Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Valhalla unplugged: an interview with Mike Betzel

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 12, 2010

Although his roots are more in video games, Mike Betzel is very much an avid board gamer these days.  His board game blog Beware the Gazebo is certainly a testament to this.  Here Mike discusses his blog and answers a range of questions about the board game hobby and the gamer culture surrounding it.

Would you mind describing what your blog, Beware the Gazebo, happens to be about?

Beware the Gazebo is my personal dumping ground for thoughts on board games.  I first started in January 2008 after a game of Die Macher when I realized I had a lot of thoughts on the game rattling around in my brain.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and thought starting a gaming blog would be a great way for me to work on my writing skills while organizing my thoughts on board games.

My main goal with the blog isn’t to teach you how to play a game but to explain what I think works and doesn’t work in a game’s design.  I summarize rules or frame them in the context of a mechanic or design principle that I enjoy or dislike, which I find far easier to digest than verbose rules explanations.  As you read you’ll hopefully get a feel for my gaming preferences which helps you further frame my opinions, letting you come to your own conclusions on which games are right for you!

I can’t say I’ve ever had a run-in with a gazebo before—at least not sober.  Why should we beware of them?

Gazebos are dangerous, unassuming creatures.   They will lure you in with their inviting shelter and beautiful architecture, then BAM they catch you and eat you.

You’ve been warned.

With the huge variety of gaming experiences to be had out there, why board games?

Board games offer a type of experience you often don’t find elsewhere in entertainment.  First, board gaming is often a social hobby.  You can find solo games – particularly in the war game genre – but most board games are designed to be played with others.  It works for families, friends and for meeting new people.  At the same time there are plenty of fantastic solo games for those that don’t have an outlet for gaming or prefer to play by themselves.  Second, the tactile nature of board gaming is undeniable.  Loads of artwork, wooden cubes, plastic miniatures, cardboard tiles, buckets of dice… there’s something very satisfying about the physicality of board games.  Finally, board games generally engage your brain, something often lacking in today’s world of entertainment.

What was your introduction to the genre?

As a child I remember playing many of the standard games others played in their youth: Monopoly, Battleship, chess, checkers, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Balderdash and the like.  I have fond memories of playing several week-long games of Monopoly with my older brother.  At the end of the evening we’d tape all the pieces down and resume the next day.  My favorite game growing up was Stratego; I loved the tactical play and mind games with your opponent.

I never would have considered myself a board gamer growing up, though, and once I went off to college my board gaming mostly stopped.  There were a couple of games of Axis and Allies on my dorm room floor and I often walked through Games by James in the mall thinking the board games looked interesting but it wasn’t until later that I really discovered modern board games.

Would you say there was a pivotal moment or perhaps a game that turned you into a board game enthusiast?

Heroscape.  2005.  There was a Toys R’Us I frequented that had an awesome Heroscape display.  Every time I walked past I would stop and stare; it was one of the coolest-looking things I had ever seen.  Modular hex-shaped terrain, sweet pre-painted miniatures of all types… it was a thing of beauty.  I’m not quite sure why Heroscape’s look resonated with me as I didn’t even really know what miniatures games or modern board games were at the time.  I’m a big fan of fantasy and science fiction, though, and Heroscape certainly melds those two genres together.  Eventually I broke down, bought it and introduced it to a friend I thought might enjoy it as well.  We instantly fell in love and dove in deep.

While exploring the online Heroscape community I discovered BoardGameGeek and the wider world of board games.  Not long after I found out one of my co-workers regularly played board games with some friends.  It was all down hill from there!

What happens to be your favorite genre of board game and could you mention some of your favorite titles?

I’m a sucker for big, long epic games filled with theme and cool components.  Runewars, Twilight Imperium and Britannia are three of my favorites.  I really enjoy the feeling you get of building up, watching the face of the map change as armies battle and exchange territories and hoping for a little bit of luck in the dice.  Unfortunately it’s not easy to get four to six hour games on the table on a regular basis.  If we have the time, though, I’d never pass up playing any of those.

When it comes to slightly less epic experiences I often enjoy games heavy on tactics and a touch of luck.  Railroad Tycoon (with the Europe or England maps), El Grande, Homesteaders, Dominion, Shogun and Ra are all fantastic.  I’m also a huge fan of cooperative and semi-cooperative games like Battlestar Galatica, Saboteur, Pandemic and Defenders of the Realm.

Who do you tend to play with and how often do you play?

I have two groups I play with regularly and was introduced to both through friends.  One group plays pretty much every Monday, the other usually gets together later in the week although we usually don’t play every week.  We’ll also get the occasional weekend game in and I’ll get together with a buddy for some two player games from time to time as well.  I’ve met lots of great people and made some very good friends through gaming!

I’ve lived in Madison, WI for the past six years and there’s also a fantastic board game community here.  Outside of my main game groups there are plenty of opportunities to play games with others.  I don’t do much gaming outside of my group of friends due to time but it’s great knowing I’ll have no problem finding people to play with!

Do you happen to collect board games?  If so, roughly how many do you have in your collection?

I certainly have a healthy board game collection – 111 not counting expansions according to BoardGameGeek – but I wouldn’t consider myself a collector.  I’ve done a fair amount of trading games via BoardGameGeek; if I haven’t played a game in awhile I’ll likely trade it off for something else.  I don’t see value in keeping games around that aren’t hitting the table and I don’t have the desire to seek out hard-to-find games simply for the sake of owning them.

However, I am a little crazy when it comes to organizing my games.  I think I may be single-handedly keeping the plastic baggie industry going and I love Plano boxes.  Time spent setting up and tearing down games is time not spent playing so I like to organize as much as possible.  My friends now refer to organizing your games as “Betzel-izing”.  Most game inserts are useless for actually keeping the components so I toss most of those out.  That probably makes most collectors cringe.

Do you ever supplement your board gaming with video games (console or PC)?

Absolutely! Video games were my first true love. I have faint memories of playing our Pong machine when I was very little, but the Atari 2600 and Apple //c were my real introductions to gaming.  I’m not sure there are words to describe my excitement when we got the Atari 2600 for Christmas; Pac-Man never looked so good or played so well, even though that was such a terrible port!

I certainly spent a lot of time with Pitfall, Yars’ Revenge, Night Driver, Boxing, Dig Dug, Space Invaders and many more on the Atari 2600, but The Bard’s Tale series of RPGs on the Apple //c really cemented my love for video games (and all things fantasy).  I was probably around 7 years old when I first played the original Bard’s Tale and was instantly hooked.  It not only showed me video games could have a level of depth I never imagined but also got me interested in programming.  I spent hours with hex editors and modding tools giving my characters all the best gear and maxing out their levels!  That soon led me to spending hours coding BASIC programs from Byte Magazine and teaching myself Pascal in middle school so I could make a breakout-style game.  Video games are really the reason I pursued a career as a computer programmer.

Now I still play plenty of video games.  I own all the current generation consoles and recently put together a new gaming PC.  My video game time is a little more limited these days but I’m always trying out the newest releases and love following the industry.  Right now I’ve been spending a lot of time with Civilization V and Red Dead Redemption and am really looking forward to Rock Band 3, the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus high-def remakes and The Last Guardian.

Would you say there is any guilt involved in doing so?

Certainly no more than participating in any other hobby.  The only thing that has changed is I tend to avoid MMOs these days.  I was massively hooked on the original EverQuest during and after college but now I don’t enjoy that level of time sink.  I don’t like games that are difficult to walk away from at a moment’s notice when I’m at home so MMOs generally don’t fit my lifestyle any more.  I still dabble in them from time to time but just can’t get myself to dive in again.

Do you see any reason why a gamer needs to choose between one or the other?

Not at all!  I think there’s a lot of common ground between video games and board games.  They share some commonalities while filling completely different niches.  In fact, if you are currently only into one or the other I highly recommend checking out the “other side”; there’s almost guaranteed to be something for you.

If you were surrounded by a group of diehard video gamers at a cocktail party and they discovered your board gaming tendencies, what would you tell them about the genre in its defense as you were dangled head first over the balcony?

Yikes!  Remind me to never go to the same cocktail parties you do.  Seems like you hang with a rough crowd!

I’d tell them that many video game mechanics and designs owe a lot to board games.  Sid Meyer may have never created Civilization were it not for board games.  Fantasy roleplaying games may have never seen the light of day without Dungeons and Dragons which was born from classic historical war games.  Even today video games draw inspiration from modern board games; I know the designers of Sins of a Solar Empire specifically mentioned Twilight Imperium as a source of inspiration.

Also, as mentioned before, the two have much in common.  If you like deep strategic video games there are many board game equivalents.  Fans of twitch shooters may get a kick out of fast dexterity games or highly tactical games.  RPG enthusiasts will find many adventure style board games to be right up their alley.

Finally, platforms like the iPhone are boosting the popularity of digital board game conversions.  The Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Roll Through the Ages, Kingsburg, Medici and many others are finding much success with their digital versions.

In an age where so many children are brought up on a steady diet of electronic games, do you see board gaming in danger of becoming a lost pastime?

Not at all.  Board games are seeing great success recently as popularity grows and higher production values become more feasible at lower cost.  There’s something about the tactile and social nature of board games that I think will always hold appeal.  Humans have been playing board games for thousands of years and I see no reason for that to change.

If anything I think we’ll start to see further convergence between the two.  The Microsoft Surface is a great example of technology that can enhance board games.  I see a future where it will become increasingly difficult to draw the line between video games and board games, which I think is very cool.  There will still be plenty of room and demand for classic styles of both but over time I think it’s inevitable the two will come together.

I also think that board games may engage your mind in ways video games do not.  They help strengthen critical thinking skills and I think the tactile nature of board games more strongly reinforces that for certain types of thinkers and learners.  I fully believe that keeping your brain active is critical to mental health as you age and I think both video games and board games are great ways to stay engaged.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to give the board gaming hobby a try?

A pensive Mike Betzel

Go for it!  BoardGameGeek is one of the greatest online resources.  Spend some time there browsing different styles of games and get a feel for what looks interesting to you.  Once you’ve seen a bit of what’s out there, find out if if there are any local game hobby stores in your area.  There’s certainly something to be said for seeing game boxes in person and maybe even getting a chance to get a demonstration.

Many people feel they have nobody to play with, but I’d challenge them on that.  Start by asking your friends!  You may be surprised how many people love gaming but never discuss it.  Find a game that looks to fit your common interests and give it a shot, you may be pleasantly surprised.

If you are struggling to get enough friends on board, head back to that game store and see if they have a board game night.  I’ve discovered there are far more people than I ever imagined out there who love board games.  Do a little bit of research and you are bound to find a great group of people to game with.

Still struggling?  Start looking up regional gaming conventions (that list is certainly just a starting point); there’s probably one closer than you think.  Don’t forget to look at local video game or comic book conventions as they often have associated board gaming.  No luck?  See if you can find the time and resources to head out to one of the larger conventions like Origins, GenCon or PAX (where apparently board gaming is huge).  You’ll have no problem meeting all sorts of like-minded gamers.

I was leaving work one day, had just received some new board games and got on the elevator with games in tow.  There was a man already in the elevator, probably from one of the law firms on the floors above based on his attire.  He looked at the stack of board games under my arms and commented on how he plays games with some friends.  I asked what games and he responded with Agricola!  Here’s some random guy in the elevator who knows about one of the hottest modern board games on the market.

Seven years ago I couldn’t have named a board game designed in the last ten years.  Now nearly every week I hang out with friends, have a cold beverage and engage my brain with some cardboard on the table.  Does a hobby really get much better than that?

Thanks very much, Mike.

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Twitching toward cardboard

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 8, 2010

Imagine if you will a room with a computer.  On this computer’s desktop are icons for World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, Lord of the Rings Online, Runes of Magic and Risen.  The computer is on but idle. Directly across from the computer is a shelf full of PC games—a makeshift shrine devoted to a hobby that has spanned countless years.

Now imagine also in this room the owner of the computer, a middle-aged man, balding and wearing glasses, hunched over a card table, rolling dice, drawing cards, and flipping through a rulebook as he navigates a plastic figurine around a hexagon board all by himself.

That has been my evening’s entertainment more than once this week.  And here’s the kicker…it’s been fun.

For whatever reason, I’ve found myself lately gravitating toward board games.  Yes, board games.  No, not Monopoly, Clue or Risk.  These are fantasy RP-themed games that have more in common with Dungeons & Dragons than anything else.  And they all offer surprisingly satisfying solo variants.  

Unlike firing up a PC and instantly loading up a PC game, board games often take a bit of preparation.  I don’t see this as a bad thing.  In fact it gives me a few minutes to focus my thoughts as I set things up and come up with a game plan on how to approach this gaming session.

Don’t get me wrong, there can be some disconnect when you try going from years of a steady diet of video games to throwing in the occasional board game.  For me it’s been like using muscles I didn’t know I had (or at least forgotten I had) to make the gaming experience come alive.  But as I’ve said, it’s been a lot of fun and I’m finding myself looking forward to my next board game session.

If you are interested, here are a few of the games I’ve been playing and enjoying:

Runebound

You play as a hero of Terrinoth tasked to stop the vile necromancer Vorakesh from finding the ancient Dragon Runes and resurrecting the High Dragon Lord, Margath. This “RPG-lite” adventure is less of a dungeon crawl and more of an overland encounter-based scenario.  The sense of impending doom this game generates is quite impressive effective.

Number of players: 1-6

Ages: 12 and up

Setup time: 5 min.

Playtime: 1 hr. +

Thunderstone

Thunderstone is a fantasy deck building game where you play as a hero who has been commissioned by the town of Barrowsdale to retrieve the coveted Thunderstone lying deep within the dungeon of Grimhold. In order to accomplish this mission you must enlist the help of other heroes and townsfolk, while acquiring weapons, armor and magic in order to vanquish the evil minions spilling forth out of the dungeon.  For the Thunderstone , at all costs, must be kept out of the hands of the Doom Knights.  Don’t let the deck building mechanic scare you away from this one.  All the cards you need to play are included in the box.

Number of players: 1-5

Ages: 12 and up

Setup time: 10 min.

Playtime: 1 hr.

Ghost Stories

You play a Taoist monk whose job it is to protect a village from a seemingly never ending stream of ghosts and other evil spirits inspired by eastern mythology.  You must rely on the special powers of various village tiles to stay alive and ultimately defeat the formitable spirit of Wu-Feng.

Number of players: 1-4

Ages: 12 and up

Setup time: 5 min.

Playtime: 1 hr.

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Reading the text: an interview with Bonnie Nardi

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 10, 2010

Bonnie Nardi is an anthropologist and a faculty member in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.  In this interview we discuss several aspects of her book, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft , ruminate on the upcoming Cataclysm expansion, and the difficulties involved in seperating gaming for pleasure and gaming for research.

Bonnie’s website

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Could you take a minute and explain what My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft is about—that one might not glean from the title, of course?

The book has two layers—anthropological description for those who don’t know why anyone would spend hours killing cartoon monsters, and a theoretical analysis of the power of software artifacts to define, channel, shape, and regulate human activity. In the context of a video game such as World of Warcraft, code is a resource for delivering and reproducing “active aesthetic experience.” I define active aesthetic experience as performative challenge/mastery + visually stimulating surroundings. (In the real world, think activities such as masquerade balls, Civil War reenactments, church choirs, hunting and fishing.) This focus on the positive agency of software contrasts with analyses that view code as constraining, limiting, regulatory, even fascistic—something to be hacked, cheated, worked around.

How do you think the book turned out in the end? Are you happy with the finished product?

Writers are never really “happy” with what they write. Once a piece is done, the writer becomes a reader of the work. Since writers are the most critical readers, we experience the inevitable flaws as glaring and embarrassing.

But on the plus side, I hoped the book would stimulate discussion. Here are two blogs that met that goal: John Carter McKnight’s blog and WoW.com.

The Internet changes the pace of academic writing by allowing some near-instant feedback.

Reviews in print publications take six months at least, and usually closer to a year. The new feedback cycle makes writing a more interesting and interactive experience. That’s a kind of happiness!

Will you continue to write about Azeroth or did you manage to say it all in your book?

There is much more to be said. The question is where to start. I’m working with students who are researching areas I will never get to on my own. I have a small pilot project studying parents who play WoW with their children with Aspergers. Learning about this group will be another way to analyze the agentic qualities of a software artifact. I am also inspired by the creative ways people meet their situations, how they use resources in unusual ways.

What I find particularly fascinating is that World of Warcraft was your first video game experience. Prior to this you viewed video gaming as a waste of time. Could you talk a little bit about this experience and how your views have since changed?

I started the research under the direction of my superego, and ended with my id! I sat down to play World of Warcraft only because I could tell from the way undergraduates were talking about WoW and other MMOGs that something was brewing. Since “social life on the Internet” is one of my areas of research, I had to find out what that something was. I never intended to become so immersed. Two things really hooked me: the visual beauty of World of Warcraft, and the platform it provided for challenging activity in a social setting. A pretty heady mix—visual impact, challenge, socializing.

My contrast set for popular culture is television which, in my opinion, lacks sophisticated visuals, challenge, and intense socializing of the kind that happens in raids. Television visuals used to be better but they’ve devolved to too many closeups of faces rather than more complex mises-en-scene. I love panning way out in WoW and having control over my camera. That’s a completely different experience than TV or film. I now see well-designed video games as superior entertainment. Which is not to say that I think all of them are prosocial, but many of them are. Probably the best ones are yet to be designed. With our longer life spans, we are going to need some cool stuff to do when we have all those postretirement years before us.

I would like to have been there when you first sat down to play. Talking about a steep learning curve. Were you playing alone or did you have any assistance?

The semantics of video games completely escaped me. I didn’t know that you kill monsters. Or that you click on spells to do so, or right click to use a weapon. I had to laboriously practice the a-w-d-s movement keys to get anywhere. I didn’t know how to talk to other players. I thought that what turned out to be buffs other players were giving me were cryptic error messages I had to decode. Learning to swim was a nightmare! Luckily my son was home from college when I first sat down and he helped me. After he left, I was on my own till about level 20. It was slow going. But by around level 10 I had really started to enjoy the game. I especially love the Darkshore area and spent a long time there, some of my best time in WoW.

As someone who has done extensive research on online game culture, do you find it difficult to separate gaming for pleasure and gaming for research?

Great question. I never entirely separate play and ethnographic observation. Though most of my play now is to keep up with the game and have fun, the research part of my brain has a single setting (“on”). So I notice things. At times research and play collide. A struggle may ensue—to perform a relevant game activity competently, and, at the same time, discern and record data pertinent to research issues.

For example, I had missed several raids during which raid leaders in my guild made the AVR addon a requirement. At a subsequent raid, as the encounter was about to begin, I realized I needed AVR. I had to scramble to logout, download the addon, customize it to the raid, and try to understand how it worked. While I was doing all this, I heard people talking in Vent about the addon’s features, how the addon helped the raid, and that it was disliked by Blizzard and would soon be disabled. Since I have been tracking player-corporate relations in the context of addons for several years, the raid’s dispositions toward the addon and toward Blizzard pushed the “that’s relevant to the research” meters to red alert! Vent conversations needed to be noted, as well the humorous misuses of the technology raiders were joking around with as they waited for me to get the addon working. Play and research collapsed into one another, the demands of each necessitating mental flips from the nuts and bolts of dealing with the addon as fast as possible so as not to keep the raid waiting, to excited attention to the research issues.

Playing WoW gets me thinking about things like that. Things that might have research value.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your WoW past?

Here was a moment. I was questing in Darkshore, around level 10. Another player and I realized we were on the same quest. Suddenly, the player, in the form of a bear, dropped his disguise and turned into a handsome prince. Something buried deep inside me from childhood zapped out of its hiding place, and I felt I had come alive in a fairy tale. When we were girls, women of my generation believed that handsome princes would one day enter our lives. The “handsome prince”—actually a human male druid who was not in disguise, just bear form—embodied a powerful fairy tale allusion for me. My giddiness increased when the player gallantly asked if I would prefer that he tank or heal. I didn’t know what tanking was, but I knew I had some healing abilities, so, feeling very empowered, I said, “tank please.”

Being such a noob had its advantages in enabling me to see things that other players take for granted, and to have those poignant moments when the unconscious responds powerfully to an experience.

You spent a month researching WoW players in China for the book. What did you find particularly interesting about that experience?

One of the most interesting aspects of video game play in China is that much of it takes place in Internet cafes, or wang ba. In that context, we cannot speak in simple ways of “virtual” experience—people are sitting right next to each other, eating and drinking, laughing and talking as they play. The game is the shared object around which face to face activity is oriented. And yet the game extends beyond the wang ba; there are players who are not co-located and, of course, the virtual world of the game itself. So it’s a complex blended reality.

Another interesting aspect of Chinese play was the reluctance of male players to play female characters. A guy playing a girl is a cliché in North America, but in China it is considered distasteful. Guys who play girls are called “ladyboys”—a derisive term invoking transvestism. Some Chinese male players talked longingly about female Night Elves, but found the pushback from other players too much. There seemed to be fewer female players than in North America (maybe on the order of 10 percent vs 20 per cent here although I don’t have hard numbers). The girls played female characters, just like here, and they told me that they were sometimes accused of being ladyboys! They shrugged it off.

The cultural difference regarding character gender choice is a cautionary tale about overgeneralizing from our own experience or from a limited sample. Chinese players are about half the WoW base—what they do is central to characterizing WoW play.

You’ve also done specific research into why Americans go to much greater lengths to modify World of Warcraft whereas the Chinese rarely do. Can you explain this disparity?

Chinese modders are actually very active, but they focus on localization rather than the creation of original mods. There are several reasons why. First, and rather amazingly I think, there was no modding in China before WoW. There were illegal bots, but no player culture of legitimate modding with proper channels of access such as the Addons Folder. In the U.S., modding culture goes back to the development of Spacewar! in 1961 by MIT students on a DEC PDP-1. There’s a lot of history to take into account in examining these disparities.

Second, Chinese modders have many fewer resources than American modders. Americans are in regular contact with Blizzard through an official modding forum. A Blizzard employee, Slouken, has been instrumental in establishing cordial relations between Blizzard and modders. There is no Chinese Slouken and no official Chinese modding forum. WoW in China is distributed by a Chinese company, not by Blizzard, as per an arrangement with the Chinese government. At the time of the research the company was called The9. (It’s now NetEase.) The student with whom I conducted the research is a native speaker of Chinese, and we sent The9 an email asking about mods. The9 replied: “Mods are not provided by our officials. On the official website is merely a url [linking to mod compilation sites BigFoot and WoWShell] which is there to prevent players from downloading mods with trojans.” End of story! Check out the lively discussions on the Blizzard modding forums to see the huge difference in access to Blizzard and the information and help they provide American modders (and the English-speaking European modders who also read the forum).

Third, there are yet more resources for American modders, including forums beyond Blizzard’s and an actual textbook. A comprehensive book on modding was published by a mainstream press: World of Warcraft Programming: A Guide and Reference for Creating WoW Addons (Wiley, 2008, 1056 pages!, 3.2 pounds!). And there’s BlizzCon where modders meet face to face annually. They talk, compare notes, get to know each other, have a good time. Chinese modders have none of these advantages.

Chinese modding communities have done three things very well. They created thriving online communities—something new to most Chinese modders who were not conversant with what we think of as standard netiquette. They made available a good selection of mods to Chinese players through localization, enhancing play experience in the most efficient way possible—by taking existing code and making it work for Chinese gamers. And, they established a learning culture. Slowly Chinese modders are gaining better technical skills and a sense of how to work as a community. The learning environment in Chinese IM chatrooms and forums is expressed by showing respect for experienced modders who are addressed with the honorific Da, meaning “big,” “big brother,” or “boss.” One of our interviewees, a skilled modder said, “Yes, in CWDG [a Chinese modding site], I have many students.”

I think it is impressive that the Chinese modding community has produced and made available more than a thousand mods for Chinese players of World of Warcraft. Despite the lack of interaction with Blizzard, and the other resources and history American modders enjoy, Chinese modders have been pioneers in reshaping digital culture in China.

Aside from WoW, have you ventured into any other online games or do you have any plans to?

I am planning to look at some indie games. I’d like to see a different side of gaming, something that must be dramatically different than the world’s most profitable game.

Have you managed to persuade any of your peers, family or friends to play WoW?

Yes! My family has a small guild and we play WoW together and have a lot of fun.

Are you looking forward to Cataclysm and all of the changes it will bring forth?

I have played a little of the Cataclysm beta, and wrote a few blogs posts that are linked on the University of Michigan Press site for my book.

I loved the Goblin starting area—it’s brilliant—but I was sad about what has been done to Darkshore, and that there will be no versions of WoW with the old Darkshore. The rated battlegrounds may be the sleeper. I am not really a pvp player, but find battlegrounds to be a lot of fun. I might even collect some pvp gear if the level of play improves, and I expect it will add a new dimension to guild life as people organize teams.

Granted, I still hold to a rather nostalgic view of WoW, but with every expansion I’ve felt Blizzard has distanced itself from what made Azeroth so beautiful and immersive and have given more of an amusement park spin to the world. Not only that but I feel there is an increasing level of goofiness to the game that’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. My friends tell me to lighten up and enjoy the ride. Something tells me Cataclysm won’t allay these fears. Would you have anything to say to this other than “Lighten up, RC.”?

Bonnie Nardi

I can guarantee that you won’t like the Goblin starting area; it’s unabashedly an amusement park. It’s just done so well I was smitten. But I agree that the goofiness quotient has increased dramatically in WoW, although encounters like the Lich King are pretty epic. It’s a hard fight, and one that demands from players the kind of study, focus, and coordination that have always impressed me about WoW and what players bring to it.

WoW is a game, and if it doesn’t light you up, then it’s not play! Time to move on to whatever else is out there that affords the beauty and immersivness that were part of the original WoW for you.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

I’ve probably written more than you bargained for, so thanks very much for this opportunity to connect with your readers!

Thank you, Bonnie.

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One shot: an interview with Rubi Bayer

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 2, 2010

Rubi Bayer is a staff writer for Massively.com as well as the co-host for the podcasts Massively Speaking and GuildCast. Here Rubi discusses her job at Massively, her podcasting endeavors, being a parent of online gamers and what in particular she’s most looking forward to with Guild Wars 2.

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Could you explain what you do at Massively.com and how you came to be working there?

I am the lead writer and columnist for Guild Wars/Guild Wars 2 and Dungeons and Dragons Online. I write about a huge range of games every day — whatever comes up that’s newsworthy, but my main focus is there. I also join Shawn on the Massively Speaking podcast most weeks.

Ooh, how I came to work there. That’s a story that is probably only exciting to me! In short, I waited until there was an open call for new writers on the site, and I applied, along with the rest of the free world. It felt like an endless process — due in large part to my impatience — but eventually I made it to the short list and had an interview with Shawn and Elizabeth Harper (who at the time was Editor-in-Chief of Massively). We covered a wide range of topics and questions, including “Here is a press release. Write up a news post about it including links. You have 20 minutes, we’ll wait. Go.”

Then they both thanked me nicely and said they’d be in touch. I held my breath for a few weeks, and on September 17, 2009, Shawn made the job offer. It was easily one of the most exciting things to happen to me in recent years. (Thanks, Liz and Shawn, for giving me the chance!)

Are you pleased with how your contributions there have been received?

I really am. There is the standard daily ration of internet anger, and some days some of it rebounds onto me, but in the end, I’m writing about something that I love and that is communicated to Massively’s readers.

Horror stories abound about working for Shawn “Satan” Schuster. Is working for this slave driver as horrible as it sounds?

I imagine he’ll read this, so I have to tread carefully. He hasn’t fed the attack dogs for three days now. No, seriously, he’s pretty good to work for. The guy has no patience with all of that standard office BS of blowing smoke and dancing around issues, so you never have any doubt about where you stand. If there’s an issue he pretty much will let you know immediately and work with you to fix it. So while it’s not always sunshine and rainbows, it’s honest and it’s made me a better writer. This of course, is on the rare occasion when there IS a problem. Most of the time he’s in there messing around and laughing with all of us, and it makes for a pretty good work environment, virtually speaking.

Plus, he’s very passionate about this job, and really encourages us to go for well-written, interesting pieces rather than “What will boost our numbers the most?” So you won’t find us posting pictures of a young woman in Pikachu underpants and pretending it’s news about cosplay, but you’ll find actual MMO news. Crazy, huh? He’s got a great vision for the site.

In anticipation of Guild Wars 2, the venerable GuildCast has been resurrected, and you’re now the co-host. How did this all come about?

It was an interesting process. I’d known for a while that Shawn was planning to resurrect GuildCast, but he originally had a different co-host in mind. With his schedule, finding time to edit and publish yet another podcast wasn’t in the cards, and I have exactly zero editing capabilities. He’s got a friend who does have those capabilities, and had planned to co-host it with that guy, with me as a guest on the show sometimes. That fell through due to the other guy’s lack of time, and I stepped in. I still can’t edit, so Shawn wound up doing it. :-( I think it’s not so bad, though. Hopefully.

How do you like podcasting?

Oh, it’s fun. It’s just an hour or two a week of sitting around chatting with a friend about something we’re both interested in, so it comes easily.

I take it this is not exactly new to you?

Well not any more, no. ;-) About a year and a half ago, Shawn asked me to be a guest on Massively Speaking. I was completely terrified, but it was all about Guild Wars/Guild Wars 2, so how could I refuse? That was my first podcasting experience (We do not count the wretched voice work I did once back on the old GuildCast.) I also do a very very infrequent podcast with my darling husband Kev — we keep trying to find the time to sit down together and do it more often — so I settled into podcasting in baby steps over the past two years.

What was your first MMO and what was that experience like?

Does Legend of the Red Dragon count? Because that was FUN. I played my one-hour limit every single day, and eventually went to a meetup of local players. If it does not count, then it was Guild Wars. I was a Sims player for years, and Kev heard about GW on GuildCast, so he bought Prophecies for something to play while I was playing Sims. (Hey, don’t knock Sims, those are awesome games.) I actually still remember lying on the couch reading a book, and glancing over at Kev to see this beautiful scene on his screen. That was Pre-Searing. I asked him if I could give it a try and I never looked back.

Would you mind sharing a particularly enjoyable gaming experience?

Yes, I would. Oh, wait, no. Honestly, I’m pretty social, so the height of gaming fun for me isn’t one specific thing. Rather, it’s when I’ve got a full group of guild mates, and we’re tearing through content, laughing and having fun on Vent. If you want a specific example, last night I was playing Guild Wars with five guild mates, including a married couple I’ve known since my early GW days. We were working through the three primary War in Kryta bounties, but six of us wanted to participate, and none of us were healers. Six people in this area of the game is a full party. No more room.

We were doing this in hard mode. With no healers. We did not even care. One of the elementalists went monk secondary and filled her bar with heals, and off we went. About halfway through I remembered (the hard way) that the character I was using did not have infused armor. We were almost crying with laughter on Vent, dying right and left, but we got the job done. It’s all about the journey, and the company you take with you.

You’ve mentioned before that your family happen to be gamers. From a parent’s standpoint, how do you monitor your children’s game play?

The computers in our home are pretty much designed for a complete lack of privacy. Except for my work computer, they’re all in the main room of our house and Kev and I can see what they’re up to at a glance. My 13-year-old got a laptop of her own for Christmas last year, so we’re a little more vigilant. I’m less worried about the parenting psychobabble of giving her some space and allowing her to find herself and blah blah blah than I am about her getting into a bad situation, so I snoop. I keep a close eye on who she’s talking to, who she’s playing with, what they’re doing, and so on.

I guess that’s not a gameplay-specific thing. Guild Wars and Free Realms are their games of choice. In Guild Wars, the rule is they play in offline mode and they only group with family members. The 13 year old has been playing for several years now, and she’s older, so we’ve changed that rule for her in the past year or so to allow her to group with people we know, if one of us is also in the group. In Free Realms, the three of them have formed a guild together, and while they interact with the other players to a limited extent, they mostly keep to themselves.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to try their hand at game journalism?

Grow a thick skin. Seriously. If you take to heart all the stuff that readers say to and about you, you’re doomed. It’s easier said than done, because some of what shows up in my inbox still stings, but you’ve got to keep the source in mind. Much of the time, a little bit of digging will reveal that the worse the comment or email is, the more consistently bitter and trollish the person is. It’s usually a reflection of his or her own general anger or disappointment, and the sooner you realize that and learn to throw it off, the better off you’ll be.

Now. On the other hand, if you screw up and get called on it by these people, that does not apply. Take it graciously, acknowledge your mistake, thank them for setting you right, fix it, and learn from it going forward. (And you’re gonna screw up at some point. It just happens. You’re only human. Don’t beat yourself up.)

How about podcasting?

Find a subject you truly care about and are knowledgeable about. If I podcasted about… uh, I don’t know, the paper-making industry, it would suck. I don’t care about the paper-making industry and I know nothing about it, except that I’ve heard that paper mills smell bad. You’re only going to be good if you are passionate about your subject and you know what you’re talking about.

If you’re podcasting with a co-host or two, ideally you want to find someone you click with and are comfortable with. I hope I’m not giving away some sort of uber hush-hush trade secret when I say that Shawn and I have no script when we do Massively Speaking and GuildCast, nothing. We go over our subjects literally the same morning. We get a list of things we want to talk about (in the case of Massively Speaking Shawn pulls together the top news stories from the previous weeks), read through them, and go. It works because we’re not awkward with one another, and because we’re not thinking too hard about “Okay, now at 14:37 you need to mention TERA’s business model, and at 14:52 I will ask you a question about it…” Just have fun with it while being informative.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you do anything different?

I’d take my own advice more often. I learned fast because I was pretty much greeted at Massively from day one by angry readers, and to this day, my worst bouts of job burnout happen when I allow the negativity in my inbox to get to me. I have the all-too-human tendency to focus on the negativity. A hundred people could rant and rave in one day about how much they love my work, and one person could write a diatribe about how much they loathe me. I have to force myself not to focus on that one.

Ruby Bear...oh wait...

Otherwise, I don’t know. I’m extremely happy with the past year, and feel like I’ve done well. I’d maybe pull back a little bit. For a while there I was working 7 days a week, from 5AM until 11PM, racing back and forth between the computer and the family/household, and… man I was tired. It was too much. I still work a LOT, but it’s a better balance these days.

And last but certainly not least, what has got you most excited about Guild Wars 2?

The world of Tyria. More than classes, more than combat, more than anything, I want to explore every nook and cranny and see how this virtual world that I love so much has changed. Back in March I wrote an edition of Flameseeker Chronicles (my GW/GW2 column on Massively) speculating all about the world we’d see in Ghosts of Ascalon, and I had so much fun with that.

The developers recently mentioned “legacy” areas, and I was incredibly excited about that. The ruins of the Temple of the Ages and places like that will absolutely be my favorites.

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Reading the text: an interview with Anthony Huso

Posted by Randolph Carter on August 27, 2010

Anthony Huso is video game designer at Arkane Studios. He’s also an author and has recently had his first novel, The Last Page, published by Tor books. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me about his book, his career, and his gaming past.

Anthony’s website

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Could you give us a little bit of background on your professional career and what it is you do now at Arkane Studios?

I started out in games modding for Thief the Dark Project. For me, games really provided me with an interactive story and the chance to tell stories through games was what got me excited about making games. Currently I’m a designer at Arkane Studios, recently acquired by ZeniMax. I’ve worked at Arkane Studios since 2004 doing design work and some writing.

In your infinite spare time you’re also a writer and have recently published your first novel, The Last Page. Would it be possible to give us a synopsis of the book?

Sure. The book follows two very different characters and therefore two very different threads of action. In the shortest way possible, I might say that the book follows, on one hand, the esoteric happenings within a country called the Duchy of Stonehold. On the other hand, you get the more visceral, grounded, and political part of the same country’s story. Essentially there is a power-couple at the head of the Duchy of Stonehold and it is through the eyes of this duo that both the subplots and main plot evolve.

In an interview you did with Ricardo Bare, you mentioned that most fantasy these days is of the canned variety. What sets your novel apart from this?

I try not to be a basher of other people’s writing. I think that we’re lucky to have a variety of styles within any given genre and anything that gets people (especially kids) reading is a Good Thing. (No. My book is not for kids.) That said, I have no interest in recapping gorgons and dragons and on elves and so forth. Established fantasy tropes are not my thing.

What I prefer is to combine fringe mythologies, things that I think very few people will have ever heard of, and reconstitute them for my purposes. I toss in a heavy amount of my own imagination: stuff I think is just crazy and outlandish. In my writing, I’m going for weird. I want to create a place that is so strange that the characters are often just as shocked as the reader. In addition to this, I want the place to be familiar, sometimes surprisingly so: especially to an American audience. I push the envelope of that familiarity sometimes by mentioning things like “aspirin” in a setting that is clearly nowhere close to North America. The goal is, of course, to generate unsettling familiarity with a place, a plot, and a group of people where everything is really utterly bizarre.

There’s one other thing I do, which is to try and twist archetypes into unrecognizable shapes. Of those who have read The Last Page, I wonder how many really noticed that Sena is a witch with a cottage, a broom and a cat familiar. I think I did, or at least I hope I did, a fairly good job of playing with that archetype in a way that’s nearly invisible. The downside of playing these sorts of games is that it makes writing a synopsis tricky. The Last Page, in blurb form, seems to be about a witch and her prince. The whole thing sounds like a cute little fairy tale.

In your acknowledgements for the book you write, “Additionally, nothing in this book would be what it is without the infinite lost hours of Poy (Phanty), Chappy (Vlon), Tone (Rill) and Mike (Karakael) or “Jason: the Hermit” (and his assorted bloody sacrifices).” I’m curious as to what these infinite hours were lost to. Would you mind explaining?

Sure. Those are the guys I role played with back in high school. We literally lost thousands of hours at the gaming table playing Gygax’s modules and making up our own. Several of the participants had long-lasting characters. But poor Jason…well, it seemed like he was rolling up a new set of stats every week. I’m an advocate of gaming, even though I haven’t played anything that required a twenty-sider since 1995. I’m not embarrassed of this often lampooned past time at all. You could almost say, what with my parent’s divorce and all, that gaming practically saved my life.

Also you mention, “I wrote this book because it Rained.” Again, I’m curious.

This one I’m going to keep private, but I think that’s ok. Everyone needs a little mystery, right?

What is next for you on the writing/publishing front?

I’m currently working through my editorial revisions on the sequel to The Last Page: a book called Black Bottle that I hope will be out late next year.

On your blog you write about your one and only experience with an MMO and how that was enough for one lifetime. Would you mind explaining what that experience was like and how you came to that decision?

I opted to play an incredibly hard core, very deep (mechanically) Chinese-born MMO called Perfect World. The server was based in Malaysia and it had players from all over the world. My OCD got the best of me, I’m afraid, and I wound up creating arguably one of the top 2 archer characters on the server. This endeavor took a fabulous amount of time and money and I would never repeat it. On the other hand, it will certainly be one of my most memorable gaming experiences of all time. And I’ve saved all the screenshots to prove it.

I take it you’re still a gamer then. What would be your games of choice these days?

These days I mostly play Magic the Gathering Online. Despite the current state of the client, it’s hard to fuck up Garfield’s incredibly brilliant and robust mechanics. I have a blast making decks and pwning noobs at the two-headed giant table. I do however always try to be polite. Yes it’s a super nerd game but it lets me stay home with the kids and still socialize a bit. If you haven’t tried Magic in a while, you should come check it out. The client is being redesigned as we speak — so the rumor goes — and videos of the new version that I scrounged up on the internet look promising.

Many of the authors I’ve interviewed view gaming as a potential threat to their productivity as a writer. As someone who is a gamer, a game creator, as well as a writer, how have you managed to reconcile these activities in your life?

It’s absolutely a threat. Which is why I mostly stick to Magic these days. I can play a hand in thirty minutes and be done. In my case, I’m afraid, abstinence of “real gaming” has been the essential prescription for more hours on the typewriter so-to-speak.

Would you say your gaming background has had any effect on you as a writer? Please explain.

Absolutely. I love games like Thief, Halo — you can see a list on my webpage. Good games are great at evoking mood, tension, anticipation: stuff you’d hope to find in a book, right? Games and movies and other books all pour into a compost pile of sorts that I turn with my pitchfork and let cook. That compost grows all kinds of new characters and ideas.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?

My brother and I played Halo co-op through the campaign at least twenty times. It got to the point where we had most of the dialog memorized and started making up special rules, like: Heroic — pistols and fists are the only legal weapons. It was literally a blast. Sitting in front of the big screen, eating home-made pico de gallo, trying to escape the imminent explosion of the Autumn…it occurred to us as we listening to that pelican captain tell Cortana that she couldn’t pick us up because: “Negative, I’ve been engaged…” Well, we just laughed because it sounded to us like she couldn’t save our asses or she’d be late for her wedding.

How do you tend to escape these days?

I read. I play with the kids. I watch a little TV or head to the Alamo Drafthouse for a movie. Pretty standard stuff, I guess.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

Write because you have to…not because you want to make money or be famous. Write because when you go to bed at night you see people and places and you imagine wild adventures, and because you feel that if you do not write these things down, you might go insane.

You wake up to a just and verdant world where The Last Page has been made into an MMORPG. What character or class would you play and why?

I’d definitely be a holomorph. Cutting myself just a little too deep to cast the next spell seems a wonderfully funny way to die…and hey, since I’m going to respawn, I might as well laugh.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Nope, other than a kind thank you to Randolph Carter for having me. If you ever come across the silver key, let me know. I want to come with.

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Reading the text: Ryan Van Cleave interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 24, 2010

Ryan Van Cleave is an accomplished poet, editor, freelance writer, and creative writing instructor. His forthcoming memoir Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction is due out June 1, 2010.  In this interview he discusses the book and why he wrote it, his own experience with game addiction, and what he sees as healthy and unhealthy gaming habits.

Ryan’s website | Unplugged blog

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Would you mind describing what your professional background happens to be?

I have an M.A. and Ph.D. in American literature from Florida State University. I was the Anastasia C. Hoffman Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University. I also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Clemson University. Currently, I teach writing at Eckerd College and the Ringling College of Art & Design, in addition to working as a writing coach and addiction & recovery consultant (with an emphasis on digital media and video games).

You have a forthcoming book entitled Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction. Would you mind talking a little bit about the book and why you decided to write it?

I hope this book begins a lot of important conversations. Many gamers feel trapped by their love of games. Many parents are frustrated and feel guilty or ashamed over the unhealthy relationship their children have with video games. There’s even a term for spouses who’ve “lost” their partner to The World of Warcraft: “WOW Widow.” I recognize that we’re not all going to wake up tomorrow and just stop playing video games. That’s unrealistic and unnecessary. Video games provide some terrific and useful experiences for us. They teach us. They entertain us. They can be cathartic. They can improve memory and motor function. They can simulate unique experiences.

What concerns me, though, is how so many people are swept up into the dizzyingly compelling world of video games and they just go with it unthinkingly. There are ramifications beyond the time spent in front of a screen. These video games are doing something to us emotionally, socially, and intellectually. I’m including information about some of those things in this book to help wake people up about the true costs. If they then still choose to make an informed choice to play, great. Part of why I included Josh Schweitzer’s story in this book is to show that some people have a very successful life and still maintain a heavy gaming schedule. It can work. But even Josh admits he’s the rarity.

At some point you’ve said you hit rock bottom. How would you describe this time?

It’s where Unplugged starts—with me pretty much having surrendered everything important to me in order to keep playing video games. I talk about this experience a few different times in the book, but there’s no clear way to explain it beyond saying I was completely de-personed by games. The Ryan who was playing like his life depended on it wasn’t a Ryan I knew anymore.

And so what was the turnaround point for you and how did this come about?

The turnaround point came when I realized that I actually had to make a choice—keep my marriage, meaning my wife and two young daughters, or keep on gaming. I had a huge blow-up with my family and it suddenly became clear to me. It took some time to summon the courage to quit playing Warcraft (my particular video game poison). When I finally deleted it off my computer, I had withdrawal symptoms. Fever. Chills. Migraines. I felt an intense sense of loss, as if I was missing a limb. That’s the difference between addiction and just some video game splurging. The addicts can’t quit, even when the repercussions of the gaming are tremendously bad. And if they do manage to pull away (or have the game taken from them), they explode.

Just consider how important video games must’ve been to that 12-year-old boy in Bangkok who threw himself off a sixth floor veranda in 2009 after his parents took away his video games. And what about 17-year-old Daniel Petric, who shot both of his parents (killing his mother) because they wouldn’t let him play Halo 3? South Korea and China have called video game addiction their #1 social issue to face. These are just two of many examples of how deep of a hold video games have on some of us.

How serious is video game addiction?

A 2007 study by the AMA reports that close to 90% of American youngsters play video games and as many as 15% of them—more than 5 million kids—may be addicted (source: msnbc). And an April 2, 2007 Harris poll found that: “Nationally, 8.5% of youth gamers (ages 8 to 18) can be classified as pathologically or clinically ‘addicted’ to playing video games.” This is a $22 billion dollar a year industry we’re talking about, with expectations for that number to double by 2012. 247 U.S. colleges now have degrees in the creation of video games. That’s a lot of numbers, I realize. So what does this all mean? It means that whatever level the current problem actually is, it’s only going to get worse.

In the description of Unplugged, it says that you still have an ongoing battle to control the impulses to play video games. Do you still allow yourself to game some or is that not an option for you anymore?

I have a strange relationship with video games today. I recently got a job teaching at the Ringling College of Art & Design, where 90% of my students either want to work for Pixar or make video games (often both). Even more ironic, when I had a hard time covering my bills this past summer, I got a freelance job—making video games for a major social networking site. In this economy, beggars simply can’t be choosers. So though I only play occasionally as a way to research how other games operate, I’m very much in the trenches, so to speak, with the video game industry. But as I’m designing each new game and considering options in which the game requires players to interact with it, I’m on the lookout for opportunities for ways to discourage marathon gaming sessions and to encourage non-game activities. Games like Eco Tycoon: Project Green, Machinarium, World of Goo, Between, and Hush give me hope. Those are the type of alternative gaming experiences I’m interested in supporting. A straight hack-and-slash dungeon crawl or WWIII first-person shooter? That’s not enough for me, though it certainly would’ve been a decade or so back.

What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I’ve always been interested in gaming. D&D from age eight until mid-teens, console systems during that same time (and far beyond it), and along the way I started playing computer games. I was maybe 20 or so before I started really getting into PC games. They weren’t as exciting back then—it took them a while to compete with the quality of good console games. Now? It’s no contest—even the Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3 don’t really compare to the size and scope of some of the better computer games. The best games are so powerful, so immersive, that in many ways they are a better experience than seeing blockbuster movies.

You have been quoted as saying, “The three things I remember most clearly? The Challenger Explosion. 9/11. My first video game.” What was this video game and how would you describe the experience?

We had an Atari when I was little, so 01 Combat was my first game. My dad won the system as a prize for being a top salesman for Amoco that year. My brother and I played the heck out of that Atari, wearing through a number of joysticks each year. A friend of mine had an Odyssey system and I used to sneak over to his house at night to play with him far past our bedtimes. For some nine-year-old kids who previously thought that being a delinquent meant stealing an Oreo when your parents were watching “Hee Haw” in the other room, this was pretty exciting stuff.

What do you see as unhealthy gaming habits?

That’s easy. Anytime video gaming starts to interfere with one’s regular life. You know someone’s in trouble if they start to exhibit the following:

  • Experiencing euphoria while playing
  • Craving more time to play
  • Neglecting important responsibilities in order to play
  • Feeling empty and irritable when not playing
  • Lying to parents about how much time is spent playing
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Eating irregularities (skipping meals)
  • Inability to sleep (or even dreaming about playing)

What then do you see as healthy gaming habits?

Having a healthy relationship with video games means that if you have a girlfriend as amazingly beautiful as Kim Sears, you don’t play Call of Duty and video tennis for seven hours a day. British tennis stud Andy Sears clearly had his priorities all wrong.

Healthy gaming habits include keeping up with non-gaming things like work, friends, hygiene. People’s lives work best when there’s balance. Too much of any one thing—video games, drinking, sex, chocolate, even exercise—can end up really decreasing the quality of your life. Having a good perspective (which sadly only tends to come with a lot of years of mistakes behind you) will help a lot.

Check out Unplugged and see if you find yourself understanding what I was going through. I put it all in there, so many ugly moments that it’s hard for me to read or even talk about. If looking at that book is like looking in a mirror, you need to get some help. My book has resources, but the internet does too. Don’t let it get any further out of hand.

And if it’s not you but someone you know, get involved before there’s another Andy Murray, Daniel Petric, or Shawn Woolley on our hands. This is a social issue, not just a personal one. That means we’ve all got something (someone?) at stake.

What advice would you have to offer those who are raising children in these times where video games are so prevalent?

Get educated about video games and video game addiction. Part of the problem is that parents aren’t the experts—younger people are. It’s easy to disguise overindulgence from parents who don’t know a byte from a brownie. Learn about the games. Learn some of the lingo. Most importantly, though, talk to your kids. If you have an ongoing relationship with them, you’re much more likely to know what’s going on in their lives. Ignorance is no longer an acceptable state of parenting, no matter how much we want to park out kids in front of TVs and video games (the “other parents”).

What do you want people to take away from reading Unplugged?

Ryan Van cleave

I’d like people to take away three key ideas from Unplugged. (1) Video game addiction is real. Yes, not everyone who plays will develop it, but those who do are as helpless as if they had a dependence on drugs, drinking, or gambling. Video game addiction is a disempowering state of existence that’s only made worse when people laugh it off or simply say, “Just quit!” That strikes me as about as useful as the “Just Say No to Drugs!” campaign. (2) You can end the addiction. I did it. Others have too. But it takes serious effort and help from friends and family. If you don’t have a team effort in getting past this, you’ll probably find yourself logging back in before long, feeling worse than ever that you couldn’t break free on your own. (3) It’s not your fault. Too few people are seriously talking about video game addiction. It’s not taken seriously enough, and people come to these games unprepared for the powerful experiences that are provided. It’s a wonder more people aren’t hooked.

The biggest reason I’m an educator is to help young people reexamine the world they live in and reevaluate their relationship to it. If my book provokes some of the same reactions in a reader, I’ll consider Unplugged a resounding success no matter who picks it up or why.

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Reading the text: Janice Hardy interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 11, 2010

Janice Hardy is a fantasy writer and the author of the young adult fantasy novels The Shifter and the forthcoming Blue Fire (due out in October). She also happens to be a rather enthusiastic gamer whose credentials would put most gamers to shame. In this interview she talks about her writing, her gaming, how she balances the two, and recounts a most excellent story from her days in EverQuest. 

Janice’s website: http://www.janicehardy.com/ 

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Could you explain what your novel The Shifter is about? 

Nya is a fifteen-year-old war orphan with a secret. She has the ability to heal people by shifting pain from person to person. She tries to hide this ability, because if the enemy forces occupying her city ever find out, they’ll use her as a weapon against her own people. But when her younger sister, Tali, disappears from her apprenticeship at the Healer’s League, it turns out Nya’s shifting ability is the only weapon she has to save her. 

And this is the first in a planned trilogy? Where are you in the writing process for the rest of the series? 

It’s is the first book of a trilogy. Book two, Blue Fire, is done and galleys will be sent out shortly. I’ve just hit the halfway mark in book three, which has no title yet. 

Would you mind describing what the process was like in getting the book published? 

Remarkably smooth, to be honest. If I hadn’t had three other books I failed to get an agent for, I’d think this business was easy (grin). I wrote and polished the book over about a 9-11 month period, then researched agents, wrote my query letter, and sent out eight the first batch. I planned to send more if I received no bites, but I had four requests for the full manuscript. Three of those agents made me offers of representation (a huge thrill, but a hard choice) and I picked one, the fabulous Kristin Nelson. She had me do some revisions, and I rewrote the ending twice more before she started submitting it to publishers.That was about the end of May, and I had nibbles from editors that first week. There were two that were duking it out, so to speak, and we sold all three books June 26 to Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins. Once I sold it, the real fun began. I have an amazing editor in Donna Bray, and we did a few more rounds of edits before she was satisfied. It’s the same book it always was, but the story was so much deeper and richer. Six months later, it hit the shelves. (which was about 15 months from the day I sold it.) It was a wild ride for sure, and a bit of a dream situation. 

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)? 

I’m a huge gamer. Board games, card games, pen & paper, PC, consoles, you name it. I like all kinds of games, but I’m especially fond of city builders like Civilization (I just finished Tropic 3 actually), and sneak’em ups, like Thief and Splinter Cell. And RPGs of course. Fable, Overlord, Fallout, Morrowwind. Stuff like that. 

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like. 

I got sucked into the original EverQuest when it first came out, solely to help my husband and a friend of ours get some extra money. (Remember how hard it was to buy anything in the lower levels?) I had so much fun playing I had to get my own account. Been hooked ever since. I’ve played both EQs, Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot, City of Heroes, City of Villains, World of Warcraft, dabbled some in Horizons, Lord of the Rings Online, and a few others I can’t remember the names of. I try just about everything that comes out. 

Considering the healing abilities of your main character Nya, do you tend to play healer classes in MMOs? 

Oh, neat question. I always have a healer at some point, but only once has that started out as my first character. I lean toward the utility classes, like bards, enchanters, druids, or pet classes like warlocks and necromancers. One thing you’ll rarely see my playing are straight melee classes. I hate chasing after mobs to hit them (grin). 

Many of the authors I’ve interviewed view gaming as a potential threat to their productivity as a writer. As someone who games, how have you managed to reconcile these two activities in your life? 

I played way too much EQ when it first came out, so I know how games can practically take over your life. After that experience, it’s been a lot easier to walk away from the games and not get so wrapped up in them. I approach it now as a fun diversion, not something I need to play every day or immerse myself in. I avoid the big guilds in MMOs so I’m not drawn into raiding, which is where so much of the time sink comes in. I don’t buy new games I’ve been dying for if I’m on deadline so I’m, not tempted. I also have a gamer husband, and he’s really good about bopping me on the head if I’m playing when I should be writing. It’s a lot easier to split the two when you have someone waiting for your next book, though. It becomes your job, and as much as you might want to, you can’t really blow off work to play games all the time. 

As someone who obviously appreciates the written word and the art of narrative, do you tend to read the quest text and immerse yourself as much as possible into the story of the game you are playing? 

I know I should say I read every word, but I actually don’t. (grin). I get immersed in the stand alone games, since the story usually has clues you need to play and the experience is more affected by your actions and choices. But the MMOs I just click through to get to the quest most times.I like the stories behind them and do read some, but the gameplay is what I’m after in those. 

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past? 

Oh, there are so many. Let’s see. One of my favorites is back in the old EQ days. This was very early on, possibly a week or two after launch. I was hunting in West Commons with my husband and a friend when we found Befallen, which was an undead dungeon. We were terrified since we had no idea what was inside, but we ventured in anyway. We explored some on the first floor, and found a well that went clear down to the third floor, which had level 30 monsters in it. (Bear in mind we were maybe level 10 at this point) Naturally, silly me backs into the well, falls all the way down, and dies. 

For those that never played EQ, death was a big deal. If you couldn’t get back your body, you lost all your gear, and gear was hard to come by. We’d pooled out money to buy a Mino Axe for me, and by golly that axe was on my body! I couldn’t lose it. (This is so laughable now, but back then this was a real quandary). I know what you’re saying, why didn’t we just ask a higher level player to go down and get it? Because at this point, the highest level person on the server was 20. There was no one who could have gone down there and survived. 

I was so upset about “losing everything I owned”, so my brave cleric hubby handed us all his gear and jumped down into the well, using a spell to protect him form the fall. He hoped to grab the axe and gate out before the ghouls got him. He tried three times before he gave up and declared my body lost forever. To this day I still count that as one of the sweetest things he’s ever done for me. I think he knew if my first gaming experience was bad, he’d never get me back into it. When I got high enough level, I went back and killed every undead in the whole place as payback. 

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer? 

I’m not sure, because gaming is so different from writing. But gaming does teach you to think on your feet and come up with creative ways to solve problems, and that does translate when you’re plotting, so it might be keeping my creative skills sharp. Plotting has always come naturally to me, and I’m rarely at a loss as to what my characters will do next. Gaming could certainly have played a role in that. 

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process? 

There can be, when a scene or chapter is being unruly. Most of time it’s a lot of fun. I am working on a chapter now that’s just been a pain. I know I’ll get through it and it’ll be fine when it’s done, but every sentence is a struggle. It’s taking longer than usual due to that, so I have to force myself to sit down and just write my way through it. (and this interview is being a lovely distraction from that, so yay!) Days like this, definitely a grind. Luckily, those are few and far between. 

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer? 

For me, it’s the entertainment value. I love telling stories, and when someone says they loved my story or a character I get all warm and fuzzy inside. I know how much I love my favorite authors and books, and hearing I was able to bring that to someone else is the best. In fact, I was at a book signing last week, and the sweetest little girl told me she wanted to be a writer too, and that I was an inspiration to her. How can you not totally love that? 

When do you find time to write? 

I’m a morning person, so I write from about 7-8am to noon most days. If I’m on deadline I write almost every day, but if not, I prefer to write a few days, then take a day or two off. I get a little burnt if I write every single day with no breaks. 

How do you tend to escape these days? 

Janice Hardy

Books, movies, TV, games. A lot of that involves friends as well, and we’ll have the gang over for game night or movie night. And I have been known to waste an entire day trying to beat Civilization Revolution (PS3) on Deity mode. A cultural win is the only one I’ve managed so far. But I refuse to give up! 

You wake up to a world where The Shifter has been made into an RPG. What character would you play and why? 

Ooo, fun. I’d think I’d play Jeatar, because I already know Nya’s story, and he’s the most mysterious of the other characters. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience? 

Let’s see… Blue Fire comes out October 5, 2010. That’s probably good to know. The Shifter is out now in hardcover, and the paperback is due out this fall, probably September sometime. I also have a novellete out in the upcoming anthology, Eight Against Reality, which is full of great science fiction, fantasy and horror stories. And if anyone knows how to get the murloc sounds from WoW as my ring tone, let me know.

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Reading the text: Nicola Whitton interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 10, 2010

Nicola Whitton is a research fellow at the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University. Here she discusses her book, Learning with Digital Games, talks a little bit about her own experience with video games, and why her current favorite game happens to be peek-a-boo. 

Nicola’s blog: Play Think Learn

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Would you mind explaining what you do for a living? 

I work as a Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University. The job is a mixture of designing and managing projects, working with people from academia and industry, and lots of reading and writing. My main focus is researching computer games for learning and I’m very lucky to have a job that is flexible and lets me explore the questions that interest me. 

How would you describe your book Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education to someone unfamiliar with it? 

It’s a guide, aimed at anyone interested in education, to how computer games – and the principles that they embody – can be used to enhance learning. It’s split into three main sections, looking at the theoretical perspective, the practical implications, and the technical aspects. 

Why did you decide to write this particular book? 

For me, one of the big problems with game-based learning is that it’s beyond the means of most educators to develop the ideal game for a given situation. While I believe that games can present amazing learning environments that engage people in creative problem-solving, exploration and discovery, this is dependent on having the right game. The book aims to address this issue by looking at ways in which educators can both exploit the benefits of games in teaching and make developing or adapting games a possibility for a novice. 

Are you pleased with the way the book turned out? 

Pretty much, although I haven’t seen any sales figures yet… I ended up writing it in six months, which meant that I really had to focus. I think that if I’d had more time I’d have liked to put more in, particularly more case studies and research literature, but then without a strict deadline it would probably never have been finished at all. 

What audience did you have in mind when writing it? 

A range of people, but essentially someone who might not have a high level of technical skill or confidence. Teachers, lecturers, learning technologists, educational developers, learning designers, students. Anyone interested in computer games and learning, really. 

Could you please explain what your own background in gaming has been like? 

Mainly as a player. My first experience with computer games was when I was around five years old and my father used to take me to play games to the computer at his work – an Apple II – at weekends. The ones I remember best were Lemonade Stand (which I still attribute to a later interest in economics) and Little Brick Out (but sadly no similar enthusiasm for knocking down walls emerged). 

When I got my own Spectrum I became much more interested in adventure games, such as The Hobbit and Knight Time, and spent a lot of time using The Quill to develop my own games. It’s really this early love of adventure games, which continues to this day, that made me think that there was potential for learning there and to decide to carry out research in this field. 

As someone who has done extensive research on gaming, do you find it difficult at times to separate gaming for pleasure and gaming for research? 

Not really, because I don’t think I do separate them. For me, playfulness is an essential approach to work as well as leisure, so I tend to try and integrate a good measure of game-playing into my research. Likewise, while I might play a game for fun I am always, at the back of my mind, considering its potential for learning. 

How would you say computer games have influenced you as a teacher? How about as a writer? 

As a teacher, in two ways. First, by instilling a sense of fun and humour, coupled with a lateral way of looking at problems, inspired by games such as the Monkey Island series (of which I am a huge fan). Secondly, by highlighting the importance of context and motivation in learning through the use of meaningful goals with real purpose within the game or narrative context. 

I’m not sure that games have influenced me directly as a writer (other than as a subject to write about). I’ve always been interested in writing (and reading) fiction, as well as playing games, and my favourite stories involve mysteries or puzzles (I love a good detective novel or a tale with a really surprising secret). So I suppose that my tastes in fiction very much mirror my tastes in games. 

Specifically, what potential do you see for using MMOs in the field of education? 

I’m not sure that I would necessarily want to use them as they exist when designed solely for entertainment, because there are issues of access, cost, and appropriateness. However, I think that there’s an awful lot that we can learn from looking at the types of collaborative and problem-solving processes that go on in multi-user gaming environments, for example in terms of group work, team roles and mentoring. 

Are you a particular fan of MMOs? What has your experience with them been like? 

I like them, in short doses. I’m essentially a solitary gamer so they aren’t something I play a great deal. When I was at university in the early 1990s I used to play the local MUD (but it was really an excuse for meeting people and going to the pub) and more recently I’ve been playing Guild Wars but I don’t really have the time to put in to get the most out of it. 

What games (not necessarily MMOs) are you currently playing? 

Nicola Whitton

Since I have a five-month-old daughter most of the games I’m currently playing are of the peek-a-boo variety. I’m also getting more into casual games, such as hidden object and strategy games, which fit in with my more time-limited lifestyle (and don’t require your brain to be on top form). 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer audience? 

Just a thank you for reading this far, and a request to get in touch or have a look at my blog if they would like to know more about my work.

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Reading the text: Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 3, 2010

Philosophy enthusiasts Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox discuss their book Philosophy Through Video Games, their gaming backgrounds, and talk about their latest project involving Dungeons & Dragons, while refuting video game naysayers and tackling a rather serious hypothetical question along the way.

Jon’s blog | Philosophy of Video Games site

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Could you take a minute and explain what your book Philosophy Through Video Games is about and what you were hoping to accomplish with it?

The book explores a set of distinctively philosophical issues that arise naturally when one starts to seriously think about this new art form. Has what it means to be a self changed in a world of avatars? What do kinesthetically realistic games such as the Wii provides tell us about the nature of perception? Is there something morally degrading about role-playing bad people? What does it mean for a game to have a “God’s eye view” or to incorporate ethics? Should the radical interactivity of some video games change our view of the nature of artworks? What does the attempt to do “artificial intelligence” in video games tell us about the academic paradigm that predates these games? Does spending a lot of time playing games represent a failure to engage in meaningful human activity, or is it a paradigmatic example of such activity?

Thinking about games changed our views on all of these issues, and we wanted to put our thoughts into book form. Some of it is more focused on our understanding of games more narrowly, but we also ended up defending what we think are some new philosophical positions.

How did the book come about?

Well here’s part of the first draft of the book’s preface, which we ended up taking out because it had way, way, too much pathos.

The name of the game was Scramble. When you pumped your quarter into the machine, a fat little spaceship began to troll along a side-scrolling screen, dropping bombs and shooting missiles over an irregular landscape the color of a rotten peach. The game was not exactly rich in narrative content–basically, you just kept shooting and dropping bombs until your fuel ran out or you crashed. And it was very, very difficult. Even a reasonably well-coordinated twelve-year-old could burn through a whole roll of quarters in less than an hour. But its strange, indefatigable allure drew one of the present book’s authors through the freezing streets of his hometown in Canada, across fields of snow to the (terrible) local pizza joint two or three night a week with his best friend in tow, for an embarrassingly long phase of his early adolescence.

The other author of the book still remembers the first time he saw Space Invaders, when the craze for this game was first sweeping through North America in the 1970’s. At the time, he was suffering from the effects of severe and hitherto undiagnosed dyslexia, which (combined with lack of co-ordination) caused him to have difficulties performing some of the most basic everyday tasks, like tying his shoes and finding his way around. He recalls spending hours staring at the game over his older brother’s shoulder, just watching the soothing left-to-right and right-to-left movements of the little aliens as they fulfilled their mission of destruction, and thinking in a way that he could not have expressed at the time that there was something deeply correct about what he was seeing.

So that was phase one. Phase two was how much we loved logic in graduate school. Neither of us is good enough at logic to prove any original theorems, but the manner in which computability theory allowed one to prove things about the limits of what could be proven in given systems struck us both as one of the great achievements of civilization. Phase three was what we did besides just playing games to not think about our dissertations. We both played lots of games. This was an exciting period, with the Nintendo 64 changing everything with consoles and really good first person shooters and god games coming out on computers. Further time wasting strategies included Jon type-setting his dissertation in Tex, the typesetting program used in lots of scientific publications. He got pretty obsessed with it and started thinking about the nature of programming. While this was going on, Mark got deeply involved in interactive fiction, even running part of a Canadian web portal dedicated to the art-form. This led Mark to actually work on the teams designing Earth and Beyond and Aidyn Chronicles. The final stage was actually post-dissertation, during a period even worse, when both were non-tenure-track contingent labor (Mark at Auburn, Jon at LSU) making twenty five thousand a year before taxes, medical, and retirement, all with no job security whatsoever. We would meet every year at the Alabama Philosophical Society meeting and give papers and talk philosophy non-stop. At this point the game stuff, logic, and more general philosophy (we also publish in metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and epistemology) all started to come together, and we found that the things we did to avoid philosophy also became the subject of philosophy.

Who would you say it is written for?

Any literate, thoughtful person who loves video games, or who suspects (rightly!) that they have cultural significance.

Or really just about anybody who has ever gotten any pleasure from either fantasy or gaming, and wants to get a better understanding of their nature.

Playing the devil’s advocate, how would you answer the naysayer who tells you that video games are just that, games, and there’s really nothing to experience beyond something on an entertainment level?

The final chapter of our book is to some extent an explicit attempt to answer this naysayer, though the deck is a bit stacked, since anyone who has read through the previous six chapters already agrees with us.

Philosophers have developed all sorts of different views about what it is that makes us essentially human: Hume- the ability to rationally assess the most efficient ways to achieve ends, Kant- the ability to bind oneself to rational norms, including the rationality of ends themselves, Hegel and the existentialists- the ability to creatively instantiate a new essence. Our fundamental conviction is that any such philosophical theory that leaves out either collaborative story-telling or game-playing massively mis-describes the essence of humanity.

So we do not think that Saint Paul’s maxim, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things” applies to video games or fantasy more generally. Supposing that it does is a recipe for inhumanity.

You both are obviously fans of video games. Would you mind discussing your own gaming backgrounds (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Jon Cogburn

Both of us have pretty laughably generic back-stories in this regard. We were both suburban geeks desperately bored by most of what public education had to offer and tortured by the hegemony of what Charles Bukowski calls “unoriginal, macho energy.” We still are! We found salvation in RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons for Jon, Top Secret for Mark), science fiction, and fantasy literature. We still do!

The one significant difference between us is the way that we actually play games. Jon likes to spend hours really mastering all the strategic and tactical nuances of very deep PC games like those of the Elder Scrolls, Civilization and Total War series’. Mark’s first great love is 1990s point-and-click adventure games such as Myst and Broken Sword, and these days he usually has three or four games from different genres on the go at any one time, only a few of which he ever gets around to finishing.

Are either of you particular fans of MMOs? What has your experience with these been like?
 
 
 

 

We’ve both spent some time in the MMO trenches (Azeroth mostly), but don’t have the deep love for them that we do for non MMOs. World of Warcraft just involves too much slogging through for either of our tastes. And what you do doesn’t really affect the world narrative. As soon as you complete a mission, the world resets for somebody else to do the same mission. Games where the world is affected in non-trivial ways, such as Eve Online take such an incredible sink of time that obligations in “the real world” have prohibited us from engaging in them. We discuss some of these issues, actually defending the game, in our contribution to Cuddy and Nordlinger’s World of Warcraft and Philosophy anthology.

At some point in the future there will be a fantasy based MMO where you can craft interesting narratives for your character and also feel like you are affecting the history of the shared game world. At that point we hope to be able to jointly sink a month of summer into obsessive playing of it.

I’d like to pose a question rephrased from your book. Can playing an MMO lead to greater self-consciousness? I’m afraid I’ve played a few that have lead to greater unconsciousness.

We were pretty bummed out when Peter Ludlow’s attempt to make an MMO in Second Life foundered in 2004. One of the things in our hopper is to examine what’s been happening since then (starting here).  We think that in the long run that user generated content will produce evolutionary feedback mechanisms to create something that is in the same universe as being as cool as D&D.

What’s the connection between your work on philosophy of video games and your current book project with Dungeons and Dragons?

In two of the chapters of Philosophy Through Video Games we found ourselves contrasting video games with D&D. The first is in Chapter 1, where we discuss the rationality of identifying with one’s on-line personas and avatars (e.g. “I killed a dragon last night”). There we noted how a Dungeon Master systematically helps players craft a character. This is really obvious when there is a pervasive mismatch between the player’s basic personality traits and his character’s. If a really impulsive person is supposed to be playing a character with high wisdom, then the Dungeon Master has to fill in the story and present choices in all sorts of ways to help the impulsive person role play a wise person. Video games really can’t do this.

The second discussion of D&D is in Chapter 6, on artificial intelligence, where we characterize human (and arguably animal as well) intelligence in terms of flexible adaptive richness, the ability to respond rationally to new problems and challenges in novel ways. The “frame problem” in artificial intelligence is just the name for the vast difficulty in getting mechanical agents to manifest flexible adaptive richness. Weirdly, as games get more immersive and sandboxy, this lack becomes all the more apparent. The latest installment of the Elder Scrolls franchise has thousands non player characters, each with unique faces and facial expressions in reaction to your character. They all do recognizably human things. But if you play enough you start to notice that they always do the exact same things over and over again, have the same conversations with one another, etc. And sometimes in your interactions with them you can exploit the fact that they are so non-flexible. For example, if your character is in the gladiatorial arena and can jump high enough and shoot a bow well enough (and possesses magic arrows in the higher challenges), you can just jump up on a parapet and kill opponents by shooting arrows at them. Instead of trying to jump up after you or running for shelter, your opponents just attack the stone column over and over again with their weapons.

This would not happen in D&D because a human intelligence is running the world and controlling the NPCs.

As we finished the book we kept thinking of other philosophical issues with D&D. How is magic different from just a different kind of science? Is it? What does the alignment system teach us about philosophical ethics, and vice versa? What happens when you take an aesthetic theory such as Kendall Walton’s that foregrounds role playing (in accounting for traditional art forms) and apply it to actual role playing games. What about narrative ethics and an artform that should be considered collaborative narrative? Or should it? What happens to the ludology/narratology debate when applied to Dungeons and Dragons? Is Dungeons and Dragons morally compromising because players role play violence? Such questions proliferate.

Instead of writing another book, we decided to try to edit an anthology. We’ve separately written some papers, are getting other philosophers to contribute, and are in the process of pitching it to a press right now.

We’ve also both separately joined tabletop games, something we hadn’t done in years. We’re big fans of 4th Edition.

Do you ever find that your philosopher’s mind gets in the way of your enjoyment of a game?

No! We’re both really dedicated to the thought that one of the primary good-making features of a work of art is that one can lose oneself in that work. And we take this talk in an entirely literal way! The pleasure of theorizing about art comes after the fact, when you are not engaged.

The major sin of aesthetic modernism is collapsing these two moments, thinking art should be “challenging” in a way that precludes losing oneself in it. It’s easy to go to the opposite extreme, as many like to do nowadays, and say that great art should always be “accessible” – i.e. shouldn’t require any serious thought or belief-revision at all. We certainly don’t believe that either. But we do think that one lamentable effect that the modernists had on western ideas about art was to give pleasure a bad rap. The American philosopher W.V. Quine once said that “learning is learning to have fun.” If he’s right about this, then it surely must be possible to learn a lot more from Robin Hobb or Brian Ruckley (and we read both!) than one ever could from Finnegan’s Wake.

Noël Carroll’s books The Philosophy of Horror and The Philosophy of Mass Art showed how one could responsibly theorize about popular art while respecting that art as art. He has pretty devastating critiques of the theories of art that sought to valorize “challenging” modern art and condemn everything else.

We’d go further. Much modern art that professors write about strikes us as not challenging at all, but rather catastrophically simple-minded. Much of this stuff is admired on account of being crudely self-reflexive, and commenting either on the history of the genre or upon itself in a way that really doesn’t shed much light at all. Think of Andy Warhol’s lousy Brillo box, which has probably generated at least ten thousand pages of insufferably tedious commentary from philosophers and art historians. And a lot of the rest of it is just calculated to piss off the bourgeoisie, either by flouting their moral values or by just being plain unenjoyable. Try reading one of Samuel Beckett’s novels for an example of this sort of thing. We have a few of our own complaints about the bourgeoisie, but we think there’s more to being avant-garde than just biting the hand that feeds you.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing a video game. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. What kind of game would you make?

Well, as noted earlier Mark worked on the teams that built Aidyn Chronicles and Earth and Beyond. But of course he didn’t have unlimited funds and resources (his parents’ basement would have been fixed up much nicer if he had).

If we had unlimited resources we’d set up a research center on emergent narrative. In Stephen King’s book on writing he talks about early “chose your own adventure” type books and how computationally explosive they are, requiring gigantic texts for the reader to have any real choice in things. Later on people marketed games to help with the writing process. These games consisted in a set of overlapping wheels where each configuration corresponded to an event that could happen in the narrative. We think that both of these were really the first computer games (predating the digital computer by centuries in the first case and decades in the second). We’d hire Chris Crawford to run this end of the business (assuming he was on the market) and encourage him to acquire a staff of brilliant but obedient programmer-munchkins.

Mark Silcox

If you think of the digital computer as the continuation of machines that help users create narrative, then an awful lot is suggested for future academic study and game development. First, game development needs to be tied to current work in computational linguistics. Users should be able to type and speak in natural language and have this affect game content in non-trivial ways. Remember Zork? The linguistic interface was really revolutionary at the time, so much so that we think of it as the third wave (after chose your own adventure and write a novel aids) in this kind of thing. Well since Zork a lot has happened in both theoretical and computational linguistics, but there is no major research center to tie those things to games (or to computationally implement some of the work in theoretical linguistics involving lexical decomposition for verb phrases, for that matter). We should start with simple games where users say things like “Go to the store Francine” and the computer represents Francine doing this. Not because “go to the store” is a preprogrammed command, but because the computer takes advantage of the linguistic rules that put together “go” “to” “the” and “store” to build a visually accessible representation. This is vastly harder than one might think, but we think the building blocks are there. David Dowty showed how to marry lexical decomposition to a compositional semantics that recursively hooks up natural language with a formal language, and current decompositional work by Levin, Jackendoff, Pustejovsky and others is just waiting to be modeled along Dowty’s lines. This decompositional work on verb and prepositional phrases lends itself very well to graphical representations, so once you put it and Dowy’s approach together all you would need is to go from the decomposed formal language sentence to a graphical representation.

After getting good protocols for compositionally generating on-the-fly graphical representations of basic natural language sentences, we would up the ante and try to incorporate expert-system type AI such as Cycorp into the protocols. The final results should lend themselves to all sorts of ways that users and computers together can generate new narratives, movies, and games on the fly.

Finally, if we really did have unlimited resources, we probably wouldn’t release any “games” per se at all. Instead, we’d provide the world with a vast panoply of computationally rich, easily learnable open-source game engines for different genres of interactive art and entertainment. We’d try to do for gamers what YouTube has done for amateur filmmakers, or what the blogosphere has done for political journalism, or what The Ramones did for bored American teenagers who wanted to rock out. We might bring about the collapse of western capitalism as the result, but that’s OK – we’d have bigger fish to fry.

We think within the next two or three hundred years, assuming we don’t enter a new dark age, something like this will happen. We don’t think we will lead the charge though. As philosophers we jealously guard our ability to think and write about whatever we want to whenever we want to. Trying to run a research center robs you of this. You spend most of your time writing grant applications for tasks other people have already chosen. Then there is an awful lot of paperwork just on the personnel side of things.

But if someone reading this wants to give us a few tens of millions of dollars, we would be willing to do some heavy lifting.

Any last parting words you’d like to leave us with?

Life is tragic, history merciless, and whole societies often collectively make very stupid choices. We do not think that games and fantasy more generally are merely a juvenile escape from the human condition and all of the unneeded stupidity, corruption, and resulting civilizational detritus. But they are that too, thank God.

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Reading the text: Jesper Juul interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on February 25, 2010

 Jesper Juul is a theorist in video game studies and author of Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds as well as A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Here he talks about his second book, why he thinks casual games are saving video games from cultural ghettoization and why he thinks this is happens to be an exciting time to be a video game player.

Author’s blog: The Ludologist

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Would you please explain what you happen to do for a living?

I’m currently a visiting professor at the New York University game center. Which is to say that my primary occupation for the last many years has been as a video game theorist. I spend my time teaching video games theory and video game design, and my mission in life is to make sure that video games are taken seriously. Seriously, in the way that we tend to take literature or cinema seriously. This is not to say that video games are the same as these other art forms, but that video games are sufficiently important that it is important to think about how they work, how they develop, and where they may go in the future.

How would you describe your book A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players to someone who has never heard of it?

A Casual Revolution tells the story of a specific moment in the history of video games: that moment around 2005-7, where suddenly the Nintendo Wii took off, music games took off, browser games took off, downloadable casual games took off. The moment where video games broke out of their box and it became accepted that basically anyone could be a video game player; that video games weren’t just for young men.

I tell that story in a few different ways: I talk about how solitaire became the most popular digital game, I talk about how we always play new games using the strategies of games we played before, I look at the design of Wii games and music games, I examine the history of matching tile games, and I talk about how the industry traditionally was very reluctant to acknowledge that there might be another audience out there. Theoretically, the book builds a way of understanding how players aren’t simply “casual” or “hardcore” but that rather we may change over time due to life circumstances such as getting a job, having kids, or retiring.

So why did you write this book and who was it written for?

The book was really born out of my own curiosity about why video games suddenly seem to be played by everybody. I’ve played video games most of my life, and it always saddened me that it was so hard to convince non-players that video games were worthwhile. When things turned around with little casual games, the Wii and music games, I became curious why that was: what was different in these games? Why had the status of video games changed? The book really is my personal journey towards finding out what happened with video games in those last few years.

I’m an academic at heart, but I’ve tried to write a book that is generally readable. This means that I focus a lot on the stories of individual players or developers, and then I introduce readers to ways of thinking and understanding about the stories I’ve told. So really it’s a book for anyone who is interested in thinking about video games, their status in culture, the design of video games, and the differences between different players. I wouldn’t call it a casual book, but it’s certainly meant to be accessible and interesting to read.

Would you mind talking about the kinds of research that went into writing it?

Academics will often focus on either game design or players, but I wanted to write about how some game designs reach certain players as well as how players can sometimes take a game and make all kind of different things out of it. So therefore I did two kinds of research: I ran a survey at the Gamezebo website where I ask players what they played on when, their age, and how their playing habits had changed over time. And then I did in-depth interviews with some of them. The other kind of research consisted of looking at the design of the games we typically call “casual”. I looked at how matching tile games have developed historically and how they have been reviewed, and I used some interface design theory to understand why Guitar Hero or Wii sports will reach such broad audiences.

Forgive me for stealing one of the questions you have on your blog, The Ludologist , but I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on it: Are casual games saving video games from cultural ghettoization, or are they preventing video games from dealing with serious themes?

I think that casual games fundamentally are saving video games from cultural ghettoization because they just reach a broader audience, and they make it harder for opportunist politicians to claim that video games are something horrible that should be banned. They also save video games by showing that video games can be many different things, not just big budget productions sold in boxes at retail. I will say though that some distribution channels for casual games are very conservative, and make it very hard for developers to create innovative or edgy content. One developer I quote in the book mentions a casual game portal who said that they didn’t wanted to sell a product that could potentially offend anyone. But outside such distribution channels, I do think that things are looking good and that we are seeing more innovative content than we used to do.

Are you pleased with the way the book turned out?

I’m pretty happy. In the very beginning when I started writing, I perhaps hoped that I could make a single big theory about the difference between casual and hardcore, but it very quickly became clear that the data showed that the life circumstances of people is a huge influence on their playing habits, so that angle became much more interesting to follow and the book became more story-driven.

In that way, it is very different from my first book, Half-Real, which presented a single big theory of all video games. The new book is much more focused on the stories of players, developers, and games.

Would you mind giving us a brief overview of your gaming background?

I first started playing games on my Commodore 64 back in the early 1980s. (I grew up in Denmark which wasn’t a big console nation at the time.) This was realistically a time of rampant piracy, so I had access to most of the games that came out for that platform, and I spend huge amounts of time trying out new games with my friends. After that, I switched to the Amiga and got into games such as Lemmings and so on. Then I was a PC gamer for a while, and then I started playing much more console games. I probably like most kinds of games, but I always want to find something new that I haven’t seen before.

What is your take on MMOs? Are you a particular fan? What has your experience with them been like?

I played EverQuest and World of Warcraft, but it really isn’t my thing to have several level 70 characters and so on. I always want to try new games, so MMOs just aren’t that great for me because they take so much time. Once I’ve seen the basic mechanics of such a game, I’m not particularly fascinated with the idea of spending 100 hours to see what content they will throw at me afterwards.

As someone who has done extensive research on gaming, do you find it difficult to separate gaming for pleasure and gaming for research?

I certainly have games that I need to play for specific research purposes, and I have games that I play to keep up with what’s happening. Then I have games that are guilty pleasures, but they often end up in the research anyway: the fact that I’d consider a game irrelevant to my research may mean that I need to think about my research in a different way!

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

Most of my writing has been about video games, so it’s hard to pick the two apart. I would say that my experience programming video games has meant a lot for my work habits in terms of structuring what I’m doing. Lately I have tried to use some of the motivating factors from video games in my writing: I will divide a writing task into a large number of subcomponents such as “fix the transition between section two and three”, “make outro more interesting”, or “introduce theory up front”. Then I know what to do, and then I can tick off my todo list quickly, giving me that “ah, yes, ding!” rush that you also get from playing video games. In effect, I am trying to make writing as satisfying as playing video games.

Would you have any words of advice for aspiring writers wanting to publish articles or books on video games?

If you want to write academically about video games, you should think about what you are bringing to the table; do you have a background in a specific discipline that hasn’t been applied to video games? If so, you should think about how that can be useful, and how to demonstrate that your background is useful and relevant to everybody else. Then you should read what’s been written before. There’s probably 20 books and 50 papers you need to read, but set aside the time for that (and perhaps learn speed reading). There’s nothing worse than people who haven’t even bothered to use Google scholar to see what’s already been written. Find something that’s interesting or unresolved and figure out what your personal take is on it. Then build your argument using sound theory so you can convince everybody else.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer audience?

Photo credit: Jesper Lagerberg

I think it’s an exciting time to play video games and to think about video games. Just a few years ago, it seemed that we knew when video games were: they were products sold in boxes providing 10 to 40 hour experiences. Now, with casual games, with digital distribution, with art games, with indie games, with cell phone games, we have an explosion of game forms. It’s always great to try something that completely disproves all of your assumptions. I think it’s important to seek out those kinds of experiences.

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