Career: Balloon Animal Modelling

You might as well have said: “I model balloon animals for a living and I’m really bad at it.

“When I was writing video games reviews I was aware that I was in a bit of a ghetto, effectively. And I thought: “Well, how do I get out of this?” If I met someone at a barbecue and said I reviewed computer games for a living they would look at me like I’d said: [wobbles lips with fingers] “Blibablibablibablibblibliber.” You might as well have said: “I model balloon animals for a living and I’m really bad at it.” – Charlie Brooker.

When I started in games media in the early 2000s, we honestly were treated as social pariahs by everyone – but especially by the mainstream media, who were still in their ‘games kill babies’ phase. I don’t think any of my Oxford peers understood why I was doing what I was doing, and my mother endlessly asked me if I wanted to retrain as a barrister. And I think it unlikely that any of my dear friends of that generation have ever read anything I’ve written about games.

And now so much has changed. It’s a whole new world.

Divided Mind: The Psychology Debate over Video Game Violence and its effects.

The scene, to the average mind, is incongruous. The Supreme Court of America striking down a law backed by onetime action movie thug and then governor of California, Arnold Schwarznegger. Arnold’s people claimed that video games increase aggression, cause neurological damage and more, and were seeking to pass a bill restricting access to them for minors. They pointed to a huge corpus of peer-reviewed scientific evidence backing up this claim. Given the mainstream rhetoric about violent videogames, the pile of evidence and the conservatism of the court, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion.

I wrote this for Edwin Evans-Thirlwell over at OXM in 2013 – but the article got lost in the great GamesRadar link destruction of 2014. Anyway, videogame violence is blamed for all of society’s ills – Ed had me look at the science.

The scene, to the average mind, is incongruous. The Supreme Court of America striking down a law backed by onetime action movie thug and then governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold’s people claimed that video games increase aggression, cause neurological damage and more, and were seeking to pass a bill restricting access to them for minors. They pointed to a huge corpus of peer-reviewed scientific evidence backing up this claim. Given the mainstream rhetoric about violent videogames, the pile of evidence and the conservatism of the court, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion.

Yet the Supreme Court’s decision, by an unusual majority of 7:2, was to reject the bill, on First Amendment grounds – that is, if the bill was passed it would restrict individuals’ freedom of action. Unusually, they went on to comment further that the scientific claims themselves were without merit, so that the bill would likely still have been rejected. The court decision is so clear that it’s worth quoting at length:

“The State’s (California’s) evidence is not compelling. California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, “[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.” They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”

The judges went on in a similar vein for many damning pages. As the judgement makes clear, this wasn’t the first time that a court has called into question the quality of psychology research into videogames. Amazingly, no court in the US has upheld a single law that seeks to regulate games on the basis of violence, with many of them being rejected on similar grounds.

So what’s going on with the psychology of video games? Why are these scientists claiming more than they should?And will we ever get to the truth about whether games do make adults and children act more aggressively than they otherwise would?

The divide

The key problem here is that there’s no consensus. There’s even a disagreement over the levels of disagreement. Psychologists like Christopher Ferguson of the University of Texas (see interview boxout) argue that neither the pro- or anti-videogames groups have been good scientists and that the field as a whole needs to be more careful in the strength of the claims it makes. From the viewpoint of an outsider, by making criticisms of the methods employed on both sides, he appears to be taking the middle ground. Yet the anti-videogames lobby lumps Ferguson in with the pro- lobby as an opponent.

The other problem is that, before any proper research was done, there was a consensus. With the advent of Doom and Mortal Kombat in the 1990s, games had taken on a more visually violent aspect. Combine that with a spike in youth violence (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2010) and school shootings (notably at Columbine High School in 1999), and it’s understandable parents looked to the new medium as a cause. The timeline below shows you that the consensus political narrative until 2005 was that violent media damages children and that studies, when they’re done, will show this.

That they haven’t shown it has meant that scientists have had to consistently overstate their results to fit with what they were expected to find. The claims mainly come from a small set of researchers, mainly American, including Dr Anderson. Now it’s not unusual in a scientific field for a single researcher to specialise to the extent of dominating that subject and Anderson has taken that role in the field of research into the effects of videogames. Starting from a background in aggression research, he’s been involved in the publication of over 190 papers (at our count), with a third of those since 2005. He’s been so prolific that when the California court rejected Schwarznegger’s bill (before he appealed to the Supreme Court), the decision noted that “approximately half the evidence was from a single scholar” – Dr Anderson, we presume?

His papers claim, as did many papers produced in that era, that video games cause aggression. Anderson himself has claimed repeatedly in the media, research and courts that they do. Many of his cadre have gone beyond that. Huesmann (2007) claimed that the effects were similar in magnitude to those of smoking and lung cancer. Strasberger (2007) claimed videogames could explain up to 30% of societal violence. In 2009, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in, claiming erroneously that of 3,500 studies done, only 18 had not found effects of media violence. Even the American Psychological Association released a 2005 report explicitly linking video games with increased aggression. (Dr Anderson sat on both the AAP and APA committees that agreed these statements, having reviewed the literature produced mainly by… Dr Anderson.)

Yet this entire corpus, according to repeated court decisions, is erroneous and proved nothing. Listen to the ruling of the US District Court that struck down two Illinois anti-games laws in 2005. “Neither Dr Anderson’s testimony nor his research establish a causal link between violent video game exposure and aggressive thinking and behavior… researchers in this field have not eliminated the most obvious alternative explanation: aggressive individuals may themselves be attracted to violent videogames.” The court was also unconvinced that any demonstrable impact lasted beyond the short term. (Meanwhile the “expert” testimony by a Dr Kronenberger that gaming reduced frontal lobe brain activity was almost laughed out of court.)

To prove that games cause violence, after all, you must first show that exposure to violent media correlates with aggression, then that it correlates with violence and then that there’s a causative link. It’s a hard link to prove. So far the science, as evaluated by the courts and independent observers, has shown that there is at most a mild short-term correlation between gaming and aggression, with Dr Ferguson arguing that even this small correlation is down to statistical anomalies. This effect size is comparable, at Dr Anderson’s own begrudging admission to another court, to other violent media – such as when children watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon or play Sonic the Hedgehog. The sole qualitative difference between games and music, books and films is, after all, its fundamental interactivity; but is that any worse than my imagining a grisly death in a Stephen King book or seeing someone get dissected in a torture-porn film? The statistics don’t seem to show that.

So how did the causationist scientists end up claiming so much more than the evidence suggests? Of course, research into this area is a self-selecting process, so it’s understandable that it may have attracted researchers with preconceived ideas, who then verified each other’s positions. This applies to the other side too; researchers have been attracted to the field because of the overstated positions of the establishment, seeking to right the wrongs they see. And we’re not saying that this was deliberate; it’s more like a science teacher believing in the science he or she is teaching, even when half the class fail an experiment. 

Psychologists, on both sides of the debate have been stating their position with too much certainty, making “spurious comparisons with medical research” as Ferguson puts it, ignoring contradictory evidence, and claiming more than their data does.

The major problem is that few in the field are performing scientific enquiry as it’s meant to be done. Many psychologists seem to start with the assumption that certain things are true, then try to prove it – a circular argument. example. They ignore evidence to the contrary, such as the US department of Health’s 2001 report or the US Secret Service and Department of Education 2002 report, which found no evidence of a link.

They’re also not very good research. Possibly because of the failure of the peer review process, there’s been little push towards standardisation of measurements or methodology. For example, how do you measure aggression? Some studies measure it by acts of violence against inanimate objects (such as the Bobo doll experiments of the 1960s), others by word association games. Obviously, these measures are just not comparable.

Similarly, as the Australian Government’s 201 report points out “researchers have not devoted sufficient attention to the severity of violent content (e.g. cartoonish vs realistic violence) and whether it has differing effects. Some studies appear to show games featuring cartonish violence are just as harmful as games featuring realistic violence. It is not known whether socially acceptable violence (such as in the course of playing sports) has a different effect to antisocial violence.”

Further issues

The funding for the papers arguing that games cause violence is more dubious. At one time Anderson’s funding came from a now-defunct organisation called the National Institute on Media and the Family. The erratic NIMF produced misleading parental advice condemned by both the US National Parent Teacher Association and the national video games rating agency in the USA.

Another organisation that funds this research is The Centre for Successful Parenting. Despite their name, they exclusively fund research into the “effect of media violence on the brain development of children” (taken from their charity mission statement) and mainly the work of a group around Dr Vincent P. Matthews, who produces studies with results that match their agenda. We couldn’t find out much about this organisation because their two websites are full of dead links, missing pages and out-of-context rhetoric, and our emails bounced. The registered address of its website shows up on Google Street View as a boarded-up Indiana building and is also the registered address of many, many other companies. The only data we can find is on a charities site; this says it was set up by a Steve Stoughton, who seems to run a company which specialises or specialised in setting up campaigning websites (including, and that the charity received an income of just under $400,000 in 2011, with $450,000 in assets.

Of course, the majority of research is not funded by organisations like these. Globally, the research is funded mainly by governments and universities, which is why these organisations concern us so. Imagine the outcry if Activision funded research into videogame violence?

Our conclusion

We are not scientists. We’re not equipped to assess all the data that’s out there, nor mediate the conflicting claims of different authors. From the papers we’ve read, particularly from the impartial Australian government meta-review of 2010, there is evidence that video games have short term effects on aggression, though that evidence has been very badly presented, with many methodological flaws. It’s worth noting that while that seems to be common sense, psychology is not about verifying or debunking common sense; common sense is not useful in science because many of the things it tells us are simplifications or plain wrong, such as the sun going around a flat, immobile earth.

And even if violent video games increase aggression, it has to be shown that this happens in more than the short term, in a way that’s of a significant degree, and that isn’t caused by other underlying factors. Indeed, Ferguson’s most recent research paper found that “depression, antisocial personality traits, exposure to family violence and peer influences were the best predictors of aggression-related outcomes”; violent video games didn’t get a look-in.

This field of science is extremely frustrating to research. If violent video games do increase aggression, we would like to know this, so we could act on it. After all, even a small effect can cause problems if you play several hundred hours of a game. Yet the work of scientists like Craig Anderson actually hinders this cause; if he were a more thorough scientist, if his review bodies actually reviewed his papers rather than acting as a claim to greater authority and if he dealt better with the criticisms of his peers, then we would have better data in this area.


A Timeline of Modern Moral Panic

  • 400 BC The father of philosophy himself, Plato criticises theatre and poetry for corrupting the population. (Ironic, as Plato’s idolised mentor Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens.)
  • 1954 The US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Deliquency takes an interest in comic books after moral crusaders blame them for poor grades, deliquency and drug use. Many comic publishers adopt a stringent moral code that drives other companies underground or out of business. Parents groups hold comic book burnings; some cities ban comic books.
  • 1964 A Canadian philosopher called Marshal McLuhan revives the term ‘moral panic’, meaning “intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order”, inadvertantly predicting the next fifty years of hyperbole about negative media influence.
  • 1969 A US National Commission on Causes and Prevention of Violence condemns, in mild terms, the rise of violence on television.
  • 1972 A report commissioned by the US Surgeon General’s office explicitly links TV / movie violence and aggressive behaviour.
  • 1980 and 1982. Two suicides of depressed children who happened to play Dungeons & Dragons convince several Christian fundamentalist groups and elements of the media that roleplaying games are satanic and damage children. Later findings show that D&D players are significantly less likely to kill themselves than the national average.
  • 1992 The book “Big World, Small Screen” wins plaudits from the APA for making a clear link between television and addiction / stereotyping.
  • 1999 The Columbine High School massacre is carried out by two children who play violent video games, notably Doom.
  • 1999 David Grossman testifies before Senate Commerce Committee that US Marine Corps uses the game Doom to train marines. His book “On Killing” says games are murder simulators giving children the skill and will to kill.
  • 2001 Indiana Amusement Machine Ordinance seeks to restrict children’s access to games on grounds of obscenity. It’s struck down by United States court of Appeal.
  • 2002 A Canadian scholar named Jonathan Freedman points out that youth violence has been declining as media violence has been increasing. He is mostly ignored by the media.
  • 2003 St Louis County Ordinance 20,193, restricting children’s access to games on grounds of psychological damage, is struck down by United States court of Appeal.
  • 2005 Two 2002 Illinois laws limiting children’s access to violent and sexual video games are struck down.
  • 2005 Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA) to “limit the exposure of children to violent video games” and sponsored by Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman doesn’t make its way into law.
  • 2005 An APA resolution explicitly links video games and aggressive behaviour, thoughts, and decreased sociability.
  • 2011 The Supreme Court strikes down the California law, citing the Brothers Grimm, Looney Tunes and The Divine Comedy as other equally violent media, all of which have freedom of speech protection under the First Amendment.
  • 2013 The APA website still carries many articles arguing that all forms of media cause violence, many with Craig Anderson’s name on. The moral panic goes on.


On the couch with Chris Ferguson, Psychology & Communication Professor at The University of Texas.

What’s your background? What’s your interest in this field?

I’m a clinical psychologist and licensed as a psychologist in Texas. I’d actually been interested more in violent behavior in a general sense at the start of my research career. It was when I started to see people making extreme statements about media violence, like that the effects were similar to smoking and lung cancer or that all the debate was over, that my curiosity got piqued. Once I started to look at the data, I was startled by how little the data actually supported the kinds of extreme claims people were making. I knew that something was going wrong.

The field seems completely split. How did these two camps come into existence? What do they respectively have invested that makes them so fervent in their opinions?

Yes, the field is pretty split. I think there is an “opposite and equal reaction” kind of issue. Prior to the Columbine massacre, video game research was pretty calm, and most scholars acknowledged the research was inconsistent. Then after Columbine a group of scholars started to make more and more extreme statements. Eventually that invited a lot of scrutiny about those claims, and ultimately, harsh criticisms. I think some of those scholars stepped so far out onto the plank that it’s just difficult to retreat to more moderate language without losing face. A few have taken funding from anti-media advocacy groups too, but I think the main issue has to do mainly with personal egos, and a rigid ideology that has grown up about media violence generally over the past few decades and then was rigidly applied to video games in the 2000s post-Columbine.

Would it be unfair to paint this as the D&D and video nasties hysteria all over again?

Actually it’s a pretty direct parallel. I use the example of comic books in the 1950s, where psychiatrists and congress together made extreme claims about the “harm” of such media. Ironically, you’re seeing much the same pattern now. It’s not so much that the hypothesis is bad, or that you couldn’t even make an honest argument for negative effects. It’s that so often the arguments are dishonest, simply ignoring evidence against the speaker’s personal views. In one recent analysis of children, we included a list of things to look for when people are “moral panicking”…I’ll include that study, the list comes toward the end of the paper.

Were the repeated rejections by the various US courts of the anti-videogame lobby’s (for want of a clearer name) conclusions expected at the time? How did the lobby handle them? Have they reduced the strength of their claims?

Well I think initially I expected the typical “moral panic” to hold sway, so in a way I was indeed surprised by the savvy of the jurists. Particularly with the Supreme Court, I don’t think anyone knew what they were thinking. Fortunately they were able to see through the nonsense. The “lobby” as you say, hehe, did not handle it well. They have very clearly doubled-down making, if anything, more extreme claims. Before they used to be good, at least, about not extending their research to societal violence. Now they have dropped all such pretenses and have made direct attributions in the press between video game violence and even mass shootings despite no evidence to link the two. Some of them also have begun advocating scientific censorship…that journalists should not speak to scholars who disagree with them. I suppose this is to be expected…it is an ideology under fire, not an objective science.

Craig Anderson, in particular, seems to have produced much of the literature that drove these cases and was rejected by the courts. Can you point to any of his material, or the anti-videogames lobby’s material, that stands up to scrutiny? Is he a controversial figure in psychology?

Well, I don’t want to personalize it too much. No, I can’t point to any of his work though that would or should survive scrutiny. The courts were quite right to reject it. I suppose the whole field is becoming controversial.

The flaws in these papers seem to be mainly in methodology and standardisation. Does that seem fair, or is there more to it than that?

There’s certainly that, also the way video games are matched in experimental conditions. For instance comparing Modern Warfare to Tetris…sure one is violent, the other not, but they differ in multiple other ways. But perhaps more crucially is the language some of the “lobby” have employed…citation bias, ignoring work that differs with their views…as I understand it, that is an ethical violation, but few people have been courageous enough to call them on that. In general the extreme rhetoric they employ is as much a problem as anything else.

Has the pro-videogame lobby been culpable of similar problems? Your paper seemed to focus more on the egregious mistakes of the antis.

I sometimes see people claim, “No studies have ever linked video games with aggression.” That, of course, is not true. Some studies have, but other studies haven’t. It’s really a matter of the bigger picture…the studies are inconsistent, but combined with the societal data showing declines in youth violence, and a lack of a cross-national pattern of video game consumption correlating with societal violence, we can say that the evidence for a link there is pretty weak. But people on both sides have to be careful of avoiding sweeping generalizations. That having been said, I do tend to feel the antis, as you say, largely set this up by making the first set of extreme statements, provoking that “opposite and equal reaction.” In a broad sense, the scientific peer review process failed in this case.

Looking into the funding behind some of the research into this area seems to throw up shell organisations – for example, the Center for Successful Parenting which seems determined to obfuscate its funding and management. Is it normal in the USA for research to be funded this way?

No, not really, certainly not organizations as murky as the CSP. Most scholars actually do research based on local grants from the university and such. Some get large federal grants such as from NIH or NSF, and others from reputable private foundations (Bill and Melinda Gates, Pew Research, etc.) However advocacy groups, just like the industry, have a financial axe to grind, and as I make clear, I find this to be a conflict of interest when scholars take money from these organizations, just like taking money from the video game industry would be a conflict of interest.

A sound pitch: audio puzzler Sentris threatens to unleash your inner musician

We’re all aware the indie scene is bursting. And the onetime underloved genres – roguelikes, simulations, CCGs – are proliferating well. Filling up quietly and fast is the music genre, with Crypt of the Necrodancer, Audiosurf 2, and Soundodger all hitting recently. But Sentris makes large claims to creativity, on generating music, rather than just playing it. As the developer, Samatha Kalman, describes it, “it allows, and even requires, everybody to make their own song as they play.”


This short piece originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into the maw of Gamesradar+. If they ever put it back up, I’m happy to take this down – but Sentris is out today, so I thought it would be nice to have this online *somewhere*.

We’re all aware the indie scene is bursting. And the onetime underloved genres – roguelikes, simulations, CCGs – are proliferating well. Filling up quietly and fast is the music genre, with Crypt of the Necrodancer, Audiosurf 2, and Soundodger all hitting recently. But Sentris makes large claims to creativity, on generating music, rather than just playing it. As the developer, Samatha Kalman, describes it, “it allows, and even requires, everybody to make their own song as they play.”

The game consists of a set of concentric circles which are constantly rotating, looping any notes attached to them. The player has to play a rhythm puzzle game with notes of varied lengths from varied instruments being fitted to a core theme. Though the theme is set for each puzzle, the player can provide variety by choosing the instruments, sustain and whether to fill in the gaps in the tune structure.

“It’s a puzzle game about matching colors, yes,” says Kalman “but the puzzle pieces themselves are visual representations of musical structure. The puzzle element is stacking blocks, but each block is a musical note — literally a single building block of a song. The way you build up notes to solve the puzzle means your song unfolds organically, in a way that is truly unique to your play session. I’ve watched dozens of players play the prototype, and I’ve never heard the same song twice.”

“Sentris is a game first, and therefore has to be fun and challenging, even if the sound is muted. The variable musical system is there for players who want to pay attention to it. Part of my plan is to offer a freestyle mode, where the puzzle elements are replaced by an even greater level of musical control on the part of the player. I’m walking on a tight rope between a puzzle game and a musical instrument.”

Kalman’s personal history is interesting – before becoming a self-employed developer, she was the Director of QA at Unity. You’d think there couldn’t be anyone better placed to be making indie games and Kalman loved the place. “I had a really good, long run with Unity. I shipped Unity for iPhone and Unity for Windows which were huge milestones for the company. I made a lot of great friends, and enjoyed the experience of living in Denmark. I worked with a world-class team. The industry needs tools like Unity.”

Despite this background with Unity, Kalman is a self-taught programmer, designer and musician – all within the last few years. “What’s the saying? “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing”. I’ve learned a lot about creativity in the past few years. The overwhelming lesson I’ve learned is to just keep going. Try to do things that are exciting to you. Try to do things that you don’t know how to do and you will continue to grow and expand. This applies to any creative work, and it’s helped me keep moving forward with Sentris.”

Her touchstones – Rez, FreQuency, Um Jammer Lammy, Gitaroo Man, Soundodger – seem to point to possible directions for future development. But she’s wary of adding additional complexity to the game. “I love the simplicity of the current prototype. Abstract UIs take time for new players to explore and understand, and I’m very pleased by the pick-up-and-playability achieved so far. Going forward I’m exploring additional puzzle and play mechanics that enable even more musical variability in solutions.”

“I want players to be able to make multiple, different songs with every play session. I’m also experimenting with different attributes of the blocks themselves, and how to reinforce the musical relationship between notes & instruments within puzzle mechanics. I want to make sure that it’s fun for new players and for expert players, and that means making it fun to develop the ability to read the puzzle, and making it fun after a player is able to understand how to solve the puzzle at first glance. In short, there’s a lot I want to do to make it even better!”

Now, given the erstwhile hype and the current doldrums of crowdfunding, Kalman’s attempt to turn her admittedly-limited prototype into something more subtle and complex by Kickstarting it deserves to be called brave. But with ten days to go, she seems to be set to achieve her $50,000 goal. It must be a sound pitch.

Sentris is on Kickstarter. We’d moot a late 2014 / early 2015 release on Mac, PC and Linux.

My FrankenGame of the Year


I liked a lot of games this year, and played far more games than I usually do. Yet, save for review, I didn’t find myself playing a single game a whole lot (blame buying a flat / moving flat / having a baby) and only finished a handful – perhaps only The Banner Saga, Transistor, and Shadows of Mordor. Others I played a whole lot – Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dark Souls II, South Park: The Stick of Truth – but wouldn’t put in a top list. Some were great – Out There, Infested Planet, Abyss Odyssey, Nidhogg, Xenonauts – but I don’t have the urge to put them in.

I’m guessing that’s because none of the games really engaged with me. It’s been a long year. Buying a flat, moving house, having a baby. So it’s likely I’ve forgotten some things I love. Some games I love need more work – Chaos Reborn, Prison Architect, Crypt of the Necrodancer. Others – like the Talos Principle, Elite: Dangerous, Wasteland 2, Jazzpunk, Alien: Isolation, Gorogoa, Quadriga, Bayonetta 2 and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – I haven’t got around to yet. But, hey, this is the internet; I’ll just edit them in later when I do.

However, I did love the mechanics from a lot of games, so using lightning, corpse parts and the rotting, repugnant remains of an overstretched metaphor, I’m going to stitch together my own monster, my game of the year. These are the bits of the games this year I loved the best.



Brain: 80 Days

The decision matrices for this game are pretty simple – it’s essentially a choose-your-own adventure game with branching pathways. But the writing (by Meg Jaynath) is so perfectly on point that it brings the entire game up to a new level.

The game takes the classic Phileas Fogg story, and gives it a sharp-toothed reinterpretation. You play Passepartout, who explores the limitless world of Victoriana for his master, the indolent Fogg, buying and selling rare items to maintain their funds, bribing their way onto faster transport, and keeping his master buffed and polished. The twist is that the world isn’t the familiar Victorian hegemony, but something more steampunky and much less stable – everywhere you look inventions are ramping up the tools of war.

80 Days is smart, always well-researched and creates a believable world entirely through description and interaction. I’d love to see more games in this setting and more stories by Meg.

Spare Part: Sunless Sea. Not done by any means and the mechanics often get in the way of the story, but similarly great writing.

Spare Part: Blood & Laurels. A procedurally-generated text adventure set in ancient Rome. Lovely; I wish I’d played more of it.


Heart: The Wolf Among Us

I’ve not always got on with Telltale’s series – neither Sam And Max, Back To The Future nor The Walking Dead connected with me the way that they did with everyone else. For me, the clunky interfaces and barely-working systems got in the way.

Yet with The Wolf Among Us I can forgive everything. The game has such as serious sense of style – from the grim smoking wander of Bigby in the title screen to the genuinely-divided path that runs through it. It had its weak moments – that scandalously short second chapter, the whimpering end – but overall it recreated Willingham’s Fables characters with affection and panache.

Spare Part: The Banner Saga. An original setting, a dark twisty story and annoying combat mechanics. And, no, I couldn’t keep poor Egil alive.


Hands: Transistor

Supergiant’s Bastion follow-up was probably underappreciated due to its visual similarity – saturated isometric combat. But the mix-and-match weapon and buffs system. Each of your weapons has two sockets, and there are passive slots too, and any weapon can go into any of those sockets – weapon, socket, or passive – producing a different form. The way that excessive damage knocked your most powerful weapon out of action meant that you were forced to mix up your styles all the time. Smart and well thought-through.

Spare part: Hearthstone. Should I hate you, Blizzard? You so carefully manipulate our emotions and brains, use such generic concepts (and let’s face it, you plagiarised Games Workshop relentlessly for your two biggest games), but put such charm into the design that we forgive you. And then you do something like Hearthstone, bringing CCGs to the masses. It’s not quite pay-to-win but for evenly-matched players, the willingness to buy cards or sink time to get cards can make a difference – that is, you can get better by investment without improving skill.


Danglies: Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor

Disclaimer: I have done PR and consultancy work for Warner Bros. I like SOM and dislike some of Warner’s other games independently of that. But because of that conflict of interest I’m not going to talk too positively about SOM, but just point you at the Nemesis mechanic and invite you to admire the character it brings to this game’s world. I’d say it’s the mechanic that we’ll see most copied in upcoming games.

Spare part: Luftrausers. The part-combination mechanic is perfectly placed in this morsel-sized Vlambeer product, allowing you to create a hundred different plane types, each behaving differently.


Skin: Destiny

It might just be World of Halocraft, but Destiny has a moreish snackiness to it that manages to get you playing for hours on end. Never mind that the AI enemies are artificially tough and that they rely more on disorientation and damage buffs to increase difficulty. Never mind that the PvP is pretty much Killzone’s, but without the balance that implies.

What matters is those vistas. They tell you that the wide-eyed 70s dream of science – the bearded voice of Carl Sagan creating homilies about new worlds – the utopian geothermal tidal energy towers floating in methane gas giant seas drawing power from the tug of ancient dead suns – haven’t gone away and that man can still be naive and hope, outside of NASA’s careful PR outreach programs.

Spare Part: Assassins Creed: Unity. I suspect it’s down to the jadedness of the press with the series’ endless plot and over-familiar mechanics that this game’s artistry has been so underappreciated. Seriously beautiful. I find myself just standing on street corners, watching 18th century France pootle by, from republicans to thieves wandering off with church crosses to ruffians burning books. Though the quoted stat is that it took an artist 5000 hours to recreate Notre Dame perfectly, it’s the iridescent inside of Saint Chapelle that must be seen. (Disclaimer: I have done consultancy work for Ubisoft).


Dress Sense: Roundabout.

The game itself is an utterly throwaway (if tough) action-puzzler but what a strange, effective use of whimsy and ’70s era B-movie the missions are. The combination of great writing, a silly conceit and amateur actors make for something utterly unique. I can’t stand to play much of it, but I wish I could.

Spare Part: Cosmonautica. Funky music, a really lovely side-on ship interface, even in combat, and great design across the board. It’s sad that the trading system is pretty dull, as is the combat and almost everything else – save for the style. Watch Chasing Carrots – when they find a mechanic that works, they’ll make something amazing.

Spare Part: The Sailor’s Dream. Simogo are the most interesting developers out there. Year Walk was clunky and obtuse, but scarily effective and effectively scary. Device 6 nicely sent me round the bend. And The Sailor’s Dream continues their tradition of defying convention, with a game that’s almost entirely atmosphere and timing.


Guts: This War of Mine

Not an original game – the Rebuild series has done almost exactly this before, amongst other zombie sims – but to set this team-survival sim amidst a war was a good touch. The fragility of your team, the randomisation of your neighbourhood and the permadeath combine for grimly-compelling stories.

Spare part: Neo Scavenger. Exactly what I said above, but with the added bonus that it has the most horrifically-realistic combat I’ve experienced in a turn-based game. The way that a fight turns from something like Hugh Grant and Colin Firth’s slapping match in Bridget Jones to one man stomping another unconscious man to death…


The Game That My Monster Would Play: Endless Legend

Amplitude Studios demonstrated with Endless Space that they had style; they took the 4X space game and made a pretty good. But both of their games this year have been stunning reworkings of existing genres, with Dungeon of the Endless making a grim pixel-art tower defense roguelike and Endless Legend easily beating any recent Civilization game for style, panache and even storytelling. The hugely asymmetric factions and faction story quests (even in multiplayer) are an inspiration to me; we’ll surely see them cropping up in every RTS and 4X around.


Interview: Bossa Studios’ Founder Henrique Olifiers on Surgeon Simulator 2013

This interview was for an Edge Online piece, which was forgotten about many moons ago, in November 2013. It’s an interview with Bossa Studio’s founder Henrique Olifiers.


This interview was for an Edge Online piece, which was forgotten about many moons ago, in November 2013. It’s an interview with Bossa Studio’s founder Henrique Olifiers.

Can you quickly run me through the history of the game?
Surgeon Simulator came out of the Global Game Jam in early January 2013, where the given theme was ‘heartbeat’. The team decided to take it literally and, by embracing the blunt approach to the motif, humour became the focus of the game.

You went from a 48 hour game jam to one of the fastest ever greenlight campaigns to huge commercial success. Why did an incapability simulator take off so well?
It’s difficult to pin down a single factor to justify its success, we’ve spent quite some time looking back at Surgeon’s story trying to learn from it as much as we can. In the end, like everything that goes incredibly well (or horribly wrong), is usually a ‘perfect storm’ scenario where several factors work together amplifying each other.

One of the strongest aspects of the game is that it’s as fun to watch as it’s to play, failing in Surgeon (and you fail a lot in it) is as funny as it gets. This was crucial for the success it achieved on YouTube and Twitch, making the Let’s Play videos cool to watch no matter if you were into the game to begin with.

Surgeon Simulator also never took itself seriously. We have this saying ‘where one cannot make a fun game if he’s not having fun while making it’, and it turns out that Surgeon is the perfect example of this motto: the team had a blast making it, both during the jam and full production, this filtered down to the players, no questions asked!

And yours was amongst the first games we can say was mainly successful down to Youtube and Twitch, which is one posited future of all media. What do you think?
Absolutely spot on, Surgeon wouldn’t be anywhere without the YouTube community. First and foremost, it’s incredibly humbling and amazing to see how much love is out there for the game through YouTube, and to witness it becoming the theme for so many different videos, parodies, cartoons, songs and jokes. As a developer, one cannot ask for a bigger reward, it’s simply mind-blowing and the reason why we keep on doing what we do every day.

Then it went full circle with the team watching what was going on and feeding it back into the game. When we saw a video of someone doing a slam dunk with the brain in the transplant surgery, we updated the game with that as an achievement. When some fan-art of Surgeon and the ‘Meet the Medic’ video was made (an original inspiration for the game), we spoke to Valve to get the rights to TF2 and add that as a free DLC. We created an ARG with a whole new section of the game hidden behind a ludicrously difficult puzzle because people were looking for that sort of conspiracy theory to guess all sorts of things, from the launch of Half-Life 3 to Steam’s Summer Sale date. We learned how to be inspired by the players.

We became connected to the community like never before, and found out how brilliant it is to work this way. I really think this is the only way forward for the games industry, developers who don’t know how to engage with their players will find it increasingly difficult to make games that resonate, that become relevant. It’s no longer about playing alone in a dark room; games are now part of our culture, so it’s integral to have aspects build over the impetus of sharing your experiences with the wider world.

Doctors' Handwriting.
Doctors’ Handwriting.

We’re already seeing copycats – Viscera Cleanup Detail being the notable one. Given the success of the game, is it something you hope to return to more?
Tricky question… We never bothered too much with copycats, as it’s not an easy task to copy a joke. I’m not even sure it’s possible. But while this somewhat insulates Surgeon from copies, it’s also its Achilles’s Heel: We’re wary of telling the same joke again or ruining it by going too far. You know, like the guy who repeats the end of the joke a couple of times thinking it makes it funnier? That.

We’ve set ourselves the challenge to try to make Surgeon work on tablets some time ago, and failed miserably a few times. Thirteen, to be exact, until we finally got the controls right. Now that we have the game running well on an iPad, we want to add new content and change the surgeries so they make the best use of the new control scheme we created and the portable nature of the platform. It’s also a matter of respect for the players, as we hope many of them will already own the game on Win, Mac or Linux – so the touch version of Surgeon Simulator should be something unique, worth on its own, to neatly sit side by side with the PC rather than a simple straight port.

Will there ever be a Surgeon Simulator 2014? Probably not… But I guess this is not the last time we’ll see Nigel Burke and his clumsy arm in action, as long as we can come up with something new, original and fun for him to star in.

How many platforms is the game on now?
The game is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, through Steam, GOG, Get Games, Mac AppStore and a few other platforms. It’s even being launched in Japan, with the help of ZOO, a local partner. Next stop is the iPad, early next year.

Are you still actively working on it?
Very much so, the touch version for the iPad has been keeping us busy!

Do you see SS2013 as a promotional tool for the other games you’re working on? Your games are all on different platforms, which must make it difficult.
I hope we’ll carry on the reputation from Surgeon Simulator along with every new game we make, and that on its own has a huge value. Trying to shoehorn some sort of cross-promotion on Surgeon would likely do it more harm than the good we would get on the other end.

We did a tiny cross-promotion by having a floppy disk on Surgeon that you could boot into the reception’s computer and see a scene from Deep Dungeons of Doom. But that’s as far as we could get without harming the game by having something out of context.

That said, we do indeed have a huge challenge ahead of us with our multiplatform approach. Surgeon Simulator was our last game born as a desktop-bound title; every other title we got in the works is cross-platform, meaning you can carry on playing it independently of which hardware you’ve got.

This is different from having GameA on PC and GameB on mobile, which was the case with Surgeon and Deep Dungeons of Doom. Instead, by having the same game on multiple platforms, playable across them all, should help boost awareness around it since players from all creeds will have a common talking point.

Time to Live is the perfect example: we want players to be able to multiplayer across all platforms out there, from Linux to iOS (notice the Linux here, we’re betting SteamOS will be the thing, and that it will be fast). This decision has a large impact on development, and a huge impact on how we communicate. But in the end, it may pay off big time: once you go multiplatform, you don’t go single!

Deep Dungeons of Doom
Deep Dungeons of Doom

I’ve seen Time To Live, Monstermind, Merlin – what can you tell us about these games? Is there anything else you’re working on?
While we’re extremely proud of Monstermind and Merlin, both being nominated for BAFTAs and the former winning best online game, they’re firmly in our past. We’ve moved away from social networks as platforms after having invested so much into them to the point of almost becoming our undoing. We saw a potential in these platforms that just wasn’t realised for many reasons, in the end they didn’t go in the direction we’ve wished they would.

Time to Live is our next game, again something that was born out of a game jam just like Surgeon, but an internal one. It’s a very unique concept in which it’s an arena game, but without weapons. You’re in a dystopian futuristic TV show bloodsport with 120 seconds to live before your head is blown off your shoulders, and have to steal time from the other contestants by luring them into traps. Only one player walks away alive from each arena, and go on to see another round in its career towards stardom.

Time to Live is the one game jam result we kept coming back to and playing over and over. It’s a fast-paced game that builds a character reputation on the long run, and it’s just great to play on both the desktop and the tablet.

Then there are a couple of other games we’re brewing, but it’s way too early to be sure they’ll become something real. The one thing we’ve been working on a lot is AI, we want to take artificial intelligence in games to a whole new level. If we succeed in doing that, the kinds of games we think would suddenly become possible to create is just mind-blowing.

Do you have a planned future for the studio or are you just trying to stay adaptable?
Adaptable is the keyword. If anyone tells you what’s going to happen with the games industry in six months time, you can be sure such person is either deluded or lying. As an industry, we’re going through a transformation period like nothing before, and it’s an incredibly exciting time for those willing to change overnight in order to make the best out of it.

As long as we can create games that are original, that do something special to the players, we’ll keep on doing it. We’ve found the hard way that planning to far along the line just set us up to failure in slow-motion.

What have you learned from the SS13 rollercoaster?
Probably a lot more than one single answer can contain, I’m afraid. But if there’s one thing to take away from Surgeon Simulator is that good ideas do come from anywhere, and how to embrace this inescapable truth as a studio ethos.

We no longer have formal brainstorming meetings to create game concepts that go on to pre-production, then production, and failed launch. No more. We game jam every single month, do snap brainstorms with the entire studio, and build a warchest of playable designs we visit when the time is right to start a new game project.

Our lawn is littered with cool ideas that played like a brick once jammed into prototypes, it’s gaming natural selection at its best. We’ve learned to let go of precious concepts and move on until we find something special, worth turning into a full game, rather than sticking to what plays great in our heads and underwhelm when made into something real.

We’ve learned to jam the hell out of it all. In a good way.

Interview with Björn Jeffrey, CEO of Toca Boca

This interview with Toca Boca’s CEO Björn Jeffrey was conducted for a feature for


This interview with Toca Boca’s CEO Björn Jeffrey was conducted for a feature for

What’s your ethos regarding responsible game development, for adults and for children?
At Toca Boca, we believe that gaining customer trust is a vital part of ensuring responsible app development. We try to exceed our customers’ expectations by paying attention to their needs and concerns. Toca Boca takes a two-pronged approach, aiming to please both parents and children. We understand that parents have concerns regarding the safety of their children therefore we strongly believe that children should not be exposed to third-party advertisements or in-app purchases. At the same time, we aim to keep children at the centre of product development by involving them in the design process and it is a very intentional design decision not to create toys for girls, or toys for boys – we make toys for kids, and let them choose how they would like to play.

Given the variety of approaches to parenting, are there any hard and fast rules for game development for children?
Like parenting, there are a variety of approaches to game development for children and not all companies share the same values as Toca Boca. We create well-designed apps based on universal themes that most people can recognise irrespective of their parenting style.

Accurate communication should be a rule of thumb when it comes to app development for children. Toca Boca clearly communicates what we stand for and what our apps are about, making it easier for parents to determine if our apps are appropriate for their kids.

Without an age-rating system for apps and given the size of the app market, how can parents know which apps are safe to play and which aren’t? Do you think the market-keepers like Apple and Google should institute a ratings system, even a voluntary one?
We would definitely welcome a serious and acknowledged rating system that can help parents and kids find suitable apps. It is important, however, that a rating system is custom made for children’s apps. The system should not necessarily be rated according to age but according to a number of factors, for example, the extent to which the app is safe or aids children’s development.

In the meantime, there are some really helpful websites and blogs that are dedicated to finding safe and enjoyable apps for children, such as Pappas Appar, Apps Playground, iMums, and Common Sense Media. Until a rating system is in place, I would advise parents to check out the reviews on these websites.

If playing games and devices was shown to be addictive, or at least as psychologically-compelling as other dopamine-promoters, do you think children should be allowed near games at all?
Toca Boca’s apps share the same attributes as traditional, non-digital, toys hence why we call them ‘digital toys’ rather than ‘digital games.’ The apps are non competitive, open ended, inspire creativity and allow parents and children to interact with each other. These are all qualities parents look for in traditional children’s toys, many of which we would never label ‘addictive.’ Toca Boca apps are designed to compliment, not replace, regular play; parents should decide what mix is best for their kids.’’

Given that rewards are extremely hard to come by in everyday life, what do you think the effect of the easy-reward structures we see in games are on children’s experience of everyday life, outside of games?
At Toca Boca we made a conscious decision to make fun and creativity our main focus rather than a competitive reward structure. We are concerned with building a safe digital space where children can explore and create with no limits. When it comes to our digital toys, exploring the world within an app is just one of the many ways children can learn and develop. One way isn’t better or worse than the other, they are not mutually exclusive.’’

Do you see any difference in the effect of the sort of games you make and Lego? Is this portrayal of Lego as worthy rather than, say, Toca Lab fair?
Although the physical differences are vast, Toca Boca shares the similar fundamental values and goals as Lego – we both design toys that encourage free play, exploration and foster creativity in young children. One is not better than the other, rather, via different platforms, we both provide kids with fun and safe toys that engender curiosity and development. Lego are a great company and it is an honour to be compared to them however we do differ slightly in our approach to gender marketing.

Le Pied Du Infant

It’s been a while. Back at university, we were the scourge of the common room – by which I mean that we were good for beating people and not much else. And even that only at table football.

There was a core of around eight in our year. The socially-awkward, those tempted by easy victories of skill over victories of communication in a university that selected for communicators. For me, the large ceiling of the old bar felt like a goldfish bowl, a panopticon, from every point of which my embarassed hairy head could be observed, wincing, at all that potential observation. It also tended to be heaving, which meant if you were shy, the other two rooms were better.

One of those rooms was effectively a dining room, attached to the bar’s caff, where those daunted by the formality of the 17th century wood-panelled hall and canteen food could buy slightly more expensive expensive and healthier fare. The other was the games room, dominated by a pool table, a pinball machine, a puzzle-bobble machine, the table football table, and in later times a Gauntlet 2 machine that absorbed the donations of the millionaire’s child who’d pay for people to play with him.

I’d better emphasise; these rooms in the old bar were parts of the old kitchen, so were built out of chunks of stone coated in seven centuries of paint. After all this time and an aeon of settling, they’d achieved the consistency of a cave wall, with carved names obliterated by paint, paint, paint. They filmed Shadowlands here, as dusty-framed photos told you, and it was here that the college’s alumni would stumble up – short, bald men like Hislop and Hague, who’d buy drinks galore according to their strictly-political generosity.

The new JCR bar, once the college kitchens, and formerly part of St Johns' hospital and lazar-house. Those arches are chimneys where they'd roast the meat on spits.
Magdalen JCR Bar

But I passed over that table football table with undue haste. That’s the point of this tale and where we spent our days and nights. In the daytime, there might be a lonesome man practising or a couple of interloper tourists spinning the little men sick with enthusiasm and yelps. But, given its format – 2v2 – and three academic years of appreciative competitors, it was rarely empty in the evenings.

The key thing about Babyfoot, like any sport, was to recognise your talents and deficiencies – to recognise your place in the hierarchy of things. We had two recognised front men – Mark and Tom – and two definite defenders – Paul, Ben. Unreliable Toby and icy Terence could play any spot. There were others – midfield Martin, big-handed Ben2 – but they were distinct fill-ins.

Each had their talents. Ben was the impenetrable king of defence. Paul was as reliable as Ben, but could skeet curling shots straight from his right-back into goal. I could play any position, passably. Mark could knock the ball about nicely, but mostly only at 90 degree angles – he was lethal against newcomers, frustrated against others.

But Tom… Tom was sugar, spice and all things nice. His midfield was solid – and a good midfield in babyfoot is hard to bypass, given the density of players in that area. I often just vibrated my midfield so that, even if the ball got through, its route was lost – what you’d call playing interference in football proper.

But his whole game spoke culture. He had a uniquely variable speed. He seemed to know just when to roll a pass around the outside of his opponent’s winger, and when to just power one straight through to his attackers.

By Zigazou76

Babyfoot 101

Once it was with the three strikers, defending became a matter of reactions and odds. When you’re defending normally, you tend to align your goalie and two defenders in a small range of configurations, normally doubling one defender up with a goalie, to reduce the range of angles available to an attacker, even to the degree which you tilt his monopod away or towards the attacker. A good defensive player can place his goalie and defenders in such a way that it’s impossible to score directly from any player who’s trapped the ball.

The first effective counter to a good defender was the crossover. Mark and I could do this to some degree. This was simply to line up a shot with one attacker and to then pass it sideways to the opposite one, before knocking it in. However, a good defender learned to switch rapidly between the two, the way he would when a long-range shot came in. This way you’d effectively cover both corners, effectively two thirds of the goal, with the middle covered during the transition.

So both Mark, Ben and I effectively learned the next step, which was to learn how to hit the ball at an angle from a side-striker, so that it slipped between the defender and goalie – but this, too, could be defended against, though it featured an uncomfortable-feeling crossover, which could be exploited by a canny crossover. We also learned to do the angle shot after a crossover, but it was unreliable as anything – more often the ball would bounce off a corner into a defender’s possession.

What Tom had was that culture, that reliability. Mark and I, as we got lubricated and frustrated, would get less subtle, slamming the ball into defenders, until we lost it, favouring power over finesse. (Toby would do that from the word go). But Tom never got angry, could always mix up his game, and the ball would always seem to do what he told it. Sharp angles, cross-overs, cut-backs, even rolling the ball one way and sending it the other, like a step-over in real football. A defender never knew what he’d pull out next, which made it a tough old game until you could hack the ball upfield, past his meticulously placed midfield.

In real life, Tom was a slow, unfit footballer (though I was no better), but he practised one thing until he was perfect at it, as he showed me one day. We were taking penalties and he was scoring every single one – the same way. He would just run up and pound it straight into the bottom corner. Even if the keeper knew it was coming, it was hard to defend against unless you were a semi-professional, especially as he’d mix up the corners. That was the mentality with which he approached all things – finding the weak point and practising it. That’s probably why he’s a lawyer now.

Now, it’s 13 years on, and the rump of that team is meeting up again, explicitly for a game of Babyfoot. I have no idea how we’ve changed – we’re bankers, programmers, lawyers and a journalist now – but I’m dying to see Tom’s elegant knockback one more time.

Bar Kick

The Reunion

I arrive early, start drinking by myself, write up our histories. We’re meeting at Bar Kick, one of two table-football centric sister establishments run in London’s centre. In the late afternoon, it’s already full. The longer I stay, the more full it gets.

And it’s men. At most, one in ten people here are women. There’s a joyous couple of girls next to me drinking long cocktails, a barmaid, and the occasional girlfriend on her phone, but it’s a manly environment, and a certain type of man too.

“Do you… have anything but lager?” I ask the barman. He almost giggles, and points out a single stout amidst the long list of clear, hoppy mittel-Europe beers. I ask for a pint. He says they only do bottles. I go for the cheap happy hour Spanish lager. It’s *these* sort of men.

An hour later. Two. It smells of sour, cheap hot dogs now and the atmosphere is full of raucous, plummy voices. The music is Johnny Cash, spanish guitars, The Big Bopper. I drink alone and wait.

(Much later, when the crowd has cleared a little, predatory packs of women enter the place. I guess if you want a nerdy lager drinker, this is the Shoreditch place to come.)


Eventually, half an hour late, they start sloping in. Mark is first, his face tucked into a sports top. He looks skeptically around the room with the same furrowed brow I remember from childhood. We talk banking. The others arrive one by one, until we have a quorum – we really don’t want to play until that point. Tom is absent.

We start. Mark is dominant. His angle control is better than ten years before. Toby is as random as ever, but solid in defence. Terence is more flakey than before, leaving his defence open when he shouldn’t, seemingly forgetting his left hand exists, but shooting from defence well and controlling his midfield superbly. Me, I’m still good in attack or defence, but the midfield on my left hand is too open – I have to start moving them constantly just to be disruptive to through balls.

In attack, Mark is relentless. In defence, indomitable. More than anyone else, he shows his enthusiasm and aggression. Soon, he’s literally jumping with excitement every time he smacks the ball. He bumps into his squash partner Jerome (draw whatever you wish from the fact we have squash partners now), who joins us, playing a frenetic, loose-handed version of the game, faster than he is actually capable of keeping up with, but faster than most people are used to. I can handle it in defence, but Toby has problems in midfield and attack.

Tom finally arrives, and we put him on with Toby, opposite Jerome and Mark. He’s shaky – it’s obviously been ten years since he’s played properly and he goes nine goals down with Toby (unreliably ambitious in defence). For the final goal, there’s a flash of the old flair, a little roll around the ball, and he scores. It’s good to see. I think I’ll stop writing this there. Before you or I know whether my hero is dead. Before you know if he’s lost it.

(He wasn’t. He hasn’t. )