Tracey Lien - Action Journalist
First published in December 2013 on Polygon
Four-year-old Riley Maida stands in a toy aisle of a department store in Newburgh, N.Y. The backdrop is pink. The shelves behind her are stacked with plastic babies in pink onesies. To her left are hair-and-makeup dolls with exaggerated heads attached to truncated shoulders. The shelf above has rows of little dresses and pastel pink slippers. The shelf above that, more pink dolls in more pink dresses.

In the next aisle, there's a distinct absence of pink. This is the "boys aisle." Lined with Nerf guns, G.I. Joes, superhero figures, building blocks and toy cars, it has a diverse color palette of blues, greens, oranges and reds.

Maida looks down the aisle of pink. Arms akimbo, the cherubic 4-year-old with brunette bangs furrows her brow. She looks into her father's camera and begins a rant that will go viral on the internet and make its way onto television networks like CNN and ABC.


"Would it be fair for all the girls to buy princesses and the boys to buy superheroes?" she says, smacking her right hand to her head in exasperation. "Girls want superheroes AND the boys want superheroes!"

She points her index finger and shakes her hand at the pink boxes around her. Occasionally jumbling her words while giving her impassioned speech, she questions why boys and girls need separate toy aisles and why some toys are designated for one gender and not the other. Boys and girls can both like pink, she says. Why do companies have to make boys and girls think that they can only like certain things? Palm open, she hits her right hand on the top of one of the boxes to emphasize her point.

A few aisles over, in the video game section, there is a similar marketing story that Maida has yet to learn. Unlike in the toy aisles, she won't find an expansive selection of video games for boys and an equally expansive selection for girls. Most "girls' sections," if they exist, are lined with fitness titles and Ubisoft's simplified career simulation series, Imagine, which lets players pretend they're doctors, teachers, gymnasts and babysitters.

As for the boys section — there isn't one. Everything else is for boys.

If the selection at the average retailer is anything to go by, girls don't play video games. If cultural stereotypes are anything to go by, video games are for males. They're the makers, the buyers and the players.

There is often truth to stereotypes. But whatever truth there may be, the stereotype does not show the long and complicated path taken to formulate it, spread it and have it come back to shape societal views.

The stereotype, for example, does not explain why "girls don't play video games." It does not reveal who or what is responsible for it. It does not explain how an industry that started with games like Pong (1972) or the first computer version of Tic-Tac-Toe (1959) came to be responsible for a medium that, for most of its history, hasn't had even an aisle's worth of games for Maida.

Toy aisles are explicit in their gender divide. Clear signage indicates which toys are for boys, and which are for girls. In the video game section, there is little overt exclusion. It's a slower molding of our expectations over time.

Maida might not understand this right away. She hasn't even gotten to the video game aisle yet. But standing among the dolls in their pink tutus, face scrunched up and hands slapping her sides, she's starting in the right place. She's asking the most important question: "Why?"
No Girls Allowed

First published in February 2012 on New Matilda
The king tides washing over the islands of the Torres Strait are becoming more severe and locals are increasingly worried about their impact, writes Tracey Lien.

"The island was further away than it is today."

Francis Pearson stands on a beach on Coconut Island, one of the 274 islands in the Torres Strait, 17 of which have permanent settlements. In a video produced by the Torres Strait Climate group, Pearson speaks to the camera, pointing out that the island's beach used to stretch much further than it does today.

"We've experienced big loss here on our island, we've lost most of this beach, we've been worried we're going to lose this road here," he says, looking around at a thin strip of beach that remains. The road behind him has clearly taken a pounding from waves and shows signs of erosion.

"How can we stop this?" he asks.

The people of the Torres Strait have been documenting the recent king tides that have swept through their villages. There's video footage and photographs showing flood-like conditions in populated villages, of homes and schools inundated with water, of children playing in the street when the tide has risen to knee-level. This didn't always happen, and residents are worried.
The Rising Tides Of The Torres Strait [Part 1]

First published in February 2012 on New Matilda
As the tides rise higher and higher in the Torres Strait, are sea walls enough to protect communities? Tracey Lien looks at what steps are being taken against the king tides.

This is the second of a two-part series by Tracey Lien on the rising tides of the Torres Strait.

In 2011, the Torres Strait received $22 million in funding from the federal government to build sea walls. Federal Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch described this as a step towards helping the Torres Strait deal with the impacts of climate change.

The bill, passed in August, ensured that the money would be committed to assist in protecting the island communities from rising sea levels.

"There is substantial evidence of continued flooding on the outer islands due to king tides, and the success of having this motion accepted will ensured that we don't see this beautiful part of the Torres Strait devastated again," Entsch said back in August.

So what is a sea wall and is it the solution to the Torres Strait's climate change problems?

In the case of the Torres Strait, sea walls are structures (often made of concrete) that are strategically built on parts of an island, often on the beach, to stop water from flowing in and inundating parts of an island during particularly high tides. A number of islands in the Torres Strait have been identified as being the most affected and being very vulnerable to inundation.

O'Neill says that while certain communities in the Torres Strait do have sea walls in place, most were built in the 1970s and have begin falling apart.
How Do You Stop A King Tide? [Part 2]

First published in October 2012 on Polygon
In the world of video games and entertainment any kind of publicity is often seen as a boon. But it was publicity that ultimately prevented New York-based game developer Navid Khonsari from returning to his homeland.

Late one night last year, the Iranian-born game developer received an unexpected call from an uncle who had just returned from Iran. Unlike his usual calls, this wasn't an update telling Khonsari how his family in Iran was doing or how he enjoyed the trip. Instead, it was about the video game Khonsari was making. Khonsari's game, 1979, tells the story of the Iranian hostage crisis that took place in the same year. A government-run newspaper in Iran, Kayhan, somehow found out about it. The paper labelled it Western propaganda. If the news got into the hands of the wrong people, his uncle told him, it could spell trouble for both him and his family.

His uncle's message was clear: Khonsari couldn't safely return to Iran.

Stories like Khonsari's have come to dominate Western perception of video games and the Middle East: It's all too political, nothing can get made, and a foot in the wrong direction can mean trouble. Relations between the United States and Iran have spent decades on shaky ground, leaving both countries suspicious of each other and the games their developers make. Government-imposed trade sanctions and ongoing political conflict have served as effective roadblocks for the people of both territories – Western publishers, for instance, can't enter Iran, Iranian games seldom make it out of the country.

Little is known about game development in the region, and what is known is often miscommunicated. But the political strife, and locked-down nature of playing and making games in the area is far from the day-to-day reality for game developers there. A burgeoning game development scene is erupting in the region, one that is far more complex than the snippets of news that rarely escape the Middle East.
The stressful life of Middle Eastern game developers and the reality of their craft

First published in February 2013 on Polygon
The stark white walls of the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum in Seoul, Korea are familiar with the sound of adults speaking in hushed tones. They're familiar with the gentle footsteps of gallerygoers, of the carefully considered "umm"s, "aah"s and "hmm"s of art lovers and the composure of those who understand they have walked into a fine art establishment.
On a mild spring day in 2010, these walls are greeted with something less familiar: giggling. The sound of children chatting, laughing and animatedly giggling at the gallery's paintings. The schoolchildren have come to see a retrospective of Roger Dean's work. Their teachers have explained ahead of time who he is — his decades-long contribution to the world of architecture, his famous album cover art for rock bands, his powerful box art for video games — but it means little to them. They're too young to appreciate what Dean did for rock music and games. They just want to see the pictures.

Roger Dean's paintings light up the gallery space with vibrant colors that pop like balloons. His eclectic mix of paintings and architecture range from the fantastic to the futuristic, with some subjects that sit eerily in between. The children stare and grin. They excitedly point at paintings — a dragon soaring through a crisp blue sky, a lush green island floating in the air, robots that look like a cross between reptiles and armor.

Dean wanders the gallery, watching his audience watch his work. He has no idea what any of them are saying, but he can tell they are happy. The adults almost fall into the paintings. The children smile. Their cheery voices bounce from wall to wall.

Arms akimbo, Roger Dean beams. The smiles and stares are no happy accident. Dean knows why his work gets the response that it does.
The art outside the box: The story of Roger Dean

First published in August 2012 on Polygon
Adam Saltsman has run a full marathon. That's 42,195 meters. In Canabalt, the 2009 endless runner that brought Saltsman to independent game design prominence, such a distance is considered an impressive achievement that would eclipse all the current scores on the game's leaderboard. The furthest Saltsman has run in his own game? 12,000 meters.

"I can actually run further in real life than in a game, which seems kind of backwards," he says over lunch during this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

I meet up with Saltsman a few hours before he is due to give a talk about indie game development. Dressed in flip-flops and a hoodie, the Austin-based developer is laid-back, animated, and pretty chuffed about having completed a marathon.

"This was my first one," he says, proud that he conquered such a distance in five hours and 20 minutes (in Canabalt, a player can, on average, run 1,000 meters in 22.5 seconds; this means that a Canabalt marathon could be run in 15 minutes 45 seconds).
How running a marathon inspired Canabalt\'s creator

First published in August 2012 on Polygon
A rotund corgi - well groomed, adequately fluffy, perfectly pudgy - gently tugs on its leash as its owner walks it down Townsend Street in San Francisco. The corgi's feet make hacky-sack sounds as they flop against the ground; its owner, dressed in jeans and a hoodie, makes a turn into a building located at number 650.

Over the course of the day almost 2,000 individuals - mostly laid back 20-30 somethings, some with corgis, some with mixed-breed canines, and the odd person with a cat (who we shall not speak of) - will pass through the doors of 650 Townsend Street, an enormous four-story office that occupies an entire block in the district south of Market Street.

The brick building is home to Zynga, the world's largest game developer on Facebook. Its games boast more than 300 million monthly active users. It claims its players are performing one million in-game activities every second, and more than 55 million people from all around the world play at least one of Zynga's games every day. It has the market capital to rival some of the biggest video game publishers in the industry and flat out dwarf most traditional publishers that have been around for much longer.

Whether the corgis know it or not, their owners are making games that are played by millions and rake in billions. And they're not alone.
The secret sauce of social games

First published in July 2012 on Polygon
The crowd is going insane. People are leaping into the air as though the floor is charged with electricity, screaming, yelling, cheering like they're about to burst. On the stage, Ryan Hart finds himself buried under lively bodies that aren't sure if they want to hug him, kiss him, or plunge a hand into his afro before never washing it again. He reaches out an arm to shake his opponent's hand, but he can't see where he's reaching; there are too many people on top of him. If one more person from the crowd jumps in, this could get dangerous.

Moments earlier, the stage was occupied only by London-born Hart and Japan's most well-known Street Fighter player, Daigo Umehara. No one dared come close. No one dared touch either of them. The two fighting game players were poised with the focus of fighter jet pilots. The buttons were their triggers, their decisions the result of a tangled web of calculations that few could understand. The crowd watched intently, sometimes forgetting to breathe. They watched as the fighter pilots of Street Fighter 4 performed the most complicated of air acrobatics, one-upping each other until someone stumbled and a jet came crashing.

That day, in London, Ryan Hart (pictured, below middle) outperformed and outmaneuvered his top-ranked Eastern opponent on home soil. That day, the UK won a kind of fighting game Olympics. Their very own had beaten a player everyone thought to be unbeatable. The crowd erupted. Everyone went wild. The world was electric.
Fighting to the top

First published in issue #197 of HYPER Magazine
Red Ant was on a high. The videogame and DVD distributor that had only been set up in 2001 by entrepreneur Julian White had, within the space of a year, transformed itself from being a speck in the vast gaming ocean into a force to be reckoned with. It was a small but rapidly growing business, securing contracts to distribute blockbuster gaming titles that were not only highly anticipated by the Australian market, but also guaranteed to bring in millions in profits.

“We were the Titanic,” said a former product manager at Red Ant who wished to not be named.

“We had the biggest publishers, we had the biggest games, and everybody in this industry had all of a sudden changed their perception of Red Ant and people started to pay attention. People were ringing us and started hassling us instead of the other way around,” he said.

Like the Titanic, Red Ant did appear to be unsinkable. The independent Australian distributor had just come off the back of the success of Fallout 3, a science-fiction epic that took out numerous Game of the Year awards and became a household gaming staple. They had just signed a series of lucrative contracts with some of the largest game publishers in the world and were preparing to distribute a range of high profile titles that everyone anticipated would bring them yet more critical and commercial success for the year to come.

With an energetic and passionate team working behind the scenes, an enormous rise in their game’s sales and the promise of many more on the horizon, Red Ant’s future looked watertight. However, in September of 2008, Red Ant sprung a leak that would ultimately lead to its downfall.
The Rise and Fallout of Red Ant

First published in The Sun Herald and the SMH Online April 2011
Tattoo removal creams bought over the internet can result in scarring, ugly marks and in some cases can be totally ineffective, doctors warn.

People looking for cheaper ways to remove tattoos than laser therapy or surgical removal are driving sales of the creams, which cost between $80 for a small tube and $300 for a year's supply.

But experts warn that the creams, some of which contain the bleaching chemical hydroquinone or the skin-peeling trichloroacetic acid, may not meet Australian standards for health and beauty products and can end up costing much more than professional removal.


Anti-ink creams fail the test

First published in issue #122 of Atomic MPC
In the studio of Sid Meier’s Firaxis Games, the development team behind Civilization V is spending the day analysing the mannerisms of Augustus Caesar. They’re sifting through research documents about the Roman leader’s life and character, discussing potential voice actors, and thinking of ways to capture his leadership in Civilization V’s full scenes. They’ll do this for every leader who appears in the game, painstakingly trawling through the annals of history to make sure they get it right.

Meanwhile, over at Matrix Games, the developers working on a strategy title about the American Civil War have found themselves walking along an old battlefield, noting terrain features, getting a feel for the roads and obstructions, and imagining where the hex-lines would be drawn if the field were to be turned into a game map.

It seems like an awful lot of work, but the developers behind these history games feel that it’s well worth it, if not to simply indulge their passion in history then to satisfy an audience that has kept the genre alive and healthy since its inception.
History Never Repeats...

First published in issue #10 of PixelHunt
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, award winning music producer David Bendeth, who has worked with the likes of Paramore and Hawthorne Heights, said that music was getting louder, and mostly for the worse. He explained that sound engineers were making songs louder to catch our attention by applying dynamic range compression to reduce the difference between the loudest and softest note in a song. This, he argued, was robbing music of its emotional power, obscuring sonic detail, and removing any real sense of dynamic.

While Bendeth was talking about music, his words couldn’t be more applicable to Ninja Blade. An unabashedly over-the-top action-adventure, Ninja Blade has had its outrageous meter cranked up to 11 – and that’s where it stays the whole time. Players step into the silent shoes of a ninja named Ken, whose role is to slice and dice the inhabitants of Tokyo who have been infected by the mutant-inducing Alpha Worm, and the gory action never ends. There isn’t a moment to breathe and actually realise where you are or what you’re dealing with – you’ve just found yourself in a world of grotesque mutants and your character acts like it’s normal. Well, it isn’t. The game even shows us it isn’t in the opening cut-scenes. WHO IS THIS NINJA TRYING TO FOOL?
Review: Ninja Blade