a journal of play

At the station. He pushes through sweat and steam toward the train. Destination: as far as his money will take him. When he arrives, he knows, more chaos will be there to greet him. Until then, a reprieve, and the soothing illusion of progress through movement.


At the station. He pushes through sweat and steam toward the train. Destination: as far as his money will take him. When he arrives, he knows, more chaos will be there to greet him. Until then, a reprieve, and the soothing illusion of progress through movement.

(Source: howswaldo)

Mutant Poetics

With a Brief Digression On the Use of “Train” in MMO Vernacular

I frequently dabble in the study of mutant poetics.  What is the nature and extent of this idiosyncratic study, you might ask?  I hazard that it’s somewhat related to the field of neologism, the propagation of new words and the recognition thereof.  Mutant poetics, however, is not an historicism, nor does it seek to reify and codify the success stories that go on to enter what Ferdinand de Saussure, the seminal Swiss linguist, would call “le langue.”  While certain French organizations seek to maintain the purity of the language and the admittedly indispensable OED serves as a discreet authority of English, I prefer to root around in the muck of parole, speech in its concrete utterance.  If I might be permitted to hypothesize on a point difficult to empirically validate, as is my wont, I propose: we live in an age of unparalleled flourishing of that verbal fauna doomed to become terminal branches on the tree of memetic evolution.  We happy humans buzz about with meme-pollen on our fuzzy thoraxes, but not every meme propagates; the value of certain ideas stems from a combination of familiarity and context or even their very novelty, and by their nature are not long for this world or the marbled hallways of official language.

Fortunately, value is not determined by immortality—a short-lived word has the temporal preciousness of a cut flower.  MMORPGs are a particularly rich garden; their argot is shaped by the demands of lazy, concise typing and situations that are repetitive within a virtual environment but largely unique outside of it.  A few years ago, their mechanics were much more arcane and cooperation was based almost entirely on sloppy spurts of typing.  But the mechanics that give rise to many of those new words fall away as the state of the art moves on.

Last night, I encountered one such word (that I thought was on its last legs) in Realm of the Mad God: “train.”  As a concept in MMOs, train has been analyzed and introduced by T.L. Taylor.[1. Excerpt available here.]  In the halcyon days of my newbiehood, I had many opportunities to be crushed by errant trains and even conducted a few in my day.  You see, the developers of EverQuest didn’t believe in the sort of segregated-by-level/experience/power that dominates current spatial design.  No, Verant et. al were perfectly okay with putting the MMO equivalent of a day-care playground, with tender level 1s killing rats, right down the street from a wood-chipping machine of supermonsters capable of turning high-level avatars into a fine mist.  Tragicomedy ensued.

[caption id=”attachment_254” align=”alignnone” width=”500” caption=”Train wreck at Montparnasse (1895) — my grandmother had a print of this image with the caption “OH SHIT!” a common sentiment among victims of its digital homonym.”][/caption]

The other thing you need to realize is that every mob in EverQuest, once angered, is a relentless killing machine that will chase you over mountains, through a dungeon, a maze—anywhere, really, until one of you is dead or you reach a loading zone.  They don’t need line of sight, hearing,  plausible knowledge of the zone or where you’ve gone—they just know where you are, and they will run through their outrageously bad pathfinding until they find you.[2. Personally, I was a big fan of Crushbone when I played.  It had the added feature of areas where you could pick up aggro from a mob, but not actually see that you had, and the mob would take anywhere from five minutes to two hours to show up to the party, which was generally at the time most likely to either wipe your group or start a train.]  It’s like James Cameron turned down a Terminator MMO and Verant just reskinned everything.  If a group pulled more than they could handle,  there was no choice but for everyone to haul ass back to the zone before they got killed.  Since the difficulty of monsters increased with the distance from the zone point in most areas, this meant that any time the highest level players bit off more than they could chew, their retreat turned into a train of monsters that could cut a swathe of hurt butts & XP penalties through lower-level players in a matter of moments.

The proper Ms. Manners etiquette approach was to have a zone-wide yell script set up announcing the impending doom processional.  Popular variants included phrases like “CHOO CHOO, TRAIN’S A-COMIN’” & “HOLY FUCKING SHIT GET TO ZONE”.  Of course, the primary goal of a train conductor[3. Unless the train is being conducted by the greatest troll to ever play the game.]  is not to get run down by the train behind him/her, so the announcements often came too late to be of much use, or not at all.  Vengeful players occasionally organized counter-trains to settle the score of particularly bad trains.  Regardless, trains were a constant source of bitter acrimony, strife, and dramatic arguments aired publicly.

Let us consider the connotative brilliance of the adoption of the term “train” to describe this behavior.  The spatial/descriptive metaphor of the locomotive is clear, but in the pornographically drenched psychic valence of the internet, the typical hardcore trope of hirsute gentlemen “running a train” on an actress resounds in the subconscious.  Indeed, it is an appropriate description of the affective state of a player who hears about a train: the grim feeling that a Conga line of orcs, skeletons, or other such nasty creatures is gleefully and ceaselessly charging across the zone filled with an insatiable desire to have vigorous and nonconsensual group sexual relations with your avatar.

Modern MMO design has done much to destroy the delightful opportunities for hatred, mutual distrust, and extreme paranoia by largely doing away with relentless pursuit.  When I played World of WarCraft, almost all monsters outside of instances would get bored chasing you after a hundred yards or so and give up.  But even without relentless pursuit, trains are still occasionally possible.

Last night I was attempting some oppositional/critical play in Realm of the Mad God, an awesome co-op bullet hell permadeath MMO.  Since the game allows you to gain from experience from any deaths that happen within a certain area, regardless of whether you participated in killing them, I decided to try some pacifist leech playthroughs, where I just followed around other people and let them do all the killing.  A good distance into this playthrough, I teleported into a group of high level players sitting around a summoning stone.  I assumed this is what the late-game looked like, and hung around leeching XP from the monsters that spawned.  During one particularly long stretch of nothing happening, I decided to investigate the red dots on my map.  I strolled out of sight and ran directly into a Slime God.  It immediately hosed me down with massive amounts of damage & I nearly died in the first second or so.  I ran away, picking up a host of additional monsters while furiously mashing the heal button.  In a blind panic, I ran back to the summoning stone, massive train in tow.

I think the idea was that the gaggle of high level players would quickly take care of the mean sons of bitches chasing me.  Instead they took one look at the train and scattered.  But I guess not everyone was at their keyboard, because a few seconds later three tombstones were sitting around the summoning stone.  I was responsible for three high level characters being permadead.  A beat passed.  I looked down at the chat screen as it began furiously scrolling:

omfg not again

I shed a quiet tear, filled with a mixture of regret (“Those wizards are dead because of me”) and nostalgia.  And then I logged off before they figured out it was me.

A Kissing Game for Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Unless you’re being a punk about it.  I hear a lot of “boo hoo” sour grapes “Hallmark holiday” talk, mostly from your average single type.  So often this devolves into the standard vulgar Marxist critique of Valentine’s Day: “I’m not going to participate in a cultural activity because PEOPLE WANT TO MAKE MONEY OFF OF THE WAY I FEEL.”

Yo, I’m not trying to bum y’all out, but if you’re reading this on the internet from a Western country, welcome to every other day in your life too, bitter  singletons!  Maybe it’s just the societal pressure to pair off with a heteronormative reproductive specimen? Listen, we homo sapiens have doubtlessly been doing that since woolly mammoth steaks were all the rage. Valentine’s Day is crassly commercialized and makes single people feel like they’re doing something wrong.  It’s a fallen world we live in, kids; if everyone was as much of a damn prude as I hear them pretend to be on Valentine’s Day we’d be still be nasty little prokaryotic amoebas splitting in half in some mucky ditch.

I might be taking this rather personally.  Observe, if you will, my own birthday: November 14th.  Do some quick math, cogitate upon the profundity of the 9-month human gestation cycle.  As it happens, Valentine’s Day is also my parents’ anniversary.  My parents were hoping to have a baby for a decade before I came along, and I would not be typing at you today if it weren’t for the magic of Valentine’s Day.  Cupid is my homeboy.

[caption id=”attachment_238” align=”alignnone” width=”500” caption=”William-Adolphe Bouguereau - “The Wasp’s Nest” (1892)”]William-Adolphe Bouguereau—Cupiditas color manipulation Tommy Rousse[/caption]

But Cupid is basically just a fat baby with wings.  How’s he supposed to cope with all these haters?  Roger Caillois, one of the progenitors of game studies and a legendary Gallic lady-killer,[1. Unsubstantiated bullshit, sorry.] might point us in the right direction:

It should not be forgotten that worse than the cheat is the one who disdains or refuses to play, ridiculing the rules or exposing their vanity. … Nothing is more destructive of culture than these “wet blankets,” who are skeptics and doubters. They like to smile at everything, naively believing that they thus affirm their superiority.  Through vanity, they only cause injury to a precious treasure that was accumulated at the cost of infinite pains.  At least they might be iconoclastic and sacreligious enough in establishing in their turn the rules of a new game

-Man & the Sacred (1960)

Thus I propose casting out into the world a game in service of Cupid, in league with the carnivalesque, in the spirit of profane illumination, that our Valentine’s Day wet blanket singletons might embrace the holiday via a new game and strike a blow against the bloodless chaff of commodified affection.  All you need is a dark & hidden place (woods, graveyards, attics), blindfolds, and a bottle or some other spinning implement.[2. If you weren’t already planning on brushing your teeth, this game probably isn’t for you.] The game is just a variant of the ubiquitous adolescent rite of passage Spin the Bottle, but a small mechanical change significantly alters the emotional range it provokes.


  • All players sit in a circle.  No one is allowed to simply observe; non-participants must be cast from the magic circle. Ideally, the players’ palms should be cold and clammy, with a high exuberance, either hormonal or induced by alcohol intake.
  • Every player wears a blindfold.  Closing your eyes works too, provided you won’t cheat and peek (you will cheat and peek, so wear a blindfold).
  • It doesn’t matter who goes first.  I recommend the bravest person, but failing any obvious heroism, the player most easily bullied also works.
  • The spinner spins the bottle and makes his or her kiss, replaces the blindfold, then sits back down. The kissee removes the blindfold and becomes the new kisser.

That’s it!  Seems simple enough, right?  Maybe pretty boring? Not very sexy? Pshaw, I say. Let me explain to you the shortcomings of Spin the Bottle, as I found it in the folk game vernacular, and why CVPIDITĀTIS is superior.

[caption id=”attachment_244” align=”alignnone” width=”500” caption=”Spin the Bottle, circa 1983, 12 year-old girls. CC, flickr user tifotter”][/caption]

Spin the Bottle seems like such a good idea.  As a kid, I remember every sit-com had a soft-focus episode of giggling teens with nascent sexuality sneaking away from their parental units.  Maybe there was a closet involved, if things were really risqué.  I don’t think I got a crack at a legit game of Spin the Bottle until high school at LSMSA—we celebrated a holiday, which the administration made every effort of stamping out, called Free Lovin’ Day.  It was a sort of dialectic opposition to the couple-centric Valentine’s Day, where students hugged and kissed in the hallways.  Conceivably, they may have also snuck away into alley ways, vacant class rooms, and diverse hidey-holes in order to read the Bible together, but I prefer not to speculate.

Free Lovin’ Day had all the attributes of the carnivalesque—through humor and chaos, the normal order was overturned.  The taboo became commonplace. PDA,[3. Public Displays of Affection.] normally a fussable offense on school grounds, was everywhere.  Our disciplinarians hated it.  People in committed relationships were either swallowed up by license or gripped by a possessive anxiety.  But Spin the Bottle?  What a let down!  We sat in circles in the courtyard in the blazing full sun of the Louisiana spring, with passerby fixing us with the apparently nonchalant gaze of the voyeur nervous of discovery.  When the bottle turned finally to you, the aleatory glass phallus decreeing your fate, you got a long moment to stare down your impending kisser as they waddled hands & knees across the circle.  Full in the face of your skeptical appraisal, especially if cruel fate has ordained straight dude-on-dude smooching, the kisser has to slowly lean forward and initiate the complex docking procedure only to result in a chaste peck.  Meanwhile, a few dozen peers blister every pore of your skin with their piercing gaze.  Now it’s your turn to spin the bottle, and the strain of sociability requires a neutral affect, as if you had no clear favorites regarding where the bottle falls while your inner monologue prays through your Rolodex of higher powers.

After a few rounds, I realized we needed to radicalize our practice to match the subversive energy of the holiday, and I set about modifying the game.  Consider how the game is changed by the blindfold.  While the players are in a safe space, surrounded by their trusted peers, they are also plunged into a communal privacy. The majority of the game is spent in abyssal dark, sitting and listening quietly for some clue of progress or amorous approach.  With the loss of sight, the most voluptuous of our senses, salacious anticipation shifts to smell, touch, and sound.  There are giggles of surprise and delight, difficult to identify, even to locate.  After much waiting, there is a kiss, anonymous, often shocking & lewd, with bonus tongue and maybe the odd lagniappe grope.  You open your eyes: you compare your guess to your actual kisser, puzzle over discreprancies, share a silent, private gaze— and then you take over the bottle.

Your eyes dart around the circle, looking into the eyeless gaze of blindfolds.  You are unobserved.  What are those rules again?  “The spinner spins the bottle and makes his or her kiss.”  Wait, what does that mean exactly?  Does that mean I have to kiss the person the bottle lands on?  It’s not like anyone can see.

And that is the true beauty of CVPIDITĀTIS: it is a self-effacing game.  While B.U.T.T.O.N. asks players to carry out actions that the game has no way of evaluating, CVPIDITĀTIS creates a player community whose blindness prevents them from enforcing the ostensible rules of the game.  When the bottle is in your hands, it’s up to you to make the decision.  Should you accept the aleatory decision of the bottle, or re-spin if it lands on someone you don’t want to kiss?  Or maybe a secret crush, coy & small, lives within your breast—your cupidity is too great to heed the spinning hand of Fortuna and prefers the direct route of Aphrodite. Wait, what about the person that kissed you?  Did the bottle point your way?  Did they re-spin?  Is there something else going on here?  The lascivious mind races with fertile possibility.  But there is just the bottle and you—choose either to steer your own destiny or cast the die.

Godspeed, dear singletons.  Cast aside your covetous glances at the happy couples who have enshrined this day as theirs. Band together and sit around the magic circle: play a game in service of Cupid, in league with the carnivalesque, in the spirit of profane illumination!

Game Criticism: A Brief Survey

Recommended listening: Cave - W U J

As I’ve coquettishly hinted at previously, I’m taking classes on both game journalism and digital game theory this semester & thus have placed my feet to the fire on this whole writing about video games thing.  In digital game theory, we are required to “blog” (I don’t blog y’all, I bjournal); for games journalism, we have to write an article of  a different type every few weeks.  No secret, I’m trying to up my writing game, so I decided to see who was better than me so I could analyze their weaknesses and consume their critical soul after beating them in a octathalon contest of wills featuring a free-style rap battle about procedurality & a Joust tournament.  ”To the Internet!” I shouted lustily, thrusting my arm and one finger into the air before slowly lowering them mousewards and opening Google.

I haven’t read much in the way of video game criticism, thus far largely passing it by as I battle my way up the ivory tower.  I might as well admit that in my younger and more vulnerable years I slogged through thousands and thousands of words of terrifically bad “games journalism.” A lot of the coverage I read in print, as budget cuts decimated magazine staffs, had about as close a relationship to PR & marketing as a Super PAC & your average American presidential candidate. Until recently, I looked forward to reading games journalism about as much as the editorials in my local college paper.  I assumed whatever was dubbed “games criticism” was just more of the same.

I looked into more recent stuff two or three years ago, an era when perhaps the latest generation of young critics was still in a painful puberty complete with wispy mustache & the kind of acne-ridden syntax that fills the grapheme “Prom” with ominous enormity.  But as I set out into the critical fauna that have since blossomed, I discovered a lush foliage; more directly, there are a bunch of sharp internet types out there writing stuff I should have been reading, so I’m furiously mashing my eyeballs against the computer screen until further notice.  I thought my classmates might be interested, so here’s some of the stuff I found in my early exploration of who to learn a damn thing or two from.

  • Critical Distance — I just heard about this site about a week ago; their roundups of 2010 & 2011 are especially helpful.  I like to look over these lists to get a sense of what writers are associated with what venues.  This might not be a bad network to map out through NodeXL’s Twitter analysis, actually.
  • Oh No! Video Games! — Looks like the first post ever on this site is about Lacan & Slavoj Žižek. Kind of a bold opening salvo. I saw some other stuff about death and fascism that looks p. neat. Promising.
  • Tom Bissell @ Grantland — I already read Grantland for the football coverage, but Bissell’s stuff here surprised me.  I got the impression that Extra Lives didn’t live up to the boldness of the subtitle: “Why Video Games Matter.” A reductionist part of my brain sung out, “It’s probably not because you make doing cocaine and playing open-world RPGs sounds fun as hell.”  But damn if his writing on Grantland isn’t great.  He discusses his game criticism philosophy in dialog with the more game studies-oriented Simon Ferarri.
  • A blunt critique of game criticism — Daniel Cook pushes a thesis that I would characterize as “game criticism in the service of design progressivism.”  Like much written about video games, it has a clear slant towards the interest of designers and developers.  But the idea is that improvement on that end will trickle down to the audience, thus it is right and just for a game critic to improve games.  Cf. Zimmerman on Bartle asking "But how will your research help me make a better game?" over and over again. His approach is explicitly against affect and seems incapable of conceiving that video games might be intriguing for any quality beyond their escapism.  But the detail and clarity with which he lays out his ideology is worth engaging with, even if I endorse little of it.  Lagniappe: a metric shit-ton of comments.
  • Game Criticism, Why We Need It, and Why Reviews Aren’t It — “Grumpy” Greg Costikyan comes out swinging for an aesthetic criticism in the vein of Pauline Kael, an extension to his call for a critical language specific to gaming circa 1994. I respect work like this; I know some prominent academics like Frank Lantz shy away from identifying games with art. Maybe the art debate doesn’t matter because we’ve already won. It’s certainly arguable that Brown v. EMA didn’t rely on video games taking up the mantle of art, but that they were given First Amendment protection even if considered solely entertainment.
  • On Design Centric Game Criticism — In his final post for PopMatters’ Moving Pixels, L.B. Jeffries shares a little bit of information about the method he’s developed for writing about games. He happens to be a lawyer, so I’m especially keen on what he has to say about rule systems in games. He now blogs under his real name, Kirk Battle.

That’s some of what’s good.  I’ll probably get into other subject areas of criticism and look for lessons to be used for gaming.

I probably forgot like your favorite dude, how could I!  Proceed directly to the comment box and let me know what a terrible mistake I made.


A Blog on Games: The Electric Boogaloo: Digital Game Photography 101

It seems Emil and I have very similar ideas.  I have a post upcoming on the aesthetics of Skyrim and some of the digital photography that has been done there.  I’m glad we’ll be looking into it together.


It is not often that the documentation of games are handled with care - the usual coverage of a given game consists of the regular press material screenshots without any details on the filters, resolution, hacks, AA+AF enhancements, etc. So sometimes on this blog I will ocassionally post a…

Gaming’s New Grind

[caption id=”attachment_193” align=”alignnone” width=”500” caption=”Nifflas & Doug play Awkward Tarzan Grinding Game while my roommate Joon looks on.”][/caption]

Excuse a bit of wordpride, but I just had an article I wrote on a really cool PlayStation Move controller go up on Kill Screen.  Check it out here.

I had a really good time at Nordic Game Jam, and I think I’m about to do a short piece about it for a Nordic game development newsletter.  I saw a lot of awesome stuff, and a team of ITU students won the board game contest and had quite a lot of success.  It was really inspiring, and I’m looking forward to actually jamming next time I attend.  It was a valuable experience to get to watch Doug & co. work; it made me appreciate how relevant all those hours I spent playing games in drama & theater courses as part of the talented drama program when I was younger and as a theater student at LSMSA in high school.  It’s an area of study that I devoted a lot of time to, and seeing this game that combined digital and folk elements encouraged me to look beyond electronic games as a field for creation & critique.  In Play & the Avant-Garde, my first formal introduction to graduate level game studies, Rainer Rumold had us focus on radical contributions to dramaturgy & theatrical theory.  I think role-playing games, a genre whose popularity continues to surprise me, could stand to learn from Stanislavksy.  Goffman might also be helfpul.  Some basic theater training would do a lot to improve the average LARP group, which based on my experience has a lot in common with long-form improv, but divorces it from the usual content of humor.  (And of course, LARP itself is frequently played for humor.)

I would love the opportunity to participate in the Nordic LARP that I’ve heard so much about; I’m not really sure if there are opportunties available in English.  I actually had a Norwegian LARP expert come and interview me when I was an undergrad at NU; maybe I should try to contact him.  Meanwhile, I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to modify spin-the-bottle or to create other games with a carnivalesque element to release to the public on Valentine’s Day.  Get in touch if you’re interested in collaborating.  The next project I want to work on is a Skyrim runthrough which I’ve appropriately entitled “Permadeath Metal Barbarian.”

On Permadeath & the Magic Circle

UPDATE: The link to the full-text article was originally incorrect.  You can download the paper here.

In the twilight of last year, I re-read Caillois and Huizinga. I concluded that people had been too hard on Huizinga and largely ignored what’s interesting about Caillois, but I also can’t shake the feeling that neither writer has been treated to a first-rate English translation. I went in a Caillois-lover and a Huizinga-skeptic; I left disappointed in Caillois, having originally learned about him in a class devoted to the ultraleft avant-garde art/political fringe and subsequently hoping for a Marxism that wasn’t present. But I have a new faith in Huizinga, whose thought has an imagination and complexity given short shrift by dismissive game studies scholars who endlessly retread the same hoary quotes from the first twenty pages of the book again and again while other passages wait like precious ore as yet unearthed from shallow ground.

When I set about writing my final paper for Foundations of Play & Games, H. & C. were still sharp in my mind. In truth, their recent treatment by many games scholars left a bad taste in my mouth. My first experience with the assault against the Magic Circle came at the last State of Play Conference, which was my first glimpse of games academia. I had just read Huizinga, and while I don’t remember the specifics of  ”Beyond the Magic Circle,” I recall multiple panelists admitted to never having read Huizinga. At the time, I was too untutored to have known anything about Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play.

Eric Zimmerman has finally had enough of being the whipping boy of junior game studies academics. In one of the most hilarious ripostes to ever ring through the ivory tower, dare I say the Internet, Zimmerman beats off his numerous assailants with a quiver full of zingers and base punnery. Railing against the “magic circle jerk,”[1. N.B. game studies sees what will forever be known as the magic circle jerk as one of the foremost debates in the field without scratching the term’s disambiguation page on Wikipedia.] Zimmerman lays to rest the boogie man of the strict absolutist adherent to the magic circle. The list of scholars chided includes a list that reads not unlike the faculty roster at ITU’s Center for Computer Games Research. The practice of bashing a straw man magic circle argument has become so commonplace that Zimmerman identifies it as a game studies rite of passage. In my Foundations paper, I pass through that particular stage, although I turn out to be a rare defender of the magic circle. I think my thought lines up pretty well with Zimmerman’s. That excerpt follows John William Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle, below.

I’ve uploaded the entirety of the essay, On Permadeath: the State of Death in the Age of Electronic Resurrection, to SSRN as a working paper. It was docked points by the course’s censor for not being “scientific” enough, from what I understand. So be it. I set out to write an essay: exploratory, speculative, informed by personal experience, and (I thought appropriately) foundational. I thought it was well within the methodology and spirit of the reading list. In lieu of a unified thesis, it provides original scholarship on the magic circle and Benjamin’s aura, an analytical definition of permadeath, and an application of Caillois beyond a simple description of the four play-elements. Please forgive a little vanity and defensiveness—such are the perils of an affective method, where one might feel that not only his intellectual progeny has been spurned, but the self intimately involved in its construction.

I plan to convert the essay into a paper for an academic audience; there’s very little written on permadeath & I am still convinced it is a peculiar phenomena with astounding critical leverage into player investment and emotion. If anyone would be interested in revising this paper or offering feedback, I’d be more than happy to return the favor on another paper.

[caption id=”attachment_176” align=”alignnone” width=”500” caption=”The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse (1886), colors modified”]John William Waterhouse - Magic Circle[/caption]

Unavoidably, our inquiry turns to Huizinga’s idea of play as a “magic circle,” a conception of play and games that put them at an admittedly nebulous if not numinous remove from ordinary life. The magic circle has certainly been problematized, and many cogent criticisms have been made of it. From that host of criticisms, however, I roundly reject any conception of the magic circle as an absolutist divide between play and everyday life. In short, pointing out that the magic circle is not inviolable is simply not sufficient grounds to reject it. Certainly, Caillois builds upon the notion of play as separate from everyday life while also documenting its “corruption” by contact with the everyday. The central thesis of Homo Ludens—that play suffuses all of culture and serves as its origin—is in obvious conflict with any conception of the magic circle too feeble to account for this bold claim. Consider Huizinga: “The great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start.”  The view of a completely separate magic circle is untenable. One is tempted to resolve the inconsistency by declaring all spheres of human activity as variants of a central play-theme, a claim that Huizinga himself flirts with. But as meaning is created by difference, changing our definition of play to be wholly universal would render it meaningless. Resolving this contradiction is beyond the scope of this paper. We must instead heed Huizinga’s words: “The attempt to assess the play-content in the confusion of modern life is bound to lead us to contradictory conclusions.”

Rather than fret over the metaphysical nature of the magic circle, we might more productively think of it as an imaginative stance undertaken by the player, or even as an ideal type of engagement frequently sullied by the intrusion of reality. From a sociological point of view, we may follow the lead of Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy and think of play experiences as one of many frames, as identified by Goffman. This conception is particularly useful insofar as it posits a differentiation of the self in the form of the “face” or social presentation in different frames. To accept this usage, we do not need to resort to essentialist conceptions of the magic circle. If we can accept that many players do perceive gameplay as being distinct and separate from practical life, we can still put the magic circle to analytical use.

On Permadeath, pgs. 7-8, citations omitted.

The Incarnation of the Digital

I want to build an arcade machine.

I want to give LAZA KNITEZ!! some kind of permanence. I realize this amounts to trying to save an ethereal and digital creation forever in danger of vanishing back into the realm of the abstract. The erosion of time, the changing tide of technology, and the simple gauzy white forgetfulness, a perpetual failing to think about, threatens all the products of our digital labours. A pleasant fiction, that the transition to computers would preserve whatever we put there, and by extension perhaps our selves, for eternity. As formats have marched on, as hard drives have bought the farm, and physical media has been lost or damaged, the hard truth of entropy must eventually pierce our veil of techno-optimism: bit-rot exists. Even now certain burned CD-Rs with unstable organic dyes are decaying to the point of illegibility. With them will no doubt go many low-resolution digital records of those events singularly remarkable but in aggregate mundane: children’s birthdays, school dances, Christmas holidays, funny baby pictures. We say nothing of those collections of illicitly burned CDs that compose the primary record of the soundtrack of adolescence for members of my liminal generation. As with the chemical precariousness of film archives or the careful storing of childhood artifacts already ravaged by heavy use, it seems our amateur attempts at hermetic storage methods inevitably fail to halt the advance of time.

Like early work in film, many early video games and computer programs have been practically, and perhaps irretrievably, lost. In some cases, there are no extant copies of the software, in others hardly any hardware to run it on. Shareware, small distributions for unpopular systems, freeware games hosted by their only developer, games packed in like sardines on a big floppy—these are the detritus of the computer game platform. The internet at least gives us some hope of transferring our works. Sometime around the turn of the millennium, I emailed CliffyB about Legends of Murder Vol.2, after reading an interview where he mentioned that was one of the first games he had ever worked on. (I haven’t been able to source this information; the game itself lists only James Schmalz, who also worked on Unreal Tournament)I wanted to remake the 1991 game in the engine provided by the seminal Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. At the time, he thought there were no extant copies of the game and that it had been effectively lost forever. Luckily, a few years ago a fan dug up a floppy disc with the game on it and resurrected the game by putting it up on the internet.

Ironically, I no longer have access to the account that contained these emails.  Perhaps this story is apocryphal, but that’s how I remember it.  I’m sure CliffyB has no recollection of his run-in with my younger self.

As for my own game, we demo’d it to our professor and conducted our playtests with the help of a hand-made arcade machine originally made for ITU’s ScrollBar.  We hooked up to the CRT monitor and the arcade controllers via a USB connection to a laptop right outside of the machine.  The flavor of the CRT projection adds a lot to the game; in fact, what it conveys is a false aura of the arcade experience and context of the 80s and early 90s.  I modified some of the sound files to have a frequency so low it causes the entire television set to vibrate when making selections.  It’s kind of like the entire arcade cabinet having a force feedback effect.  Our temporary, hacked together version is all fine and well, but what LAZA KNITEZ!! really needs is its own custom cabinet.

To that end, Jonas, Mads, Joon and I are going to work on getting the game ready for submission to Indiecade.  If by some miracle we get the game into that, or some other festival, I am looking forward to working with friends and family to turn the standalone cabinet into a reality: Joon and I will figure out the board’s hardware, my dad has signed on to help build the cabinet, and I’m talking with Chase, a friend from high school with a degree in sequential art (i.e. COMIC BOOKS) to do the cabinet art.

Having a dedicated piece of hardware will have its advantages; we can optimize and tune our sound input for one specific microphone, so that the time and player response will be consistent.  We’re also talking about adding some features and paring down certain parts of our design.  Personally, I’d love to have the opportunity to work with a coin slot—I think there’s ample room for critique regarding the astoundingly crass shift towards “value-add” pay-to-play content in the games industry. How about an arcade game that requires you to add extra quarters to unlock levels and abilities if you don’t want to unlock them through accumulating records and defeating opponents?  How about an arcade machine that takes your money and then teases you for not being good enough to unlock the content on your own? How about a game that will take being able to shame and humiliate players on their Facebook feeds in lieu of quarters?

This is the beginning of a journey to turn LAZA KNITEZ!! into a physical thing.  Not a commodity, but  more like a singular work of art, a bespoke, hand-crafted thing with a singular position in time and space, to be deployed to environments known to the developers.  An attempt to restore context and aura to the medium via a game which shamelessly masquerades in the context and aura of a generation of games now a nostalgic footnote in the popular consciousness.

Marx & Play

An interesting snippet on Marx and play that I stumbled across in Wikipedia under the “Criticisms” section of Commodity Fetishism.

"Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism is therefore claimed to be an exaggeration, because in real life people simply do not fetishize objects to the extent that Marx thinks they do. They apply all sorts of valuations which guide their behaviour, quite aware of the differences between the characteristics of an object and the characteristics of human subjects; thus they can learn to control their desires, and judiciously manage money as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. If one really believed that value relationships were beyond anyone’s control, this would get in the way of freely determining one’s life. Indeed, the use of fetishes could be regarded as a natural form of human play, a game that is only a game in which objects are cherished or loved.”

The whole article, but especially the Criticisms section, smacks of Original Research, charitably because of poor sourcing.  Fascinating how we’re exposed to ideologies on the internet.  Perhaps I should go through the history of the article.

The Game Jam as Radical Practice:

[caption id=”attachment_112” align=”alignnone” width=”500” caption=”Your humble author, in a focus-trance of game creation. Original photo by Samuel Walz.”][/caption]

Exile Game Jam has come and gone.  Games were seen, games were played, games were made.  I knocked off a research assignment, read up on permadeath, and got more than 100 pages of “Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7" under my belt.  Not bad.  Add two hot meals a day and enough beer to keep the whistle wet, and it unequivocally ranks as a damn solid use of my time.

More than that, I got to experience a microculture where creation is king.  The game jam had a distinctive and significant atmosphere— it lurks somewhere between LAN party, temporary autonomous zone, and hackerspace.[1. I had the opportunity to visit a hackerspace in Copenhagen with my room-mate Joon— his take on it is here.] It was fantastic to see so many creative and skilled people putting effort into something that was “for fun.”  In less than 48 hours, I saw teams form, develop ideas, and make a huge variety of games.  Most striking to me is how unique these games are— almost none of them fall into traditional game genres.  Some creators even eschewed the label of “games,” creating instead toys, tools, or art.

What does this have to do with the hackerspaces and temporary autonomous zones?  Consider the medium.  The industrial production of electronic games is characterized by alienation.  Many developers are alienated from their product when their creative ambitions are subsumed to the conservative pressures of reliable return on investment— games conform to the “proven model” of genre conventions.  As the scale of industrial game production has increased, extreme specialization and marathon productivity demands in the face of crucial deadlines alienate designers from the process of work.[2. For more on alienation in the production of electronic games, I recommend Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter— an essay on alienation & the EA Spouse incident is here.  Cf. their book, Games of Empire.] And of course, competition for employment in a volatile industry with a romanticized image alienates the game producers from each other as they scrap for jobs.

The game jam is a corrective to game creation as it is normally practiced. Sure, everyone still stays up deep into the night furiously working on their game to get it done before deadline, but they do so not because their job is on the line but because they want to. The game jam is autotelic creation, divorced from the instrumental motivations of commercial game design.  Developers who haven’t previously met collaborate and teach each other, building something that they collectively want to create.  The product of the game jam is an afterthought— if you’ve looked at the Exile site above, you’ll notice many of the games are missing information or have been only partially presented.  In fact, some of the products created at the game jam aren’t listed at all.  The game jam is not a celebration of product but of process.  It is a demonstration that the means of game production have not been monopolized by the games industry.  The act of production takes precedence over the product.

Why not expand the game jam format to other domains?  Perhaps there could be an academic conference where teams of co-authors are put together around a loose thesis, then have 48 hours to do the whole literature review, data collection, argument formation she-bang, culminating in a presentation and feedback.  I think it would be a great way to contribute to Wikipedia, too. Creative writing programs already have “write-ins,” but from what I’ve seen they are rarely collaborative.  By creating events that bring together creators and celebrating the process of creating, perhaps the creative class[3. My usage here is similar to McKenzie Wark’s concept of the "hacker class."] might recognize itself as a class and take a hand in protecting its interests.