This is my informal, uninvited rant for the week of GDC 2011. A few months ago, I signed on to serve as a technical editor on a book project being undertaken by two of my favorite game designers. In order to help them on their way, I scrawled an early form of this article on a napkin. This isn’t meant to lambast any one book in particular; rather, it should be taken as a broad diagnosis of what happens when one begins a book with the idea of writing about games-in-general, perhaps with the goal of authoring a text that will be “foundational” to the field.
First, select your “-ism.” Google your “-ism” plus “games” to make sure nobody else has used this “-ism” already. If they have, and it’s the only “-ism” you’re familiar with, just find a synonym or portmanteau. This will define your entire project. It’s important that you’re absolutely in love with the way you write about your “-ism.” You don’t have any clue what your readership might be, so get a name from another field to write on the back of your book that you are “essential reading for anyone studying games.” Another viable strategy is to write about “Games and X,” with X being a bad paraphrasing of three or four thoughts from an old/dead white dude.
Open with World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is to game studies what Heart of Darkness was to your AP Literature exam in high school: it’s the perfect example no matter your “-ism.” Lay on us the existence of gold farming and the fact that Azeroth’s economy feeds into our own right away, because that’s heavy as all get out. Be sure to forget the difference between classes and races when you gloss “things you can play as.” Be sure to mention the number of hours you’ve logged in Azeroth; everyone will be impressed, really.
If you have to mention earlier MMOs, just say something about Everquest widows. This will serve as your segue into the topic of problem gaming. If you’re writing about game development ethics and practices, you can combine the subject of Everquest widows and EA Spouse into a subchapter titled “Widows and Spouses.” Pretend MUDs never existed, because otherwise you’d have to actually read something by Bartle post-“Players Who Suit MUDs.”
Within your first 20 pages, you’re going to need to type the names “Jenkins” and “Bogost.” Next, you need to find some kind of ridiculous reason to disagree with them, because they are the establishment, and you hate having to type their names. Popular choices include attacks against fandom for the former and claims of neoliberalism for the latter. Quotes from Raph Koster should be considered mandatory. But don’t talk about Chris Crawford, because then you’ll never finish your book.
Unless otherwise noted, these are the games you are allowed to write about: Halo, Grand Theft Auto (just pretend Grand Theft Auto III is where the series started and stopped), Civilization, Doom, Zelda, Mario, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and September 12th. No other game deserves more than one sentence (non-compound).
If you’re a male writer, cite vague feminist concern about both the game industry and gender representation in mainstream games. But, whatever you do, don’t acknowledge the vital contributions of female academics and designers including Flanagan, Taylor, Consalvo, Pearce, Brathwaite, Anthropy, or Laurel (and on and on). Instead, just copy-paste some ethnographic survey numbers. The older these numbers are, the better. Or, make some up: “.06% of female fetuses played Gears of War vicariously through their mothers in 2009.” Be creative.
Do mention Murray, though, because everyone loves Tetris. And because, if you don’t mention her, she will eventually find you, roll her eyes, and shrug.
Just pretend that fighting games and shooting games are the same kind of simulated violence. And only use examples from the latter, because none of your reviewers have any idea how fighting games work. Find some egregious quotes from over-caffeinated suits at a major publisher, to show how despicable action games really are. Then mention that the U.S. Military uses shooting games for recruitment and training, because nothing the U.S. Military has ever used or created could be seen as good in any way by anybody. If you talk about competitive gaming at all, pretend that it only exists in Korea. That way, you can derail the discussion with a rehash on problem gaming in PC bangs (they smoke cigarettes in those places!).
When in doubt, “Me-high Chick-sent-me-high.”
If you’re a neo-Marxist, certainly include a throwaway quote from Galloway. But don’t, under any circumstance, cite Wark. In contrast to his radical, expressive prose and brilliant digital peering scheme, the Word document that only you and your editor will ever see becomes unbearably depressing. If you were Ivy League-educated, be sure to disdain the upper middle class as constantly as possible. That will show daddy who’s boss now.
Inconsistent referencing is a must. Include hundreds of meaningless quotations from Nintendo and Sony representatives, preferably taken from the New York Times or Wired, to get your readers as hot and bothered about videogames as possible. But, when you make broad claims about how games work and what people do with them, don’t cite anybody. Especially not another academic.
At some point, you’re going to feel tempted to talk about how computers work. This is going to be a disaster if you try to go into any detail whatsoever. Instead, your mantra here should be “Moore’s Law.” Just type it out a few times, then scribble something about “artificial intelligence” and “graphics and audio” in between. You will need to mention that, at one point, computers used to fill entire rooms.
Woah, just think about it for a second. Woah.
Moore’s Law is actually an inverse metaphor for your entire project, because you’re essentially spinning a page-length abstract’s worth of new contributions into 200 pages.
You have to decide which Will Wright game to “critique.” Go with Sims if you’re looking for a wide readership. But if you’re writing this book about videogames primarily for nerds, do Sim City. Don’t even think about analyzing Spore if you’re valorizing hackers or modders anywhere in your book, because then you’d have to admit that most hackers, modders, and user-gen creators care almost exclusively about stuffing phalluses into every game possible.
Try not to normalize your spelling of common terms. For example, within any given page you should include all of these: “digital games,” “computer games,” “digital computer games,” “video games,” “videogames,” “games,” “hardcore,” “hard core,” and “hard-core.” Use the words “mechanics,” “rules,” and “features” interchangeably.
Finish with a note on your optimism for the future of indie game development.
Just kidding, you’ve never played an indie game. Go with ARGs instead.
My first review for Kill Screen is going up soon; it’s about Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy. I play it a lot these days. There are also these two older columns that I never got around to linking:
1) why Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a better western game than Red Dead Redemption – “When a Bell Tolls”
2) why Call of Duty games need the infinite enemy spawn – “Popping Smoke”
I just read this late-90s text on contemporary art, and it actually used the term “Internet web.”
If you hadn’t already noticed, I’m not making any attempt to recoup this blog as a space for original writing. I’ve got an upcoming regular gig at another games crit site, so, no harm.
Two exciting things today.
The Flourish is my ultra-short conversation piece for the In Media Res digital curation project’s “Gaming” week. It’s about Tokido and the rhetoric of fairness in sport. Special thank to Brandon Amato of Georgia State for the invitation and the editing.
Over at Game Design Advance, there’s an Another Castle podcast with me kicking off the second season. I talk about how I got into game studies, how we wrote the newsgames book, and why I want to study competitive gaming.
The book that I co-wrote with Ian and Bobby is now shipping from Amazon and MIT Press. I hope that the Kindle version will become available soon, because I know a few of you iPad users have renounced the printed word forever or whatever and love the idea of zooming in on my beautiful words with your grubby fingers.
Many thanks to everyone who has already purchased the book and to the people who helped make it all happen.
For those of you who are on the fence about the book and don’t find the back cover description entirely enlightening, some of the book’s first chapter can be read in this excerpt published by The Atlantic. As always, our blog contains many early arguments and stories that formed the core of the book (just search posts by category).
If you’d like to interview me, Ian, or Bobby about the book for your own website, podcast, or publication, just send me an email or leave me your contact info in the comments.
EDIT: As Michel notes in the comments below, the physical copy of this book is incredibly sexy. If you can’t tell from the picture: the dust cover is fused to the canvas cover of the book on the inside and for most of the exterior. The only exception is at the spine. This avoids the problem of having to choose between ruining the dust cover or removing it completely and looking like a pretentious ass.
(a minimally parodic “interpretive note” on Lunenfeld’s “Unfinished Business,” for media theory class)
I’m always depressed when I read old essays valorizing MUDs (or MOOs). It’s almost as depressing as reading about the unfulfilled future of hypertext, but I didn’t have a stake in hypertext. I spent six years of my life playing a MUD called Achaea. To this day, it remains the most martially and socially complex game I’ve ever played. It was essentially a MOO, but the “orbs of creation” were only held by players who’d ascended to divinity (and thus had become paid administrators and creators).
I got my hands on an OOC once, when I was Guildmaster of the Druids. We druids were custodians of the forests, and we were always having problems with arsonists, infernals, and occultists. The latter two could eat the hearts of their fallen enemies to fuel their demonic “essence,” but it was easier for them just to kill plants. Rogue druids, overcome by greed to control the market for salves and potions, would often overharvest plants and kill them. It was our greatest concern that some of the more rare plants of the world, the ones that couldn’t be easily purchased from NPC merchants, might at some point become extinct.
I used the orb of creation to build a garden in our guildhouse, locked by a key without any copies. In the event of a catastrophic over-harvesting, I’d be able to re-plant an endangered plant from my secret crop. This never happened, so even I didn’t visit the place. Soon after I stopped playing, the guildhouse was destroyed. I can’t even remember if I handed off the key to the guy who replaced me. I don’t know if anyone else ever saw my elaborate room descriptions or floorplan.
For Peter Lunenfeld, MOOs represented the hope for a future aesthetic of unfinish. In his essay, “Unfinished Business,” Lunenfeld described how the Internet would cause great changes in how we think of space, narrative, and time. We’d come to embrace a kind of digital derive, exploring cyberspace without end or direction, bringing back stories to tell. And creators would replace product with process. Works of art and information would be in a never-ending flux of possibility. Some of them, like MOOs, would be configurable (Aarseth’s term) by any and all users.
One species of unfinish that Lunenfeld derided was the cross-media release of Johnny Mnemonic. For him, it typified a bad breed of unfinished narrative that had replaced story with character. The goal of these synergistic media packages was nothing more than continued economic gain. Today, Johnny Mnemonic is par for the course. It’s what we call a “transmedia strategy,” and it’s super hot right now. People get paid to talk about how it’s the future, even though what they really mean is that it’s the present. And it’s an exciting present.
Process has also replaced product in journalism. When people say things like, “journalism is dead,” they really mean that product journalism is dead. Product journalism is what newspapers made. Millions of years ago, product journalism gave rise to a profession called “journalism,” which had a set of values including, but not limited to: verification, objectivity, and transparency. Now that profession is dead, because it turned out that citizens can do journalism. And many of them will do it for free, which means that we don’t need to pay people who pretend to belong to a dead profession.
Process journalism is what the blogs do. It’s when you take a bit of information from an email one of your friends sent you and publish it as the news. If you’re a “tech blogger,” you spend a lot of your time deciding what product press releases to publish on the hour. Your readership expects you to say something funny about these press releases, because the Internet is for humor and the news. News is about what you should spend your money on and how many “troops” died today in a country we know nothing about.
The idea behind process journalism is that the news is always unfinished. Product journalists were always putting all this work into their articles, pretending that they knew what was actually going on. They treated the news like it was something static. But we know now that everything is dynamic. Super dynamic. So if we publish something that’s wrong, we can just edit it later. Sometimes our readers know more than we do, so we take the information they give us, insert it into our articles, and then delete their comments without so much as a thank you. Unlike journalism, blogging doesn’t pretend to be a profession; it’s an intermediate step between unemployment and working in the videogame industry.
Videogames are also unfinished business now. If you spend four years of your life making a videogame on a disc, it’s just going to get ripped by a twelve-year old in Eastern Europe and distributed for free on the Internet. To counteract this, we now typically spend a little less than a month to make a videogame. Videogames are now primarily referred to as “social games.” We hire a bunch of business school dropout kids to design the things, because they’re the experts on how to “gamify” things that are boring. Gamification is when you add experience levels to everything. Gamifying something doesn’t make it less boring; it just makes it into a game.
These social games, because we only spent a month or so to make them, are pretty damn unfinished. Once a game doesn’t break as soon as we turn it on, we release something called a “minimum viable product.” Then we get bored house-wives, -husbands, and office drones to test the game for us for free. After another month of MVP, games enter a perpetual state of “open beta.” Beta means “unfinished business.” The goal of a game in open beta is to pull as much money from stupid, desperate human beings as possible. Some of these people will leave other unfinished business, like taking care of their children, to focus on our unfinished business.
Peter Lunenfeld also thought that virtual worlds would redefine architecture, but we now know that virtual worlds are “so yesterday.” He also hoped that the aesthetic of unfinish would somehow elongate time, helping us to one day escape our own mortality. But, really, all we’re doing is helping people ignore it. The final frontier of humankind is a -ville.
IndieCade finalists have been announced here.
Messhof was robbed. No, literally, I stole his skateboard. SEND HIM MONEY.
There are videos of all of them all on one Internet, courtesy of Dejobaan.
I am proud to have been a juror this year.
I am excited to be on this schedule, with all of these sexy people I respect.
Even if they gave us the buffer period after the through-midnight period of drinking/awards.
I will be talking about The Molleindustria. The Molleindustria will be in attendance. TOUCH HIS HAIR.
//ARTGAME SESSIONS, October 9, 10:00am-11:00am//
Artgame Sessions takes the position that game designers use game design and its mechanics, player goals and thematic premises are a form of expression in the same way painters use line, color and form to express themselves. The core of games — interactivity — provides an experience and a point of view. Through a series of four short talks, audience members will come to understand some of the motivations and goals of the artgame movement. These presentations will not be made by the developers themselves. Instead, other game-makers and academics will examine the developers’ approaches to making artgames and the play experiences they provide.
Naomi Clark, Simon Ferrari, Charles Pratt, John Sharp
BRING THE SPICE
The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of “newsgames” — videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.
The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.
Read the rest of the post here at MediaShift Idea Lab.
September is here, so I’m back at school with plenty of exciting goings-on to share.
In mid-August I left my internship at area/code. The project I worked on most of the summer as a designer should be going into open beta soon, so I’ll post a link to it and share my postmortem when that happens. As it was a social game, I’ve spent most of my summer playing and thinking about social games. I attended the seminar at NYU where my academic mentor announced his critique of the form with Cow Clicker, and I listened to my game design mentor discuss his problems with and hopes for the genre on NPR. But I don’t know if I’m any closer to having a concrete opinion of them other than that I really don’t want to think about them anymore.
I now consider living and working in New York for a summer to be an absolute requirement for any aspiring game designer or academic. Frank Lantz and area/code act as a kind of magnet for game developers in the area. I spent most of my summer drinking, arguing, and playing Super Street Fighter IV with Mark Heggen and Kevin Cancienne of area/code, Charles Pratt, Rachel Morris, and Noah Sasso, C.J. Kershner of Kaos Studios, Ramiro Corbetta of Powerhead Games, and Andy Nealen of Hemisphere Games. New York is also filled with design teachers, like Eric Zimmerman and Colleen Macklin, who bring an unfettered exuberance to the study of games that you don’t see from many academics.
A few great folks left the city while I was there, but, according to Frank, “they’ll be back”: Mark Essen is building a game design program at UCLA, Scott Anderson moved to the Phoenix indie cluster to finish Shadow Physics, and Jesper Juul went back to Scandinavia to have a baby or something. The amount of learning and friendship I developed over this short period of time is unmatched by any other experience I’ve had since the beginning of my game studies.
With the impending confirmation of the NYU Game Center as a degree-granting body, and with the recent (totally deserved) attention lavished on the efforts of Babycastles to create a DIY arcade for the city, New York will likely be the Mecca for indie game development in the near future. I have mixed feelings about this, because I’m not entirely sure that I want the same LA/NY divide observed in the film industry to occur in the game industry. To that end, I’ll be writing a lot of nonsense this year about the need for Southern indie development along the Atlanta-Austin axis.
This semester I’m officially beginning as a digital media PhD student in the LCC department at Georgia Tech. I only have to take two classes, Media Theory and Culture & Cognition seminars, but I’ll be posting my writing assignments from those for anybody who’s interested. My personal research will likely revolve around the literacy, philosophy, and society of competitive gaming. To that end, I’ll be joining a competitive Halo Reach clan and hopefully attending e-sports tournaments (holler at me if you know anybody decent who’d like the idea of recruiting a soldier-ethnographer).
This semester also marks the beginning of a new phase of newsgames research. Ian Bogost’s studio here at Tech has partnered with the expressive intelligence studio at UC Santa Cruz (run by Michael Mateas of Façade fame) to work on an AI designed to convert local news stories into editorial games. We’ll be starting the News Games blog up again with the new crop of Master’s students here, focusing on our usual newsgame critique, deep readings of the graphical logics of arcade games, and local media issues. I’ll also be writing bi-monthly updates on the project at the PBS Idea Lab blog.
I haven’t scheduled all my conferences for the year, but at the moment I know of a few that I’ll be attending. At IndieCade I’ll be part of the artgames seminar along with Charles Pratt, Naomi Clark, and John Sharp. IndieCade also coincides with Brandon Boyer’s birthday, so you should probably be there. Ian, Bobby, and I will be at SEIGE, the Grace Hopper conference, and FutureMedia Fest to talk about our research and the Newsgames book (which releases in a month or so). I’m also planning on attending GDC for my first time this year, but I don’t yet know how I’m going to fund it.
I’ll be rebooting Rules of the Game in the coming weeks with less of an emphasis on reviews, and I’m going to try posting the notes I write while playing the games I play on this blog before developing them into full articles. When the Another Castle podcast comes back from its summer vacation, the first two interviews of the new season will be with me and Andy Nealen. I’ve also got a piece in the next issue of Kill Screen, my first attempt at pure games journalism. So much writing to do, and so much time do it: this is a nice place to be in. Thanks for reading!