Violet

This is a text adventure where you have to force your character to overcome writer’s block and make progress on your dissertation while there is still time. Not just to complete the thesis, but also to save your disintegrating relationship. Though it’s a few years old, it has contemporary resonance for current-day students.

The game is played through an online gaming website (you’ll need Flash enabled) which unfortunately is one of those with distracting and garish ads and icons across much of the screen estate. If you can block those out of your vision, it’s a standard text in visual appearance and operation. Alternately, if more technically minded you can possibly download and install the game onto your own PC or Mac.

Sample of gameplay from Violet.

From the website:

The problem? You’re a graduate student working on your dissertation, but you haven’t gotten any writing done in months. Your girlfriend Violet has put her life on hold, waiting for you to finish, and she’s getting fed up. If you don’t get a thousand words written today, your relationship is over and she flies home to Australia. Unfortunately, your office is full of every kind of distraction, from the window overlooking campus hijinx to the computer on your desk, always ready to show you the latest blogs and web comics instead of your chapter-in-progress. So you have no choice but to shut out everything that’s causing you distraction so that you can turn in a few hours of solid work for once.

The game is the winner of the 2008 Interactive Fiction competition, has won several other awards, scored highly in reviews and gets regular (positive) mentions from the academic press and PhD students for both its accuracy, and as a suitable distraction from completing your thesis in real life.

Gameplay from the text adventure Violet

arXiv vs. snarXiv

This isn’t a game set in an academic location, but as it’s a game about academic publishing and research I’ll just about include it here.

You can play arXiv vs. snarXiv online. It’s quite simple; guess which one of the two paper titles presented is the real one from the arXiv.org e-Print archive. And try not to pick the one which has been pseudo-randomly generated.

It’s slightly worrying (but also personally comforting) that, looking at some of the accumulated scores, many papers have a success rate of only just over 50%. Maybe hardly anyone from the world of physics has played this game, making the quotients of plays mostly guesswork. Or, maybe a lot of physics academics do play the game and they are just as confused as the rest of us; I don’t know.

arXiv vs. snarXiv

Anyway it’s good fun for a while, until I finally remind myself that I am completely guessing and any feelings that I am applying intelligence on my part are delusional and false.

Bully

Bully, an open world action game, originally came out for the PS2 back in 2006, and was ported to several other consoles since. I played it for a while early on, attracted by some of the event scenes which seemed to be stylistically based on Shenmue fight sequences. It was okay, overall; not really my preferred genre, but I could appreciate how others may take to it.

In the game, you are put into a new school where your aim is to rise in status. There’s lessons to attend, which give you various skills (if I remember rightly, chemistry lessons gave you the ability to make stink bombs), social situations to navigate and, as the title suggests, bullying. Though somewhat faded in memory, the game seemed to be based less on the realities of school life (which in my case was mostly boredom and counting down the hours till the school bus took me home) and more on stereotypes and satires of school days, with the addition of the usual Rockstar Games humour.

Bully, by Rockstar Games

Bully was also noted for the controversy over the content, title, possible plot lines and several other aspects of the game – before the game was actually released and played by most of the complainers. (Having said that, there was the lingering suspicion at the time that the game producers stoked up some of the controversy to get headlines and more sales; whether they did so or not, who knows) On launch, and discovering that the content was for the most part fine to all, much of the controversy went away. The game was given an advisory 15, not an 18, rating.

Now, I’m noting that an anniversary edition of the game has appeared as a well-priced app for android devices (both the screenshots on this post are taken from that version). I admit to being somewhat tempted but, as per usual, too many games and too little time.

Looking back now, I think one of my main objections was the horrible haircut the protagonist was forced to endure. As someone who had more than his fair share of bad childhood haircuts (from the cheapest place in town), I can both identify, and don’t want to identify, with a poor head of hair while gaming. Not all nostalgia is good nostalgia.

Bully, by Rockstar Games

Game Studies: the game

A game about academic game studies; how meta. Or perhaps, recursive. The Kill Screen headline asks if we really need academics to study videogames. Hmmm.

And so we have the game of Game Studies. This simple HTML5/WebGL game is playable in your web browser. The rest of the website is worth a wander around, too.

A series of five short levels, the game is simple: get the man to the goal by clicking on the ground until he walks there. Along the course of each level, the game will lampoon one of five different theories, whether by having the player dive into a pool to demonstrate “immersion”, having them walk into a circle to demonstrate “the magic circle,” having them play baseball while listening to Snow White to demonstrate the conflict between “ludology and narratology,” and the like.

I look forward to “Game Studies: the movie”, and hope Robert De Niro with a convincing beard plays me.

Old school text adventures. Set in old schools.

Online searches often turn up interesting text adventures, either new or – from more technologically simpler times – historical. Pleasingly, a query in late 2014 revealed some text adventures from a quarter of a century or so ago which were set in academia.

From 1988, Dudley Dilemma is set in Harvard University. From the screenshots it appears to be a basic and standard text adventure. From even further back in 1987, Infocom themselves released the acclaimed Lurking Horror, which though initially set in a large MIT-like American university, soon veers off into somewhat unsettling horror.

Two other text adventures from back in the/that day I’ve been playing of late are Save Princeton and Ditch Day Drifter. Both of these can still be played by using a TADS-compatible interpreter (I’ve been using Splatterlight on my Mac).

The former of these, co-authored by Jacob Weinstein who also provided much of the information in this note, is unsurprisingly set in Princeton University. This is an “exaggerated, slapsticky version of life as an undergraduate”, where the aim of the adventure isn’t immediately apparent. A screenshot from near the start:

Screenshot from Save Princeton

Ditch Day Drifter, on the other hand, was developed in 1990 and is set in Caltech. According to Jacob this is closer to real life than some other text adventures situated in a university, since it portrayed Caltech’s “Ditch Day“, which is basically a big real-world adventure game. Another screenshot:

Screenshot from Ditch Day Drifter

Both games are quite enjoyable to play and, as you do with text adventures, experiment with to see what the parser recognises, allows and acts on.

Secret Sartre

Games about human life are often interesting, and for those in academia or who have spent time in there, games about university life specifically can hold a special fascination. From Scandinavia, here’s the introduction to a card-based game (complete with the card designs). Secret Sartre:

In Secret Sartre, the faculty members of an unnamed university department battle for ideological supremacy. A fragile alliance of upstanding rationalists, logical positivists, empiricists, liberal humanists, scientists and other fetishizers of the Enlightenment must work together to stem the rising tide of postmodernism. Watch out, though – there are closet postmodernists among you, and someone is Secret Sartre.

At the beginning of the game, each player is secretly assigned to one of three roles: Science, Postmodernism, or Sartre. Sartre plays for the postmodern team, and the postmodernists know who Sartre is, but most of the time Sartre does not know who his fellow postmodernists are. The Scientists are far out on the autism spectrum and don’t know who anyone is.

The scientists win by enacting five rational policies or having Sartre fired. The postmodernists win by enacting six postmodernist policies, or if Sartre is elected Head of Studies late in the game. As postmodernist policies are enacted, the Department Chair gains new powers. Even scientists may find themselves tempted to enact postmodernist policies that help them control the table and assassinate their enemies.

From the rules, how the cards appear:

Secret Sartre cards

This isn’t a quick game to pick up; the rules need a bit of figuring out, and a familiarity with card games, and academic research philosophy, helps. You also need several players to get the full benefit of Secret Sartre. But even if you don’t play, the description of the rules is amusing, and it’s an interesting way of comparing and contrasting academic and research positions.

Particle Clicker

From last summer, Particle Clicker (PC) is a resource accumulation game in the same mould as Cookie Clicker – but this time with particle physics research, academics, and funding. Click repeatedly on the collider to generate data. Turn data into research to gain funding and increase your reputation. Spend your funding on human resources and upgrades – don’t forget to buy beer to keep your research students happy, and coffee to keep them awake!

Clicker games are, in functionality, about as simple as you can get. There’s usually not many decisions to make (Particle Clicker has more than most), some clicking to do when you feel like it, and things happen in the background whether you click or not. In essence, you accumulate some attribute that is measured purely numerically. As you gain more of this attribute, you can decide what to spend it on; often, these are elements which increase the rate at which the attribute accumulates. And that’s it. There’s usually no end goal or target; you just accumulate more and more of whatever the base attribute is, and you stop playing when you lose interest.

One of the aspects of Particle Clicker which makes it more interesting than most clicker games is the technical/content accuracy within; the game was developed at the CERN summer student webfest by physics students. Expand (ironically, by clicking on it) this screenshot which was taken a few minutes into a new game:

Particle Clicker screenshot

In the centre is the particle collider, the thing you click on to get more of the ‘data’ attribute. In the left-hand column are technically accurate physics concepts; expand on these and you can read more detailed information, often with links to academic papers. In the right-hand columns are essentially power-ups which you can attain to increase attribute generation; as you can see, these are sometimes a satirical nod to academic physics research. Here’s some screenshots – [1] [2] [3] [4] – from when the game has been played/left running for a while.

Particle Clicker is free and online, and is instant and about as easy as you can get to play. You just … click. It’s a neat way to both slide some optional knowledge about physics under the noses of players (in effect, your rewards for leveling up are access to this knowledge), and to make some remarks about the academic research process. Give it a go.

p.s. as an amusing side-point, one comment about playing Particle Clicker was:

“There is something inordinately depressing about procrastinating by fake doing the things that I should be real doing.”