Violin Hero: The Game

Is there any instrument that sounds more unpleasant in the hands of a beginner than the violin? Consider the piano. No matter where you hit the keys, you‘re guaranteed to be in tune, whereas if you’re off by just a millimetre on the violin, everyone will know. The guitar has frets that help delineate finger positions, while violins have nothing but a long, terrifying, featureless expanse. The cello? The strings are longer and the pitch is lower, so you have more room for error.

If it’s not your finger positioning, then it’s your bowing. And if it’s not your bowing, it’s too much — or too little — rosin. And so on.

Unless you’re unfortunate enough to have a child learning it, it‘s rare indeed to encounter the torturous sounds of a poorly-played violin. It’s for that reason alone, I think, that parents encourage their children to take up lessons. If they knew they‘d be exposed to hundreds of hours of frustrated, repetitive scratchings before hearing a hint of the heavenly tones that they hear on the radio or Spotify, they’d have bought a piano or guitar instead.

Yes, I learned the violin. How could you tell?

I do my best work when I solve my own problems. When I was at school, I spent a year in a ‘Young Enterprise’ scheme creating CD-ROM textbooks for biology, chemistry and physics exams because I found revising unbelievably boring (the company, of which I was Managing Director, instantly began in-fighting the moment a software publisher offered to buy the CDs).

More recently, Zombies, Run! — a fitness game for smartphones that makes running fun — was partly borne out of the months of pain and tedium that accompanied my learning how to run at university.

Learning the violin? That’s a special kind of pain, and it requires a special kind of solution. But it’d be worth it, because if you can make it through hundreds and thousands of hours of hard graft, you just might have a few moments of pure grace.

As with a lot of funny-but-mildly-offensive memes, High Expectations Asian Father has a kernel of truth to it. I saw a variation: “You can learn whatever musical instrument you want: Violin or Piano.”

I learned both.

I don’t know where these stereotypes come from, but the best origin story I’ve heard says that immigrants have always suffered from prejudice, and the Asian response was to pursue professions in which advancement depended purely on objective criteria. Becoming a journalist or an artist requires connections and is subject to people’s opinions, whereas becoming a doctor can be accomplished through aceing exams, whose results no-one can dispute.

The violin and piano, of course, both require a high degree of technical mastery, and they both are dominated by classical music — that is, music one can objectively decide whether it’s being played ‘properly’ or not, as opposed to all this modern pop or rap music, which changes so quickly it’s hard to trust your own opinions.

I was never a good violinist. After more than eight years of practice, I attained Grade 8 more out of sheer grit rather than natural aptitude; I may have produced a tolerable sound, but never one that was good.

Except for when I was playing in an orchestra. You might think that the only thing worse than hearing a beginner violinist is hearing twenty beginners play, but in truth, differences in pitch (“intonation,” my teacher would cry, “intonation!”) are evened out the more players you have. The tempo would still be all over the place, but even amateur orchestras could sound mostly OK with a bit of practice.

It was also much more fun to play in an orchestra. Unlike the terrifying, solitary experience of playing alone, you could lean on your desk-mate and the people in front of you (and, as a last resort, look at the conductor) to know when you were supposed to ‘come in’ after several bars of silence. It was really quite exciting, when you weren’t bored from repeating the same section a dozen times.

At most school and youth orchestras, you begin at the bottom of the second violins, then gradually advance up to the first desk position, and then graduate into the first violins; the second violins get all the dull harmonies that don’t sound like anything at all, whereas the first violins get the heroic melodies.

In my orchestra, no matter how terrible they sounded, violinists were typically promoted into the first violins in their last year, as a reward for their long service. As it happened, I was born early in the school year, meaning the conductors didn’t realise I was in my last year until too late, so I never played in the first violins. Instead, I spent a whole year as the leader of the second violins.

I don’t know that anyone enjoys being leader of the second violins, especially in a youth orchestra. You get the occasional heroic solo, but for the most part you’re looking after your younger charges — making sure they have their music ready, showing them when we’re supposed to come in with our harmony by exaggeratedly lifting your violin a couple of bars early, that sort of thing. It’s a responsibility without much reward, but someone’s got to do it, otherwise the orchestra stops working. For me, it was an instructive experience.

I also learned the piano for several years, but that was much more fun.

Perhaps learning the violin is not meant to be fun. Lots of things in life are not fun, but they are character building.

But this is absurd! It’s possible to take a skill that require thousands of hours of practice to fully master, and make it fun. It might take a lot of effort and time and entire new fields of technology like chess computers or virtual reality, but it is possible.

And I think it’s now possible for learning the violin. Continue reading “Violin Hero: The Game”

Once Upon a Time in the Westworld

No-one watches Game of Thrones and thinks, “this show describes my life perfectly.” It may contain plenty of themes and imagery that ring true today, about lust for power and the pitiless brutality of war — it may be fantastic storytelling — but unlike drama set in the ‘real’ world of doctors and policewomen and unemployed people, it’s a harder jump to put yourself in the place of characters who shoe horses or chop people’s heads off for a living.

As a science fiction drama set at an indeterminate point in the future, Westworld is slightly more ‘real’ than Game of Thrones, but the premise is arguably more ridiculous — a theme park set in the Old West, filled with robots that guests pay to have sex with and kill. We all know how that story ends, don’t we?

But by the end of the second episode, Westworld felt more relevant to my life than almost anything else I’ve watched recently. Why?

Because it’s one of the first shows to take videogames seriously. Yes, it’s also about humanity’s relationship and responsibility towards its creations — but when you see characters talking about finding hidden levels, and employees frustrated about designing new quests with exquisitely-modelled robot actors, you don’t need a PhD to understand what they’re talking about.

To a certain set of people, videogames still mean Super Mario and Space Invaders, Call of Duty and Candy Crush. So when these people depict videogames in fiction, they get flattened out into mindless gore-laden cariactures or hyper-addictive puzzle games. There isn’t much interesting to say about those games, other than in a Black Mirror-ish “the future is terrible, and so are we” way.

But there are other games out there, role-playing games where you can explore enormous worlds for hundreds of hours, becoming a knight or a criminal or, yes, a cowboy, helping or hindering hundreds of non-player characters (NPCs) in countless quests. They aren’t ‘better’ than Tetris, but they’re very different.

And it’s these role-playing games that Westworld is so familiar with and evidently very skeptical of, even as they crib them for material. There’s one scene in the second episode where a man is introducing his friend to the world, and they’re flagged down by a town inhabitant who robotically recites his lines about a hidden treasure. The man drags his friend away, performing the equivalent of hammering “X” on a controller to skip through a story cutscene, impatient to get to the good bits — and that’s not even the most obvious example of their dislike for canned gaming dialogue.

Canned dialogue or not, it’s what visitors pay $40,000 per night for. “We sell complete immersion in 100 interconnected narratives. A Relentless! Fucking! Experience!” shouts one game designer, a little defensively. Westworld is not merely about shooting people or having sex or even about the incredible environment — it’s not about mindless thrills, it’s about placing visitors into the heart of their own, tailor-made adventure where they can become the (anti)hero. It’s about the story.

Oh, what sweet words to my ears.

Once upon a time, my actual job was Alternate Reality Game Designer. For three years, I was lead designer of a fictional world that blended straight into our own world. Tens of thousands of paying players would receive emails to their personal accounts, phone calls on their mobile, and letters in the mail. They’d discover adverts laden with clues in the newspaper, and when they’d meet with other players, one might escape onto a literal black helicopter when uncovered as an in-game mole.

It was a thrilling and incredibly stressful experience to create a world that was always ‘on’, but that’s what we were selling; unlike practically every other ARG to date, we weren’t advertising movies or cars or jeans. We were selling a standalone experience, one that aspired to provide complete immersion in interconnected narratives but — of course — wasn’t quite as immersive as Westworld.

I don’t pretend that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have ARGs foremost in their minds when writing Westworld. They were probably more interested in epic role-playing games and massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto or The Witcher 3. But I like to think that ARGs are closer in reality to what they’ve created. It’s only in ARGs that you physically step into a fictional world for days on end; it’s only ARGs that have attempted to blend real world storytelling and gameplay. So yes, I feel a frisson of delight as I watch the first show that reflects my job. I can imagine the millions of role-playing gamers gradually ageing into their 30s and 40s — a prime HBO subscriber demographic — feel just the same way.

It’s far too early to tell how much Westworld can tell us about our relationship with videogames. Stray too far from how a ‘real’ Westworld might work and the story loses its power to tell us about our own world. Even by the end of the second episode, you’re left wondering how, precisely, the theme park prevents players from accidentally stabbing each other, or from constantly breaking character and irritating other players keen to immerse themselves in the fiction.

But adhering too closely to gaming verisimilitude can produce an overly cautious and mechanical story. Even as a gaming and technology enthusiast, I have little interest in Westworld exploring the minutiae of experience points and AR field of vision.

Judging by its first two hours, I remain hopeful that Westworld will continue to address videogames. It’s a rich, untapped narrative vein to mine: what people will do to win, the seductive attraction of repetitive actions that make us feel like we’ve accomplished something, our desire for a world that we can master and yet can still surprise us.

In the mean time, I have too many silly ideas for Westworld writing projects. Here are just a few:

  • Diary of a Westworld game designer
  • How I’d design a Westworld fan ARG
  • Westworld Patch Notes
  • Westworld Metacritic Reviews

Austerity: The LARP

Everyone in Britain is playing a game called Austerity. Some are playing the game with enthusiasm and conviction. Some are playing with calculation and cunning. And others believe they are not playing, when in fact they cannot escape the game.

Austerity is not a console game with expensive graphics, nor is it an addictive casual game for smartphones. It is a LARP: a Live Action Role-Playing game. Like other LARPs, this game consumes your environment and your life. Unlike other LARPs, Austerity does not take place on a disused Swedish naval destroyer and end after a weekend. You will live and breathe Austerity for as long as everyone continues to believe in it, which means it may have no end.

It has a beginning, though: the Second World War.

Nostalgia is an intoxicating brew. We venerate WW2, the last time Britain was Great, the last time the Kingdom felt truly United, the last time we had a national victory that wasn’t on the field of play. It’s natural to look back fondly on such times, acknowledging the horrors and respecting the sacrifice.

Wait, no. Not respecting the sacrifice – fetishising it.

This is Keep Calm and Carry On. This is Dig for Victory, ration books, Downton Abbey (sort of) and Doctor Who’s innumerable wartime stories.

Dig for Victory and ration books are real, of course. They were part of the civilian mission to harness the entire capacity of a country in the pursuit of victory in a total war. Likewise, war bonds and volunteering and sewing clothes for the men. Money was tight but it was necessary to be thrifty. Virtuous, even. And who can say that the war was not won by such virtuous sacrifice?

Austerity has those sentiments at its heart: sacrifice is necessary for victory against an existential threat such as the Nazis.

Today’s existential threats are the European Union, immigrants, a slightly high debt-to-GDP ratio, and a lack of respect from other countries. To prevail against such enemies, hard choices must be made. We cannot afford to waste money on shirkers, or waste money on fripperies such as arts and culture. We must cut taxes on entrepreneurs and reward hard-working families, because people who are not in families, and people who do not work hard, do not deserve anything.

Now, it may be that these hard choices often end up benefitting those who already have lots of money; but this is where the game becomes important as a justification and a distraction. If players are encouraged to emulate the heroes of WW2, to Keep Calm and Carry On, then we will be prepared to sacrifice anything to save the nation from existential threats: to cut social security, to close those theatres and museums.

Sometimes players get upset when they perceive that other players are breaking the immersion, as can happen in other LARPs. For example, we didn’t have all these foreigners back in WW2, so it’s wrong to have them here now. We didn’t have wind power and solar power either, so that must also be wrong.

But the truth is, we are all breaking the rules in Austerity. If we were really committing to the LARP, then we would be investing hours a day into community gardens and volunteer work. We would be living and fighting and dying, cheek by jowl, on the front lines, the baker next to the banker, the lawyer next to the labourer.

Real believers in Austerity would reinstate the two thousand British Restaurants, communal kitchens that would sell you a healthy meal for the equivalent of £1 in today’s money. They would serve a million meals a day to those who couldn’t afford any better, and they would make the country fit and strong.

Like other LARPs, Austerity is a sham. And like other LARPs, a lot of players don’t want to take on the hard roles – they just want to do the easy fun stuff; the sewing and dressing up and saving pennies while forcing other players to part with pounds. That is why the special mission in Austerity, “The Big Society”, was such a failure.

The real danger of the Austerity LARP, though, is that it’s not actually real. We don’t live in 1945 any more; we live in 2015. We do not face an existential threat to the nation (other than perhaps climate change). We are not obliged to spend £45 billion, or 2.2% of GDP, on a non-productive military. We do, however, have the money to spend more on the institutions that made this country great: social security, NHS, the universities, the schools.

We need to snap the fuck out this playtime and get real.

The Secret Weapon to Get Kids Fit

Here’s a conundrum:

  1. Games are fun.
  2. Kids like games. Especially computer games.
  3. Many parents think their kids should be more physically active.

So why don’t we have more games that get kids moving?.

Combining kids’ love of games with their parents love of keeping their kids healthy seems like the perfect opportunity to do good and to make money — and yet we still don’t have ‘Fitbit for kids’. Is this like the proverbial dollar on the sidewalk that no-one’s picked up yet, or is there something more fundamental that stands in the way of kids’ fitness games and gadgets?

According to the CDC, obesity has more than doubled in children, and quadrupled in adolescents, over the past 30 years. Everyone from Michelle Obama to Jimmy Fallon is concerned about getting kids more physically active and eating more healthily. There are few out there who don’t realise this is a major challenge — and thankfully, there are some signs of improvement.

In the modern world of fast food, sugary drinks, and the lack of sports facilities in many areas, there are no easy solutions to improving kids’ fitness — but new ideas like fitness games might help reach kids who aren’t otherwise already engaged. In a perfect world, we could design fitness games that are as accessible and compelling and fun as playing on a smartphone or console.

These games might not be needed for kids who already play a lot of sports, but they could provide a valuable way to reach those who don’t. Kids who already enjoy playing sports don’t need this kind of encouragement, but all kids don’t have access to physical activities they enjoy. I didn’t enjoy our mandatory cross-country and rugby outings at school — but when I was allowed to play sports that I actually enjoyed, like football and badminton, I became fitter.

From Dance Dance Revolution to the Leapband, many people have already tried to tackle this problem. But why have so few succeeded in making a lasting impact?

At Six to Start, we’ve made several very successful digital fitness games like Zombies, Run!, The Walk (both co-created with Naomi Alderman), 7 Minute Superhero Workout, and Step Buy Step: A Pedometer Adventure, but these are best suited for teens and older — for those with the agency and motivation to perform solo exercises like running and walking and bodyweight routines.

Things are very different for toddlers, children, pre-teens, and teens. For example:

  • Adult supervision is often required
  • Team sports and playground games are generally favored as they also help promote social interaction skills
  • Smartphones are fragile and difficult to set up, compared to a dedicated toy/gadget. However, they are getting significantly cheaper.
  • Game themes and maturity must be adjusted (we’d need to remove some of the gorier scenes in Zombies, Run! if we wanted to get pre-teens playing!)
  • Shorter attention spans, different levels of stamina and strength (obviously)

So, let’s see what’s out there for younger players: Continue reading “The Secret Weapon to Get Kids Fit”

Watching the Future of Wearable Gaming

If you’ve been paying attention to the big tech headlines recently, you’ll have noticed the same trend as I have. Apple Watch. Microsoft HoloLens. Magic Leap. Wearable computing is on everyone’s minds (and arms, and faces). But all these people getting excited about their glasses and digital crowns are late to the party. We’ve all been part of an invisible wearable tech revolution without even knowing it.

Does this sound familiar? You strap your phone to your arm, pop your earbuds in and head out for your run. GPS tracks your location, the phone’s accelerometer and gyro sensors give you detailed stats about your elevation and split times, you hear mile markers and pace updates and maybe even zombies behind you, your phone vibrates when it needs your attention — and a dozen other functions besides. I’d bet a decent number of you have this experience multiple times a week. And you know what? That sounds a hell of a lot like wearable computing to me.

So, ignore all those people waving their shiny plastics in your face on stage and telling you its the future of wearable tech. That future’s already here, and fitness gaming is a huge part of it. Let’s have a look.


Back in 2008, users of Nike+ and Runkeeper treated the iPhone as a wearable computer. The value of having audio updates of your run, plus a GPS trace and other stats afterwards, far outweighed the inconvenience of strapping on a phone or buying a separate GPS device.

When we designed Zombies, Run! in 2011, it was this added value that we were thinking about: the capability to provide a richly interactive, location-aware running experience. We knew that runners already wore headphones for music, so we made audio our primary mode of output (fitting nicely with our expertise in audio production and storytelling) rather than making people look at the screen.

We also knew that GPS and accelerometer data was just about good enough to serve as an input method. That meant we could see whether users were outrunning our virtual zombies or not. Again, this worked better than making people touch the screen.

That said, without screen-based interaction, we felt we couldn’t make Zombies, Run! truly location-sensitive. We couldn’t reliably direct people to run to precise locations (GPS was and still isn’t fast/accurate enough, particularly for the level of safety we need), or give them frequent gameplay or story choices, or let them see the position of zombies relative to themselves.

Other apps, in fact, have tried these things, and I think the reason they failed is for the simple reason that no-one wants to run while looking at a handheld screen. The truth is, there have been precious few successful games for wearable computers.


Will the Apple Watch change things? Probably not — at least, not yet. Continue reading “Watching the Future of Wearable Gaming”

Eternal Fundraising, Luxuries as Resiliency, Isometric Buildings

Mr. Miller Doesn’t Go to Washington, a bracingly honest story about running for Congress. It just astonishes me quite how much time candidates – and elected politicians – have to spend on fundraising. Hours. A. Day.

I had written before about how crazy it is that we expect politicians to spend four hours a day (or more) on the money chase. But nothing prepares you for what it’s like to be in the candidate’s chair.

First order of business is introducing you to the bizarre rites and rituals associated with reaching out to the 1/20th of 1 percent of Americans who fund campaigns, and I soon learned consultants have studied dialing for dollars with anthropological precision. One consultant’s motto is, “Shorter calls means more calls!”—i.e., more money. So stop all the chitchat. When you make the “ask,” another told me—and that’s typically for the max of $2,600 per person, $5,200 per couple—just say the number and pause: Don’t keep talking. And above all, don’t leave L.A. for an out-of-town fundraiser unless you’re guaranteed to rake in at least $50,000, and preferably 100 large. Anything less and it’s not worth the hassle.

Blessed are the wastrels, for their surplus could save the Earth, a fascinating argument that luxury industries represent a massive pool of ‘unplanned’ resiliency in the face of disasters (as opposed to planned resiliency, which can easily be defunded):

Organic farms are an example [of a less excessive ‘luxury’]: they use their inputs (land, grain, animals) to produce food at higher cost and lower quantity than conventional farming. The advantages of organic food appeal to richer, western consumers. But if the situation were desperate, organic farms could be retooled for mass production of lower-quality but still edible foods. The same goes for factories making super-plasma, hyper-surround cinema-experience televisions (or similar toys for the wealthy). This rich demand maintains a manufacturing base for extreme luxury products, but one that could be repurposed for mass production of less extravagant but more useful products if needed.

Concrete Jungle – Building the Buildings: I had always assumed that the lovely 2D isometric buildings you see in games like SimCity must be the product of superbly trained artist. While I don’t doubt the skill involved, this step-by-step guide on drawing pixel perfect isometric buildings (using 3D intermediates) is fascinating:


Once everything is arranged pleasingly, it’s time to render. I’m using Blender to generate my renders- it’s completely free and it’s rendering engine is delicious. The scene I’m using has the render camera set up to render isometrically (is that a word?) What’s outputted is something that looks like this but bigger:


Gamergate is Bullshit

Gamergate is bullshit, and it’s certainly not about ethics in journalism. Threats and harassment against women in gaming is reprehensible for any reason whatsoever, and it’s astonishing that the very people who are pushing the boundaries of what gaming can do and express are the ones being attacked.

Now, I had hoped it would go without saying that that’s my opinion, mainly because I was afraid of saying it out loud. That’s right – even though I own and run a company that, by definition, I cannot be fired from, and even though I don’t have any advertisers who can be threatened, I’m still a bit afraid about speaking out. That’s the chilling effect of Gamergate, and it’s what has made me shirk my responsibility to speak out against it. I thought, better to keep my head down, which is terrible.

I don’t have a lot to add to the discussion, other than to say two things.

Firstly, publicly condemning Gamergate is a good start, but it’s not enough. Whoever you are, if you love and enjoy games, it’s your responsibility to support and champion those people who are taking a risk – whether that’s people making games that are not horribly sexist and that preferably promote feminism, or people who critique the portrayal of women in games (among other troubling portrayals). Do what you feel able to – and then some more. You’re on the right side of history, and this is the moment where your actions will count the most.

Secondly, if I were 17 right now, there’s a good chance I would have sympathised with the Gamergaters. I found it difficult to talk to and relate with girls and that made me resentful and defensive. I felt my life was difficult enough, and the notion that women had it any harder than I did was incomprehensible. I choose that word incomprehensible because I really mean it; I had no idea the level of harassment and unfairness they experienced in life, and anyone telling me otherwise was obviously mistaken and just attacking me.

Thankfully I wasn’t obsessed over this, and I had plenty of other, more productive things to occupy my time with. But it wasn’t for another few years that I began to mix with a wider group of people and read more books and experience better art and gradually comprehend that other people had far bigger and far different problems than my own. So my story is a positive one: it’s possible for people to grow and mature, if they’re helped.

If we declare that the behaviour of Gamergate is not acceptable; if we support and champion the people making games into better art; if we help those who don’t comprehend to comprehend (which will take a lot of time and patience!) – we move forward to a better world, inch by halting inch.

Journeys, Not Badges

From Girl Scouts Debate Their Place in a Changing World (NYT):

A 2011 overhaul of girl scouting programs abandoned the old badge system and adopted a set of three “Journeys.” It also aligned badges and leadership opportunities with 21st-century ideas revolving around social issues, professional opportunities for women, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM curriculum.

Wikipedia adds:

In 2011, there were three Journeys, with books and awards for each level: “It’s Your World—Change It!”, “It’s Your Planet—Love It!”, and “It’s Your Story—Tell It!”.

And from the Girl Scouts themselves:

A girl Discovers her special skills and talents, finds the confidence to set challenging goals for herself and strives to live by her values. This includes being proud of where she came from as well as where she’s going.

A girl Connects with others, which means she learns how to team up, solve conflicts, and have healthy relationships. These skills help her in school right now and prepare her for any career she chooses in the future.

A girl Takes Action and makes the world a better place, learning a lot about her community and the world along the way.

Reverse gamification! Less emphasis on a series of unconnected badges, and more on a (hopefully) coherent and meaningful journey. Although at first glance, I wonder if journeys might end up being too broad? It’s hard to strike a balance.