The COI have recently published a draft of their browser guidelines for anyone developing a public sector website.

Frankly, I’m very unimpressed; they’re dangerous, vague in certain areas and over-specific in others, and promote some terrible ideas. I’d urge any designer or developer with an interest in this area to download the document and read it – it’s really not very long – and then leave feedback on the document with the COI through the appropriate form. The public have been asked for responses, and we have the scope to respond; if you feel as strongly about what’s in the document as I do, I hope that you will.

My own response follows.

As a web development professional, I’m very unimpressed with this consultation document, and would go as far as to suggest that some elements of it are actively harmful.

I appreciate the attempt to codify the need for effective browser-compatibility for all public sector websites. That said, the manner in which the document suggests which browsers to test is very poor.

All browsers are different, even though the HTML and XHTML specs remain the same. The purpose of browser-testing is not to ensure that sites look identical in all browsers; the purpose is to ensure that the site is usable in all browsers.

As such, lists of browsers to be tested in are dangerous; the best we can aspire to is to write good, valid code that is functional in all browsers, and priortise appearance for the most modern browsers.

I take exception to the notion that the browsers to be tested on are those which have >2% share of visits on a website. 2% of hits on a very popular public-sector website might account for a sizeable proportion of users, and to exclude them (especially if the lack of testing in their browsers leads to impared functionality) could well contravene the Disabilities Discrimination Act. Also, note that these statistics are not necessarily accurate, and may contain spoofed or inaccurate user data.

Going beyond the 2% hurdle, it would not be feasible to test in all browsers. The best solution is probably a form of graded browser support, much as Yahoo recommends, which itself is reviewed and updated over time, and which guarantees a minimum functionality in certain families of browsers, full support in others, and makes it clear which browsers simply are not supported. Browsers do not cost money; they are not complex tools to install, and developers should not be limited simply because a certain percentage of users on their website continue to user Internet Explorer 5.

Browser support should not be a series of boxes to check off, and it should not be specified retroactively based upon current users; it should be based upon accurate specifications and usage patterns, to ensure that public sector websites – many of which already have high production costs – are sustainable, maintainable, and functional for years to come.

As such, this preliminary draft has a long way to go before it accurately represents the state of web usage, not to mention web development, in 2008.

  • "This week’s 1UP FM is a fascinating round table/interview with Jonathan Blow, David Hellman, Rod Humble, and Sean Elliott and Nick Suttner from 1UP… If you’re at all interested in Braid, experimental game design, or the ethics of games you should go listen now." In the meantime, Ben Zeigler has provided some excellent annotation for us all.
  • "Over the last few years, there has been a big shift in power and success away from independent studios, and towards in-house, publisher-owned studios. This has been driven by several things, sound economic reasons, competitive reasons, and because the strong independent studios had done a good job at creating a slew of new IPs (which publishers were eager to snap up, as always). In my experience relatively few people in the games industry realise this… So, what’s next? What’s going to happen over the next 3-5 years?" Adam on the business of the games industry, and what's facing it next.

Robin Bharaj – A1 Bassline

09 September 2008

Robin Bharaj is one of my favourite photographers on Flickr. If you’re not aware of him, consider this a wake-up call. He shoots music photography, mainly, almost entirely comprised of medium format film (both colour and black and white) portraits. His recent set of pictures of A1 Bassline are some my favourites of his to date; I’ve embedded them below, and preserved their square format, as it only seemed appropriate.

You can view more of his work on Flickr, and he also has a Myspace presence. Thoroughly recommended.

A few small changes

09 September 2008

A small tweak to the blog’s design – updating the way comments looked. Ever since this design premiered, I’d been meaning to tidy them up, but never got around to it until today. No idea why it took so long – 10 minutes of sketching and 20 minutes of code was all it took to get there. Anyhow, they now look like this, with gravatars and slightly-better-spacing and all. Feels a little more finished, for the time being.

On Braid and Bullshit

07 September 2008

A quick note: this post is long, and it’s been a lot of work just to bring it down to some kind of coherent structure and size. It perhaps could have been better as a series of posts, but for now, this is the form it takes. I hope, despite the length, that you enjoy it. Shorter content is forthcoming…

I love Braid. It’s a remarkable game that I’m enjoying playing a lot; it’s a game I love to talk about to both gamers and non-gamers; and it’s a game that is always yielding up new insights and interpretations the more I play it. And most importantly, you have to do more than just talk: it’s a game that only really reveals itself through the act of play. Which is, you could say, how all games should be, but it’s still impressive how much Braid concentrates into its mechanics.

Because of the potential for insight it offers, there’s been a lot written about it since its release, and as the amount of writing on Braid grew, I realised that I was growing dissatisifed with much of it, and that I needed to articulate why.

The starting point for this post was a long, invovled forum thread on rllmuk about the story of Braid, which presented a long, coherent (if at times a little sketchy) interpretation of the game as being about the Atomic Bomb.

What frustrated me was the way the author of the post presented it. He began like so:

Braid is a story that focuses on the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, and the irreversible impact it had on all human conflicts thereafter. At the very same time, it deals with the very human story of a relationship breaking down due to one person’s obsessive need to control this power. Finally, at certain points, the perspective of the bomb creator as a child comes through.

As I said: it’s an interesting reading. The commenter has clearly taken a long, careful look at the game, and come to an interesting conclusion. But why does he have to frame it as a solid, single interpretation?

A few posts later, the rllmuk commenter admitted that the unsubtlety of his phrasing was deliberate:

It’s also the absolute proof, if ever such a thing was needed that something like Braid can be any number of things; stylistically, a homage to 2D platformers of old, the play on the hero/princess stories we’ve been sold any number of times over the years, the take on jealously and obsession… I presented my argument the way that I did because it’s the one angle that I don’t think has been commented on yet, and I’m of the opinion that there is sufficient evidence to support it.

This assuaged a lot of my fear – I think, if anything, he pressed on with his take on things even when his reasoning was sketchy precisely in order to illustrate the many ways the game can be read. All credit to him for that.

I’m still playing Braid, but the one thing I’m pretty convinced by is that it’s about more than one “thing”. There’s more than one sensical and valid reading of it, and it supports many that the author may not have originally intended.

(Beyond that, I’m also convinced of two things: firstly, that wherever the game itself takes place, the world “Tim” lives in is our world, not the world he platforms through, and secondly, that Tim plays videogames.)

I’m tired of games criticsm being so cut-and-dry; so focused on what things are about, rather than what they could mean. We’re not so blinkered in our criticism of any other medium, so why do we have to be like this with games? There’s a nice story, wrapped up in that RLLMUK thread – first I’m frustrated with the tone, but everything turns out alright in the end, as the author’s tone is revealed to be another kind of artifice.

Anyhow, like I said, it got me thinking about the way we currently criticise games.

Then, a few weeks ago, Jonathan Blow (who can unarguably be described as Braid’s “creator”) did an interview with the Onion AV Club, and for the first time, he said something that rubbed me the wrong way. Blow is obviously a smart chap, and he has a lot of excellent things to say about games, and what they can be. Until the release of Braid, a lot of this could only be seen as talk, but now he has a platform to stand on – the game itself, released into the world – and it’s exciting to see someone deliver on their promise of an attempt at change: the game espouses his points itself without any illustration.

But I kept returning to that interview, and the passages that rubbed me the wrong way, and I realised that lot of it was about the nature of criticism (not just games criticism, but criticism itself) and that I had to write about it now or lose it forever.

I don’t want this post to be a Fisking of Blow’s interview, because he says a lot of interesting things in it, and I agree with quite a few of them – but it’s the first time he’s said things that I disagree with at a very fundamental level. And it all began with this statement:

I was a double-major in Computer Science and English. And English at Berkeley, where I went to school, is very much creatively-driven. Basically, the entire bachelor’s degree in English is all about bullshitting. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about.

This is not what I discovered throughout my degree in English literature (and I’m going to assume that by “English” Blow means the study of literature and its criticism, rather than “creative writing”, as it were). The one thing I learned pretty fast is that the last thing criticism is about is bullshitting. I got away with some heinous bullshit as a secondary school pupil, but believe me, my supervisors forced that out of me pretty fast, and I began to learn how to write my own criticism – rather than a condensation of that of others – that stands on its own and, crucially, shows that I know what I’m talking about.

What Blow is describing is a problem I’ve seen many times before, though: the difficulty of engaging with criticism.

Continue reading this post…