[Guest Editorial] My First Trip To NEoN

We’re delighted to present the first in a series of guest editorials from people within the games and interactive industries.  Kim Blake is the education liason manager for Blitz Games (and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts).  She visited Dundee recently, for the NEoN festival and agreed to write a summary of the two day conference element for Scottishgames.net…

It’s always a pleasure to visit Dundee, in my experience a friendly and welcoming city that is never as cold as I fear it might be! Attending North East of North was a first for me, though; as Blitz Games Studios’ Education Liaison Manager I don’t get to go to many games conferences these days, never mind international digital arts festivals. Truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have got to attend NEoN at all if I hadn’t also had to be up in Dundee for a meeting with the wonderful people from University of Abertay and the Scottish Centre for Excellence in Computer Games Education.

And I would thus have missed out on one of the most interesting conferences I’ve ever been to: such a fabulous mix of radically different people taking the concept of ‘character’ and coming at it from their own personal and at times surreal perspectives. I really wish I’d been there for the whole of NEoN rather than just the conference. I can’t possibly hope to do justice to everything I saw, so I shall pick out my own highlights and try and describe them for you.

Dino Dini
is someone I’d heard of (of course!) but never heard speak before, and he was a revelation. He believes that the purpose of games is less to unfold a narrative than to “assist the player in making their own stories and in this way help them to understand and develop themselves”. He talked movingly about a period in his life when as he said, he’d “lost himself” and how Second Life, of all things, helped him to find himself again. He says that the video game medium has the capacity to help save humanity from itself, by teaching us that just as games are a journey, so is life, and in both cases the beginning and the end are dull – it’s only the middle that’s interesting! As someone who also believes that ‘this is not a dress rehearsal’ and that perhaps the only real purpose of living is to realize ourselves, his talk struck many profound chords within me. The question ‘who am I?’ can be rephrased as ‘what rules do I live by?’ and defining oneself is a process of deciding what those rules are; this is how we build ‘character’, in life as in games.

Playing games (not just computer games) allows us to imagine new options without necessarily risking the action itself, to imagine consequences without having to live with them; through play, children safely develop themselves and  adults need to do much more of this. He left us with the thought that humanity is still a child – wars, fights, arguments, religious superstition – and he issued a call for game designers to take on the greatest moral responsibility of all: to teach people to play again so that they can grow up. How? By designing games that encourage play. I was struck by this as I considered my own main hobby, Live Action Role Playing –  another form of learning about oneself through play, as well as being enormously good fun!

Looking at my notes from Pictoplasma’s talk – the wonderful Peter Thaler and Lars Denicke – I discover that they receive 40 – 50 rabbit drawings every day and would be very happy never to get another one 😉 They see character as a design process, a language, graphical communication and they illustrated their highly entertaining talk with a barrage of artwork by a wide range of (particularly European) artists. Words simply can’t do these guys justice, so head over to their website and see for yourself!

A quick tip of the hat to Carla Prada, animator with Microsoft’s venerable Rare Studio; her talk gave honest and useful insights into the world of working as a games animator, and must have been invaluable to the students in the room. I particularly liked her section on motion capture (which many animators loathe with a passion), in which she described how much she’d learned from working with mocap data about the tiny, subtle movements that human bodies make even when at rest, and how she had taken these insights back into her hand-key animation work. All round, an excellent talk with the correct strong emphasis on the importance of life drawing for animators, and her 4 point summary was spot on: work hard; use reference; get feedback; and have fun!

Ian Livingstone needs no introduction from anyone and he gave a touching and entertaining account of his personal history, from the early days setting up Games Workshop, then on through the Fighting Fantasy books to a magisterial review of the history and current state of the industry, finishing up with a celebration of the various incarnations of Lara Croft. For such a luminary, Ian spoke with considerable modesty and an amusingly dry wit. He said, and I absolutely concur, that there has never been a better time to be a content-creator; the difficulty lies in gaining visibility in the marketplace, but his advice is to do what you’re good at and rely on other people to do the rest. Oh, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes!

So to my last two favourites. Tim Pritlove of the Chaos Computer Club, a German hacker community, was a real eye-opener for me. The CCC was founded in 1981 “with an eye on 1984”, as a group of  technologically-aware citizens who made it their remit to publicise both the opportunities and the risks of new technology, and “to explain complicated things to people”, often by using the media to educate the public. Hackers see themselves as concerned citizens and artists, and Tim gave a beautiful illustration of this by telling us about the NEDAP hack.

NEDAP is a company that made voting computers which used to be used in 95% of elections in the Netherlands. Dutch hackers were very concerned that this was anti-democratic, pointing out that there is no transparency in this voting process; so they joined forces with their German counterparts and wrote ‘PowerFraud’ which silently changed the poll results. When they publicized this, NEDAP were scornful of their claims, stating that their machine ‘wasn’t a proper computer, because otherwise you would be able to play chess on it’… You guessed it 😉 Very shortly you could play chess on their machine! When the company still refused to accept the security risks and stated that the machines were never left unguarded, the hackers filmed themselves hacking one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtiqwAWu-DU

Shortly after this first the Dutch government and then the German government banned the use of voting computers. This was a genuine triumph for democracy, and I urge you all to go and find out  more about the CCC! (I also learned from this talk how to steal someone’s fingerprint and thus access their biometrically-secured computer 😉

And lastly, there was the amazing, the incomparable Ken Perlin. He talked about procedural animation, which is something that I’m fairly familiar with as we’re looking into it at Blitz, but then he went on to talk about procedural narrative generation. Now I started out many years ago as a designer in the games industry, and I was deeply skeptical to begin with; but by the end of his talk I was convinced he’s really onto something and desperate to know more!

Essentially, he thinks that our traditional methods of creating both animation and multi-stranded narrative are a dead end. They are inherently too complex and require too much work. Instead he observes that if you directly alter the behavior of characters, they are not characters at all but toys. Building a layered contingent narrative engine, on the other hand, offers theoretically infinite branches; narrative is fractal. Acting, he says, needs to be procedural from the inside out; treating body parts as actors (each part as a parameterized object) offers opportunities for the animation to learn and adjust itself to different environmental stimuli or constraints. He had a marvelous collection of short testbed animations, which I hoped might be available somewhere on the net but I haven’t yet managed to find any of them 🙁

He believes very strongly that the future lies in people creating tools that other creative people can use: true meta-art. Excitingly, he is hoping to release some of his experiments as relatively cheap middleware. Two last quotations: “A culture defines itself by the stories it tells.” “People are people’s main obsession; we’re all psychology hackers.”
http://tgustafson.com/2010/08/03/perlin-noise/

I truly believe there aren’t enough conferences like NEoN. It expanded my cultural boundaries and exposed me to work that I had never seen before, and which I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across in the normal run of things. I was privileged to attend some of the best talks I’ve ever heard, by some of the most interesting and entertaining people I’ve ever come across, and the organisation was slick and sure. All in all, Dundee should be very proud of itself that it hosts an event of such magnitude. I shall be back next year! — Kim Blake.

Thanks to Kim – and Blitz – for this summary of the NEoN conference.

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