Archive for Games

Site, life REALLY updated

Hello, world! I’m currently in the middle of a personal Great Convergence – all of the ideas, practices, and people I love are, I’m realizing, connected to me in more profound ways than I ever realized; and I’m suddenly completely unafraid of telling them (and anyone else who cares to listen) exactly what I’m thinking and feeling. Which there’s a lot of.

As you can see, my web portfolio has also evolved. is now, a domain name that hits closer to home for my life and goals. Its design is in Beta right now: I’ve got a great idea for a new splash page that will act as a central hub for all the site’s content, and I just need to teach myself how to make it in Javascript (which my savvy Georgia Tech students tell me is the hippest, most trends-and-standards-compliant way to make what I want to make). So look for that soon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my site’s revisions – on what works and doesn’t work for a reader.

And more to read there shall be. Soon. But as I bustle away on a new book, two articles, and several blogs, you can go to and listen to me gush in a podcast with my grad school friend Regina McMenomy about how my work has coalesced and progressed in the last couple of years, as 1) I’ve had time to digest the staggering amount of great stuff I read in grad school; 2) I’ve reinvented and reignited my teaching by turning to Service Learning, 3) I’ve begun a new business with some colleagues – Lightsome Communications Consortium – which is aimed at improving the communications performance of socially responsible organizations; and 4) I’ve met the love of my life.

Videogames and print culture

Last Friday, I gave a presentation with my friend and collaborator Shawn LameBull to the English department on the significance and complexity of videogames as media. (Here’s an audio recording of the presentation, and here’s a link to the Prezi “slideshow” that accompanied it.) Afterward, Dr. Kirk McAuley, a professor in the department, ruminated on some of our claims on Facebook, and his ruminations generated quite a lengthy discussion that involved several of the department’s professors.  Here’s my response to this thread, which has grown so large that it’d be unwieldy over on Facebook.

First of all, I’m flattered that my colloquium has occasioned this discussion. Trying to figure out the “connections / disconnections between videogame and print culture” has been the biggest challenge of the last four years for me, as I’ve gone from studying literature to videogames. It’s also been the biggest challenge of the game studies field, which is full of English majors but also a lot of folks from other disciplines. Ultimately, establishing what videogames have taken from older media and what new things they offer is beneficial for both books and games, because it gives us an appreciation for the capabilities of each medium. And for its scholars too.

Well, what are the differences between novels and videogames? Patty’s right: we need definitions. So here are a few that have helped me make the distinction.

Story: Any account of actions in a time sequence; any narrative of events in a sequential arrangement. (William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed.)

Game: a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable (Jesper Juul, Half-Real).

The first definition is clear enough, but the second might need some unpacking. Juul does this himself, though I fill in where he’s vague (in italics):

Rules:  Games are rule-based. Game rules govern actions players can and can’t take in the context of playing the game.

Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes. Games can end differently; the player can win or lose.

Valorization of outcome: The different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some positive and some negative.

Player effort: The player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome. [This is ] another way of stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict.

Player attached to outcome: The player is emotionally attached to the outcome of the game in the sense that a player will be winner and “happy” in case of a positive outcome, but a loser and “unhappy” in the case of a negative outcome.

Negotiable consequences: The same game (set of rules) can be played with or without real-life consequences.

Defining story and game is essential because while a novel contains only stories, a videogame contains both stories and games (or many do – the ones I study, at least).  When you’re moving your avatar across the map, solving puzzles and killing Nazis and so forth, you’re playing a game: you’re trying to achieve an objective, and you’re overcoming conflicts to get there. But when your character appears in a cutscene, or when you read about your character’s backstory, you’re receiving a narrative.

Where videogames get especially tricky is in the ways they combine their stories and games. Videogames convey their stories just like other storytelling media: they contain written stories that we read, movies we watch, radio plays we listen to. But they often intersperse stories with games, and in a variety of ways. Some games parcel out story parts in between periods of gameplay: get to the end of the level, and hear the story of the princess you’ve saved. The player embodies a character in these stories (usually the protagonist), so he has the formally odd but experientially immersive experience of hearing stories about actions he’s just completed. Some videogames will recount a story while the player is playing a game – usually an audio story, like a radio play – thus confusing the story/game distinction even further. And some videogames – the ones I’m most interested in – will change their stories’ plots because of actions the player takes. Imagine a “Choose your own adventure” story, but far more complicated.

Now, the reader/player/audience agency issue. Agency is a loaded word for us academics, what with all its different definitions; but I’m going to leave it alone here, both for space and for my sense of what we’re really talking about here: interactivity. We often say videogames (and all digital media) are unique because they’re interactive, but as Kirk points out, readers interact with novels too. I’ve found this taxonomy of types of interactivity very useful:

Mode 1: Cognitive Interactivity; or Interpretive Participation with a Text

This is the psychological, emotional, hermeneutic, semiotic, reader-response, Rashomon-effect-ish, etc. kind of interactions that a participant can have with the so-called ‘content’ of a text. Example: you reread a book after several years have passed and you find it’s completely different than the book you remember.

Mode 2: Functional Interactivity; or Utilitarian Participation with a Text. Included here: functional, structural interactions with the material textual apparatus. That book you reread: did it have a table of contents? An index? What was the graphic design of the pages? How thick was the paper stock? How large was the book? How heavy? All of these characteristics are part of the total experience of reading interaction.

Mode 3: Explicit Interactivity; or Participation with Designed Choices and Procedures in a Text

This is ‘interaction’ in the obvious sense of the word: overt participation such as clicking the nonlinear links of a hypertext novel, following the rules of a Surrealist language game, rearranging the clothing on a set of paper dolls. Included here: choices, random events, dynamic simulations, and other procedures programmed into the interactive experience.

Mode 4: Meta-interactivity; or Cultural Participation with a Text

This is interaction outside the experience of a single text. The clearest examples come from fan culture, in which readers appropriate, deconstruct, and reconstruct linear media, participating in and propagating massive communal narrative worlds.  (Eric Zimmerman, “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline.”)

Given these classifications, it’s obvious that both novels and videogames engender types 1, 2, and 4. Explicit interactivity is where videogames innovate and shine – players have to make active choices and enact specific procedures in order to get to the end of a videogame. To win it.

For me and Shawn, the key part of Zimmerman’s definition of explicit interactivity is the phrase “designed choices and procedures,” because it gets at the most important question that we ask of a videogame we’re analyzing: what are the procedures the authors want us to enact? What can’t we enact? Furthermore, as Kirk and Patty discuss around the middle of the thread, how much can players subvert the procedures that the authors design for them? (You’re right, Patty: cheat codes and mods are a couple of ways players do this. Maybe this is where player agency really exists, if we define agency as the ability to alter a text to our own ends.)

Interpreted in the context of a videogame’s stories and story parts (setting, characters, dialogue, etc.), as well as the gameplay goals, the procedures a game allows and prohibits are symbolic and value-laden. A lot of the time, they represent procedures in the material world.  Combine those procedural rhetorics with all of the visual, aural, spatial, and linguistic rhetorics of a given game, and read those in the larger contexts of representations in other videogames and films and novels and so forth, and you have some understanding of a videogame’s meaning as a text.

So are videogames shallow? Am I shallow for studying them?  The answer’s obvious to me, and you can imagine my personal reaction to Aaron’s comment. However, we’re speaking at slightly cross purposes: Aaron is (I’m presuming) referring to the content of videogames, and I’ve been talking about their form. I’ll freely admit that no videogame I’ve seen has conveyed the intellectual or psychological depth of Proust. Maybe they never will – every medium has its strengths and weaknesses.  Videogames’ main strength thus far is in modeling complex systems, as well as actions and consequences within them. I think there’s deep rhetorical potential there. As for the depth of their stories, give them time: they’re only about a generation old, you know.

Oh, and Todd: we’re working on it.

Podcasts of our presentation

If you didn’t catch my colloquium presentation with Shawn Lamebull on Wednesday, I’ve made a couple of recordings of it in podcast-friendly formats:

Here’s the video version (122mb .mp4).

Here’s the audio version (46mb .mp3).

PAX pics

I was laid low by the dreaded PAX Pox for much of this week, so I finally just now got around to pulling my handful of pictures from PAX off the old camera. I didn’t take many – it was one of those environments that’s too overwhelming to take many pictures in: you know they’ll just fail to do it justice even before you start. Nevertheless:

From left to right:

  • Me and Jonathan Coulton, who had the bad luck of walking by when I was feeling fan-geeky.
  • A crazy Hell-horse/mechanical bull thing at some upcoming game’s booth. I’m still not sure what the connection was between this ride and the game, but it gives you a good idea of the kinds of activities on offer in the Expo Hall.
  • Blizzard’s WoW Cataclysm display, which was only 1/3 of their total area
  • How Gabe drew Tycho for a second while Tycho was making fun of him on stage. Yikes.

And here’s the best part: Shawn Lamebull asking Tycho about how he thinks about race/class/gender representations in his art. The audio’s not great, but I lack the time to make a transcript and turn it into a cartoon or something (sorry, Cho).

Ludus Florentis: The Flowering of Games

Just ran across a great article on Gamasutra by James Portnow called “Ludus Florentis: The Flowering of Games.” It argues that the games industry is undergoing a sea change, and it dovetails nicely with my PAX blog. It also contains a really lovely diagram of the evolution of the industry created by Cornell student Chelsea Howe. I have to put it here, ’cause it’s so cool. I may have to print it and put it on my office wall too.


Click for full size.

What I Learned at PAX

I’m now home from the Penny Arcade Expo – PAX – the first non-academic, fan-type conference I’ve attended. I must say it was a lot more fun than the academic conferences I’ve been to. And, in many ways, more educational. In lieu of wading through the 79 emails in my inbox, I’ll offer some reflections on what I saw and did and thought. ‘Cause there was a lot.

One hour after leaving the hospital for car-accident-related injuries (minor whiplash), I got my picture taken with Jonathan Coulton.

Twenty minutes after that, I found myself talking to the lead writer of Mass Effect.

I saw tabletop gamers and LAN partiers and console jockeys and cosplayers of all shapes and sizes.

I overheard a tall, bespectacled Jedi musing over whether being a Jedi precluded him from whacking people with his lightsaber.

I smiled at and received a SWAG bag from a Booth Babe who knew nothing about the game she was advertising; she was a cosmotology student and a temp.

I smiled with hopefully not too much pity at another Booth Babe in approximately 8 square inches of vinyl who was trying very gamely to look like she was enjoying the leers she was getting from the boys walking by. For which leers she was ostensibly being paid to receive.

I put on some fancy glasses and saw Resident Evil 5 in shockingly effective 3D. (I still didn’t want to play it.)

I refused to wait in 2-hour lines to play the demos for Dragon Age: Origins and Left 4 Dead 2, but I dug their high-cost displays from afar.

I watched guys ride a mechanical bull that was done up as a fifteen-foot-long hell horse. I’m not sure what game that was affiliated with.

I saw my beloved Blizzard from the perspective of one of its competitors, and understood why it’s referred to by some industry insiders as the McDonald’s of gaming.

Then again, I drooled over Blizzard’s entire corner of the 94,800 sq. ft. main expo hall, which corner housed 54 computers for playable Starcraft II, Diablo III, and WoW Cataclysm demos. Each of which had a line of three players minimum at all times.

I was loudly enticed to try a Hello Kitty MMO, and felt happy that such a thing exists, even if I have zero interest in it.

I was loudly enticed to appreciate the macho badassery of the next Splinter Cell game, and cut a wide swath around their booth, and wished the slick announcer guy ill.

I killed three Klingon Warbirds and was proud of myself, because the little girl before me had gotten pwned, and age and gender mean shit in terms of gaming skill.

I went to a CCP/White Wolf after party, at which there was free booze and exotic dancers dressed like vampires juggling firey implements. Which is pretty reckless for vampires, come to think of it.

I tried to get Zaboo and Vork from The Guild to come with us to the CCP party, but they were too cool for me.

I watched Jerry “Tycho” Holkins and Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, the fathers and stars of the show, create this comic live, in front of 3,000 fans, with simultaneous Q&A.

I watched (and recorded) Tycho, a master wordsmith and personal hero, give a disappointing but unsurprising answer to Shawn’s question about how much he (Tycho) considers positionalities of race/class/gender when writing his cartoons.

I talked to the writers at the booth about writing freelance reviews for them, and was excited to learn that they’re more interested in essays than reviews.

I listened to a presentation on “The Aesthetics of Play Control: The Role of User Interfaces in the Ongoing Discussion of Video Games as Art” by a guy with ink still drying on his Ph.D, and resolved to come back next year and do one of these panels my damn self.

I hung out with Robert Mull, former Coug and current Community Relations Director of EA Mythic (and a fine fellow indeed), and got not only amazing SWAG but also all manner of insider stories and introductions to insiders.

All in all, it was a swell time.

I went to PAX expecting to learn a little bit about what life is like on the other sides of this industry – namely, those of the developers and the media. To maybe feel out potential alternative career paths, should my upcoming round of academic applications fall flat. I did learn a lot about these paths, some of which info was exciting and some of which wasn’t. In the end, ironically, I felt more excited about the side I’m already on: academia’s unique privilege and freedom to analyze the place that videogames hold in our society.

The biggest question I wanted to answer was what the best position is to influence the evolution of videogames as art forms. My time studying videogames within the academy has convinced me that games are utilizing maybe 40% of their positive cultural potential – the potential to teach people valuable ideas and skills, to challenge their conceptions of themselves and others, to help reorient the power structures of the world. That sounds hyperbolic but isn’t: the videogame is a tremendously persuasive medium, because it absorbs its audience in ways that other media just can’t. If books and films and non-digital games can influence the world, videogames can too.

Of course, the most direct position from which to do this appears to be the inside: developers make the games, and they make all the decisions about what goes in them. Games are rhetorical artifacts, etc. But I learned that developers aren’t as free in their decisions as I had assumed. Almost every developer – all the big ones, anyway, who push the most successful titles – has all manner of creative constraints to deal with: the demands of corporate financiers, owners of intellectual property, retailers, hardware producers, players. As my friend and colleague Shawn Lamebull put it, they lack agency. In other words, they can change the status quo slowly at best, and most of the time indirectly.

On the other hand, academics, who are largely outside of the corporate complex and are (mostly) protected/emboldened by “academic freedom,” can speak a lot more directly about what’s going on. We can name the racisms of WoW and the sexisms of Mass Effect, not because we hate these texts, but because we love them and want them to do better. But I’ve long harbored a lot of anxiety about whether anyone’s listening to the academics, and my suspicion that the answer is “nobody” has been frequently confirmed. From the industry’s point of view, we’re talking above them, and our arguments about their ideologies overlook the fact that those ideologies are earning them a healthy bottom line. Or so they think.

But as Shawn and I sat through Daniel Gronsky, Ph.D’s presentation – at which there were several hundred more people in attendance than almost every academic conference presentation I’ve seen, and at 7:30 on Saturday night – it occurred to us that more connections need to be forged. The academics love games as much as the developers and the gaming media; we’re all players at the end of the day. We all want videogames to succeed and gain more societal respect. Sure, we have differences in training and perspective, but there’s plenty of common ground between us.

So what can academics do to connect with the industry, then? One insider I talked to provided two suggestions: to write more accessibly, and to aim our arguments at developers in a more realistic way. Suggestion 1 is already a major goal for yours truly, if you can’t already tell.  Suggestion 2 is tougher for us academics, because a lot of us are leftists, with major love/hate issues re capitalism. However, to the question of how changing X will sell more games, Shawn and I devised a pretty good answer: in terms of their narratives and representations of people’s identities – race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ability, etc. – game developers should want to get away from their status quo because it’ll open up new markets. Many developers are already doing this – Nintendo being the shining example – but most U.S. developers are still pretty much making games by and for young middle-class white guys. It’s widely acknowledged that way more people play videogames than this demographic. And really, honestly, our stories are starting to get played out. (To say nothing of their troubling political ties.)

What I ultimately learned at PAX, then, is that there’s no perfect position from which to shape videogames in a progressive way. Each one draws excellent, talented people; each one has its limitations. What needs to happen more, though, is discussion and creative collaboration between these people. I know this already happens: folks like Ian Bogost and groups like and Terra Nova are crossing boundaries in a variety of cool ways. How it plays out for me remains to be seen (let me just finish this one thing first), but I’m excited about the possibilities. And I’ll definitely be at PAX again next year, on stage with some other academics and developers if I can help it. I’d say that’s a pretty good start.

100 reasons fanboys hate PC gaming

I know this is geologically old by Internet standards, but it’s damn funny.

Wired’s Cutthroat Capitalism

So I’m always looking for good examples of procedural rhetoric – Ian Bogost’s theory that a well-designed videogame can inform and teach us about all manner of real life systems. I found an excellent one on Wired this morning called Cutthroat Capitalism, which is “an economic analysis of the Somali pirate business model.” My only problem with the game is that it’s not complicated enough: as the accompanying article shows, the system that’s developed between the pirates, shippers, insurance companies, negotiators, and national navies is truly fascinating in its fucked-up complexity. (Like did you know that the negotiators, who tend to be ex-military types who work for private security companies, are leaving jobs in Iraq because these Somali negotiation jobs are so lucrative?) But the game led me to the article, so it may have done its job anyway.

Where there’s power, there’s resistance

A former student sent me a link to a game called Ginormo Sword: Phat Lewtz, which offers “a great meta-commentary on the whole MMO scene and the shallow and one-dimensional gameplay behind it.” The description of the game is worth reading alone. It seems that WoW has given rise to Anti-WoW.

Or Anti-WoWs, rather: my favorite thing about Overlord is that it’s taking a big jab at the fantasy genre by making its traditional heroes the villains. I haven’t gotten to the Dwarf level yet, but the evil halflings and melodramatic, effete elves have been cracking me up.

Has anyone seen similar games that critique the fantasy genres, MMOs, or WoW in particular?

On starting more than I fin…

Lately, I’ve noticed that I start a lot more stuff than I finish. Games and books, mostly; but also, like many bloggers, my blog.

In the case of games, I know why I do it: there’s just so much great new shit coming out, and with apps like Steam that let me try new stuff without even having to schlep to Video Game Headquarters in Moscow, I’m always ready to whip out the old credit card and download the next awesome thing.  Plus, sometimes games are too hard. I’m looking at you, Braid.

With books, I seem to have lost the patience to slog through stuff that doesn’t grab me. It used to be, if a book had a dull section, I’d just wade through it. When I was a kid, I almost never quit a book. Now I do it all the time.

The blog – well, there’s usually no energy for the blog. The Diss takes it all. I don’t really enjoy writing, usually, to tell you the truth. Sometimes The Muse hits me and I’ll jump out of bed to write something down. Big fan of the epiphanies. Most of the time, though, writing is a chore, a professional duty. I do not, as many professional writers profess, have to write. I’d rather read, ponder, talk. Annie does, though, I’ve noticed. Need to write. She voluntarily blogs several nights a week (although see if you can get her anonymous blog’s address out of her!).  Which is probably why she’s gotten two (awesome) personal essays published. I’m suddenly reminded of the plot of Funny Farm. Hmm.

The habit concerns me, because I see it kind of spreading. There are a few things in my life – like oh, say, my dissertation – that I must see all the way through. I’m old enough to know that that things that are hard are good for you. And yet I sometimes catch myself slouching my through my Daily Diss Writing, or my Self-Directed Professional Reading. Without immediate deadlines, and with disc golf and Overlord beckoning, it’s hard to stay on task, you know?

A probably mundane self-directed-work-motivation problem meets a probably mundane Information-Age-consumption-based-ADD problem. The results are… troubling. Anybody having this too?