Friday, August 31, 2012

Random Amusements.

Admit it: You're as easily amused as I am.

Three things that amused me this week...

"The Best Night $500,000 Can Buy":

The 10 most useful social media apps of 2012 (so far):

Desert Blues playlist on Songza (the Vieux Farka TourĂ© song alone is worth checking out):

Happy Friday, and to those of you in the States, have a great Labor Day weekend!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Instagram, Surveillance, and Wealth

Two recent links from that most excellent collector  got me thinking about power and surveillance: "The Revolt of the Rich" on The American Conservative, and "What Power Looks Like" on The Daily Beast.

Moving financially into lower and lower percent rankings--ie, making more money so that you move from, say, the 12% to the 6%--doesn't mean that fewer people see you. It means that a more select group of onlookers observe and do so with a more critical focus.

This intensity increases as your percent decreases because the methods of surveillance become simultaneously more direct and more critical.

Bentham's Panopticon, as noted by Foucault in Discipline and Punish, has long been an apt metaphor for social surveillance. The closer you are to the lowest levels of society, the less you're able to protect yourself from state surveillance. However, rising through financial strata, to the extent that's possible by a lone person, shifts surveillance from that of the state to that of the peer group. And the peer group exerts more social pressure than any state mechanism, short of imprisonment and torture, could. Surveillance, then, is a funnel, with those at the narrowest diameter under the strictest surveillance by their peers.

How do we know this?


Specifically, "Rich Kids of Instagram." The tumblr is revelatory, not in its documentation of people's daily lives, but in the necessity of the documentation itself. These are people who maintain their status by the very display of status. It is critical for the display to be made in these ways because the surveillance is internal. 

These photos come from their own Instagrams. They are posted by insiders.

Rather than living in a Panopticon of anonymity, that Panopticon is one of searingly intensified identity. The lenses of desire and status magnify that very desire for even higher status.

If character once was what we were in the dark, then shifting surveillance modes would indicate that character is now what our peers see us doing. Character, for the wealthiest and most powerful, is only what is documented.  Without external referent, character becomes press releases and photoshoots.

If you'd thought the Ermine Cape Effect had died out, think again.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Copying Works: What It Means to Be a Nerd

People are still buzzing about the jury ruling against Samsung this week. Some analysts have noted that the $1 billion plus judgment could be the best money Samsung has ever spent, because it validates the design and marketing decisions made for some of its smartphones. As one writer noted, copying works.

What does this have to do with being a nerd?

Nerds copy what works.

Gaming? Nerds know that the lateral exploration of the self that gaming permits leads to a broadened sense of experience. Foreign travel is great, and nerds often indulge in it, but gaming takes you farther.

Idiosyncratic behaviors? These are often learned through observation, reading, and/or exploration, then adopted purposefully. Example: This normal person's chaos is that nerd's highly systematized filing system. This is not to say that nerds don't always live in clutter--I'm a poster child for the office organized into piles of objects and papers--but don't glance at a drawer of items and think there's no organization. Sometimes a Fibonacci sequence is not readily apparent.

New tech? As early adopters, nerds realized that grokking new tech now means being ready for new tech tomorrow. It's an evolved application of the Boy Scout motto because it brings a little piece of the future into today.

Futurism? Even SCA nerds are futurists. Never worry about the future; there will always be a nerd creating it. And probably creating simultaneous alternatives.

Back to Samsung v Apple...Surely the powers that be in Cupertino realize that, far from having the upper hand after this one court decision (others have gone against them), Apple is now on its back foot. The crest of Apple's innovation has already passed. The evidence is in the products: What's worth keeping has been copied elsewhere.

We nerds have copied what works and moved on.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Gaming, Curation, and Memory: What Are We Saving?

Lots of people post game film on YouTube, game forums, and other outlets, all starting years ago as “let’s play” walkthroughs posted by fans. These vary radically in quality and purpose. Some are instructional, some are promotional (Microsoft offers videos via Xbox Live, for instance), some are demonstrations of prowess. As with leaderboards, badges, and unlocked achievements, these records of game play signal presence to other players.

I was fortunate to be able to attend this year’s Mensa Foundation Colloquium, “Social and Video Games and Why We Play Them”:

Warren Spector, the keynote speaker, blew me away with his talk. Although curation was not a stated topic in his address, his ideas point in that direction.

About gaming itself, he discussed the uniqueness of video game play and what the elements of that uniqueness were:

·         It has the power to transport, ie, it’s you doing stuff
·         It provides immersion, ie, it’s believable rather than realistic
·         Your participation is required
·         It offers responsiveness, ie, the artwork responds to player effort

But many games do this. Why curate some experiences? Because some games and/or game sessions are special:

-Players interact with the game in real time
-Players make significant choices
-The game responds
-Choices have real consequences
-Each play session is unique

This is the province of narrative gaming. Not all narrative games do this; many FPSs are highly linear, for instance, and the narrative is forced through the path determined by the designers. And it’s not just FPSs. The game Myst frustrated me when I played it. (Yes, Myst.) I was frustrated by the lack of direction and the minimal interactivity with the world and environment. I understood that more interactivity would’ve meant lavishly more complex code, yet I felt cheated. The designers made a beautiful world that players were forbidden from truly exploring. I had the map, but I couldn’t explore the territory.

Spector offered ways to make games into unique events:

1.       Give players tools to create their own experience to discover and/or create gameplay.
2.       Provide a context for player action.
3.       Bound player experience without determining that experience.

I find that curation across the board, but especially curation of memory during game play, does all these things. A game session worth remembering has given us tools to discover and create as well as a context for our actions, and it guides rather than limits game experience. Immersion, agency, and choice are critical elements of that experience.

Spector concluded with a quote from Orson Scott Card:

“Why aren’t we letting the player decide?
“The power and the beauty of the art of game making is that you and the player collaborate to create the final story.
“Every freedom that you can give to the player is an artistic victory.
“Every needless boundary in your game should feel to you like a failure.”
                --Compute, March 1991

These are still broad ideas, and I’ve got more to think about here. I suspect there’s a good deal more for me to write about once all this settles in.

Happy Friday, everyone, and get to gaming!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Gaming, Curation, and Memory: Some Definitions.

When did gaming, specifically video gaming, change? When did narrative move to the front?


I stood slack-jawed in a CompUSA one night, watching the very first Halo demo on a huge video screen. I'd never seen a game like it. The earth was shifting under our feet, yet most people couldn't tell. Was I the only one in the store who realized what was happening?

Halo gave the player real agency. Sure, there was a storyline and tasks to complete, but how that happened was up to the player. In some ways, it was like the free will versus determinism debate: Players had to get through the storyline, but because the world was interactive, they had more leeway than ever.

This interactivity is now commonplace in video games, of course. Its real value is in the way players construct multimodal game narratives--recollections, chats, game film--around that interactivity.

Some definitions:

Games studies: The humanities-based counterpart to game theory (Simons 2007; note the plurals).

Game theory: The mathematics-based counter part to games studies (Simons); a discipline that gives me a headache.

Narrative games, narrative gaming: Games that have as critical elements storytelling, player interaction, and recountable narratives. (This is my definition; other definitions exist.)

Social gaming: Games associated with social networking and social media, eg, Farmville.

So, then, what is ludology?

Ludology looks at games from the mechanical, rule-based point of view. For ludologists, the way a given game "works" is the important part; the player and the designer are significantly less important. At one point, the ludologic position was that games exist separately from those who created them and those who play them. Narrative was thus a colonialist, imperialist strategy. After some academic bickering, ludologists conceded the importance of narrative in games. 

Admittedly, it's easier to stand one's ludic ground when Galaga and Scrabble are the dominant games, less so once Heavy Rain emerges.

The reader/writer/text dynamic, a key aspect of textual studies across many disciplines, has been replicated in gaming. For video games, we have the player/designer/game dynamic, and for narrative video gaming such as that of LA Noire and Alan Wake, the reader/writer/text dynamic remains significant. For RPGs, the player/creator/system dynamic is almost inextricable from the reader/writer/text dynamic. 

Example: A given game system is a critical part of the gaming experience. I stepped away from D&D at version 2.0 because I thought the skill system was laughable; 3.0 and 3.5 left me cold because of the munchkin culture they encouraged. Conversely, I found the BRP system used by Chaosium to be wonderfully open, largely because of its granular nature. Each of these systems radically affected my gaming experience. Again, it is the nature of a game system to define the terms of the experience. This argument is easily made for video games as well; different systems have different controllers, and skill with a given controller is a massive determining factor in the total experience.

I emphasize these trimodal aspects, then, because they are foundational.

Narrative gaming is multidisciplinary and multimodal. In World of Warcraft, player choice is the key to character development, and exploits can be recounted, commented upon by others as they occur through chat, and saved as game film. Narrative gaming embraces other modes and brings them in to serve narrative.

As you can see, I am on the narratologist's end of the spectrum. (For the record, and for any ludologists lurking about, I see simulation as part of game mechanics, not narrative development.) *The key difference between narratology and ludology is the performative element of narrative gaming*. Galaga and Space Invaders were simulations: repetitive, rigidly structured, linear. On the other hand, World of Warcraft is highly narrative, that narrative being one of the primary reasons its players participate.

Many of these differences become key factors when we consider curation and memory, my next topics.

Gaming, Curation, and Memory: The Autobiographical Self.

Who are we when we game?

What happens when we play a narrative game that doesn't happen during other games?

Start a game of Scrabble and chances are, unless you're locked in a battle with a Kasparov-like opponent, you won't recount the story of the game. You may remember the margin of your win or loss, or the triumph of words played, but you're unlikely to have a narrative of the game as it unfolded.

Start a session--note the different terminology already--of a narrative game, though, and the story becomes central to the recollection.


Narrative gaming requires the creation of an autobiographical double (also called the autobiographical self). For us to successfully participate in a narrative game, we must construct alternative selves that are directed by ourselves as players, yet who experience game events separately. This double has identity, skills, traits, and hindrances, and at the same time, it represents something of our true selves, even when we play characters against type. We cannot help being ourselves in some way.

As players, we become the narrators of the story that is the game. If, as Baudrillard and others note, the map is not the territory, then nowhere is that more clear than in narrative gaming. Nevertheless, it is complicated. The game itself is the map; the story and narrative created by the players and acted out by the characters becomes the territory, and in so doing, the players privilege the territory rather than the map. In other words, examining a narrative game by looking at the game mechanics--the relatively linear action of a video game, the choices and missions in an online RPG, or the system used in a tabletop RPG--is to mistake the map for the territory.

The autobiographical double is how the two are sorted, then bridged. Without the creation of the double, the map cannot usefully reflect the territory, and the territory cannot be effectively explored without the map.

Next up: Curation.

PS: Wow, this series got big quickly, and I've only laid out the barest ideas. Looks like much more to come. Stay close...

Monday, August 20, 2012

Gaming, curation, and memory.

What is it about the ludic that helps us know more about ourselves? What is it about gaming that augments our current reality?

What do we remember after a game session?

When we preserve a video game, what exactly do we want to carry forward?

My weekend was two days of gaming. Saturday, I attended the "Playing Pong in 2100: How to Preserve Old Video Games" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here in DC. Sunday, I ran a Deadlands game (tabletop RPG, and yes, that means caveman tools like pencils and paper) for a new group of friends that has dubbed itself The Explorers Society. The latter began ans a random group of steampunks in the DC area. Our first game session a few weeks ago made it clear that this group of veteran gamers and gamemasters had special chemistry.

All this got me thinking about user experience. We think of user experience online as being in the moment, without latency. Gaming is one of the ultimate user experiences, and latency is a core factor. The vehicle for that experience is personal and largely irrelevant--we game to have the memory of the game session, to feel our expertise with the mechanics, to have a triumphant endpoint documented in some way, whether through a slot on a leaderboard or through a well-worn and thus well-loved character sheet.

But how do we curate our game experiences?

If we rely on memory alone, then these experiences fade and die with the user. As Rachel Donahue noted during the first session of "Playing Pong in 2100," game companies have little interest in preserving their back catalogs and archiving game development materials, such as budgets and storyboards. This leaves much of the curation effort in the hands of gamers, game collectors, and museums such as the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY; Jon-Paul Dyson of The Strong also spoke at this event on the history and culture of gaming, noting that what we preserve depends on what questions we use to define the task.

What is lost when these things fade?

This week, I'll write more about all of this.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Nerd Friday

Freaks and geeks of G+, unite! Follow these people and pages (if you aren't already).


Nerdist offers links to media items and upcoming things of geekly interest.


Great source of images to share with your circles.


If I have to explain why, please move along to the next message in your stream.


Current topics, plus just a great sense of humor.


Gamers, gaming, convention stuff--all those things nerds, freaks, and geeks like.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Half-Life of Disruption.

What's the half-life of a disruptive force?

Many moons ago, when there were still only a relative few of us on Twitter (14 November 2008), I tweeted:

"Been thinking about the half-life of information on Twitter. What do you think--24 hours? When does something become old news here?"

+Robert Scoble soon thereafter posted a video talking about the half-life of information on websites, blogs, and Twitter (apologies for not having a link to his video, but 4 years on Twitter = multiple eons). I don't know if @scobleizer was replying to my tweet--I would STILL feel flattered if he had been!--but his video was both informative and considered.

Clearly, the half-life of information on social media sites has shrunk much more since then: Expanding participants plus shrinking attention equals decreased half-life. This, naturally, has had an effect on disruptive forces, shortening the cycle of change as well.

The @Uber Boston story this week is a prime example. Within days, we moved from Boston and Cambridge suspending Uber's ability to conduct business, to Uber and its users creating a massive response, to the lifting of the cease-and-desist order yesterday:


How long would this have gone on even 5 years ago?

To capitalize on disruptive forces, you need to be an entrepreneur, certainly. But I think you need to have a bit of the highwayman and the street con as well.

That wary, watchful gaze comes in handy when opportunities ride by. That willingness to push something from the gray fringes into the central marketplace's light is essential.

Disruption may smack of illegality, or even immorality, to some. Making it acceptable is the work of the entrepreneur, the official, and the consumer.

Disruption compels our participation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Disruption, Friction, and Things to Come

In the past 24 hours, @Uber has received a cease-and-desist letter from the city of Cambridge, MA.

The city of Boston has decided to "wait and see" after the public firestorm in response to its cease-and-desist letter.

Meanwhile, chaos theory as applied to business continues to be strong.

When Cambridge concludes that GPS service doesn't fall within a measurable realm suitable for taxi service, despite the fact that their own law enforcement and rescue teams use GPS multiple times daily, we're looking at disruption in action.

When Boston, a city notorious for fear-based response, takes a wait-and-see approach after that neighboring community is roasted by its inhabitants over @Uber, we're looking at disruption as a creative force.

"To thrive in this climate requires a whole new approach....Because some people will thrive. They are the members of Generation Flux. This is less a demographic designation than a psychographic one: What defines GenFlux is a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates--and even enjoys--recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions. Not everyone will join Generation Flux, but to be successful, businesses and individuals will have to work at it. This is no simple task. The vast bulk of our institutions--educational, corporate, political--are not built for flux. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills."    --Fast Company, 9 January 2012
Disruption is the new direction. We are all surfers riding waves. Surfers take off, fade, and cut back not because they won't wipe out, but because the wave is the ride. Disruption offers waves in every direction.

Where will you ride?

PS: Everyone, please wave goodbye to Neuromancer and Heart of Darkness; there's too much good stuff going on this week for me to offer more than oblique references to either.