Kids and Games – Inspired by Penny Arcade

I like video games. Not just in the sense of spending a few hours a week playing them, but the development and design of them, their history in popular culture, and the unique ways the medium allows us to experience new places and characters like nothing before.

I’m also a parent with a daughter I love dearly. Which, as you can imagine, can create friction between the two interests. Kari loves video games too. We play Minecraft together – exploring caves and looking for diamonds and avoiding monsters. She knows what kind of games she can play – and why she can’t watch dad play his more mature games.

I’m lucky, I grew up with a Gameboy in my hands and had supportive parents that looked over my shoulder every once in a while. Some parents didn’t. I know folks whose first interaction with video games was via the unrelenting requests of their children to buy the latest Sega Super Mega Ultra Station 2000 for Christmas.

I was inspired by Mike Krahulik from Penny Arcade and decided to reach out to my daughter’s principal to see what I could do to help educate other parents on video games. Below is the email I sent to her this evening. If you’re an adult who cares about young people growing up in a positive gaming culture I urge you to do something. Communication and education is far more powerful than talking heads and fear mongering.

Dr. Vogelsang,

I’m Chris and my daughter, Kari Koerner, is in Ms. Parker’s 1st grade class.

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about video games in mainstream media. Katie Couric just did an hour-long piece that, while she has good intentions, makes video games look like something the devil came up with. Here’s a good retort if you’re familiar with the piece. The whole thing is a bit crazy and like most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

I want to talk to other parents and teachers about video games. Not some boring 45 slide PowerPoint, but an honest chat with literal examples of what games are really like, how to find games that are appropriate, and how to guide our children to the right games, in the right context, at the right time.

This past March my family traveled to Boston for Spring break. Kari, Jackie and I went to a convention called Penny Arcade Expo or PAX for short. It’s a huge gathering of 70,000 gaming nerds from all walks of life. People who love board games, Dungeons & Dragons, card games, classic video games and yes, even the modern blockbuster titles we hear about in the news. People traveled thousands of miles to see new games and hang out with people who share the same interests. And you know what? It was the most amazing group of kind, interesting people I’ve ever met.

The guys who started PAX are behind a webcomic called Penny Arcade. It’s a series that is always mature and sometimes offensive, but spares no victim in being brutally honest about video games and the culture that surrounds them. They are very outspoken on issues such as this and just this morning posted an article about an idea they had. You can read it here (Warning: strong language). The gist, if you don’t wish to read it yourself, is that one way we can help is to educate other adults on the ins-and-outs of video games. They inspired me to reach out to you to see what I can do for Bowles and the Rockwood School District.

It’s awesome to be a nerd and I’d like to share my knowledge and enthusiasm with other parents and teachers. I threw together a rough outline that I hope might give an overview of what we’d talk about.

  • Explain what ESRB ratings mean. Show them how to use these ratings to determine appropriate purchases (There’s also a free and pretty awesome ESRB app for smartphones).
  • Demo some recent games of various ESRB Rating Levels.
  • Show what it’s like to play certain games (walk through a level from a couple different games).
  • Talk about hand-held gaming like Nintendo DS and Apple iPads. These systems too have very mature games (like Resident Evil) alongside Mario and Pokemon.
  • Talk about online gaming, like Xbox Live. What will kids hear when playing with anonymous strangers.
  • Talk about parental restrictions. All systems released in the past 7 years have some from of parental restrictions, many associated with the ESRB ratings.
  • Talk about social pressures. Kids want to be popular and included.
  • Talk about what impact parents can have on other children when they visit their house (to play video games).
  • Talk about how to educate other parents in a polite manner about video games, the ESRB and the implications of inappropriate gaming.

Let me know what you think. I’d love to grab lunch and chat if you’re up to it. If you have any ideas of a potential opportunity to get a group of interested parents/teachers in a room I’m all for putting something together.

Chris Koerner

All your Facebook Friends are Photographers and That’s OK

I saw this question/rant on Reddit the other day that perturbed me enough to write a long-ish response.

The gist is that people who buy a DSLR and start taking on paying gigs aren’t photographers. Or at least they rubbed against the grain of the OP (Original Poster).

I disagree, and in fact this kind of rhetoric appears far too frequently in the few photography communities I participate in.

My reply:

The levels of skill in photography are many. I imagine it’s daunting to someone who’s never used a camera (much less a DSLR, in manual mode, editing raw, with multiple lenses, flash/strobe, etc etc.) to understand what goes into taking a good photograph. There’s the obvious technical know how, but also the aesthetic eye for good composition.

Now, that said, to be someone who takes photographs better than 99% of the population takes a small elevation in skill. A very small but noticeable blip. You take a class or two, pick up a few books, buy some nice kit, practice, practice practice. Bam, you’re now able to have a few photos that look better than most people could ever imagine taking. Now you’re better than most people you’ll ever know.

To go from the folks you’re describing to say Ansel Adams or Annie Liebovitz level of quality is many, many blips of improvement.

For most of us here, we’ve got a few blips – gained a few levels. Some more than others. But to most people we’re all lumped in a category of “Are you a wizard ?” when it comes to this stuff. And frankly, it’s hard for a non-photographer to see who’s a newbie starting out and who’s been doing this for 20 years.

You use the word worse, which has negative connotation. In the words of a man with a few more blips than I, True professionals don’t fear amateurs.

Being a professional is more about showing up and doing a job than having the best skills or resources. You can accomplish more with a great work ethic, networking and producingsomething. If these people are getting work, great. If they’re learning, even better! Are they making things ‘worse’? Cheapening the ‘art of photography’? Pfffttttt. They show up, they take photos better than most people could and they get paid.

Everyone has to start somewhere. It’s those that stick with something that improve – themselves, their work, their community, the art form, et al. – that are the folks to admire and encourage. Being frustrated, worrying about the negative potential is useless. It’s a windmill to ignore.

Instead I say help them, encourage them. Be a good mentor (as you mentioned doing) and help elevate anyone willing to show up and put in the work. Not enough people do that, and instead post silly stuff like this, that I feel worsens our collective attitude to those that share a similar interest.

tl:dr; It’s late and I should go to bed.


Since writing that, I have thought more about this.  Anyone can be a professional photographer. As with every skill and industry, there’s always going to be a great gradation in the quality, skill and, proliferation of work. Some people you might find on Facebook or Craigslist – or even people recommended to you! – might totally suck. But not starting, not putting yourself out there? That’s what worries me.

More people should pick up a camera and see what they can do with it1. If they get a paying gig, great! If they do a bad job? Well that would suck. But like I state in my reply, even a low quality photographer is better than most people. And people are willing to pay and admire those with skills they lack.

So what happens to ‘bad’ photographers? I would like to believe that they will get better. We need more bold people to try than people who never try at all.

I encourage you to take a look at the full conversation over on Reddit. There’s some interesting dialog and viewpoints. If you have your own thoughts, please share them.

  1. This applies to all trades/professions. More people should try making and doing things with their own hands.

Big Data, Mining, and (Musical) Recommendation Engines

As a side project in my free time I’m helping a small business setup an e-commerce store front. One of the things we’ve discussed is the idea of a recommendation engine to suggest other items to purchase. This lead down an Internet rabbit hole where I ended up reading about The Echo Nest.
The Echo Nest is a self-described “music intelligence platform that synthesizes billions of data points and transforms it into musical understanding.“. It is widely herald as one of the largest and most comprehensive uses of data mining (to find the language and culture around music across the web) and big data (to store and present those relationships) within the music recommendation industry.
Yes! There is an industry. A substantial one. Apple’s Genius feature in iTunes, Pandora,, Spotify – all are trying to provide relevant music based upon your listening tastes. Why? So you’ll buy more music of course!
Brian Whitman, one of the co-founders of The Echo Nest, talks in great length about the how and why behind what makes their product so unique – and so incredibly accurate. I won’t steal the thunder of the article, but needless to say, dedication and refinement are key.
This is totally sausage-making, behind-the-scenes stuff, but I encourage you to at least look it over.
Ok, so now the really fun stuff. Here’s something called The Infinite Jukebox. It uses some of the data points within the Echo Nest to create a version of a given song that never ends. It uses references within a song that are similar to other points within the song, makes some minor adjustments when needed (like tempo) and then plays the song forever. The presentation is neat as well, you can view the branches within the song where things loop and even click around the song to find points where things can loop.

At work we’re looking at ways of using the topics of big data, mining, and recommendation engines to provide better healthcare. Reading about The Echo Nest gives me some ideas on how these technologies could impact the care we give! If you have your own ideas or suggestions, please leave a note below.


I’m getting this off my chest as a parent and citizen. I grew up around guns and those that favor them as a thing to own.
1. Getting help for mental issues should not make people, especially men, feel ostracized.
2. These services should be abundant and readily available.
3. No one should say “not my problem” when introduced to individuals who visibly need help.
4. Assault rifles are unnecessary for civilians. This is 2012, not the 1700’s. The tyranny of any government is a self-induced fantasy.
5. The argument that we need guns to protect us from our democratically elected government is absurd. Even an assault rifle is useless against jets, missiles, rockets, etc. You might as well argue we should be able to strap those to our trucks, cause you know THE EVIL GOVERNMENT.
6. You’re right, signs don’t stop criminals from doing crazy things. Neither does gun locks, the cost of bullets, gun laws or a society that encourages violence and fear to perpetuate the celebrity of asshats that do stuff like this.
7. You know what does help? Removing access to portable metal contraptions whose sole purpose is the killing of living things. Make it as hard as PHYSICALLY possible for people.
8. You know you don’t need that gun. You just want it to be cool and live out some lame male Rambo fantasy of being a badass – knowing, of course, that truthfully our lives are more safe and predictable than any other time in human history.