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This has been a rough semester for me. I’m really glad to say it’s almost over, and it hasn’t been a total wash. I really did need grad school to kick my ass a little bit and remind me to be humble, justify myself better, and keep being a curmudgeon. I’m working out some really interesting stuff for myself with regards to the role of play in civic engagement and bureaucracy, the role of fun in governance, and the importance of gamic attitudes in grappling with major social issues. I’m paving this path with good reading, some experiments, and the simple act of standing up for what I believe is right.

I’ve started having thoughts about what it means to “document” an event, though. I got my ass kicked in first year review for presenting work that was in process (apparently a faux pas, but I didn’t know that at the time), and not having documentation for the work that I have been doing. I feel a bit like a cranky awkward camera user, but I don’t feel like it’s my job to document the things that I make happen. I generally leave a pretty good paper trail in most instances, but there is something about my own bias as the maker that makes it seem to me like I shouldn’t be doing my own image production or video production to show what happened.

On the other hand it seems a little exploitative for me to say, “document what happens yourself.” Kyle pointed out that I can always ask friends to lurk around with cameras (which sometimes happens of its own accord), because they’ll probably find the things that other people would find interesting to record. At least there is always the possibility of them creating footage I couldn’t, and I can take some editorial freedom with what gets included in, say, a video documentation of a performance/play action.

I still don’t know. There is something about creating documentation for something that is designed to be experiential that is very unappealing to me. If you weren’t there, maybe you should have been. Maybe what I should do is get one of the documentary filmmaker grads to follow me around with a camera. (But of course that seems more than a little conceited.) Of course I’m going to have to suck it up and document things, because at some point I need to show that I’ve been doing work and so deserve the eventual degree that comes from that. Nevertheless, the whole idea of it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Shouldn’t I just be doing what I want to be doing, for the sake of doing it or because it’s the right thing to do?

(Maybe I’m just bitter.)

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As friend and colleague Adam Liszkiewicz has recently noted, FarmVille is a terrible game. It doesn’t even really qualify as a game, under Roger Caillois’s six criteria of games, and no matter what credence you give to classical ludology, you have to admit — there is an unprecedented number of people who continue to play, despite the absence of any of the rewards of play, or any of the rewards of labor. Zynga, the company that runs FarmVille, continues to make an absurd amount of money from hooking or scamming its players. Which is something that Jesse Schell neglects to mention in his DICE 2010 talk about design outside the box.

Now, before I begin, let me make perfectly clear that I am skeptical of the idea that Caillois’s criteria constitute a complete and definitive measure of a game. (i.e., I think that Caillois’s criteria are necessary but not sufficient.) Nor am I resistant to the idea that this definition can change. However, thinking about Martin Roberts’ talk at a conference this past fall and reading a bunch of Adorno has turned me a bit curmudgeonly. Ultimately, I think there are not a lot of people who are really enthusiastic about the things that games can do, while simultaneously being skeptical about certain deployments of gaming and the “fun” buzzword. And, as an industry and community, we desperately need more of that attitude.

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As the first semester of my stay in Buffalo winds down, I can’t help but think what incredible luck I’ve had in being here. On a professional level, I’ve found a place where I can really stretch my legs. Every week or so I have a totally mind-melting day where new ideas just pop into my head fully-formed, ready to be implemented.  I love my colleagues on both sides of the hall, and I really enjoy the faculty I’ve worked with thusfar. On a personal level, I have fallen into the community I was worried I would lack. I am surrounded by people I can and want to support, and who can and want to support me. On a broad-spectrum level, I’ve found the perfect incubator for my ideas, a combination of people, places, and things that make everything seem possible. It’s full of challenges, of course, but I thrive in an environment where I’m required to fight uphill a good bit of the time.

Considering where my thinking is now as opposed to where it was four months ago, I think I’ve expanded and matured more in this semester than I have ever in any one semester ever. I already think I know what I will write my doctoral dissertation on. I am discovering that I’ve found my academic niche. I am going to be doing some heavy intellectual lifting in the next year or so. I’m also going to be making some games. Paid. To make games. (More on this later…much later, probably.)

This is a kick-ass track to be on. I haven’t been uber-productive yet, but this semester was about furious networking (with everyone from Hallwalls to the Graduate Student Employees Union) and figuring out what I can and can’t do. The great part is, everything I want to do will, at the very least, be tolerated. Maybe warily, but it will be tolerated.

Now all I have to do is finish up this semester’s work, reapply for my TA position, and keep my head up — every day is better than the last. This is the future I was banking on when I applied to graduate school.

Last night was great. I spoke with a number of people further about giant Red Light, Green Light, which is rapidly evolving into something way bigger and more epic than maybe I had initially planned, but that’s what grad school is for, I think. Stephanie has promised to find me a book about the design and construction of UB’s North Campus (as a structure of control, as a way to prevent student organizing) and Mark thinks I should undertake an architectural study of the campus to create a comprehensive overview of why an intervention like a SMS-enabled game of Red Light, Green Light should get us thinking.

And I think a lot. I think about the alienation of working at a commuter school, working in a building with white halls and walls and light grey floors, where even though we are an art department and neighbor another art department, public displays of aesthetics are kept to a minimum, tightly constrained, kept in their place. Even posters for department events (nice ones) get taken down if they’re not in their designated spot. (Paintings that might interfere with the overall aesthetic or ethical concerns of building use are strictly forbidden: take the example of a painting of a young woman vomiting that was turned around by building staff when dance parents came to visit.) I honestly find North Campus soul-crushing. I find CFA completely contrary to any sense of community space, of aesthetic development, of play.

I don’t think we have to take this sitting down. Giant Red Light, Green Light is evolving into a critical performance practice. Instead of trying to reach the goal (me on my humble laptop, planted somewhere previously disclosed) in the fastest time possible, players will instead have to form the largest groups possible and, within a half-hour, reach the goal. In order to win, players must organize. They must talk to people on campus they’ve never spoken to before. They need to challenge the campus protocols that say — keep your head down, do your work, don’t bother anyone else, go home in the evening.

I am still trying to come up with an appropriate reward for winning. Thoughts?

I really want to start setting up more casual, massive public games now that I’ve settled in here. Something I’ve been mulling over is a SMS-enabled game of campus-wide Red Light, Green Light. I think this could be really entertaining, considering that the buildings of north campus’s academic spine are all connected by above-ground hallways that run between buildings. Imagine trying to get down a regular-width hallway that is suspended above the ground, full of people who are playing Red Light, Green Light via txt!

The problem with UB is just that there is very little room for large group gatherings. Conducting a pillow fight or similar would not be as hilariously disruptive as it was at Michigan. However, I think on the Promenade, there are square tiles — it might be possible to set up that game of Giant Scrabble that I’ve always dreamed of but never was able to execute. The problem is, of course, getting teams together that are THAT big.

Giant Scrabble will involve team-based play — each player will be assigned a letter in advance of the game date, that ze will have to bring to the game. No one is allowed to disclose their letter to anyone else. Once the entire alphabet is assembled, team captains will pick teams. The order in which team captains pick their teammates is the order in which their letters will be played, instead of pulling randomly from a bag. (You would need a pretty large bag.)

The group of players who get to decide what to play next will be the 7 players whose letters are up on their team’s rack. Once your letter is played, you are “benched.” I kind of want there to be audience involvement — we could say that each team captain is in charge of managing players in play and can also consult spectators and passers-by. Of course this kind of team play, where teams are constantly in flux, endangers the secrecy of each side. That’s just part of gameplay in Giant Scrabble.

Giant Scrabble requires 3 umpires, who will score, arbitrate challenges, and ensure that each team has 7 active players at all times. They will also determine when a side is out of players who have yet to play, and what to do if a player must leave the game before ze has played hir letter. (In this case, I think it would be acceptable to pass the letter on to a player who has already played hir letter.) Umpires can also punish players for spying on the other team, but can’t punish spectators and passers-by for sharing insider information!

If we were to play Giant Scrabble on campus, I’d like there to be an announcer, and maybe we could webcast the event, as though it were a major sporting event. Then we’d also have an audio archive of the proceedings. I imagine Giant Scrabble would take a couple hours to play, just due to the considerations of having so many players involved. Maybe the players of the winning team in the first game of Giant Scrabble at UB could win a trophy, too.

Who wants to play?

Everyone from the ACLU to the NRA has easy forms you can use on their website to automate an email to your U.S. and state Senator or U.S. and state representative.  Some U.S. Senators’ offices report receiving upwards of 30,000 emails a day.  It’s really easy to punch in your mailing address and shoot off an email — you don’t even need prior knowledge of who’s representing you to get yourself “heard.”  I don’t rightly remember (I’ll have to check this reference when I get a second) but I think it was in Clay Shirky’s recent book, Here Comes Everybody, that some Senators’ offices are now saying they really don’t read these automated emails.  Why should they?  Why should they care, especially since the level of commitment between typing in your ZIP code and writing a letter to send in the mail is so wildly different?

So these things are easier on the internet, but the ease of use is a double-edged sword.  There’s no way to verify that each of these individual users are actually individual users.  All the content is, more or less, the same.  It is so easy to use these contact-your-legislator forms that the sheer volume of emails makes them less compelling to the people who are in power.  Moreover, I might be able to sit at my computer, on my couch, and shoot off an email to my Senator, but the level of commitment between sending that email and going to my polling place are also wildly different.  Again, why should my legislators care that I know my ZIP code (or that somebody knows my ZIP code)?

It’s been equally hard on the community organizing end to get people who commit to a cause on the internet (see: the millions of signatures on sites like iPetitions) to do anything in the “real” world.  Again, it seems to be a function of ease-of-use.  It’s easy to type in your name and submit a signature on an iPetition, but canvassing door-to-door?  That’s not only a huge time commitment, but it can be highly discouraging and a use of personal energy.

But something peculiar happened during the run of I Love Bees (see previous post). The “puppet masters,” the people who ran the game, discovered a way to mobilize people who were committed to the game on the internet in “real” life.

The puzzle worked like this.  Players got a set of 210 GPS coordinates with no indication of what they meant.  Between that and a countdown clock on ilovebees.com, they figured out that near these 210 coordinates were public payphones.  When the countdown clock zeroed out, many of the phones had players at them to answer them when they rang.  (I’d recommend reading Jane McGonigal‘s paper on collective action in ILB for more information about this phenomenon.)

Sure, it’s not canvassing, but the kernel is there.  People who get drawn into a cause — some collective goal — on the internet, and it’s translated into “real” life action.  How do we move the ARG/CF model to political organizing?

I realize there are problems with this concept, like transparency, for example.  Do you run a game and then disclose it as a promotion for a political cause or candidate?  Or is the political cause/candidate an explicit part of your game or story?  They’re questions that are worth mulling over.  But to me, ARG/CF is a tool that is being widely overlooked as entertainment or advertising.  (I counter with: what is politics but slick advertising?)  I read Jane McGonigal’s blog regularly and I’ll say — there are people out there who are working to change this idea of ARG/CF as (to put it simply) un-serious.

There’s some serious ARG/CF stuff out there.  Take, for example, the brilliant World Without Oil, part game, part collectively-written science fiction, part group problem solving project.  Or McGonigal’s upcoming Superstruct, which has a truly fascinating byline: play the game, invent the future.

So, what games have you played today?  I recommend McGonigal’s writing if you want to think more about games.  And: how can play be part of the limited fork?

I don’t mean mind games.  What I mean to ask on Tuesday was, what games do you play?  What media do they use?  Why be constrained to your console and TV, or Scrabble board?  What constitutes a game, and why is it really so hard to answer that question?

That’s actually a question asked with glee by Ludwig Wittgenstein.  And, to be honest, I don’t know what constitutes a game, because a game can have victory conditions, or it can be infinite; it can have a plot, or it can be an exploration; it can have one player, or many; it can have spatial boundaries, or it can be spatially undefined; it can be played with equipment or with nothing but the player or players; it can involve clearly-defined rules, or the game may be to discover the rules of the game.  And that’s just the start of it.  How can we use the word “game” to refer to a thing, when it so clearly identifies a vast and perhaps unquantifiable set of things?

Which is a question for another day.  A question for today is, what games did you play today?

Let me make a suggestion.  Echogenesis (tip o’ the hat to Bryan Alexander).

What’s the object of this game?  Is there an object?  Do you perceive a plot in your wandering through it?  Are there rules, after a fashion?  Make sure you don’t miss anything.  There are hidden goodies all over the place.

Now, what makes Echogenesis as much of a game as, say, Dice Wars?  Or Tribal Wars, the massively multiplayer medieval conquest game?

All three of these games rely on digital media, either on Flash programming or on PHP.  All rely on the Internet for their distribution, and in the case of Tribal Wars, for a critical component of gameplay — literally thousands of other players who you can ally with, fight with, and conquer.

These three games still fall into some kind of traditional game trope, though.  Dice Wars and Tribal Wars have their roots in long-term planning and strategy games, both for computers and for paper; Echogenesis has hints of Myst and its sequels, which was firmly rooted in its own digital life.  How about if I told you that this site and this site are games, too, or critical parts of games?  The most exciting part about them is that they cross over from your screen to your mailbox to the public pay telephone on the corner and back again.

The most stimulating gaming experience I ever had was surrounding the Silverladder site.  I met and became a part of a community of creative, intelligent people from all over the country.  And our gaming experience wasn’t like my gaming experience in Tribal Wars, in which I play on a team with 60 other people to take over villages.  There was more problem solving.  The story was open-ended.  We didn’t know where we were going until, sometimes, it was right under our noses.

And game players met characters from the game in their hometowns.  And others received packages in the mail from in-game entities.  And still others got text messages and phone calls.  All of us, no matter what interests we had in playing the game, got very invested in the characters, their stories, as well as each other and each other’s stories.

I don’t want to go so far as to say that the Alternate Reality/Chaotic Fiction genre of gaming is completely new and revolutionary (though I really want to).  It’s certainly only possible because we, as a culture, have adopted and integrated the Internet and information technologies into our daily lives (more on this later), and we are becoming so invested in our online lives it’s okay for those online lives to ooze over into our “real” lives.  ARG and CF challenge the notion that our online lives and our “real” lives are clear, distinct and separate from one another.  And that’s why it’s so compelling.

Have a quick poke around ARGNet and you’ll see what I mean.  There’s already a community of people all over the world who are deeply committed to this new genre — I would daresay art form.  And more and more people are learning about it by word of mouth and through high-profile games like the recently completed Search for the Lost Ring, run as a promotion for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

CF Part II will come to a blog near you tomorrow.  Or something very like tomorrow.

As a note to any regular readers out there: I’m beginning to do work for a course I’m taking at the University of Michigan on this blog.  These entries will be in the “Limited Fork” category as well as other appropriate categories.  Hopefully you’ll find the class as interesting as I will.

And a note to class members, and Prof. Moss: you might enjoy reading backward a bit in this blog.  I’ve had it for a damn long time and I like to imagine it’s kind of worthwhile as a stand-alone blog.

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