Category: Study

Articles that relate to or build off my academic study. This is both things I wrote about my university life and things written about the things I learned there since.

Virtually Virtually

With this talk of Virtual Reality going on, ever sit to wonder what virtual means?

What do you mean when you say something is virtually done?

It’s a weird word, isn’t it? It has some connection to the word virtuous, perhaps, and we use it so freely to describe digital spaces that it has a sort of connotation of the internet, or videogames, or something like that, but that’s not really what it means. When we describe reality, we mean pretty much reality. What makes that really interesting is that for a lot of intangible things in our virtual spaces, they are already virtual reality.

Brendan Keogh wrote about this, in that thesis I’m grinding my way through.In that, he outlines the question of virtuality as it pertains to things that are secretly trying to obscure their connection to the real world, that they are virtually real, and we are prone to pretending they are not. There’s no reason in particular we do this. We don’t file Warcraft goals as more important than Solitaire goals and yet less important than local sports team goals, even though one of those three is much more complex and within our control to influence.

When we say a task is virtually done, we mean that it might as well be done. When we say a thing is virtually real, we mean the same thing. It is real, or might as well be.

This comes back to my idea, the idea I can’t stop circling. We need to take games seriously, because they matter to people.

The Semiotic Threesome

Is it weird to call a PhD thesis’ language erotically charged?

In A Play of Bodies: A Phenomenology Of Videogames, Brendan Keogh, author of Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line, Australian games academic and probably someone I’m going to have to call ‘sir’ at some point going forwards, writes about the challenges of videogame texts. In the thesis, he forwards that videogames are a unique medium where there’s a challenge in divining a text, and that we have to re-examine what a text means and –

Look.

There’s good stuff there.

But, during this writing, he says (quoting Aarsith, describing Ergodicity), the semiotic threesome. The model of semiotics we normally use is one of encoding and decoding; the creator makes the text (encoding), the consumer experiences it (decoding). But that term, that turn of phrase, the idea of the semiotic threesome, where we consider an encoder, and their experience, the decoder and their experience, and the text itself as a trio of entities.

It’s romantic, in a way. It’s something I quite like to imagine – the encoder glimpsing the edges of the decoder, through the text. The text, curling and sinuous between all, entwining them, a thread that transforms and mutates and becomes its own thing. And it in a strange way, means that there is a time, a moment, when the art, the artist, and the audience are all together, in the moment when the audience enjoys the work, and considers what it might mean to mean.

It’s quite sweet.

Procedurality

I don’t know if anyone else is using this term to talk about this, so here we go, my best effort to try and coin this term so I can talk about it easily.

The Procedurality of a game is the degree to which game pieces imply the existence of one another. That is, when you’re confronted with a game pieces, you can probably extrapolate what the other pieces mean. As a player this determines how you learn and study the strategy, while as a designer, procedurality shows you the extent of a design space.

Here are some examples:In this pretty ordinary poker hand, you can look at the cards and glean some information. First, there are cards that number up to ten, and cards that number down to four. There are numbers on most cards, and there are some different symbols – a heart, a diamond, a club and so on.

Based on just this information, if you’d never seen the deck before, you could probably extrapolate what forty of the cards are, maybe forty-four based on the Jack probably not being totally unique. The design of a deck of cards works with this – there are two jokers, but aside from that, the whole design is contained pretty tightly within the two variables of each card: Value and Suit.

These are cards from a packet of Dark Signs. One of them is very much unlike the others, the area pieces that you’ll play to win. But two of the cards kind of imply the values of other cards, while the third shows that there’s at least some cards in the deck that don’t fit that pattern. The basic runes in Dark Signs represent the lowest sort of procedurality – they show some value that the players will have to deal with, but they aren’t the whole of the game. The procedural cards in Dark Signs show a sort of design space, but they aren’t super obvious. Also, and it’s a small thing, in Dark Signs, the basic runes all have prime number values, which makes them just a little bit trickier to make score ties.

Finally we have the most procedural game I’ve ever made:

There are 26 cards in You Can’t Win and 24 of them are immediately obvious the second you look at any given card. The other two are Wild cards. Each card shows a value, and a rule that relates to cards with that value.

Procedural games are a good place to get started. It helps you get your mind in the space of working out how many cards you need, and if you do it right it can help you explore spaces, defining boundaries by how many different permutations you need of an effect.

The Model: Abstraction, Confrontation, and Materiality

Let’s call this a first draft.

I’m working, in my PhD, on the – oh you’ve fallen asleep.

Anyway, I’m working on constructing a model for looking at games (in general) that focuses on board games (in specific). Existing models of classifying games are kind of grassroots, disorganised, and unfortunately, structured primarily by nerds, some of the worst kind of humans for providing comprehensive, forgiving models of classification. There are people who will shout in your face that 4th Ed D&D is a tactical miniatures Wargame, you Chad, because it’s not about communicating relationships between types of games as much as it is about defending territory they’ve staked out, and somehow being able to transform their preferences into rules.

This is something nerds do everywhere, and we are bad, and the worst, and should be ashamed.

This model of game analysis is meant not to give hard defined boundaries for the games – don’t think this is about saying this game scores a 7.4 on thinginess. This is about instead presenting games as expressions of multiple axes, and lets you think about games in terms of how their designs are similar.

What we have is a model on three axes. It started out as a spectrum – a line in a row – then two lines in a row – then lines in opposition, but where we are now, the model considers each game has having a range of Abstraction, Confrontation and Materiality. Each of these values goes from ‘not very much at all’ to ‘lots and lots’ – we’re not talking hard numeric values. It’s possible a game to have very little abstraction, almost none, and it’s very possible for a game to have very little materiality, just as it’s possible for a game to have lots and lots of materiality or abstraction.

Abstraction, in layperson’s terms, is how much a game presents of a theme. All games are abstractions – they’re human-mind representations of importance, assigned to indicators. Soccer is an abstraction, even if the thing it’s abstracting is soccer mattering. Soccer is fake, actually. Some board games are very, very heavily abstracted for what they represent – look at games like Chess or Checkers – even those that are trying to represent something like a battle are still pretending battles work on extremely arbitary, careful rules with oddly specific dynamics. Some games are instead very low on abstraction and do whatever they can to present to you, the player, as much of their theme and game world every time you play them. Games like Magic: The Gathering are, again, still abstract representations of a war between wizards, but they’re still absolutely soaking with things that want to give you the feeling of existing in their world.

Low-abstraction games can look really different, though. Dungeons and Dragons runs low on abstraction because you’re trying to make absolutely sure that the world feels real, and players engaging with that world can interact with it in as many ways as they can conceive and explain to the player coordinating the game. Games like Gipf are really abstracted because they want to make the math puzzle of how you engage with them more present than caring about the theme or the motivations of actions.

Confrontation is the degree to which the game presents players with opposition. The easiest models of confrontation are players in competition with one another, trying to ‘beat’ one another in some way. Race games like Snakes and Ladders have a lot of very obvious confrontation. You want to get to the goal before your opponents do. When they win, you do not win, and the very simple binary of ‘win or lose’ is the only thing the game is about. Confrontation and how the game presents it is a fascinating axis with so many different options. Games can be opaque about it, like Tigris and Euphrates, or they can be direct, like Formula D. They can make engaging with your confrontation indirect, like Monopoly, or they can make it direct, like Garou: Mark of the Wolves. Sometimes the game itself confronts all players, and then those players compare how they handle that opposition, and that becomes another level of confrontation, like Imperial Settlers.

Then, our third axis is materiality. Board games get to do a lot with materiality, moreso than videogames – because board games are built around actual objects. Some tabletop games can have almost no materiality, word games and gambling puzzles. Some games play with huge materiality, like crowd-friendly games like Two Rooms And A Boom where just having a big space is part of the game. To bring up Dungeons and Dragons again, that’s a game that turns dungeons and palaces and dragons into (potentially) entirely conceptual entities, both as non-material entities, but also imbues those entities with the idea they should have mass and weight and force, and therefore, they have a virtual materiality.

One special note is that videogames don’t have no materiality. Instead, because games have a very limited way to express materiality, all videogame materiality has to be represented within a sort of limited range of how the game handles things that are meant to be material objects. Most videogame materiality is about how the game makes objects seem real. So platform games, which create a 2d slice world, have a different kind of materiality to games like Stair Fall. Games like Shift or Snipperclips play with the very conception of materiality in their game spaces, as do games like Framed. Basically, even within the spectrum of ‘almost no material object is a component of the game,’ videogames have a vast spread of materiality.

This is a first draft of this concept space. It’s going to get prettied up for my thesis. But I realised that being able to explain this idea to you is a good way to get started in being able to explain it to a hypothetical anyone, as the thesis will wind up doing.

Sharing

One of the weird things about growing up in fundamentalist church with a deliberately stifled education is that some concepts kinda just get thrown around and you never really learn what they are. This meant I had to teach myself a bunch of this stuff, and I realise, there are some people similarly uncertain as to where the heck the idea of Shares come from.

The basic idea of what a share is is that it’s a portion of something. The place it got its start – more or less, there are always earlier versions of things, but the place it sort of got its modern kick-off – was during the (absolutely god-awful) trading history of large fleets of vessels, things like the Dutch East India company.

The way these things worked was, buying a boat – like, a whole boat – and managing an expedition over to do trading was, as an up-front cost, totally ridiculous. Like, we talk about wealth disparity, but it’s kind of hard to translate wha that was like when you’re talking about a period of history when you might not even exchange money for food, because it simply wasn’t affordable. So there’s a striation of wealth between poor and wealthy people that’s like, mindboggling, and I tend to think about ships from the perspective of the poor people. Each one of them represented more than a lifetimes’ worth of wealth, so the idea of rich people owning multiples is kind of impossible.

Anyway, even so, the task of sending a boat to get goods for sale was still a gamble – every time it went out, you didn’t know if it was coming back, and if it didn’t come back, you were out a ton of money, enough to ruin someone. The solution, then, was for people to band together – wealthy people, mind you – and instead of buying one ship, buying one tenth of ten ships. When each ship came in, you got a tenth of its proceeds. If one sank, you were out a tenth of a price of a ship. Then they got really fiddly with the numbers, and bookkeeping got involved and you started to see people making more and more careful subdivisions of the shares, and things you could do to interact with the shares and eventually things got decoupled from ever needing to turn a profit at all, because everything about markets eventually sucks butts.

Still, the thing with this whole system that makes my ears twist is, no matter how I think about it, the more I think it’s kind of inevitable that people will come up with this idea if they have some way of representing it. And then the weirder thing is: We have this idea for buying and owning shares in objects and businesses, but it seems fundamentally inimical to the current mindset of the world to have shares in the government you’re part of. Like, taxes are seen a an imposition, rather than a percentage ownership of the country you’re investing in.

Stop Being An Asshole About Fidget Spinners

Last year was the year of the Fidget Spinner, which is to say, it was the year people noticed the existence of dedicated stim toys and started to make a thing about it. During this time, teachers began the eternal gripe about whether or not they’re entitled to the attention of students, something that philosophically, I’m sort of resistant to. It’s not so much a resistance to the idea as much as it is surrender to its impossibility. If you’re a teacher, and you’re dealing with students who aren’t paying attention to you, that’s on you. Your job is to communicate ideas to the student in a way that they can remember. If they’re not engaging – if they’re not even trying – and you can’t find a way to make them that works for you too, then the two of you aren’t compatible.

The thing that blows me out about it was that the whole regime was just assholery all the way down. It wasn’t some sort of brilliant incisive conversation, not even slightly. You’d see people ostensibly employed in the task of scientific research or pedagogy or parenting or anything, people who you’d think have some degree of appreciation for nuance and maybe a recognition of how kids behave, acting like fidget spinners were the ding-danging apocalypse.

I mean, consider that adults do a ton of annoying stuff that other people put up with but they never realise how much people are ignoring it, because it’s not normal to call out strangers for being weird. If I stand at the bus stop clicking a pen nobody at the bus stop is going to tell me off for it, not because it doesn’t bug them, but because you respect other people’s boundaries.

The main thing I took out of the whole lesson was that the people you saw complaining the most about trying to distract people from fidget spinners were that they were people obviously uncomfortable with being shown that they’re not good at holding an audience’s attention. If people are going to zone out during your class, the fidget spinner’s not going to help them do it faster.

Literally every reason to ban fidget spinners is a reason to ban pens and paper.

Term: Dice Pool

A dice pool refers to a resolution mechanic where rather than rolling a dice or a number of dice and summing the results, the number of dice themselves is some part of the mechanics. The simplest version of a dicepool is one where you roll a large group of dice, and then select which results apply to which part of the resolution.

A single dice (or number of dice plus a modifier) is a resolution mechanic that follows a very simple experience: You roll the dice, you do the math, and then you have your result. This makes a dice roll, singular, as a very simple ‘switch’ experience, comparable to pushing a button in a videogame. You press a button, the system responds to the math, you get a result. That’s a really good, robust mechanic I like using for any game where you want some variance in a reliable, regular action – like in D&D, for example.

A dicepool, by comparison, is more of a system for making resolution itself a game. This isn’t all it’s used for! But it’s a simple way to use dice that isn’t just adding or subtracting on top of them.

Utility

So one of the most basic things you can do with dicepool systems is you can make players make decisions. Let’s say you have a system where players are setting up a car for a race. You roll a fistful of dice at the start of the game, and select, of those dice, some to be the engine, some to be the tires, and some to be the seating. Then, as you play the game, you prioritise how you drive your car based on those earlier decisions.

One way that Exalted uses a dice pool is that you roll your d10s, and all dice that are 7s or higher are ‘successes,’ and you need a certain number of successes to win. This is a weird bit of terminology that maybe a designer who cared about language might fix but whatever, like in Blades in the Dark the point is that you can use a dicepool to handle a resolution in a system where you want players to succeed, on average, but don’t want the degrees of success to be as varied as the numbers on each dice face.

A dice pool doesn’t even need to be rolled: You can use a dicepool system to have a number of counters that are kept at a particular number, or incremented as appropriate, based on the players’ choices. And even then you can use that these counters are dice as part of the play: Make it so it’s calibrating a computer, and sometimes a virus rolls some of the dice randomly!

Limitations

Dice pool systems can get pretty weird when you make them success-or-fail. It’s also got a mechanical limit – rolling 1d20+30 is not the same physical question as asking someone to roll 30d6 and count the successes.

Another thing with dicepool systems is that when you add components per player, they get out of hand fast – so if you want a game where each player needs to roll 5 dice, then one player needs 5, and 2 needs 10 but if you wanted 4 players you need 20, and you need to store those dice.

One final thing with dice pool systems is that while rolling big fistfuls of dice is exciting, doing fiddly book-keeping or rules changing or changes to each dice in the pool multiplies irritation. So it doesn’t always work with every type of dice mechanic.

Examples

Exalted, Scion, and the other of White Wolf’s other various roleplaying games.

Blades in the Dark.

The Hyperlink Is The Message

Sodom Me, So Do You

The story of the city of Sodom is barely worth recapping, but in case you’ve never heard it, basically there was this place that God didn’t like that was basically named Doomedsville, and the only good people who lived there were shown in one incident how they were too good to live there, before God told them the town was hecked and they left. I’m glossing over some plot points, but it’s honestly not important, because what’s really remarkable about this story is what it’s about.

See, right now, if you ask people, it’s about the sexual immorality of the city, the way that the people of Sodom used to stick their hoo-hahs into butt-holes and that’s why it was a sign of what a problem things could be. That’s why God hates gay marriage.

Except those people, these days, are also opposed by people, equally certain of their familiarity with the religious texts of the now, who want to assert to you that, in fact, the sin of Sodom was their failure to show the messengers proper comfort: That the story of Sodom was a place that failed to respect people enough, and right, and therefore, God loves gay marriage.

This is not, in any way new.

Back during the 1930s, the city of Sodom was a story about a failure of the people to care for their travellers and interlopers, brought up as an example of people who weren’t in the proper spirit of Christian Charity. In the 1940s and 1920s, Sodom and Gomorrah were known to be about the vile practice of race-mixing. In the 1890s, Kelogg was certain that Sodom and Gomorrah were a story about the foulness of indulgent humanity who ate fancy food.

Now this is no secret to anyone familiar with Christian movements: Everything in the story is just a justification for today’s latest problem, and nobody wants to read any further than the destruction of the city for their metaphor.