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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Interview with Asi Burak - Co-Founder of Impact Games

After the ambiguity of my last article accidentally insulted a member of Impact Games' community, I reluctantly reasoned that my chances of attaining an interview with co-founder Asi Burak were somewhat diminished. Although I welcome any effort to expand the remit of games, I think I'd been mistaken for someone who's content and conservative of the retirement home diet of drip-fed grey gruel and extreme violence upon which most gamers are currently sustained. Luckily for me, Asi's the forgiving and resilient sort - perhaps he has to be - he explains, "[I'm] actually used to harsh criticism from hard core gamers".

After a bit of apologetic email bouncing, Asi and I's relationship had recovered to the extent that an interview seemed possible. Intimidatingly, Asi'd only recently been siphoned for words by The Guardian, yet I think the Splines interview is special (not only in length and garish appearance) because Asi's unguarded and contemplative words reflect on his character and motivation to deliver the experience, knowledge, and stimulation required to think for oneself. From speaking with Asi, it's clear that a shared culture of thought and understanding will become the means to improve life on this conflicted Earth, and he's making quite the impact.

This dialogue is formatted oddly and it's full of spelling mistakes because it was birthed in cyberspace - like the orbital foetus at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey - so please understand that it's been hard to make the kid presentable.

[17:37:15] Sean Garland says: Peacemaker was originally due to reward its players with the Nobel Peace Prize once they'd met the goal of bringing peace to the Middle East. Shortly before Peacemaker's release, the Nobel Foundation issued a cease and desist letter to Impact Games, demanding that the prize be removed from the game. Were you surprised by this order? How did you react?

Asi Burak says: yeah

completely surprised

in fact, i even think that we were approaching them at some point letting them know about PeaceMaker.

it was opposed to all the support we got in media outlets, the community

if the guys at the foundation had stopped to play the game, they would have seen it adhere to the kind of values they propagate, right!

instead of them being glad we are using the prize their lawyers came at us


the irony is

that we actually got a lot of criticism when we used the nobel prize

especially from the israeli/jewish side

why do you think that was?

since arafat recieved the prize, it is somewhat tainted for some people

as Oslo was controversial and never really resolved the conflict

and some israelis never fully trusted araft as a diplomat

and someone who can take it to the end

but thats politics

our response by the way was to fully comply

best to avoid the lawyers eh!

it was def something you could argue as fair use but we didnt have the resources nor the energies to deal with it

and end of the day- if they dont see the merit, let it be

after we removed all mentions we actually realized that the loss is minor

do you think perhaps a new generation of nobel employees will see things in a more sympathetic light?

i hope so

like u said- probably they never played the game

if it was a book or an essay i am sure they would have investigated it

but they have no capacity to deal with interactive media and understand it

Play The News' concept is lofty and unconventional in that it raises awareness of real world events and entertains while doing so. Can you describe the creative process your team followed to produce the outlandish phenomenon we know as Play The News?


u cant separate it from peacemaker

peacemaker is the father

its an evolution

when we presented PM around the globe, spoke with users and read their emails there were 3 core issues coming up all the time:

(1) can you do it about my conflict? or about my domestic issue that keeps me awake at night?

(2) can you update it according to the headlines? on a daily basis?

(3) can the community participate?

all were impossible with the PM model, to deal with another subject matter would take us at least a year

and it had no community, streaming capabilites

adding those was feasible but not justified in business terms

so we said- why instead of going deeper we'll go wider / shorter?


the main feedback that came from people who liked PeaceMaker was a lot about engagement and understanding of news events

less the peace message, much more about context in interactive environment

like: i learned in one or two hours more than i understood in years


don't say edutainment!

no no

we are very much opposed to the "education" or "edutainment" label

would you call a documentary "an educational movie"?

or a non-fiction book "an educational book"?

well, i suppose not

the educational value is incidental

why any game that smells of infromation and meaning we push to the classroom?

do you think a relexed learning environment is superior in some way to the classroom?

hard to say

i also dont feel i have enough expertise in education

i have a feeling that interactivity can do things that traditional methods cannot do

but i also have a feeling that games cannot answer everything

([by the way], fascinating how the community practically demanded PTN from you!)

yeah- thats the power of the internet

the immidiate feedback

does Impact Games have any plans to introduce their games to the classroom?


not solely for the classroom

we had some interesting discussions with educational publishers

big ones in the US

that were interested in PtN junior

a version for education

that is fine, as it is an incarnation

but doing something solely for the classroom is against everything we believe in and advocate :)

why's that? why take a principled stance against entering the classroom?

no no

many teachers use our products in the classroom

thats terrific

we get emails all the time, and they are usually by their intiative

we didnt really market there

what im saying is that as an additional distribution channel

one more segment it is terrific

but not as the core thing

its a kiss of death in my opinion

do you mean the label 'educational' [is the kiss of death]?


the fact that games that are positive have to be "educational"

as i mentioned - u dont have that in mature media

discovery channel is main stream

CNN investigates is a prime time show

Al Gore's movie won the oscar

thats [where] positive games [or games about current events] should be...

games should be in a situation where they're not rendered special by being informative


and also not segregated

again going to other media, and this is what the guardian piece is talking about:

there are no movie-goers or radio listeners or Tv-watchers

everybody is one

with mature media everybody finds his favorite flavor

with games were still in the trap

who is a gamer and who is not

mature mediums are broad enough to accomodate all sorts

and i feel its a matter of time

right- we need to diversify

luckily, the world is not waiting only on impactgames :)

check what happens on Facebook, phenomena like the Nintendo Wii

games for brain training on the DS

breaking the boundaries of traditional perceptions about who is a gamer

and what a game is

but i think you've carved yourself a rather interesting niche

and i believe that PtN can get much much larger than what it does now

there's no other games company attempting a similar task to Impact Games, as far as i know

not on a commercial level

some have tried

but its not their sole mission

and a lot is done on the non-profit side

u can check "Games for Change" and their community

How do you envision Impact Games' future? Will Play The News continue as Impact Games sole project, or could there be another game on the horizon?

def we could do other stuff

but i think that we didnt scratch the potential of PtN

a few directions were going:

(1) signing up partners

we never intended to create a new desitnation site but partner with media channels

so imagine news games on CNN, the New York Times or BBC

that's a brilliant idea

(2) other platforms: like mobile or other social networks beyond what we did with facebook

(3) user generated games

(4) other verticals

what else could you predict beyond news?

TV shows?

stock markets?

again. if we build it right and with the right partners we can make it big

TV is actually interesting as it is all around episodic content

if you think about it, just like in the news, events open and close, open and close

so its easy to structure ptn around TV shows

except with the news, it's sometimes hard to predict when the closure will come

thats the fascinating thing about it

that its not a TV writer who structured it

An awful lot of events happen in the real world, and the Play The News team can only report on a few of them. Do you worry about bias in the stories selected for Play The News?

before i address bias

as for quantity- again, going back to the partners

imagine that they support the creation

so instead of one game a day we create 10 or 20

so then we could be less biased

and ideally we could present the NYT game next to Al-Jazeera

it could be even on the same subject but the way you design it will make all the difference in the world

which roles and actions you chose?

which event is the one you focus on?

ideally, once again, i'd think that the broader spectrum of choices will represent the game coming into maturity

more choices, more user input, more stories told from more perspectives


and ultimately the users creating the games themselves

after all, the platform is made exactly for that

that's what i'd love to see

Currently the choices offered to your players are decided upon by Impact Games. Is there a chance that users could submit their own options in a future iteration of the game?

yeah- im talking about the next step:

make a game about your town

let other people rate it and the best games will get up in the rating

top of the pile

but as you say- letting people add actions would be a nice step

nice first step

ah, the Reddit mechanic

very democratic

yeah, like [Digg]

there are many directions

but limited time :)

i have to admit, i assumed that PtN was going to be a short-term project

it's great to be proven wrong!

not at all

internet apps are full of potential

its like coming to YouTube at the very beginning and ask them- so your whole business is video upload?

those ideas that take off are pretty simple

and unlike "titles" they evolve

yeah, if there's a demand

so people who judge internet apps as "titles" look at them as "frozen"


its more than about demand

execution, the right timing, viral growth

after all for every successful app there are dozens of clones

and only few make it

but demand would be the cornerstone of success, right?


not sure :)

i mean, no matter the finesse of the operation, it cant succeed unless someone has a use for it

we know that people out there are interested in news events

we know the traditional media is losing custoemrs to more sophisticated engines

like - digg

like - google news

and RSS feeds

so if we design the right stuff for them and do the right marketing we should capture some of that market

but it all takes time to reach the tipping point

i've not seen any of your marketing

where can it be found?

there is none really

we have a lot of publicity

and our approach to media channels

is all about using their channels and user base

so imaging someone sitting on a story and he can just click "play it"

and its a win win

i get exposure to their audience, they add engagmenet to their passive content

that's a superb plan, i can imagine it working brilliantly


Is the Impact Games team a diverse one? do you think you'll need to diversify further to broaden the scope of your reporting?


we are now only seven

one writer

i imagine that if we succeed in our plans

and expand

we will need more writers and content experts

build a small newsroom 2.0


i wish you all the luck in the world

in business terms its challenging

[because] the growth is expensive

but satisfying?

more than that!

we already created some change

and impact

small as it is

where have you seen the impact?

well, with peacemaker

the peres center distributed 100,000 copies in one day in israel and palestine

it was the talk of the day, after all its a small community

(relative to the US)

but also...

again- on a small scale

when people read the guardian

or see our stuff elsewhere in the news

it gets more traction to the message

the message i got out of peacemaker was that the two sides are not adversaries but working to accomplish the same goal


excellent idea to get out into the community

yeah we were lucky to have such exposure

but its only one portion of what one needs to do

in a world with so much information

its like a few pings, weak signals

and u can get a larger signal only with customers

like u said-

real people who enjoy it and use it

and it fills something missing for them

im off man- have a great weekend over there

[18:25:26] Sean Garland says: you too - dont brainstorm yourself into oblivion!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

24/7 Ticker Tape Parade

I want to tell you about a game called Play The News. It's made by Impact Games - the most hypocritical of game developers - for whilst Peacemaker emerged from their offices, their seemingly innocuous production process continues to churn out ammunition for debate with the 'games are mindless' clan. As critics fall, clutching their garlic, into conveniently placed prison colony furnaces, the power generated by Impact Games' minimal input (a website, a news story, and a decision for players) is highly efficient because it's the community which drives the brain-whirring mechanism of Play The News.

I'm uncertain whether Play The News ultimately qualifies as a game - it bears all the hallmarks of a modern news website, replete with reader's comments and the option for you to 'yay' or 'nay' the words of another person depending on whether they rung true or struck you as tone-deaf; yet the archetypes of gaming will swiftly be evidenced to you after the topsoil is unearthed. You'll be wooed by Play The News' achievements - become a Charismatic Debater by posting 10 comments and earning a yay or nay for each, or achieve Presidency of the USA by establishing principles then abandoning them for electoral gain (this last example may not be part of the game) - but the most woosome way Play The News flaunts its gaming credentials is by ensuring your interactions are meaningful by asking you to opine and predict upon the outcomes of ongoing events, and emailing you when the results are out. In my opinion, readers disgustingly transform into gamers when their interactions result in an emotion. People can experience pleasure through their sucessful interactions with a technology, and it's in this way that I believe Impact Games are encouraging people who'd normally not find an interest in the news to Play The News.

Play The News is free, follow the link on the top line of this article for more.