17 Games that Showcase Gaming

(or, interactive art & entertainment: a short tour)

OK, dear readers, it’s time for some BuzzFeed-style content here on the Social Media Collective.

You want to understand digital media, right? You occasionally like to play a game, right?

I’m pleased to revisit and refresh my list of games that quickly demonstrate what is possible in digital gaming. Sort of: “digital games, a short tour.” With this list, you can inexpensively, briefly play one game every day and at the end of it all you’ve had a broad experience of what digital games can do.

To keep your attention, this blog post is illustrated with a few choice screen shots from games on the list. Like this one:

undertale like LIKE you

Undertale [2015]

The ground rules. Games on the list must be:

  • a computer game
  • easy-to-learn-to-play (Not necessarily “easy.”)
  • free, cheap ($10 or less), or have a meaningful playable demo
  • quick, or at least quick to get into the substance (They need not be “casual” but casual is OK. If there’s a long tutorial before you get to the good stuff, forget it.)
  • more likely to be from obscure, independent producers
  • representing some aspect of gaming so that the complete list captures much of what is possible (The goal is breadth, within the limits of cheap, quick, and easy-to-learn.)
  • the kind of thing that does not require unusual hardware or software (Games that can be played in a browser are ideal. Multi-platform games are great. Games that can be played with an downloaded emulator are OK. Games only playable on the Vectrex will not work.)



Flow [2006]

I posted the rationale for the above requirements a while back if you’re curious. (I originally made this list as part of my course Play and Technology.)

Note that the games don’t have to be new — in fact classic or influential games are a big plus. Technically I shouldn’t even care if the games are fun; they are supposed to broaden your perspective about what is possible. But don’t worry, these are fun.

Keep in mind that with the above requirements (free! obscure!) you won’t find AAA graphics and celebrity voices. Although some of these games are quite beautiful, there’s definitely less polish than average. Indeed, you could say these contenders tend toward the bizarre. But that’s OK. In the words of Mettaton, “Who needs arms with legs like these?”

But taking this tour is a great way to expand your perspective about digital game genres if you haven’t spent a lot of time with indies. And who doesn’t like a quick browser game? Vin Diesel understands.

vin diesel dnd screenshot

(ASMR) Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You [2015]

I’ll mark games on the list with [*] if they are super-duper quick, so you can jump right in if you want to.

Okay, without further ado, here is the list.

The 17 (Quick, Cheap, Easy-to-Learn) Games that Showcase (the Breadth of Potential in Digital) Gaming:

  1. Undertale. [2015] ($10. This is the RPG where each monster does their best. At first it looks like straight nostalgia, until you realize what is actually going on. Would you kiss a ghost? HECK YEAH.)
  2. TIS-100 [2015] ($7. The puzzler’s puzzler. Motto: “It’s the assembly language programming game you never asked for!” This counts as easy-to-learn because its goal is to be “almost inscrutable,” and it succeeds immediately.)
  3. (ASMR) Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You [2015] (Free. Yes that entire thing is the name. That title really describes it quite well, except that there is no ASMR. It’s a text adventure.) [*]
  4. Passage [2007] (cost: free, format: side-scroller, crying: possibly, difficult to explain: yes) [*]
  5. Thirty Flights of Loving [2013] ($5. Demolitions! Mechanic! Sharpshooter! Confectioner! Anita does it all. Time for a blast of narrative.) [*]
  6. Diner Dash [2004] (Free. The game that took StarCraft casual. Heck it’s the game that took casual casual. It’s real-time resource management. Hurry up, it’s closing time.) [*]
  7. dys4ia [2012] (Free. A game about identity that is also an autobiographical journal.) [*]
  8. Flow [2006/2013] (Free to download or $6 on PSN. Action/arcade, with a twist or two. Play the rebooted version on your biggest available screen.) [*]
  9. Façade [2004] (Free. This game pioneered a new direction in conversational AI. It’s an uncanny cross between an RPG and a chat session. The New York Times said it was “the future of games” in 2004, but Trip told me “you know what? I think you should leave.”)
  10. SissyFight 2000 [2000/2014] (Free. Take the trash-talk out of the CoD lobby and put it where it belongs… in the schoolyard. SissyFight is multiplayer game theory, people. And by “game theory” I mean the John Nash kind.) Oops, it looks like the 2014 Kickstarter reboot doesn’t work. I see a lot of bug reports and no players. 😦
  11. A Series of Gunshots. [2015] (Free. Quite a different take on the shooter.) [*]
  12. Papers, Please [2013] ($10. A morality puzzler/RPG crossover you might actually be able to finish, unlike the other puzzler on this list.)
  13. QWOP [2010] (Free. A paragon of simulation. You’ll scorn those games with a simple “run” button after you get the chance to individually operate each of your hips and knees.) [*]
  14. Candy Box 2 [2013] (Free. It’s time-based click-farming that forges a new relationship to time, and to clicks. Or at least a new relationship to the game developer.)
  15. FTL [2012/2014] ($10 with a great iPad interface. Roguelike. “Please accept these small cakes made from stiff dough.” This is space exploration with character, and a great way to practice dying over and over.)
  16. Habbo Hotel. [2000-present] (Free. It’s a MOO! Sort of. Motto: “A strange place with awesome people. Get noticed!”)
  17. EnviroBear [2000/2010] (Free for PC, $1 for Android/iPhone. No list of games is complete without a driving game. Here’s a driving game where the premise is that you are a one-armed bear trying to drive a car. You may also get to wear a hat.) [*]

But there are so many great games I’ve left off the list! It makes me so mad I almost want to give the “throw baby” command.


Peasant’s Quest [2004]

So here are some Honorable Mentions:

  1. Ultra Business Tycoon III. [2013] (Free. A text adventure that feels like André Breton may have been involved somehow — but I have too many text adventures on the list already.)
  2. Peasant’s Quest. [2004] (Free. This is a fantastic game but it only works if you are already very familiar with the “Quest” series of split-screen adventure games it is parodying.)
  3. Journey. [2013] ($15 Wonderful but just too expensive for our rules. Also too long.)



A Series of Gunshots (2015)

An acknowledgement: Great suggestions above came from Mia Consalvo, Adrienne Massanari, Alex Pieschel, and Leigh Alexander.

17 is kind of a weird number, and this list is always in revision. What am I missing?

I worry that I’ve given short shrift to arcade games, as only Flow and EnviroBear represent that experience, and they’re far from representative. Likewise, my “shooter” isn’t a real shooter. My “driving game” isn’t a real driving game, etc. To cover the range of what people actually do when they play games, it seems like I should have a game more obviously about chance or gambling. 

I’ve got games about confectioners covered though.


Thirty Flights of Loving (2013)

Let’s fix this tour. Please post your suggestions, people.


Co-creation and Algorithmic Self-Determination: A study of player feedback on game analytics in EVE Online

We are happy to share SMC’s intern Aleena Chia’s presentation of her summer project titled “Co-creation and Algorithmic Self-Determination: A study of player feedback on game analytics in EVE Online”.  

Aleena’s project summary and the videos of her presentation below:

Digital games are always already information systems designed to respond to players’ inputs with meaningful feedback (Salen and Zimmerman 2004). These feedback loops constitute a form of algorithmic surveillance that have been repurposed by online game companies to gather information about player behavior for consumer research (O’Donnell 2014). Research on player behavior gathered from game clients constitutes a branch of consumer research known as game analytics (Seif et al 2013).[1] In conjunction with established channels of customer feedback such as player forums, surveys, polls, and focus groups, game analytics informs companies’ adjustments and augmentations to their games (Kline et al 2005). EVE Online is a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) that uses these research methods in a distinct configuration. The game’s developers assemble a democratically elected council of players tasked with the filtration of player interests from forums to inform their (1) agenda setting and (2) contextualization of game analytics in the planning and implementation of adjustments and augmentations.

This study investigates the council’s agenda setting and contextualization functions as a form of co-creation that draws players into processes of game development, as interlocutors in consumer research. This contrasts with forms of co-creation that emphasize consumers’ contributions to the production and circulation of media content and experiences (Banks 2013). By qualitatively analyzing meeting minutes between EVE Online’s player council and developers over seven years, this study suggests that co-creative consumer research draws from imaginaries of player governance caught between the twin desires of corporate efficiency and democratic efficacy. These desires are darned together through a quantitative public sphere (Peters 2001) that is enabled and eclipsed by game analytics. In other words, algorithmic techniques facilitate collective self-knowledge that players seek for co-creative deliberation; these same techniques also short circuit deliberation through claims of neutrality, immediacy, and efficiency.

The significance of this study lies in its analysis of a consumer public’s (Arvidsson 2013) ambivalent struggle for algorithmic self-determination – the determination by users through deliberative means of how their aggregated acts should be translated by algorithms into collective will. This is not primarily a struggle of consumers against corporations; nor of political principles against capitalist imperatives; nor of aggregated numbers against individual voices. It is a struggle within communicative democracy for efficiency and efficacy (Anderson 2011). It is also a struggle for communicative democracy within corporate enclosures. These struggles grind on productive contradictions that fuel the co-creative enterprise. However, while the founding vision of co-creation gestured towards a win-win state, this analysis concludes that algorithmic self-determination prioritizes efficacy over efficiency, process over product. These commitments are best served by media companies oriented towards user retention rather than recruitment, business sustainability rather than growth, and that are flexible enough to slow down their co-creative processes.

[1] Seif et al (2013) maintain that player behavior data is an important component of game analytics, which includes the statistical analysis, predictive modeling, optimization, and forecasting of all forms of data for decision making in game development. Other data include revenue, technical performance, and organizational process metrics.

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Writing the Casual Games Syllabus

(or, “I don’t know how to skim a game.”)

Here’s my question: What is the ideal list of 16 games that, if you played them, would give you a picture of all that is possible in gaming? Oh, yeah, and they have to be fast, quick-to-learn, and mostly free (hence the “casual” in the title).

I’ll be teaching a course next Fall at the University of Michigan entitled “Play and Technology.” It’s an advanced seminar that surveys the social science and humanities literature on the idea of “play,” then applies that literature to computer-mediated communication, video games, and other kinds of what we’ll call “playful technologies.” It requires both a midterm and a final project that each require students to craft a conceptual design for a playful technology.  Hopefully we’ll learn something about people and something about designing play experiences.

If you’re still curious, here is a printable flyer for the course (PDF).

In the past I’ve taught a similar course. A serious problem with it has been that people come to the topic of play and new media from such a wide variety of practical perspectives. Since it is an elective, usually everyone who enrolls likes games or play or technology — likely all three. And people like particular games A LOT. But… everyone’s a fanatic about a different thing.

So student #1 will let loose in a class discussion with what is probably a brilliant analysis of Aristotle’s Poetics as applied to Escape from Rungistan which he/she plays religiously every evening on an Apple II emulator.  But after they’ve finished speaking, since no one else in the class has ever played Escape from Rungistan (or heard of it)* there is an awkward silence.

Escape From Rungistan Screenshot

Escape From Rungistan, c. 1982


(*Okay actually that’s not 100% true.  I’ve played Escape from Rungistan.)

Then after a long pause, Student #2 will try to explain Piaget using an example from Farm TownFarm Town is the game that FarmVille ripped off, by the way. So no one else — maybe no one else in this state — has ever played it except for student #2.*  But student #2 knows every nuance. Every vegetable.  And student #2 wants to get down and dirty in the details. Student #2 is talking about growing Chamomile vs. Quinoa and their implications for the ontological trajectory of developmental psychology, which is totally a level 112 kind of debate. Since no one else has any idea what he/she is talking about, there is an awkward silence.

Farm Town Screenshot

Farm Town, c. 2009


(*Okay actually that’s not 100% true.  I’ve played Farm Town.)

So what’s the solution? In the past I’ve asked students to try a specific game that we all play together.  It has often been a recognizable game (e.g., once, a long time ago, we played a version of Quake). That’s useful but it really does an injustice to the great diversity of kinds of play that are possible. We get stuck in one play mode (FPS, in this case). It also feels unfair because many students are already experts in any given mainstream title, and I find the novices resent it.

What students seem to need is a variety of ideas that they can use to template their own projects, not an in-depth, semester-long study of a mainstream title. And many mainstream games are LONG. I once required that an undergraduate class play Civilization IV. I thought it would be great (bestselling, award-winning game, right?), but a lot of students absolutely hated the fact that it was so involved.

One student summed it up by saying: “If you assign a game instead of a reading, I don’t know how to skim a game.” It takes hours and hours of work to get anything out of Civ IV. Come to think of it, it takes hours and hours of work to finish a single game of Civ IV.

So here is my challenge to you, dear reader. I have sixteen weeks in the semester. Let’s say we assign a game a week. For the reasons specified above these games would have to be short (“casual”) or at least you should be able to get the idea in the first level (or in a demo). Honestly I think these games should ideally be obscure so that everyone starts on the same page. The set of games as a whole, as befits a syllabus, would emphasize the diversity of different kinds of games that are possible.

Being required to do something can completely drain the fun out for some people. So this isn’t supposed to be a list of super fun games, since as soon as I require them I will drain the fun out (at least for some students). Instead, each game should have something unique to say about the art and science of game design. Each should have something to say about human behavior. If the game isn’t particularly fun (hello, Ian Bogost’s brilliant Cow Clicker), so what? It’s required. It’s important. There’s something to learn from it. We can have a productive conversation about it.  This is not a “T0p 16 Cazual Games EVAR!!!1!!1!!” blog post.

The games would have to be free or cheap. Just as I try to keep assigned textbook costs down, I want to keep assigned game costs down. I would feel OK if a few weeks of the class required a game purchase — we can set the game up in a computer lab for those unwilling or unable to pay. But a console title per week? Impossible. That’s a $700 textbook budget for one class.

I have some key dimensions in mind that it would be great to explore with this list: e.g., social vs. not social, narrative vs. non-narrative, violent vs. non-violent, historical vs. contemporary, etc.  But I think rather than giving you an exhaustive list I’d rather hear what you are thinking and adapt this to my own purposes.

However, to get things started here is a draft of what I am thinking about. What are the areas that I’ve left off?  What are the games that are better exemplars in their category — however you define their category?

Example Syllabus (DRAFT)

  1. Passage. A free art game that defies simple explanation and takes just 5 minutes to play.
  2. World of Tanks.  Quick online team combat with strangers. Likely they’ll be some weird lobby talk (“Hetzer gonna Hetz!”). A standout in the freemium realm, it would helps people experience an FPS-like game even if you suck at shooting and running around — just pick a slow tank.
  3. Escape From Rungistan. (You saw that coming, right?) The text/graphics split screen adventure game has died out. Playing it via an emulator would be an interesting way to comment on history, genre, and technological limitations of a platform. Not a particularly fast game but we can play just the first few screens and get an idea of things.
  4. SpaceChem. We have to have a puzzle game, and I think it would be interesting to put in one game that is just terribly and intentionally hard for most people. It’s a great game but it’s an interesting design choice to make a game that most players will never be able to finish. Also there’s a free demo.
  5. (or 4.5?) Lego Junkbot. Another ingenious puzzler. Could be paired with SpaceChem so that there is a simple puzzle alternative to SpaceChem’s insanity. However I can’t find Lego Junkbot online anymore. Is it dead?
  6. Diner Dash. Classic. Quick to play and you get to experience the real time management genre.  I see that I’m on a bit of an Eric Zimmerman theme now but that’s only because he is brilliant. It looks like you can play it for free with a trial subscription.
  7. (or 6.5?) Atom Zombie Smasher. Also a real time management game but quite a different take on things. And so much style! It has a free demo, at least on Steam.
  8. Façade. Fast to play, free — and great way to talk about narrative. Can be paired with an article talking about the game.
  9. (or 8.5?) Thirty Flights of Loving. Oooh, this could be assigned along with Façade. Another interesting take on narrative. Another art-y, indie blast of freshness. Now I’m on a Brendon Chung roll here. But I may have to repeat some game designers due to their absolute brilliance. 
  10. Electro City. Simple and obscure city simulator that has a green power agenda. Free online, quick to learn, quick to play, and speaks to G4C and simulations.  Not a great game though — maybe there is something better?
  11. Some sort of children’s game that is supposed to teach you something? My gaming repertoire is too antiquated to know what to put here.  Lemonade Stand anyone? Not sure.
  12. Something from GWAP (Games With a Purpose)… maybe The ESP Game — a free online multiplayer anonymous guessing game that serves the strict master of human computation.
  13. Some kind of game of chance or gambling.  Hard to think of one that would be unfamiliar and not illegal, but this is such a big domain of human play it seems important to include.
  14. Some kind of multiplayer game with really simple rules that leads to very complex gameplay, so that we can talk about how to write rulesSiSSYFiGHT 2000 would be perfect if it is finished in time. But that would be my third Zimmerman.
  15. Habbo Hotel or another social environment without much gameplay per se. Hopefully class members will not be arrested as stalkers.
  16. Maybe another classic game included because it was historically significant in the development of games?  Hard to think of one right now.  A kind of “this was the first game to do X” kind of game. Not sure.  You can see I’m running out of ideas at #16!

I pledge to you that the most useful response submitted will receive a prize of my choosing, entirely at my discretion. I will actually mail it to you. It will be a physical object. You are welcome to submit a thought, an idea, a criticism, a single game, or an entire syllabus.

If you’d like, please include your suggestions as a comment to this post. Or if you’d prefer to do this privately, email me at casual-games@umich.edu.  Let the syllabus writing begin!

This is a cross-post from Multicast.

The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art

Does collaboration result in higher quality creative works than individuals working alone? Is working in groups better for functional works like code than for creative works like art? Although these questions lie at the heart of conversations about collaborative production on the Internet and peer production, it can be hard to find research settings where you can compare across both individual and group work and across both code and art. We set out to tackle these questions in the context of a very large remixing community.

Remixing in Scratch
Example of a remix in the Scratch online community, and the project it is based off. The orange arrows indicate pieces which were present in the original and reused in the remix

Continue reading “The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art”

Video: TL Taylor on Pro Gaming, Live Streaming & Spectatorship

Current and future visitor TL Taylor spoke last week at the Berkman Luncheon series on “Live Streaming, Computer Games, and the Future of Spectatorship.”

Computer gaming has long been a social activity, complete with forms of spectatorship. With the growth of live-streaming the boundaries of audience are shifting. Professional e-sports players and amateurs alike are broadcasting their play online and in turn growing communities. But interesting issues lurk around notions of audience (and revenue), IP and licensing, and the governance and management of these spaces. T.L. Taylor — Associate Professor in the Center for Computer Games Research and author of the newly released “Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming” (MIT Press, 2012) — presents some preliminary inquiries into this emerging intersection of “social media,” gaming, and broadcasting.

TL just accepted a job as Associate Professor at MIT’s Department of Comparative Media Studies. We’re all stoked to have her in the Boston area.