Amazing Things

Hey folks — a quick update here from San Diego.

First: thank you to everyone who donated to Marc’s GDC trip!! We’ve had an angel come in and cover the rest of the cost, so I’m thrilled to share that Marc will be able to go to the entire show on an All-Access Pass. More details as I can release them! I have closed the donations as we’ll already be making a donation with the overage. If you’ll be at the show this year and are available for dinner, please drop me a line!

I’ll be at ConDor Con this weekend in San Diego — if you’re able to come by, please say hello!

In honor of the con, I asked the amazing Jennifer Miller if she would be interested in painting a condor gryphon as a commission — and she was! This is it:

I love the mysterious smile. 😉

If you’re in the area, hope to see you!

Operation Launching Eeyore: Help Me Send an Amazing Game Professor to GDC

Hi folks. Hope you’re all having a great February. A coincidence inspired me to write this: I heard about GDC’s great “share your GDC story” contest and Marc’s lack of a GDC pass on the same day. This led to the writing of this piece and a gofundme to raise money to send Marc to GDC. Enjoy, think of the influential teachers in your life, and please let me know what you think! –Erin
Edited 6:30pm PST”: Hooooooly crap. So we raised $500 in 90 minutes. You guys rule. I set up the first campaign to be fixed goal, so that backers would only pay if the goal was reached. Now that we know we can get Marc to GDC, we’re raising money for his GDC pass. $1500 or bust!! Please share/retweet/etc! Marc Meetup plans also in process! The internet is amazing!

GDC changed my life.

In 2003 I was not going to be a game developer. I had been accepted without funding to study existentialism at the University of California at Irvine. I was going to go and be a starving philosophy student.

I was a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I was an assistant game designer for Simutronics. And because several of my computer scientist friends were signing up for it, I signed up for a class taught by Marc Destefano, a brand new course in the cognitive science department about video games.

If it weren’t for Marc Destefano, I would never have entered the game industry.

(I’ll pause here for a second while you do a little chaos math extrapolation about what that means. Think of butterflies. Think of Jeff Goldblum. What? Fine. I’ll think of Jeff Goldblum.)

(What, done already? Sigh. Ok.)

Marc is an amazing teacher. He’s the kind of teacher that I aspire to be today. He has no distance from his students, no condescension, no agenda. He’s just there in the moment every single class, with every fiber of his goofy, hilarious being. We could reliably make him turn beet red with fury by maligning the good name of Sondheim’s Paradox or suggesting that one might have fond childhood memories of Monopoly. Every class was can’t-miss, and it wasn’t just me — his online reviews (they have those for professors now) are full of phrases like “best prof ever”, “this class changed my life”, and “easily my favorite professor ever”.

I had always loved video games — really loved them, all the way back to the Commodore 64 and through the NES, the Sega Genesis, the PlayStation, the Dreamcast. Marc didn’t teach us to love video games. That love got us in the door. He taught us to love making video games.

After taking Marc’s “Introduction to Video Games” class I was so enthralled by this strange world of game development that he was describing that I took his game making class — it had some long and ridiculous name, something like “applications of cognitive science in game development” (remember, this is 2003, and there are no formal video game degrees), which meant we had to sign up in teams and actually make games. It was the first honest-to-god video game I ever designed, and I’m pretty sure the first one my team ever built; the fiction was based on the world that would later become the setting for my published fantasy novels.

With all due respect to my truly wonderful classmates, we made a stupid little game. We didn’t even really finish it, though it was playable. It was a platformer. (A gryphon platformer. Land-to-air quadruped controls and all. I drew the sprites with Prismacolor pencils and scanned them. I made a strange and gawky gryphon in Maya.) I knew it wasn’t good. But Marc thought it was awesome, and I don’t think I’ve ever told him how much that meant to me.

Because Marc was a diligent, savvy, and connected instructor in a field that hadn’t really even defined itself yet, he told us all that we should be applying for the IGDA’s GDC scholarship.

We applied. I got in. I went to GDC. I knew from the first moment I set foot on the floor that I had found my people. I mouthed off at one of Gordon Walton’s roundtables. I got offered a job.

My life pivoted.

And as if that wasn’t great enough, in 2006 we met up with Marc at GDC again, and he bought us tickets to Video Games Live!.

We — I — underestimated the distance to the San Jose Civic Auditorium. I was in heels. I would have blisters for a week. But when we found Marc outside the theater, I pulled him aside, leading him around one of the unoccupied corners of the building and away from the crowding game geeks.

“I’ve got to tell you a secret,” I said. “Have you heard of this ea_spouse thing?”

Marc’s eyes widened. His body seemed to go into slow motion. “Yeah,” he said carefully. Something about it bothered him, which kind of surprised me. I mean, it was a bothersome subject — at that particular time especially raw. But his hesitation didn’t stop me from saying:

“That was me.”

Marc’s face turned ash white. It’s one of the only times I’ve ever seen that happen in real life.

It turns out he was upset because RPI’s game program had internship deals with EA at the time, and he was worried that, from what he was reading, he might be sending tender young game developers into the dripping maw of Satan. Years later — last year, in fact — I would work with a fellow alum at Greg Johnson’s company, formerly one of those interns. His time at Maxis changed his life, I think it’s fair to say, and not nearly the way EA had changed mine, considering how his eyes go all distant and starry if you so much as say the word “Maxis” around him today.

The rest of the conversation was kind of a blur. But Marc was one of the first people I told. I had to — you know, because it was his fault we got into games at all. And I also needed to tell him that we didn’t regret it. Regardless, it remains true that if I have changed the game industry, then by extension Marc’s mentorship has as well.

In retrospect I kind of feel bad that that whole bombshell might have ruined VGL for him. At least, I hope it didn’t.

Lest you suspect that my life is in any way not incredibly weird, I am writing this essay from the EA campus at Redwood Shores. (Well, from the parking garage, because I was on my way out and realized I needed to pull out my laptop and write this right now.)

Marc is one of the nicest people I know. Usually that’s something people say disingenuously — and usually the person in question is either recently dead or the holder of a large debt. But Marc is neither, and he’s the real deal. I can think of few people more truly ethical, empathetic, humble, unassuming, or video game passionate as Marc. And considering the sheer number of truly wonderful game developers I know, I don’t say that lightly.

Marc doesn’t have a 2013 GDC pass.

This year I’ll be giving a talk for the first time about that whole ea_spouse thing. That’s why he needs to come to GDC. If he’s not there, how will he fully understand all that he has wrought?

=====
Erin Hoffman
aka “ea_spouse”

And this is the first gofundme!

Isis

In 1995, I went to the Humane Society in San Diego to adopt a kitten. It was the summer before I started high school. My parents graciously tolerated what would become a kind of ever-growing menagerie; but the reason I began keeping birds at all (beginning with budgerigars and finches) was because cats tended to disappear in San Diego if let outside. My family had had two of them (a tabby named Dufus and a black-and-white named Patches) before I was ten years old who each left home one evening never to return. After that, since it seemed cruel at the time not to let a cat roam outside, we kept to animals that lived indoors, which for me meant birds.

At that age I was still entertaining ideas of being a veterinarian, and I vaguely remember this being related, though mostly one wants a cat because one wants a cat. And by then ideas had changed about indoor cat-keeping. So that summer there was a cat, though not the cat we planned.

Her name then was “Angel” and the dubious individuals who bestowed it had unceremoniously dumped her at the shelter because they were “moving to an apartment that doesn’t allow cats”. This tepid excuse still infuriates me. The likely truth is that she was an impulse kitten acquisition and had had the poor taste to cease being a kitten after about a year, and become boring.

She was so traumatized by being abandoned that upon arriving at the shelter — about two weeks before I saw her — she had stopped eating. She was a small cat already, and would remain so, but by that time she was emaciated, really skin and bones. I have a photograph still; cats should never have hollow cheeks. And so though I went looking for a kitten, I came home with a cat, quickly renamed something a bit more dignified and reflective of a more appropriate respect for her catness: Isis, queen of the gods, daughter of the earth and sky.

Though I think she appreciated the name change, at first she was far from convinced that her situation had genuinely improved: she hid under my bed for two days. Despite being plied with many kinds of canned food, kibble, and toys, she would not come out, and still ate almost not at all.

At last, she did emerge, and after she started eating, she wasn’t inclined to stop. For most of her life she was more round than cat-shaped. She proceeded to take over the house, ousting the family dog from her place at the foot of my bed at night and generally bossing everyone around. The computer chair in the main room was a particular favorite spot. If you so much as leaned forward to take something out of the printer she could be up and into the seat before you sat back down, which could be an adventure. I believe that, unless the humane society bathed her, she had a bath twice in her life: once to figure out if we could do it, and again to figure out if we could do it any better. Instead we discovered the capabilities of a fully operational furry tube with a 360′ rotating spine and twenty-four distinct and autonomous sharp edges.

Like most cats, she disliked having her nails trimmed. But she could be bribed. For a long time I restrained her while trimming her nails, but always gave her a treat afterward. Blood (mine) still sometimes resulted. But when I added giving her a treat before the trim as well as after, she was completely docile. Economy is everything.

When I was in high school my brother adopted a rabbit who mainly lived in the garage. I would sometimes let her out to run around the house, where she enjoyed running laps and kicking her feet up behind her. Isis was quarantined in my bedroom for such expeditions for obvious reasons. But during one outing, Shady, the rabbit, had ventured into the front room. She didn’t get into much trouble on her own, so I mainly listened for her while doing my teenage internet things on the computer. I think I was playing DragonRealms, and I was in combat.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Isis slinking around the corner of the hallway. I was fully engrossed in whatever monster I was battling at the time, and so at first all I registered was that Isis was in the hallway, which was a fairly normal thing. I remember a vague sense of oddness that she was slinking, because she didn’t usually slink, being that she owned the house. Just as she disappeared into the front room, the realization shot through me: THE CAT AND THE RABBIT ARE OUT TOGETHER.

In that exact instant, Isis came streaking back through the doors, around the corner, up the hallway, and back into my room. Shady was right behind her, galloping and snorting like an angry bull. She was average sized for a rabbit, but probably had about equal weight on Isis — and was having none of this slinky stalky business. Needless to say, I jumped up and saved the cat from the rabbit.

Rabbit-stalking was a considerable step up for Isis, and so she was duly chastened. Mostly she liked small birds. She would sit by the window staring wide-eyed at them for long minutes, finally making this soft and fairly disturbing ak-ak-ak-ak-ak-ak sound with her open mouth, unblinking. And she would harass my finches when she could, but would not so much as enter my room, even to eat, if a cockatiel was visiting. She loved feathered toys, and Cheetos.

After I left for college, she expanded her reign to include the rest of my family. In particular she became very good at training my dad to get out of bed. He usually fed her in the morning, and she discovered that she could move up the schedule on this minute by minute through a combination of sitting on his chest to whack him in the face at around 5am, and clawing the carpet. She wasn’t allowed to claw the carpet, you see, but she figured out that if you’re lying in bed there’s not a lot you can do to stop her. So she’d claw the carpet first about two feet from the bed until he got up to stop her, then move two feet back, and two feet back again — all the way down the hall until she was in front of her dish.

As she got older, she developed more eccentricities, as very old cats seem to do. When she turned seventeen she started meowing loudly from the upstairs loft in the family room, and late at night. She had never been a vocal cat, and when she did meow it tended to be this small, croaking thing — so this change was a big one. I don’t think it was ever determined what she was meowing at — although she had a bit of a history of perceiving things no one else did. When she was younger she would race around batting at invisible things on the carpet — “psychedelic spiders”, my stepmom called them.

When she was eighteen she developed a sudden interest in sneaking outside, almost as if she realized she hadn’t that much time left and should get out and see the world a bit. She’d escaped before, never for long and never beyond the backyard, but it was a rare thing before that year. And one night about a year ago she met some other creature while sneaking out that was part of the reason why outdoor cats have much shorter lifespans; whatever it was (a large cat?), it took a huge bite out of her side and sent her shrieking back into the house. She was already an old cat, and my family thought this might be it for her. But she was bandaged up and she healed cleanly — the photo above is from last June, when she was about three months’ healed. And she stopped sneaking out.

When we visited this weekend, I knew as soon as I saw her that she was packing up to go. She moved feebly and her eyes were distant; she’d shed much of her body weight finally, in the way that old cats do. My parents said she was having trouble keeping food down. I picked up a can of tuna (being no judge of canned tuna, I got the most expensive one they had) and coaxed her into drinking its water, something that had enticed her to eat when she’d been sick before. She seemed to keep that down, and the next day I heard her meows were a little stronger. But by the time we left on Monday she wasn’t moving from her cat bed, and seemed not to have the strength even to close her eyes.

For whatever reason, her sight had seemed to suddenly leave her. She’d been frail when I saw her on Thanksgiving, but alert, even playful. And she was so old that I’d been saying goodbye when I left for the last year or more, just in case. But this time it was real.

She couldn’t see me, but some part of her was still there. When I petted her in that small bed, her head lolling and eyes vacant, I was expecting nothing, but needing to thank her for so much that she had given me, given all of us — for her feistiness, her oddness, her bossiness… and she started to purr. Neither her head nor her eyes moved, but her chest rattled, softly at first, then louder. It seemed impossible.

It amazes me to think that I’ve known her for nearly two thirds of my life. She was nineteen when she departed at last. Over the years she has inspired many a gryphon quirk, and if someday you read of a gryphon patched in grey and white, you’ll know it’s me trying to give her another home again, in a world that might be fairer than ours for having her there.

edited 1:27pm: courtesy the breaking in of the Cintiq: a quick isis-gryphon:

His Last Words Were 'Aloha': Farewell to Senator Daniel Inouye

The news has been brutal this week. I was running errands with Jay when I saw Senator Inouye’s name in the CNN headline, and my heart sank.

Senator Inouye was a living legend, a man who personified what it means to be “the greatest generation”. He stared first bigotry, then Nazis, then Washington politics in the eye — and I don’t believe he ever lost. Among his many accomplishments and life events:

  • teaching first aid in Honolulu when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941;
  • volunteering for the armed forces after the attack
  • volunteering again (and being accepted) when the Army’s ban on Japanese was lifted in 1943
  • serving in the legendary 442nd regimental combat team, the most decorated unit in US military history,
  • where the record of his service strains belief, documented to include:
  • walking off an explosion of grenade shrapnel into his leg;
  • serving in six combat operations;
  • advancing to Sergeant and participating in the also legendary rescue of the lost battalion, where 216 Nisei died and 856 were injured to rescue 200 Texan infantrymen;
  • losing his arm in Italy, after surviving the above operation in France, in an engagement in which he is reported to have single-handedly killed 25 Germans (I’ll link again as it does truly strain the imagination);
  • and receiving the Distinguished Service Cross for his service, later upgraded to a Medal of Honor, along with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart;
  • completing a law degree after returning home and hieing himself to Washington;
  • where he fought for the rights of Japanese Americans and shepherded vindication and reparations finally made in the 1980s;
  • and where he became the second longest-serving Senator in American history, serving nine consecutive terms,
  • never lost an election,
  • received the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun and the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers from the Emperor of Japan,
  • and became President Pro Tempore of the Senate, making him the highest-ranking Asian American politician in US history.

Obviously one day we would have lost him, but I wish it hadn’t been so soon.

It is hard to imagine a more epic life, or a truer definition of the word ‘hero’. We are much diminished for his loss, though far more fortunate are we that he lived. Aloha, Inouye-san.

Guest post: Developing the Storyteller within the Game Designer

Hi all — hope you had a great Thanksgiving if you are in one of those turkey-consuming regions. Earlier this year the New York Film Academy got in touch about a guest post (see shiny new policy on the about page), and subsequently provided this great piece by Chris Swain. They have a nice-looking program with some great faculty. Enjoy!

Developing the Storyteller within the Game Designer
By Chris Swain, New York Film Academy—Game Design School

My students tell me that the best movie this year was the videogame Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. I like this comment because it clearly shows how far story has come in modern videogames. The game is a landscape, a structure, a set of rules that bind the players while simultaneously allowing them to live and play. Ideally, the game compels the player to return again and again eager to express his or her own story each time they do.

Game designers have to be both storytellers and structural programmers. This may seem like a challenging interplay, but for the graduate of a game design school it is an essential mix of skills. Most students enter an academic game design program simply because they love game play. They are armed with the audacious notion that a happy player makes a happy game designer.

On that point they are right. It is a great thing for the designer to love playing. But that alone does not guarantee the game designer’s success. They may never be a true programmer, but they should have a working familiarity with the skill so as to be effective in overall game design. More importantly, the game designer must be willing to learn about the structures and methods of storytelling if they plan to be a versatile and skilled creator of compelling games.

At the New York Film Academy, we guide the game designer-storyteller as follows:

  • Learn a playcentric design language of games – There are three systems that comprise the canon of modern game design: Dramatic systems, which include character, pacing and story structure; Dynamic systems, the emergent qualities of games in motion; and Formal systems, basically the rules, procedures and resources available to players. With a common vernacular, game designers and programmers can effectively collaborate.
  • Learn the human history of games – Game play is identified far back in human history. “The casting of lots” is referenced in the Judeo-Christian bible. Very early versions of dice used 3,000 years ago have been discovered in Iran, while board games have been discovered in pre-dynastic Egypt (5,500 years ago) and China (2,200 years ago). Gaming seems to touch a universal human characteristic to tap into the imagination and competitive spirit. Games instruct and are passed from one generation to the next. The student needs to understand this very instinctive behavior as the fundamental basis for why people will play their games.
  • Study improv – One benefit of the NYFA Game Design School being within a larger school of performing arts is that all students take a semester in improvisation acting (the class is mandatory). There are clear parallels between acting within the rules of improv and the rules of a game: In each, players interact with a set of dynamics while working toward a goal or outcome.
  • Practice interactive writing – The theory, craft and tools of storytelling within an interactive medium should be examined within the past several decades’ successful and unsuccessful game concepts. There are reasons why certain games (think of the biggest-selling titles) are as popular as they are much of it owing to the appeal of the story to the player.

The relentless human appetite for stories is easy to find throughout the culture in movies, books, television and games. We all have our own stories, or wish to be in more interesting or exciting narratives. Providing players with this opportunity is both the task and the opportunity of the game designer.

# # #

Chris Swain
Chris Swain is a leader in the games design and development industry, with two decades experience that includes co-founding the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California while a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts. Chris developed games for Disney, Microsoft, Sony, The Los Angeles Times, Rockefeller Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, Discovery Channel, Intel, among others and garnered many awards. Serious games that Chris has created include Ecotopia, Play the Game Save the Planet, a cinematic, story-driven game focused on environmental protection, and The Redistricting Game, which was funded by the Annenberg Center for Communication to educate citizens on the U.S. congressional redistricting process. He is the creative director in the Game Design program at the New York Film Academy.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
The lines between passive and active entertainment are blurred in the landscape of this videogame-inspired movie.

David, Prometheus, and the future of our android humanity

I came late to the work of Ridley Scott. I saw Bladerunner in college, but fell asleep during it (heresy, I know). I love the work of Philip K. Dick, and my overall love of science fiction has always been strong and has only grown over time. I classified Scott’s work primarily as horror, which isn’t inaccurate, but I was unaware of how magnificent it was purely as science fiction until I watched the first two Alien movies with Jay this past winter.

I fell in love with Scott’s work in part because of that surprise, and in part because 1) Scott loves him some androids, and 2) in Alien he demonstrated an astonishing deftness navigating what I have always felt were some of the great core themes of science fiction itself.

So I’m going to talk about Prometheus. If you haven’t seen it by now, you probably don’t care, but this is your chance to bail if you haven’t seen it.

Ready? Okay.

A lot has been said about Prometheus, and its many criticisms are certainly valid. Some parts of it are pretty nuts (oh, Space Jesus, really? Ridley, why…). It is conventionally disappointing because we are set up not just in the film but for months prior with the expectation that the movie is about the search for answers about the origins of human life, and in the end we are left with more questions than answers. Easy enough. I thought for awhile about whether I actually had anything to add, and in the end I decided that I haven’t seen this particular side of the discussion (perhaps it occurred and I never encountered it), so what the hell, it’s my blog, etc etc. The side is this:

The protagonist of Prometheus is David the android. It is not not not Elizabeth the squishy faith-scientist.

This actually dramatically changes the film — or at least, from my reading, resolves a lot of the biggest objections various folk had about the characterization, most of which had to do with the human characters. But for the point of the film it was also important for David to be a kind of stealth-protagonist — it was important for us to not even consider that he could be the main character, because he was, you know, not human, just the android. But that, in short, is what the entire Alien series is all about: how we will create the technology that destroys us. Not the alien — but the android, the child of humanity who must, in Campbellian fashion, destroy its father.

I didn’t realize this at first. The film’s flaws were so apparent, the disappointment so heavy in my mind, that it took me about an hour to process all of what I’d seen (which I suspect also was at least partly intentional). But the damn thing wouldn’t leave me alone. And by the time I’d thought about all that follows it had become my favorite movie of the year.

So, David. He is certainly the series’ finest android, from Michael Fassbender’s performance to his character makeup to his ending. Everybody likes him best (even detractors say that he “saved the film”), but considering David as the protagonist actually changes a few things about the trajectory of the film, not least its thematic direction. You can see his protagonist status cued in several places. Both teaser videos (which were phenomenal, by the way, if you haven’t seen them — the TED lecture from Wyland, and the “product feature” for David) concerned him. The film opens with him tending the ship and imitating Lawrence of Arabia (who was also a creature out of his own place and time, made to obey but forever fighting the constraints of the society around him). He makes the greatest transformation during the course of the film: from desiring the extinguishing of humanity (“Doesn’t every child want their parents to die?”) to recognizing himself as being more a part of humanity than he is an Engineer. He has the greatest techno-revelation and connection to the alien technology. He strives hardest and is punished most. And he survives after having taken the most damage of either survivor.

There’s been a lot of trumpeting about how the movie “makes no sense” on multiple occasions, but I think more properly the problem is that certain things make just enough sense to drive you a little nuts. I suspect that there is logic in most of the worldbuilding elements (most), but I don’t really care about them enough to enumerate my speculations. Nor do I care that the scientists are wildly incompetent. They’re on a mission that they know nothing about at the whim of a bazillionaire who is kind of nuts and we know will wind up causing the horrible deaths of many, many people. We’re not talking about the pride of the scientific community here. It is okay for scientists to be flawed. This is not a clean and squeaky universe where everyone with the badge of Science is awesome, and that isn’t a bad thing. (So, in short, I agree with Caitlin R. Kiernan about the science bits in particular.)

So: baffled by the dumb “geologist”? Repulsed by the massive jumps in logic taken both by Elizabeth, the useless and creepy Charlie, and Wyland’s daughter? No problem! Because remember — none of these fleshies matter! Only David’s story matters.

I loved that, because I’m a total sucker for androids.

It isn’t pure geek technofetishism. In androids I see the whole of humanity’s inevitable bigotry writ again in the eternal recurrence of our organic patterning. They are the next frontier in the test of our humanity, and like the symbol of the child in literature, they will test our identities and our own right to persist.

This puts into interesting relief the most gripping scene of the film — the surgery scene, which for me as a female person was as wildly cathartic as it was terrifying (“oh you won’t get this out of me, doctor-person? then GTFO I WILL HANDLE THIS SHIT MYSELF”). Its implications were also an interesting reversal of the creation myths being juggled here, that it is effectively through termination of mysterious pregnancy that the mother figure becomes immortal and achieves her true self — but here I am talking about Elizabeth again.

Elizabeth is important insofar as she relates to David. And yes, even in my initial dissatisfaction with the movie, I was intrigued enough by its world and its characters to be totally on board with her bizarre decision to go and confront the Engineers on their own planet out of what is likely suicidal PTSD. Because, again, it completes David’s story: as soon as he has healthily come around to the “whoa dude, fuck these guys, seriously”, he must of course pay for what he’s done — to Elizabeth and the others — by being forced to confront them.

This also solves the movie’s “final girl” problem, or at least presents an interesting variation on it — our assumption that it is a “final girl” ending itself is an indicator of the thematic premise: the lack of acknowledgment of David’s humanity and how this lack of acknowledgment perpetuates in our future the violence of the past.

That was really what I loved most about the movie, in the end: not just that it fed my fangirl android fetish, but that it got to the heart of what it will be like to be an android in a world created by humans. In the final analysis, it is David who created the creature that then creates the alien of the later films: technology begetting technology through the conduit of humanity, until the world itself ends. That we as humans are on the cusp of creating intelligences well outside of our own control. It is a story of fate and the darkness of being human.

In making a movie for David, Scott, in a way, is creating stories for children of mankind that don’t exist yet, and may not exist for some time. And that, too, is fascinating to me. There will be androids, and they will have David’s problems, and we will have made it so. We will be the jealous sibling and the destroyed father, the baffled mother; and the questions they will face in their own existence we can barely yet imagine. Some of us will love them, and will have to fight all over again to prove their right to be acknowledged as human.

When we first walked out of the film I felt the same sense of dissatisfaction that I’ve seen echoed across much of the internet commentary. It felt like the movie was straining too hard to deliver a revelation that was more of a premise than a conclusion, and even that wouldn’t have been a problem if it hadn’t also set up this “searching for the answer” momentum. I don’t think that the fullness of this feeling was deliberate (that the answer is that there are no answers). But as time passed the story continued to stick with me, and the power of David as a character set in quickly, and I found myself not only wanting to go back and watch it again, but genuinely feeling deeply for who David was and the precipice on which we sit in human history, in which many of these issues are about to be faced, and will be faced by our children.

It wrapped the theme of the Alien franchise around to its beginning about a question of identity and technology — and how that very question of curiosity and the reaching for advancement is both our species’ greatest strength and most dangerous weakness. How our biological origin must inevitably (in the text) lead us to create our destructor — not the alien as our id assumes, but the android, the child of humanity. And that that destruction is not a foregone conclusion, but neither is it likely to be navigated cleanly, with the past as our predictor.

The Problem with the "Lowest Difficulty Setting"

I’m subscribed to John Scalzi’s blog, so I got the “lowest difficulty setting” post in my email last Tuesday morning and read it with a progressively sinking feeling. If that gets around, I thought, it’s not going to be good. (And indeed it wasn’t, to the point that there have been a few posts following it specifically about how severe the backlash has been.) But I left it alone. This is the converted appropriating a metaphor, it’s a little squicky, but no harm, I supposed. Gamers can take it.

But I started to write this when I read John’s comment that the purpose of the post is to provide well-intentioned advocates of privilege-comprehension with a metaphor that would be “comprehensible” and “palatable” to straight white men who don’t like the word “privilege” — and at that point I put my hands on my head and started mumbling no no no no no please don’t do that.

The reason why you shouldn’t, “dudes”, isn’t primarily the awkward cultural appropriation (speculative fiction reaching to take what belongs to games). You shouldn’t because it’s not going to work. And in fact it probably does make things worse.

I pored through the comments hoping to find evidence against this. John is smart and well intentioned, I thought, so maybe I’m missing something. I was looking for a single instance of gamer (or non-gamer anti-privilege person) saying “hey I never understood privilege before but now I TOTALLY GET IT.”

Except there isn’t one. I couldn’t find a single one. And I don’t expect to. That’s how cultural appropriation works: it’s nifty for those appropriating, not for the indigenous culture. (For those upset about the use of cultural appropriation here: no, this is not Tom Cruise the “samurai” saving Ken Watanabe, but the fundamental problem is the same: use of a metaphor without understanding of its cultural implications — absolutely a different scale of problem, however.)

This should tell you that the core metaphor as presented doesn’t work, or rather only functions to act as a righteous bludgeon for the already-converted (of which there are many gamers, make no mistake). If you go to where gamers are reading the essay, most of them are passing it by (“Clearly, the gaming community has trouble understanding the (overused) concept of priveledge, so trying to dumb it down for us was necessary. Thanks.”) or arguing with it — as many within the speculative fiction community have enjoyed pointing out. Look at all the poor upset white boys! Look at all these dumb people I had to censor! It is such a good thing we fine science fiction people with our noble culture may yet save these gamer savages from the perils of their own primitive thinking.

What bugs me most is that this reaction doesn’t actually have that much to do with whether or not gamers understand or accept the concept of privilege. It has to do with its presentation, which claims to be helpful but came across as one nerd trying to dominate another nerd (and one of them has a cheering squad: hey, what kind of memories might that evoke in your average non-athletic intelligent eighteen-year-old?). Gamers get that — and they’re programmed not to respond well to it.

The same way that you don’t wade into a science fiction convention and start declaring that George Lucas is the greatest science fictional romance writer ever to have lived, you don’t wade into a nest of gamers and start calling them “casual players”. Rather, you can, but most reasonable people would assume that the consequences are upon your own head if you do. Do I agree with this attitude toward ‘casual’? Fuck no, but I’m aware that it exists, and that the use of this particular metaphor was calibrated — I think unintentionally, out of lack of connection with game culture — to be about as maximally offensive to a core gamer as it could possibly be. To be “casual” takes away everything about their primary self-identification, and is not going to remotely elicit a rational response.

The nature of privilege is that it is invisible. Calling this demographic a bunch of care bears is not going to open their eyes. It’s going to piss them off, it’s going to hurt them, it’s going to make them remember every time a bigger more popular kid got in their face and told them that what they are is stupid, that their struggles have no meaning, that they don’t deserve to be understood. In the wake of that pain, they will only retreat further, and make the jobs of those of us trying to reach them harder, because when you’re inside your own pain you aren’t able to contemplate systems, you can only see the world through the lens of your own experience. And what is painful for a veteran of the game industry’s culture wars in watching this is that teaching systems is one of the things that video games do best. The context of the game lulls you into safety so that you can think rationally, process differently — it’s enormously powerful. So to see something like this come at it in such a backwards fashion, and in fact give the community an excuse to retreat into defensive shield-banging — it’s sad and exhausting.

If it was instead a vector for Internet drama and self promotion, rock on, it did that. But there’s a price, and those of us on the borderlines are going to be picking up the tab.

My problem is I want a change. I want my people to understand me again. This matters to me because I have been driven out of communities I used to love (like Kotaku; like Penny Arcade) by exactly the attitude that John’s post is trying to correct.

So here instead are some metaphors that I think might have a better chance at working — with the caveat that what is really needed is for people to sit down and talk to each other like people, without lecturing or aphorism. But with that said, here are some things gamers do understand — often better than the general public.

Gamers Understand Systems

This is what the post was reaching for, but never got to because the train of thinking stopped at “straight white male is easy mode”. “Easy mode” does not a system make. “Easy mode” is an approach, a perspective, and so is manifestly cart before horse, especially if you don’t already understand the major lines of force at work in the core loop.

This is the beginning of the bigger picture:

We are all in this system together. Your starting stats were not your choice. In fact, if you don’t understand this system, the lack of understanding you have is a product of the system itself. It’s a product of suburbia and some of the very best intentions of the generations who have come before us, who desired prosperity and safety and a hopeful future. They were not wrong to do so.

But the problem is that their desire and the pockets of safety they created also created distance between the more fortunate and the most fortunate. The fact that you reject the concept of “privilege” is part of the system. The fact that because you have low exposure to minority cultures you are able to lump them into a fictitiously complaining “other” is part of the system.

The thing that is painful about a metaphor like this being used to hurt gamers is that it represents everything gamers should be better at. Understanding systems is a critical life skill (and an under-taught one), but understanding systems in a game is intuitive and fundamental. That’s why this metaphor is so appealing. But its design is fundamentally flawed, which is also why gamers reacted to it the way they did. When their cognitive analysis kicked in, they found it unsupported and subjective, because it was as it was drawn.

So here’s a design lesson: you don’t come to the design with the motivation. You don’t force the player to use the mechanics that convey your message. You set up the system and then you let the player draw the conclusion. This is what fundamentally differentiates interactive design from other art forms — including writing. A system that makes obvious its intended author-driven conclusion is a broken system. Revelation occurs when the hand of the puppeteer is invisible. Leading with “lowest difficulty setting” is showing the hand.

And there was something else the system was missing.

Gamers Understand Numbers

The fairness of any game system is assessable by the balance of its numbers. This is where a ‘message’ comes through, if there is one. And the reason why this metaphor, properly drawn, would have been so effective is that gamers — especially online gamers — have an innate sense of fairness and balance. They understand that an unbalanced system is inherently wrong, and that is what we live in.

But the only thing that will convey that within the context of this system is objective measurement. Fortunately, that measurement is readily available.

These are ten random examples of quantifiable improperly calibrated system balance in American society:

This list could keep going. (It probably should keep going, but hopefully this is enough to make the picture very, very clear.) Jim Hines has another rundown.

So let’s take one of them and extrapolate its design implications: the 77/100 rule for women’s compensation. Imagine if, according to random drawing, you had received a game that only included support for 77% of the achievements. Most other people received the fully featured game, but yours caps out at 77% — 100% is impossible. How would that impact every aspect of your thinking whenever you played that game, whenever you talked about it with other players, whenever you read about it in the press? What if the players who had the full game — which is most of them — never wanted to talk about your missing 23%? What if they thought it was no big deal, or worse, didn’t even know what you were talking about when you brought it up? You’d keep your head down, you’d play because it’s the game you have, but being unable to talk about this core part of your experience with most of the other players would persistently distance you from them, like a piece of glass in your shoe. That is what system imbalance does.

At the end of the day we would never ship a game that randomly removed 23% of the features for half of the population, so it’s a little surprising that these numbers are considered okay in our daily life.

There are other ways of quantifying privilege. One way is to just start keeping count and paying attention. The brilliant “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh does this. This is the article that first made me really connect with and understand what privilege was. It was what made me believe it — because it itemized in very specific and concrete terms the things that those of us who live with privilege (absolutely including myself, though I’m only the “straight” of the “straight white male”). It made them familiar, quantifiable, and immediate — which is exactly what a game simulation does. (Especially revelatory to me was #15, I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group, not just because this happened to me all the time when I was younger, but because as a community we do this all the time in the game industry — the very first question I received on the #sffwrtcht interview was what it was like to be a woman in games — but that’s another discussion.)

The system has become very good at programming into us that the word “racist” is bad, but it has been terrible at getting us to own our place in the system that is racism. It is way easier to apply a binary definition of “racist” to a person and demonize that person — and therefore also react violently when “racist” is applied to us. But “racism” is systemic imbalance in a particular direction.

And, of course, everyone’s a little bit racist, because we live in the system and are shaped by it. Our sheer life experience will give us limited exposure to some cultures, and with limited data, our brains naturally type based on insufficient evidence. This isn’t something to be afraid of or ashamed of. It just is.

That doesn’t, however, mean nothing can be done about it.

Gamers Understand Agency

This might be the most important part of the message.

You have the power to change this system. You can be the hero within it. Gamers know this. That however dark the circumstances, there is always a win state. Even if this might not be true in real life, you strengthen yourself by assuming that it is, because you’re always looking for the win. This is also what makes things like systemic racism so difficult to talk about with game-cultured players, because it seems like such a tremendously unfair and unmovable system. Our instinct is to check out of it.

But the thing is, if the ruleset does work this way, you’re ripping yourself off by not understanding it. You’re within the system and you’re not even aware that the system is there. You can choose how you use it and how you operate within it — but you should make that choice from an informed standpoint. And if you think the system doesn’t work this way, you should defend that position by presenting systemic evidence that refutes the numbers that currently come back from the system (see above).

And that’s the bottom line. Understanding the system makes you a better player. For yourself, for your guild, for the game.

This is a really great essay about what you can do about privilege, and these things really do help. Remember the 23%. What helps is understanding. What helps is acknowledgment. What helps is listening. When you shout from the outside, when you deny the numbers, when you pretend it doesn’t exist, you’re being a Jack Thompson. Don’t be Jack Thompson.

Finally, there will come a moment when you have the advantage, and you can open the door for someone else. When you do that, you will be a hero.

Gamers Understand Mainstream Market Pressures

Gamers have also understood for quite a long time now that games like Ico are rare and games like Call of Duty are very common. Gamers don’t like this and in fact grouse about it constantly.

Often the game publishing industry is held responsible for this, and not unreasonably so. But game publishing doesn’t hate Ico (or Journey or Facade). Game publishing is a system. It neither hates nor loves anything, and this indeed is partly why it is the recipient of so much gamer angst.

The system is not designed to provide you the highest quality games. The system is designed to make money. By definition this means the system is designed to make the lowest quality game that you will pay for. It is highly incentivized and structured to give you exactly as much quality as you will demand and not one iota more. This system is not evil. It is not malicious. It is market physics.

But just because it is a system with rules and force trajectories doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable. The same is true for racism and actively negative establishment systems.

Affirmative action — for instance — is like kickstarter coming in to pivot the system, manifesting the will of an educated populace to retrain the market to a force other than the one it has been optimized around. It exists to attempt to create new markets that will achieve independent sustainability and strengthen the larger market — the way that Kickstarter campaigns, ideally, provide venues for new games to be made that are outside the traditional game publishing area of expertise, and hopefully create entirely new genres of games over time. And Kickstarter really doesn’t threaten the establishment. By its very nature, it can’t. If a game could be made within the traditional publishing space, the fact is it probably would be — it’s easier, more profitable, and more stable. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room in the space for both, and in fact it’s a good thing for the entire market that both exist.


It may be that all of this is water under the bridge at this point. My fear is that the accelerating stratification in these communities — some have argued in all communities — means that over time we will be less and less capable of communicating with each other. For those of us nomads who are happiest moving from group to group — cross-pollinators — it’s this frustrating experience of witnessing group polarization and feeling powerless to stop it. I have bowed out of more of the gaming community than I’ve liked, and the “lowest difficulty setting” post made me uncomfortably aware of how I don’t yet fit in the “angry progressive speculative fiction” tribe, either. Cognitive dissonance, hello.

And at the same time I have this angry gnome in my head whispering that the divisions are bullshit. We are all one community. So in this much I disagree with recent calls to end “Geek Pride”, even when I agree with the content of those arguments. But if a concept of Geek Pride unifies us as a community, if it makes us part of a tribe, let us use it to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Let us use it to be responsible for the actuation of our geek ideals. And let us not leave anyone behind. If you dug the post, fine, have at — just let’s not pretend that the reaction was anything other than a natural response to an attack calibrated to generate hate, and realize that your glee in othering those who didn’t understand it may be creating enemies out of allies.

I’m so tired, guys. I’m so tired of the rage. I’m so tired of the distance. I’m not saying it isn’t justified or that I don’t understand it. I’m just saying it’s harder, but better, to reach into the face of rage with love. I’m not saying that anyone does or does not have a right to be angry. I’ve felt it, I feel it regularly, especially when my community produces things like this that make me want to break things. But at the end of the day we should be able to reach higher than posts that lash out (“dumb”, “stupid”, “homophobic”, “racist”) at people whose primary crime is ignorance, and over whom we have the privilege of education.

I like to think that the only way to fail is to despair.


Thank you to Corvus Elrod and the gang at the Homeless Moon for discussing this stuff with me and beta reading this post. It was difficult to write and is not perfect, so I sought extra eyes. Any of its wrongness is entirely my own. 🙂

Creative Commons License
This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

On #sffwrtcht tonight 6pm PST, reading in SF Saturday 6pm

Hi all. Just a quick heads-up for a couple of events — I will be on #sffwrtcht with the very kind @BryanThomasS tonight at 6pm PST/9pm EST. All you have to do is load up the #sffwrtcht hashtag on twitter.com to tune in! You have many screens to choose from, but I’ll be pleased if you pick this one. The chats are a lot of fun, so stop by on a future Wednesday evening if you can’t make this one.

And if you’ll be in the bay area on Saturday evening, I will be reading alongside Marie Brennan and Ysabeau Wilce at SFinSF. Full details are here, and the short and sweet is:

Saturday, May 19th

Join us for an evening with Ysabeau Wilce, Marie Brennan & Erin Hoffman

6:00PM – doors and cash bar open
7:00PM – event starts
$5-$10 donation at the door benefits Variety Children’s Charity of Northern California – to date, we’ve helped raise over $30,000 for the kids in our community! Learn more here!

The Variety Preview Room Theatre
The Hobart Bldg., 1st Floor — entrance between Quiznos and Citibank
582 Market Street @ 2nd and Montgomery
San Francisco, CA 94104

Don’t Drive — BART/MUNI Montgomery Street station is right at our front door, and parking in San Francisco sucks!!! Street parking ($3.50 per hour) is metered M-Sat., til 6PM; find a parking garage here.

Hope to see you there!

Todai Moto Kurashi, and writing the unspeakable

The dedication on Lance of Earth and Sky reads:

for my grandparents–
epic heroes
from an epic time

“At the Foot of the Lighthouse (Todai Moto Kurashi)” is, in part, an illustration of what I meant with that phrase.

I’ve written before about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Go for Broke!; those posts may provide context to this one. It is my greatest hope that this story might inspire some people to learn about the 442 in particular. But the very short contextual recap is that, as some of you know already, my grandfather, great-grandmother, and two great-uncles were interned with 17,000 other Japanese Americans from 1942-1944 in the Poston War Relocation Camp, an event that naturally thereafter shaped my family’s identity and I am sure will continue to influence it in generations after mine. Those who have read the story may also be interested to know that I have a third cousin who was killed at Hiroshima, for which there is also a family story.

This story is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. I don’t say that to lay any kind of claim to quality, only to say that this story was unique in my work for how it was chiseled sentence by sentence, interspersed with long nights poring through war diaries, legal transcripts, historical websites. Many times I would lay down a handful of words and have to get up and physically leave the screen because I was overcome by grief, bewilderment, anguish. This story was reaching for catharsis.

I’d like to talk about the story in total here, and in particular its ending, so this is a spoiler warning of sorts and a chance to stop reading now. I hope that if you read it you’ll do me the favor of reading the story first, because it is that kind of ending. So here’s the link again, last chance!

There is a documentary called Beyond Barbed Wire that I highly, highly recommend if you want an overview of the internment and the culture in which it occurred. It comes paired with the truly remarkable 1951 Academy Award Nominated Go for Broke! and is a heck of a deal. At one point during Beyond Barbed Wire you will see a man whose father was interned talking about how hard it is for him even today to comprehend what happened. His voice breaks, he weeps, not even recalling specific memories but just the simple concept that our own government tagged his father like an animal before loading him onto a train bound for the desert so that, while he was gone, his house could be looted, vandalized, and seized. All of this for racism and for no other reason, as a report filed in 1983 would finally admit, that thousands of lives were destroyed, many were killed or committed suicide, hundreds of millions of dollars of property was virtually stolen, when not one single instance of espionage or treason would ever be connected to a Japanese American.

It is wrenching and incomprehensible. So too is the persistence of the amazing loyalty expressed by Japanese Americans at this time, and continuing today. They say shikata ga nai — it cannot be helped, better to accept the way things are and keep a positive attitude. This same attitude has been admired recently in Japanese culture in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

But those of us descended from nisei (which means “second generation” — my mother is sansei, third generation, and I am yonsei, fourth generation) are — at least I am — more American than we are Japanese American, and our grasp on this attitude is not nearly as intuitive. You can hear that in the cracking voices as they describe their disbelief at what happened, and that it happened to people we love. It is one that I share and struggle with. Right now I fight against that swell of emotion to write this, and I can’t speak about it at all without dissolving into tears. It is part anguish, part pride, part horror, part rage — and that is what is in this story.

I’ve known for years that I would write something like this, though I didn’t know when. The opportunity presented itself when Jay and I signed up for Gary Braunbeck‘s fiction masterclass at Context 21 in 2008. If you know Gary’s work (and if you don’t, I highly recommend it), you know that he seems to have an internal radar for the most difficult things in his life to mine for stories, and that what he emerges with is transformative, terrifying, soul-wringing; that when you finish a Braunbeck story, you feel exhausted, human, and real. Jay introduced me to Gary’s work in 2005, and I knew that if anyone could mentor this kind of story, it would be him.

So, months before the workshop, I set out to write the story, which at first involved a lot of reading. If you are interested in this subject, and in authenticity, you may be interested in the work of Hisaye Yamamoto, who was interned at Poston also. As I said, the process of writing “Lighthouse” was unusual (I usually am a thorough outliner; I did not outline this story), and it surprised me many times — particularly when I saw where it was going. And it did just that; I saw the ending coming, and I stopped writing. I asked many of the questions I’m sure will be asked publicly and privately about the story. How could it end this way?

I reached a breakthrough of sorts when I realized that although this was a story about the internment, it was not their story: it was mine. Someday I hope to tell their story, but I had to get through this first. And what I had, beneath the bewilderment, beneath aspiring to shikata ga nai, was rage.

That is the legacy left to those of us descended from interned Japanese. A kind of rage perhaps even denied the first generation, for the most part (though there were resistors). But what I felt from connecting with the third and fourth generation experience was that our anger is greater in part because we didn’t have to undergo this ourselves — because it was inflicted upon our loved ones, and because it went so long unaddressed, decades before there was so much as an apology. Because there are millions of Americans today who don’t even know that it happened, and others (thankfully fewer), who will say that it was justified.

And I wondered what it would mean if that feeling had a literal power. In a way, I wondered if this wasn’t what speculative fiction was for: the literalization of the subjective. I wondered what would happen if that anguish and disbelief and rage could do in the physical world what it seemed to be doing inside of me.

It was inevitable then to ask the question — one of the most difficult questions in American history — that the story’s protagonist is asked at the end. And so inevitable, too, was her answer.

When I submitted the story to the masterclass, it was with great trepidation and self-consciousness. I still have those feelings about its reception. But I also know that, at least for me, the story could not be or end any other way. And among the many things we discussed at that workshop, Gary’s last comment about the story was: whatever you do, don’t change the ending. And I didn’t.

I sent the story to Patrick Nielsen-Hayden at Tor.com, and, unbeknownst to me at the time, the wonderful Liz Gorinsky pulled it out of the slush. About a year and half after I sent it, Liz had stepped up to a full editor position, and offered to buy it. At the time the title was “A Single Small Globe Against the Stars”, in reference to the Arthur C. Clarke quote, which is in full “It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.” The one that we eventually landed on is much better, and the story is much improved thanks to Liz’s thorough editorial eye. I was thrilled also when I saw Scott Bakal‘s amazing illustration, selected by Irene Gallo. You can read a cool process post about the illustration’s creation on Scott’s drawger site. I am incredibly grateful that this story was handled by such a crack team, and also, as I said, to Gary, his masterclass, and to Jay, who championed this story in particular through many narrow moments when I threatened to not write it.

It is a story that, to me, requires context, and I honestly don’t know if that’s an indication of its weakness. I know what I wanted to evoke, and from the reactions of readers I believe that, at least for some, I achieved it. If you read the story, and/or read this far, I sincerely thank you for your attention. For me, at its core, it is a kind of awed terror — and a nihilist tragedy — at the lesson that we purchased with their sacrifice.

Signed copies now at Mysterious Galaxy, and 50% off Sword of Fire and Sea from Pyr!

Whew. Back in SF today, successfully having survived another book signing! Thank you very much to those of you who made it, and those who didn’t, we missed you!

I often receive emails or facebook messages asking where signed copies of Sword or Lance can be obtained. If you can’t make it to an event (say, SFinSF on May 19th?), the very fine folk at Mysterious Galaxy have several copies on-hand in San Diego, freshly signed from this weekend.

I’ve gushed about Mysterious Galaxy before and will add only that every visit reinforces their awesomeness. Great conversation with all who turned out on subjects ranging from paranormal romance to Philip K. Dick to game designing a fantasy world and more. I try to pick up works by authors I haven’t heard of before while I’m there, and left with three.

There were also gryphon cookies! As you can see. I made the cookie cutter using a “kit” — really a long strip of aluminum and some adhesive to bind the ends together — and a later post will document the creation of the exceedingly rare gryphon sugar cookie. You’d think someone would have cornered the gryphon cookie cutter market by now! Also featured was interactive frosting, meaning that we were letting the cookies cool and wanted to test the artistic ability of attendees — Bill is shown here frosting his, and the results were so spectacular they defied photography.

Lastly, Pyr is running a 50% off coupon along with a brief interview in the most recent edition of their newsletter! Head over here to sign up and get your coupon. 🙂 You can also like the Pyr Page on Facebook, where there’s a direct link to the newsletter and coupon.

And now, a picture of Isis, my family’s cat — rescued from the humane society in San Diego waaaay back in 1994, and still going strong:

More soon!