Outbreak: the Game is part of the Serious Games Initiative. This Outbreak requires players to respond to the apandemic like the Avian Flu virus and its impact. The game’s website has more information: http://www.outbreakthegame.com/

Outbreak Game Screenshot

The game is still in development but, like many serious games, it already raises interesting questions about gaming. For instance, the game implicitly argues that a game-format simulation of a possible epidemic will promote awareness, promote strategic thinking about disease transmittal and prevention, and would promote thinking about responses. These are all quality goals; however, as pandemics like Avian Flu leave the news broadcasts and as the game continues in development, I wonder about the efficacy of building a game–given the development timespan–to address these issues.

The timespan I refer to is not the timespan for the game’s relevance–after all, what this game promises could be used to model epidemics or localized outbreaks of particular diseases like STDs–but the timespan for the game to actually be released. The two primary (only?) developers are students, and this is a master’s project for one of them, so how will the project continue once the students move on to new projects? I think quality projects like Outbreak require some sort of built-in support. Perhaps an Open Source or school initiative that archives the old projects for future use, or perhaps the pairing of writing students and developer students so that the writing students can provide documentation on the project so that new developers (students or not) can then build off of past work.

Overall, Outbreak looks like a great project and I’d like to see a working game. I’d also like to see a method in place for building off of past work instead of possibly losing quality work after students move on to new projects.

RIP: Strike Back

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Arcade style shooters are a dying breed, falling victim to the flash of three dimensions and a market’s neverending thirst for realism. Off the top of my head, I can name only two or three recent big-budget shooters, and none have received the praise they once would have. They seem to be going the way of the entire arcade, but with no attempts whatsoever to preserve them in a home setting.

RIP Strike Back Screen

That is until independent Russian developer White Elephant Games, founded just three years ago, put out a small game called RIP, featuring exactly this sort of play. The top-down view of the arenas achieved the familiarity that I think the developers are aiming for, filling a niche that is becoming less competitive by the hour.

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Mainstream Media on Serious Games

Mainstream media keeps picking up stories on serious games–mainly on games for health or games in relation to politics (including the ever-popular video games and violence issues). And, now mainstream game journalism has entered the mix. The CMP Game Group has released Serious Games Source. While Serious Games Source went live in March 2006, it looks like the bulk of the content has been added just recently.

The new feature stories and news are really useful. One of the stories is about a law professor who teaches game law, and uses games to teach law, and others are more generally on games and education, games and health, and games and advertising. The site has a lot of good content and will hopefully be a useful source in the future. And, more importantly, it shows that serious games are popular enough to warrant focused mass gaming media attention. I’m looking forward to more good things from Serious Games Source.

Truly Tasteless Games: The Turds

Hopefully everyone catches the title allusion to those tomes of forbidden humor that all the kids in my grade school coveted in the furthest corners of the playground. This is what The Turds feels like to me, the sort of terrible, terrible humor that I know full well I shouldn’t be laughing at. But I still do.

Codemasters is a well-known game publisher, creators of the fairly interesting Prisoner of War (in which players use their wits and stealth, not weapons, to escape a Nazi prison camp during WWII) and the rally race games based on the Colin McRae franchise. So it may seem odd that they are releasing a set of games branded after the “cult” UK phenomenon The Turds.

The Turds Characters

Created by Vanessa Smith, founder of Pacemaker UK and originator of the concept, The Turds have been making steady headway in the figurine, animation and videogame realm. Codemasters saw game gold in the franchise, and has released the first of a set of free web games on its casual gaming portal, Funsta.com.

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Sex and Games

The Sex in Videogames conference is coming up later this week (June 8-9, 2006). While sex and games has gotten a lot of press with the Hot Coffee mod, there’s been less press on the potential for games to deliver sexy and informative content.

For informative content, Iser games has just released two versions of a sex education game. One is a sex education trivia game for general use in schools or to help parents open a discussion about sex with their kids and the other is a similar sex education game that’s abstinence-focused.

Black Love Interactive also has informative games, but their games tend to be focused on the erotic side of gaming rather than than being purely informative. Their games include “WTF?! Sex Trivia” and “Rapture Online,” both of which seek to offer sexually stimulating fun.

While both the informative and the sexy approaches are useful for thinking about sex and games, the Sex in Videogame conference also offers a forum for discussions on how games can address sex and sexuality more generally. Since so many games have been developed for all ages, sex often hasn’t been as major of a component as it could be in gaming. Some games have incorporated sex and sexuality into their narratives, and into their general play. But sex is still an awkward and clunky subject for many others (after all, how often do we see games with other than heterosexual player-characters). And, as more sex gets incorporated into games, gaming will need to change media perceptions of gaming such that any adult content doesn’t risk the “Adults Only” label which seems more like the movie industries “NC-17″ than the likely more appropriate “R.” Hopefully the sex and videogames conference will bring up and help improve representations, and perceptions, of sex and sexuality in games.

Designing with Restraints

Retro Remakes is a new contest that runs from June 1 (today) through August 31. The contest wants games that are remade with accessibility in mind. Specifically, the contest wants: “Good remakes of good games that anyone can play, regardless of their ability.” They’re interested in games that limit the required means of user interaction. After all, most games require strong visual and auditory skills, as well as two hands with fast reflexes. For many people, that’s far too many requirements and altering those to be focused on one hand, or to place more emphasis on sound and less on vision, enables more people to play.

Plus, good design principles are about limits and allowances. Good design for games should allow players to play in fairly open ways. However, good design often limits user interaction so that users have a clear sense of what they should and shouldn’t do. This makes game play less confusing and less frustrating. Good web design follows the same principles with good design steering users/players toward the right choices while stifling users’ desires to do something less desirable. Bad design often overly restricts actions without providing a motivating factor for its constraints. Code, literature, and poetry have all explored different possibilities for working within constraints, deviating from standards and constraints, and establishing new constraints. Contests like Retro Remakes encourage game designers to do the same and to think about their players as a diverse group of folks with different needs. While the DS (and soon the Wii) offer new playing styles, more games need to offer ways for everyone to play. Retro Remakes is a big step in the right direction, and I can’t wait to see what the winning games are.

Learning Games

In addition to mainstream games and indy games, like the games designed by girls, a number of designing tools, including new ways to learn programming are in production. Many are aimed at interesting atypical programmers. Projects like Mary Flanagan’s Rapunsel Project, which aims to build a software environment to teach programming concepts to kids. Similarly, Carnegie Mellon University’s Alice Project aims “to provide the best possible first exposure to programming for students ranging from middle schoolers to college students.” Alice seems to be doing quite well, especially with one textbook already out and another set to come out later this year.

Loads of other projects (including earlier versions of Alice) have been around for years, like Logo and Carnegie Mellon has a host of older and newer projects that can be used in teaching and in learning about games. Games that teach and games that inspire learning beg for additional building tools and games that allow others to then build more games and these are just a few of the projects that help create building blocks for educational games.

Classic Alt-Gaming: Not Pr0n

The first screen of Not Pr0n.First released in July 2004 by David Münnich, a German artist, musician, and game creator, Not Pr0n is billed as “the Internet’s hardest riddle.” Not Pr0n was conceived after seeing an earlier game, This Is Not Porn, which, in Münnich’s opinion is “pretty unfair and rather boring.” To make a more fair, more enjoyable game, Münnich put a lot of effort into molding the progression of levels to teach the player to play. He began posting just a few levels in July of 2004. By July, 2005, Not Pr0n officially ended, comprised of 139 levels.

Coming up on its second birthday, and the anniversary of its completion, it’s a perfect time to take a look at Not Pr0n, play it again, and consider it as a well-established Web game.

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Plasma Pong is a completely tripped-out version of regular Pong that incorporates fluid dynamics. In addition to deflecting the ball with your paddle, you can now use jets and vortices of fluid pressure to help guide the ball. And all of this is rendered in a super-colorful “plasma” style. If you love the visual style of games like Geometry Wars, Mutant Storm, and Darwinia, then you need to check this one out. Click here to download Plasma Pong, free for Windows PCs. # 0

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