Electronic Resources for Lent

I’m rediscovering today just how incredible a single piece of wheat toast can taste when you’re fasting. This effect is not incidental to the practice. 

In the meantime, I just want to point you to a few electronic resources for making your Lent more holy:

 

The Rising (and Fall) of Flappy Bird

One strange new spectacle of the information age is the accelerating lifespan of fads. Things flash across the web, are seen by millions, and then vanish.

The social media drawing game Draw Something was, for a brief time, the biggest game in the world. It was so huge that social gaming powerhouse Zynga paid $200 million for its creator, OMGPOP. While the ink was still wet on the contract, Draw Something crashed and burned, shedding its 10 million daily users and doing serious damage to Zynga.

The latest pet rock was a mini-game called Flappy Bird, but it came from the exact opposition end of the creation spectrum as the mega-million-dollar behemoth Zynga. Flappy Bird was created by one young Vietnamese man named Dong Nguyen. The game is perfectly simple and strikingly artless, but its combination of easy to understand and difficult to master hit a sweet spot for many gamers.

Flappy Bird has one input: tap. The game field is a side-scrolling series of tubes lifted straight from Mario games. (Nintendo has said they don’t intend to sue and did not demand that the game be taken down.) Tubes extend from the top and bottom of the screen to different lengths, creating a gap between them. The goal is to steer a bird (which really looks more like a fish with wings) through as many gaps as possible. This is done with one tap, which makes the bird rise. After each tap, the bird falls. Thus, he’s only kept in the air by a series of perfectly timed taps that will enable him to pass through the gap between the tubes. If it so much as brushes one of the tubes, the game stops and you go back to the beginning.

And that’s it. That’s all it does. The first try for every gamer will be a failure. Psychologically, this means the gamer will have to try again, at least to clear the first tube.

But that counter is there mocking you: can’t you get more than a score of “1”? So people try to get a sense of Flappy’s broad movement arcs in order to earn a slightly higher score. This takes many, many more tries, and in the course of trying, the high score gradually goes up a little. It only takes about 5 minutes to get to 4 or 5, but as the string of actions rises, so do the stakes and thus the tension. Once the player has a sense of the controls, the score challenges them to go for higher numbers, since they’ve already invested this much in learning the ropes.

Thus the game enters a compulsion loop that addicted players found hard to break. This simple, nothing game causes the person playing it to pass through several psychological states–curiosity, engagement, attempted mastery, self-criticism, personal challenge, despair, and, most of all, suspense—with the most rudimentary elements. It appeals not because it’s some grand statement, but because it generates a very definite and raw emotional response–tension created by suspense–that some people find appealing. They’re willing to put up with the frustration for that sense of suspense. It’s not complicated or mysterious: it just seems so to people who don’t search out that particular psychological state.

But why did it catch on? It had no marketing, and was largely ignored upon release in May. By summer it had started to find an audience in Russia and Australia. By December there was a huge spike in US downloads, and by January it was number 1 in 107 countries.

At the point, it was fully viral, and ultimately logged 50 million downloads. The game was free, supported by a single banner that its creator claimed was earning $50,000 a day. Once it became viral, the game itself ceased to matter as a game: it became a new media phenomena that had its own cultural life.

And then, on February 9th, it was gone. The creator had a meltdown, and posted to Twitter: “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.”

And he did just that. Flappy Bird was gone from the store, which had the opposite effect from the one Nguyen desired: now people wanted to talk to him more than ever. (As of this writing, he has never talked to anyone in the media or done any promotion beyond his Twitter feed.) What was a viral game suddenly became a news story covered by everyone from USA Today to Time Magazine. Phones with the game still on it were getting bids up to $5000 on eBay.

The sudden fame and massive media attention was part of what caused Nguyen to pull the game. The viral nature and the angry comments of thousands who were addicted and frustrated by its difficulty troubled Nguyen greatly. He felt that people were misusing the game and it was causing too much disruption in their lives and his own. Demands for a sequel and new content made him realize that nothing more could be done with the original game: any changes would wreck it. The fad was on the verge of being played out, and if Nguyen was more a canny marketing master rather than a fame-rocked indie programmer, the time of its removal couldn’t have been chosen any better. He is now world famous.

Flappy Bird is, technically, a terrible game. But it’s also one which snags certain people and snares them in a feedback loop that taps into our desire for distraction and tendencies toward compulsive behavior. There is nothing more meaningless than nudging up the score of a badly designed mobile app, yet we do it anyway for the emotional charge.

Perhaps its very purity is what made Flappy Bird a hit. It boils down the essence of a certain kind of game: purposeless, simple, and difficult to get right. It’s like a paddle with a ball on an elastic. Nothing is to be gained by mastery, and mastery is difficult, but we try nonetheless, just to prove we can.

In an article of almost sublime wrongness, a professor named Ian Bogost waxes PhDish about Flappy Bird and games in general. That he fails to understand the entire continuum of games from Aksumites scratching mancala-style boards in the dirt to the latest app is made clear by his repeated assertions that games, including things like Go and Chess (!), are mere vectors for human frustration devoid of any higher purpose or social function beyond staving off existential dread:

Flappy Bird is a condition of the universe, even if it is one that didn’t exist until it was hand-crafted by a Vietnamese man who doesn’t want to talk about it. A condition in the sense of a circumstance, but also in the sense of a blight, a sickness, a stain we cannot scrub out but may in time be willing to accept. A stain like our own miserable, tiny existences as players, which we nevertheless believe are more fundamental than the existence of bird flapping games or machine screws or the cold fog rising against the melting snow in the morning. Because the game cares so little for your experience of it, you find yourself ever more devoted to it.

Good Lord, what a load of crap. I know it’s almost impossible for modernists to see beyond their own pinched understanding of the universe, but to make such patently absurd claims and apply them not just to a game with 50 million players (most of whom do not share this view of the universe), but to the entire history of a rich and diverse aspect of human culture, is unalloyed nonsense. There’s more:

To understand Flappy Bird, we must accept the premise that games are squalid, rusty machinery we operate in spite of themselves. What we appreciate about Flappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

Given the vast scope the subject (one for which the writer lays claims to expertise, although I’d never heard of him before) this is as wrong as wrong can be. Games exist on a spectrum, from the raw and primal to the elegant and elevated, tapping into deep human needs for problem solving, emotional engagement, psychological stimulation, socialization, and cultural expression. Games–even contemporary electronic games–are primarily a social phenomena in which participants agree to a set of rules in order to engage the imagination and intellect.

Flappy Bird is on the “raw and primal” end of the spectrum. It’s telos is to offer a stark challenge that leads to initial engagement and emotional stimulation (or manipulation, if you want), crude as that stimulation may be. It’s not a symbol of our existential dread.

_____

Anybody can make a Flappy Bird game using the Flappy Bird generator. Here’s my version: Flappy Alexander VI, in which the worst pope in history has to fly between Lucrezia Borgias.

The Craic [App o the Mornin’]

I took this week off from the App o’ so I could focus on putting the June issue of my magazine to bed. When the App returns next week, it’s going to be on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. There just doesn’t seem to be the interest in it to maintain a daily feature covering any old thing, so I’ll make it more focused and spread them out a bit.

Will Duquette has your back, however, with The Craic:

The folks playing music in the corner might conceivably be using an app called “The Craic” on their iPhones or iPads. The Craic is similar to ForScore in that it displays sheet music, but it’s a very different app.

Toddle over there to learn what a “craic” is, and what the app does.

 

Gesundheit! [App o the Mornin’]

Look, snot happens, and Gesundheit! (iOS: free, Mac: $5) just wants to put it to good use. The game, one of the better titles in the app store, was pulled for a while because of developer/publisher issues, but it’s back now and to bring attention to its return, it will be free for a limited time.

I imagine there are quite a few people who won’t be able to muscle past the premise of Gesundheit! in order to enjoy the treasures of the gameplay itself. Their loss. Sure, it’s a game about a little green pig whose allergies are so horrible that he sneezes giant globs of snot across the landscape. And, yes, said landscape is populated by monsters who find these globular goodies so unbelievable tasty that they’ll ignore that temptation to eat fresh green pork, at least for a few seconds. But once you get past all the booger blasting and snot snacking, you’ll find a game that’s not only fun and clever, but even charming.

Much of this charm comes the visual style of Gesundheit!, which is striking, colorful combination of storybook backgrounds and and child-like drawings. The music, animation, and art are all the work of Matt Hammill, while the game itself is made by Revolutionary Concepts. Thanks to the graphics, none of the mucous mechanics ever come off as all that gross. Believe me, I’ve seen apps that go for the gross-out just because that’s the only arrow they have in their quiver, but Hammill isn’t working that side of the street. His sneezing piglet is just a cute little outcast who turns his problems (horrible allergies) into an asset, making him a kind of superhero of snot.

The game is comprised of 40 single-screen levels, with gameplay that combines puzzle solving with some stealth-strategy elements. Each level has a monster (or monsters), and the now-ubiquitous triple-star challenge. The goal is to collect as many of he stars as possible before trapping all the monsters inside monster-eating traps. This is done by luring the monsters into different areas of the maze-like map with your gourmet nose nachos. Simply tap the pig, draw back to choose force and aim, and fire away. If your loogie lands where a monster can see it, he’ll ignore you and run straight to his favorite snack, even if it’s inside a trap.

Lacking a snack, the monster will run straight for you, and you need to shake him by sneezing, or try to just lose him in a maze. The trick is luring monsters away from the stars without letting them walk over the stars, which they’ll crush. And then luring them to the traps. And then not gettin’ et.

As triggered obstacles, multiple monsters, superpowered mucous, teleporters, and other challenges are added, things start to get pretty tricky. Not long into the game you develop the ability to create a snot-slingshot (snotshot?) that catapults you from one location to another. It’s kind of like Tarzan swinging on horizontal ropes of phlegm

Although there are puzzles I still haven’t been able to solve at the 3-star level, basic level-completion is only moderately difficult, making this a good choice for both kids and adults. There’s a timed element to the game, and you’ll need to think pretty fast on your feet in order to escape certain monsters.

This is a wonderfully weird and appealing little puzzler with some genuine challenges. Don’t be put off by the theme. Within a few minutes, you’ll forget you’re defeating evil by wielding the mighty power of boogers and just lose yourself in the clever puzzles and wonderful graphics.

Content: Rated: 9+. Game includes boogers. And monsters. And monster boogers. You have been warned.

Note: I’m taking a break from App o the Mornin’ this week. Too much to do on the magazine and elsewhere.

EasyABC Sheet Music Editor [App o the Mornin’ Guest Post]

Will Duquette has today’s App o the Mornin’, so visit him to learn about EasyABC Sheet Music Editor:

As I discussed last week, the standard tool for writing down folk music tunes these days is ABC notation. Once I realized that I needed to come to grips with ABC, I went looking for software: to convert ABC tunes to staff notation, and thence to PDF, so that I could use the tunes with ForScore on my iPad. The ABC notation site has a nice round-up of ABC-related software; and the first tool I came across that looked likely is called EasyABC. It’s an open source package with a nice GUI, and it runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Read the rest.

 

Jack Lumber [App o the Mornin’]

Jack Lumber hates trees, and he has a good reason: trees killed his beloved granny. Now, Jack has sworn everlasting vengeance against all forms of lumber. He has an axe, he has a mission, and he has a woodchip on his shoulder.

Jack’s tale of vengeance forms the extremely silly connective tissue for this funny, polished riff on the slicing game genre pioneered by Fruit Ninja. In fact, there’s far more to Jack Lumber (PC/Mac: about $8; iOS/Android: $4) than just dexterous slicing. The visuals are terrific, with a sharp cartoon quality and some extremely funny touches. (Fruit Ninja was fun, but nobody would ever accuse it of being funny.)

For example, there is a completely random animal-collecting element which allows you to stack up critters in your log cabin as you encounter them in the game itself. Why is it there? Who knows. They don’t serve any purpose other than a bit of comic relief in between levels. It’s like asking why someone randomly shouts “PLAID” when you make a cut. Why? Because it’s funny.

Each level begins with logs of various shapes and sizes tossed in the air. When you touch the screen, time slows down. You need to trace a single line through the ends of each log, cutting them crosswise. When you lift your finger, the cuts execute all at once. If you missed a log, traced over a side rather than an end, hit an animal, or didn’t cut through every single endpoint, you’re penalized. Enough penalties and you fail the level.

Sometimes you need to pass through the same log multiple times to use it, or break bottles of syrup (purchased back at your cabin) in order to slow down time. There’s a lot less luck involved than in most slicing games. You really need to examine the screen quickly and find the fastest and most effective way through each log. This makes the game more like a rapid maze, since if you take a wrong “turn” with your finger, you’ll mess up.

Good humor, strong production values, and a dexterity element that also requires quick thinking: Jack Lumber is a winner all the way through.

Pudding Monsters [App o the Mornin’]

Cut the Rope is one of the best and most successful mobile games to date, with over 100 million downloads and a shelf of awards. So when the Russian team at ZeptoLabs did a follow-up to their hit franchise, gamers paid attention.

Pudding Monsters (iOS/Android: $1) are little blobs of jello that slide around on a chess-like board. (As with another good game–Pudding Panic–“pudding” is used in the more European sense of “dessert.”) Each blob occupies one square, and can move along the rank or file by simply swiping them in the direction you want them to travel.

One problem: if there isn’t something else on the board to stop them, they’ll shoot right off the edge and the puzzle is lost. If they hit an object, they stop. If they hit another monster, they fuse with it. The goal is to get all of the blobs 1) fused and 2) covering all three stars on the board.

It’s not usually too hard to slide the monsters until they blend, but sliding them so that the last one merges with the whole monster-blob on top of the third and final star is a bit more tricky. Along the way, new kinds of monster-blobs are introduced, including “frozen” blobs that need to activated, green blobs who leave a slime trail which allows other to stick rather than shooting off the end of the board, blobless eyes who need to be reunited with their blobs, and so on.

There are 75 levels spread over 3 worlds, with more levels coming. As sliding puzzles go, this is a lot of fun with a cute art style and a moderate challenge level. Is Pudding Monsters the next Cut the Rope? Probably not, but it’s very very good and a worthy follow-up that shows Zepto still has some tricks in their bag.

Content issues: None.

30/30 (Time-Management Tool) [App o the Mornin’]

Sometimes getting things done isn’t a matter of inspiration and talent or even motivation, but of just sitting in the same place for 30 minutes and refusing to move or shift your concentration from anything other than the task at hand. For me, the task is writing, and I can usually turn out a column in about 30 minutes, if I’ve already thought it through before sitting down. For you, the task could be anything, from paying bills to completing a work project to reading a long and challenging novel or a section of the Bible.

Every task takes a certain amount of time, and when seen as a whole that time can be overwhelming. You think, “I have to write a book, and it will take 3 months, and I simply cannot face that.” But, of course, 3 months is 12 weeks is 90 days is so many hours and minutes and seconds. Each giant task can be shaved into smaller, more managable tasks.

When you approach a task this way, you’re not thinking of 3 months of work. You’re thinking of the next 30 minutes of work. That can be followed by 10 minutes of email or Facebook or solitaire or Cute Overload. And then you can move onto the next 30 minutes of work, and the next. Or make it 15 minutes, or 45, or 60: whatever fits your method of work. The pomodoro technique uses 25 minute slices, with 5 minutes for a break, and a longer break after after 4 slices. Seems to arbitrary to me, but it works for some.

I use 30/30 (iOS: free) to manage my time slices because it’s easy to use, it lets me set my time quickly, and keeps everything on a single screen. I like it because it uses a clean, gesture based interface with a lot of color to separate different kinds of tasks.

It’s a simple matter to set a series of timers for a work day, adding a little icon and unique color to each if that’s your thing. In between each task, you can set a break time and then follow with the next task. All the tasks line up in a vertical column and can dragged into any order or deleted. It’s easy to skip a task, move to the next task, or delete a task with tap. There’s a clock at the top that will calculate how long the current task list will take to finish.

The app is free, but you can buy icon packs if you like. I don’t need icon packs, but I got one anyway to support the developer because it’s a useful app.

Productivity is a tough thing to master, and you can waste a huge amount of time playing with methods and lists and whatnot. Really, it doesn’t need to be complex. You need a task manager (even if it’s just a handwritten list in a notebook) and you need a timer. There are plenty out there and you can dig deeply into methods and tools, but I think that’s a waste of time, and I know, because I wasted my time doing it. 30/30 is a good little time management app. Give it a shot.

 

DuckTales Remastered [App o the Mornin’]

I’m too old to have any nostalgic memories of the classic DuckTales game, originally released in 1989 as a tie-in to a popular TV show. My children and I are, however, huge fans and collectors of Disney comics in general, and Duck comics in particular. The Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck books from artists/writers Carl Barks and Don Rosa are some of the best comics ever published, and the DuckTales show and game both used a lot of that material to great effect.

The original DuckTales game has become something of a legend. It may have started life as just another TV tie-in product, but once Capcom got involved with the actual production, it became something more. The Mega Man team took over, and created one of the most beloved and fondly remembered platform games on the NES.

Now Capcom has revisited their classic in DuckTales Remastered (PC/Xbox/PS3/WiiU: $15), a completely faithful update of the original. The five levels from 1989 have been recreated, and two new levels added. These levels are expanded, however, with more areas, more secrets, and different patterns in the way enemies (particularly) boss appear.

The biggest change is in the production. The old 8-bit visuals have been updated to lush, colorful, handpainted graphics that really do the game and its multiple worlds justice. It uses 2D sprites on 3D backgrounds to add depth to each environment. For those who want some of that old retro feel, there’s a toggle to switch back and forth between the new and the old visuals. New cut scenes have been added with full voice support, including the great Alan Young (now 93 years old and best remembered as Wilbur on Mr. Ed), the only man to ever voice Scrooge McDuck.

The gameplay is top-notch. It would be easiest to just say it’s a straight platformer, with lots of jumping and fighting and careful timing, but it’s more than that. Scrooge’s cane can be either a weapon for bashing enemies or a pogo stick for reaching high places. Using your cane to bouncing across the heads of a series of Beagle Boys, knocking them out without ever touching the ground, it just one of those classic game moments resurrected by DuckTales Remastered. It’s a bit sure, but loads of fun.

Content: Rated E for Everyone. Lots of bouncing on enemies and other genial low-level cartoon violence.

CRS Rice Bowl [App o the Mornin’]

Remember getting your little cardstock rice bowls each year at CCD class, folding them into shape, and dropping in change to support Operation Rice Bowl?

You can still do that (and you should) but you can also bring the practice into the 21st century with Catholic Relief Service’s Rice Bowl app (iPhone/Android: free).

CRS has created a series of daily meditations for Lent–some original, some from the writings of Pope Francis–with a focus on Catholic social teaching. All of the meditations come with the app, so it works offline as well as online, and you can sent daily reminders for a particular time.

The app also allows you to create a daily “sacrifice” for Lent, and tracks the things you’re giving up with a suggested value: $1.75 for a cup of coffee, $4.69 for a fast food combo meal, or any custom sacrifice with its name and cost. The idea, of course, is to give up things and allocate the money as a donation to CRS. This donation can be done from within the app, and it’s a pretty clever way of measuring the things we give up for Lent and turning them into a practical good through CRS, which does great work around the world.

A number of meat-free recipes and “Stories of Hope” (video and text) from people helped by CRS are included as well.

It’s a very effective use of technology to combine prayer, Lenten observance, and action. CRS has done a great job on this.