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Eroge, Chopped and Screwed

I interviewed @DataErase, AKA Maddison, for this week’s dispatch. You can also find her on Tumblr and her website. Full disclosure: I commissioned an artwork from Maddison before undertaking this interview — that’s not really a conflict of interest but you might want to know anyway. The text below has been lightly edited for readability.


Exolymph: What got you into glitch art?

@DataErase: I had a NES as a kid, around the same time that everyone else had N64s and stuff, so the games weren’t really in great condition. We had a copy of Super Mario 2 that eventually stopped showing the graphics correctly. I’d say that was a pretty early memory of me having an attachment to “glitch” as this sorta spooky aesthetic. Like computer ghosts trying to talk to you or something.

When I started making these images, back in 2012, out of screencaps from old PC-98 eroges, I started using that term to describe what I was doing.

Exolymph: Some of your source material is erotica that was made within the particular constraints of the time and the technology. if it’s not too personal, can you talk about the theme of sexuality in your own work?

@DataErase: I like anime and I’m a queer girl. Sometimes that has a lot of baggage attached to it. My work is kinky, for sure, but I see it more as an exploration of where I fit into these things. It’s more about subverting this kinda banal iconography that hentai during that time was made up of — and pulling a deeper, more meaningful thing out of it. Pulling flowers out of decaying flesh. Corrupting the corrupted, if you will.

artwork by @dataerase

Exolymph: In many of your pieces there’s a sort of visual cacophony — lots of colors, lots of detail. Is that an aesthetic you consciously set out for, or did it evolve over time?

@DataErase: It was something that was always there, but I think over the years it definitely accelerated and got more intense. Personally, I really like over-detailed stuff! And very complex patterns! Those are things that I get excited about in art.

Exolymph: What drew you to making art with computer tools as opposed to a more traditional form?

@DataErase: I’m not very good at things involving the real world, I guess you could say. My drawings are very, very bad, hehehe. But I still get a kind of catharsis out of doodling. I’ve spent a long time having a relationship with computers and the internet, so using them to do most things feels more natural to me.

artwork by @dataerase

Exolymph: Do you remember when you first started using computers? Was it for games, or something else?

@DataErase: Probably like elementary school? It wasn’t until I was eleven or so that I started fooling around on one of my dad’s old Mac desktops that he stopped using. It ran, like, OS 8. I played with a lot of retro game console emulators on it. I think the first games I played were the fan translations of Final Fantasy 5 and The Secret of Mana 2…

Exolymph: What do you struggle with when you make art? Are there parts of it that are difficult, or does the flow come easily?

@DataErase: Lately it’s been really hard to initiate the whole art-making process. Entering the mental space that I make art in. It’s a different mode of operating altogether! I don’t really think when I make my glitch collages, it just sorta happens?


So endeth the lesson. Maddison also has a Patreon that you can support!

Playin’ as PewDiePie

YouTube star PewDiePie, who vlogs about video games, launched a mobile game called Tuber Simulator, in which the player roleplays as a professional YouTuber. Gita Jackson writes:

Because of the way these mechanics work, the life of a Tuber (as presented in-game) is less about being passionate and following your dreams than endlessly churning out content and doing what’s popular.

Well, yeah. Welcome to the working world. Art (to use the term loosely) is very rarely about just doing what you love, unless you’re content to have a day job at the same time. And now playing games is sometimes about mimicking someone else’s day job!

I wonder if Tuber Simulator would be fun for a professional YouTuber to play? It amazes me that we’ve gotten to the point where digital careers are legitimate enough to imitate. I guess I would enjoy trying Freelance Writer Simulator. Maybe I would be better at the game version of my own job! Would that be heartening or depressing? (Ugh, don’t answer.)

I want to quote something I mentioned when I wrote about Game Dev Tycoon:

In his book Play Money, journalist and MMORPG expert Julian Dibbell talks about this trend — the convergence of work and play — in what you might call “post-developed” countries. He hypothesizes that it’s a condition of late capitalism. When your daily tasks consist of manipulating symbols on a computer screen, the content of work starts to closely resemble the content of recreation. Or vice versa?

Just for fun, in the “cheerfully unhinged” category, this was the first review forTuber Simulator when I looked at the App Store page:

screenshot of a Tuber Simulator review on the App Store

WALLS! BATHROOMS! NO MORE SQUARE ROOMS! KITCHENS! LIFE!

Relentlessly Growth-Oriented & Profit-Seeking

Developer Francis Tseng, who made Humans of Simulated New York, is currently crowdfunding a dystopian business simulator called The Founder. You play as the head of a startup and your goal is to grow the company however you can. Little obstacles like other people’s lives shouldn’t bother you!

Artwork from dystopian video game The Founder. Image via the Kickstarter campaign.

Image via the Kickstarter campaign.

Tseng writes in his crowdfunding pitch:

“How is the promise of technology corrupted when businesses’ relentlessly growth-oriented and profit-seeking logic plays out to its conclusion? What does progress look like in a world obsessed with growth, as measured only by sheer economic output?”

It looks a lot like San Francisco. That’s not a compliment.

“Winning in The Founder means shaping a world in which you are successful — at the expense of almost everyone else.”

Not so different from the real world of business, right?

Screenshot from The Founder's game website. "Change the world. Everything you do has a consequence. With your revolutionary new products, you have the power to shape a brave new world — one in which every facet serves your ceaseless expansion."

Screenshot from the game site.

I don’t believe that economics is a zero-sum game, especially when it comes to technology. “Innovation” may be an over-fetishized buzzword, but it really is able to move the needle on people’s quality of life.

Unfortunately, that aspect of industry is not prioritized in practice. The profit motive should be a proxy for ~making the world a better place~ but it often gets treated as an end in and of itself.

The Founder interrogates this trend and hopefully makes the player feel uneasy about their own incentives. If you’re interested in playing, contribute!

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” — Jeffrey Hammerbacher, data scientist and early Facebook employee

Pastiche Review of Nirvana (1997)

Here’s how IMDb contributor Sembola describes the 1997 cyberpunk movie Nirvana:

“Jimi, a successful computer game designer, finds that his latest product has been infected by a virus which has given consciousness to the main character of the game, Solo. Tormented by the memory of his fled girlfriend Lisa and begged by Solo to end its useless ‘life’, Jimi begins a search for people who can help him both to discover what happened to Lisa and to delete his game before it is released.”

cyberpunk movie Nirvana from 1997

The blog 100 Films in a Year fills in a little more detail about the mysterious Solo:

“[W]e get to witness Solo’s experiences inside the game, frequently dying and re-living the same story with a group of characters who aren’t aware in the way he is. To be blunt, the in-game stuff is a bit odd. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and builds to a lacklustre climax — indeed, the word climax is a bit strong. But perhaps this is part of the point: as the only character in the game capable of independent thought, Solo is stuck in a loop of story and fellow characters who just re-enact what they were programmed to re-enact. Literally, he can’t go anywhere.”

Nirvana, 1997 cyberpunk movie

The Film Connoisseur gives the film 3.5 stars and opines:

“The thing about sci-fi films is that if you don’t have the budget to create a fictional world convincingly, it always shows. In the case of Nirvana, its budgetary restraints are evident in the cramped sets and small in scope story, but you can still see that the filmmakers tried their best to offer us interesting visuals in spite of their low budget. […] I love how low budget productions can force filmmakers to play with ideas and push the envelope and in that respect, I thought Nirvana did well. It has many ideas that help establish the futuristic elements.”

Nirvana, 1997 cyberpunk movie

And lastly, g33k-e says that despite drawing heavy inspiration from William Gibson’s Neuromancer

“Nirvana manages to remain distinct and unique in its execution of the central plot, as it deals with themes like the concept of artificial intelligences developing sentience, and the idea of immortality as a simple data construct.”

That’s how you review a movie that you haven’t watched — by assembling the best quotes from other people’s reviews!

A Hard Day’s Night of Fake Work

Playing video games. Original photo by R Pollard.

Original photo by R Pollard.

I’ve been playing a lot of Game Dev Tycoon, a business simulator in which you start and build a game development company. (Hat tip to Way Spurr-Chen!)

Sonya: “This game is so addictive.”
Alex: “That’s how you know it’s good!”

It is bizarre that I come home after work, usually drained from relating to people all day, and I want to pretend to go right back to work. A business simulator is most compelling when it mimics real professional stress. Game Dev Tycoon‘s appeal is the edge-of-your-seat anxiety that arises from owning a hypothetical small-to-medium business. You have to watch your revenue like a hawk, balance decisions about future investment against the necessity of meeting payroll, and respond to the vagaries of the market.

In his book Play Money, journalist and MMORPG expert Julian Dibbell talks about this trend — the convergence of work and play — in what you might call “post-developed” countries. He hypothesizes that it’s a condition of late capitalism. When your daily tasks consist of manipulating symbols on a computer screen, the content of work starts to closely resemble the content of recreation. Or vice versa?

Facebook, Tinder, and their ilk bring everyone’s social life into the fold as well. Your entire experience of the world can be directed through a carefully designed software interface, constructed to guide you toward certain actions and away from others.

For the most part, none of this is new. Board games and card games are also best when they involve resource management and strategic goal attainment. But the internet and ubiquitous computing greatly increase the scale of our reliance on interactive Platforms™ for employment, entertainment, and community.

Hacking as a Business: Interview with Sean Roesner

Sean Roesner describes himself on Twitter as a “web application penetration tester.” I asked him a bunch of questions about what that entails. Sean answered in great depth, so I redacted my boring questions, lightly edited Sean’s answers, and made it into an essay. Take a tour through the 2000s-era internet as well as a crash course in how an independent hacker makes money. Without any further ado, Sean Roesner…


Origin Story

I got into my line of work when I was thirteen, playing the game StarCraft. I saw people cheating to get to the top and I wanted to know how they did it. At first I wasn’t that interested in programming, purely because I didn’t understand it. I moved my gaming to Xbox (the original!) shortly thereafter and was a massive fan of Halo 2. Again, I saw people cheating (modding, standbying, level boosting) and instantly thought, “I want to do this!” I learned how people were making mods and took my Xbox apart to start mucking with things.

I moved away from Xbox and back to the computer (I can never multitask). Bebo was just popping up. With an intro to coding already, I saw that you could send people “luv”. Based on my mentality from the last two games I played… I wanted the most luv and to be rank #1. I joined a forum called “AciidForums” and went by the names “DCH SlayeR” and “SlayeR”. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who shared my interests. I started to code bots for Bebo to send myself luv. My coding got a lot better and so did my thinking path. I’d come home from school and instantly go on my computer — it was a whole new world to me. I still have old screenshots of myself with seventy-six million luv.

76,000,000 luv.

Bebo screenshot from back in the day — check out the luv stats.

As my coding came along I met a lot of different types of people. Some couldn’t code but had ideas for bots; some couldn’t code but knew how to break code. We all shared information and formed a team. Suddenly I became the main coder and my friends would tell me about exploits they found. We got noticed. I’m not sure how, or why, but I seem to always get in with the right people. Perhaps it’s the way I talk or act — who knows. I made friends with a couple of Bebo employees, “Andy Cutright” and “Brian” (never did know his last name). They were interested in how I was doing what I was doing.

This was my introduction to hacking and exploiting. I moved on from Bebo after coming to an agreement with the company that I’d leave them alone. Sadly my friends and I all lost contact, and it was time to move on.

Next came Facebook. At this point I already knew how to code and exploit. I instantly found exploits on Facebook and started again, getting up to mischief. Along the way I meet James Jeffery and we became best friends because we share the same ideas and interests. Two years passed and again, my mischief went a bit far, so I got in trouble with Facebook. We resolved the issue and I vowed to never touch Facebook again.

I guess three times lucky, hey? I moved my exploiting to porn sites. After a year I was finally forced to make peace with the porn site I was targeting. I was getting fed up with always having to stop… but I was also getting annoyed at how easy it was to exploit. I needed a challenge.

I took a year off from exploiting to focus on improving my coding skills. I worked for a few people and also on some of my own personal projects, but it got repetitive and I needed a change. At this point, I was actually arrested by the eCrime Unit for apparently being “in^sane” from TeaMp0isoN. The charges were dropped since I was innocent. My former friend James Jeffery was in prison for hacking (a quick Google search will yield you results) so I was feeling quite lonely and not sure what to do. I’ll be honest, he had become like a brother to me.

I kept on coding for a bit, feeling too scared to even look for exploits after what happened to James Jeffery. (A few years have passed since then — James is out and he’s learned his lesson.) I knew that hacking was illegal and bad. I’d just like to note that I’ve never once maliciously hacked a site or stolen data, in case you think I was a super blackhat hacker, but the James incident also scared me. Especially since I got arrested too.

Because of this and through other life changes, I knew I wanted to help people. I took my exploiting skills and starting looking. I found some exploits instantly and started reporting them to companies to let them know, and to also help fix them. 99% of the companies replied and were extremely thankful. Some even sent me T-shirts, etc.

I started targeting a few sites (I can’t name which because we have NDAs now; I’m still actively helping many). By using my words right, I managed to get in with a few people. I start reporting vulnerabilities and helping many companies. Months passed and one company showed a lot of interest in what I was doing. I got invited to fly over to meet them. I knew something was going right at this point, so I knuckled down and put all of my focus on finding vulnerabilities and reporting them to this company. Things were going great and I soon overloaded their team with more than they could handle. I started looking further afield at more sites, and suddenly I was introduced to HackerOne. I saw that LOADS of sites had bounties and paid for vulnerabilities. I instantly knew that this was where I wanted to stay. To this day I am still active on HackerOne, but normally I run in private programs now (better payouts).

Fast forward through a year of exploiting and helping companies and now we’re here. I’ve been a nerd for ten years. Eight years coding, and around seven years exploiting.

Business Practices

For companies that don’t have a bug bounty, I tend to spend thirty minutes to an hour finding simple bugs such as XSS (cross-site scripting) or CSRF (cross-site request forgery). I’ll try find a contact email and send them a nice detailed email about what I’ve found and what the impact is. I also supply them with information about how they can fix it. I never ask for money or anything over the first few emails — I tend to get their attention first, get them to acknowledge what I’ve found, and get them to agree that I can look for more. At that point I’ll ask if they offer any type of reward for helping them. The majority reply that they are up for rewarding me, due to the amount of help I’ve given them.

After I’ve helped the company for a while and they’ve rewarded me, etc, I usually suggest that they join HackerOne for a much cleaner process of reporting bugs and rewarding me (it also helps my rep on HackerOne). So far two have joined and one started their own private bounty system.

To sum it up, I’ll start of with basic bugs to get their attention, then once I’ve gotten the green light to dig deeper, I’ll go and find the bigger bugs. This helps me not waste my time on companies who don’t care about security. (Trust me, I’ve reported bugs and gotten no reply, or a very rude response!) I like to build a good relationship with companies before putting a lot of hours into looking for bugs. A good relationship with companies is a win-win situation for everyone — they get told about vulnerabilities on their site, and I get rewarded. Perfect.

In case you wanted to know, I’ve helped around ten companies who didn’t have a bug bounty. Nine of them have rewarded me (with either money, swag, or recognition on their website). Only one has told me they don’t offer any type of reward, but welcomed me to look for bugs to help them (pfft, who works for free?). Out of the nine who rewarded me, I’ve built a VERY close relationship with three of them. (Met with one company in January, and meeting with another in June.)

There are two types of companies. Those who simply can’t afford to reward researchers and those who think, “Well, no one has hacked us yet, so why bother paying someone to find bugs?” AutoTrader is probably the worst company I’ve dealt with after reporting a few critical bugs. They rarely reply to bugs, let alone fix them. It took an email letting them know that I was disclosing one bug to the public, to warn users that their information on AutoTrader was at risk. After that they finally replied and fixed it.

100% of companies should change their perspectives. Again I’ll use AutoTrader as an example. I only really look at their site when I’m bored (which is rarely) and I’ve uncovered a ton of vulns. I wonder what I could find if I spent a week looking for bugs (and if they rewarded me). Companies need to stop thinking, “No one has hacked us yet, so we’re good.”

If a company can’t afford to pay researchers to find bugs, then they should reconsider their business. Hacking is on the rise and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon (if ever). If you honestly can’t afford it, though, then my suggestion (if I was the CEO of a company that couldn’t afford security) would be to run a hackathon within the company. Let the devs go look for bugs and run a competition in-house. Your devs not only learn about writing secure code, but it’s fun too!


Many thanks to Sean Roesner for writing great answers to my questions. Follow him on Twitter and hire him to hack your website 🙂

This post has been edited on 11/17/2016 to reflect than Roesner and James Jeffery are no longer friends.

Once & Someday Software Experiments

Andi McClure is an artist whose primary medium is code. She uses proverbial `1`s and `0`s to make game-like creations, a programming language called Emily, and digital sigils. Andi and I chatted on Skype recently about these various projects and how she conceptualizes her work.

This conversation took place via IM. The full transcript is available for your reading pleasure, but it’s much too long for a newsletter. Instead, I selected some of Andi’s loveliest statements.

Art-Purposed Computing

“Um, I guess I just had this drive to make stuff. I didn’t really question it. I guess at the beginning, when I was making things, I seemed focused on making worlds people could dip into? all my BASIC programs were grossly simple text adventures, and hypercard I was all making point and click adventures (it’s suited for that, it’s technically the program Myst was eventually made in)”

On the games Cyan made before Myst: “you’d explore these bizarre alice-in-wonderland worlds that were full of stuff that reacted in funny ways when you clicked on them.”

Cover art from McClure’s collection Sweet Nothings.

Cover art from McClure’s collection Sweet Nothings.

“I do definitely think of myself as an artist. Code happens to be the thing I know how to express myself through, so that’s how I create art. Sometimes I think of the way I approach certain things in life (politics, day to day problems) as being sort of an engineer’s mindset, but if i’m writing code, that’s art. My programming language project is maybe not itself art, but I’m doing it with the goal of making art WITH it, so.”

On trying to distribute “little minimally-interactive systems”: “I’d have this problem that the only way anyone could see this little bitty thing I made, that I spent like a day on and that takes about a minute to two minutes to appreciate fully, was to download this 2MB .exe, and run it on their computer, and half the time have to disable their antivirus or something. So that was awkward.”

The answer to that problem was a website called…

dryad.technology

“dryads are trees that are also girls and that is very compelling to me.”

“i was very specifically trying to find something that evoked a sort of a tension between something organic and wild and something mathematical and technological. like some of the ones i didn’t go with were ‘glitch dot flowers’, ‘fleshy dot rocks’, ‘screaming dot computer’”

“i really really liked the idea of a dryad trying to design technology and what that would look like. i imagined that it would involve lots of crystals. i had this mental image of a tiny plant girl holding a wrench about as tall as she is, looking out over some kind of cryptic crystalline machine.”

“Again I’ve only got two things up so far but the descriptions are all going to be completely inaccurate descriptions as if the little toy I made was some sort of device built by dryads, with a specific purpose which is vaguely incomprehensible to humans but makes a lot of sense to a tree.”

“i do want to make sure this doesn’t feel like trees trying to use human technology and make sense of it. this is trees doing their own thing that may or may not have anything to do with you.”

Andi McClure Chat, Full Transcript

Andi McClure is an artist whose main medium is code. She uses proverbial `1`s and `0`s to make games and game-like creations, a programming language called Emily, and digital sigils. Andi and I chatted on Skype recently about these various projects and her artistic practice(s).

This is the full transcript, which is messy like most IM conversations. I sent a collection of quotes to the newsletter subscribers. Read more

Mystic Game Design

The first three of Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”.

The first three of Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”.

“If you’re doing something that nobody else is doing, it’s either really stupid or really smart. If it’s really stupid at least people will talk about it, but if it’s really smart you’ll have no competition.” Zach Gage on his creative process. He cited Lewitt’s “Sentences” as an influence.

So who is this guy, anyway? Zach Gage is a conceptual artist. His work encompasses “games, sculptures, websites, talks, prints, photos, videos, toys, hacks, fonts, installations, and more.” He is best-known for iOS apps like Ridiculous Fishing and SynthPond. I’m struggling to summarize Zach’s work in a way that encapsulates why I find it exciting. Maybe an example will help — my favorite of his creations is warorpeace.net:

The site can display either “WAR” or “PEACE”, depending on how many people Google each word in a given day. The most-searched of the two words will win.

The site can display either “WAR” or “PEACE”, depending on how many people Google each word in a given day. The most-searched of the two words will win. Zach explained, “On the day that more people search for peace than war, the site will say peace. As of this writing, that has never happened, but the work awaits the day it does.”

warorpeace.net is more of a pure conceptual piece, but Zach’s bread-and-butter is game design. That’s how he makes most of his money, and based on his list of complete works, interactive creations are an enduring interest. I think it’s important to talk about the paradigms and techniques employed by game designers, because they have power. As virtual reality continues to gain traction, we’ll spend larger portions of time in worlds programmed by other humans. (Not necessarily a bad thing!)

On Friday morning, Zach and I talked about designing generative systems that manage to keep surprising people — including the creators. (We agreed that Olivia Taters does a great job.) I asked why systems intrigue him, and Zach said, “I think one of the biggest things is that people just don’t understand systems. It’s kind of a complexity thing.” Therefore system design “provides kind of a good target for art and a good target for games.”

Like many artists, he wants to make people think. Most of the time, we default to a sophisticated kind of autopilot. Zach told me, “You start doing things by pattern recognition and you do a lot less sitting, thinking, and wondering.” It’s a natural reaction, because we all have to get on with our daily lives — but it’s also valuable to be snapped out of the monotony. Zach likes to observe the rules of systems that people are following by rote, and try upending one assumption. This is a way to interrogate how things work — to prompt people to question their own habits and processes.

“There are not a lot of ways you can build something that will ask people to think,” Zach said. When people puzzle through a game and solve problems, they stretch their neural muscles and often feel good about themselves, especially if the story was also beautifully immersive. However, providing this experience is extremely difficult. Zach told me, “Designing games is really hard. It’s really challenging. You’re trying to design something that you yourself could never fully understand, because that’s what’s fun about games.”

When Minecraft became a huge hit, a lot of people released copycat games. Zach contends that they imitated Minecraft aesthetically without reproducing the core magic. He explained to me, “When you deal with randomness, most of what you get is just a regression to the mean.” For example, “The longer you generate [procedural] landscapes, the more you realize that although technically every landscape is unique, they’re all the same.” Ho hum, another winding river and a few more snow-capped mountains. Even if the contours are a little different, the way we perceive the environments and interact with them is the same.

Zach thinks that Minecraft “did a really good job tying together the generative components with these actual functional components” in a way that allowed people to apply meanings that resonated with them. (I wish I had asked him to elaborate on how Minecraft does this better than others.) In his own work, Zach tries to build depth and profundity into systems that use random elements. Zach wants to “make sure that [players] are engaging in the way that the stuff is the most interesting.” This is a tricky design problem, but he seems to be tackling it well.

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