Success

Marketing for a kids’ game is difficult. Marketing for a kids’ game that also pushes a whole mess of technology boundaries is phenomenally difficult. But despite all of the discussion on the various technological challenges associated with the GoPets DS game, seeing this review on Amazon has been the most satisfying yet:

A Kid’s Review
This is a very fun game to play. You start out by getting interviewed to adopt a dog or cat (later on you can get a horse). You decide what color you want it to be, the design (spots, stripes), and its name. You can dress your pet and clean it (by putting it in the tub and using the stylus to make bubbles by rubbing). There are mini games in a different part of the island, and you need to unlock one, I haven’t yet. On wifi you can meet other peoples pets and make friends and chat. It is perfectly safe because you use pictures for words and only certain words have pictures for them. It gets a tiny bit boring when you just keep playing the same mini games, but you get a lot of motivation to get the biggest house and the most friends.
I would say “get the game!” but also, you might want to save your allowance so you can get 2 games in case you aren’t the type for this game.

I love it. (And that s/he gave us four stars.)

I may be writing a few articles for Gamasutra on the development of the game and the difficulties inherent in developing for this particular demographic — and then watching the game get pummeled by game reviewers who already have enough of a hard time defending their masculinity — but y’know what, a review like that is enough for me.

In other game type news, Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing (also here on Amazon but without the snazzy cover image), with many illustrious contributors and my chapter on writing game pitches, should be out next month.

I love this thing

Actual post forthcoming, but for right now — I love this thing:

http://www.norefuge.net/vgng/vgng.html

Some recent favorites…

“Brain-Damaged Chess 2K”
“Everybody Loves the Internet Annihilation”
“Silent STD – The Movie”
“Ultra Crowbar of Magic”
“Enraged Fantasy Simulator”
“Deadly Stapler – The Next Generation”
“Communist Ostrich Scam”

Why has no one shown me this before? I demand you all go out and make games using it.

Context 21 — September 26-28, and various

Since it’s official, just posting a note here that I’ll be teaching a game workshop at this year’s Context, a very cool convention in Columbus, OH.

Via the workshop website:

Erin Hoffman: Interactive Narrative and Game Design
(Sunday, September 28th, 11am-2pm)
This workshop explores the fundamentals of video game design through the use of interactive fiction, exploring the places where interactivity and storytelling overlap. No technology or game training is necessary, though a laptop computer is highly recommended. Attendees will be provided with advance reading and will create a small interactive fiction game using the Inform7 Engine.

Erin Hoffman has been working in video games since 1999 on an assortment of genres from massively multiplayer online games to Nintendo DS titles for young audiences to action-RPGs for PC, XBox, and PlayStation2. $20.

I am excited. I’ve been scattershot working on a design document for an Inform7 game for next year’s IFC, and this will be a good opportunity to actually execute on it to have something to show during the workshop as a process example.

[info]thehollowbox and I are also in Gary Braunbeck’s masterclass workshop (uberwoot). You should all come and hang out with us! It’s a very nice con, excellent staff and programming with a pleasantly small and very friendly population. I had a great time last year and hope to make this a habitual trip along with ReaderCon. Giant cons are not my thing, but these small, well-run ones with great guests are a lot of fun.

In other appearance-type news… I will of course be at GDC next month (Feb 17-24), then in San Diego for the weekend, then back to NY on the 24th for [info]brennye‘s arrival on the 25th (yay!!). I will be at IMGDC in Minneapolis giving a roundtable on BetterEULA in the end of March, very shortly thereafter in NYC to be on a panel at the Virtual Law Conference April 3-4, likely moving within a few days after getting home from that, and then things should quiet down until [info]skkyechan‘s wedding in September, closely followed by Context. Said quieting down is of course contingent on [info]thehollowbox and me not moving out to Long Beach during that time, which is possible (and likely even more complicated if we wait until after Context — hmm).

Whew.

We Like Choice

The more I work in the areas where I work (which frequently feel more like play, and the more they feel like play, the better the results I tend to get), the more I think that my entire profession, or series of professions, can be distilled into a single concept of the science of choice.

Games are about choices. They fundamentally are about choice and consequence, which is a variation away from Jim Gee’s codification of the game experience as the scientific method. What is interesting and, to me, justifies that variation is that players are not purely objective oriented. They truly delight in finding ways to get bizarre results out of an intentionally predictable interface, and this becomes a form of self expression. We have handles, in terms of our online identities, for a reason beyond their simple utility. Providing environments promoting choice results in increased player loyalty, faster spread of viral material, and a generally happier player base.

Marketing is about choices. The number one thing you cannot do without resorting to dishonesty (which inevitably backfires) is market a poor product. Trace patterns in people who have had exceptionally strong careers in marketing and you will generally see a high level of skill in selecting what they market. Viral marketing is about setting up an environment where your prospective buyer can make a choice and feel good and rewarded for making that choice. Facebook, one of the most powerful recent marketing and social networking tools, is inherently leveraging choice in a way that MySpace failed to accomplish.

Writing is about as choice-driven as anything I can think of, not just in terms of the above scenarios where you are predicting or attempting to influence choice, or the ways in which choice plays a role in everything in life, but storytelling fundamentally also comes down to choice (and, again, consequence). Storytelling is, in general, another broad metaphor, if you incorporate interactivity.

The further we get from having to expend all of our energy to ensure our basic survival, the more we value choice. Free will becomes of value when you are equally safe making decisions on your own as you are placing your fate in the hands of a dictator (one who is stronger than you and will ensure your basic physical protection). This is largely why we are seeing an explosion of choice-as-personal-expression, from online avatars to personal websites and blogs to downloadable single-unit portions of music. There are entire services now, like Second Life, which on a basic level exist only to allow you to make choices. They don’t even bother to throw much of anything else into the mix.

AnthologyBuilder has been making the rounds on various journals, though I heard it first from Matt Rotundo. I talked about something like this in my many maunderings on new speculative fiction models, so I’m tickled that something like it (which must surely have been long in development then) now actually exists. It has interesting implications, including potential undervaluing of future collections compiled by the author, which is reason for caution, but overall it’s a terrific thing, the iTunes of fiction.

There’s been an evolution in game design over the last decade emphasizing choice and player expression. It’s taken the industry this long to come fully to terms with the fact that maximizing player decision-making isn’t a bad thing. Some guidance is still needed, which is what will differentiate a world like SecondLife from an actual game — but you would be amazed at the reticence of game designers to put choice in the player’s hands, even in something as inherently social, expressive, and commercial as an MMO. Games like A Tale in the Desert take this to new heights in experimentation (and there is no question that designing for choice is an expensive process), but overall for some time now the industry has been waking up to the value of allowing the player to make simple, even completely meaningless, choices, and rewarding them for it.

This is venturing on a lot of words over something that appears to be an obvious realization, but the concept of choice is as fundamental as the concept of freedom, and it is equally overlooked in so many enterprises. Choice is good. Choice is fun. Choice is what life is about. In a world where we have a profusion of information and manipulatable media, the differentiating factor is how we navigate that media, which comes down to identity, which comes down to choice. It amazes me how much StumbleUpon can multiply your web traffic, and this, too, is choice and identity based, leveraging word of mouth and encouraging users for finding cool stuff on the internet. In any undertaking where your objective is to reach more people (in depth or in breadth), I can think of few ways in which adding an element of choice wouldn’t drastically improve your reach and the resonance of your effort. And I do think that all art ultimately becomes interactive, or it becomes extinct.

Harnessing the Dragon: A Middle Ground for Fanfiction

With Naomi Novik’s recent announcement about the Organization for Transformative Works there’s been a renewed energy in discussion of fanfiction and its impact on the specluative fiction community. I’m not really going to comment on the OTW — I tend to concur with John Scalzi on its feasibility and potential danger to the fanfiction community itself. But particularly given my involvement with the BetterEULA project and interactive elements in storytelling in general, the discussion got me thinking about the intersection of reader participation and speculative fiction, and, of course, virtual world and video game space. No, video games can’t solve all your problems. Just most of them.

I have to get this out of the way first: I don’t generally like fanfiction. I don’t read it, I don’t write it, and when someone promising devotes a disproportionate amount of their time to writing fanfiction rather than creating their own worlds (and especially characters) I tend to get a little bit sad.

Further, I could not write about Harry Potter. Harry Potter is not mine. I think that characters are almost always foils of their authors in some intrinsic way, and I would no sooner march around with someone else’s character — especially uninvited — than I would try on another person’s skin. It is creepy to me on that level and I can honestly say always has been. I must be a freak, but I have simply never had the inclination to puppet someone else’s creation.

I have, however, participated in shared worlds, in small doses. And I fully recognize that whether or not fanfiction tweaks my particular melon, its sheer proliferation indicates that there is a powerful human drive at work here, and smart authors and publishers are wise to ride that wave rather than trying to push it back in the bottle.

But here’s the thing. I do think that unbridled fanfiction is actually harmful to an IP. Here’s why.

1. Fictional worlds and fictional characters have themes and trajectories that fanfiction writers do not know about. Any author participating in even cursory worldbuilding has notes and copious information that doesn’t make it into the main stage — it is backstory in its simplest terms. By ignoring or operating without these background rules a derivative work is attempting to redefine a character or place in their own terms; they are inherently attempting to alter the IP without the owner’s knowledge or, often, express agreement.

2. The more you let someone do something illegal, the more they will start to feel entitled to do so. Turning a blind eye will only work for so long before you start getting major problems, and by then there’s no way to correct the situation without royally pissing off some of your most devoted fans. When you allow someone to spend a significant amount of time creating something, you are allowing them to invest, and if you spontaneously take away that investment, they are, pretty rightfully, going to be ticked off and never buy your work again.

3. Fanfiction dilutes an IP. It is not, as some have postulated, simply “expanding” a universe. It is not “transforming” anything. It is creating a myriad parallel universes in which things the original author did not intend happen all over the place. This is not immediately and inherently harmful, but when someone starts to invest in reading these parallel universes, they are storing up situations that did not happen. It’s very similar to using cheat codes in a video game. A little bit of it isn’t going to hurt anyone, but when it is systemic and sustained eventually you are going to lose the entire concept of what the original game was, because a game, like a world, is defined by its limitations or parameters, which fanfiction and cheat codes generally exist to remove.

All of these considerations are purely in terms of the integrity of the story itself, and don’t even take into consideration the potential and historic legal pitfalls that exist when you allow fans free rein over your world.

But I assert that by looking closely at what fans are getting out of the fanfiction experience — and it appears to be an awful lot (what do they want? A sandbox! when do they want it? Yesterday!) — it is possible to provide them those advantages and satisfactions without falling victim to the many dangerous pits surrounding the relinquishing of IP. Video games allow interactivity every day without surrendering their creative rights. If you play your cards right, with a little sensitive attention you can turn fanfiction energy into an engine that drives a fanbase, builds a community, and satisfies your readers when you’re not laying a book in front of them.

Containing fanfiction has already been attempted. In fact, a year ago someone caught on to monetizing it in a serious way. How it’s working out for them monetarily I have no idea, but I tend to concur with those on Making Light who said they would likely burn through their cash and then pop like a soap bubble. It looks like they’ve made a soldiering attempt to build some community there, but it looks like trying to build a community around a mall, which has never panned out very well.

Outside of video game territory, the primary shared world I participated in was Pern fandom. Anne McCaffrey, way ahead of the curve (because, like new models for online magazines, I believe that interactivity in fiction is ultimately the wave of the future, and that includes derivative work), saw what her fans were doing and gave them some guidelines to behave by if they were sharing her world. It wasn’t handled perfectly, through little fault of hers, but it was a hell of a lot better than anything else of its kind that I’ve seen.

Here are, in my opinion, the critical things that Pern fandom did:

1. It split the universe, deliberately creating a definably separate parallel universe for the Pern world where specific world-altering events did or did not happen. This separated the sandboxes of McCaffrey’s Pern and her fans’ Pern without changing major sensory features such as landscape, world mechanics, or environmental feel. This was a stroke of genius that prevented Pern from going the way of Darkover. Bulletproof? No, but close enough.

2. It gave fans rules by which to create their characters, even employing some basic random number generation. This is like pouring a nice fat dish of agar for your community. Using some very simple game mechanics, it ensured that participants had an even field and some baselines to play by — and also an achievement ladder that they could climb. The Pern fangroup also provided an entire system by which new fangroups, or “Weyrs”, could be created. This egalitarian mindset helped ensure that Pern was, for the most part, an amazingly peaceful, pleasant place to be.

3. It allowed participants a huge degree of freedom in their choice of expressive media, whether that was text storytelling, live (text) roleplay, craft-making, textile-art, or even game creation (MU*s). There was very little in terms of expression you could request permission for from the fandom and be told “no”. And resultingly some players created some amazing things — cookbooks, sculptures, costumes, and more.

4. It actually grew the world by requiring that players created their own characters rather than manipulating the characters of the author. “Canon” characters were off limits and could not be given dialogue or represented in more than a passing reference fashion. This kept McCaffrey’s novels further distinct and commoditized while presenting a very reasonable and accept
ab

le alternative for fans that encouraged them to have personal investment and engage creatively with the world.

The cohesiveness of this system meant that fans were provided a clear, sanctioned, fun playground to exercise their creativity in. Not only was McCaffrey protecting her IP, she was encouraging some amazing creativity amongst her fans. She was having them engage in some of the most compelling elements that would later feed the explosion of massively multiplayer online games — in a simple, clear way and in her own world, encouraging them to create characters to which they would form indelible lasting attachments.

Could players break the rules? Sure. And they did. There were a few major kerfluffles in the fandom that I was aware of, and all of them resulted in lack of maintenance from McCaffrey directly on the system. Fan systems do need to be maintained and at large capacities become organisms that need attention if they are to avoid going feral. Some Weyrs did go feral, and a few of them were even put down for it — all stemming from the groups engaging in activities for long periods of time (years) that the original creator did not know about. Once McCaffrey did know, she felt that her world theme was compromised, and felt compelled to take action to correct it. This drove away a not insignificant number of fans, as their investments were taken — and illustrates the importance of maintaining a communication line between the IP originator and the major arteries of the fan groups.

But despite these hiccups, relatively few people actually deliberately ignored McCaffrey’s wishes. Why would they? She’d given them the core of what they wanted. And if anyone did piss in the sandbox by defying her, the entire community would typically rise up and smite them down — McCaffrey didn’t even have to lift a finger. Fans generally have a great deal of respect for the creators of the works they wish to occupy; if they are treated with respect in return, they’ll do tremendous things for you.

Authors and owners of secondary worlds have started to crawl their way onto the Internet, some of them kicking and screaming. The next step is for them to give some focused, competent attention to their fans and the careful growth of community. I think it is no coincidence at all that some of the most prolific fangroups concern worlds created by women. Fan groups need to be nurtured and understood — while still treated with firmness when they go astray.

Would I build on McCaffrey’s foundation? Sure. In lots of ways. But that foundation does exist and, rather than allowing the fan community to run wild and untended, it behooves the owners of IP to take a proactive role in letting them into their worlds. Reader creativity and participation is here to stay, and, properly leveraged, it can be one way that books can effectively compete with live media. As usual, the solution exists in looking for potential rather than burying our heads in the sand until the explosion comes.

Contextualizing the social experience

Or “Let’s give ’em something to talk about”.

It’s lately been in vogue to trash World of Warcraft, and it’s no new thing that something popular should be heavily criticized. When you reach a certain level of visibility you draw fire from people who like to rage against The Man and from people who don’t dig the trend and therefore get irritated by being reminded of it. Similarly, WoW has been talked to death and it becomes difficult to put forth any analysis on something so heavily discussed. But I think there are still important things to talk about vis WoW’s insane success (and when a single game gets big enough to buy Activision, it is insanely successful), and it also reflects on the successes of major popular fiction titles as well.

Something that WoW did almost by accident — and I do think it was by accident because nothing in their engineering supports this specifically — was create a social context. Raiding parties do this naturally, but WoW did it particularly well. It actually brought people together, friends that I know who hadn’t talked to each other in years, who are suddenly now talking every day and engaging in a virtual environment. It strengthened old friendships and forged new ones. Online games have a history of connecting strangers, but WoW, unlike its predecessors, connected people who already knew each other, gave friends something to talk about and something to do together — questing in WoW became as much a staple as going out to a movie or restaurant. And for the interconnected but geographically separated populations now currently bridged by technology, that became even more important.

It did this for strangers, people applying for jobs, people in waiting rooms. WoW got so big that you could mention playing it in some non-game-context social environment and stand a good chance of someone, rather than looking at you like you were a space alien, asking what server you played on, what profession, and BAM, off you go into a detailed, often impassioned conversation with a total stranger.

This is part of a core purpose of entertainment media that isn’t frequently discussed. The form that did this so pervasively that it’s now a cliche (“So how ’bout them Padres?”) was baseball. I heard a story on NPR some weeks ago, a retrospective on the removal of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and how, in Brooklyn, it utterly removed a social context from the streets of New York — literally made the city a more unfriendly place.

And now MMOs are filling this purpose. But fiction did it too — Harry Potter operates on a similar level, and actually for similar reasons. Jordan’s Wheel of Time would have done something similar had it ever really broken out into the mainstream, which it nearly did, but not anywhere close to Rowling’s achievement.

What all of these have in common — and I have to waive the bias flag here just by disclaimer, in case you missed its obvious presence in my worldview — are game mechanics. They vary in things like their specificity of discussion — WoW discussions tend to be strategic or exploratory while Harry Potter discussions are mostly speculative, trying to guess a plot’s next movement (and therefore, I think, HP discussions are more limited) — but the connecting element between these hugely popular epic works is the very mechanical way that a viewer of the media is able to connect with the work. When we read, I believe we are subconsciously — or often consciously — slotting ourselves into the world. It is part of the immersion. And so if there is an easy character class for us to identify with, we have a hook of fascination that makes that immersion much more vivid. Games do this overtly, asking you to choose your poison right from the beginning — books are a little more subtle, though Wheel of Time certainly was about as subtle as a brick to the head with its character classes. Harry Potter was a bit moreso with its wands and various subtle breeds of wizards, though they all studied in the same place. The most overt class-generation there was in the House structure at Hogwarts. But it is certainly no coincidence that there was a huge flurry of marketing attention devoted to the concept of “What House would You Belong To?” It encourages the fantasy.

In essence when you are socially connecting via or over one of these media, you are expressing your personality. Personal expression is key in any kind of social gaming (and any personal interaction can be termed social gaming on some level). When I’m talking about speccing out my Hunter and what kind of pet I want to go after once I hit level 40, I am really talking about personal expression, elements of my personality that are not easily conveyed but take symbolic form in these game mechanics. Likewise for a kid who says they are certainly Ravenclaw and could never be anything else in the Harry Potter universe.

What this means in terms of world-building, for any media, is that completeness is important. Properties that have fallen short of the mega mark, but otherwise had that kind of potential, often lack completeness, something that they could have arrived at through theories applied in video game mechanic balancing. The D&D character class structure is a symbolic and evocative version of the same thing Myers-Brigg were trying to do with their type indicator — and if you go through and make sure that you have a character class for each personality type (and I’m not saying you should use Myers-Brigg — they’re not nearly creative enough, though it would be interesting to see someone try), you’re that much more likely not to lose parts of your audience by not giving them a place to slot themselves in the world. In Wheel of Time, if you were female, you were basically Aes Sedai, royalty, or boring — and I would bet that was a partial audience turnoff.

In essence, I believe the principles applied in game design to generating a complete player experience — which at its core is a meta-layer, a fictional world that is whole and satisfying, a full layer on the real world in which we exist that you then push one degree farther to see what happens — can be applied to any fictional work. And the great thing is that when you engage in this kind of elegance-focused worldbuilding (I say ‘elegance’ because that, in a computing sense, is what you are attempting to achieve when balancing character classes — you need to be complete without going overboard and having so many choices that the reader can’t connect), you’re also creating a more realistic world, because you are taking into account elements of fantasy not just sprung from your own mind, but ones that you might never consider a reader (or player) wanting to experience.

Souveniers du Montreal

And that is about as far as my French gets!

Like most, I don’t quite know what to think of this second sale of livejournal, but this discussion of the specifics on Slashdot was quite interesting. The future of Russia on the Internet is not something that has figured largely into projections for the cyber-future, but it certainly contains some most interesting potential… and certainly the intersection of non-English-speaking communities with the American-heavy majority is something we will see more and more.

The mention in this Wired article of the Pepsi assault on Barak Berkowitz’s gift account page is brilliant and so indicative of the uniqueness, intelligence, and passion of the LJ community. Full of drama, sure — but give me that any day over apathy. [info]illucian, you’re on the first page of gifts! You all are amazing. Keep on keepin’ on.

A busy week and Monday is barely over. But all of you magazine types looking to get into online marketing — you should have a Zazzle store. It is like CafePress on E. GoPets has one, and even more designs should be available soon.

Jeff Murray over at Fuel Industries posted this very kind writeup of my presentation at MIGS:

Later that day, Erin Hoffman blew my mind with her presentation ‘Plugged in: Why game developers make great parents’. With a title like that, I was expecting something all airy fairy and went along out of pure curiosity as to what it meant. To my absolute surprise, Hoffman spoke fast and meant every word. I found myself literally nodding throughout her whole presentation. There were times when it felt like I had stumbled into some kind of underground movement to overthrow the government; true revelations. The atmosphere was electric and my mind was racing at the possibilities – if we don’t try to change the way that the games industry is perceived in the media, it’s going to have huge implications further down the line.

Hoffman goes on to talk about how parents who build games are more in touch with their kids and their kids’ culture. Game developers know more about games, which means a more informed choice about what is suitable for their kids to play. Perhaps game developers are more likely to pick up the titles that reflect their family values, family ‘moral code’ or encourage mental or physical development in particular areas. That is opposed to the typical parent who would not make such informed decisions. In my book, that reads ‘people who allow their 3 year old to baseball bat old people in Grand Theft Auto when they’re off down the pub’.

It was difficult for the talk not to sidestep into a discussion on violence in videogames, which is a shame since there are so many more interesting things to talk about. Hoffman detailed the ‘good stuff’ and cited some fantastic examples; What good can games do? How are games being usedto help real world situations and problems? Well, I think that probably deserves a separate blog post from me as it’s a broader topic than I can do justice in my ‘highlights of MIGS’.

I can dig it. Jason DR also says that the whole event was “snowed under with awesomeness” over at RealityPanic and gives a quick, if briefer, rundown of the convention. The segues in my session into the subject of violence in video games, and its effect (or lack thereof) on fragile minds, did absorb much of the discussion, which is my fault — but I do maintain that the two concepts are irrevocably intertwined. We cannot talk about the role of parents in games without addressing the public image of games in the media sphere. But that, and censorship, will be the topic of this week’s column over at the Escapist, so I’ll shut up here. The discussion of parents and games is really just beginning.

Photos from Montreal are up here and I am caught a few times, least awkwardly in this one from the talk itself. Yay! There are other photos in that album from the event — again overall a very cool experience. Now if I could just catch up on my email…

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…

http://animalcrossingtragedy.ytmnd.com/

–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.