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05th Feb 2014

How a transgender “foreign hope” is challenging the pro StarCraft world

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“Wait, what did you say?” The conversation I was having with the man beside me in the StarCraft T-shirt had been swallowed up by 2,000 other spectators screaming and chanting “Scarlett! Scarlett!” This kind of fervor is usually associated with Madison Square Garden, not the Hammerstein Ballroom—a more elegant space two blocks north of the Garden.

A couple weeks later, the Hammerstein would host a performance of the Nutcracker Suite, but for now, the object of the crowd’s affection was Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn. As the words “Victory!” flashed across the massive video screen behind her, the teenage Canadian tossed down her headphones and exited the glass isolation booth on center stage, taking a quick bow before sauntering over to a pair of broadcasters sitting nearby. There she leaned over with elbows propped, wobbling a bit. Her hands covered her mouth in an expression of disbelief. She had just pulled off a razor-thin upset over Ji Sung “Bomber” Choi, one of the top 10 StarCraft II players in the world, at a $50,000 tournament sponsored by Red Bull. To the trained eye, the thrilling match had a brutal ballet-like quality to it, even if Tchaikovsky might bristle at the comparison.

The fan next to me repeated what he had been trying to say earlier. “She’s the next foreign hope,” he said. Scarlett draped a Canadian flag over her green hoodie in celebration.



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“Foreign hope.” In the competitive StarCraft scene, it’s a weirdly xenophobic mantle passed ingloriously to the best professional players born outside of South Korea. The sci-fi strategy game—imagine a frantic version of chess with dozens of aliens and men in spacesuits instead of a few static wooden pieces—was initially developed by Blizzard in southern California during the mid-’90s. Koreans embraced the game just as the country’s modern Internet infrastructure was falling into place, allowing for players to face off in the multiplayer mode with little to no connection lag.

Over the past decade and a half, StarCraft and its popular sequel (released in 2010) have reigned as something of a national sport in the small Asian nation. There are cable channels devoted to broadcasting tournaments, which are held in large arenas filled with thousands of shrieking fans. In this bombastic setting, professional players face off in one-on-one battles of fast reflexes—top pros can perform 300 actions per minute on keyboards—and on-the-fly tactics.

As North America’s top player, Scarlett took home about $35,000 in tournament prizes last year, less than a third of the winnings that a Korean champ like Lee “Jaedong” Jae Dong might take home. Players like Jaedong and Choi are considered minor national celebrities in Seoul. They have paid sponsorships, fan clubs, and sometimes even groupies—all spoils of top-level play. Korea’s Air Force created a professional StarCraft team a few years ago so players could keep their skills sharp during a two-year military service period the Korean government has made mandatory.

It makes sense on some level, then, that pro players outside of the small Asian nation are the ones considered “foreigners,” especially since South Korea produced all but one of the top 20 players last year, according to Blizzard’s global rankings. After Won “PartinG” Lee Sak, the StarCraft world champion in 2012, easily dispatched Scarlett in the first round of Red Bull Battle Grounds, he channeled a nerdy version of a pro wrestling villain during the post-game interview. He playfully dismissed Scarlett as “cute” and told the American crowd that he didn’t get nervous because “I never lose to foreigners.”

The North American StarCraft community started attaching the “foreign hope” label to Scarlett last year, after she nearly ousted Choi in the finals of a regional league championship and broke through the top 50 in the global rankings. But the phrase carries an added charge in Scarlett’s case, as she is a transgender woman thrust into a hypermasculine subculture comprised mostly of young guys. As fans clamor for a player to upset South Korean dominance, Scarlett’s sweet success is testing just how much this tight-knit community is willing to challenge the established order of their world.


Attitudes about homosexuals in America have shifted drastically over the past two decades, yet this wave of empathy and acceptance has been slower to reach transgender people. A survey conducted in 2009 by the Gay, Lesbian And Straight Education Network of 295 trans students between the ages of 13 and 20 found a high degree of victimization. Ninety percent of them had frequently heard derogatory remarks because of their gender expression, 53 percent had been pushed or shoved, and a quarter had been assaulted.

Transgender athletes face further marginalization since they participate in sports divided by gender. In terms of body structure, all human beings are essentially female for the first month of gestation in the womb, but after six weeks, embryos with a male gene develop testicles and the cells responsible for testosterone production. The athletic disparity between men and women widens during puberty when testosterone fuels higher bone density, more muscle mass, and greater height and weight in males.

Because of their different physiologies, male-to-female transgender athletes are often criticized for having unfair advantages when facing off against female opponents. Last March, when the mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox revealed in an interview that she’d been born a man, she faced overwhelming criticism and calls to ban her from fighting biological females. That furor included an infamous profanity-filled rant by Joe Rogan, a comedian and UFC commentator, arguing that Fox should be disqualified. The NCAA’s first openly transgender player, Kye Allums, sunk into suicidal depression after she came out in 2011 because the media scrutiny was so invasive and intense.

But if the existence of openly transgender athletes complicates the question of who belongs where, one might assume it’d be less of an issue in eSports, where physical advantages are minimized. All of the frantic intergalactic combat of StarCraft is performed through the proxy of a mouse and keyboard, meaning it has more in common with, say, Scrabble than MMA fighting.

Yet when Hostyn won the Iron Lady, a StarCraft tournament for women only in 2011 and 2012, her victory elicited outcries similar to those that Fox faced. The backlash prompted Scarlett to defend herself on a fan blog, saying she’d been invited by a tournament admin who was familiar with her situation.

“It is true I am [male-to-female] transgender, and I kinda expected this reaction. I have never tried to bring attention to myself for anything other than my play, so I don’t feel like this should be a big deal,” Scarlett wrote. “Most of the girls I know knew about this already and don’t judge or care. In terms of actual play, there is (as far as I know) no advantage to being born male or female. But even if there was, being transgender means you are born with the brain of the opposite gender; so I would not have that advantage or disadvantage. All I ask is for people to be respectful and refer to me as ‘she.’”

Still, even when she plays against other men in the pro circuit, Scarlett gets grief, and the anonymity of the Internet makes it easier for her detractors to find a forum. This is especially true in the eSports world, where even the pro players obscure their true identity with curiously spelled nicknames, and Reddit acts as the scene’s gossipy cyber town square. On sites like Twitch that air StarCraft video streams, the default setting puts viewers automatically into a chat room with other strangers.

New York City’s StarCraft fans may have voiced full-throated approval for Scarlett at Red Bull Battle Grounds, but watching the tournament online was a different and discomfiting experience. Roughly half of the chat transcript focuses on the action of the game, and in the other portion, spectators obsess over Scarlett’s sexuality, body parts, and looks. “scarlett travelled to thailand to have his pee pee removed,” claims one viewer with the handle Paoloone. “her dick is big?” asks Sb_vintage. Some of the interlocutors voice acceptance: “I accept her choice,” writes Wowcookiez. “I think it’s great as well as the way she plays. You know what, to hell with it. I’ll let the fanboys find out when they hug her/him.”

The controversy has overshadowed Scarlett’s riveting ascent into the upper echelon of StarCraft players, prompting rebukes from popular eSports commentators like Sean “Day[9]” Plott and John “TotalBiscuit” Bain. When I asked TotalBiscuit about the negative attention Scarlett regularly receives, he sighed. “Scarlett has definitely become a target of transphobia and trans-hate. Ignorance fuels hate, and you add in the anonymity of the Internet and the general cowardice of the kind of people that do that, and it can result in a highly poisonous environment,” Bain said. “Being a pro player is hard enough. You’re constantly scrutinized. Being a successful, transgendered foreign pro player, I can’t imagine the amount of eyes on that and even the slightest error on your part gets used as an attack vendor. It saddens me.”


“Wait, you’re recording this? How long is it going to take?”

Despite her easy smile, Scarlett is a reluctant interview subject. During media day at Red Bull Battle Grounds, she ducked out of an interview with The New Yorker, and there were times during my short chat with her that I thought she might bolt. Scarlett’s awkward, coltish manner doesn’t come off as petulant so much as extreme shyness. It’s true of many competitive video game players—countless hours spent sitting by yourself, practicing at a computer, doesn’t exactly prepare you for public speaking.

Scarlett says that her own shyness used to be worse. “I’m a lot more comfortable now than I was like a year and a half ago. I was like really, really shy then,” she told me. “So it’s been good for me, and I’ve been more confident in myself—that sort of thing.”

If the frequent negative attention she receives is a factor in her wariness of the media, she doesn’t say so. She admitted that she does read a lot of what is written about her—a common practice among pro StarCraft players—even if a lot of it is “awful.” 

“Yeah, I read it just to see what people are saying, but I don’t care what they say. You just get used to it after a while after reading the same stuff every day,” Scarlett said. “You just think that they’re idiots.”

Scarlett didn’t choose her gender, and in a strange way, she didn’t exactly choose StarCraft. She never had aspirations to play games professionally. As a young high school student, it was a hobby that she dabbled in. But after entering a few online tournaments for fun in early 2011, she found herself winning a lot of matches without much effort. The professional career fell into place from there. 

Her parents talk about pro StarCraft more than she does, and it’s not a subject she discusses much with her close friends, either. 2013 was a breakout year for Scarlett’s eSports pursuits: She was the runner-up at NorthCon in December after losing in the finals to Jaedong. She also climbed to No. 21 in the sport’s global rankings. Despite her success, she has considering quitting or at least scaling back to part-time competition. She’s bored, and her wrists often hurt from repetitive stress injuries—a familiar ailment for programmers.

“I’ve been getting tired of the game recently, honestly,” she said. “Playing all the time is exhausting.” 

What would the player nicknamed “Queen Of Blades” do instead of constantly clicking her Zerg forces into battle? Like most other people her age, she’s not sure. “I never knew what exactly I’ve wanted to do,” Hostyn said. “I got into this right out of high school, and I’m only 19. So, I can do whatever after this.”

Scarlett is arguably the most prominent transgender gamer in the world, but she doesn’t show much interest in being an outspoken advocate. Nor does she seem to care about fulfilling StarCraft’s fans’ fantasy of the “foreign hope.” She’d rather dance to the ballet of her own choosing.

(Fan art of “Scarlett, Queen Of Blades”: zetim on Reddit.)

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19th Mar 2013

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm review – Evolve and survive

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The juggernaut of mouse-clicking that is StarCraft II just received a huge shot of adrenalin in the form of the first expansion for the game, the Zerg-focused Heart of the Swarm. Paired with the initial release of the game with the Wings of Liberty and its Terran storyline, we now have two-thirds of the complete package, with the Protoss-based Legacy of the Void coming at a later date to round things out. Together, they will represent the complete StarCraft II experience, although the game is an odd beast, with the single-player and multiplayer facets offering such disparate gameplay.

What remains is a game that feels strangely welded together, although neither half disappoints. The single-player campaign in Heart of the Swarm picks up immediately where Wings of Liberty left off, seamlessly transitioning you into Kerrigan’s world and immersing you in the insectizoid realm of the Zerg, while the multiplayer has been tweaked and updated with new units, maps, modes, and more. But there is much room for improvement here to get neophytes up to speed, because newcomers will face frustration in combat with others.

Playing with the Queen of Blades

While Wings of Liberty offered an enjoyable single-player campaign experience, Jim Raynor remains a stoic and gruff leading man who isn’t that dynamic. He’s either alternatively shooting things, growling at others, or pining away for Kerrigan. It is a much easier concept to get behind Kerrigan as a character, with her relentless quest for revenge against Arcturus Mengsk and the love/hate relationship she has with her Queen of Blades alter ego.

If you haven’t completed the Wings of Liberty campaign, but still intend to, beware minor spoiler below. 

Kerrigan

At the conclusion of Wings of Liberty, the Terrans landed a massive blow against the Zerg, destroying many of them and scattering the rest. Kerrigan has been restored to a mostly-human (looking) form, and despite a last-minute assassination attempt put into play by Mengsk via Raynor’s sometimes enemy/sometimes ally Tychus Findlay, he carries her off into what passes for a sunset on a destroyed world.

StarCraft-2-Heart-of-the-SwarmWhen Heart of the Swarm opens, Kerrigan is undergoing tests that are pushing her psionic abilities. As it turns out, she can also still hear the call of the Swarm, and is able to control units and issue orders. Under the eye of Valerian Mengsk, Arcturus’ loyal to the cause son, Kerrigan begins training by running Zerglings through some simple commands.

What follows sets the stage for much of the single-player campaign. Each mission will present to you a new type of unit or a new challenge, and the game holds your hand through these. They are more about learning the controls or making evolutionary choices than any skill, as you will be told exactly what to do on each mission. In some cases the paths and locations that you should put your units on will be revealed to you.

You will have the chance to get familiar with Kerrigan and her Zerg surroundings aboard her Leviathan, and in certain missions you will control other Zerg major units and learn about their functions, while constantly evolving and upgrading Kerrigan and her base units via the Zerg geneticist Abathur. Here you will have to make decisions like evolving Zerglings that split into two and breed faster, or Zerglings with wings that can scale cliffs and leap attack. Some choices are minor and can be changed at will, while others are permanent evolutions.

Swarmling

But your choices only affect the way you play the game, as the campaign will play out the same way no matter what. On one hand, it’s a very comprehensive and easy way to introduce you to the new units and abilities, but on the other hand there is no challenge. Even the climactic battle at the end of the campaign isn’t something that will make you sweat, and while we thoroughly enjoyed the storyline and gameplay, there would be nothing wrong with making us work for it a little bit.

A million (multiplayer) voices crying out in terror 

The multiplayer experience in StarCraft II can be extremely divisive, and chances are that you either suck at it completely, or have enough skill to win more than half of your matches easily. There are a few superstar players who manage to rise about the chaff, but to get there you have to play a lot of StarCraft II matches. A whole lot. Thankfully, growing your skill is a bit easier with Heart of the Swarm, although not by much.

Last month, Blizzard rolled out a massive 2.0.4 patch to Wings of Liberty in order to pave the runway for the incoming Heart of the Swarm. It brought with it multiple changes, including tweaks to nearly every system in the game, from the user interface on down, and it also introduced several new ways to play the game. Versus AI mode has replaced the Co-op Versus AI mode, giving players the ability to play against AI that can scale in difficulty. An Unranked Play option was also added, so you can play without worrying about hurting your ladder score.

ProtZerg

A new Training Mode was also introduced, which is meant to teach StarCraft II players the basics – but unfortunately, that’s all it does. If you’ve played the single-player campaign, chances are that you already know everything in here. What the game really needs is a tutorial that can teach you advanced skills, and how to defend against them. With the amount of people playing StarCraft IIall over the world, this game should offer up some comprehensive guides to the basics, like learning how to scout, defending against or launching a rush, and different tactics. Like chess, StarCraft II has a million variables and opening moves to consider, so why not bring newbies into the loop?

sc2-heart-of-the-swarm-preview_screenshot3

While part of the experience is in learning these new moves on your own, the learning is so steep for people just stepping into the multiplayer that it feels like a brick wall. Just be prepared to slam into it many, many times before breaking through to the other side. Trust me, as this comes from someone who was shamefully decimated by a massive herd of SCVs. But can you really fault a game for not giving you an immediate path to knowledge and understanding? It should make you want to play the game more to get better at it, but at times it can be nearly a coin toss between that and sheer ragequit annoyance.

With the enormous world of eSports being fueled by StarCraft II players, this most likely won’t change anytime soon. It’s even created a secondary market where YouTube game guides and various video sites offer a chance to improve your gameplay and vie for the next level.

Meet your new troops

While the single-player storyline contains evolutionary upgrades that are stripped out of the multiplayer to keep things balanced, there are new units across the board in Heart of the Swarm.

Zerg:

  • Viper: This new flying unit has multiple abilities like Blinding Cloud, which will stop a unit’s ranged attack ability, Abduct, which can pull an enemy closer, and Consume, which can siphon health from an enemy structure while damaging it.
  • Spawn Host: A new medium-sized unit with no basic attack; when you burrow it into the ground it will launch locusts against your enemy.

Terran

  • Hellbat: The Hellion can now transform into this walking, fire-spewing ground unit after researching the upgrade at a Tech Lab attached to a Factory.
  • Widow Mine: These walking mines are a step up from spider mines, and can burrow into the ground to launch themselves against unsuspecting ground units. Can attack air units as well.

Protoss

  • Mothership Core: This component of a Mothership has many powerful abilities: Mass Recall, which teleports the core and nearby units to a targeted Nexus, Envision, which can reveal enemy units, and Photon Overcharge, which turns the Core into a long-range weapon for 60 seconds. It can also evolve into a Mothership.
  • Tempest: A slow-moving, long-range ship that can bombard ground units or attack flying enemies as well. Expanding Minds, and Wallets

The game is gorgeous, just keep buckets of water nearby

SC2-2013-03-16-20-31-53-08StarCraft II looks fantastic… if you crank your settings to the max. Gameplay won’t change for you one way or the other, and most players tend to play zoomed back from the action. But if you dial things up to ultra, zoom in and marvel at the amount of graphic detail present in the units, structures, and the maps themselves. Also, take time to explore the campaign for Easter Eggs – including a lone, futuristic sportscar sitting by itself. One you demolish it, a tiny Terran ran up shouting, “That’s my car, man! I just paid it off!” Sorry, but that’s what happens when you park in a no parking zone.

StarCraft IIPlaying the game on a top-tier Origin gaming PC, in the heat of battle – and we mean heat – the system would overheat and shut down. Granted, we were maxing things out to see how it would look, but these were the optimum settings, according to an NVIDIA GeForce Experience tool. Pushing everything to the max should probably only be reserved for powerhouse gaming PCs, although the game still looks and plays just fine at pretty much any setting.

As with Wings of Liberty, the cutscenes are fantastic throughout Heart of the Swarm, and while it’s grating to hear Raynor refer to Kerrigan as “Darlin’” multiple times, it once again fuels the desire to see Blizzard package all of these into a full-fledged animated film. Maybe once the final chapter with the Protoss is released, someone (even if it isn’t Blizzard) will cut them together with any important story moments from the gameplay.

Pay the cost to be the boss

You might be wondering what this game will set you back, especially since it requires you to have the base StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty game. Most retailers, including Blizzard, have dropped the cost of Wings of Liberty to $39.99 for both the boxed and digital download versions, which is the same price for the boxed Heart of the Swarm expansion.

Zergs

If you haven’t already picked up Wings of Liberty, do so before playing Heart of the Swarm. The storyline is extremely cohesive between the two, so you’re looking at a nearly $80 price point for both. Blizzard is currently offering a package deal for both games for $59.99. This may be a limited time offer though. 

Purists and Blizzard fanatics can also pick up a Collector’s Edition for $79.99, which adds an art book, soundtrack, behind-the-scenes DVD, along with other goodies.

Conclusion

starcraft-heart-of-the-swarm-game-score-graphic

While not a completely perfect experience, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a solid followup to Wings of Liberty, although it does feel a bit overpriced. A $29.99 download-only option would feel more on-target, given that you’ll have to have Wings of Liberty. You’re essentially paying for a new campaign experience here, along with a couple multiplayer units per race and maps, which make what’s new feel a bit lopsided. If, like may StarCraft II gamers, you are more interested in the multiplayer than the campaign, the new units are going to feel very costly for what you get – and they’ll be necessary if you want to compete online. 

Despite the gorgeous and Machiavellian storyline, which is a passive experience, it would have been nice to see more diverse and challenging missions from this expansion. At this point, Blizzard knows you have an entire first installment of this game to play, so it doesn’t need to unnecessarily hold your hand to get your through. With a more challenging campaign that could serve as a jumping off point to the difficult odds you’ll face in multiplayer, that aspect of the game could go from “might play” to “must play.” Regardless, as it currently stands most will still be gluttons for punishment in the multiplayer until they crack the code.

The campaign ends, of course, with a setup that will lead directly into the final expansion pack, Legacy of the Void, which will tie things up. Or will it? Chances are that Blizzard could push out expansions for this game for quite awhile. Anyone up for another Brood War?

Score: 8.5 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on the PC, using a copy provided by the publisher.)

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03rd Mar 2013

StarCraft 2 Project Blackstone website opens up a little

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Blizzard’s Project Blackstone website still hasn’t given up the goods on what exactly it is meant to be teasing, other than it being something to do with StarCraft 2 and probably a Terran-focused thing, but it has expanded a little, adding some new emails to read through and other lore documents. The site can also now be accessed without a password.

Further details below.

When the site went live in the first week of February, our own Nick Wilson was able to crack the encryption to reveal a chat log between Dr Helen Branamoor and Talen Ayers, two Terran scientists specialising in researching the Zerg who have been press-ganged into Project Blackstone. The site is now open to explore without entering a password.

Also, whereas before the site only had a welcome email from Branamoor and Ayer’s response, there is now a chat log between Ayers and Dr. Talise Cogan. We learn from their correspondence that among the xenobiologists there is now also a new staff member, an archaeologist, which suggests their Zerg research may be looking into something a little more ancient than the new units coming in Heart of the Swarm.

We’ll be keeping tabs on the site for further updates.

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13th Feb 2013

Starcraft nights and Marlboro Lights: The story of my addiction

StarCraft 1

Real Time Strategy: heroin of the hardcore gaming landscape. Its consumption is not only draining, but soul destroying; its almost sensual draw is intense and powerful. Addicts are careful, for detection is the first step of their inevitable intervention.

The smart ones hide their gear; Red Alert 2 are discs “misplaced” in the depths of a desk drawer, Zero Hour permanently in the drive. StarCraft cracked and shortcuts forged because the mind alerting Zerg are the highest grade of purity known to man.

Have you ever been addicted? I was, before I was saved. Saved by the power of gaming diversity itself, the divine being that drip feeds that cleansing variety, the wondrous balance.

But one cannot truly be cleansed. My past was a sordid one — full of micromanagement, nuke cannons and overlord tanks, zerg rushes and cannon spams. Follow me as I detail my road to ruin, and my subsequent path to redemption.

Things were never always like this. My path to ultimate ruin began with a simple speculation, a mere flirtatious curiosity. A friend of mine in high school invited me around to his house in 1994, praising the merits of a certain game. He knew I had a penchant for strategy, a certain interest in anticipating the movements of my adversaries. Eventually, my inquisitiveness peaked and I gave in to sheer wonderment; my evil friend grinning at another potential convert as I, too, fell under the control of Dune 2.

What got me interested in this particularly intriguing concept was the idea of constructing a base. Never before had any game I played provide you with the tools to construct your own army in your own way, in real time. Before long, I was slapping down concrete foundations like the best of them, pumping out little soldiers to do my bidding, extracting spice, and softly cackling as my plans developed to fruition.

That was it. I was hooked. For three weeks I found more and more contrived ways to get invited to my friend’s place. With each play, completing yet another mission, edging closer to the promised control of total domination. Eventually, I took control of the Death Hand; I imagined my enemy commanders weeping uncontrollably, their subordinates looking as each other awkwardly as I dropped missile after beautiful, long range missile on top of their bases. Victory, as it were, was mine.

I ended up finishing Dune 2 about seven times overall, but it did nothing but whet my appetite for more. The release of Command and Conquer forced me to move my new obsession into hiding, as my parents were not fans of violent games. My dad’s old Pentium 75 relished the task of outputting glorious pixel death, and behind closed doors, I took control of the GDI and was again transported into the realm of glory.

Words could not describe the immense feeling of power I felt controlling such enormous armies. For at my very whim, a soldier would gladly undertake what could only be described as a suicide mission, without complaint or restitution. Finding sneaky, subversive routes through impenetrable defenses made my adrenaline rates spike, and I had to force myself to not cry literally out in joy as my tanks rolled to success. For if my father found out about my dirty fixation, it would be likely that Red Alert would not find its place onto my hard drive.

Over the next few weeks, months and years, I found myself up till the wee hours of the morning, my eyes almost baked open by stimulants like No-Doz and Jolt Cola. “Just one more mission,” I would tell myself over the pile of coffee cups staining the half-hearted attempts at schoolwork that littered my desk. I would day dream about German Shepherds and razor wire, constantly thinking of new and exciting ways to tank rush. I couldn’t get enough.

But the worst was yet to come. Because I was only being fed the average gear, the rough stuff, cut with basic tactical advantages and spliced with similarity between factions. As I settled into an existence littered with moments of social occasion in between sessions of WarCraft 2 and Total Annihilation, I began to feel numb. I had developed a resistance to the dripfed excitement that had begun all those years ago. I needed something stronger; I now craved exuberance, euphoria, and that blind sense of cannibalistic power.

I didn’t need to wait long for that fix. StarCraft found its way into my veins on the 31st of March, 1998, beginning the first and only love story I’ve ever had with a piece of software. If you can call relentless devotion “Love,” that is, since I spent the next year with my fingers on the hotkeys climbing up the Australian Bnet ladders. My addiction had left the alleyway and entered the crack den; I now had fellow junkies to share my electronic air with. Only this time, I did the unconscionable: I passed on the terrible affliction to my best friend.

It started innocently. Back then, access to the internet wasn’t cheap, nor fast, and it was charged by the hour (yes, really). Unfortunately for us, Battle.net was on that same internet. For a period, both of us would sit on Bnet for hours at a time, raising the ire of our fathers, furious at the three figure bills from the ISP. But we were hooked, thanks to Pegasus and Blizzard teaming up to serve us a virtual rock of silky dope. Banned from the web, we needed a solution quickly.

Lucky for us, Starcraft allowed for direct connection. At the price of a local call, we would dial into the others’ PC and the matches would begin. In a sense, we had scored. Hour upon hour each afternoon, night and weekend, we would fight. 1v1, 2v6(AI). We would download new maps on our pittance of allowed net time, and continue playing. Before long, we had devised 2v2 strategies so foolproof, that the odd times we could get back on Bnet, we would dominate. This was life.

But, like every addiction, a toll must be taken; my body and mind could accept no more abuse. I banned myself from the PC, forcing myself to branch out and move on. Gaming could not supply me with life’s bounty; I needed a job, a girlfriend, a life. My brain could no longer stand the sight of a Terran marine, nor a Zerg hydralisk. It rebelled. I quit.

Years rolled by and time moved on. I would occasionally pull up the odd skirmish of Red Alert 2, but it was only playfully. Dancing with the idea of taking up the habit again, I could feel a part of me that was empty that longed for the sweet, seductive embrace of a night long session. I resisted… until 2003. Everything changed in 2003. Westwood had decided to release a new product into the market. It was flawed, but different. It felt… familiar. They called it Generals.

I had managed to last three years; I was free of the scourge that had taken over my life. But now that the internet is cheap, I lived out of home, and my roommate was a fellow junkie; everything fell into place like the perfect storm. My bedroom once again became a den of swirling cigarette smoke as I carefully planned bombing runs and commando sabotage. The window between our rooms shared the cool mix of winter air and carbon monoxide along with our exclamations of joy and horror.

I never really recovered from that relapse. Learning to control my addiction became easier than trying to avoid it. Over the years, new elements entered my life and pushed the boundaries of how I dealt with my vice. Supreme Commander, Rise of Nations, and Sins of A Solar Empire all contained their initial challenges, but in the end, I felt I was always the one on top.

In the end, I had no choice but to admit it. I am an RTS addict. I will always be in the iron grip of these tools that provide me with that element of micro-managing control I crave. But it’s important to know when you have a problem. So the question stands; are you an addict?

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16th Jan 2013

World Of Warcraft And Starcraft Gaming Theme Park Opens In China

World of Warcraft and Starcraft are featured in a gaming theme park now open in the Changzhou, Jiangsu province of China. Costing 200 million yuan, or about $30 million USD, the world’s first video game themed park called World Joyland includes seven sections sprawling over 600,000 square meters.

The two already mentioned are of interested to gamers, while the rest of the Joyland park has areas like Taobao Street which is a copy of Main Street USA at Disney World. Fairy Lake is at the center of the theme park, and features a rainbow castle surrounded by a lake where park guests can attempt to water ski. World of Legend hosted a rollercoaster themed after generic heroes of old, but it also features a Cosplay dressup center and a Game Fort. Mole’s World is for the kids, and the Holy Mountain is another unfinished section that towers over the rest of the park.

This Chinese theme park also gives no mind to United States intellectual property laws because it features Disney icons and even Kung Fu Panda statues without paying any licensing fees. Because World Joyland obviously did not purchase the rights to use characters and names from Blizzard, the World of Warcraft portion of the theme park is renamed to “Terrain of Magic” and Starcraft is humorously mislabeled the “Universe of Starship.”

You can tell that the writer at Shanghaiist is a gamer because of the description given to the World of Warcraft area:

“We couldn’t help but imagine finding groups of aimless people waiting outside rides looking to join a raid. Or giant microphones blasting agitated youths cursing one another, or costumed dwarves screaming LEEEEROY JENKINSSS at 15 minute-intervals throughout the park.”

The world of Warcraft area features a ride called Splash of Monster Blood. There’s no distinction made between the horde and alliance but copyright infringing statues of elves, humans, mermaids, and dragons litter the whole area.

The Starcraft area is home to a rollercoaster, a 4D theater, and a drop tower ride called the Wrath of Ratheon. Shanghaiist describes what sort of amusement this area provides:

“The main attraction of the park is a big blue inverted rollercoaster, aptly named the Sky Scraper but misspelled as the Sky Scrapper on its signboard. Amusement park rides are a dangerous affair in China, and we weren’t entirely sure we’d come back from this one alive. One of the most disturbing parts of the park was the general decay we witnessed, unnerving in a park open only a hair shy of two months. Cracks in paint and rust on handrails made the attendants’ habit of screaming ‘Goodbye!’ as the roller coaster surged out of the gates even more terrifying.”

So not quite the gamer’s mecca, but it still certainly sounds fun. Best part is that guests overwhelmingly were young children, so lines for the exciting rides tended to be relatively short. What do you think about this video gaming theme park?

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12th Oct 2012

Rumor Mill: IGN To Launch Starcraft 2 Pro League Next Week

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Users at the Team Liquid forums have investigating rumors for over a week which suggested that IGN was prepping to launch a pro gaming league geared towards the Starcraft 2 community in the United States. The investigative work paid off, as there’s no sufficient enough evidence out there to support the claim.

Here’s what we know so far. First, an IGN league page already exists with a countdown timer ending on 4/4/2011. Second, there’s even a blog post on IGN.com dated March 20th which states:

IGN has invited 16 of the most talented Starcraft 2 players from North America, and will be launching a series of tournaments in search for the best players in America.

As the top gaming site on the internet, IGN is passionate about nurturing the gaming scene. We believe that the main reason why America is not yet competitive in the eSports scene is the lack of events and sponsorships to support America’s talent. IGN will be investing in accelerating the growth of the eSport scene in America.

Last but not least, Team Liquid’s e-detectives found pages from Google Cache showing what appears to be some of the early format behind the IGN Pro League content pages. Here’s the first link, and the second.

The tournament will supposedly have a prize pool of between $150,000 and $200,000 which is nothing to sneeze at, and from the sound of it IGN is betting that a serious Starcraft 2 league could exist in the United States. Maybe now it’s time for me to bust out my old Diamond account and get cracking in competitive play again.


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27th Aug 2012

Stratagems: StarCraft 2 Wrap


It’s been a while since we’ve talked about anything Starcraft II, and what better way to remedy that than by dedicating an entire article to it – so let’s get started! As we gently rumble towards the Blizzcon juggernaut, more and more news has started to arrive about exactly what fans of the snow-themed game developer can expect to see at Anaheim this October.

The first and perhaps most important piece of news is that Heart of the Swarm will be playable by the public at the convention – although it’ll struggle, methinks, to pull fans away from the GSL Finals which will be held there as well. Blizzcon will mark the first time the GSL finals are happening outside of Korea, and GOMTV are pretty excited about the whole affair. “Lot of people have made requests about it through Twitter,” said Mr. Chae on behalf of the broadcaster, “and the time I went to MLG Columbus, I gained faith that holding GSL final outside Korea would be meaningful. I hope GSL to become a festival for all e-sports fans around the globe. I don’t want an e-sports title like SC BW, which was isolated to Korea.”

“Korean gamers are competing with Korean gamers and despite frequent foreign tournaments, they are willing to fly over to compete. They are also very impressed and enjoying the support from foreign fans. [...] The decision was not easy to make. It is first time and therefore a great challenge for us to send staff and produce and transmit from oversea. But it is a worthy challenge for GSL and something that must be done at some point.”



From professional tournaments to corporate charity-matches, the After Hours Gaming League has recently kicked off. It’s organised by Sean “Day[9]” Plott and is a short tournament that brings teams of gamers from eight prominent tech companies together to battle in order to win money for their charity. Amazon are on top of the rankings at the moment, with Dropbox, Zynga, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp filling out the rest of the ladder. The competition is going to roll on until the end of August and matches feature commentary by Day[9], TotalBiscuit and even the famous Husky. Try not to miss it!

Anybody not playing competitively but wishing to drastically improve in time for the next season of competition will find their matchmaking lives made vastly easier by Blizzard’s recent announcement regarding introducing region-linking to battle.net: when Season 3 rolls around, North America and Latin America will be linked together, as will Europe and Russia, and Korea and Taiwan. While this will only affect those of us in Australia who choose to play on the North American regions, it’s still only a good thing for anybody looking to increase the variety of opponents to skill-up against. Get cracking!

To round off this Starcraft 2 wrapup, let’s finish with a video spotted over on PC Gamer – a highlights reel, if you will, of some of the best e-sports moments in the past year of Starcraft 2’s release, courtesy of a user named LaxxSC. Let’s all take a moment to enjoy.

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13th Aug 2012

Stratagems: The RTS is Dead, Long Live Starcraft


After writing this weekly RTS column for – what, over a year now – you begin to notice a few patterns. Ostensibly Stratagems is a column that deals with RTS games, but the first two letters of that acronym are becoming increasingly harder to find: the number of major, actual RTS releases in any given year is slowing to a drip-feed, and the fan of strategy has to either hope that the titles they do purchase enjoy generous post-release support, or else seek solace in the arms of turn-based titles, simulations, 4X games, or even strange genre-bending hybrids. Yet for all this, there is one game that continues to keep on strong, keep coming up in the news, and keep enjoying a playerbase that makes other companies weep with envy. You’ve already guessed the answer: Starcraft.

It wasn’t too long ago that we found overselves overwhelmed by high-quality RTS games. By unspoken agreement, developers have abandoned the “traditional” RTS in droves: the resource-gathering, massed-unit building game of micro and macro combination is dead and over, kept alive only by Blizzard. Now Starcraft is the formula, and the formula is Starcraft.

Other companies have abandoned the mainstay mechanics of the genre mostly to play with the scale, whether it’s to zoom the camera down to eye level and play with our heroes’ stats and wargear in Dawn of War II, or to zoom out until even a squadron of house-sized tanks is a tiny speck on a Supreme Commander map. Even Blizzard themselves thought it’d be a good idea to try and mix things up with Warcraft III, adding in a fourth race and yoking the game’s mechanics to specialised heroes – it didn’t work. It sold well, sure, but it can’t hold a candle to the longevity or popularity of its futuristic counterpart. Warcraft III is arguably now more popular as the game that spawned Defence of the Ancients than a game in its own right.

So is the answer simply that the traditional mechanics are the best? I suspect not: even Command Conquer, that once-mighty franchise, has been relegated to an almost farcical relic of a series, only good for a derisive laugh or a wistful sigh. For a series which shares in large part the mechanics of Starcraft, its abject failure to compete in pure sales terms speaks volumes of the differences between the two. There was a time when Command Conquer was “the” RTS, and Starcraft was the upstart pretender with its “three races gimmick” and its “full CGI” movies. The memory of those glory days is, no doubt, what plays a large part in EA’s recent decision to reboot the franchise.

What keeps Starcraft going where other series have been forced to change to stay alive? We’re all man enough to admit that Starcraft II is not an innovative game: it’s a precision-engineered instrument of polish, designed from the ground up to be perfect in every way. It’s the original game from 12 years ago, dressed up with better graphics and pared down with tighter balance, a product that exemplifies not only the most distilled essence of traditional RTS gameplay but also Blizzard’s “no cracks showing” development ethos. That polish alone is not the reason for its success however: it’s what that polish is designed to achieve, and I think the answer to this lies in Dustin Browder’s speeches at this year’s GDC: competition.


Dustin spoke of the fact that Starcraft II was designed from day one to be a successful e-sport, and that every other element of the game, be it sound, art, story, had to be prepared to make concessions to achieve that goal. With Starcraft II, Blizzard abandoned any pretense at simulation or atmosphere – like chess or go, the beast that emerged from this intensely iterated development process was something primal, something composed of pure strategy, honed to a fine point and aimed directly at the lurking competitive heart of every RTS gamer.

Perhaps more so than any other genre, the RTS struggles to create a compelling atmosphere or tell a meaningful story, and the very nature of the abstracted, top-down player-piece-interface of an RTS game is responsible for that. At its heart, RTS games have always been about competitiveness: whether it’s beating the AI or beating another player, no other genre is so thoroughly geared towards competition. This is what I believe drives the engine at the core of the RTS genre – the desire to plan and execute strategies for the express purpose of dominating others. Competitiveness is present in every RTS game of course, but the more you add atmosphere, story and setting into a game, the more difficult it becomes to have a balanced competitive experience. In the end, a strategy game which provides a competitive experience will, I think, always find greater success than one which makes concessions in the name of flavour.

I’m not saying Starcraft is without story or atmosphere (I’m not ashamed to admit I primarily play for the story), but both absolutely feel like they’ve been moulded around the scaffolding of the game’s balance and mechanics, and that’s something that Blizzard are only too happy to confirm. The story campaign of Wings of Liberty took every chance it could to introduce wacky units, units that would be mercilessly culled when it came time to balance the multiplayer game. While I weep for the inability to deploy Goliaths in the field, it’s that exact ruthless sacrifice that has honed the series to its fine edge. That competitive aspect must survive intact, because it’s only the longevity offered by the multiplayer that allows Starcraft to continue succeeding.

Agree? Disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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12th Jul 2012

Evolution Of Stars: The Unusual Astronomy Of Mass Effect, Halo, StarCraft II


Science fiction games are littered with dead and dying stars. Mass Effect has its supernova-blasted Mu Relay, eezo mines near neutron stars, and Adepts slinging miniature black holes around. In the Halo universe, artificially triggered supernovae are the ultimate weapon for exterminating Flood-infested systems. In Spore, you can use black holes as entrances to the galactic subway system of wormholes, and in Starcraft 2, there is a mission where a star “goes nova”, enveloping the map in fire.

All of these dead and dying stars are undeniably awesome, but how accurate are they? To find out, we need to take a look at how stars live — and how they die.

The life and death of a star


At the core of a star, the ridiculously high pressure and temperature forces atoms of hydrogen to fuse into helium, producing a huge amount of energy in the process. The sun produces 180 million times more energy every second than all of the nuclear weapons ever exploded.

For most of a star’s life, it sits poised in perfect balance, with gravity trying to crush it while the nuclear reactions in the core are trying to blow it apart.

That balance can’t last forever.

As hydrogen gets fused into heavier elements, those heavy elements need higher temperatures and pressures for fusion to continue. The core shrinks and heats up, while the outer layers of the star expand like a balloon. This inflated stage in a star’s life is called the “red giant” phase. Even though the star is producing more energy than before, that energy is spread out over a much larger surface, so the surface of the star cools down until it is glowing an angry red.


You won’t like the sun when it’s angry: it will grow until its surface is about where the Earth’s orbit is now, burning our planet to a crisp.

Most stars are small, like the sun, and they die once the core fills up with carbon. In their last gasps, the radiation from the core blows the rest of the star into space, forming solar-system-sized bubbles called “planetary nebulae”. (They have nothing to do with planets. The name is a holdover from when telescopes weren’t very good and a circle of gas in the sky looked like the disk of a faint planet.) At the centre of each planetary nebula is a white dwarf: a glowing-hot ember from the atomic fires that once powered the star. White dwarfs are about the size of the earth and are made mostly of super-dense carbon. As a white dwarf cools, the carbon can actually crystallize to form planet-sized diamonds.

The great thing about astrophysics is that there are real things out in the universe that are stranger than any science fiction. Some of the impressive discoveries in astrophysics like black holes do make their way into popular culture and video games, but other awesome objects and phenomena slip through the cracks. For instance, white dwarfs just aren’t very well known. That’s a shame because: hey, planet sized diamonds! Ancient white dwarfs that have cooled down so that they aren’t glowing anymore would be practically invisible, and could make great secret caches of resources or rendezvous points in otherwise featureless interstellar space. Adding this extra level of sophistication would make the game more realistic while appealing to increasingly well-educated gamers.

And as we’ll see in the next section, white dwarfs can be destabilized to explode as a special type of supernova, which makes for some very interesting possibilities.


The Helix nebula is a famous planetary nebula, formed when a star like the sun died.

Repeat after me: a nova is not a supernova

A nova is a special type of explosion that can happen in systems where two stars are orbiting each other (think Tatooine). In this sort of system, one star can evolve to become a white dwarf before the other, so you end up with a white dwarf and a normal star orbiting each other. When the second star starts to form a red giant, the white dwarf will start to suck up the outer layers of its neighbour. Eventually, enough hydrogen piles up on the white dwarf for fusion to begin again, causing a bright explosion. The borrowed hydrogen fuel doesn’t last long, so the star cools down after a little while and waits until it has enough fuel again. That’s a nova. It’s a brief, brilliant flash of light from a dead star that is sucking fuel from its neighbour like a vampire.


A white dwarf steals fuel from its companion until it has enough for fusion to re-start, causing a nova. Eventually it may get big enough to explode as a special “Type 1a” supernova.

Just to confuse things, it is possible for one of these vampiric white dwarfs to eventually explode as a supernova. There is a certain mass where the white dwarf just can’t support its own weight any more, and when it reaches that mass it collapses and is obliterated in a “Type 1a” supernova. These explosions are always the same brightness, so astronomers use them to find out how far away distant galaxies are, and to understand the expansion of the universe.


“The star will go nova in a few hours. Meantime the planet’s getting bombarded by waves of fire…” — Matt Horner, Starcraft II

When Horner says that above line in StarCraft II, he doesn’t actually mean “nova,” of course. He means “supernova,” the title of the mission. Actual novae aren’t often depicted in games because they are overshadowed by their more extreme supernova cousins. Still, for the purposes of the StarCraft II mission it actually would have been better if the star in question was a nova. The idea behind the mission is that the “waves of fire” from the unstable star are advancing across the map, making for a fast-paced race against time. A supernova would just blow the planet to pieces, but a nova is just the right amount of violence: not enough to destroy the whole system, but the sudden blast of energy would certainly cook the sun-facing side of the planet. If the planet rotated very slowly, then the wall of fire in the mission could be the advancing dawn. The intense heating and global fires would cause some pretty extreme windstorms blowing toward the day side, making things dangerous even before the scorching starlight is visible.

And then there’s the tantalising possibility of triggering a white dwarf supernova, something that really needs to be exploited in a game. Every white dwarf supernova occurs at the exact same mass, so if you’re looking for the ultimate doomsday weapon, a very advanced civilisation (say, Mass Effect‘s Reapers or Halo‘s Forerunners) could lob a white dwarf that was just below the critical mass toward a regular star. When they collide, you’d get an instant supernova.

In a struggle to stave off their inevitable demise, really large stars that are 9 to 50 times as big as the sun resort to fusing heavier and heavier elements, ending up with layers of fusion surrounding the core like a thermonuclear onion. The end comes when the star starts producing iron in its core.

Fusing iron consumes energy, so when a star’s core fills up with iron, it loses its energy source and implodes. The implosion rebounds off of itself and becomes a supernova explosion that shatters the star. A supernova can be hundreds of billions of times brighter than a normal star, out-shining the entire rest of the galaxy.

In the explosion, atoms are disintegrated and recombined into exotic isotopes and giant atoms like gold and plutonium and uranium. Every atom in the universe heavier than helium was made in the core of a star, and every atom heavier than iron was forged in the crucible of a supernova. As Carl Sagan put it: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”


The onion-like layers (not to scale) of a massive star that is about to explode.


“Threading a needle while accelerating around an exploding star, inside a planet that’s falling apart? Sure! Why not?” — Serena, Halo Wars cutscene “One Less Star in the Universe”

In Halo Wars, the slipspace drive of the ship Spirit of Fire is jettisoned into a star, causing the star to explode as a supernova and conveniently destroying the Flood-infested “shield world” that was surrounding the star. But can a supernova really be triggered?

We saw above that a white dwarf supernova can be triggered just by adding enough mass. Regular supernovae are more difficult since all the action happens in the core. Halo slipstream drives function by sending material into otherwise inaccessible dimensions, so if you could get the drive to the core of a star intact, it could pump some core material into other dimensions. The resulting void could cause an implosion leading to a supernova.

If the exploding star was between 9 and 20 times the mass of the sun, the supernova will leave behind a ball of neutrons about the size of a city but with the mass of a star. Neutron stars are mind-bogglingly dense. If you were to take every car in the world — about 1.1 billion metric tons of scrap metal — and compact them to the density of a neutron star, they would form a sphere about the size of a gumball.


The Crab Nebula was a star once. It exploded as a supernova in 1054, and was so bright that it was visible during the day for 23 days and at night for two years. At its centre is the Crab Pulsar: a rapidly spinning neutron star.

Supernova aftermath: neutron stars

Neutron stars have magnetic fields so strong that they could rip you apart atom by atom, and they spin hundreds of times per second. If you’ve ever seen a spinning figure skater pull in their arms to spin faster you’ll understand why. All stars spin, and when you crush one down to the size of a city, you end up with some serious RPMs. The intense, spinning magnetic fields produce beams of radio waves that shine out from the neutron star like a hyperactive lighthouse. When the path of those beams lines up with the earth, the neutron star appears as a pulsing beacon to our radio telescopes: a pulsar.

Neutron stars make an appearance in Mass Effect as a source for element zero: “Eezo is generated when solid matter, such as a planet, is affected by the energy of a star going supernova. The material is common in the asteroid debris that orbits neutron stars and pulsars. These are dangerous places to mine, requiring extensive use of robotics, telepresence, and shielding to survive the intense radiation from the dead star.” — Mass Effect Wiki

Mass Effect‘s element zero is fictional, of course, but neutron stars are among the weirdest places in the universe, so it makes sense for them to be the location for such a weird element. You can’t actually mine on a neutron star. The gravity would crush you. The magnetic fields would rip you apart. The blistering temperatures would vaporize you. But it is accurate that there is debris around neutron stars. In fact, the first planets ever discovered around another star were around the neutron star with the poetic name PSR B1257+12! With all of the radioactive elements produced in the supernova and the deadly radiation from the neutron star, it’s true that a neutron star planet would be an extremely nasty place to work, but it is at least more feasible to mine than the actual surface of the neutron star.


Artist’s rendition of planets orbiting a neutron star.

Final stop: Black Holes

If the star was really big, then there is no force in the universe strong enough to stop the collapse, and it just goes on forever forming a singularity: a point of infinite density. To escape from the singularity you would have to go faster than the speed of light, which is not possible. In other words, you have yourself a black hole. Black holes are one of the frontiers of physics: Einstein’s theory of general relativity does a great job for most of the universe, but inside a black hole it begins to break down.

Even out where we can explain the physics with relativity, the results can be really weird. The gravity around a black hole is so strong that it distorts space and time. If you were watching someone falling into one, you would see their clock slowing down until it appeared to stop, but you would never actually see them fall in past the event horizon! They would disappear, but only because the light that they are emitting would be shifted to longer and longer wavelengths by the intense gravity. The person falling into the black hole wouldn’t notice anything different about their clocks, and they would pass right through the event horizon without noticing their time slowing down. Of course, long before that happened the tides would shred them into a stream of atoms (a process called “spaghettification”) so it’s sort of a moot point.

Black holes get a bad rap as cosmic vacuum cleaners, relentlessly sucking up anything in their path, but they don’t actually increase in gravity compared to the original star. If the sun were to somehow instantly turn into a black hole today, all the planets would continue to orbit normally. The mass would still be the same, so we wouldn’t suddenly go spiraling down the drain.

Even though black holes by definition don’t give off any light, stuff falling into a black hole certainly does. As a black hole eats a star, the gases form a disk around the black hole, and as the gasses in the disk move past one another, friction heats the disk up to millions of degrees so that it shines as a blindingly bright x-ray source.

Black holes are always popular in games since they are so weird and destructive. In Mass Effect, Adepts can sling singularities that are like miniature black holes. These singularities lift enemies (and anything else) into orbit, causing damage and making them vulnerable to other attacks.

In theory, small black holes can be created by smashing matter together with enough force to cause it to collapse into a singularity. In the real world, this is only possible in particle accelerators and the resulting black hole would be subatomic in size. A weird property of black holes is that they can “evaporate” by giving off particles of Hawking radiation. Smaller black holes evaporate faster, so tiny subatomic black holes would immediately disintegrate in a shower of other particles.

In the Mass Effect universe, the ability to manipulate the mass of objects makes it more plausible to form small but non-microscopic black holes. To have the effect seen in the game, the mass of the black hole would have to be much larger than the mass of a person. The black holes produced by Adepts would still be really nasty sources of radiation, disintegrating really quickly, but it’s much more fun to send your enemies into orbit than to give them acute radiation poisoning.

It’s also common for games to use black holes as entrances to “worm holes” in space/time, thus allowing faster-than-light travel. For example in Spore, you can hop from place to place in the galaxy using black holes. The problem with this is that, even if black holes were the entrance to some sort of space-time tunnel (there’s no evidence that this is true, and for worm holes to be stable you would need exotic matter with negative mass), you still have the minor problem of surviving a trip through a black hole.

***

Final remarks

There’s no doubt that, as gamers get more sophisticated, more and more effort is being poured into games to make them smarter. Often it seems like there must be a tradeoff between good gameplay and good science, but in the right context (and in the right doses), real science can be incorporated into video games, making them more believable while also inspiring innovative gameplay.

Ryan Anderson is part of the science team behind the Mars Rover “Curiosity” and Science Media Consultant at Thwacke! Consulting. For more, follow @ThwackeMontreal on Twitter.

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23rd Jun 2012

World Joyland: The Warcraft/Starcraft-themed amusement park

They’ve also built enormous gaming and technology RD facilities on the park premises, including the National E-Sports Competition Center(!!!), International Anime-and-Game Expo Pavilion, Anime-and-Game Technology and Derivatives RD Park, and a Digital Technology High-end Professionals Training Center.

According to their promotional video (see below) China wants World Joyland to compete with the likes of Universal Studios and Disney! They don’t bother to address the logistical and legal issues involved with exporting such a shanzhai-tastic park, though, without going completely broke from legitimately licensing the project.

Because they obviously didn’t purchase the rights to use characters and names from Blizzard, the Warcraft park is instead “Terrain of Magic” and Starcraft is humorously mislabeled the “Universe of Starship.”

The sheer size of the park left some of us wishing we’d done more research before our visit. We missed entirely, for example, the giant theater near the entrance that was likely screening the terrifying fire-breathing underwater/space monster show being promoted on Joyland’s many posters around Changzhou.

After hitting the restrooms and traipsing through Taobao street, we hung a left and entered World of Magic. Park maps are available at the entrance, and except for the section titles, are entirely in Chinese. We set our sights on what looked like the largest things on the map, and made our way in that direction.

Terrain of Magic (a.k.a Warcraft world)

No doubt about it, one of the most entertaining aspects of the park is the sign boards in front of each attraction. They include huhlarious descriptions, in both English and Chinese, followed by a rating system using one of three indexes: Splendor Index, Happiness Index, and Thrill Index (no damage index). Here’s an example from the first attraction:

With thousand years of unstopped war, this place is forbidden to losers and cowards. We are looking forward to a hero to bring back peace with his sword!
Spendor Index: *****

Unfortunately that ride was closed, particularly disappointing because the map makes it look like a giant battleground. Idk, maybes we have to L2p b4 going in.

We couldn’t help but imagine finding groups of aimless people waiting outside rides looking to join a raid. Or giant microphones blasting agitated youths cursing one another, or costumed dwarves screaming LEEEEROY JENKINSSS at 15 minute-intervals throughout the park.

Our first ride was an exciting little number called Splash of Monster Blood, and they’re not kidding about the splash. We’ll just say this much: trying to act cool by refusing the buy a sky blue poncho on your way in is a giant n00b stamp.

The ride was, as its sign board attests, a “beast-bloody journey” (a.k.a. your standard amusement park log ride affair.) After clicking and chugging up a tunnel full of orcs and monsters, you are then plunged down into water that manages somehow to smash you from both the front and the back simultaneously. Sadly, this was not the wettest part of the ride. You are then squirted by multiple streams of water, which we later found out are aimed by demonic lookers-on who fill water-gun machines with coins to spray you.

Ride attendants in the Warcraft park were forced/delighted to be wearing what appeared to be glorified bam-bam outfits of brown and leopard-print spandex.

You can buy fake battle swords and Minnie Mouse hair bows, respectively, from the merch carts. Sword ran us 20rmb (about $3.50), Minnie ears about the same. One may be tempted to ravish the big-breasted elves and mer-women statues with one’s sword, but be prepared to face a judgmental “dude, there are kids” from your companions.

By the way, there are a LOT of kids.

The most impressive part of the Warcraft park are the enormous statues lining your park experience with massive copyright infringement written all over their faces. There’s no horde/alliance distinction however, and tauren/night elves/humans are strewn about with seeming abandon. They throw in mermaids and dragons for good measure.

Universe of Starship (a.k.a Starcraft world)

The transition from Warcraft World into Starcraft world was noticeable in the color palate. Everything changed from brown/orange/red to blue/yellow/white.

We saw a total of two other foreigners in the park, and barely more Chinese. We couldn’t imagine why it wasn’t packed on a summer weekend afternoon, but we also didn’t care because the longest we had to wait was 20-25 minutes for any ride, including the big-name roller coaster.

In fact, the best rides in the park often seemed the least populated, which was probably because most of the park guests were children, and locals in general tend to prefer the boring rides.

The main attraction of the park is a big blue inverted rollercoaster, aptly named the Sky Scraper but misspelled as the Sky Scrapper on its signboard. Amusement park rides are a dangerous affair in China, and we weren’t entirely sure we’d come back from this one alive. But we did, and have the photos to prove it.

One of the most disturbing parts of the park was the general decay we witnessed, unnerving in a park open only a hair shy of two months. Cracks in paint and rust on handrails made the attendants’ habit of screaming “Goodbye!” as the roller coaster surged out of the gates even more terrifying.

The other big attraction in Starcraft world is the Wrath of Ratheon, one of those drop tower rides that we skipped because every park has one.

Lastly, we walked into the largest, most overpowering unit at the center of Starship Universe to see what the 4D theater was all about. By far our longest wait, we were surrounded by oodles of teenage girls, which we don’t have time for because we’re busy farming XP, DUH! We were picturing the aforementioned fire-blasting sea monster posters 4D extravaganza, but instead got a boring Star Wars Episode I pod racer knock off ride. The 4D chairs jiggle you around enough to make the girls scream bloody murder, but it was a totally uninspiring experience in general. EXCEPT for the safety instructional video on the way in, where a ninja tells you not to smoke or get pregnant or tear off your shirt and get drunk:

The park is open from 9am to 10pm, but if you want that much time in the park you’ll have to arrange for your own transportation. In fact, if you have more than three or four people, hiring a car could actually be cheaper than the 160RMB roundtrip on trains each. Directions here.

The Idea of Joyland video via MIC Gadget (and yes, that is in game music from WoW you’re hearing):

“Mystical, transcendental, amazing, passionate”:

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