post

Why creative director Matthew Bennett designs sound “with silence in mind”

Dan Richmanwritten by

Dan Richman

How Microsoft is cutting through the noise to create a more useful, beautiful ‘sound world’

You might never have thought about the sounds your computer emits when an email arrives, your battery runs low or a meeting reminder pops up on your screen. Matthew Bennett has. A lot.

Bennett personally composed, performed and digitally manipulated more than 400 versions of the Windows 10 calendar alert sound before choosing the perfect one.

“That’s just how long it took to get it right,” Bennett said with a shrug during a recent visit to his Redmond, Washington sound studio. The ambiently lit, sound-damped room features a mixer, multiple high-end studio monitors and large LCD screens, and, front and center, a multi-octave synthesizer keyboard.

As audio creative director for a large portfolio of Microsoft software and devices, Bennett has played a key role in the company’s sound design for 15 years. He has strong opinions and well-developed philosophies about sound, as well as a highly specialized vocabulary to discuss it.

2:06

Video: How I composed the Windows 10 calendar alert

Summarizing his role, he reflected, “Our responsibility to customers is, first, do no harm – no annoying audio! Second, make it functional, and third, make it beautiful. Beauty and function go hand in hand. The more beautiful the design, the better it will support the experiences we’re creating.”

The Windows 10 family of sounds took many months to perfect, as he collaborated closely with key members of his team, including visual designers, researchers, project managers and engineers. “We iterate a lot to be sure every sound is just right,” he said.


A composer of classical and improvised music who has done extensive research on non-Western music cultures, Bennett carried out Ph.D. work in ethnomusicology (the anthropology of music) at the University of Washington, before leaving the program to accept his first full-time position at Microsoft. After a five-year stint, he struck out to form his own agency, and for the next decade devoted himself to creating scores for film and television, as well as brand sound design for Fortune 500 companies. But he eventually became dissatisfied with the music he was creating.

Seeking new inspiration, he quit composing to study medieval chant and the musical cultures of West Africa, India, the Middle East and Indonesia. When he gradually resumed composing, his goal was to create a personal musical language – “a sound world that I could live with,” as he describes it. These examples show the results.

Once back at Microsoft, Bennett dug in hard. Now his work can be heard not only throughout the Windows platform, but also in the Xbox operating system and products including Office, Surface, Cortana and Skype. Having a strong sound design philosophy and creative point of view at the center is intended to help unify the soundscape of Microsoft products, just as the company’s user-interface design principles attempt to create a company-wide visual and functional continuity among its products.

We want to orchestrate harmony across devices and senses.

Beyond that, Microsoft’s Fluent Sound and Sensory Design development environment seeks to influence sound design in the technology industry more broadly.

“We use sound to shape the rhythm and emotional texture of the user experience,” Bennett said. “Sound is an element that’s integrated with other sensory experiences like touch, texture and movement. We’re shifting the way we think about sound design at Microsoft, and hopefully the industry at large. Our goal is to help orchestrate harmony across devices and senses.”

Rick Senechal, a Microsoft media solutions architect, has worked with Bennett for 20 years. Senechal directs a worldwide music service for company teams and agencies. Each year the service provides 4,000 songs for events, videos, podcasts and products.

Bennett takes his time and is extremely deliberate, Senechal said.

“Matthew is the most focused person I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “He takes a long, in-depth view of his craft and really thinks things through. He’s not just making sounds and saying, ‘Oh, that sounds good.’ There’s a logic and intelligence behind the sounds and textures he creates.”

Bennett is quick to declare what Microsoft sounds are not.

There’s a logic and intelligence behind the sounds and textures he creates.

“We’re not sound effects, game sounds, generic sounds (beeps and bloops), novelty sounds (dogs and fog horns), futuristic sounds, wall-to-wall music or alarms,” he said. “Our product sounds are not live musicians or sampled bits of real instruments, like a piano or guitar or analog synthesizer, because those evoke specific musical styles and emotional memory, which is very subjective between individuals and across cultures. Those design approaches don’t make sense for the kinds of modern digital experiences our teams are creating. Our goal is to develop a sound design language that feels unique and authentic and deeply integrated with our products and devices.”

Sounds in older versions of Windows were quite different from those in Windows 10, Bennett noted. For one thing, there were a lot more of them. Triumphant sounds denoting a successful boot-up “aren’t necessary anymore,” he said. “We no longer need to celebrate the fact that our devices are turned on. That’s something we can take for granted at this point.”

Many modern product sounds tend to be shorter. Earlier sounds, such as the shutdown signal in Windows NT Workstation 4.0 (1996), lasted 8 seconds – interminable by today’s standards, which call for less intrusive sounds measured in milliseconds (1/1,000 of a second). And, like start-up sounds, shut-down sounds are a thing of the past, deemed just another needless contributor to tech-induced noise pollution.

The start-up sound in Windows NT Workstation 5 (2000), nearly 12 seconds long, sounded like a squadron of fighter jets taking off, followed by twinkling marimbas. Today’s sounds are “more deeply integrated with the product and as calm, quiet and non-intrusive as possible,” Bennett said.

Gone are sounds that specialists call skeuomorphic – those that replicate their real-world counterparts, like a piece of paper being crumpled up when a document is deleted or the clacking of 19th century, mechanical typewriter keys denoting on-screen keystrokes.

Matthew Bennett at Microsoft Production Studios with audio engineer Dan Charette.

Matthew Bennett at Microsoft Production Studios with audio engineer Dan Charette.

“In earlier stages, those sounds helped people get familiar with technology, but we don’t need them anymore. They no longer add to the experience, and they tend to feel more like clutter now,” Bennett said. “For many years now, the visual design world has been reducing clutter and using more space,” he observed. “Now sound is starting doing the same.”

Windows 7 had about 40 sounds. Windows 10 has about eight, though legacy sounds are included with the OS to ensure backwards compatibility, he said. “When I started, there were seven different system error sounds. They had accrued over years and no one knew what they meant. There were no clear guidelines for partners or for ourselves. We got rid of the whole set and replaced them with two much more focused sounds – one gentle background notification and another more urgent sound.”

One design technique Bennett has developed involves the extensive recording and comparison of vocal contours – the melodic and rhythmic aspects of speech – from many different languages, to identify universal patterns that can help create a sound design language. For example, a statement that means “Ready to go?” can have a very similar pitch pattern when spoken in English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish or Russian. It’s basically “up, down, and a small leap,” he says.

Bennett took that particular vocal contour and replicated it musically, so that it can be heard underlying the 2.5-second Windows 10 calendar alert prompt. This technique has shaped the entire set of Windows 10 sounds. “The language contours are deeply integrated, not intended to be heard literally, or consciously,” he said. “They should just be felt intuitively to create an emotional connection that feels natural, instinctive.”

Bennett believes the best operating system sounds should be deeply integrated with the events they support. For example, texting is more time-sensitive than emailing, so the Windows 10 text messaging sound “pulls you forward a bit and is a little more alertful,” he said. For a new email, “you still want to know something’s come in, but the sound pulls back a bit. It’s a little more relaxed.”

Does he call his creations “music”?

We design sound with silence in mind.

“In the broadest sense, yes. I would describe them as paramusical,” he said. “They utilize musical elements – rhythm, melody and harmony – to make sounds that feel beautiful, but they should never call attention to themselves as a piece of music,” he said.

Musical concepts certainly play a major role in Bennett’s design thinking.

“The error-message tone uses a minor 9th interval, which is definitely a little dissonant and says, ‘You really need to pay attention to this,'” he said.

While more tech companies are now employing audio directors like Bennett, “as a discipline, sound design still lags a little behind hardware and visual design,” he said. “We traditionally haven’t been deeply integrated into product design teams, aside from games. Microsoft was one of the first companies to realize the value of embedding sound designers with product teams.”

In addition to influencing Microsoft and technology design more broadly, Bennett thinks the discipline of sound design has an obligation to the world at large. The New York Times, in a Feb. 9, 2018 story, noted the cacophony produced by today’s ubiquitous electronic devices, asserting that “bombastic, attention-grabbing inorganic noises are become the norm [and] disruptive sonic alerts trigger Pavlovian feedback.”

Bennett hears that.

Matthew Bennett playing piano.

“There are so many device sounds in our environment now. Windows sounds alone are heard hundreds of millions of times a day around the world,” he said. “That’s a lot of sound affecting a lot of lives. Even if they are relatively short, every sound has an emotional impact, whether we’re aware of it or not. We have a responsibility to approach this as a system and to help create an audio ecology that supports healthy relationships between people and technology.”

The World Health Organization has recognized that unexpected loud sounds can cause stress and anxiety which are detrimental to public health, and that unnecessary sounds and excessive volume are just another form of pollution.

“In a rainforest, there’s an incredible amount of information being communicated through sound, with many layers in motion simultaneously – birds, insects, trees, plants, water and wind. And it’s all very intelligible because the acoustic design of a rainforest has evolved to be naturally orchestrated, with a deep harmony that let’s all the layers breathe and function together. That’s a powerful metaphor for how we should be designing sound.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I made a confession to Matthew: I haven’t operated my Windows computer with the sounds turned on since, oh, about 1990. I found them unnecessary and even irritating.

I asked him what I’d been missing – whether there is some subtle aspect of the OS that is being lost on me.

He answered, “The right sounds at the right time, can support a more efficient and more pleasant user experience. They can convey important information and improve the rhythm and flow of attention, which is really our most important resource. They can convey crucial information when we’re away from a screen. They can improve the way our technology feels. We want people to know it’s OK to turn your sounds back on. Our modern approach to sound design is deeply respectful. We’re not going to boot up loudly in a meeting or in the library, we’re not going to disturb the people around you. It’s not going to be random noise. It’s going to be a small set of beautiful sounds that are carefully curated to communicate important information very efficiently and to sit well in your environment.”

A Gentle Reminder

Matthew Bennett on creating the Windows 10 calendar alert sound

A lot of people feel anxiety over their calendar sounds, because it means there’s something they have to do. Some of them say it’s like responding to fire alarms all day. We needed something that was alertful but not anxiety-producing. And we wanted to get the right amount of optimism and energy, pulling the user forward to their next activity, but with the feeling of a calm, supportive friend.

This sound is meant to be heard at lower volumes and to be more felt than heard. It has a beginning, middle and end. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that it’s a rhythm of seven equal pulses. It starts low and slow, with three pulses that are designed to be felt more than heard. And it lasts a long time for a user-interface sound – 2.5 seconds – but at normal volume you only really hear part of the sound because those first three tones are so soft. They’re like a breath, a musical pick-up, to let you know something is about to happen. Then the volume swells a bit, it blooms, to make the middle section more audible. And at the end there’s a long reverb tail, falling off, that feels very transparent and light but can also improve audibility in certain loud contexts or when users are away from their device.

Windows calendar alert animation.

So it’s long sound, but very open. It’s definitely not alarming. It feels lightweight and pleasant and has a nice emotional texture.

There’s also a subtle left-to-right movement in the sound field that you can hear through headphones or decent speakers, like those on a good laptop to tablet.

There are foreground and background layers baked into the finished sound. The foreground is digitally sculpted plucks and tuned percussion. The textures sound familiar but they aren’t real-world instruments.

There’s a triplet feel to this sound and to a lot of the others in Windows 10. Over the years, the sounds that usually feel the most fluid, and that can balance the right qualities of energy and calmness, have tended to be resolved to an underlying triplet rhythm. So that pulse, that rhythmic substructure, has become part of our DNA.

We want to sound organic, and integral. That means we definitely don’t want the sounds to feel like they’ve been programmed on a computer. But we also don’t want to sound like a human being performing a little piece of music inside your device. So we resolve to a subtle temporal grid, to feel a little machine-like, while still keeping a little soulfulness.

Originally published on 8/28/2018 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
post

‘Near-futurist’ Rohit Bhargava scours data for hidden clues about how the world works

Mark Mobleywritten by

Mark Mobley

A ’near-futurist‘ scours data for hidden clues about how the world works

How does self-described “Trend Curator” Rohit Bhargava navigate the future? By shredding magazines and planting sticky notes. Throughout each travel-packed year of international speaking and teaching, he collects untold piles of periodicals, then skims, tears and screens their editorial and advertising content for clues to what’s now, what’s new and — most of all — what’s going to be influential in the years to come.

“The trends,” Bhargava said, “really explain how the world works.”

Using what he calls his “haystack method,” Bhargava sorts and sifts and shifts the material he and his team have found. Gradually, connections are made, combinations arise, synchronicities emerge and trends appear. He compiles what he gleans in an annual series of books called “Non Obvious: How To Predict Trends And Win The Future,” which have been published in more than a dozen languages. These have schooled more than a million businesspeople and interested civilians about the cultural currents, jet streams and eddies that shape our lives.

Rohit reading a magazine in front of post-it notes.

“You’ve got to look somewhere other than where everyone else is looking,” said Bhargava at his airy home, where visitors are welcomed by photo collages of his two young sons, in a leafy suburb of Washington, D.C. “I tend to pick up a lot of stuff about things I otherwise would never have picked up because the media here are so U.S.-centric.”

His omnivorous media diet includes everything from legacy magazines like The Atlantic and Variety to city magazines (Washingtonian), alumni magazines (Emory magazine), specialty publications (USA Philatelic, Adweek), foreign in-flight magazines and periodicals definitely not published with him in mind (Teen Vogue, Modern Farmer).

The irony of a “near-futurist” relying so heavily on paper in the digital age is not lost on him.

The irony of a ‘near-futurist’ relying so heavily on paper in the digital age is not lost on him.

“I think that people are more surprised about that than I am,” Bhargava said. “What you see is the paper. What you don’t see is my Feedly account, where I read hundreds of stories each week.” He also relies on conversations at conferences and interviews by his associates. But Bhargava sees a certain tactical advantage in scanning a vast amount of information in physical form.

Bhargava siting at a desk working.

“There’s a reason every James Bond villain looks down on that diorama of the world they’re trying to conquer,” he says. “Hopefully I’m not doing that for evil.”

He smiled and added, “Maybe there is some evil, because I want people to think for themselves and a lot of people don’t want that.”

Bhargava was born in India and came to the United States at 6 months old. After studies at Emory University he moved to Australia in 1998 and began his career at a company called Dimension Data, where he worked for three years before joining the Sydney office of advertising agency Leo Burnett. He returned to the U.S. in 2003 and started working the following year in Washington at Ogilvy. He stayed at that advertising agency until 2012, when he left to start his own consultancy.

Conference and convention planners appreciate the experiences Bhargava himself provides — he speaks at upward of 50 events a year, in addition to consulting with individual companies and teaching smaller groups. “My goal is to give them something they can do, not just inspire them,” he said. He wants to help his audiences find interesting ideas in unexpected places.

While he may appreciate tradition and rigorous methodology, he is anything but a stickler for doing things the way they’ve always been done.

“Our habits are really hard to unlearn,” he told an audience at a recent construction software convention in San Antonio. “The things that we know, the best practices, are really hard to abandon.

If we are going to be innovators, we are going to have to leave some things behind.

“If we are going to be innovators, we are going to have to leave some things behind.”

That’s why one of his five rules for Non-Obvious thinking is to “be fickle” — in other words, keep it moving. The others are “be observant,” “be curious,” “be thoughtful” and “be elegant.” That final command is the guide for the pithy names he likes to assign to the trends he observes.

For example, ”brand stand” is his term for how corporations can make themselves more attractive by backing up their work with socially conscious messaging and actions. (“The job of marketing is not to sell a car, it’s to get people to come into the dealership,” Bhargava explained.) “Predictive protection” is what he calls device makers working to anticipate and defend user vulnerabilities. And “approachable luxury” is the idea that experiences and objects that evoke authenticity and sincerity are now sometimes considered as valuable as high-end products from legacy makers.

In addition to isolating 15 trends for each edition of the Non Obvious books, he also looks back at previous years to reassess the accuracy of his own predictions. Take two from 2013: ”precious print” and “branded inspiration.” While consumers’ fondness for books and print media in general hasn’t waned (Bhargava still gives that trend an A five years later), brands are less willing to stage dramatic one-off events to stand out (today he gives that one a C).

While reevaluating trends, Bhargava realized he could also present them in new ways. He is increasingly using data visualization as a storytelling tool. The Microsoft Power BI platform allowed him to create The Non-Obvious Trend Experience, a periodic table of elements-style dashboard that shows how trends connect across years, industries and areas of interest.

The playful, informative Power BI dashboard is yet another product of an ever-expanding Non-Obvious universe. He’s planning what he calls “the most Non-Obvious thing to do,” a short-form podcast about the past hosted by a futurist. And he and his wife, Chhavi, are co-owners of the publishing imprint Ideapress, which has published 22 books and has another 12 coming soon. His own contribution to the series will be a volume on running a small business.

“I think any of us can be more innovative, more creative,” he told his San Antonio audience. “We just have to give ourselves permission to do it.” He demonstrated that the following morning by leading a workshop of about two dozen executives and staffers. They gathered around tables piled high with magazines.

He opened with a drawing exercise and soon the group was on to Bhargava’s haystack method, scouring the magazines before them for new ideas and things they hadn’t seen before. “I know it’s uncomfortable for some of you, but these magazines are for ripping,” he said. “I want to hear you ripping things out of these magazines. It might be an ad, it might be a story. Feel free to collaborate with your table.”

Curation is the ultimate method for transforming noise into meaning.

Rohit buried in post-it notes.

Two tables pulled the same story about new leashes for walking with children. Another person landed on a makeup line from Crayola. Yet another found an under-the-desk bicycle apparatus that generates power through pedaling. “That’s like next-level LEED certification,” Bhargava joked. “You can power your own building.”

In under an hour, the participants caught a glimpse of what is for Bhargava a year-round process producing mounds of material that gain more meaning with age and comparison.

“Sometimes we have to give ourselves a little bit of time,” he said. He thinks of his haystack method as akin to collecting frequent flyer miles. The ideas are there, mounting over time, ready be cashed in when they’re needed.

Frank Di Lorenzo Jr., a participant from Sacramento, California, called the session “excellent.”

“It got me to think a little more creatively,” Di Lorenzo said. “It’s like taking a step. If I always start on my right foot, this was my left. For an hour, he accomplished a lot.”

“I never saw anybody present this kind of topic before,” added Mary Cunningham of Jupiter, Florida. “It helps you think beyond the obvious. Don’t take things at face value. It allows you to open your mind to other ideas. The way he presents the material, it’s very easy to comprehend and allows the ideas to sink in easily.”

“Curation,” as Bhargava writes in “Non Obvious” and shared in his seminar, “is the ultimate method for transforming noise into meaning.”

Even if the noise is as much the shredding of magazines and riffling of sticky notes as it is the rising, roaring tide of cultural chatter.

Originally published on 8/14/2018 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft

post

Katie Stone Perez and Major Nelson discuss the gaming industry and how to support indie devs

Last year, the gaming industry made roughly $90 billion in sales worldwide. That’s more than double what movies made at the box office last year.

And here’s why that comparison to Hollywood is relevant. Because, like with films, the most popular video games are HUGE. They have great graphics, popular characters, and the franchises keep getting repeated over and over again. Unfortunately, blockbuster games and movies can be as thin on diversity as they are on plot.  

In this episode, we’re talking about the Moonlights and Napoleon Dynamites the indie games that are breaking out, changing paradigms, and making a case for independence in gaming.

 

This episode features:

Navid Khonsari — Co-Founder of iNK Stories

Larry Hyrb —  Xbox’s Major Nelson

Rik Eberhardt — Studio Manager at MIT Game Lab

Mia Consalvo —  The Canada Research Chair in Game Studies and Design at Concordia University

Sherida Halatoe —  Found of Tiger & Squid Game Studio

Karla Zimonja —  Co-Founder of The Fullbright Company

Katie Stone Perez —  Developer Experience Lead at Xbox

Transcript: 

CRISTINA QUINN: Navid Khonsari says most people think Iran looks like this.

NAVID KHONSARI: The deserts, and women covered up in veils and men covered up and looking like clerics.

CRISTINA QUINN: Navid knows that if most people think about Iran at all, the images that come to mind are probably from the hostage crisis in 1979 or the violence of the iranian revolution that led up to it.

During the revolution, Navid was ten years old and living in Tehran. He remembers the hostages, and the violence, but he also remembers how it all began…

NAVID KHONSARI: My grandfather took me out to the streets and as we walked the streets I saw that sense of joy. I saw that sense of possibility that sense of hope that this country could change — change for the for for good, for the better, for people who were on the streets.

CRISTINA QUINN The Iranian Revolution started as a popular uprising — people from all walks of life coming together to overthrow a corrupt, western-backed king.

But then it changed, it turned violent.

NAVID KHONSARI: That hope kind of became a little bit darker. And and violence was out on the streets in the fighting took place and my father who was a doctor would spend the night in the emergency ward tending to wounded civilians and soldiers.

CRISTINA QUINN: Eventually, Navid’s family left Iran, for Canada. But throughout his life, whenever he tried to explain what it was like living in Iran during the revolution, to offer a more nuanced understanding of the country, he felt like he wasn’t getting through.

He wanted to humanize this monumental moment. And he came up with a kind of counter-intuitive solution. A video game.

THEME ENTERS

CRISTINA QUINN: I’m Cristina Quinn and this is dot-future, a branded podcast from Microsoft and Gimlet Creative, about making the future happen.

Because the future doesn’t just HAPPEN. It’s the result of a series of choices that we’re making right now. You can wait for the future to come to you … or you can engage with it, and get ahead of the curve.  

Welcome to dot-future.

THEME OUT

CRISTINA QUINN: Today we’re talking about gaming. Four out of five American households have gaming devices — like a tablet, XBOX or a Playstation — and over half of adults in the US play games. Half!

Production-wise, we have come a long way since:

GAME SOUND – PAC MAN

CRISTINA QUINN: The top-selling games today are hyperrealistic. They immerse players in war zones, put them on the run from zombies, and take them to the thirty yard line with 12 seconds left in the game. Last year, the gaming industry made roughly $90 billion in sales worldwide.

That’s more than double what movies made at the box-office last year. And here’s why that comparison to Hollywood is relevant. Because, like with films, the most popular video games are huge. They have great graphics, popular characters, and the franchises keep getting repeated over and over again.

I mean, you know how it’s kind of crazy that we have, like, how many Fast and Furious movies are there? What are we up to, like eight? Well, guess what? There are eleven games in the Halo family. Eleven. Blockbuster games even follow a Hollywood style RELEASE calendar, according to Larry Hyrb. He’s kind of the public face of Xbox Live. If you’re a gamer, you know him as “Major Nelson.”

LARRY HYRB: Maybe we’ve got a summer blockbuster, but we always have these huge releases, you know in the holiday season at the end of the year, and it’s noisy because the new Call of Duty is going to compete with the new Star Wars movie.

CRISTINA QUINN: Games like Call of Duty are what you call AAA games.

SCORING IN

CRISTINA QUINN: AAA is an unofficial industry rating. But it doesn’t actually stand for anything. The running joke is it means the game took:

  • A lot of time.
  • A lot of resources…and…
  • A lot of money.

CRISTINA: Even if you’re not a gamer you probably recognize the names of AAA gaming companies and their games — Nintendo with Super Mario, Microsoft with Halo, and Activision with Call of Duty.

And just like blockbuster film, blockbuster games are plagued by some of the same problems. The storylines can be kind of stale and repetitive. There’s a hero. Some stuff blows up. You have to fight something, or survive some catastrophe.  

And what that hero looks like is also repetitive — AAA games are as thin on diversity as they are on plot. There’s a really popular gaming writer name Leigh Alexander. Last year she wrote all about this in a notorious blog post called “Gamers Are Over.”

She wrote about how the AAA gaming culture can be summed up like this, quote: “Have Money. Have women. Get a gun and then a bigger gun.”

She was done with it — and she argued that even DEVELOPERS want games to be made for and by a more diverse group of people — to reflect real stories and real human struggle.

And that’s what today’s episode is about: the part of the gaming industry that’s providing an alternative to AAA games. We’re talking about The Moonlights and Napoleon Dynamites — the indie games that are breaking out, changing paradigms, and making a case for independence in gaming.

And, in the process, changing that 90-billion dollar gaming industry from the INSIDE.

SCORING OUT

CRISTINA QUINN: So, back to the video game we mentioned at the beginning. Navid Khonsari wanted to create a game…to provide a more nuanced perspective…

NAVID KHONSARI: You know you take a look at a lot of the call of duties and a lot of the war games that are out there it’s always like while you’re on the beaches of Normandy but you’re playing a member of the you know the U.S. Army and you’re shooting at Germans. But that’s really where the history stops.  

Navid made 1979: Revolution Black Friday. It’s the story of the Iranian revolution, told with the nuance that he didn’t see portrayed elsewhere.  

GAME SOUND – 1979 REVOLUTION: BLACK FRIDAY

CRISTINA QUINN: And it’s an INDIE game. It’s heavy on story. 1979 puts you, the player, in the middle of Tehran during the Iranian Revolution and presents you with a series of options at every turn. Shots are fired. Where do you go? Who do you save?

POST SOUND

CRISTINA QUINN: Critics loved the game. It’s an unmistakeable indie darling. It racked up a bunch of awards, like Best PC and/or Console Game at the ‘16 Bit Awards.

This is a huge success for an indie game developer, but that’s not what Navid was, for much of his career. He started out as the cinematic director at Rockstar games, which makes Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne. He worked on some of the most profitable games in history.

But eventually all of the drug deals and shootouts and car crashes got old. He wanted to make something more real. To do that, Navid quit his job at Rockstar Games and set out on his own to make a game about his real life experience.

He and his wife, who’s a documentary filmmaker and anthropologist, founded a studio together. They called it iNK Stories. It’s based in Brooklyn. Their work is inspired by cinema verite — a raw, intimate style of documentary filmmaking.  So Navid calls what iNK Stories makes, “verite games.” 1979 blends real history and the game’s action, with real life photographs and archival footage.

NAVID KHONSARI: The game has got me splattered all over it. When you’re in the home looking at the home movies that’s actually super 8 footage that my grandfather shot from 1950 to 1979 and it includes my mother’s swimming at the Caspian Sea. My grandfather great grandfather and family had a big feast and myself attending my first day school.

CRISTINA QUINN: But Navid wanted to make sure that the game was not just just a glimpse into his own past. He wanted it to be accurate, more accurate, than the books he’d read or the films he’d seen about Iran’s revolution. So he and a small team conducted more than 40 interviews with people who were living in Iran during the revolution.

He also hired academics, and religious advisors, to ensure that the game was authentic.

The end result is a subtle portrayal of a critical moment in history.

GAME SOUND – 1979 REVOLUTION: BLACK FRIDAY

CRISTINA QUINN: Do you think there are some stories better told through the immersive, video game experience than through other mediums?

NAVID KHONSARI: Yeah. These are incredible tools to put you right in that space to put you in the head space or in that environment or in that particular instance where something is taking place. These are probably the most powerful way of creating empathy. So in a weird way if we want to actually understand a little bit more about humanity and really feel what it’s like we actually have to engage with some kind of technology that allows us to go there.

CRISTINA QUINN: Navid is part of a new class of game developers who are intent on making games that are both personal AND fun. It’s a mission that, in the hands of triple A gaming companies, often fails.

RIK EBERHARDT: You can see a game that’s made by, you know, people who look like me so middle aged white guys and those those games often don’t have anything to say

CRISTINA QUINN: Rik Eberhardt works at MIT’s Game Lab — which experiments with new game technology.

RIK EBERHARDT: And when they do try to say something they’re not they’re they’re trying to adopt somebody else’s language, and it feels wrong.

He says indie games are coming from a genuine place…and that comes across in the experience of playing the game…

RIK EBERHARDT: And with an indie game, yeah, you can absolutely see the person who made it where what where they came from what they brought to the game what culture they’re from.

CRISTINA QUINN: Culture and story haven’t necessarily been a major focal point of video games. From the very beginning of gaming, the focus has been on graphics and speed.

SCORING IN

CRISTINA QUINN: In 1977, Atari released what would become known as the Atari 2600. By 1980, millions of homes were introduced to the idea of playing games not at an arcade, but in your living room.

GAME SOUND – ATARI

CRISTINA QUINN: But Atari didn’t stay on top for long. In 1985, Nintendo released its “Entertainment System.”  The package came with a controller, and a gun for playing Duck Hunt.  

DUCK SOUND

CRISTINA QUINN: Then in 1989 Nintendo leveled up gaming, when it released a HANDHELD console, the Game Boy.  

For millions of people, being able to take your games with you was totally novel — and it changed the gaming industry — and family road trips — forever.

SCORING OUT

CRISTINA QUINN: In 2002, Microsoft introduced Xbox Live, allowing console players to play with other gamers throughout the world, something they still do today, of course.

LARRY HYRB: If I wake up at 3:00 in the morning because I can’t sleep. I can pop on my console and all of a sudden I’m playing with friends that may or may not be online or I’m going to discover new friends.

CRISTINA QUINN: This is Larry Hyrb — or Major Nelson — from Xbox again.  He’s been at the company for 14 years, and for a million Twitter followers he’s the go-to-guy for all-things Xbox.

Here’s the thing about Xbox Live, a player in Philadelphia can connect with a player in the Philippines. There’s always someone to play with.

LARRY HYRB: So if you have a young one, or maybe the baby is taking a nap, you can still go online and within 30 seconds to be connected with friends around the world… you’re playing an interactive game.

CRISTINA QUINN: Games are just everywhere. They’re on your phone, they’re in the back of your airplane seat — you can get virtual reality gear at Gamestop!

And everything looks and sounds flawless.

MIA CONSALVO: They’re stunning, right? They’re amazing to look at.

Mia Consalvo is the Canada Research Chair in game studies and design at Concordia University.

MIA CONSALVO: I think that expectations are being ratcheted up just kind of across the board. Even, for example let’s say with sports games like Madden or you know like a baseball game where you would think that the game is just about playing football but really in those games now. I mean they need photorealism. You know they need the actual images of the players the real players. They have role-playing system where you can create your own character, you can create you and be recruited and work your way up from the minors to the majors.

CRISTINA QUINN: That’s because games are in a fierce competition for our attention, according to Larry Hyrb.

LARRY HYRB: Our hours in the day that you and I and the listeners have for entertainment — how are you going to spend them? There’s just so much product out there right now, that people have trouble bursting through.

CRISTINA QUINN: And to compete at the blockbuster level, it takes a lot of money to stand out. Money that indie developers and publishers often don’t have. But what they do have — according to Mia — is nerve, and creativity.

In a way, the stakes for indie game developers are actually lower, because they don’t have to play ball with the big guys. They can take risks and experiment with visual style or even get… emotional with their games. That’s what Sherida Halatoe set out to do when, as a college student, she began working on the game Beyond Eyes.

GAME SOUND

CRISTINA QUINN: The game’s protagonist is a little girl, named Rae. Rae is blind, and at the beginning of the game, she loses her cat, Nani. Beyond Eyes is a quest, to help Rae find her missing pet. Sherida isn’t blind – but she wanted to make Beyond Eyes to help people understand what it’s like to feel adrift …

SHERIDA HALATOE: When I was 10 years old. My father died and it was a very horrible experience of course but it taught me a lot about life

CRISTINA QUINN: She wanted to help people who’ve felt lost see themselves in a videogame

CRISTINA QUINN: So, why..why is the character blind?

SHERIDA HALATOE: So for me it’s kind of a metaphor because my dad was the most important thing for me in my life like my whole world you know revolved around that…. so that being taken away was a huge loss. And that kind of kind of made it a visual translation there

CRISTINA QUINN: As Rae wanders through the game, the edges of the screen are white, but slowly, the path forward spreads out before her, like water colors rushing to the edge of a page.  Strokes of color swirl around the edges.

SHERIDA HALATOE: I really like watercolors and I like the idea of how things become..like when you, you know, put watercolor on paper it just kind of drifts out, you know, flows out. I like the idea of not being able to see and then touching something and everything flowing out like water.

CRISTINA QUINN: It’s so gentle, and so beautiful. The premise feels so different than other games. You’re just helping a little kid find her cat.

SHERIDA HALTOE: In essence this story of Beyond Eyes is about loss but also about overcoming

CRISTINA QUINN: Sherida’s definitely an outlier in the gaming industry. She didn’t grow up wanting to make games. In college, she took a game development course and realized that games gave her the ability tell stories in a new way. Even her way of measuring the impact of the game isn’t very gamer-y.

She keeps a glass bottle on her desk, in her office. And every time she gets an email from someone who says that the game moved them to tears, she pours a few drops of water into the bottle…

SHERIDA HALATOE:  In the first six months, the thing was half full or something. In the end, I think I got a half cup or something?

CRISTINA QUINN: Sherida’s not typical but she is successful. Beyond Eyes was featured at the E3 conference in 2015 — the world’s top gaming conference. She’s now working on a new series of short games called “Trails of Life.”

MUSIC

CRISTINA QUINN: It’s extremely rare for an indie developer to gain success on their first game. Usually, it takes years of releasing games and slowly building an audience. And lots of those developers cut their teeth at AAA studios before launching a game of their own.

MUSIC OUT

CRISTINA QUINN: Karla Zimonja knows that from personal experience. She spent 7 years working as an animator on lots of games, like the Bio-Shock series, and Zoo-Tycoon:

KARLA: I ended up working on a zoo game There were a lot of very repetitive tasks that I would have to do, like animate a sitting position to standing position for every single animal in the game. And a lot of like, you know, turns 30 degrees right turns 90 degrees or right turns you know turns 90 degrees right from standing turns or you know and from walking and from running and it very much turned it into a kind of feeling like a spreadsheet.

CRISTINA QUINN: Karla felt like a cog in the machine and decided to leave the triple A system. She and a friend got together to strike out on their own. They started a gaming studio called Fullbright.

They decided to make their debut game feel just like a first person shooter game. You know — the games where you see through the eyes of a character as they move through the world — but with one important distinction: no shooting. They called the game “Gone Home.”

GAME SOUND – GONE HOME

CRISTINA QUINN: Gone Home is set in a spooky Victorian house in the year 1995. It’s raining…the phones are down…and there aren’t any cell phones to call for help.

KARLA ZIMONJA: Gone Home is the story of a college student arriving home after being abroad to find that her family has moved into the new house and nobody is there when she gets there. And she explores the house and find out all about what her family has been doing in her absence.

CRISTINA QUINN: Although it seems like a ghost could pop out at any moment, the game isn’t scary. As a player, you search for clues — notes, and audio diaries — to help piece together what happened to this family.

KARLA ZIMONJA: An enormous part of the game is putting other pieces for yourself and learning about the characters in your own time and way.

CRISTINA QUINN: Characters that don’t appear on screen — but whose personalities, dreams, and entire lives are slowly revealed as you play the game. And perhaps the most remarkable reveal is what the New York Times called “the greatest video game love story ever told.”

GAME SOUND – GONE HOME

CRISTINA QUINN: It’s a love story about two young women. Although Fullbright didn’t set-out to be a voice for LGBTQ people in the game world, Gone Home wound up getting a lot of attention.

Because there aren’t that many queer characters in big video games. AAA publishers tend to be pretty risk averse when it comes to storytelling. Karla says when AAAs see a pitch that deviates from the norm…they’re not likely to go for it.

KARLA ZIMONJA: You know, the marketing guys at whatever publishing company would have been like “teen lesbians? No one’s going to buy that…are you on crack?”

By funding Gone Home themselves, Fullbright was able to make the game a reality, and a smashing success. The gaming website Polygon named it their Game of the Year, and it won the British Academy Games Award for best debut.

But more importantly to Karla, is the opportunity for her game to influence other, bigger gaming companies.

KARLA ZIMONJA: Indie games are often the source of new paths and new, like, approaches to things. We have, like, the low overhead where it’s like the really big companies don’t…they come in there like those big ocean liners they can’t turn.

Karla’s company sunk their savings and 18 months of work into Gone Home.

KARLA ZIMONJA: It’s nice to have people think your ideas are worth something. It’s essentially like the big guys being like, ‘oh yeah that little guy had a great idea.’

It kind of means they’ve arrived. But even more powerfully — it means that the stories — like the one in Gone Home — are worth telling.

Here’s Katie Stone Perez, who works for Xbox at Microsoft.

KATIE STONE-PEREZ: By giving all of these different people an opportunity to tell their story and to bring their voice to the table it really ends up creating those moments where people do feel like it is representative of their story and their lives and their passions.

Katie says it’s the responsibility of the gaming industry to make sure that the community feels seen and heard by having more diversity within games. That’s why Katie joined Microsoft’s ID@XBOX team and helped it grow.

ID@XBOX gives indie game developers the tools they need to bring their games to life on the Xbox platform, and they promote their favorites at major industry events.

KATIE STONE-PEREZ: Traditionally the industry has been more, ‘oh you know the right person to talk to..and you know you know do you know the right person to go get funding from and you know the right person to do this?’ And so we’ve really been about, you know, democratizing that process for everyone.

One of the developers who’s benefited from that democratization: Navid Khonsari, with his depiction of Iran in 1979 Revolution Black Friday.

The game’s success has helped rewrite how people see Iranians — and how Iranians see themselves.

NAVID KHONSARI: For the first time they see themselves portrayed as protagonists in a positive light, rather than terrorist number one two and three.

Navid says his game is helping people see one another. Like, really understand each other.

NAVID KHONSARI: This is powerful. For us that’s been really really really enriching and we’ve made look we made a lot of mistakes and it was our first game that we’ve made, but at least we know that we overcame the most difficult part which was connecting.

CRISTINA QUINN: And all it took to connect — to make a moment in history more human — was a video game.

CREDITS

THEME

CRISTINA QUINN: .future is a co-production of Microsoft Story Labs and Gimlet Creative.

We were produced this week by Katelyn Bogucki, with help from Victoria Barner, Garrett Crowe, Frances Harlow, Jorge Estrada, Nicole Wong, Abbie Ruzicka and Julia Botero. Creative direction from Nazanin Rafsanjani. Production assistance from Thom Cote.

We were edited by Rachel Ward and mixed by Zac Schmidt. Our theme song was composed by The Album Leaf. Additional music from Waltho, Eliot Lipp and Marmoset.

Special thanks to: Derek Johnson, Aleah Kiley and Lena Robinson.

PROMO

CRISTINA QUINN: Coming up next time on dot-future … stories of how people on 4 continents are using one of the most popular games in history to heal, grieve, rebuild, and reinvent.

LYDIA WINTERS: I can’t even really begin to describe how Minecraft has changed my trajectory, and where I was going. It’s hard to even see back to where I was going because I’m so far from my starting point.

CRISTINA QUINN: That’s next time on dot-future.

If you like dot-future, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts!  Make sure to type period future to find us, like period as in a dot. Dot future.. And while you’re at it, leave us a review so we know how you feel about the show! Don’t get left in the past. Join us in the dot Future …   at dot future dot net. That’s D O T future dot net.

I’m Cristina Quinn. Thanks so much for dot listening!

THEME OUT

post

Block party: Communities use Minecraft to build new public spaces

As a native of Stockholm, Melin heard about the trial projects with Minecraft back in his hometown. During his next visit to Sweden, he made an appointment at Mojang to chat about some ideas. By the summer of 2012, Bui and Winters were on a flight to Nairobi to meet with Melin and U.N.-Habitat’s new hire, Westerberg, who would oversee the development of a Minecraft-based public space program with global ambitions soon to be known as Block by Block.

“One of most exciting parts is that Minecraft can bring millions of people into a debate about public space and make it more of a mainstream conversation,” said Melin. “We want people to ask their parents and politicians, ‘Why isn’t public space working in my city?’”

Westerberg, whose background is in digital communications for non-governmental organizations, took on more and more responsibilities around Block by Block, until it became his whole job. Also Swedish by birth, he lived in Zimbabwe for a few years during his youth and first recognized the depth of inequality when other kids on his soccer team had to play with borrowed shoes, or none at all. He said, “We knew that we couldn’t just host some workshops and pat ourselves on the back. From the start, we focused on the program’s methodology so that it would be able to build its own momentum and eventually take on a life of its own.”

The goals were relatively straightforward. Working with Minecraft collectives, U.N.-Habitat builds Minecraft models of public spaces that are slated for redevelopment. The models are then used in workshops in which participants are trained in the use of Minecraft and then asked to re-design the public space models in groups. On the final day of the workshop, the groups come together with other stakeholders to prioritize the top ideas. The community-developed Minecraft models are then used to inspire the final designs of the public spaces and, ultimately, the construction work.

Cities can be drivers of innovation and great contributors to economic growth. But done badly, cities cause social disparity and huge environmental problems. That’s true in the slums of Nairobi or Kathmandu but also in the sprawling cities of North America.

The first Block by Block projects were in Nairobi. After a trial project at Silanga sports field, they moved on to Dandora, a once well-planned area that had degenerated to near slum status and is known for its high crime rate and as the location of the largest garbage dump in East Africa.

Block by Block teamed up with a variety of local organizations to revitalize Dandora’s public spaces, initially focusing on creating a “model street” that would influence other improvements in the neighborhood. Proposals built in Minecraft in the Block by Block workshop led to upgrading a main street, clearing ditches, planting trees and now building gateways along the corridor.

“Designing in Minecraft allowed people in Dandora to explore the merits of various design alternatives and visualize their ideas,” said Westerberg. “The process also encouraged people to develop a broader understanding of the urban environment, speak in public with greater confidence and improve community relations.” For many participants, it was the first time they had publicly expressed opinions about local issues.

Melin added, “Minecraft is a tool that is increasing community engagement in public space projects by enabling participants to express themselves in a visual way, develop skills, network with other people from the community and provide new ways to influence the policy agenda.”

U.N.-Habitat and Mojang set out the grand goal of 300 Block by Block projects in the coming years. However, they found that they didn’t have the human resources or capital to hit that target within their desired timeline.

Then, Mojang was acquired by Microsoft in 2014. After careful consideration and planning, Microsoft and Mojang re-launched the Block by Block Foundation as an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2016.

“As a nonprofit, Block by Block can now accept donations, and we can focus on the growth of that charity and making sure it gets everything it needs to succeed. Like all organizations, it must continue to evolve,” said David Boker, a senior director on the Minecraft team who celebrated 20 years with Microsoft while in Hanoi.

U.N.-Habitat signed a long-term agreement with the foundation in August 2016, ensuring sustainable funding for Block by Block for years to come. The board now meets three times a year to approve public space projects, which will be funded by the foundation.

In 2016, Block by Block held community participation workshops using Minecraft in Indonesia, Madagascar, India, Kosovo, Mexico, Nepal, the U.S., Ecuador and Lebanon. There are currently more than 650 applications for Block by Block projects around the world.

The Block by Block project at the public market in Mitrovica, Kosovo, was designated as the site for the first board meeting in the field. The bridge over the river in Mitrovica in Northern Kosovo is a symbol of traditional ethnic division between the Serbian and Albanian communities. The project aimed to revitalize the city market neighborhoods around the bridge, one of few areas in the city where the two communities meet.

Using Minecraft to devise urban design improvements for the city market and both river banks helped local stakeholders and citizens to think of Mitrovica as one city.

“It not only democratized the development process but really gave people ownership over the space,” said Winters, who was on-site for the project. “There are a lot of new residents in the area, and Block by Block gave them a path to come together in a positive way. They even created one of the first skate parks in Kosovo.”

Hanoi was the kickoff project for 2017 and a chance for the board to re-convene and plan for the upcoming year while getting to witness the first Block by Block in Vietnam. The project goal was to design secure and friendly public spaces in the burgeoning, working-class neighborhood of Kim Chung, especially as many of the local girls must travel many miles to reach the school and need to have a safe zone around the buildings.

Prior to the workshop, the schoolgirl participants did “safety walks” to score the surrounding areas in various categories including “can see and be seen,” “can hear and be heard” and “able to get away.”

Problem areas that emerged included: inadequate lighting, dark corners where criminals can hide and piles of garbage in the streets. They judged the tunnel under the five-lane highway to be particularly challenging.

“I hate the tunnel and never like to walk through it by myself, but I have to do it at least twice per day when I go to school,” said 15-year-old Nguyen Ngoc Anh. “We have lots of ideas how to make it nicer so that people will learn to treat it better and then it can be a safer place for everyone.”

As for the workshop itself, the 45 girls divided into seven teams and Christelle Lahoud, a Lebanese architect and urban planner who works for U.N.-Habitat, ran the day’s events.

“I have no specific background in Minecraft but was still able to teach everyone how to use it in an hour or so,” said Lahoud. “Then they were able to start creating their designs.”

They sat four to six at a desktop computer, as they built out their designs in Minecraft atop a model of the neighborhood around their school. Phan Thi Ngoc Huyen, also 15, said, “It was really fun and exciting to have an idea and then be able to make it to show to adults.”

The true significance of the day became clear as the teams of girls presented not only their findings but interactive 3D models built in Minecraft. By improving the security, the girls will have a chance at more inclusion and participation in their education. But there was another level to the experience. By presenting these findings to local government officials, U.N.-Habitat officials, architects and others, the girls are building their confidence in using technology, expressing their ideas and learning that their views matter.

Prior to Block by Block, Westerberg had long searched for a way to use technology to engage youth in the development process. “We found a language that kids enjoy and understand which is important because they are the majority in many places and will grow up to be the adults in the city,” he said. “Minecraft is not just a game. It is a co-creation tool to build better cities and better communities with more equal societies.”

Deirdre Quarnstrom, director of Minecraft Education, who is also on the board, said, “In the workshops we saw valuable ideas for better lighting and safer walkways. The students were able to communicate specific safety improvements to city planners through their Minecraft designs. I see the same increase in student voice and shifting power dynamic when I visit classrooms using Minecraft as part of their curriculum as well.”

Quarnstrom agreed that the workshops and other game-based learning offer numerous indirect impacts too. “Participation also builds confidence in youth and in girls who are often left out of planning and design conversations. They see that they have the potential to make a difference. And this confidence encourages girls to use technology and express their ideas.”

“Minecraft inspires people to be creative,” said Winters. “For some, they have never been able to express that side of themselves before. You can take a complex idea, and easily create a virtual world.” Phan Thi Ngoc Huyen added, “Games are usually fantasy. It was nice to use a game for the real world.”

The ideas that the girls presented to the board, other NGOs and Vietnamese politicians ranged from play areas to a women-only coffee shop to a shelter with a camera that does facial identification at the door. There were plans for unbreakable streetlights in the tunnel, a tree house shelter (why not?) and a free phone to call for help. Other general improvements included street benches, trash cans, improved signage, lighted walkways, security fences along a stream, murals in the tunnel, flower beds and cutting back overgrown hedges. They even talked about converting abandoned structures into public restrooms.

Dr. Nguyen Quay of U.N.-Habitat Vietnam said, “It was great to see how this engages young minds in creative thinking.” But the girls still expect to see their plans come to fruition. They even came up with a group slogan: “Just take action.”

Sometimes Block by Block funds the construction of the projects. Sometimes they fund the workshop and the municipality funds the construction. But the ultimate goal for every project is for the methodology to go viral. They want it to get to the point where Block by Block need not be involved at all.

“That’s when we’ll start to see real scale and growth,” said Westerberg. “People are recognizing the value of participation and value of Minecraft in this process. It’s already gaining momentum. We can accomplish more by educating people than by trying to fund it all ourselves.”

He said, “Now, in Nairobi, the local government is going to upgrade 60 public spaces. At first they didn’t even think about public spaces. It took us two years to get the line in the budget for public spaces, and it was still at zero. Now, after all of the Block by Block workshops, they see the impact and are going to fund all of these new developments themselves.”

The inspiration goes both ways, Bui mused. “We grew into this. Our community brought us into all of these experiences. We continue to listen to the community and are busy figuring out other cool things we can do with Minecraft.”

When asked what is the most common thing that they see across all of the Block by Block projects, Winters responded immediately. “People are shocked and always say, ‘Who knew kids would have such good ideas?’”

Bui smiled. “And we always answer, ‘We did.’”