minigames for players to try, ranging from calming a crying baby, winning a wild-west style shoot-out, and shaving a virtual beard. Although criticized for its lack of depth, the game has received some compliments from IGN, stating that:

“1-2-Switch offers an oddly personal competitive experience that’s tailored to your own social setting.”

The star of the Switch launch, however, was indisputably the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Originally announced in the January 2013 Nintendo Direct (29:21), Breath of the Wild is the first completely open-world installment of the Legend of Zelda series, since the first game. Not only is the game beautiful to look at, it manages to  implement a variety of new features, such as a crafting system and weapon durability meter, while keeping the charm of dungeon delving, puzzle solving, and world saving classic to the Legend of Zelda franchise. In a review for Polygon, Arthur Gies writes:

“In an open world full of big changes, Breath of the Wild also almost always feels like a Zelda game — and establishes itself as the first current, vital-feeling Zelda in almost 20 years.”

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was one of the most anticipated launch titles for the Switch, and with a near perfect score across reviewing platforms, it seems to hold up to the expectations. (BagoGames, Creative Commons)

Despite the shipping delays faced by companies such as  GAME, Walmart, and even Amazon, and some compatible issues faced with the Bluetooth Joy Con controllers, the launch of the Nintendo Switch was relatively successful. President of Nintendo of America Reggie Fils-Aimé tweeted out a letter thanking the Nintendo fans for all their support.

[Above: a letter from Reggie Fils-Aimé, president of Nintendo of America posted on the Nintendo of America Twitter. It reads:

“To our incredible fans,

The launch of any new Nintendo system is a special day. But in particular, we can’t wait for you to play Nintendo Switch in the comfort of your living room, on the your commute … or, really, anywhere you want! That’s what makes Nintendo Switch so unique.

Over the course of the year, you can play a new game in The Legend of Zelda series, a sequel to Splatoon, and a massive new Mario adventure–not to mention the face-to-face fun of 1-2-Switch, the intense racing action of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the surprise that comes from new franchises like Snipperclips – Cut It Out Together or Arms. And you can also look forward to Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Fire Emblem for Nintendo Switch, and all the great content coming from our third-party partners.

I hope you fully enjoy the journey that you’re about to begin. Here’s to taking console gaming in new directions–and to new places–never possible before. Thanks for being the best fans. Have fun today!”]

 

SLO Smash community seeks to make a name for itself in the competitive Smash Bros. scene

Huddled in the back corner of the SLO Donut Company with five T.V. screens, not many people would think there’s a tournament going on. Yet, this is a monthly event for the SLO Smash community — a time for Super Smash Bros. players from around San Luis Obispo to sit down and flex their skills with Nintendo’s most recent fighting game.

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Super Smash Bros. is a Nintendo-crossover fighting game, featuring many characters from its beloved franchises. Featured here (L > R) Pikachu from Pokèmon, Fox McCloud from StarFox, Villager from Animal Crossing, and Mario from Super Mario Brothers. Photo by BagoGames (Flickr, Creative Commons).

Although the first installment of the Smash Bros. series, aptly titled Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 was released in 1999, the competitive scene for smash didn’t begin until 2001 with the release of its sequel: Melee.

Justin Pottle wrote for technology news website ars technica that “…Smash players united under the banner of Melee, and the series’ competitive potential was finally breaking into the mainstream.” Across the country, there was a growing interesting the new potential of competitive Smash players. In San Luis Obispo, it was the start of the SLO Smash Community.

On/off again over the last six years, it was in 2013 that the first Smash club got started at Cal Poly. The club was founded by Susanna Yu, and was extremely popular right off the bat. The group started hosting Melee tournaments, but remained mostly local during its early years.

The Smash scene in San Luis Obispo (SLO) picked up when professional smash player Julian “Jtails” Martinez from New York moved to the area in 2015. Before SLO, Jtails ranked 9th among the Smash 4 players in the New York area. When he started competing in local tournaments, he attracted the attention of other high-ranking players who wanted to compete against him, boosting the Smash community of SLO.

Since then, its been up the members to spread the word about SLO tournaments to the sister cities of Santa Maria and Santa Barbara.

Clay Kim is the head Tournament Organizer (TO) for the SLO Smash 4 Community. He works alongside Nick Plewtong, who runs the group’s facebook page, to set up tournaments for the community and keep track of local rankings.

For Kim, the final push to start playing Smash competitively came after watching a agonizingly close match between two high ranked professional players: Saleem Akiel “Salem” Young and Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman. At the time, Mew2King was considered one of the best Smash players in the world, playing the strongest competitive character in the game, but in 2013, lost to a less well known Smasher who played a less competitively viable character. Inspired by Salem’s victory, Kim began competing in Smash tournaments hosted across the state.

What keeps him coming back to the scene, however, isn’t the game, but the people Kim said:

“All the times I go to L.A., I meet people I would never meet without the game. Everyone in this room — there’s not a single person I would have met without Smash and they’re all really good friends of mine now.”

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Right now, Kim explains, the hardest part about keeping up the SLO Smash Community is finding the right venue. As of now, they typically move between club rooms at the Cal Poly University, or are offered venues by local businesses such as SloDoCo, but its not permanent Smash spot. Once they find a permanent tournament spot, Kim explains, the SLO Smash Community will finally be able to grow and flourish.

Talk show, reviews, and the importance of variety: Poly Game Review’s upcoming video game podcast

Poly Game Review (PGR), a reviewing group based at the California Polytechnic University: San Luis Obispo, has been in the works recording a new podcast, hosted by the members of  PGR. The club, founded a few years ago but took off last year, is now presided over by statistics major Brittany Ross who, alongside her vice president/treasurer Jackson Goyette, serves as a mediator for the PGR podcast.

The PGR podcast has been in the work for about a year new, but recording the sessions only started last quarter. The idea for the podcast came from a combination of Ross, club members, and the general rise in video game podcasts.

From the Co-Optional Podcast featuring TotalBiscuit (John Bain), Jesse Cox, and Dodger (Brooke Lawson) to the Giant Bombcast hosted by the staff at Giant Bomb, video game podcasts are becoming an increasingly popular way to discuss and share information about video games.

However, video games aren’t the only ones benefiting from the rise of podcasts. Podcasts are increasingly being used as a new form of storytelling. Renown podcasts such as Serial  helped increase public awareness of the medium, and since then, many new writers have turned to it in order to tell stories. The appeal of podcasts lies in using sounds and sensory details to engage the listener, rather than just reading words off a paper as in a book or typical news article.

In 2011, Emma Rodero of the Popeu Fabra University tested this theory using radio dramas. In the study, she concluded that:

“…the dramatised story contributes to a far greater extent when it [came] to encouraging the imagination of the listener thanks to a greater rate of vividness and a heightened generation of images…”

For PGR, the appeal of doing a podcast lies in the ease of conversation it brings. Every other week, the members of PGR get together to brainstorm topics. Members are actively encouraged to seek out topics they’re interested in, rather than focusing on keeping their topics current.

Transcription: “We started this club because there was a lot of misinformation and bias in game journalism, so we wanted to counteract that. We think a good way of doing that is letting people talk about what they want to talk about.”

 

By doing this, Ross explains, they’re able to discuss a larger variety of topics. On the podcast, PGR has even covered things such as video game movies and video game companies — not video games specifically, but definitely part of the overall video game culture.

While a set release date for the PGR video game podcast hasn’t been decided, the goal for the group is to finish recording sometime by the end of the quarter, and hopefully release a first episodes before spring. Most likely, the podcast will be available on the PGR website, but plans of a Youtube release are also being talked about.

 

 

 

An Interview with Production Designer Silvio Aebsicher

Earlier this week, I was able to sit down with concept artist and production designer Silvio Aebischer and talk about some of his work.

Born in Switzerland, he studied Industrial and Automotive Design at Art Center Europe before moving to the United States. He worked on car designs first, but eventually found his way to California to work on video games. Since then, he’s worked on many projects, most notably as a production designer for two Oddworld games (Stranger’s Wrath and Muche’s Oddysee) and as a concept artist for SEGA on Iron Man 2.

As a kid, Aebischer was fascinated with how the world worked. He created things, building with his hands to understand how they worked and drawing out new ideas on paper. When it was time for him to attend college, he heard about a school that taught industrial design.

“I didn’t even know what it was,” he said. “I visited, and suddenly I realized that everything we touch, everything we have… everything you see that we own in our house, somebody had to draw it up. And they’re not all engineers, either.”

From there, he was hooked.

He started off by designing products for a toy company, before moving to the Michigan to design concept cars and work on seats for Johnson Controls. He jokes that he was hired because he was European, and understood European design.

During his time in Michigan, he was contacted by Oddworld Inhabitants, a independent game studio originally based in San Luis Obispo. One of the first things he did when he was contacted, he said, was to go out, buy a Playstation 1, and play the game Oddworld had already produced: Abe’s Oddysee.

He was intrigued by the story and message found in the Oddworld games, discussing topics such as the consumerism and environmental preservation.

“It was deeper than just smashing things around and shooting stuff up, ” he said. “Back then, it was just really driving games, sports games, and shoot-em-ups. So, story-driven stuff was very rare.”

He was also interested in working for Oddworld because of its European-comic inspired art. Rather than Marvel or DC, Aebsicher grew up with bande dessiné, or Franco-Belgian comics, some of the most popular examples including the Adventures of Tintin, Asterix, and Lucky Luke.

For Oddworld Inhabitants, Aebsicher worked on as a production designer for both Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath — both well-received games, with Munch’s Oddysee given a 7.4 and Stranger’s Wrath an 8.8 from IGN. In Stranger’s Wrath specifically, IGN compliments the graphics, saying:

“…Stranger is probably one of the prettiest, and most refined games on the Xbox, period. The jungles and forests are lush, the cutscenes are incredibly polished, smooth and attractive, and the high framerate keeps everything quick.”

During the course of production, Aebischer worked closely with the team to develop the tone and general feel of each of the games.  His favorite part of the process, he explained, was being in the middle of all these conflicting story directions, and making them all work together.  He worked on and developed many of the environmental, industrial, and character designs for both Oddworld games.

After Oddworld, Aebsicher worked with SEGA out of San Francsico from his home in San Luis Obispo. He worked on many of the mechanical designs found in Iron Man 2, the video game produced in conjunction with the film of the same name. He said he even got the chance to work in Los Angeles for a bit, getting a taste of some of secrets of Hollywood life.

Currently, Aebischer works for as a Designer for Rocket Communications and as a self-employed concept artist for PixelPencil out of his home in San Luis Obispo.

 

 

 

Video games as a form of stress relief

Excess stress can lead to headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, bouts of anger and depression, and increases the risk for drug and alcohol abuse. According to the 2016 Stress in America report published by the American Psychological Association, 34 percent of Americans reported an overall increase of stress from the past year.

So, how do we combat something that is increasingly-present in our lives? Video games, surprisingly.

Console Playstation Xbox Joystick Video Games

Playstation controllers. (Creative Commons)

The Studies

In 2009, the team of Carmen V. Russioniello, Kevin O’Brien, and Jennifer M. Parks published a study, “The Effectiveness of Casual Video Games in Improving Mood and Decreasing Stress.”  Casual video games (CVGs) in the study are recognized by the definition set by the Casual Games Association in 2007, described in the research abstract as:

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Bejeweled 2 is a gem themed match-three  puzzle game. (Matthew Keefe, Attribution)

“CVGs must be considered fun, quick to access, easy to learn, and require no previous video game skills, expertise, or regular time commitment to play.”

The games used in the study were Bejeweled 2, Bookworm Adventures, and Peggle. After playing one of the three games, participants completed a Profile of Mood States assessment. In nearly all cases, after playing one of the CVGs, players reported a decrease in tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion, and an increase in vigor.

In 2014, another study on the topic was done at the University of Central Florida. Together, the team produced a poster, “Casual Video Games Reduce Stress and Improve Mood,” that was presented at the Human Factors and Applied Psychology Student Conference 2015.

The study compared CVGs alongside guided relaxation and breaks as forms of stress relief. After putting participants through a 15-minute “vigilance” test, a test that measures reaction time to visual stimulus, they were asked to engage in one of the three relaxation methods.

Results showed that playing the CVG Sushi Cat 2 for 5 minutes was the most effective way to reduce stress and improve mood. Guided relaxation was also shown to be effective, but less so than playing casual video games. Taking a break was shown to be the least effective of the three methods.

I spoke with Dr. Dan McConnell, one of the researchers on the study, about his thoughts on what this new information means for high-stress environments. He explained that, most of all, this study shows that as part of a high-stress lifestyle, people need breaks in order to function at their best. Types of meditation and body-awareness methods have, throughout the years, been shown to be effective for reducing stress. Adding video games into the mix, Dr. McConnell said:

“The fact that playing a video game could get equal, if not better effects compared to that [relaxation method], that was a little bit surprising.”

Stress relief alternatives

Of course, CVGs make up only one of many ways that can be used to manage stressful situations. I spoke with the Assistant Director of Community Prevention and Intervention Services at Cal Poly: San Luis Obispo Dr. Hannah Roberts, who talked about a lot of baseline strategies for maintaining a healthy stress level.

The first thing to watch is the amount of sleep you get. Most people need between 7 – 9 hours sleep to function properly. Stimulants such as caffeine and cigarettes can elevate stress levels, so those should be minimized, especially when dealing with a lot of stress. Even depressants, such as alcohol, can create extra stress for the body.

After that, making sure you get enough exercise, are spending time outside, and are eating properly all go a long way to managing the stressors in life.

 

Indie developers making award-winning games in the AAA market

With the annual D.I.C.E. Summit only a month away, the recently released award nominations has been on the mind. Leading the way in nominations is Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, developed by Sony subsidiary Naughty Dog, with 10 nominations. Right behind them, with 9 nominations, is INSIDE, developed and published by independent game studio Playdead.

Seeing an indie game stand nearly toe-to-toe with a AAA just goes to show how indie games have been carving out their own niche in the game market.

(you can check out the full list of D.I.C.E. nominations here)

Indie developers

Back in 2011, Laura Parker wrote a piece on the Rise of the Indie Developer for Gamespot. It talks about a lot of fear people had, and still have, about the sudden interest in indie development. Games like Minecraft, Journey and Super Meat Boy  all started off in small indie studios, sometimes even with just one person—and became critical successes. Surely, this trend can’t continue for much longer.

Yet, it is still growing. In their first State of the Industry survey back in 2013, the Game Developers Conference polled 2,500 North American game developers and discovered that, at the time, 51% of the developers identified themselves as Indie developers. Among the respondents, 46% said that they were working in companies with less than 10 employees.

With digital distribution sites such as Steam, GOG, the App Store, Google Play, and so on becoming increasingly popular, its no wonder we’re seeing entrepreneurs making their way into the video game market. Many games can self-publish digital media without wasting profits on creating physical copies, something that would’ve been impossible just a few years ago. Beyond just creating shovelware, what makes the rise in indie development great is the fact that these small companies are releasing award-winning, potentially industry-changing content.

Award-winners

For Playdead, INSIDE is their second success. The game serves as spiritual successor to their debut title LIMBO, and expands on many of the original puzzle and platform mechanics found in LIMBO. At the Game Awards 2016, INSIDE was also recognized for Best Art Direction and Best Indie Game.

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INSIDE uses light and music to give the game a haunting atmosphere. (INSIDE, Playdead)

 

Also honored this year at the Game Awards was That Dragon, Cancer, recognized for its Impact. That Dragon, Cancer started as a small project by Ryan Green to celebrate the life of his son Joel, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 1 and died in March, 2014. Green’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Game Awards was heartfelt and emotional, thanking the audience for allowing him to tell Joel’s story:

“You let us tell the story of my son Joel. And in the end, it was not the story that we wanted to tell. But you chose to love us through our grief, by being willing to stop, and to listen, and to not turn away. To let my son Joel’s life change you because you chose to see him, and to experience how we loved him.”

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Ryan Green and his son Joel in That Dragon, Cancer. (That Dragon, Cancer, Numinous Games)

 

Releases set for the coming year show that the trend for innovative indie game development is still going strong. Right now, the best way we can support the growing indie market is staying aware of what’s being released. Previews for Cuphead, Night in the Woods, and Rime already show that there will always be a new way to make games.

[edited for readability; January 24, 2017]