End of year blog note 2022

There have been many nice things in this year, 2022, even though it feels that it has run really fast. Our Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies was operating in full speed, featuring great events like the GameBooks, the game studies spring seminar 2022. The mid-point evaluation of the CoE took place after the fourth year, and we prepared for it carefully. The efforts were rewarded, and the Academy of Finland international review panel gave us outstanding marks on the quality, impact and exceptional scope of our operations. We were awarded with funding for the latter CoE period with glowing marks.

Another big reason for party was that 2022 was also the 20th Anniversary of our Game Research Lab. We started in 2022 when we both initiated a bunch of important game research projects, publications, and also organised the Computer Games and Digital Cultures (CGDC 2002) conference. This was also where I advertised the initiative to establish DiGRA, Digital Games Research Association, which was officially added into the Registry of Associations in 2003 – another reason to have a 20th Anniversary!

Personally, I have continued to be engaged as the professor in the master’s degree program of Game Studies as well as in our doctoral program. I have also continued to work in the editorial board of Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja (the Finnish Yearbook of Game Studies, the only peer-evaluated publication dedicated to games research in Finnish language). I published a historical and discipline-analytical article about “Game Studies” in the Encyclopedia of Ludic Terms, and also collaborated with Jani Kinnunen and the research assistant Milla Tuomela on the eight Pelaajabarometri (the Finnish Player Barometer survey 2022). There were many people who completed their PhD in game studies, and you can read six “lectios” (public doctoral defence talks) from the Yearbook of Game Studies alone (by Usva Friman, Tero Karttula, Jani Kinnunen, Heidi Rautalahti, Matilda Ståhl and Maria Ruotsalainen). Congratulations to all new doctors!

In even more personal note, I moved to use Apple’s Mac computers as my primary work and personal tools this year, after decades of mostly Windows PC usage. I have been pretty happy with the transition, particularly as the integration with my iPhone and iPad works so well – I have always access to the data and images I need. The user experiences provided by MacOS, iPadOS and iOS are pretty good, the Mac has the best trackpad and gesture control of all computer systems, and iPad Pro has been getting better in multitasking, even if it still has its limitations. But I have not given up other operating systems and hardware ecosystems completely: e.g., this blog post is written under Linux with my HP Elitebook (I just love the typing experience of its keyboard), and in our household, we continue to have several Windows PCs, as the support for gaming is still best in the PC. My family is full with serious gamers (I am the most casual one) and there are multiple things related to graphics cards, operating system updates, various game services, local home networking etc. that I sometimes need to deal with, as the local IT support guy. But I am happy that my family seems to love gaming with Nintendo Switch, as that console needs very little IT support – it just runs fine those Pokémon and Zelda games.

I have also continued my nature and bird photography hobby pretty actively – it provided me with a reason to go out walking and getting some fresh air daily, even if I have scaled down my ambitions with rare species a bit. I noticed that counting the species I had photographed turned the nature and art oriented activity into some kind of competition and gaming exercise. Today, I am happy to try evolving my photography skills with any, even the most common birds, animals, insects and landscapes I encounter and have access to, without extra stress.

There was also the sad day, when we lost Matti, my father, after a long and difficult illness. His funeral was in early December in Helsinki.

By the way, this blog was started in March 2004, and while social media has taken over most of the discussion, sharing and commenting functions already for the past decade at least, I like the leisurely style of reflective writing too much to let this site die. There is still more than a year to the day when I’ll write the 20th Anniversary blog post! (Btw, I needed to get away from the toxic mess that Twitter had become, so I replaced that site with a new profile in the distributed, non-commercial Mastodon network. I also remain pretty active in Facebook, of all places.)

Here are a few photos, at the end of the year – have an excellent New Year 2023!

Switching to NVMe SSD

Samsung 970 EVO Plus NVMe M.2 SSD (image credit: Samsung).

I made a significant upgrade to my main gaming and home workstation in Christmas 2015. That setup is soon thus four years old, and there are certainly some areas where the age is starting to show. The new generations of processors, system memory chips and particularly the graphics adapters are all significantly faster and more capable these days. For example, my GeForce GTX 970 card is now two generations behind the current state-of-the-art graphics adapters; NVIDIA’s current RTX cards are based on the new “Turing” architecture that is e.g. capable of much more advanced ray tracing calculations than the previous generations of consumer graphics cards. What this means in practice is that rather than just applying pre-generated textures to different objects and parts of the simulated scenery, the ray tracing graphics attempts to simulate how actual rays of light would bounce and create shadows and reflections in this virtual scene. Doing this kind of calculations in real-time for millions of light rays in an action-filled game scene is an extremely computationally intensive thing, and the new cards are packed with billions of transistors, in multiple specialised processor cores. You can have a closer look at this technology, with some video samples e.g. from here: https://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/what-is-ray-tracing/ .

I will probably update my graphics card, but only a little later. I am not a great fan of 3D action games to start with, and my home computing bottlenecks are increasingly in other areas. I have been actively pursuing my photography hobby, and with the new mirrorless camera (EOS M50) moving to using the full potentials of RAW file formats and Adobe Lightroom post-processing. With photo collection sizes growing into multiple hundreds of thousands, and the file size of each RAW photo (and it’s various-resolution previews) growing larger, it is the disk, memory and speed of reading and writing all that information that matters most now.

The small update that I made this summer was focused on speeding up the entire system, and the disk I/O in particular. I got Samsung 970 EVO Plus NVMe M.2 SSD (1 Tb size) as the new system disk (for more info, see here: https://www.samsung.com/semiconductor/minisite/ssd/product/consumer/970evoplus/). The interesting part here is that “NVMe” technology. That stands for “Non-Volatile Memory” express interface for solid stage memory devices like SSD disks. This new NVMe disk looks though nothing like my old hard drives: the entire terabyte-size disk is physically just a small add-on circuit board, which fits into the tiny M.2 connector in the motherboard (technically via a PCI Express 3.0 interface). The entire complex of physical and logical interface and connector standards involved here is frankly a pretty terrible mess to figure out, but I was just happy to notice that the ASUS motherboard (Z170-P) which I had bought in December 2015 was future-proof enough to come with a M.2 connector which supports “x4 PCI Express 3.0 bandwidth”, which is apparently another way of saying that it has NVMe support.

I was actually a bit nervous when I proceeded to install the Samsung 970 EVO Plus NVMe into the M.2 slot. At first I updated the motherboard firmware to the latest version, then unplugged and opened the PC. The physical installation of the tiny M.2 chip actually became one of the trickiest parts of the entire operation. The tiny slot is in an awkward, tight spot in the motherboard, so I had to remove some cables and the graphics card just to get my hands into it. And the single screw that is needed to fix the chip in place is not one of the regular screws that are used for computer case installations. Instead, this is a tiny “micro-screw” which is very hard to find. Luckily I finally located my original Z170-P sales box, and there it was: the small plastic pack with a tiny mounting bolt and the microscopic screw. I had kept the box in my storage shelves all these years, without even noticing the small plastic bag and tiny screws in the first place (I read from the Internet that there are plenty of others who have thrown the screw away with the packaging, and then later been forced to order a replacement from ASUS).

There are some settings that are needed to set up in BIOS to get the NVMe drive running. I’ll copy the steps that I followed below, in case they are useful for some others (please follow them only with your own risk – and, btw, you need to start by creating the Windows 10 installation USB media from the Microsoft site, and by pluggin that in before trying to reboot and enter the BIOS settings):

In your bios in Advanced Setup. Click the Advanced tab then, PCH Storage Configuration

Verify SATA controller is set to – Enabled
Set SATA Mode to – RAID

Go back one screen then, select Onboard Device Configuration.

Set SATA Mode Configuration to – SATA Express

Go back one screen. Click on the Boot tab then, scroll down the page to CSM. Click on it to go to next screen.

Set Launch CSM to – Disabled
Set Boot Device Control to – UEFI only
Boot from Network devices can be anything.
Set Boot from Storage Devices to – UEFI only
Set Boot from PCI-E PCI Expansion Devices to – UEFI only

Go back one screen. Click on Secure Boot to go to next screen.

Set Secure Boot state to – Disabled
Set OS Type to – Windows UEFI mode

Go back one screen. Look for Boot Option Priorities – Boot Option 1. Click on the down arrow in the outlined box to the right and look for your flash drive. It should be preceded by UEFI, (example UEFI Sandisk Cruzer). Select it so that it appears in this box.
(Source: https://rog.asus.com/forum/showthread.php?106842-Required-bios-settings-for-Samsung-970-evo-Nvme-M-2-SSD)

Though, in my case if you put “Launch CSM” to “Disabled”, then the following settings in that section actually vanish from the BIOS interface. Your mileage may vary? I just backspaced at that point, made the next steps first, then made the “Launch CSM” disable step, and then proceeded further.

Another interesting part is how to partition and format the SSD and other disks in one’s system. There are plenty of websites and discussions around related to this. I noticed that Windows 10 will place some partitions to other (not so fast) disks if those are physically connected during the first installation round. So, it took me a few Windows re-installations to actually get the boot order, partitions and disks organised to my liking. But when everything was finally set up and running, the benchmark reported that my workstation speed had been upgraded the “UFO” level, so I suppose everything was worth it, in the end.

Part of the quiet and snappy, effective performance of my system after this installation can of course be just due to the clean Windows installation in itself. Four years of use with all kinds of software and driver installations can clutter the system so that it does not run reliably or smoothly, regardless of the underlying hardware. I also took the opportunity to physically clean the PC inside-out thoroughly, fix all loose and rattling components, organise cables neatly, etc. After closing the covers, setting the PC case back to its place, and plugging in a sharp, 4K monitor and a new keyboard (Logitech K470 this time), and installing just a few essential pieces of software, it was pleasure to notice how fast everything now starts and responds, and how cool the entire PC is running according to the system temperature sensor data.

Cool summer, everyone!

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