Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hacking Away Misconceptions

When given the rare opportunity to enjoy New York City at my leisure, why pass up the opportunity to see local hackers mess around with technology and come up with creative game ideas? Game Hack Day, hosted by the New York City Hackers Union, took place last weekend, bringing together over nearly 100 participants to share ideas, tweak hardware, teach, and compete to put out the best game possible in less than forty-eight hours. There are few game-related sights as inspiring as this group of veterans and noobs alike working together in pursuit of artistic creation. It came as no surprise that not only were the NYC game-hacking folk incredibly nice and welcoming, but that I found some of their final products astounding. Because of Game Hack Day, I am now a firm believer in technologies I have historically shrugged off and ignored.

In the development circle and amongst social impact game designers, the ubiquitous use of cell phone technology in the under-developed world seems a ray of hope for software developers in the region. While some mobile phone projects have earned deservedly high praise, I have always imagined the game market as woefully burdened by low-quality phones. I foolishly presumed compelling mobile games needed decent visuals. Writer and jack-of-all-trades Brian Fountain proved me wrong, or at least reminded me of my ignorance, by quickly putting together Uchoos, a choose-your-own-adventure game with Twilio that allows players to call a number and make decisions remotely. As a child, my local newspaper had a number in the paper to play exactly this type of game, so the idea is not completely novel. However, the ease by which users can create their own versions of the game with the appropriate system remains significant . As Brian described, players can create their own stories easily, or even record voice-over narration or dialogue over the phone.

Perhaps a more pertinent piece of technology, but one I have nevertheless been lukewarm about, is the Kinect. A hands-free control mechanism, even for Mass Effect 3, has always been unappealing to me. Yet in just a day and a half, a team of three hack day participants charmed the crowd with Just A Flesh Wound, a two-player game in which players bounce throwing-stars off their digitized bodies into the competitor’s avatar. Whenever a star hits the opponent, that person loses a body-part. As the game progresses, players have less limbs to use offensively but also have smaller hitboxes. While the product was painfully rough, I found the idea both clear and alluring.
While I have mostly ignored the Kinect, I have vehemently avoided Foursquare, the surprisingly popular geotagging app. The idea of “checking myself in” at popular locations seemed a tad pretentious and a bit unsavory. Do I really want everyone to know where I am? I am not paranoid or anything, but I generally dislike the idea of tracking myself and uploading my geographical history online. Who knows what people could do with that information? Apparently, people could make a really interesting real-world game of risk. Designed by a seven (and not entirely at Hack Day), World of Fourcraft turns New York City’s boroughs into a persistent war zone. Using information taken directly from Foursquare’s API, players with an allegiance to one borough can check-in to other parts of the city as invading forces. If a Manhattan contingent frequents Staten Island, they can claim all the component land pieces for themselves. Alternatively, Brooklyn residents can defend their territory against the Manhattan invaders by simply checking-in at their favorite locals on their own turf. While the game is only in the works for New York, I could easily see myself becoming more eager to explore my own city with the game in mind.

Of course, none of the games coming out of Hack Day were complete or well polished in the slightest. Most were made in just a day after all. Nevertheless, many creative concepts shone through. I have personally been swayed by the ingenuity of the participants. Consider me a believer. Put some cooperative hackers in a room and anything is possible.

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