I’m the gay who’s here for your guns

Back when I lived in Texas, I overheard a joke that went something like this: “Did you hear about the new reality show Texas Survivor? You have to drive across the state with a bumper sticker that says ‘I’m gay and I’m here for your guns.'” In light America’s worst mass shooting, I don’t find it very funny. The unfortunate reality is that the LGBT community still falls victim to lethal violence and America’s lax gun laws exacerbate the problem.

At 2am on the night of the shooting, I was at a gay club. It certainly crossed the mind that it might have been me. Crazy people exist everywhere and on that particular night, the crazy guy was at a gay club in Orlando. But he could just as easily been in San Francisco. Or Minneapolis. Or Boston. Or Cedar Rapids. I probably should have been emotionally distraught, but I thought I was handling it pretty well. I was spending more mental energy worrying about how hard this is going to make the lives of American Muslims and whether this will make people flock to political figures who feed off of racist fears.

I could never have predicted what would send me over the edge. I was working out at the gym on Monday night and looked up at the TV to see a show that can only be described as an infomercial for guns. It was boasting about the long, noble history of Smith & Wesson. I should have seen it coming. I had just heard a story on the radio that gun sales surge after a mass shooting.

I just about lost it. I turned off the TV and tried to distract myself. When I got home, I broke down in tears and could barely even explain to my husband why I was so upset. An ad. A stupid fucking ad shook my faith in humanity. I saw your stock value jump when the markets opened on Monday, but can you really be so tactless as to rub it in the face of Americans that you profit from the deaths of innocent people?

It’s in our nature to see people get killed and think that we need to buy more guns to defend ourselves, but every statistic runs counter to this instinct. The scientific reality is that you are in more danger if you have a gun in your house. When you look at gun ownership from state to state, there’s a clear relationship — Higher gun ownership means higher fierarm homicide rates. In fact, for each percentage point increase in gun ownership, the firearm homicide rate goes up by 0.9%. If you don’t believe me, then don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Just remember to be wary of sources where the methodology isn’t listed, significance isn’t disclosed, or the author is in a position to profit from biased findings.

Here’s the thing about the AR-15 that was used to execute those 49 people — it was obtained completely legally and organizations like the NRA are actively working to keep sales of such weapons legal and unrestricted. News flash: There is no compelling reason to own an assault rifle unless you intend to kill a lot of people quickly. I realize that sportsmen and sportswomen will tell you that they want to own them for fun, at which point I’d like to refer you to the stats in the previous paragraph. Others will say they need them for self-defense. Really? An assault rifle? Who do you think is coming for you?

I’m sure some will say that I’m “politicizing this” and that we aren’t in a position to make level-headed decisions after a mass-shooting. You see, here’s the thing about that… On average, there’s a mass shooting in the United States every fucking day. How many more innocent lives need to be sacrificed before we’re able to have this conversation?

Change won’t be easy because we need to overcome our own flawed instincts before anything will happen. Millions of Americans are patiently waiting for Congress to put some common-sense restrictions in place, but the NRA is a powerful lobby and a timely solution is unlikely. That being said, why do we need a decree to make our communities safer when there are things we can do right now.

It starts with you.

I’m asking every gun owner to do three simple things:

1. Get rid of any automatic or semi-automatic weapons in your home. We have to lead by example. Despite what the NRA may have told you, the government is never going to come into your house and take your guns. If you want to make your home a safer place, it’s up to you to get rid of them.

2. No more money to the gun industry. Don’t buy guns. Don’t buy stock. This is an industry that profits from the death of innocent people. Refuse to be a part of it. This is no different from divesting from any other exploitative company. If we can’t learn to value human life over stock earnings, we’ll never make it as a species.

3. Vote for politicians who support common-sense gun control and who don’t rely on fear, homophobia or racism to attract attention. It also helps to support politicians who will authorize research on gun violence (Oh, did you even know that the Congress has effectively banned funding of gun-related research?)

That’s it — three easy steps that you can do yourself to make the world a safer place. No need to wait for Congress.

After all those years that I spent in Texas, I know exactly what gun-owners say next. “It’s a slippery slope. First I give away my assault rifle. Next thing I know, I’m giving away all my handguns.” Sounds like a slope worth going down.

I’m Leaving Games (sort of… for now)

I’m excited to announce that I’ve officially accepted a position at Google! I’ll be working with the Cardboard team, laying the foundations of virtual reality. It’s an area that I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid and saw early demos of the nascent technology on TV.

I want to assure the Lazy 8 Studios fans that Extrasolar and Cogs will continue to be supported. In fact, the Lazy 8 team is still working on a native app for Extrasolar that will launch soon. Income from these games will continue to be invested back into the studio. If the native app is a big success, then there’s still a slim possibility that Extrasolar season 2 will get the funding it needs to move forward.

Why the change? For one thing, Google has offered me an amazing opportunity — a position where I believe I can have impact at a unique intersection of technology and creativity. Running my own company has been a phenomenal experience, but after 8 years of shouldering 100% of the financial risk in a space where successes are rare, I’m excited about he prospect of having resources, a stable income, and a big team of stellar engineers to learn from.

This change also has a lot to do with how I feel about the game industry right now. I share Rami Ismail’s thoughts about the current state of games. On one hand, the indie community is more vibrant than ever. Accessible game engines like Unity and low-barrier app markets have brought thousands of new developers into the mix — developers with unique voices and new ideas with personal stories to share. The games that I see at IndieCade and GDC blow me away and the bar goes higher every year.

On the other hand, this explosion of developers is also part of the problem. The pie is sliced thinner than ever. Last month the iOS app store saw, on average, 358 new games and 1020 new apps every day. Even if you develop a phenomenal game and have a well-prepared, well-financed marketing campaign, it may not be enough.

It’s not just the explosion of indies that are making it tough right now. Big companies that are hoping to get acquired or go public measure their value in players. As capital flows in, a huge amount of that money goes directly to user acquisition, driving up the price of new users to an unsustainable level. Meanwhile, players are less willing to pay for a game up front. Freemium games now account for 98% of Google Play revenue worldwide. Even more disturbing, 50% of the revenue from freemium games comes from just 0.15% of users.

These aren’t the games the I want to make. I don’t want to build reskinned slot machines with compulsion-loop mechanics that exploit flaws in the human psyche. I have no interest in making games that take advantage of people with addictive personalities. I want to make more crazy genre-defying games like Extrasolar, but marketing such a strange new experience has proven to be a real challenge.

I’d also like to spend more time making prosocial, thought-provoking short-form games like A Game About *, Karma High, and Words Have Weight. These sorts of games are very meaningful to me, but as I run Lazy 8 Studios, I feel guilty for spending time on these side-projects — time that’s taken away from the games I need to launch to pay the bills. My hope is that my job at Google will leave me enough time on my nights and weekends to make more games like these.

Might I return to full-time games in the future? It’s a definite possibility, but I fear that the industry is going to get worse before it gets better. Advertisers are starting to realize that if they shift their dollars from television and print media into digital marketing, they can hit a more engaged, narrowly-targeted audience. As more advertisers compete for eyeballs on digital channels, it’s likely to drive user acquisition costs even higher.

This may be the new reality. It’s possible that indie game developers have been enjoying a golden age and that games are likely to become more similar to other art forms like writing, fine art, or music — spaces where only the absolute best can successfully make a living with their art. Only time will tell.

Tiny Planet Pro

Already tired of reading? Jump straight to the app and start playing around!

If you’ve ever captured a photo sphere with the camera on your Android phone, then you may already know that there’s a cool little features that lets you turn your 360-degree panorama into a “Tiny Planet”. Here are a couple of examples of my own photo spheres and the Tiny Planet images that I made from them:

corona_heights castro_night

TINYPLANET_PANO_20150203_151512

TINYPLANET_PANO_20150126_210134

I’m a big fan of this feature. Photo spheres are a cool data set that can let you do things like navigate the scene in 3D with Google Cardboard. But most of the time, it’s nice if we can compact all that data into an artistic and meaningful 2D representation.

Unfortunately, I felt that the results left something to be desired. In the daytime image, taken at Corona Heights in San Francisco, I’d like the thin strip of buildings to have more prominence. And in the nighttime image, taken in front of the Twin Peaks Bar, I’d like to reshape the building so that it doesn’t look so awkward. To address some of these limitations, I decided to make my own Tiny Planet Pro Web app.

Even though photo spheres represent data in 3 dimensions, it’s fairly straightforward to do all of our calculations in 2 dimensions. A tiny planet image is, at its core, just a polar plot of the photo sphere data.

transform_simple

But when we do all of our math in 2D, it doesn’t give us a good way to change the center of our polar projection system. For Tiny Planet Pro, I transform the data into an immediate 3D coordinate system where each point in the input or output images corresponds to a 3D unit vector within a sphere. The handy thing about this is that it’s really easy to transform this space with a 3×3 matrix, allowing us to use any point in the input image as the center of projection in the output image.

transform_complex

The other feature I added was a dynamic graph that lets you precisely control how data gets squished or stretched when it’s mapped to the latitude dimension. It takes some practice to fully understand how this works. To help, I made each point on the graph a different color and, when your mouse is over the graph, I display concentric circles in the corresponding color to represent that latitude in the output image.

Finally, I threw in a rotation control, a zoom control, a “repeat” control that lets us achieve some crazy artistic effects, and finally I let the user click the output image to move the center to a different point.

The result? Some really interesting art if I do say so myself.

output01 output02 output05 output03
castro01 castro02 castro03 castro04

Why not give it a try?

Design Strategies for Queer Games

gxdev

Later tonight, I’ll be giving a short talk to kick off GXDev, a game jam for queer games. For part of my talk, I’ve prepared a list of 8 strategies that I think are useful for creating queer or subversive games.

1. Diverse characters

This one’s pretty obvious. Simply populate your world in a way that represents the breadth of diversity in the real world. Try to remember the vast number of dimensions of diversity: Age, race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, ability, size, nationality, and more.

2. Stand in my shoes

Give the player a first-hand simulation of what life is like for someone else. Example games that do this well include Mainichi, Dys4ia, and Coming Out Simulator 2014

3. The slow reveal

It’s normal for a player to become emotionally attached to a game character as they invest time. As you reveal more secrets about the character, the player will likely be more emotionally open to accepting that character for who they are. In the same way that being out can change the opinions of those around you, an out game character can change opinions too.

This approach is sometimes erroneously called bait and switch, but that label is mostly hurled by people who simply feel upset that their assumptions were wrong. With a bait-and-switch, we first establish one identity for a player and then change it later. In contrast, with the slow reveal, we leave enough room for the player to make their own assumptions and then correct those assumptions over time.

4. Depoliticize social issues with abstraction

When it comes down to it, we’re all affected by prejudice. We don’t live in a vacuum. However, we can depoliticize a social issue by removing the words or symbols that prompt prejudiced reactions. If we can get someone to understand a social issue symbolically, they may be open to applying those lessons to real social issues. One of my own games that I believe uses this technique effectively is A Game About *.

Abstraction can leave a game open to interpretation and create conversations. It also leaves space for players to consider how the game’s concepts are relevant to their own lives.

5. Role reversal

Consider a world in which heterosexuality is considered an abomination or women are expected to be the primary wage earner. Games are, at their heart, simulations. What parallel universe should we experience?

6. Play both sides

Real-world conflict doesn’t usually come from an evil antagonist butting heads with a kind protagonist. Real conflict comes from two well-intentioned people with different motivations and value systems. With games, we can ask players to play both sides, forcing them to see the complex impact of well-intended actions.

7. Explicit consequences for your actions

Many games take advantage of the fact that your actions are inconsequential. In war games, it’s easy to just ignore the huge body count that you rack up. But it’s worth considering the power of making a player’s actions have more significant consequences.

For instance, in the game jam game “Mook is Murder”, the creator specified a global finite supply of enemies. When they’re all dead, they’re extinct — for everyone who ever plays the game forever. As another example, in “You Only Live Once”, you can literally only play the game once. This makes your choices more pressing — will you spend time with your family or attempt to find a cure for an apocalyptic plague?

8. Rules are for breaking

It’s easy to draw a parallel between game rules and societal norms. Consider a game in which the only way to win is to break the rules. This is, after all, the real-world definition of subversive movements. Think about the impact that Rosa Parks had when she refused to follow a simple rule.

How might that be applied in games? Imagine a fighting game where the only way to win is to not fight.

What do you think? Have I left out any design strategies that you think might be useful? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

Photo a Day, 2014

Every day in 2014, I tried to take at least one photo. At the end of each month, I picked my favorite from each day and posted the album online. The purpose of the exercise wasn’t just to exercise my photography skills, but also to force my mind into a creative space on a regular basis.

Photo a Day, 2014

There were good days and bad days, but all in all, I’m pretty happy with the results. I got accustomed to carrying my camera with me everywhere, which is enough to help me see interesting details around me that I would otherwise ignore.

You can visit the project page to see all of the high-res images, sorted by date.

Blog reboot

Reset

It was overdue.

In looking through the timestamps on my personal webpage, it appears that I started blogging by 2001 — just 3 years after “blog” was coined and long before it became standard vernacular. At the time, there was no such thing as a content management system (CMS). I hand-coded each page in HTML (CSS also didn’t exist) and photo-heavy posts in particular took a lot of work.

Fast-forward 14 years and we have some great tool that make blogging a lot easier. So while I can’t guarantee that my transition to WordPress will help me keep my blog up to date, at least it will knock down a few of the hurdles to creating new content.

I’ll try to keep all the legacy content alive. Here are some of the links from the homepage of my blog’s previous incarnation: