Money for Art

I bought Inside a Star-Filled Sky this week. The game is currently being sold via the now-unremarkable (for PC indies, anyway) pay-what-you-want model, with a set minimum of $1.75– which is also how he now sells Sleep is Death. The purchase gets you every version of the game, the source code, unlimited downloads, and a guarantee for access to all future updates.

Why the minimum? Rohrer explains that $1.75 covers “payment processing fees and download bandwidth” only—so, we can guess, it’s money Rohrer himself doesn’t keep. If you wanted, you could pay him a price so low that he wouldn’t see a cent of it. I haven’t seen a pay-what-you-want point out the minimum, break-even price like this before. Normally, when we buy things over the internet, that kind of math is opaque to us: we know that there are transaction fees and bandwith costs floating around out there, but we don’t actually know how much they amount to, and it’s almost as if they don’t really exist. So when Rohrer points out how much he actually gets from every sale, the option of leaving him nothing at all looms larger than it usually does.

Rohrer is a very consciously-‘arty’ designer. He does this kind of thing, and it certainly makes him stand out. In games-world, see, there’s recently been some discussion about what art is worth, and whether art is really something we should expect to pay for—whether we should allow art to be influenced by the demands of a market. Taken generally, that question is an unhelpful one. All art requires a time investment. Wherever food costs money, labor deserves compensation. But when people complain that the experience of art costs them money—as happened with Dear Esther and the ModDB community—or express the idea that it might be a good idea for them to earn zero dollars for their art—as with Star-Filled Sky—it suggests to me that there might be a better way to compensate these games artists. Is there a way that feels more right to us, and to them?

We’ve always had rather intricate, complicated ways of compensating our artists. In the past, patronage made art possible. Italian princes paid Michelangelo so they could brag about it. “Hey,” they would shout at one another in the streets. “I just paid Michelangelo to paint a picture of Jesus for me! Yeah!” Then they’d fist-pump and high-five a peasant, or something. Similarly, admission to the Getty is free because a fat-cat captain of industry established a trust to fund the thing. Public art is generally made possible through taxes or charitable donations– I’m thinking about things like the Crown Fountain in Chicago. Other kinds of art have weirder compensation-rituals. Most ‘literary’ novelists don’t live off of their work: they’re professors, journalists, or other professionals. Creative Writing professors at my college have to publish things to keep their jobs, so the department gives them the time and resources. Their compensation, in the end, is provided by a system only tangentially related to the production and sale of their books.

Allow me, for a moment, to imagine some weird possibilities. What if Rohrer– or another games artist like him– worked at a university, like my published professors? In an alternate universe, could some museum or public institution have funded a Rohrer project? If a games artist got a grant from a government to make public games art– what would that look like, exactly? Like this? I’ve been noticing more and more games floating around the internet which were commissioned by institutions for particular events. The money could be coming from tuitions, or charity, or endowments, or who-the-hell-knows-what mysterious deep-sea money vent. And as public games tied to specific physical places, the commissioned-by-the-college route makes sense for these particular works of art. Public art usually has a strong connection to places and local communities. However, only some kinds of games make sense in a public setting. For the same reason books aren’t ‘public art’, we’ll never see an eighty-hour, story-heavy game as public art.

And while I’m mentioning new ways to pay for games, I think it’s important to point out that the way we pay for things strongly influences the way we think of and value them. Imagine a universe where games started out as public art, and never left public spaces: there wouldn’t be any eighty-hour story-based games at all in that universe, would there? We might not think of such games as having value. The governments paying for them certainly wouldn’t.

I guess you could say that since somebody has got to assign art a value, why shouldn’t each member of an audience do that, for themselves, via PWYW? Maybe this is better than allowing an institution, a government, a corporation, or the artist to do the job. It certainly allows us to choose from a broader variety of ways to assign value to games. To some extent, what a game is ‘actually worth’ depends upon the aggregate philosophical stance of its audience.

So– are we lucky to be living in an environment where this is actually realizable? We’ll have to wait a few more years, at least, to see if PWYW really makes it possible for more artists to get better compensation for their work. But while we’re at it, I think we should keep our minds open for even weirder– weird for games, anyway– compensation systems. I’m hoping that ten years from now, my school will be giving money to games artists in the same way it gives money to writers, filmmakers, and studio artists.

And part of me is also hoping that I’ll be able to drive through my hometown and see, somehow, some kind of public-art game. I know that not all public art is the bee’s knees, but some of it comes pretty close. Why not give it a shot?

Zombie Apocalypse Pt 2: The Digital and the Physical

I mentioned at the end of my last post about Humans Versus Zombies, the ARG I helped run at my school, that it was a game of unusual digital and physical qualities. HvZ can’t be said to be either a digital game or a real-world game—instead, it’s both.

The game is, to be frank, far too complicated to handle without some kind of database keeping track of it all. Zombies must “feed” on a human every 48 hours, or be removed from play– “starving” to death. When a zombie tags a human, they share the kill with at least two other zombies, and it’s impossible to know who is near starvation without the database. Kills were reported through the website, meaning that any zombie who made a tag had to high-tail it to the nearest computer as quickly as possible, to keep the database up-to-date. Luckily, Dartmouth is covered in email terminals. (If you’d like to learn more about Dartmouth’s weird-ass email culture, and about why we all use an email client that’s over 20 years old, take a look here.) Our website listed who was a human, who was a zombie, and how much time each zombie had left before they starved

The database we used included each player’s real name. This meant that the game wasn’t an impersonal experience, the way online multiplayer frequently is– everyone knew, or could look up, the actual names of the other players. Humans Versus Zombies made new friendships. It gave us all a chance to meet a ton of people we’d never seen on campus before. The name-list was also important for strategic reasons: it allowed the players to assemble email lists and form group strategies—but also forced them to curate those lists, keeping track of who was alive and who had recently ‘died,’ becoming a zombie. One zombie player wrote a piece of code that scraped our website for data and kept the zombie list updated automatically. The humans, lacking such tech-savvy leadership, were constantly plagued by ‘dirty’ email lists that allowed zombies to listen in to their plans.

The game itself, then, didn’t take place entirely in the real world. The email lists were the site of most strategy and communication for both teams, and at times, the physical world seemed almost secondary. As mods, we did most of our communication with the players through email, and the NPCs were developed almost entirely through the in-character emails we sent each team.

The digital and the physical continued to combine in unexpected ways as the game progressed. Two zombies used a pair of laptops and Skype to create a remote “observation camera” in one of the campus dining spaces. They sat in a nearby building, ready to run outside and pounce on any player they saw heading out the door. The auto-updating zombie listserv is another example of how digital activities had more-profound effects than many of the real-world ones: the airtight zombie list meant that they had the advantage when it came to communicating and planning attacks.

The structure of the game itself was also influenced by digital game forms. I wrote our HvZ quests using a template I’d learned while writing quest proposals for an MMO at my job over the summer. We used terms like “NPC”, “fetch quest,” “escort quest,” and “monster drop” while talking to players, and they understood us—the terminology of digital games was the language of this physical one. When the campus newspaper interviewed us about the game, we were forced to use references to World of Warcraft to explain some of the things we were doing with HvZ.

So, is Humans Versus Zombies a physical reenactment of a digital MMO? Or is it a traditional real-world game of tag with some aspects made possible by the digital? When I’m working on quests, I’m tempted to see it as a physical re-enacting of an MMO, but when I’m at the quests themselves, dressed up like a mad scientist and running through the snow, I tend to see it as a primarily physical game, like the games and activities I ran while working at a summer camp several years ago.

Problems we’ve grown familiar with through digital experiences plagued our physical game. We had plenty of HvZ trolls: disruptive players who made other players’ lives miserable in the same way that online trolls often do in games. We received complaints about a player trash-talking other players with race-based offensive speech. We received complaints about cheaters who went around without their identifying arm-bands and head-bands—essentially, players who “hacked” the rules with a simple run-around to gain a major advantage. The game is psychologically frustrating for human players, who often feel stranded or picked-on as the zombie horde camps outside their dorms or classrooms. Some responded to this stress with long, hostile email flame-wars. We saw rule exploits. We had a player actually kick another player in anger. I was surprised, over and over again, with the similarities between these problems and the kinds of offenses I’ve grown familiar with through online multiplayer games.

So, what’s the deal? Were players behaving like this because that’s how people are, both online and in the real world? Is trolling endemic to play, whether digital or not? I tend to see the internet not as a lens which warps human behavior, but as a lens which shows how we really want to behave, rudely throwing the cover off of the things we actually think and believe. Abstracting ourselves from the heart of a matter– whether that abstraction comes through the anonymity of the internet, or through the abstraction provided by the nature of play itself– allows us to forgive ourselves for things we’d never have done in “the real world.” Play can sometime make us forget ourselves.

Luckily, we didn’t have many truly offensive players—most of our problems were solved without much fuss. Our next game session, which will most likely begin in March, will include some rule changes which should greatly decrease the amount of disruptive behavior we see. We’re going to be more positive to the players, put a greater emphasis on levity and fun, and make sure that the stress doesn’t break the human team the way it did this winter.

Right now, player motivation is our biggest problem. While most humans took the transition from Human to Zombie team with grace, some refused to continue playing after they’d been tagged and ‘turned.’ Some said it was because they only liked playing if they were allowed to carry Nerf guns—and zombies have to go empty-handed. Some actually thought that there was less “honor” in playing a zombie than a human. Campus attitude may have had something to do with this: the zombies only won if everyone became a zombie, and on an Ivy-League campus filled with kids who seem to believe they’re entitled to special treatment, there is little appeal to the ‘everyone wins’ scenario. In the future, we’ll have to think of new ways to motivate the zombie players. We’re considering giving them special rewards for staying ‘in character’ and wearing cool costumes– for invading reality in cheekier, less-stressful ways. We’re going to make more quests which cater to their play style. We’re also going to hand-pick the Original Zombies from a pool of volunteers, making sure that they’ve got the enthusiastic leadership skills necessary to bind the moaning horde together. See, players take this game much more seriously than we’d anticipated– though, to be frank, we should have anticipated that.

HVZ, as an ARG, is all about taking things “too seriously”– and I’d like to discuss HvZ’s status as an ARG now, and discuss what I think the point and possibilities of ARGs, both digital and ‘real-world,’ actually are. The game’s official website, maintained by the Goucher grads who invented it, doesn’t actually talk about this. It calls the the experience ‘a game of moderated tag,’ and ‘a social opportunity,’ but its nature as a social alternate-reality game is never mentioned.

See, it’s the collision of the game and reality which makes HVZ so intense an experience for its players. They must figure out how to live their real-world lives—with all their attendant responsibilities and requirements—alongside their new, high-stakes lives as human survivors and zombie horde members. At one point, a student complained to me that a group of zombies had prevented him from getting into an academic building until twenty minutes into that class period. “What do you want me to do about it?” I asked him. “Sometimes you have to choose: am I going to stay a human or am I going to go to class?”

ARGs are exciting because they disturb and stress our ordinary lives. Because they require us to live in two worlds at once, never securely in the game or in reality. ARGs are dissonant. They can be upsetting. I saw our game of HvZ threaten actual, real-world friendships. This can happen in a wholly fictive, non-ARG game, but ARGs increase the possibility of real-world disaster. They invite us to forget what reality is, to alter our real-world behaviors and priorities. They’re games which ask us to take them “too seriously.”

As players discovered, there’s a thrill in that. We play digital games because they give us new and exciting experiences which, we say, we could never actually have in “the real world.” But we play ARGs because they force us to have those intense, liberating experiences in the real world. Too often we defend the digital with the claim that it provides us with those “new and exciting experiences,” as if there really are emotions or intense mental experiences in games which we can’t have out here in “the real world.” But the kind of mental energy we associate with a really great digital game– the feeling of being wrapped up emotionally and intellectually in an un-real experience– is definitely not exclusive to the realm of the digital. Now that I’ve done HvZ, I disagree with the idea that the ‘digital’ nature of digital games is what provides us with that unusual high. There are plenty of game experiences in that “real world” which meet and match the kinds of mental or emotional experiences we’ve grown to associate with digital games.

Because these experiences are much harder to organize in the real world, however, most of us have never experienced them. It’s impractical to expect that we could. A I said in my earlier post about HVZ, digital games offer us a high-intensity mental or emotional experience in exchange for a low-intensity outlay of physical energy. That’s the main convenience they offer us, and that– above and beyond promises of sweet graphics and sound– is what makes digital games special. They make our ambitious structures easier to achieve.

We could have those emotions in the real world, too– we could have that rush here and now. But it would be hard to set up. We need people to plan and design that experience for us, whether that designer is a digital expert or a hard-taxed real-world organizer. They give us the opportunities. And HvZ is one of these opportunities.

The Zombie Apocalypse

What have I been doing?

Well, I recently finished running a game of Humans Versus Zombies at my college. I and five others spent over a month preparing for the event, and by the time we got underway, 136 people were signed up to play. It lasted for six days, during which time I learned quite a bit about game design.

HvZ is a game of Nerf-gun tag—crossed with an ARG, crossed again with Airsoft, and crossed yet again, for a spectacular final mixture, with an MMO. It’s like the popular campus game Assassins, but it’s team-based, runs for a shorter period of time, involves quests and rewards, and is probably more psychologically-stressful than Assassins has ever been. It’s complicated enough that you’d probably benefit from reading the rules, found here. Bear in mind that although it’s been played at hundreds of college campuses around the world, each permutation is unique. (Ours was made particularly unique by the fact that nearly a foot of snow fell while we were playing.)

Photo by Shaun Akhtar

The game begins with all but a few players on the ‘human’ team. They’re armed with Nerf guns and they wear armbands to identify themselves as players—and they carry these guns and armbands with them wherever they go: to classes, to the gym, the library, and to every meal. (It’s a high-visibility game. While we were running it, we were interviewed by the campus paper and nearly interviewed by the college town’s local newspaper.) When the game begins, almost everyone’s in high spirits. There’s something quite exhilarating about carrying a toy dart blaster around inside official buildings on a college campus, even if you know you’re not allowed to play with it inside.

As the game continues, the zombies grow in number. We started with three Original Zombies. They had six hours to masquerade as humans and tag as many players as possible, after which they revealed themselves and began wearing bands around their heads. Anyone tagged by a zombie becomes a permanent member part of the zombie team. They don’t carry Nerf guns—instead, they tag players by hand. Every time they’re shot by a Nerf dart or hit by a thrown sock, they’re stunned for fifteen minutes, after which they return to play—the zombie team is an implacable, restless horde.

HvZ, then, is a game where the teams have unequivalent and unequal powers. Each team is forced by these unequal powers to pursue a different basic strategy—different ways of moving through campus, different ways of gathering and collaborating, different ways of approaching objectives and goals. And each team, as we went on, developed its own character and attitude. The humans threw paranoid Sun Tzu quotes around on their hastily-constructed, poorly-protected listserv and had long, philosophical arguments about whether it was “better” to win the game as a human or a zombie. The zombies assembled a “kill list” of high-profile players and spent hours lurking in central campus locations, waiting for anyone with an armband and a Nerf gun to show themselves.

Meanwhile, I and the other mods were putting together ‘missions’ for each team to participate in. Teams who completed their missions earned rewards—humans could win health packs to stave off infection, “clue cards” to purchase benefits, or increases to zombie stun time. Zombies, whose basic mode of play has them running far fewer risks than humans, were significantly harder to reward. We gave them decreases to stun time and offered them a “human disguise” which could be used to get the jump on unsuspecting human players. Unfortunately, we introduced that mechanic too late, and it was never used.

The missions themselves, however, were enormously fun to think up and put together. One quest asked the players to find objects hidden in snowdrifts while weathering attacks from the opposing team. Another required human players to escort an NPC to a remote location, where they then discovered a ‘zombie baby’—a game of Operation painted up to look like a zombie—whose cadaver they were forced to examine while under zombie attack. Another forced humans to split into small groups and run across campus while the zombies split into search parties to chase them down. One quest, designed to keep the players on their toes, simply tasked each team with a surprise cook-off involving vegetables we’d hidden in the snow. We’d planned for the final mission to involve a complicated construction task—the humans would have had to build a twelve-foot “radio tower” out of plastic children’s toys and a boatload of rubber bands—but we tested that one ourselves and discovered that it was actually impossible. We modified it at the last minute into a point-defense mission which asked the humans to defend a pre-constructed “radio tower” until “stealth copters” arrived to extract them. The humans ended up winning it, mostly due to poor zombie turnout at noon on Sunday.

I was more deeply involved in mission design than in the other parts of the game. Over the summer, while interning at a small PC game company, I had a great boss who taught me quite a lot about quest-writing for MMOs. I used that experience while writing up HvZ quests. Writing quests for a physical-world ARG actually has quite a lot in common with writing quests for a digital MMO. Like MMO quest writers, we balanced high-energy tasks with lower-energy ones to avoid stressing players out. We had to examine the space of affordances created by our ruleset—the kinds of actions players could expect to take—to figure out which situations would be the most surprising for players to experience, the most atmospheric, and the easiest for us to put together. We didn’t want everything to be escort and fetch quests, so we spent a long time thinking up as many unusual situations as we could. Early drafts of quests included the “Kiddie Pool Quest,” which would have required human players to move a kiddie pool filled snow or water across campus while suffering waves of zombie attacks, and the “Snowman Quest,” which would have required each team to make armies of “decoy” snowmen, facing one another across a battlefield, before engaging in a firefight.

Photo by Shaun Akhtar

Quests exist in HvZ to lure the humans out of hiding—if the entire human team turtles for a week, it’s no fun. That said, we had to make sure that our quests were as fun for zombies to play as they were for humans. Each team’s experience offers its own, unique excitements. The fun of being a human comes in the intense thrill of survival, and in the foxhole-style bonding players experienced as a team. People also derived a lot of entertainment from purchasing and maintaining their impressive Nerf arsenals. The fun of being a zombie comes in the glee of making a great kill: in successfully staking out a hard-to-catch player, or in chasing down a noble survivor as part of an enormous, coordinated horde. Friday’s quest, which asked humans to split into tiny groups to carry buckets of snow across campus, was perhaps the best-designed of all our quests. It gave the humans a chance to work stealthily in small groups, making heroic three-man dashes across exposed territory, and it gave the zombies a chance to organize themselves, work as a machine, and take on the predatory role in a campus-wide game of cat-and-mouse.

The trouble with quest design for a real-world game involving over 130 people, of course, is that you can’t ‘balance’ the quests before the event actually happens. We had no idea how players would react to being told that they must successfully complete a game of Operation while standing in knee-deep snow in a darkened stretch of woodland. We didn’t know whether the zombies would even be clever enough to locate the humans and stake out their kitchen during the cook-off quest. We didn’t know that our radio-tower-construction quest was impossible until we checked, last-minute, whether we could actually do it. Despite this, while talking to players afterwards, we were told that they probably would have enjoyed the construction quest anyway, even if it was practically impossible.

Photo by Shaun Akhtar

We couldn’t know these things, and there was no way we could have found out. Digital game designers benefit from the fact that playing games on consoles and PCs is, essentially, a low-effort task. Asking a team of beta testers to play through all the quests in an MMO is simply asking them to read words, press buttons, and do some critical thinking. We tendto think of and talk about digital games as if they are incredibly tough, active, whole-body experiences—but compared to the kinds of quests in HvZ, they’re not. If our HvZ mod team had included thirty dedicated athletes, we might have been able to test all of our quests before we finished writing them. Even then, however, we couldn’t have known how the heavy snowfall would affect play. We couldn’t know anything until it actually happened. That, I believe, was the most stressful part of the entire experience.

Another part of the game I was deeply involved in was flavor-text writing and the design of the game’s few recurring NPCs. The humans were led by “President Barack Obama”, whose written voice I designed to be brash, ultra-patriotic, and rather action-hero-esque. Here’s an example of one of emails we sent out the human team, telling them the time and place of an upcoming quest:

From the Presidential Desk of Valorous American President Barack Obama

January 13, 2011

Dear American Citizens of Dartmouth College,

It is yet again I, your President, Barack Obama. I am contacting you
now with the gravest of all requests, and I hope that despite your
dwindling numbers, the patriotic humans of Dartmouth will rise to the

We have recently discovered that Professor Schnapps’ laboratory was
doing strange experiments upon something mentioned in his notes as a
‘zombie baby.’ My CIA scientists were totally grossed out by mere
PHOTOGRAPHS of this ‘zombie baby,’ but you, my citizens, will have the
privilege of seeing it IN PERSON!

A patriotic whistleblowing scientist in Schnapps’s laboratory has
volunteered to turn the ‘zombie baby’ over to the human forces. We
need you to go and meet this scientist, then conduct whatever
operations are necessary to extract clues from it. Meet her between
Dartmouth Hall and the Fayerweathers at 5:30.

Godspeed, humans. May your justice fall on the heads of the zombies
like a screaming eagle from the skies!
–Barack Obama

For giggles, whenever we decided to bring out Obama as an NPC, we had him played by a white female dressed in a suit. She acted him as if she were a square-jawed president from a Blockbuster movie. The result was a weirdly dissonant, pretty hilarious character. Our Obama proved a favorite among the players.

The zombie team was led by “Professor Schnapps,” a fictional hippie-ish professor from the Dartmouth Medical School. He’d created the zombie virus by accident, as part of an experiment designed to cure world hunger (his experiment subjects lost the need to eat food at all—but gained a hunger for BRAINS). Whenever we brought him out as an NPC, I played Professor Schnapps, complete with a Dartmouth lab coat and a bald wig. Here’s one of the emails I wrote from Schnapps to the zombie team:

January 14, 2011

Oh, my darling zombies!

What a glorious treat I have for you today! You’ll be ever so pleased!

I’ve discovered from highly reliable sources that those fools in
Washington think they’ve created an antidote. How wrong they are! In
fact, the precious shipment they’re sending up to our little town is a
powerful serum which will boost your systems up just perfectly. For
once they’re being useful to us, eh? I feel like I should be laughing
maniacally right now, or something!

Well, zombies, they’ll be delivering the serum soon, and I’m sure
those last few pesky humans will be doing all they can to keep it from
you. Go forth, and make me proud! Meet in the Dick’s House parking lot
at 3:30 sharp to plan our interception of the goods!

Make daddy proud!
–Professor Schnapps

Professor Schnapps was also played for laughs. Frequently referring to the zombies as his “teeming, shambling children” and signing his letters with hugs and kisses, he was a neat spin on the classic ‘crazy mad scientist.’

In the days since the game has ended, we’ve been meeting with some of the more-hardcore players and coming up with new plans to make next term’s game even better. With the snow gone, the kinds of missions we’ll be able to put on will be even more interesting. Now that we’ve had a chance to “troubleshoot” the rules on our campus, we know what changes need to be made to the ruleset to make play smoother and more-enjoyable next time. We’re aiming for over 200 players.

I hope to follow this post up with a more-technical post focused on the strange interaction of the digital and the physical in Humans Versus Zombies. It’s a game that requires digital software to run properly—we had a database keeping track of who was a human and who was a zombie. Additionally, it was from the digital—mainly, from the email lists each team used to keep in touch and plan for missions—that the most interesting player-initiated behavior sprung. In a game where the play zone is identical to our real, everyday lives, “player-created content” takes on a new meaning.

By the way—if anyone out there reading this has ever put on a game of HvZ at their school, or is interested in doing so, I’d love to talk to you about it!

The best kind of revenge

In the spirit of popular revelation-analysis like “Fight Club Is Really Calvin And Hobbes” and “Secretly, the Joker Has Homoerotic Feelings For Batman,” I present: “Assassin’s Creed is Really About A Little Child Climbing on Furniture.”

In elementary school, I was addicted to climbing low obstacles. I’ve always had a paralyzing fear of drops and edges, but there was something I loved about clambering along the backs of couches, along crumbly retaining walls, on bookshelves and stair railings. I was, and still am, uncomfortable with merely looking at cliffs, but jumping on furniture was a thrill. Although it still scared me, it wasn’t actually dangerous, so I loved it. Kids seek out these kinds of controlled encounters with fear. They’re important.

This behavior was not very popular with my parents and teachers. I remember getting in trouble for standing on desks, trying to climb out first-story windows, and sitting on high stacks of classroom chairs. Everyone who remembers being eight knows what adults say when they see children doing these kinds of things. Those chiding, deriding warnings have been ground into our skulls, and when we warn children, we use the same words without even thinking about it. Ubisoft was quite right to label wall-climbing “socially unacceptable” in Assassin’s Creed I and II.

Socially unacceptable horse behavior.

Ubisoft also nailed the language of derision. The following quotes are taken from the first game; they’ve always reminded me, rather strongly, of the things I was told as a child, and the things I’ve told to children myself.

He’s going to hit someone!

Is there a reason for this nonsense?

Look at him! He’ll break his neck!

I don’t understand what he’s trying to accomplish!

He’s going to hurt himself And when he does, I won’t help him!

When will he stop acting like a fool?

Does he really have a reason for doing that?

He should stop acting like a child!

Stop acting like a child, indeed! There’s something about the bystanders in Assassin’s Creed which infuriates some of us and makes us want to kill them. The sneering pedestrians who see you riding your horse at anything faster than a walk. The neutral guards’ bemused teasing. The nagging beggar-women who tell you, angrily, that “No, you don’t understand!” It’s sometimes as though the city is made up entirely of angry parents, and you’re the kid, misbehaving. They want you to stop climbing on shit and stay on the floor, like a normal person. They all wish you would just stop messing around.

But this time, you have a knife, and you can throw parents and teachers and angry bystanders off cliffs and into walls and stab their eyes out, if you so please. You can run up sheer walls and vanish like a hero before they’ve even finished talking, and there’s nothing they can do about it. The relationship you have with these bystanders gets even clearer, and more satisfying, in the second game. The opening levels are filled with street heralds who warn their bumbling audiences about how the young men of the cities have taken to climbing on the buildings “for sport.” That, of course, means you. And the herald warns you, over and over again, that “It’s only divertimento until somebody breaks a leg!”

But you know that’s not true. It’s always fun, particularly when you’re breaking your leg, or other people’s legs, and running at breakneck speeds through crowds of screaming idiots who can’t do what you can do. They don’t mean a thing. They’re worthless. You can breeze through the press of people with your ‘pickpocket’ button held down and rob them of a hundred florins in a minute, and they’re so stupid there’s nothing they can do about it.

This sense of avenging your unfair belittlement is a powerful undercurrent in both of these games, both explicitly, in their plots, and implicitly, in the little ways you’re casually treated by the ambient dialog. When I play, I feel like a triumphant child. I’m showing them! That experience is powerful through its own artistry, but it’s important through what I bring to it. You don’t have to be twelve or thirteen to feel that there’s some deep, mighty, mysterious kind of children’s revenge taking place in these imagined streets of the Holy Land and Italy. Like the plot, it resonates through time: the shoppers of ancient Jerusalem sound like my third-grade teachers. Everything, particularly resentment, belittlement, and childish rage, persists.

The only time I’ve ever been disciplined officially by a school was in seventh grade, when I was written up for running in the hallways. I actually sobbed. I’d never been punished like that before, and I felt the injustice very sharply. At the time, when the issue seemed so dramatic and serious, I think I’d have loved to push the responsible authorities off of a roof.

Socially unacceptable. But it's what you want.

In AC2, you won’t be written up for running in the halls, but you might be laughed at, and if you’re notorious, you’ll probably get stabbed. And you’ll certainly get a chance to throw someone off a roof. For once, you’ll beat your enemies soundly. It’s a refreshing feeling. A dark and bitter kind of refreshment, but refreshing nonetheless.

1000 Blank White Cards

Have you ever played 1000 Blank White Cards?

It’s a card game—a party game—which the players make up themselves.  Everyone gets a few blank cards and writes whatever rules they please on them. The goals, objectives, and substance of the game itself is entirely up to those players. It is absolutely one-hundred-percent player created content.

Over the past few days, as my friends and I unwound from the fever-pitch of an awful academic term*, we played this game several times. We cut a pack of index cards in half, doled them out to 5 or 6 people, and wrote whatever we pleased on them. There isn’t even a skeleton ruleset in this game—each card should contain a title, a cartoon, and a rule, but that structure is mainly just a suggestion. We had a few cards without rules or point values—only pictures. A few were crude copies of cards from other games we own. We only bothered enforcing the rules we liked.

Any stranger who walked in off the street would have found our game impossible and absurd. One player named his cards exclusively after people we knew. I made several cards referencing the game Bang. One card could only be played successfully if the players knew where in the house to find a NERF gun. We had more than one scribbly copy of the Base Set Pikachu Pokemon card. When it entered play, others used their blank cards to draw Energy Cards so that Pikachu could attack—though no one ever managed to pull that off. One card made points irrelevant. Some cards forced players to play while blind, or without using their hands. Other cards punished players for being sober. Others punished them for being drunk. One card forced players to reveal ‘deviant sexual desires.’ One card—my favorite, in fact—forced the players to light it on fire and pass it around in a circle until one player drops it. We had another card which forces the players to recreate the burned card if had been reduced to ashes.

Though the game has a points system, many of our cards never even referenced points, and it is certainly impossible to deliberately win while playing with our deck. Too many crazy pyramids of stacked and nested rules collapse during play. The point of the game, you might say, is to create the cards, not to play with them. If a card is interesting in theory, we love it.

Every game, we play with about 40 cards from our ‘live’ deck. We create about 20 more cards during play, and at the end of the session, we search the deck for cards we didn’t like, and set them aside. We have a card which allows players to ‘resurrect’ cards from this ‘dead deck’ and return them to the ‘live’ one. We have cards which allow players to destroy other cards by cutting them up with scissors or ripping them apart. In this game, ultimate victory consists in never making a card so dull someone wants to retire it. The winners are the ones who make us laugh the most. We preserve their senses of humor in the deck.

We stopped playing because it tired us out. One session was so loud, raucous, and fire-filled that most of the people in our house at the time jumped into the game halfway through, hypnotically fascinated by whatever we were doing. But they didn’t understand our cards. Some of our cards struck them as cruel. Our jokes seemed out of line. When we culled the deck at the end of our game, half the cards we loved were thrown out. The ecosystem of humor and self-congratulation we’d cultivated was upset.

You can’t let other people join your group, we realized. 1000BWC is private. It’s for hateful jokes and unintelligible humor. That final game was so apocalyptically confusing, with so many voices—we had something like twelve people playing—that it no longer made sense. It was too exhausting. We haven’t picked it up since, though the decks are all still there, ready to go.

It’s been a few days since we put the game aside, and in that time, I’ve realized why player created content is so tough. 1000BWC is the Communist revolution of player created content. Because all you need is a pen and a stack of index cards, you can do anything. The game is whatever pleases the players. There aren’t any real rules. There aren’t any real restrictions on resources or playstyle. You can’t be this creative in a computer game, and I doubt we’ll ever be able to. 1000 Blank White Cards is minimalistic. It isn’t anything. You can’t buy it in a store. Really, it’s more like some primitive inversion ritual than a card game. It’s so formless that it seems to deliberately bait frowny proscriptivists with the ‘is it actually a game!!?!’ debate.

If 1000BWC is the wild, extreme end of player-created content, where does Spore lie? Way down on that other end, I bet. Where’s the APB character creator? Where’s Minecraft? What are we actually looking for in player-created content? Are we looking for a chance to be as creative as we could be if we weren’t playing a game at all?

I’ve infected my circle of friends with Minecraft. Yesterday, one of them angrily asked me why he couldn’t put redstone dust on the sides of walls. “I was coming back across the beach and I saw my house sticking up there with its big blank sides,” he told me, “and I thought: hey, you know what would be great there? A big skull face made out of redstone dust. With torches for eyes.” But he can’t do that, because redstone dust is not for vertical surfaces.

“You’re too creative for Minecraft, I suppose,” I told him. I’ve been playing Minecraft for something like eight or nine months now. I bought it the week I finished with Dwarf Fortress. I remember picking it up back before there were even any trees. These days, I no longer imagine further than the game seems to let me. I’ve been wishing that I could reclaim some of that imagination and think up something splendid. That I could bring to it the fine, invention-drunk attitude that comes with 1000BWC. But I can’t. It’s an actual, imagined, conceived-of game, and 1000BWC isn’t—not until you make it.

Besides, our final game kind of sucked. There was a bit too much raucous creativity there, and it broke the feel. It’s very easy to break the feel when you make the feel yourself.


*So awful that it would mangle your brain, Lovecraft-style, if I explained it to you

Smaller Internships

I recently finished an internship at a small Japanese-owned games publisher. Here are some things I have learned about games-related internships, particularly ones at small or developing companies.

First of all: if you’re interested in working in the games industry or doing anything with games in any capacity, you should try to find an internship. No question about it. If you’re in college, don’t put it off until after you graduate and have lost that particular support network. If you don’t have skills in programming, art, or animation, an internship can help you figure out what part of the industry you could potentially work in. There’s a greater variety of work to do with games than you might initially think.

If you can’t find one at a well-known company, by all means try to find one at a smaller or relatively-unknown company. I actually believe that working at smaller companies could be much more valuable than working at large, well established ones. I started off as a marketing intern but ended up doing a lot more, because the place I was working at was a developing startup and needed help in other areas, too. In a smaller company, you’ll see a lot more of the business, and probably learn much, much more. Besides, working closely with a small team of people is fun.

(Additionally, you won’t be fighting against hundreds of other people for the same few internship spots.)

I recently read Replay by Tristan Donovan. There’s a great bit there at the end where 2D Boy mention how their idealistic misconceptions about the gaming industry were rudely corrected after working at EA and seeing that games are made in offices and meetings and not by happy wizards who eat cotton candy and shoot magic out of their fingertips. Doing an internship could help you make this discovery yourself, before you’ve committed yourself to a career and a course of action. Previous to this, I’d only ever worked as a librarian, as a research assistant operating out of someone’s dining room, and as a camp counselor who ran around covered in mud all day long. Offices are arresting. Sometimes they are mildly disturbing. It is entirely possible that you may not like them very much, and it would be good to figure that out before you’re stuck in one.

In the end, I ended up interning at a company that publishes the kinds of games I don’t normally play much of. If you think ‘game’ means manly-faced American-made guns-for-hands Triple-A Unreal-engine shooty-times, or if you think that those are the only games that make money, or the only ones that deserve attention, this is a huge problem. You are also at risk of becoming an enormous dickhead.

“I can’t find an internship at Bethseda/Epic/Valve,” you might say. “And I’ve tried! Argh! The economy!” I say: don’t try worry too much about your favorite developer. You like their games; that doesn’t mean they’re the only people who can teach you anything about the industry. You’ll learn a lot more by working at a smaller place.

It’s an internship. You have absolutely nothing to lose, particularly if you’re getting class credits for the experience.


For the past week, I’ve been playing through the original Starcraft’s single-player campaign. For the first time.

I’d attempted it five or six years ago, but I was embarrassingly awful at it and therefore hated it. I’d grown up playing many, many RTSes, mostly set in human history. My favorites were the Age of Empires games. They are slightly more forgiving to those who, like me, are awful at ‘micro,’ and while I was never very good at any of them, I could still enjoy them and not feel like a complete idiot. Starcraft made me feel like an idiot.

Nevertheless, I might have stuck with Starcraft if its single-player campaign hadn’t struck me as such an awful piece of crap. I didn’t enjoy the talking heads. History buff that I was, I didn’t ‘get’ the heavy references to the southern United States (and I still don’t). The characters were only very fleetingly sketched, and people kept dipping in and out of view, changing sides, and saying asinine things in funny accents. I never even got to the bit where a certain someone transforms into a certain Queen of Somethings. It’s not like I expected overmuch from the game—I knew that RTSes can occasionally suck at telling stories. Starcraft, though, struck me as extraordinarily bad.

But I’ve been slowly plowing through it these past few weeks, and I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve also been watching many, many Starcraft II replay videos. Together, I think they’re helping me understand something about the role that story sometimes plays in multiplayer-enabled RTSes. Both campaigns and replay commentaries serve, in part, the exact same purpose. They’re translations.

Starcraft II replay videos with commentary are fun because they transform chaotic madness into coherent stories. Alone, I can’t access the ‘conversation’ that takes place between these high-level players as they compete. That conversation takes place in a long-running strategic context of strategies and counter-strategies stretching back over years and years, and it’s a context that I don’t yet possess. Whatever’s going on, it’s not necessarily going to fall easily into an attractive narrative, or even the kind of narrative that I can understand. But humans like to see things in terms of gripping stories, so people like HD and Husky step in and, voila, the story congeals. They turn a frantic conversation in a language I don’t speak into something I can understand and appreciate; they imbue the players with a kind of character that isn’t immediately discernable to the untrained eye; with the tones of their voice, they give structure and energy to a match. They are translators. Sports commentators have always been translators.

Secretly, a translator

Additionally, sports commentators have always been authors. They’re not necessarily telling the story of a match in the same way that the players themselves would have told it. Instead, and of necessity, they’re writing a whole new one. Translation is never perfect, but we need translations, and we need stories. Humans love to see the things we don’t fully understand as coherent stories. They help us to understand those things, even if they’re not the kinds of things that can honestly be represented by a conventional story.

One example of this is historical periodization—the division of history into consecutive and self-contained segments of time, like “The Middle Ages” or “The Industrial Age.” We do it because it helps us to understand the past, not because the past actually took place in discrete chunks. We take a bunch of stuff that happened around the same dates, point out common characteristics, give that period a name, and slap it into a timeline and—voila!— the story of human existence congeals! On one level, periodization is important, because we can’t talk about things or ideas without thinking of them as things. On another level, a philosophical one, it’s not entirely ‘realistic.’ For example, historians have recently begun to freak out about whether or not the Renaissance ever actually ‘existed.’ We may have arbitrarily imposed our conception of it as a coherent time-block because time-blocks suit us. Rendering any kind of chaos into story always involves a little bit of arbitrary re-authoring.

The Renaissance: didn't "really" "happen"

On some levels, putting a story to an RTS is like this, whether it’s the story provided by commentary or by a single-player campaign. The story re-writes the experience into something a bit more palatable and accessible, reinventing it as something that we can learn from. It’s impossible to learn from chaos, and at the first glance of an untrained eye, many RTSes are chaos. But single-player campaigns and replay commentaries each provide the translations for single-player and multiplayer play, respectively.

It should be obvious to anyone who has ever played an RTS that single-player campaigns frequently exist to teach players the basics that they’ll need in order to function in multiplayer competition. By imposing careful restrictions, a mission can isolate certain skills and strategies, teaching you something that you might never have noticed in normal multiplayer play. Soon enough, you can talk the game’s talk—and, if you’re good, manipulate its mechanics as creatively as you could manipulate any language.

Similarly, the best replay commentary points out and isolates certain concepts and strategies in a way that allows players to decode the language of high-level play ’syllable’ by ‘syllable’, so to speak, teaching strategies that the single-player campaign cannot teach. While replay delivers this instruction in a simple, upfront context (“you want the translation, so I am giving it to you”), the way teachers provide translations of difficult concepts to students through traditional schooling, an RTS’s single-player translation takes the form of a straight-up fiction.

But each method uses stories, as I mentioned above. The story of a good match—say, the first clash between IdrA and Masq, and the eventual rematch—is as exciting as many of the stories Blizzard comes up with. Personally, I think they’re often a lot more exciting, mostly because the human drama is real.

At any rate, I find it interesting that RTS developers haven’t yet broadly acknowledged the similarities between these two teaching tools. They don’t provide competitive multiplayer campaigns that teach the same things that commentary does in the way that single-player campaigns teach it—with stories. Granted, for a game as complex as Starcraft, that would be incredibly difficult. You’d have to do an extended beta to test your multiplayer design, then develop a campaign around what you’d discovered, and perhaps find a whole new way to tie a translating narrative onto the top of all that. Worst of all, as the game entered its extended lifespan, strategies might emerge that you hadn’t predicted or worked into the campaign. They might even break the campaign. You might have to edit some of the creative content along with the natural act of balancing the game. You could definitely do it, though, and it could be much easier to do for a game with simpler mechanics. I’d love to see a game take some lessons from replay commentary and include a competitive multiplayer campaign with a story that reacts as the players defeat one another.

Then again, a good RTS should make it fun to learn to play competitively by simply playing competitively. That’s how I played Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology as a kid, and even though I sucked, I enjoyed it. People who currently battle for their rankings in Starcraft II ladders are having fun without a story in a competitive campaign. Nevertheless, they’re probably watching commentaries. They still want translations, and they use them often. Honestly, as a kid, I could have done with some good translations. If I’d had a few more than I did, I’d probably suck a lot less than I do now.


Also: Where have Kent and I been? Well, we’ve been having the END OF THE SUMMER, and it’s busy, and will continue to be. In the coming week I’ll be moving across the country—leaving the lawless, mazelike ruin that is Los Angeles and returning to the east coast, where people are NORMAL, goddamn it. Kent is also making mighty movements across  our planet. On top of this, Kent and I have been working on a variety of separate simultaneous projects that also eat up a lot of time and energy. I, for one, have just had my thesis approved and am reading loads and loads of books and doing other kinds of quote-unquote research. But we hope to be back to our old something-on-the-site-at-least-more-than-once-a-week schedule in the “near” “future”. Interpret those scare-quotes as you see fit.

Blame it on the sunshine

I’m excited about the future.

I mean, people who play a lot of games are usually excited about the future because, on one level, games are about the future, about the acceleration of technology and the impossible Peter-Molyneux-promises we all want to come true right now. Gamers are notoriously nostalgic, but, let’s face it: we’re really bad at holding onto that past. Systems come and go; consoles break; we don’t always have backwards-compatibility; we play so many new games that we lose the time and interest to play old ones. Gamers love the past so much simply because it’s something we can’t exactly touch anymore. We pine away. Whatever old games are, whatever part of our lives they may represent—childhood, happier times, old opportunities and regrets—they’re things we can’t see, have, change, or re-live. Nostalgia is always a kind of sadness, even if it’s only a faint kind.

But, honestly, who wants to be six anymore? The games I played were often dark and grey and kind of blurry when I was six, and things get darker the longer they live in my memory. Today, though, it’s sunny outside. I’m going to go into town and write a thing and maybe read a book, and tonight I’m going to stare at the BioShock: Infinite screens again. I’ve played an awful lot of grey-ass games, particularly recently– games grey in more ways than one. When I think about today’s games twenty years from now, I’m going to be remembering an awful lot of cement. I’m going to be nostalgic about it all, too, and I kind of dread that. It’ll all come down like a second layer of dark. See, it’s already got to the point where I will lose a lot of excitement for a title if the screens don’t turn up with enough green in them. Green and blue together, preferably. Maybe green and blue and white.

On a scale of 0 to rad, the future is pretty rad.

Life sucks. And then you die from a broken ‘Digestive Function’

For several years, my favorite computer game series was one which allowed you to force little aliens to have sex with one another.

I’m talking about the Creatures games, a series of three “A-Life” simulations which saddled you with a mob of half-sentient, disobedient monsters and dared you to breed them into a powerful superrace of babbling critters. Or something. It was hard enough getting the damn things to eat. It was much harder to get them to breed, because that meant keeping two alive at the same time.

Each Creatures game placed you as the godly caretaker of a race of small things known as ‘norns.’ The norns are diminutive, large-eared, monkey-squirrel-humanoid beasts. They can learn a limited English vocabulary, express fears and desires, communicate with one another, learn rather complex tasks, develop personalities and relationships, and generally shock players with their emergent brilliance. They can also die in a million horrible ways.

Each individual norn is comprised of a series of discrete ‘organs,’ each of which reacts to elements in the game world in a variety of different ways, many fatal. If a creature spends too long underwater, its ‘lungs’ organ will die. Then it will die. I’ve watched creatures fall and destroy their ‘bones’ organ, gobble up poison mushrooms to the detriment of their ‘digestive function,’ and even, due to an odd birth defect, pop out of the egg with two brains, both of which were already dead.

In C1, norns lived on the outer edge of Albia, their disc-shaped, sidescrolling home planet. They shared it on bad terms the grendels, a breed of stupider, stronger baddies. In C2, they were joined by the neutral Ettins, magpie-style wanderers who lived in the desert zone and stole mechanical objects from everywhere else. Originally protected by the intelligent Shee, a fourth race of aliens, all these little beasts were abandoned to your care until Creatures 3. C3 made you the Lone Shee, who flies a giant generation ship full of norns, grendels, and ettins through the infinite vastnesses of space for no particular reason whatsoever. Though the nomenclature is weirdly referential to Celtic mythology, the games’ art style had no relation. The norns were Disneylike buffoons, but the grendels were soulless lizard brutes and the ettins looked oddly like a race of dried, bleached zombie dolls.

All the weirdness aside, Creatures 1 and 2 were grueling sims, and for me, they were a sort of trial-by-fire introduction to biology and genetics. I received Creatures 2 for Christmas when I was nine or ten and, by the time I was done with it, I’d taught myself punnet squares, acquired a basic vocabulary in biology, learned about mods, bought my very first game guide, and accidentally irradiated ten or twelve innocent little artificial intelligences in the firey bowels of the game’s sole volcano until they mutated and bore stillborn young. That said, I never actually managed to raise a successful third generation of creatures in Creatures 2. I don’t know whether this was typical or not, but I do know that some players were far more adept at the game than I was. And a lot more obsessed.

Each version of the game had the same arc: you began with a single norn, to whom you taught English, often with great frustration. You then led it to explore the entire world map, collecting power-ups along the way. They granted you special new abilities in the gameworld. One allowed you to control and breed grendels and ettins. Others opened new parts of the game’s interface, allowing you a better look at each creature’s biochemistry or physical state. Unfortunately, to activate the power-ups, your creatures had to ‘push’ them—and, in C2, teaching them the meaning of the word was pretty difficult.

“PUSH,” you’d command, unsure what noun class the power-up fit into. “PUSH! PUSH!”  The parser was very rigorous. Unfortunately, the ‘push’ verb, when performed by one norn on another, resulted in norn babies. I triggered several accidental pregnancies by ordering a crowd of norns surrounding a power-up to PUSH! at random.

Eventually you uncovered the game’s crowning secret: a genetic splicing machine. It allowed you to combine norns, grendels, and ettins into mutant horrors. I only ever uncovered the splicer in three of my tens of C2 game-worlds. My father once played and, inexplicably, uncovered the splicer in a fraction of the amount of time it normally took me or my sister.

It must have been because we were stupid kids, I suppose—but C2 was hard. As a disembodied hand, the player could interact arbitrarily with only some of the objects in the game world. Some buttons could be pressed; some foods or other objects could be picked up and moved around. You could slap or tickle the norns, grendels, and ettins, which was how you taught them to do various things in the gameworld, but you couldn’t actually move them or force them to do anything. If your norn really wanted to leap off of the highest level of the bamboo village in the jungle biome, there was nothing you could do to stop him mashing his bones organ into a fine paste and dying, with whines and gasps, in the unforgiving Albian dust. Some of the most powerful moments in my entire gaming memory involved watching norns die, incredibly slowly , in the furthest parts of C2’s labyrinthine world. One little guy ate a cyanide mushroom. Though I found him the antidote, he was already too far gone to respond to my frantic typing. “EAT PLANT,” I commanded, over and over, dropping the healing flower in front of him. “EAT PLANT!”

“Bob hurt,” he responded, and, kneeling down, rested his head on the floor. “Bob feel very sick.”

I think I actually shed a tear over Bob. “You’re an idiot,” I typed. The parser didn’t understand it, and, with a quiet murmur, he died.

Most people who have played Creatures games played Creatures 3. It fixed everything that was wrong with the previous two games, and I consider it a tour-de-force, even though it clearly didn’t sell enough to keep the development studio afloat. For instance, it allowed you to grab creatures by the hand and drag them about. You could now protect them from danger by building machines that locked doors. Creatures learned English more quickly, were more resilient, and were easier to control in groups. The designers even started supplying better DLC—you could pay five bucks for a new breed of developer-polished norns. Later, the free Docking Bay add-on let you trade norns with randos over the internet. I once downloaded a female norn, oddly named ‘Oma,’ who was trapped in an eternal pregnancy. Her sprite was, anyway. She was a generation 1148 beast (my best was only 15 consecutive C3 generations) who had been bred for ultra-short gestation periods. Her babies popped out in seconds—but all were afflicted with the dreaded Fast Growth gene, a hated mutation in the C3 community. Fast Growth norns were usually colored in the ugliest possible way, susceptible to disease, and likely to be born crippled, with severe mental deficiencies or ultra-short lifespans. It took me months of experimentation to weed the Fast Growth gene out of Oma’s kids.

The C3 community was actually pretty active. There were an awful lot of mods: inexcusably ugly custom norn breeds, new rooms for the generation ship, new toys, machines, and tools. There was also a certain kind of iron-man game mode that these hardcore C3 fans liked to do—‘feral’ norn runs. They’d hatch six or eight babies out and leave them sitting in the game overnight, then check to see what had happened by morning. Because a standard C3 norn reaches sexual maturity in around forty minutes, many generations can pass in a day. Some people even kept feral runs going for weeks.

I only ever did one feral run. I left it going for about nine hours. By the time I returned, there was only one norn left. As a generation 9 or 10 norn, the logs indicated that he’d been born in a hallway, so he’d never come into contact with the Teaching Machine, and spoke no recognizable language. He could barely feed himself. He appeared to be ill, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, not even with the massive medical scanner in the bow control room. He had no name. I checked the logs, which provided me with photographs of each other norns at their moments of death, but I couldn’t figure out what had destroyed them. Possibly a deadly virus? Possibly inbreeding? There wasn’t much to go on. I put him out of his misery in the most creative way possible—injecting him at random with some of the unnamed chemicals in the medical scanner. I had a actual pen-and-paper journal where I’d ben taking notes, trying to identify some of these mystery drugs.  I didn’t deduce any new chemical functions from his death,though. I probably should have injected him with only one, not ten at once.

These days, life simulators are more popular than ever before—but The Sims has little in common with the back-breaking, soul-crushing, biology-wielding craziness that characterized the Creatures games. For one, you can’t do a feral run in The Sims 3. I recently obtained a copy of Sims 3 on discount and tried to do a feral run, because that’s what I’d wrongfully assumed had been going on in parts of Alice and Kev. I soon realized that The Sims 3 requires constant player input– it would just run until somebody had a phone call or an Opportunity, then pause itself. It’s full of modeled systems, but they’re not designed to run on their own. It’s just a game.

The Creatures games were certainly games—gamier than the Maxis Toys. But they were also fully modeled ecosystems. They ran on their own, and part of their cruelty stemmed from the fact that, like earth’s real, wild nature, Albia simply didn’t care about you. You didn’t even need to be there. Norns would die as horribly in your hands as on a feral run.

That, I think, is what sold me on the Creatures games. They were games about life that were, in the end, as harsh as life itself. Is the lack of harshness what bothers some people about the Sims games? I don’t know. The Sims games don’t bother me at all, but I’ve met people who find them saccharine and awful. I won’t deny it—I’d love The Sims better if I could do a feral run, wake up in the morning to find my starter guy dying fat and lonely while his grandkids fail school and piss themselves.

But that might be because I loved Creatures so much. Bob sticks with me.

Can we stop using these words?

I have come to the conclusion that ‘pretentious’ no longer means anything when used to describe a videogame. We ought to stop saying it.

Currently, it’s pretty much the most damning word in the biz, particularly when it comes to indie games. In many internet communities, it’s used to apply the marks of tribal exclusion. Angry internet people apply it willy-nilly to nearly anything that they don’t understand (like pOnd), even if those things are, from the perspective of your average vocabulary-having individual, not in the least pretentious. The press members who write for these people sometimes do this, too.

Okay, so a lot of people use the word to mean ‘intellectual.’ These are the kind of people who believe that games somehow resist study, or that intellectualism in gaming is somehow objectionable. They are the enemy, etc. etc. I don’t really want to talk about this. It makes me too angry and I start typing too many words about how much I dislike ’core’ gamer culture. (This post has undergone 4 revisions and was at one point over 2000 words long.)

Other people use the word ‘pretentious’ because it’s easy. These are the people I’m bothering to have an argument with. If a word is too easy to use—if we can slap it in any old place without feeling that we need to think about it—we shouldn’t be using it. ‘Pretentious’ is one of those words, like ‘gameplay,’ or ‘interactive,’ which are simply too vague to be critically useful. Instead of ‘interactive,’ I’ve started talking about ‘agency’ or, better, ‘degrees of agency.’ At this point, ‘interactive’ is basically a feature-list word, and it’s hard to control the meaning of a word that’s owned by commerce. You can slap the word ‘interactive’ on anything, and so long as your game involves user activity—even the kind of ‘press x to continue’ stuff Kent recently wrote about—you can probably get away with it. As for ‘gameplay,’ I flat-out don’t use it. If you have to use the word ‘gameplay,’ you’re not thinking hard enough about how you’re playing.

Anyway, ‘pretentious’ is now in the bin with ‘gameplay’ and ‘interactive.’ According to Merriam Webster, the actual definition of ‘pretention’ is:

expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature.

At least, this is the best suited definition from the list. Oh, also: the given synonym is ‘showy.’

Okay. How do games express importance, worth, or stature? How do we tell if and when those are unwarranted? Exaggerated? Affected? What makes a game ‘showy’?  Is that really all we need to say about a game—‘it pretends to be more important than it really is’—when we want to create productive criticism? It’s the vaguest kind of unsupported opinion. And if you’re going to bother supporting it, the weakness of the word is going to make it hard for you to do it to anyone’s satisfaction.

Honestly, we’d be better off using different words. Different phrases and ideas, anyway. Instead of trying to decide whether Braid, for example, made ‘unwarranted’ claims of ‘importance,’ we should be  talking about the intellectual and emotional risks it took, and asking whether they were worthwhile. (Answer: they were.) What about a game that took similar risks, but failed to live up to the promises those kinds of risks often make? Some people think that The Path failed in this way. I think that The Path failed on a variety of levels—it had that awful collection mechanic shoehorned into it, for instance, and had a variety of irritating and unnecessary control problems that made it less an experience of transcendent/horrifying discovery and more an experience of frustrated ambling. But I also think that it was very emotionally effective and ultimately, therefore, a kind of success. People need to talk more comprehensively about Tale of Tales’ games—to dissect why they seem so abrasive, even to people who are willing to enjoy that kind of experience. They don’t need to pull a Jim Sterling. I know he’s not really in the best position to advance the quality of games criticism, working for Destructoid and all, but he certainly doesn’t make it easier for those of us who are trying.

‘Pretentious’ is not the kind of word to use if you want to have a debate or win an argument. It does not make friends. It is good for screeching at the choir, but screeching at the choir is not something that people ought to do at all. In my opinion. At any rate, most of the games writers I care about already avoid the word. I’m just pulling ‘pretentious’ out as an example because it’s bothered me recently—there are plenty of other problems with the words we use to talk about games.

Scientists: relevant to this post!

One of the books which has had the greatest impact on me personally is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s about how new scientific fields form—about how we lose trust in old ‘paradigms’ of science and grow, slowly, to adopt new ones. The process invariably  involves a certain kind of indoctrination: new generations of scientists must grow up learning the new standards and the new vocabulary in order to communicate or perform productive research together. Scientists need a shared vocabulary and a certain critical mass of shared beliefs in order for them to talk with each other about anything. The same is true for any group of professional people for whom communication is a primary concern. A strong vocabulary with enthusiastic support from the people who use it will be much more useful than one they constantly argue about, or one too coarse to communicate the important nuances of their work.

We have an awful coarse way of talking about games.