The little-known world of competitive Minesweeper

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Aryeh D, a fellow Dartmouth student, on the topic of his particular expertise: competitive Minesweeper. Over the years, Minesweeper has birthed its own online competitive community– one very different from the competitive gaming communities we’re used to reading about on the internet today. It’s centered around a single website, communicates chiefly through a carefully-preserved, late-nineties-style website guestbook, and has weathered a number of disasters and controversies on par with those generated by any more-popular e-sport community.

This interview has been edited for length. I have also taken the liberty of linking some of Aryeh’s comments to relevant articles in the definitive Minesweeper wiki. But first: a video compilation of his best recorded times.

Laura: So. Competitive Minesweeper! My first question: how did you get into competitive Minesweeper? How did you discover this was a thing you liked and were good at?

Aryeh: Well, I first played Minesweeper in the late ninties on my dad’s old Windows 3.1 computer. And I enjoyed playing it from time to time as an alternative to, like, Solitaire. But then, in freshman year of high school, I started to play it a bit more, and went online and found that there was a whole Minesweeper-centered community! And at the same time I had a friend who was pretty decent at Minesweeper, and I wanted to improve my times to simply beat him. So that’s kind of how I got into the community aspect of Minesweeper, just being able to compare scores. And then by the end of my freshman year of high school I was participating in the Minesweeper community and that continued through my sophomore and junior years of high school especially.

Laura: What is your current ranking?

Aryeh: My current ranking? Let me check, because these days, it changes way too often! People keep passing me! It’s not good. Right now I’m going to, which is the main hub of the community and contains the world ranking. And… I am currently ranked 31st. I’m 4th in the US.

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Our PLAN for PAX

Ohohoho! We are about to head off on the road to PAX, through the whistling winds and sleeting rains of New Hampshire! Like migratory birds, we shall seek warmer (ha, ha) climes in Boston, which is a lovely city. I spent a spring living there, Kent spent a summer living there, and we can tell you: Boston is grand. Its chief virtue is that everyone there is ten times nicer than the average New Yorker. Its chief vice is that its streets are only navigable by expert mutant starship navigators who are high on Spice.

But never fear! We shall survive. You may even see us there. I will be wearing my notorious Hat:

Indeed, I wear this hat so often that people here at Dartmouth sometimes refer to me as “Hat Girl.” Kent, on the other hand, will not be wearing a hat. Instead, he will be making the unpleasant face that you can see in the background of my hat photograph. You will know him by this.

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Keynoted, Captain

Kent and I are going to PAX East. Last year, I attended without really knowing what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised by the experience—PAX is a very well-run con. This year, we’re going again, and so that I can enjoy the experience, I’m deliberately ignoring everything asinine that the PA guys have done over the past six months. This isn’t the first time that the jolly old internet has pardoned its own for offensive ignorance, and it won’t be the last.

What I’m most interested in, right now, is the choice of keynote speaker. Last year’s was Wil Wheaton, and although I didn’t see him give his speech live (Kent and I were busy camping out in line for a panel), I did see it later that week, thanks to a Youtube video. Please, if you haven’t seen his speech, watch it.

That speech has always made me a little sick.

Actually, scratch that. It makes me want to vomit all over my shoes. It’s unintentionally ironic and communicates an awful message to game enthusiasts and game developers all over the planet.

Wheaton is a great speaker. It bothers me deeply, however, when he uses his speech-making magic to summon up the utopian illusion of the unified gamer community and parade it around like it’s a real thing—or even a thing that most game-playing individuals experience. “We gamers”? “Our culture”? Bah! I remember sitting in the hallway right outside the door to the theater where Wheaton was giving his speech, hearing the audience’s muffled roars of approval, and thinking, “Hell, that’s an awful lot of eighteen-to-thirty-year-old males in there.” “Gamer” isn’t a problematic word for Wheaton, but it is for plenty of other people. ‘Gamers’ are not a unified tribe. The gaming community is not welcoming. It certainly isn’t polite to outsiders, but hell, it’s not welcoming to insiders, either, if those insiders are women, homosexuals, minorities, the elderly, or the disabled. Some of us feel this particularly sharply.

When Wheaton gives a speech suggesting that I should consider a room mostly full of men—a room in which I stick out like a sore thumb—“home,” it makes me wanna puke. Just sayin’. I admire the guy, but I think that speech is bullshit. Just take a look at the crowd-shots from last year’s PAX East photo galleries: fairly light on the ladies, right? Most of PAX East looked like Wil Wheaton. Which is to say: white, male, and a little smug.

This year, though, the PAX organizers are bringing in Jane McGonigal to give the keynote. It’s an exciting risk for them, and it’s the reason why I think that it’s better to attend PAX than sit at home and mope about the way they chose to behave this fall.

McGonigal is a polarizing figure to begin with: her language is generally studded with hyperbole, and the kinds of observations she makes—particularly, the ones in her notorious TED speech—are not always useful observations.  I find her a bit insufferable, but I appreciate that she’s out there, publishing books and producing games.

For a variety of other reasons, McGonigal won’t necessarily be a smooth pill for the PAX crowd to swallow. Although McGonigal is reeel ladygamerz, she doesn’t fit easily into the gamer stereotype promulgated by Wheaton, Tycho, Gabe, and their ilk. She doesn’t design games for a ‘gamer’ audience. Mostly, she does ARGs, and her ARGs are often deliberately aimed at the kind of people who would never call themselves gamers. Though she does use the kind of language gamers are supposed to understand—the phrase “epic win” is central to her TED talk—she doesn’t prop up the gaming status-quo in the way that Penny Arcade does.

Some people hate Jane McGonigal so much that they can’t keep away from the gender-specific insults—which bothers me a lot. Given the tone of the non-professional crowd I saw at PAX East last year, and given the kind of over-the-top thing McGonigal tends to say, I’m sure that there will be at least some negative feedback when she speaks this year.

But I’m glad that the PA people are risking it. Although Wheaton’s speech was rousing, it wasn’t challenging. Nobody in that audience went away unsure of themselves or excited about the ways in which this medium and its audiences are changing. Essentially, he got up on that stage and announced, to gamers and game developers alike, “Okay, guys, you’re doing a god job. Keep on keepin’ on.

From some perspectives, that’s a pretty awful message.

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

Skinny Stone Tower of Babel

Everyone’s playing Minecraft these days, so here’s a scene that might be familiar. I’ve built my sweet cliff-side villa and I want to go exploring.  The thing is, getting lost is easy when the world is made of blocks.  I want to make a monument—an unnatural landmark—so that I can always find my way back home.  It’s time to build a skinny stone tower of Babel.

But first, I must undress. I’ll put this nice wooden chest down right here, and I’ll strip naked and fill it with my clothing, my materials, and my tools.  Two stacks of stone blocks should be all I need.  And now I build.

I’m a herculean builder. The ancient Greeks told stories of me—Kent, god of speedy architecture.  My building method involves jumping and block-dropping. I put a block on the ground and I stand on top of it. I then hop into the air, balancing a second block below my feet.  I hop again and drop a third block on top the second one. Fortunately, I can stuff my pockets with enough stone blocks to build 700 giant temples where my worshipers can admire my building prowess.

Up and up and up I go, laying the blocks as fast as I can jump, and the ground rushes away from me. Pretty soon the only limit to my range of sight is the clip distance. The blocky grass reminds me of rice terraces in Thailand and tea plantations in Darjeeling.

Whenever I show this game to someone new, particularly to people who don’t play many games, they say that the graphics are terrible. I guess that I can understand this. The omnipresent wielded tool or hand-stump is a constant reminder of just how grainy the textures are. Even at medium distances the textures don’t tile well.

The way to convert anyone is to climb the tallest thing you can find. Minecraft vistas are sublime.  They’re so unabashedly digital, and yet so organic.  Who can look at a scene like this and not be overcome with awe and wanderlust?









But I haven’t come for the view. I’ve come to jump. I toe the edge of my impossible obelisk, and then I plummet awfully to the ground. Game over! Score: &e0.

Alright, so: Game Over screens. These are used to signal that the game has ended in an unfavorable way. Maybe you’ve run out of time, or you’ve run out of lives, or you’ve run out of hearts, but the game is over and you didn’t win it.

When I die in Spelunky or Rogue, I have to restart from the beginning. When I die in Dragon Age or Dead Space, I have to return to a save state, rewriting history as though I never died. But when I die in Minecraft, I return to the same world that I left. That tower I built is still there. The crater that the exploding creeper left in the mountainside is still there too.

Remember the nonsense score on the Game Over screen? It’s a holdover from an earlier version of survival mode, when you got points from killing monsters. But to me the broken score counter is emblematic of how Minecraft eschews traditional gaming impetuses and measures of success. Minecraft isn’t about getting a high score. It’s about exploring and building and destroying.

I’m easily exhausted by traipsing around a city in order to collect hundreds of assassin’s flags, but I love exploring in order to see what there is to see. I have a perpetual desire to crest the next hill, to see what’s at the top of that cliff. There’s something about hearing the low moan of a zombie while you’re entombed in a narrow tunnel of your own construction that strikes a wonderful harmony of fear and curiosity. It’s great to stand gazing into an abyssal cavern and be overwhelmed with the simple need to see what’s inside.

Minecraft is special because the main character isn’t you, it’s the world around you. You are only as important as the effect you have on the world. AND SUCH IS LIFE. Now join me and look up in perfect silence at the stars.

Found in Translation: Chanting the Words of the Buddha

Yesterday, I loved Final Fantasy XIV. Today I’m not so sure.  But this is only the latest oscillation in my sinusoidal relationship with Square-Enix’s brand new MMO. I’ve been trying to write about Final Fantasy XIV, but my opinion of it is more erratic than a seismometer during an earthquake.  When I write something, I like to let it sit for a little while so that I can return with fresh eyes. This has become problematic as I write about FFXIV: by the time I reread my writing, my opinion has changed. Perhaps as my ideas settle down I’ll figure out what I really want to say.

In the meantime, here’s something excellent.

The Japanese Amazon page for the Final Fantasy XIV Collector’s Edition has 142 customer reviews, 110 of which are one star, and 15 of which are two stars.  I was curious what the complaints were, so I ran the page through Google translate.  I find the results to be eloquent and wonderfully puzzling.  Here are some of my favorite lines:

Items are lost. Time is rewound.
Maintenance is done frequently. Do it in primetime.
-from “Goods does not even reach the area” by Himuuro Yuki

What happened after one year is unknown, is to buy at the moment is not.
-from “Remember the Anger” by Mithra

Frankly I do not think people who bought can only regret I will only lick the user.
-from “Trash” by Bygto

The contents of the game is boring. Boring.
What is a boring boring?
-from “Gotten to say a word” by Old Man In Front of Grandpa

First came on the tumbler can not be used in an unsanitary unsatisfactory on the street called you.
-from “Noticable downside but a beautiful” by Transformer

Maybe because I root rot is going nowhere. I feel like I’m a heart massage decomposed body.
Still praying for a  miracle to feel like throwing up makes me feel bad.
-from “Dumped in a ditch ten thousand 20 w” by Liefmann

Nevertheless, they tumble into naked in a box, which had placed too much silica. Sorry, sealed in plastic.
It’s better to work while chanting the words of the Buddha.
-from “Fall! Fall! Falling rolls?!!” by Planetes

Square Enix would have been forced to chop off the head of a lizard bold decision soon.
Sincerely hope to come from the remaining cell grows a new head.
-from “Lose lizard head” by Love Shop

The only drag down ][ Haunted piggyback
If you do not want to fall together
-from “Final pathetic” by Maru