Video Games at the University of Texas

Last night I got invited to an event sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin, Center for American History to explore ideas related to the academic study of video game history, development and design. The event was full of video game luminaries including Richard Garriott, Warren Spector, George Sanger and Steve Jackson among many distinguished others.

As you might imagine, getting about 50 freewheeling game designers together can be pretty entertaining but Bill Bottorff (from Austin Business Computers, Inc.) and Don Carleton (from the Center for American History) kept the event going.

One issue discussed was the preservation of video game ephemera and digital assets related to the history of the game industry. Richard Garriott (pictured below) talked about his history in video games and even brought a few items for show and tell.

Richard Garriott, and Steve Jackson in the foreground (with the Illuminati logo)

Among some of the items for show and tell are one of Garriott’s original Apple computers that he used to develop many games (he has a running one in his office to this day) and the roll of paper tape on top of the Apple is a working copy of his first game Dungeons and Dragons I.

ORIGIN Game history from Richard Garriott

George Sanger also spoke, played some recorded music and was very entertaining, if not a bit surreal.

George Sanger, dressed in some kind of General Custer outfit

George passed around some his personal keepsakes, including this test cartridge from the Son of M.U.L.E. game. (I fondly remember M.U.L.E. myself, it’s probably one of the best games I ever played.)

Son of M.U.L.E. test cartridge

It’s hoped that this is the first of many initiatives between UT Austin and the the video game community, look for more information in the future.

Can the Internet save democracy?

David Weinberger is asking an important question tonight (Feb 14th, 2007) at the Berkman Center’s Web of Ideas series:

Can the Internet Save Democracy?

Here’s his blurb:

We’ve been through a few election cycles in which the Internet played an important part. What have we learned? Beyond being a fund-raising tool, has the Internet changed anything important about elections, politics or governance? Will it? Does the connectedness of the Net promise an invigorated democracy? Or more of the same? Or a polarized electorate? David Weinberger of the Berkman Center will present a discussion opener on this topic, to be followed by an invigorating—or polarizing?—discussion.

David says: “ I’ll probably open the discussion trying to stay as far away from facts and reality as I can”, so with that in mind I’ll provide my quip:

The internet IS democracy.

The internet is an open-ended discussion, where anyone (with access) can participate on almost equal footing and the best ideas (usually) win out. (You vote with your clicks?) Sure, it’s not perfect, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill said “the internet is the worst form of government except for all the others”.

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You don't need to look outside to know Austin is getting some Winter today

Austin is getting lots of ice and even some snow today, but even if you haven’t read, seen or heard about it you could tell one other way:

Almost everyone I know in Austin is logged on to AOL Instant Messenger, GoogleTalk and Microsoft Messenger.

Ah, internet people, weather does affect us.

(I predict a winter-related rise in Austin blogging today.)

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Attack of the Ginger Creatures!

Of course, the holidays mean many things to us, but it definitely means cookies.

I looked over dozens of recipes and ended up taking ideas from several, but the core recipe was from (of all places) Martha Stewart Living web site. (Keep your “jail house cookies” comments to yourselves.)

Here’s what I came up with for a final recipe, including some post-facto edits that I would do next time:

  • 6 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup dark-brown sugar, packed
  • 6 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 6 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup unsulfured molasses.

Supposedly, this makes 16 large cookies, but we did a double batch and made cookies of various sizes so I can’t verify that. I edited the recipe to add nutmeg, more cinnamon and ginger as I wanted even more flavor in the cookies. I also changed to a smaller amount of black pepper (it gives a nice after taste to each cookie bite). The dough turned out to be very dry so I think we cheated and added about two tablespoons of milk near the end of the mixing.

I whipped up (literally) some standard buttercream-like icing:

  • 1 stick of unstalted butter
  • one small box of powdered sugar
  • vanilla to taste.

As you can see, we also divided up the icing and added food coloring. With some hastily-fashioned wax paper icing bags we were in business. Here are the results:


Not pictured was the favorite, literature-themed cookie. The white whale. As you can see, creativity reigned, but we also kept the original goal in mind: get as much icing as possible on many cookies. (Mmmm, icing.)

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What am I doing with a whale, bunny, elephant and zebra cookie cutter? Like you don’t have some?

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Some cookies had a personality of their own and these three jumped out at me. Note the resemblances to Zoidberg at the Beach, a funky, hypnotized Santa and Sluggo (respectively).

Zoidberg at the Beach Cookie Funky Santa Cookie Gingerbread Sluggo

Don’t bother asking, they’re all gone.

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Home Made Pizza 2007

Another round (ahem) of home made pizza, this time with an ace, guest pie-maker at my place.

The dough was courtesy of the now famous “no knead” bread recipe:

No-Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1 1/2 hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.
3. Apply your pizza shaping skills to lay out the dough.

We used two kinds of pizza stones, a store-made pizza stone and some unglazed tiles from your favorite home supply store. (Yes, we went to your favorite home supply store, where were you?) Even better – I used my new, wooden pizza peel to drop the pies right onto the hot, waiting stones. (Lessons learned: it’s quite possible that the metal peel would be better, certainly less likely to warp after cleaning. I’m going to get one and try it out. Also, be sure and have some cornmeal handy to put on the peel before placing the dough on it to enable easy sliding into the oven.)



As you can see, they turned out great. We went for mozzarella and fresh tomatoes and basil on the first one. The second pie was thinly sliced parmesan, more fresh roma tomatoes, red onions and some spices (pepper flakes next time too).


Amazon's secret price guarantee

Timothy Noah for Slate Magazine has a great post-holiday spending article about Amazon’s secret price guarantee.

If you have purchased anything from in the last 30 days (Amazon themselves, not an affiliated merchant) and the price is now lower, they’ll refund that amount to you. Call Amazon at 1-800-201-7575 and dial 7 right away to get to an operator. Ask her about Amazon’s 30-day price guarantee. Have your Amazon order number handy too. If you get an uncooperative (or hard to understand) operator, just hang up and call right back.

The two best TV shows this week were really games

In the past, I haven’t played video games very much, but I’m thinking more about games as tools for learning and socialization (social computing games?).

Maybe that’s why this week the two most interesting (which means “best” by my own definition) TV shows have been Daybreak and The Lost Room.

In Daybreak, the main character is a police detective, who much like the movie Groundhog Day, is repeating the same day over and over – presumably until he gets it “right”. There are a number of contingencies and clues the detective must solve to make progress. Each week, the plot changes as some issues get “solved” and the detective isn’t plagued by them on the next version of his day. We gradually learn more about the detective’s world, his past and how everything fits into place.

In The Lost Room, the main character is also a police detective and needs to unravel a mystery based around understanding, collecting and using a set of magical objects. He must discover objects, negotiate with their owners and determine the object’s proper uses. In an attempt to go meta about the issues in the plot, several of the characters are written to seem very much like I’d assume people that are deeply involved in a social game (MMORPG or the like) might be as to forming clubs (even cults in show) around studying, finding and advancing skills in the use of the objects and making alliances. It seems like they’re truly playing a game about the objects within the episodes as independent characters, but overlapping with the main detective’s role in the show/game.

Obviously, these concepts: working through a game level, a quest, negotiating with characters and finding objects of power are common to many video games of the last few decades. Adding in the social interaction and high quality rendered environment (studio sets with actual actors) and it’s a bit like watching a someone work their way through a game. Is this a new trend in scriptwriting that will bring in the gamer demographic? (Am I only noticing this because these examples are more obvious than past shows?)

(Note: do people really say “video games” anymore? I’d think the people that design all the audio would start feeling left out.)

(Double extra bonus note: I just bought a Nintendo DS Lite – got any game or gear recommendations?)

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