In the 1940s, Idaho needed to move some beavers.
I love stories about magicians.
Or rather they don’t meme the way we do.
It’s been wild to me how much, recently, I’ve been dealing with kids. I didn’t intend to be a person who interacted with kids and largely, I’m actually very okay with letting kids go off and do their own kid stuff over there. I like to swear a lot and I don’t like having to deal with kids learning from me that the right way to use swears is all the fuckin’ time.
But my students are now at the point where I think I have to very sincerely consider that they are, to me, ‘kids,’ not because I want to infantalise them but because the age gap between us is equal to… well, their entire age in some cases. I taught a seventeen year old last year. That’s messed up.
Also, in order to better accommodate my young niblings’ internet behaviour, I’ve been doing my best to be a kind of internet sleuth. Their mother’s a teacher, and she hasn’t got the time to vet everything they want to watch in screen time, and what’s more they’re also going to be looking at new types of stuff all the time. Back in the day, we used to channel surf, now they can get a lot of concentrated stuff, and thanks to websites like ohhh say Youtube, there’s a potential firehose of Bad Stuff these kids can see.
From there I got in the habit of checking out some kids’ content on Youtube to make sure nobody was going to tell my niblings they needed to invest in the gold standard or something dumb like that. This is why I got into Hermitcraft, which is also why I’m on the /hermitcraft subreddit on reddit.
Now, I am not a snobby memer. I’m really not. But I am pretty seasoned at it. I study the form. In fact, I teach the form. Believe it or not.
Something that stuns me about it, though, is how often the formats of memes escape the attention of the people using them. There are numerous memes that are wielded not to convey the information of the meme form (an argument or a dismissal) but because the people in question genuinely want the meme to serve as a serious platform for their opinion. Petitions as memes, simple observations of two related things as memes, and so very often, ‘I am glad this thing happened,’ as a meme.
Students I teach, who are older and more sophisticated than this are still not particularly memey! They don’t necessarily get that the meme template informs the meme meaning, and that templates create meaning by being templates. There’s a lot of reaction-gifs-are-memes moments, where they have to be told that the image they’re using actually contextualises what they say.
It’s interesting because we made a big fuss linguistically about the millenial generation using memes as a Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra style language, but what’s really wild to me now is how a sublanguage is forming around the structure of the meme that is not attuned to its meaning. It’s a meta meme level, where memes are losing their associations and just becoming something simpler; there’s no need to layer ‘it’s a meme’ around something to explain it.
These are words I put on a page, but there is a picture of Spongebob, so I hope you will read them.
Oh, and no pictures this time because I’m not about to put memes made by little kids or my students on blast.
This one’s going to feature some chatter from me as someone in a privileged position talking about people who lack that privilege. Just a heads up.
Recently I did a video article, where I mentioned that the idea that the main character of Fire Emblem 3 Houses could be read as autistic. At the time, I mentioned this was something I’d absorbed off other autistic friends and even mentioned one of them by name.
In the same week I recorded that audio, I introduced a early-transition trans girl friend to the idea of doortitting, where early on in transition, many trans girls misjudge the weight of doors and whack themselves in their extremely sensitive chests in a way that can be super painful and rough.
In neither case are these my experiences; all I’m doing is giving voice to things I’ve learned and heard from multiple other sources, and I try to make sure when I do these things I’m making it clear that I’m speaking of things I learned. There’s a gap between knowing and learning, after all.
Dara O’Briain in one of his comedy sets once related a story where an incensed Christian got mad at him for making jokes about Catholics, but that he didn’t have the courage to make jokes about Muslims. Dara’s response was that he wouldn’t tell jokes about Muslims because he didn’t know anything about them, and neither did his audience – there was literally no way to make a meaningful or funny joke from that position of complete ignorance, and admitting that ignorance was important and powerful, and it highlighted to me at the time the idea of how people are sure they know things when they don’t really. He then related a string of nonsense that may or may not be related to actual, obscure Muslim traditions and the point of the bit is I don’t know what he’s talking about.
There’s stuff I don’t talk about because I don’t know about it. I don’t talk to a lot of black women, for example. I can read black women’s work and I have indeed done so, learning amazing things about what Robin Boylorn calls blackgirlness, but that’s reading from an academic source. That’s not ‘my friend talks to me and I absorb culture through them.’ This means I’m typically resistant to commenting on black women’s issues except in the broadest way that hey, we treat black women real bad, that sucks, let’s stop doing that. When it comes to trans dudes, I talk to fewer of them than I do to trans women. Ace and autistic people are more common in my sphere, and that means I often think about the concerns they raise.
I think it’s important, and very healthy, to work out what it is you don’t know much about, even if not to fix that because you don’t want to approach friendships with an air of ‘You are my research assignment who will make me less ignorant of say, Southeast Asians,’ but just so you can be comfortable and confident admitting two crucial and important things:
I learned this from…
I don’t know.
These are invaluable tools for keeping your mind working well. Connect what you know to the people who did the work, and admit when your knowledge fails you.
The other thing is, and this is very important, even if in single direction relationships like where you’re reading a twitter feed of someone who doesn’t talk to you (like a big name activist or the like), is try to ensure you have a plurality of voices of types around you. When you listen to one black person, one gay person, when you’re not listening to marginalised voices but a marginalised individual, you’re making it harder for you to get interesting, meaningful, nuanced perspectives on these groups.
And when your media feed is one trans woman, you’re going to get that one trans woman’s take, and that, as we’re seeing, has led to some really rough stuff when people who listen to one trans women ignore all the other trans women who disagree.
Ever feel deeply embarrassed because you misplaced your notes and wound up committing an act of self importance in a way that nobody but you is likely to care about? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, in 1997, Janet Murray wrote a book called Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative In Cyberspace, and that book is a wild ride.
Now this isn’t going to be an Academic Blog Post (I mean I should save those for my Academic blog, smash cut to a bleached white skeleton gathering dust), but the book (which received an update in 2016) is a long form examination of the way that computers and communication technology was going to change our capacity for storytelling, with whole new theatres of technology opened up to the audience who could simultaneously engage with the work presented to them and create feedback loops that meant that the audience could shape the story that they best wanted.
This is kind of how things worked out, and kind of not, and you can look at the way that the internet has deformed the production of shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld for examples. Mixed in this book (which again, I’m only glancing through here) is an idea of the cyberbard. See, Murray was interested not just in how future stories in an online space were going to be created, but interested in how the tools for making those future stories would be created. She conceived of some truly dizzying stories being made at the level of, well, theatrical productions, and largely, the things she predicted did not happen.
Except the things she predicted, then arranged to have made, those are cool.
The notion of the cyberbard roots itself under the bard; the idea that there is a storyteller who can gauge reactions and give proper responses, fed by and feeding the audience in the loop of the communal storyteller. The bard did not just tell you a story they knew, they told you the story you were asking for, and the cyberbard is that same idea, expanded out into the realm of technological constructions.
There are a lot of things to cover in this book (it’s a good book, I liked it), but the idea of the cyberbard as an extension of technology and as an expression of the tools made to make those technologies is one of those ways that sometimes in academia we use small words to look through a mirror at an enormous conceptual space. The cyberbard is a storyteller conceived of and managed by a computer and it’s the way we build the tools that allow a non-cyberbard to make these stories and it’s the way that the rules of a cyberspace create the opportunities for these stories to be made. It’s dizzying!
But, in amongst all of this there are two specific examples I want to bring people’s attention to, because Murray was not writing about videogames, but about communication technology. She talked as much about things we’d identify now as blogs and web serials as she talked about the control interface of Janeway playing in the holodeck.
The first idea is that she suggests that any system of play in which you engage with a narrative, layered upon it, that changes the way you interface with the story, could be seen as a cyberbard. In videogames, this isn’t just the game itself, but rather, a system that lays atop the game, and encourages you to engage with the story in a way you might not otherwise, for a piece of specific feedback.
In this case, the Let’s Play’s need for content is a cyberbard; the twitch streamer engaging their audience is a cyberbard; and so to is the achievement system, directing the player to do things they wouldn’t do simply to be marked as having done it.
The second, and perhaps larger idea is the notion of a transcendental, collective artwork, an example of theatre, where people could gather and discuss and express their wants for the story going forwards, and the author could, in the mean time of the making of the narrative, enact and express that multimedia story. The book seems to think this would be being made like a television series, a soap opera with shooting and actors (even virtualised ones). What she didn’t anticipate was a massively democratised production apparatus, which meant that these dramas were being made not by people with access to enormous budgets, but people who could harness the right kind of focused attention and engagement.
In 1997, I feel, Janet Murray predicted Homestuck, though she never would have said so.
I’ve had this in the drafts folders for two years, get out of here, you curse’d blog post.
I say that like it’s something I did but I think it’s really just because I’m still numb that I did it. I think back on that hour or two of waiting and talking and asking and waiting and waiting and waiting and I feel sick to my stomach thinking about the mistakes I made. It was weird to enter with so much confidence I downplayed myself in the name of not looking like an arrogant dickhole, and in the process it all twisted around on itself.
My PhD scares the hell out of me, and every time I stand in front of an actual academic and explain it, I feel my grasp on my confidence slipping away. It’s scary!
But this year, I did my RPR, my first major presentation on the Phd to someone who doesn’t know the field and doesn’t know me. It didn’t go amazingly, I missed some specific details and – and –
You know what.
The thing is, the real reason I want to write this.
My supervisor and my co-supervisor went into a small room with two of their peers and went in to bat for me. They didn’t defend the indefensible, they provided context that was meaningful.
I’m not saying my work is bad and my supervisors made it look palatable. I’m saying my work is good, but I’m not yet good at making that clear, and my supervisors did heroic work in standing up for me. It’s a huge deal to me, the way I can feel cared for and respected by these people.
It means a lot to me and I’m very grateful for it.
I usually share this when I’ve released my students’ marks at the end of each semester, captioned with okay here’s how the marks break down.
It’s a cheap gag but let me have it.
Anyway, I was thinking about this as it pertains around about now to getting your marks back. Now I am one of those people in the long slow treadmill of the PhD candidature, so it’s less of a thing for me but I am sibling to teachers and that means I’m always thinking about the marking process, to some extent. About the ways we grade and what we grade.
I have come to have the position for the most part that marks aren’t super important – the only people I’ve dealt with who cared about how well I did at university for my subjects are the uni itself (in determining my use for Honours and the PhD).
There’s an old cynical joke ‘Cs get degrees,’ which is meant to refer to C grades. Except we use C to mean Credit, so we move on to ‘Ps get degrees,’ which refers to passes. More cynically we say ‘Fees get degrees,’ where the fact is, if you pay to the uni your fees, odds are good you’ll pass, no matter the quality of your work if you hand in enough stuff to count as having done the degree.
I apparently did pretty good at university (hence the PhD thingy), but I also seem to project ‘person who has his shit together,’ in a way that I think is very unfair. My students are only dealing with me as someone who has done the course they’re doing and has authority and the means to grade them. And what’s more, me saying ‘I bombed out at the high school certificate’ doesn’t necessarily land.
What happened to me is too unique, I feel, to really ‘matter’ to most. I was raised in a cult, schooled in a small wooden box, broken and abused, then did badly in an exam questions that were designed for people who’d had twelve years to prepare. To give you an idea of how badly I did at it, my grandmother phoned me up – something she only did for birthdays – and spent a few hours degrading me for not applying myself and failing at the test. This is not relatable. This is weird.
That it took me ten more years to get into uni because I thought I was too stupid to do well at it, and now I’m here I love it, is a byproduct of the complete lack of support.
Here’s my advice if you’re going into uni: You will probably not have to worry much about marks. Marks happen when you’re engaged. Passes are fine. Doing the minimum is fine. What you have is a period of a few years to work on creating and exploring projects, and if you can, make something that you can make into classwork. Convince teachers to let you work on your own stuff as it relates to their stuff. Then you have that as you walk out the door.
And also, my grandma was a dick and you shouldn’t listen to the dicks around you when they want to talk about what you should be doing, in uni or in life.
During World War 1, German Command received a message that their offensive had failed and been routed by a charge of zombies.
Content Warning: World War I, descriptions of gas weapons
One thing that you deal with when you read a lot of academic books and texts is you get an impression of the writer. It’s not just that you read the book, it’s that you read the book over and over again, and you read certain passages over and over and when you do that, you need to be able to contextualise those passages in the greater work, and that means you’re encouraged to form a framework of the opinions and beliefs of the person you’re reading about.
Sometimes this is very useful; it’s illuminating to remember that Heidegger was a Nazi (and people can um-and-ah about that point) or that Caillois a misogynist (amongst other things). These people write about things where those perspectives are implied but not stated, and being able to put their behaviour in their own contexts is not a bad thing.
Still, there’s a risk you run when you do this kind of close reading, especially when dealing with academics who are still alive.
One idea I use a lot in my discussion of games and plays is that the play of a game is paratextual; that you play the game to experience its text, and that represents a boundary between ‘definitely the text’ and ‘definitely not the text.’ Play is not something the author put there, but they definitely put something there that the play happens with. But the idea of paratext was not made for games – it was developed by Gerard Geanette to talk about books, specifically books as objects, with ideas like dust jackets. The idea that play is paratextual seems to be from me, and it’s not widespread. That means I’m taking an idea someone else had and using it to explain something else.
That’s how academic reading and studying works, but here’s the problem: I have no idea if Gerard Geanette would agree with me. I don’t know if he thinks this is a good application of his idea or, even if he didn’t like it, that that matters. I’ve never gotten the impression Geanette particularly likes board and videogames. I’ve always had the impression that he loved books, a bibliophile who found reason to discourse about the weight of paper and its influence on text.
Moreso than that, in Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost relates an incident where he, generating a little web tool that created random banners, was reprimanded (sort of?) for putting a label of ‘WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A THING’ over a picture of some women. It wasn’t done specifically – it wasn’t something crafted to his ideological position, it was just something a bit of code he made did.
I have read this anecdote a dozen times or more as I grapple with explaining and justifying the philosophical conception of things existing, and seeing it over and over makes it easier to remember. Easier to put a sense to. Easier to imagine having a tone of irritation.
Thing is, I think odds are good that Bogost is not only over the mild discouragement he got for this web applet doohickey, but that all the irritation in his tone that I read in his piece is entirely in my head. This passage doesn’t have emphasis or sarcasm notes or colour coding. It’s very stark text in the same voice as the rest of the book. Yet I keep coming back to this passage, to this moment of an author’s mindset, and find something there, something I don’t think I found the first time I read it. And the author, frozen in time, has nothing to tell me but what they already told me. Hanging, suspended, for my interpretation of invisible ink.
Be vigilant about the assumptions you find in work, but also be vigilant about the assumptions you build to make telling the story to yourself easier.
Before there was photography, there was heliography. It was from around the 1820s, and to make a picture with heliography you needed to get a big funnel-shaped distorted mirror to capture sunlight and direct it through a glass lens and onto a plate of chemicals and it created an image. Things had to hold very still while the sunlight ‘etched’ onto the chemicals, and it was pretty quickly outmoded by photography.
The heliograph was used in its narrow window of time in the – haha – sun, to take pictures of naked ladies, who came in and held poses long enough to get shadowy silhouettes made.
In Game Research Methods, Lankoski and Bjork explain a bunch of different methods for studying games academically. It addresses techniques that are unique to games, ways that games fit in with existing research tools, and challenges that games have that people unfamiliar with them won’t necessarily consider. This is where I first got the idea of Stimulated Recall, where recording yourself playing a game, then watching that playback is a chance to talk about and experience your mental state and give a more accurate accounting of the play experience.
This book also includes a really interesting chapter about understanding the ramifications of ethical disclosure in digital spaces as it relates to subjects (people) and their ability to share information. That’s a big sentence but it’s basically a finding from a researcher who was studying people ERPing in WoW.
Now I’m not going to infantalise you and pretend you have no idea what those acronyms are. For the sake of completion, though, ‘WoW’ refers to World of Warcraft, and ERP refers to ‘Erotic Roleplay.’ It’s got a lot of possible terms but the basic idea is using text roleplay in a game’s shared space to roleplay out sex.
Now, some people react to this discovery with incredulity, which I find kinda tiresome, but yeah, if you have literally never heard of this: People do this. In fact, people doing this is as old as the internet itself. In fact, back in the day, before the internet, people used to write dirty letters to one another, to make up a sexy narrative. Like, written with hand. There even used to be a whole range of clever acronyms for those dirty letters, a hidden language that was designed to convey information to the insiders and keep the communication fast and fluid.
A lot of those letters you see people reading in World War 1 re-enactment dramas, a tearful moment as the music swells and you, the audience, reflect on this humanising moment as this soldier is connected to their home country and given a reason to feel just for this moment not here in this filthy trench?
Those letters were really dirty.
Anyway the chapter is interesting and includes a lot of self-examination from the researcher, who realised that their work was not just about examining the interactions of objects in a space, it was the behaviour of people, and reading logs of people boning meant getting insights not just into the practice academically, but also the way people feel about themselves, and one another. About the meaning of our virtual bodies, the bodies we use to express ourselves, and it’s all very good reading and it’s very interesting about designing your data capture so it takes into account the ethical needs of intimate places that players create. It’s really interesting.
It’s also four years old, and built on existing research into ERP. Which is why I know those things about those filthy letters, and about the heliography of naked ladies. People make stories with one another, and people use technology, and one of the most common things people use that technology for, and make those stories about, is, well, sex. Sometimes weird sex, sometimes chaste sex, sometimes circling around not wanting to call it sex.
I guess I bring this up because I still see people using ‘people ERP on the internet’ as a punchline. Sometimes a website like Polygon or Waypoint will talk about it and in a very hamfisted way I get to watch as other people slap at the topic with a lack of nuance that speaks of embarassment.
People do this. It’s not weird. Try and have some chill about other people’s fun.
My first draft for everything this month has been a series of articles that are mostly me yelling angrily about various fan theories about how queer series aren’t queer, or how easily you could queer a series and improve it (Blacklist), but one thing I’ve been avoiding doing too much is talking about work that you might think of as serious queer media.
I have a couple of reasons for this. One is that I tend to find this stuff really super alienating. I’ve been looking for options of Queer Media to cover that I think I can cover in a way that’s useful or meaningful. It has involved interrogating what I even talk about, or why.
Let’s really quickly mark out three types of Queer Media that I don’t want to talk about here: There’s the two spaces of Horny Queer Media which I hope is just pretty obvious, and what I’m going to shorthand as Painful Queer Media, which is where you get your tragic personal memoirs and personal accountings of abuse or transphobia or lesbiphobia or so on, or how hard it was to get your first gay experience, or that sort of thing. Singular, personal vignettes.
The third type, which I’ve talked about already, is Subtextual Queer Media, where the queerness isn’t there so much as it’s easy to see queerness if you know about it. You know, stuff where it’s Queer, and the Fanbase are very sure it’s Queer, but if you can watch it as someone who doesn’t know what queerness is, or who believes that same-sex people can just be friends, then it doesn’t make you ask questions.
Now, I feel ill-suited to talk about Horny media. I had an explanation, but… nah.
And when it comes to the Painful Queer media, I just don’t feel like I’m qualified or that I can offer a meaningful insight. What’s more, showcasing this kind of work feels like the wrong fit for me. Not that it’s not valuable or meaningful, or that I think you shouldn’t make it if it’s the kind of art you want to make.
The idea that Queer media is confined to this space where the art has to be tragic, has to be painful, or it has to be completely facile reminds me of Hannah Gadsby, in Nanette, talking about how for the people who aren’t beneficiaries of the privilege system of our world, to stand on a stage and lay bare your soul is not an act of humility, it is an act of humiliation. I don’t think that I have a meaningful lens to offer on that.
I want to write about adventure. I want to write about heroics. I don’t want to try and make some way to connect my damaged soul to the writings of say, an enby making a game about the challenges of American medical health care. I’m damaged in different ways, so I can’t really offer my meaningful lense to the matter, and I don’t want to hold up these traumatic experiences of other people as if I’m somehow good for showing you this thing you totally would never have checked out if I hadn’t shown it to you.
That’s not what I want to write about either! I don’t see the value. My damage and my situation aren’t, I feel, taken seriously in queer spaces, so it’s not like me saying ‘here’s how this intersects with my pain’ is meaningful to anyone. Tragic manpain, I’m sure. And if I can’t meaningfully contribute to the conversation, I don’t want to be seen as performatively looking at things that don’t speak to me. It was bad enough to deal with a month of romance games that made me feel gross, after all.
Nah, what I want to talk about is fighting and reasons. Characters and motivations, people who do stuff and why they do that stuff. Slow boiling coffeeshop AUs are for other people. Instead, I want to show you queer adventures and stories about fighting baddies and punching dragons and slaying or being cool monsters, but like actually being a cool monster and not a monster being a metaphor for atypical body types and therefore you just want to play videogames and sleep in. That means that I lose some space for complexity, which I guess I’m okay with, because what I lose is stuff I wouldn’t do a good or meaningful job dealing with. Let’s instead spend our time finding queer media that isn’t About Queerness but is instead about Doing Things where Queerness is an assumed standard. I can do fun and goofy and non-intense.
In the words of Griffin McElroy, This is a ding-dong podcast.
Today – so months ago – I spent some time reading Wittgenstein. If you’re not familiar with Wittgenstein, he’s one of those philosophers you’ll find if you do a sort of ‘greatest hits’ compilation of the 20th century. Definitely important and all that, contributing to the logic of mathematics and language.
Anyway, the thing is, Wittgenstein has this really weird relationship to game studies in that it seems traditional for everyone to write in their earlier stages a discussion of what a game is. This discussion inevitably brings up that Wittgenstein, in his book Philosophical Investigations, used the difficulty of describing ‘games’ as an example of the ambiguity of language.
And then, for sixty years since, academic writers and game scholars have taken issue with this half-page of text, the single example he offered as a stepping stone on to other topics. In fact, in some cases, they get downright personal about it!
Now here’s the thing, the thing that means me here, in the year of our Luigi is so frustrated by this: Wittgenstein didn’t really care much about games.
It was an example! It was just a language example of a grouping of things that we can all intuitively tell are connected and reasonably share traits, but don’t necessarily have a checklist of clearly and easily defined commonalities! And while sure, you can take issue with that framing, and I mean, Bernard Suits’ definition of games is the one I use but it’s still really stunning that it comes from arguing with Wittgenstein as if Witty was being Very Firm about Games, and not about language!
Imagine being so good at examples, being so renownedly smart, that years later people were building books around addressing an example of yours to tell you you were Actually Wrong. And then other people would come along after them, to disagree with them and you to try and make a point that you were definitely wrong but the other person saying you were wrong was also wrong.
And this is on a topic you kinda don’t care about!
I am at this point in my life, at least accomplished enough in reading some books and mentioning those books by name in the middle of other sentences, something that you could consider, or at least be fooled into thinking, is an expert. I have done things that other people have not yet done and I’ve done a LOT of them – it’s not just that I’ve made and sold a game, it’s that I’ve made and sold dozens of games, for a few years now. It’s not that I’ve got a degree in business communications and media, it’s that I’ve got a degree, and honours, and am working on the next level of academic study.
What’s more, the kind of thing I’m studied in isn’t something that most people really know that much about, or even know that there’s much to know. Oh, videogame fans may think that the entire field of games studies or media theory is pretty meaningless, and that beating Dark Souls means they’re more capable of knowing about how humans deal with or make games than anyone who’s actually studied them, but broadly speaking if I meet a stranger and tell them I’m working on a PhD in making tabletop games, they’re largely inclined to nod, smile, be polite, and say ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ and if they’ve got the time, ask me some questions, and then all that expertise and my own native curiosity kick in and we talk about something that matters to them and how it relates to my field of study.
It is fun and I like doing it, because I wouldn’t be in this subject matter if I didn’t love it, but it’s also something I’m aware generally relies on them trusting that I know what I’m talking about. That trust is pretty freely available, especially amongst people who don’t think they’re experts.
Now, recently, a piece was published in the Atlantic that wanted to talk about rhetoric and argument as an art that was created in Ancient Greece and then sat completely still, unchanged and waiting for someone in the enlightened 21st century to point it out, and can you all please stop making fun of me on the internet. As a direct result of this, people who did know about rhetoric and academic study of argumentation spent the afternoon quietly exploding about watching their discipline finally get some mainstream journalistic attention, only for it to be touted by the kind of babby talk doofusry that showed the author of the piece was only seen as capable of commenting on it as what we might call a wikipedia-level surface-reading scholar.
I’m not going to link the piece, because the dude in question is a transphobe and I think heavily invested in the idea that other people on the internet should definitely show him more respect just for his awful, horrible, miesrable opinions that get kids killed, but he does put me in mind of something that worries at my mind a lot, something applicable for my life.
By the way, one of the applicable things is ‘Don’t be a transphobic asshole.’
The other thing is that to most people, I am an expert, as far as they know, and I have things in my life and history and my demeanour and my tone and – let’s not kid ourselves, my whiteness – that make me seemingly more qualified than any random. And with that trust can come a lot of dangerous implication. I mean, it’s not impossible that I could find someone with money, who was a total asshole, but who wanted to be told their total assholery was correct, and then spend my time telling them what they wanted to hear, rhetorically turning and tuning whatever nonsense they wanted into things that sounded legitimate. I don’t want my positions on things to be taken up as forms of harrassment or attack.
This is a concern that really eats at me.
And so I continue; the need to cautiously temper myself, the need to make what I say reasonably easy to understand, and to root my explanations in either my own sincere feelings, or in scholarship and other sources that I can point to. That’s one of the reasons why I mention the names of these scholars: It’s not to show off ‘look how many books I read.’ It’s to make clear the fact that whatever it is I know, it is rooted in a long and wide tradition of other people, that I am standing on the summits of hills made of giants, and all I really am trying to do is describe, to you, the view.
I need a term for something, so let’s invent it.
The term is going to use some language to represent a thing, and that language is going to need some history. That history is going to need some context, and some caveats, some asterisks, etcetera. Also, some of what I’m going to talk about can be seen as a polite disagreement with Ian Danskin’s videos on The Death of Guybrush Threepwood, essays from 2015.
Way to strike while the iron is gone.
What I want to talk about today is a particular family of games, or what we might know as a genre of games. Genre’s a beast of a thing to nail down, and I’ve said so in the past – it’s a well-established canard that ‘JRPG’ and ‘FPS’ are both genres even though one is defined by a country of origin and the other by a camera angle. Still, genre’s the term we have, so genre is what we must use, I guess, I’m only trying to invent one thing at a time here.
There is a type of game, and we don’t have a good term for it, right now, or at least, I haven’t seen one. I can’t tell you what I mean by naming the term we use for it, because if I do that you’ll immediately think of those games and only those games that are closest to it, and we want to keep our minds open here. We want to maximise the coverage of this terminology.
Years ago, as one of my research projects, and to show off a bit, I talked about Australian money, because Australian money, unlike most other cultures’ money, is good, or at least, better than yours, or, most importantly, better than America’s, which is really bad. At the time I had the fanciful idea of maybe examining a bunch of different culture’s money, but mostly they all repeat the same basic-ass mistakes as the American money, which I think is possibly because American money is the template a lot of other countries use (why).
Still, there are at least two other countries whose money I think is worth talking about, and we’re doing one of them today: the British currency. Talking about Australian money took a long time, weeks, with stories about every figure involved. Talking about American money took a short dismissal, because all American money is bad.
British money needs a little bit more space, but less than it should.
This is about Magic: The Gathering, but it’s not.
It’s about Academic reading, but it’s not.
In Roger Caillois’ book Man, Play and Games, he describes a bunch of concepts that make a case for how games are important, what they do, what they mean for culture, all that good stuff that we can use in game studies. In this, he laid out his notion of both a sliding scale between two points for the way games work then he describes four types of ways players engage with games.
Mark Rosewater, the head designer for Magic: The Gathering, has talked about types of players and who they design cards for in terms of a sliding scale between two points for the things that appeal to players, and then describes three types of ways players engage with the game.
The sliding scale in Caillois’ work is between ludic games and paidic games. Ludic games are about clearly defined rules. The more tightly defined rules are, the more likely it’s ludic. Chess is very ludic, for example. Paidic games are about freedom of play, the capacity to create rules or subsystems or discard rules as you play. Improv games, for example, are very paidic.
In Rosewater’s work, he describes the idea of players caring about the feel and lore of the cards they play with (an idea first positioned by Matt Cavotta), and the players who care intensely about the rules of the game state and don’t care about that creative space. These are described as Vorthos and Melvin.
In Caillois’ model, his four types describe games in terms of them having attributes that give people reason to play:
- agon, games of competition
- alea, games of chance
- ilinx, games of vertigo
- mimicry, games of impersonation
Rosewater’s model describes three types of players, and why they play:
- Timmy/Tammy, who wants to feel something
- Johnny/Janey, who wants to express something
- Spike, who wants to achieve something
Now, these don’t directly map onto one another; it’s hard to see how ilinx connects to the Tammy/Janey/Spike model. I personally feel that it works well as Janey’s thing, where flipping a card and rolling a dice and seeing what your opponent can do about it is a feeling of being disconnected and helpless that you can enjoy. But that’s fine, it’s a narrow tip to a broader pen.
Also, Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck points out there’s a fifth type of play that Caillois doesn’t consider – the player who plays to enjoy the idea of the rules interacting. That rules that nest and set against one another in a satisfying way offer enough of a reason to play.
I’ve asked the crew at Wizards if Caillois informed their vision of the psychographics, and as of this writing I haven’t received an answer. Informed by their history, I think they devised their player psychographics independently, and the Rosewater model is missing some basic components.
These are two very good ways to look at game design; they both fundamentally want to focus on why someone plays, with Caillois framing it in terms of big, cultural ideas and Rosewater framing it as the choices of an individual’s feelings. Caillois (and Murray) take into account another two different ways to play, two more ways you can make games and things you can implement in games that people engage with.
One of the reasons we look at Caillois’ model is because, well, he was a French academic, and he wrote about a topic, and other people wrote about it subsequently. At the same time, though, Caillois’ ideas include a lot of super gross colonialism. His whole vision of cultures that aren’t western European talks about them condescendingly, the notion that their destiny was to be conquered or colonised, because of the games they play. The Rosewater model, on the other hand, is a living games text, expressed not in an academic book written by one person, but algorithmically sorted by a game that’s been non-stop produced for twenty-five years.
It’s not that the Rosewater model is better, I just feel it’s a bit easier to share. I don’t need to assign it one or more Yikes.
Is this some bold position, ‘we should use Rosewater instead of Caillois’? Nah. Is it some brilliant academic insight, ‘MTG R&D bites on Caillois’? God no.
It is still interesting.
Back in 2018, Dinesh Vatvani, a python programmer, took a set of analytic tools to the BoardgameGeek top 100. I have said some mean things about BoardgameGeek in the past, like how it’s a site that ‘loves lists as much as it hates women’ or ‘looks like an android’s uterus’ or ‘has a community that are shockingly comfortable with being the worst kind of racists,’ but one thing it’s generally regarded as being pretty solid at is presenting to a general audience a lot of data about whether or not a game might be, in some vague way, ‘good.’ It’s got a ranking system, you see, and that ranking system – well, it’s a system. Systems are right, aren’t they? It’s like algorithms.
The hypothetical idea is that BoardgameGeek, by aggregating a large number of opinions, this analysis avoids having a ‘bias’ and is instead presenting a kind of objective data.
Now, obviously, this kind of analysis is going to be as biased as any self-selecting group, and Dinesh’s analysis seeks to tease out a number of different factors. The full article is definitely worth a read, but in this, he introduces something extremely interesting, which he dubs the Tail of Spite.
The Tail of Spite is the way that:
A curious feature of the graph above is the tail of games of low complexity and low ratings at the bottom left of the plot. This “tail of spite” consists of relatively old mass-appeal games. Every single game in the tail of spite was released pre-1980, with many being considerably older than that. The games that form the tail of spite are shown in the table below:
What fascinates me about this tail of spite is that these are games that, with some degree of objectivity, seem to be successful. Some of them aren’t even exploitative like Monopoly – I mean who owns Tic Tac Toe? Who’s getting rich off kids knowing how to make that game on their notepaper. No, these games are games with wide-spread mainstream appeal, that do their jobs, are largely not broken and rarely poorly produced, but they’re extremely well known. They are not so much rated as they are resented.
I think this idea, that of a ‘tail of spite’ is a useful one to have. Your biases won’t just express in over-rating the things you like – you will also be inclined towards being more harsh on things you have personal distaste for.
Anyway, Monopoly sucks.
As my month-long meditation on Voltron: Legendary Defenders slowly unspools, I’m reflecting on the kind of criticism that spurred me to write about it in the first place. It was all of a particular genre, a check-list and key-word driven style of critical engagement that I have long since had a beef with. I’ve taken to referring to it as TVtropes Critique.
For christmas last year, my sister got me a copy of F**k, the game. On the most surface level, this game isn’t one that interested me – it’s basically a party game, in that particular character of a game where you don’t have to pay much attention and it’s not super important how well you play. Plus, a plain white box with stark san-serif fonts always makes me think of Cards Against Humanity, a game I definitely don’t want. This meant I never really investigated F**k.
When I got the game, I did a quick investigation, and in a game designer way, it wasn’t actually very hard to put it together. The game is a stroop effect engine, and then includes a bit of spice in the form of Snap-like mechanics. You have cards you’re trying to get rid of, and getting rid of them involves not making mistakes – then the cards try to make you make mistakes.
I travel around a lot, and that means a lot of my time I can’t read. Bus trips of 40-80 minutes are extremely difficult times because I have to conserve battery power on my phone while trying to not waste that time. If I had physical copies of books it might be a bit easier, but I don’t for most of them.
Enter Game Study Study Buddies, by Cameron Kunzelman and Michael Lutz. This podcast is a long-form treatment of academic game study books, and when I’m travelling it’s one of the things I can do that feels meaningfully productive for both easing me into a text or reconsidering one. They only do an episode a month, which is a bummer but it’s really interesting stuff if you’re interested in academic consideration of game studies.
The books they focus on are definitely biased towards videogame culture, except when they go back and do the Grand Olde Texts like Man, Play, Games. But that’s okay, because that’s what most of the people around me are interested in.
Language shapes thoughts as thoughts flow into language; often we need a word for a thing before we can talk about it meaningfully. We deal with this a lot in academia – much of research is just spending time exhaustively showing a valuable purpose for a name, then putting that name to a thing. The word ludic has a sibling word, paidic, for example, but that word is far less well-known, far less well-shared than ludic.
Language changes what we know, what we can know. Language also is full of features, small and clever and insidious that guide what we can talk about, how we can talk about them.
You might know me as someone who has beef with the English language. A bunch of different, smaller beefs, but one of my beefs is that we have gendered pronouns and almost nothing else. This means that for people, expressing gender can often be about choosing pronouns, which is a feature of language that should be unnecessary.
A thing I have to do, in the times I’m not teaching, is look for other work. This means that I’m part of our nation’s unemployment system, which often requires engagement with a series of helpful, motivational, educational tools that are about maximising my chances of having my resume looked at by a business. Since I have worked lined up for the next semester, though, I’m not under that much pressure. Since I’m also a massive nerd though, I read that stuff, and I read it and then I go look online for research.
Not the kind that promises to teach you how to make your resume work for you, or the best ways to get your resume read or your top ten tips. Those are largely really bad and silly and wrong, and mostly motivated by a desire to get you to click on a post and are mostly written by someone whose day job is professional blogging intern.
No disrespect to those people, just like, mostly they’re not going to have the tools to really give you useful advice.
In fact, you probably don’t need advice.
Getting your resume made is a pretty basic process. Get it to your coordinator’s specs, that’ll be fine. It really will. They’re not trying to make your job harder.
The next thing you need to do is to breathe in, relax, and breathe out.
When we make the conversation about what you can do to maximise your resume we kinda break the perspective on it. Because when you think it’s you to make your resume great, it’s making it your fault when it doesn’t get picked up.
On average, every position gets too many applications. They are sifted by people, and those people are having to sift a large pile of information, which isn’t their specialised skill. This means they’re basically looking at paperwork, and they are using whatever excuse they can to discard a resume. This isn’t just your typical things – like conscious racism, unconscious racism, safety racism –
Oh, you’re not familiar with safety racism? Safety racism is when you’re confronted with having to make a positive action in the face of racism, and you instead avoid engaging with it entirely. It’s the racism of letting caution for your own safety promulgate the imagined racism of someone around you. This happens a lot, and with sexism and transphobia and all that stuff too.
– but there is other stuff as well. There’s stuff like throwing resumes on the floor at random to speed through the list. There’s things like ditching resumes based on staples or not having staples, whatever dissolves the pile faster. And what’s more, there isn’t actually any real regulation for this if they’re actually getting rid of resumes at random.
This is my advice to you, resume-writers.
Try to hurt yourself less over the fact you’re not getting jobs. It’s not your resume’s fault. It’s the fault of the people picking it up. They’re the ones with agency.
If you’ve been paying much attention to my talk lately, you’ll know I’ve been reading a book called Man, Play and Games by a 20th century sociology academic called Roger Cailliois, where none of that is pronounced the way I thought it was. There’s one thing about this book, though, that isn’t really academically profound but I find funny and interesting.
See, it’s a translation from French to English, and the translation is trying to make sure it uses both consistant wording and academic language. That means that there’s very little vernacular, and we get such wonderful phrases as:
… [Ilinx] inflicts a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind.
On the Game Study Study Buddies podcast, Michael Lutz pointed out that this kind of talk is a bit like a Metal Gear Solid villain. I tried that out:
Me, I thought about this. See, my feeling was that the takes read a lot more like something from Neon Genesis Evangelion:
But then, as I read onwards, I saw a phrase that stood out, a phrase that demanded its place in a different game.
It’s not a bad book, except in the ways it’s bad.
But it’s funny when it’s recontextualised.
This PhD scares the hell out of me.
It’s not a rational fear, by the way. From what I can tell the biggest part of the PhD is doing a lot of cataloguing so I can put my – fairly interesting but not groundbreaking – idea into a greater historical context. What I’m doing, the reason I want to be doing it, that’s clear to me – I want academia to be able to talk about games better, in terms of them as media objects, as things that let people see the world, heal themselves, understand complex problems, and solve bigger problems.
PhDs are not a small amount of work. I’m okay with the work.
What scares me about it is the idea that any minute now someone, anyone, will turn to me and say “Okay, but who do you think you’re fooling?” and I’m back in an ACE school where there’s a right answer and I picked the wrong one. This has never happened. It never will happen. It’s a persistent fear nonetheless.
But my supervisor recognises this messed up part of my head, and is kind enough to keep reminding me that I don’t need to think this way. Pushing me to build not just what I’m working on, but the tools and habits that are going to make me better at building it. Recognising very real things – like my grandmother dying and the importance of marking – while still driving me to expanding and improving where I’m weak.
It’s something that’s really helped on this incredibly weird journey.
I really appreciate it and I just wanted to say it’s very nice to have the feeling someone is in my corner. And I don’t want to let them down.
Anonymous Asked: How do I deal with jealousy regarding other people’s happiness? It always feels like everyone around me is happier, more alive, and generally *living* better than I do. I know being the bitter Old Man staring between the blinds at the happy kids on the street isn’t good for me or anyone, but I can’t shake these feelings off.
Marshall Rosenberg expressed once, “At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled.” I don’t recommend Rosenberg for all your life, but he’s got a good handle on a theory of how a lot of toxic masculinity disconnects us from our feelings. And I mean, look at the guy:
With co-op and semi-cop already introduced, it sort of seems a natural flow from that point that there are traitor mechanics. Traitor mechanics are mechanics where one individual player can choose to change their allegiance to the rest of the group. Traitor mechanics are important to separate from semi-co-op, because a traitor needs to have had some reason to be in the cooperative group in the first place.
Usually, traitor mechanics are best deployed when there’s an incentive for players to succeed together, but also an incentive to succeed alone. This can be a challenging puzzle when you deal with it in a larger scale – you want to design things so the traitor is an option without it being a natural endgame. You can also use traitor mechanics as a way to introduce surprise and spice to an existing game structure (and it shows up in some co-op Legacy games, but I won’t mention which ones because that’d spoilery).
Note that a game with a traitor mechanic really isn’t too different from ‘a semi-co-op game.’ These arent pure descriptors of mechanical language as much as they are trying to be useful guides to what someone means when they mention a thing.
I tend to think that traitor mechanics want to be part of larger games – games like Archipelago and Battlestar Galactica, where if one player is a traitor, deducing that they are and routing around them still has enough game to it. That’s not to say they’re totally necessary to make traitor mechanics work – after all, you can view poker as a game based around a traitor mechanic, and so to our small game Pie Crimes.
I think myself, I’d avoid using the term traitor mechanic too broadly. It isn’t just the idea of competing, unsure teams like The Resistance – it’s about giving a player a reason and a choice to prioritise themselves over others. Dead of Winter does this by giving players secret goals – stockpiling medicine, for example – without necessarily making it break the whole group at large. This isn’t Betrayal At The House On The Hill either because it’s not like a player ever has to choose between competing rewards.
Mafia De Cuba and The Game Of Thrones board game.
I’ve greatly benefitted from listening to Marshall Rosenberg talk about non-violent communication. Not because I adopted the whole system – it’s really not a good fit for me and my life, and it isn’t a good fit for the people around me.
Other day at the store, I heard a parent disciplining their child. I only heard a tiny bit, but it echoed in real life of something that Marshall Rosenberg said. Rosenberg had this metaphor for language types, where he referred to giraffe language and jackal language. The idea behind giraffe language is a bit complex, and not necessary at this juncture. What’s important is jackal language, language Rosenberg argued is language for judging and imposing. The example he used in talks all the time about jackal language was of a parent teaching their child the most basic jackal words:
“Say you’re sorry!”
“You didn’t mean that. Say it like you mean it.”
I overheard this exchange, more or less, in the store. A parent, lecturing a child, and making them apologise. I don’t mean to judge that parent, it’s not my place to and I don’t know their context. It still put me in mind of I thought about it, and I thought about how my friends and I interact.
I hear ‘I’m sorry’ a lot.
I hear it from people who are having some of the worst experiences of their lives. I hear it from people who are struggling with illness and with their minds. I hear it from people who are struggling with being oppressed by governments and abused by family members. I hear it from people who are afraid and I hear it from people who are angry. So often, I have to tell people, no, don’t apologise, because you haven’t done anything wrong. Sorry I’m broken, sorry I’m sad, sorry I keep leaning on you, sorry I’m late, sorry I’m a mess. I so often offer that push back, not because I misunderstand the feeling – but because I feel that if you apologise for something in your mind, it’s easier for you to think of it as a misdeed.
This is a hard habit to break. And I don’t mean to downplay you if you have that habit.
What I was hoping I could do is encourage you to say thank you.
Thank you for waiting for me. Thank you for your time. Thank you for listening. Thank you for treating my feelings with respect. Thank you for the thing you do for me, when you listen to me.
I don’t mean to recommend this like this is brilliant praxis or something. It’s not a unique idea. I’m not going to be mad at you if you don’t do things this way, too. It’s just an idea.
The reason I hope for this, though, is because sorry is about a past misdeed; thank you is about a present deed. If I am surrounded by people apologising to me, that language, that I will start to think in terms of things I can do to help rather than the paralysis of being asked a forgiveness I can’t give.