Friday, 7 June 2013

A Gaming Passion

Man I miss doing public events. TAM London remains one two of the best things I ever organised, and although I've done many events since then, they've mostly been private affairs. In other words, nothing I can tweet and blog about, nothing I can generate BUZZ around.

Buzz has to be a reflection of personal passion. Nothing is worse than a cynical attempt at "hey this is kool, look!!!" from someone with no genuine interest in the subject matter or the intended audience. I don't work on public events if they're not something I'm passionate about, because I'm not about to be phony. I hate phony. I love the word phony, but that's just a Catcher in the Rye fan thing.

So, in the spirit of passion and non-phonyness, I'd like to talk about games.

You might already know that I write a monthly column on gaming culture and media myths in Custom PC magazine (I've started reposting some articles from the archives on this very blog), and you almost certainly know I spend a lot of my free time horizontal, Maltesers to hand, playing games of all descriptions. What you probably don't know, though, is that the company I run with my partner DC Turner (you know, the Storm guy), makes games as well as animations. I don't talk about that side of business on Twitter much because most of our game dev work is for other studios, but we currently have two of our own games in development so give it a month or two, I'll be chewing your eyes off with buzz and passion about them.

Where does it come from, the passion? In my Gaming Myths and Monsters talk I reframe the oft-stated gendered opinion "you don't look like a gamer!" as "you don't look like you enjoy fun!". Once you understand it in those terms you realise how ridiculous gamer stereotypes are, and that's before we get to the actual data.

The truth is, I've played videogames since as far back as I can remember, which is roughly 1980 (the first game I remember playing was Little Brickout, Apple's version of Breakout). I owe my entire game passion to my parents, who were if not pioneers of home computing, then at least early settlers. My dad, a former RAF engineer, helped to bring Apple computers to Britain, travelling to Cupertino and coming back with some amazing stuff like this Apple pendant
Photo courtesy of my sister Rachael
alongside demo machines that lived in our Birmingham council house and could be used for Applesoft BASIC and games. The family threw itself into both with delight.

In the mid 1980s my dad went to work for British startup competitor, Apricot. I remember almost nothing about that period other than him bringing home an Apricot Portable and it blowing everyone's minds. It had a wireless keyboard. In 1984. I'm typing this on my iPad using a wireless keyboard. Apart from bluetooth rather than infrared, it's the same damn idea. Everything in its own time, I guess.

Then he worked for Tandy, the British retail arm of electronics giant Radio Shack. Up until then you could only really buy computers mail order, from catalogues, so it was pretty exciting to be able to visit an actual shop and rifle through game cassettes. I remember my dad bringing home several Tandy promotional torches and lots and lots of batteries. Tandy loved batteries. He also brought home computers, mostly to fix (he was the local store's engineer) but also a Tandy Colour that mysteriously stayed in our house even though we were poor as heck and not remotely able to afford one. Let's assume some favours were swapped somewhere. Most games were Dragon 32 ports, like Cuthbert Goes Walkabout and Keys of the Wizard.

My dad must also at some point have worked for Acorn, cause we definitely had a BBC Micro for a while, and various other machines (and probably some he built from random bits). All I learned was that Computers Are Awesome, and avoided any of the nonsensical brand loyalty that hampers other people's psyche and pockets.

And then...the big one. The gaming machine that would turn me from casual gamer to hardcore gamer. The Amstrad 464 (we also had a CPC 6128 on loan but history doesn't care about that). My dad was working for Amstrad in the late 80s and while other kids were recovering from the Great Console Market Crash, I was busy enjoying Harrier Attack (no, not that one), Bridge It, and of course Dizzy.

Shortly after his death in 1988, my dad's Amstrad machines had to go back to his employer, and I was gameless. Until a year or so later when my mom bought me a 464plus on credit, which in hindsight was a major financial sacrifice. But, I appreciated it. Still do, mom! *wave*

The 464plus had a 'groundbreaking' cartridge system and came bundled with a cart containing BASIC (yay!) and a racing game called Burning Rubber in which nothing whatsoever happened. I played it for hours at a time, somehow. I don't think any other cartridge games emerged, but fortunately it also had a tape deck so I could continue my enduring love affair with Dizzy.

Aww, an analogue game.
No early consoles for young King (my cousin Marcelle had those so I didn't go entirely inexperienced), PCs all the way until the Amiga CD32. Now of course I have all the consoles, a gaming rig, three Monopoly sets and some Star Trek playing cards, but there's one thing that I had that console kids didn't. I've mentioned it several times. I had BASIC. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting with my parents while we took it in turns to read code from the back of books or magazines, and type. Then the inevitable Syntax Errors and the manual hunt for the errant semi-colon. Understanding games from the inside out.

So that's the history of the passion. What has that to do with events? This:

Admit it, that's a nice logo.
I'm very excited to be involved with etooLondon, a grassroots alternative to gaming behemoth E3. I'm volunteering my time and mad skillz to what I think is a great event, and I was hoping if you have even a little bit of passion for games, you might donate some time too. We're looking for video submissions to play on the livestream or put on our YouTube channel, from gamers and developers alike, talking about your favourite games(s) or what you're excited about this year or your gaming rig or...well, anything you like that's gamesy, really. Ideally we need them by Sunday night so get the phone out, camera on, and tell me your own gaming passion. I'll be making one, I'll append it to this post when it's done. See you online!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

A Gentle Reminder - Porn and the Internet

We need to talk about porn. Awkward, I know, but think about it from my perspective: at least you can see my photo. I have no idea what you look like so this is less of an exchange and more of a window. And that, of course, is the point. Leaving aside webcam services, the majority of online pornographic material is for looking at rather than interacting with, which is why it's long been a feminist issue (theories of objectifying rather than empathising) and is now becoming a technology and government issue. One which has implications beyond naked bodies and the contents of our second hard drives.

Many governments worldwide have become convinced that online pornography is a corrupting influence for the viewer. A 'normal, healthy' relationship, argue politicians and pressure groups, is not reflected in the sorts of material one can easily find just by Googling, and this, so the claim goes, is leading to all sorts of unrealistic expectations in the bedroom.

Iceland is currently attempting to address this ill-defined problem by banning online porn. It's slightly farcical because pornography is already illegal in that country, but the law hasn't been enforced because no-one has defined what pornography actually is. Until now! For the purposes of ridding its citizens, particularly the delicate young, of feathered-gimp hell, Iceland is defining pornography as 'material with degrading or violent content'.

At the risk of suggesting they are repeating themselves, without also defining 'degrading' and 'violent', they're not going to get very far, and that of course is where the danger of the banhammer approach lies. Any tech solution to the porn problem will be a blunt instrument - either a site will be banned or it will not. The two methods suggested by Iceland's interior minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, are to make it illegal to pay for porn with an Icelandic credit card, or to blacklist specific URLs. The flaws in those ideas are so immediate and laughable it's hard to imagine Mr Jonasson has more than a passing understanding of the internet. 

The answer is 'a time machine'.

But on what evidence are pressure groups basing their theories of harm? A lot of the hysteria comes from reasonable fears that children are accessing extreme images, without applying appropriate blame on lack of parental supervision or education. Several studies (Malmuth et al) show that the correlation between viewing of sexual media and actual sexual behaviour is heavily influenced by home environment, parents, cultural background and emotional state.

In adults, the evidence so far doesn't seem to confirm the fears that are leading to legislation. A University of British Columbia study (Williams et al) shows that for most people, watching porn doesn't correlate with sexually deviant behaviour. However, having sexually deviant desires to begin is very likely to result in seeking porn that fulfils them. Exactly the same misunderstood correlation that gets violent games and films a bad rep, then.

The chances of newspapers, parent or religious pressure groups, and politicians ever discussing this issue from an evidence standpoint and not a moral judgement one are slim, but when the price is firewalls, censorship, and the slow erosion of choice, we have an obligation to look at the facts alongside the porn.

A version of this post was published in Custom PC Magazine, February 2013.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

21st Century Myths - Magnets and Black Screens

Last Christmas I bought a lot of those little neodymium magnet balls for my partner. Not the now-dead expensive Buckyballs but the generic cheap ones cause he'll be bored of them in a month. He put them on his desk, and I instinctively said "keep them away from your PC!", because everyone knows that magnets wipe hard drives, credit cards, and robot memories. Then it occurred to me that my previously-held belief in the data-destroying powers of magnets may be outdated, and quite possibly based on nothing more than an episode of Breaking Bad. Is there any reason for your data to fear the magnet? 

Dan's balls.

The key is coercivity, the degree to which you can demagnetise a magnetic substance. You can measure coercivity using a magnetometer, which has 'Magneto' in it and is therefore great. If you want to erase data, you need a magnet with a higher magnetic field than the coercivity of the drive. That's straightforward enough in theory, but in practice it's oddly hard to find out what the coercivity of a hard drive is, partly because the number is increasing all the time. At most it's 5000 Oe, but 2500 seems about average. Most credit or debit cards are around the 300 Oe mark, for comparison.

I spoke to magnet expert and engineer Michael Paul of who told me that yes, little spherical magnets can wipe or corrupt the data on the magnetic strip of a credit card, if you wipe them along the surface. "The good news", he said "is that the field strength drops really quickly as you get farther away from the magnet. A magnet an inch away from the card probably won't affect it at all". Phew! But what about bigger magnets and hard drives, as per Breaking Bad?

Michael has actually conducted some tests with some big neodymium magnets and failed to affect the data in a hard drive. He told me, 

"the coercivity of modern hard drives is much higher than old floppy discs or VHS tapes. You need an incredibly strong field to demagnetize it. If you rub a magnet right on the surface of the hard drive platter itself, that should produce enough field strength at the drive. Of course, if you have already disassembled it that far, you could just as easily scratch it up or drill a hole in it if your intention is to destroy data". 

In his opinion, it's not possible to effectively wipe or scramble the data on a hard drive with powerful magnets without disassembling it. So much for conventional wisdom.

Another bit of received wisdom that doesn't seem to go away, a long-believed truth in the energy-saving powers of the black screen. I first heard about this several years ago when a link to 'black Google' was doing the rounds. Based on the theory that white pixels use more energy to display than black ones, the origin seemed to be a Lawrence Berkeley paper which at best is now woefully outdated. 

"But is it Y2K compliant?"
Back in 2001 the researchers looked at mostly CRT monitors and a few LCD monitors, which already tells us something about the uselessness of this data. It's absolutely the case that for the CRT monitors, less energy was used displaying an entirely black screen, but for LCD monitors the effect disappeared. Even the researchers acknowledged that. So anyone using an LCD monitor with black screen settings, you might mean well but the resulting eye strain probably outweighs any potential environmental benefits.

A version of this article first appeared in Custom PC Magazine in January 2013.