The ghost in the machine

I am back from Montreal and about as flattened as I’ve been in awhile. A very uniquely terrific conference, though, and one I would make a repeat visit if I thought I’d still be in the northeast next year. But I suppose if Tom Buscaglia can fly out from Seattle for it I have little excuse. We shall see. Considering the short amount of time I spent out there I came back with a remarkable amount of takeaway. Very dense, friendly, professional, and high energy.

My talk was on the intersection of parenting, game development, and censorship (violence) as a collective quality of life issue. More to come on this later, including possibly a new SIG proposal for the IGDA and some interesting information from a journalist I spoke to with the Montreal Gazette. All I can say is that Mark Twain had it right:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
–Mark Twain

It is amazing what so many people know for sure just ain’t so. The phrase “anti-Jack Thompson” came up frequently. Curiouser and curiouser. But away from politics and back to art.

Danny Ledonne of Super Columbine Massacre RPG presented a session as well, and also talked to the Gazette — I understand he and I were the two mainstream ‘transfer’ subjects at the conference, a change from last year where there was a great deal of common interest material as opposed to industry-specific. Check out the website. This thing is more than it seems, something that I will certainly admit I didn’t know prior to MIGS. There is now a documentary out about the Slamdance-initiated controversy around the game.

Many in the documentary make the case that these are the kinds of games that need to be made; that they take gaming to a new level. This was underscored, I understand, to some extent by Jonathan Blow’s design keynote, which sadly I missed due to outer-Montreal traffic and a lack of familiarity with the region. At any rate, it had me thinking about the various roles of art, whether interactive or not.

The rise in attention on Ledonne’s really rather fascinating project — in that category of “serious game” that is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable rather than trigger your fun-happy reflex, but of a quality that, whether purely for its subject matter or not, is hugely emotionally resonant, which many serious games can fall short of — comes timed with the rise of another very strange phenomenon coming from games…

–a warning for those who haven’t seen it yet, that link is not a joke and not lighthearted. It’s pretty heavy stuff. Non-graphic, but heavy.

This came from a Korean comic strip by the narrator who had that experience. Having played quite a bit of AC, the story was chilling to me — touching, chilling, and genuinely tragic in the truest sense. Wrenching.

Unlike Ledonne’s project, the Animal Crossing situation comes from emergent gameplay, not something specifically and intentionally designed into the mechanics. It’s obvious once you look at the game features — maybe even inevitable — but it is an example of containing a piece of memory in an interactive environment in a way that I believe is unprecedented. The Animal Crossing characters in their quirky ways exhibit emotionally acute behavior, the whole of which has an impact on us that makes us think about the nature of tragedy, the nature of memory, the nature of life experience. Super Columbine Massacre RPG has a similar trajectory; it invites exploration and analysis of crucial, complex experiences, evoking feeling in a safe environment where, hopefully, our ability to manipulate the forces at work can give us some processing, some perspective. Or maybe they just call up those memories so that they can be respected through thoughtful consideration and experience.

This is certainly a kind of art. One of the most amazing things about interactive media is that these new frontiers are all around us. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong, or ever will be anything wrong, with creating entertainment media. But I think, regardless of the format through which we are expressing ourselves, it is important to, every once in awhile, consider the capacity of the format and use that format as thoughtfully as we can to explore the human experience. Text has immortal and unchallengeable advantages, as does music, as do games. We are still finding niches and voices for fiction. The important thing is to find those core resonant themes (like Mike, I am a theme-driven writer) and express them while we still have time and breath to do so.

Rural night sounds

Outside, it is quiet, but if you listen closely, long enough for the cold to sink under your skin (the season’s first snow is on the ground), the animals are going crazy. I am reminded of Liz Hand’s night hammerer. If this were California I would be expecting an earthquake.

In the distance there is some flock of insane Canadian geese intermittently honking away as if experiencing grievous injury. This noise is followed a few seconds later by the crowing of my neighbor’s chickens. All this at fifteen minutes to midnight. The chickens then set off the geese again, and this whole little symphony, augmented by the creak of the ventilation turbines on top of the shed next to the cottage, from indoors sounds remarkably like the distressed barking of my neighbor’s aging border collie. Like me, she lives alone (and the cottages are a couple hundred meters apart, with trees between), so all this leads me to gear up and go outside equipped with cell phone to make sure everything is all right, and identify the poultry chorale under the bright half moon and the now powdery snow blowing through the trees.

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving!

Via [info]anguirel. This is one of the most brilliant things I have ever seen. Ever.

Video game field show at Cal Berkeley.

The only thing that could possibly make it better is a video from the home field side… it seems like there must be one somewhere, but alas, youtube fails me.

In other video game news, play Free Rice — test your vocabulary and donate rice to the UN world hunger project. My high so far is vocab level 43…

And Mike over at Homeless Moon points out OLPC’s give-one-get-one laptop giving program, whereby you can make a $399 donation ($200 of which is tax deductible) to the One Laptop Per Child project — the MIT Media Lab-driven project to make a $100 crank-powered laptop to give to poor children all over the world. This thing is really amazing; check it out. It’s the first time that these remarkable machines have been made available to the public, and you’d be doing something life-changing for a kid in Africa at the same time.


The other Homeless Moon folk have wildly outstripped me in posting lately, so I am going for the TKO this evening and catching up on some things I’ve been meaning to post here. Apologies to those on my LJ who will get it all at once.

Jay Lake’s recent post on writer ages reminded me of something I was discussing with [info]pantlessjohnny at last ReaderCon, and later with [info]thehollowbox — on the value of a peer group for one’s writing, or any life passion. This specifically came up when we had the immense privilege of watching Jeffrey Ford ([info]14theditch) interview Lucius Shepard ([info]lucius_t) at the convention. I was also reminded of the Grandmaster panel at World Horror Con; when writers at this level get together, they’re more than the sum of their parts, which are already formidable. They know the most interesting questions to ask each other, and it’s a window on a kind of elder insight that is pretty mindblowing.

It was good to watch those guys just talk to each other because they could obviously connect and have a meaningful interaction. I mentioned later to [info]pantlessjohnny that there is pretty much no other way for a grandmaster caliber author to have a productive experience with an interview. They can give us advice, but it’s pretty unidirectional, and ultimately I think to some extent a young writer can only get so much from the advice of a master writer; they just operate on different levels.

Which, of course, reminded me of WoW, and before the discussion with [info]pantlessjohnny degenerated into figuring out what character class our fellow 05 Odyssey graduates belonged to ([info]boonofdoom was clearly the resident druid, but the others involve more debate), we talked about the metaphor that RPG mechanics provide for these kinds of interactions. RPGs are a form of escapism, but to be effectively escapist they have to rely on mechanics equally valid in real life. We have levels and character classes and races in real life; the RPG metaphor just makes them simpler to discuss. So I could tell [info]pantlessjohnny that Shepard and Ford were clearly level 70 and talking about Outland raids and netherdrake grind while we were still grubbing around on Azeroth and haven’t even gotten our mounts yet. We have a bit of purple armor and we’re well out of the starting area, but the long road is ahead.

What’s interesting to me about this is that while listening to veteran writers discuss their ideas an careers is always enjoyable and useful, I tend to get a lot more out of these discussions with my peer group. I frequently get better recommendations, greater insight, and more applicable ideas for my own work from them than I do from the wisdom of the masters. Some of it is purely a matter of scale; I interact with them a lot more, and feel like I can do so without completely wasting their time, which is not the case on the rare occasions, for instance, that I get to talk with Shepard, Liz Hand, or Peter Beagle. They’re all fantastic people and very magnanimous, but there is only so much entertainment they are going to get out of talking to people with minimal weapon enchants and dorky short cloaks.

When I spoke the Immersive Worlds Conference about female leadership in MMO environments, one poll response that really surprised me had to do with how players — across the board, not just women, but the women surprised me more — selected their guilds. Were they looking for social connection? Shared interests? Peaceful community? Upper level leaders that could give them stuff? Nope. Or, likely they were, but it was not their first priority. First priority? Guilds that had people at their level, people that they could count on to be around to level and quest with them.

I’m being fairly flippant about this, but I do believe that this is yet another instance of a virtual world environment being a source for study and insight on the real world. Great figures throughout history, including Nietzsche and Einstein, reached a point of acceleration in their careers when they made contact, and kept contact, with young, passionate people who shared their interests and rapidly became integral to their lives. I think that the “peer level” element is a big part of our human experience, a factor in self esteem, motivation, and accomplishment. Which is how this winds up being a sort of appreciation for Odyssey. (And by the way, the ’08 guest lecturer lineup looks absolutely stellar this year, so those of you who have been thinking about applying, now would be a good time.)

Without Odyssey I wouldn’t have had this peer group, this “generation”, as Lake puts it, of writers. I knew a few other aspiring writers beforehand ([info]brennye, for example, for a long time), but Odyssey catapulted that forward, and it wasn’t entirely due to the instruction. The discovery of that peer group was invaluable, and I believe that it is one of Jeanne’s largely unheralded talents to create an environment for that kind of community, to maximize the chances that we would finish the course and continue to connect and learn once we were outside the immediate sphere of her influence.

There are other aspects of this, such as dual-classing, for one thing (most of us, as is my deal with game development, have a day job where our level is much higher than it is in the fiction community — which is an interesting dynamic), but those are the basics, and segue later into another notion I’ve been turning around as to the purpose of MMOs or online games in contextualizing the social experience, as one of the explanations of WoW’s wild success. It’s a mark of excellent simulation to create a virtual environment that can be used as a metaphor for real life, a meta-language.

Common Sense Media presents a forum on kids and virtual worlds

Common Sense Media, which one of the posters in the Escapist drew my attention to recently, is hosting a forum November 14th on what kids learn from virtual worlds:

Notable on the panel is Douglas Thomas, editor of the new Games and Culture journal, and who, according to the Common Sense bulletin, is now working on an immersive virtual world intended to teach ethics to kids. Every once in awhile something makes me wish I still lived in LA!

Post-Halloween grab bag

I’ve been trying to think of a way to gracefully segue into more regular posting, but I’m going to fall back on announcements and links. But thank you to everyone who sent me notes about the fires — again, greatly appreciated. My family was fortunate to escape without heavy property loss — some broken windows from the wind, an inch of ash and black sand in the garage, that kind of thing — but nothing catastrophic.

A couple of odd/interesting links from the aftermath… A Canadian WW2 firefighting plane that came south to fight the fires — kind of cool; and a man that was arrested for impersonating a firefighter, with, in his possession, a somewhat disturbing depth of equipment, including a firefighter badge, personalized license plate, department patch, and hoses — one of which he was using on a fire when he was caught.

I’m not exactly sure why or how, but I have HBO. Because of this, I’ve seen all of Idiocracy, half of Eragon (no desire to see the rest, ever), and the latter third of Frank & Jesse, a 1994 Tombstone followup starring Bill Paxton (and William Atherton, who will forever be Jerry Hathaway to me). It wasn’t bad, though felt a lot more forced than Tombstone — it felt like it fell flat of the myth, which could do well with some Deadwood-style treatment. But what’s interesting is that apparently Paxton was first choice for the leading role in the Da Vinci Code movie. From the beginning I didn’t think that was possibly a book that could translate well to film, but as much as I like Tom Hanks, I do think Paxton would have been much more convincing in that role.

The Espresso Book Machine seems to be gaining ground and is now installed in the New York Public Library. It’s currently being used to rapidly print previously rare books. In the future, when the technology smooths and reduces its footprint, it might be a good solution for that bizarre tendency of brick and mortar stores to stock books 3-5 of a five book series. On the other hand, it also generates the rather dystopian image of bookstore-in-a-Coke-machine.

In terms of announcements, perhaps most importantly, Not One of Us #38 is out and available now through Genre Mall. [info]lesser_celery has a list of the table of contents, including my odd “The Substitute”, certainly the strangest poem I’ve written, and I’m thrilled to be in the magazine. It’s a very carefully crafted and lovely publication and I join some terrific company in its authors.

My latest column is up on the Escapist having to do with an — as far as I’d say — undiscussed element in the perpetuation of overwork. Certainly a much longer argument could be developed, but these are short columns and the next one for this month will dig into the best advice I’ve gotten and can get from experts in the field on avoiding the mind-altering crunch state. Simon Carless over at Game Set Watch (I’m still not sure what that blog title is about, exactly, but it’s a good blog), and a few other bloggers, trackbacked my column from last month, where I talked to a random sampling of parents, as many as I could get ahold of and as far away from the games industry as possible, and was astonished to find how generally positive they were toward video games. I’ll be talking more about this, and the intersection of games and parenting, at the Montreal International Games Summit at the end of this month.

And since I don’t believe I linked them before, last month I also had a feature article up on the history of the IGDA, and before that, a piece I greatly enjoyed writing called “Holding Out for a Heroine”, on the state of female heroism in video games. That one also racked up some trackbacks, including in this interesting roundup in The Brainy Gamer.

As oddfellows already know, The Homeless Moon has gone live, and this, in addition to a couple of other blog-related projects I’ve gotten involved with recently, is part of what I’ve been working on these past couple of weeks and thus draining a lot of my actual LJ posting energy — but the structures are all in place, and I’m back on a steady course to stick around for awhile. Some of you may not yet have seen specifically, but we got Jay to start blogging, and I count this as one of my major victories for the year. 😉

That should do it for now. Posts on the other stuff I’ve been up to are forthcoming. It’s been some great stuff, but I need to give my hand a rest — scraped it while moving a desk that I bought this afternoon. All hail Craig’s List, benefactor of my posture and the neverending effort to organize chaos.