Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Posts Tagged ‘Reading the text’

Reading the text: an interview with Michael J. Ward

Posted by Randolph Carter on May 26, 2011

Michael J. Ward is the author of DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow. In this interview we talk about his extensive gaming background, what sets his book apart from other traditional gamebooks, and what his plans are for the future of the DestinyQuest series. Enjoy.

For more information, visit the DestinyQuest website.

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For those unfamiliar with gamebooks, could you take a minute and explain what DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow is?

DestinyQuest is an epic fantasy adventure where you play the hero. The story is written in a ‘choose your own adventure’ format so, as a reader, you are given various choices to make at key moments of the story, and asked to decide what happens next. You then turn to the corresponding page to discover the outcome of your choice. Basically, it’s an interactive game in a book.

And so what would you say sets DestinyQuest apart from the rest in this genre?

Gamebooks haven’t really moved on all that much. They rose to prominence in the eighties with the Fighting Fantasy series, when Dungeons & Dragons was also very popular as a table top role-playing game. Fighting Fantasy was really seeking to capture that table top experience in a book. Most gamebooks since have stuck to that model, with varying degrees of success.

With DestinyQuest, I wasn’t setting out to write a gamebook in that mould. Which might sound odd. I didn’t have a eureka moment and go ‘You know what, a gamebook is what is missing from my life’. Instead, I was drawing off my computer RPG experiences. Being something of an MMO addict, I wondered why no one had tried to capture a experience like ‘World of Warcraft’ in a book – to give the sense of being in a world where you make the decisions, but you’re also ‘levelling up’ and fighting monsters and getting loot.

Once I’d roughed out my ideas, I realised that DestinyQuest was indeed a ‘gamebook’ – but a gamebook written for a completely new generation, one which was used to playing computer and console games, and probably more inclined to pick up a controller or a mouse than sit and read a book. There was my challenge really – to make something relevant to the gamers of today; something they could understand and identify with.

And then convince them that rolling a bunch of D6 is cool and hip. Yep, quite a challenge.

I take it there will be more books in the DestinyQuest series?

I have plans for seven books at the present time. Whether they ever see the light of day really depends on the market. I’m already committed to doing a second book (well, I guess I have to, as the first one has ‘Book 1’ emblazoned on the cover!) but after that it’s down to sales. At the present time, DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow is a self-published title, but I hope that a larger publisher might descend like a guardian angel, and help me to promote and develop the series further.

Why did you decide to go down the self-publishing route with the first book?

It was frustration, more than anything. My agent had taken the book around publishers and we’d met with a fair bit of interest – but due to tightening purse strings, I think publishers saw it as too much of a gamble to take on in our current gloomy economic climate. After all, why take a gamble when you’ve got another two-hundred Twilight clones to get out the door, right? ;)

In all seriousness, I think it came down to the fact that publishers saw the whole ‘gamebook’ thing as over – or something that can only exist on a digital platform. I think they missed the point of what I was trying to do with DestinyQuest, which was to get people away from their monitors and television screens – experiencing something interactive and game-like, but also promoting reading and using one’s imagination. Call me crazy…

I’m hoping the continued success of DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow will encourage publishers to be less dismissive of gamebooks as a genre. When you’ve got a readership from ten-year-olds to people in their seventies (I kid you not!), I feel that is pretty compelling evidence to suggest that the market is out there and it is very strong.

From what I’ve read your second offering will be even more ambitious. Could you talk a little bit about what we can expect with subsequent volumes?

There is a tendency with sequels to over-egg the omelette. You’ve only got to look at most film franchises to see that subsequent films in a series rarely live up to the first; usually because they are trying to do what the first one did but just throw more, more, more at it!

Well, it is always a risk, but DQ2 is very much fitting into the ‘more, more, more’ mould; however my challenge is to make the new additions fit seamlessly into the story/game system without overwhelming new players or turning away the existing fan base.

Certainly, on a basic level, I’ll be fine-tuning the paths (warrior, rogue and mage) so that they play more differently than they do now. Warriors will be more hard-hitting in combat – generating more damage dice, rogues will have greater opportunities to modify existing dice rolls and influence outcomes – and mages will get access to powers that can throw up more dangerous combos and damage bursts, but with potential trade offs. I want the game experience to feel quite dynamically different, based on the path you have chosen.

The story in DQ2 is probably a little darker in tone and more involved than the first – but I certainly want to keep the fun elements there too. On top of that, you will also have more ‘advanced’ challenges for experienced players, which includes the co-op game play feature, where heroes can team up to take down epic boss monsters.

I’ll admit, at one point in my life I considered it a source of pride that I had never seen E.T. However, after reading about your own experience with the film, I’m rethinking that a bit. This was your initial exposure to Dungeons & Dragons, right? What was that experience like?

I think today’s cinema audiences are more demanding of their movies – they seem to want ever more complex story-telling experiences, with special effects bombarding their senses (well, with 3D… I guess quite literally). I can understand why some people might consider a cheesy film about a kid finding an alien and helping it to ‘…go home’ as a little saccharine for today’s tastes. But what

Spielberg did with that film, which is pretty damn skilful as both a director and a writer, is to make you care for a puppet. I mean, if you don’t cry buckets over that film then you’ve got a heart of stone!

Sorry, I digress. Forget the alien – even though he is cute. What made this film memorable for me was the scene at the start when Elliot, his brother and his mates are playing Dungeon & Dragons. I’d heard of the game and seen some of the lead miniatures – I didn’t really know what it was, but I was certainly intrigued and wanted to know more. Then I saw the scene in ET and that was pretty much it. Seeing the wooden maze, the miniatures of the heroes and monsters, listening to some of the geeky talk, I was sold.

Although, when I found out that you had to buy all the miniatures separately… oh boy, that can destroy a kid. But I got over it – and D&D proved the start of a very long and rewarding hobby – and I’m sure Games Workshop (with their countless board games and war games) ended up doing very well out of me, thank you very much.

Going back a bit, what has your own gaming experience been like?

Well, I became a regular at my local Games Workshop – this was back in the day when they were ‘nice chaps’ and actually sold third-party products as well as their own; so it was the one-stop shop for all your gaming needs. I must have bought and played nearly all of their board games – each one superbly designed. Stand out titles for me included Battlecars (remember the god awful computer version?), The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (of course!), Block Mania and Blood Royale.

And then there was Talisman. Possibly one of the greatest board games ever. That ate up a lot of hours, believe me.

I dabbled with table-top RPGs but it was always such a pain to find people who a) knew what a RPG was, b) knew the rules for your games system or c) weren’t likely to beat the living daylights out of you for being ‘you know, a bit strange’. Setting up and playing games was more time consuming than the actual playing (I think I was just unlucky). So, that is why I was always more inclined to play computer games – which rapidly took over my ‘hobby time’. From the earliest days of the Spectrum 48K through to today, I’ve played most RPGs, FPS and RTS titles. There is nothing better than cracking open those boxes, loading up the game for the first time and jumping in. Usually, disappointment arrives shortly after – but occasionally you come across a few gems that remind you why you still invest time and money in the hobby.

You’ve mentioned on your site that you have been an avid MMO player for many years now. Would you mind talking about this?

I’m probably like a lot of people in that I discovered online gaming through my love of Warcraft. I played the original RTS titles more hours than could ever be deemed sensible (Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos still remains one of my favourite games of all time) and the idea that I could now take one of these characters into an online world was just too compelling to pass up. On top of that, I love the style and art direction of Warcraft; turning that into a 3D game world… who wouldn’t want to experience that? Well, as we now know, about 11 million people. If that isn’t the greatest gaming achievement in history then I don’t know what is.

Before then, I always viewed the whole ‘online thing’ as something a bit scary. I mean, why on earth would I want to play and interact with other people when I spend most of my time ‘getting away’ from other people so that I can game? It never made sense… until World of Warcraft made it completely make sense. It was a good while before I got into the whole ‘guild and raiding scene’, but once that happened, the game pretty much took over my life.

At one point, I was playing World of Warcraft 40-50 hours a week. I have an obsessive-compulsive personality, so throw me into a world where you’re given a thousand ‘carrot on a stick’ opportunities for grinding and raiding, then I really didn’t stand much of a chance. I don’t ever regret spending that amount of time on the game; I have fantastic memories of that time – mostly 40- man raid nights – where, as a guild, we had great camaraderie and enmity for one another and what we wanted to achieve… I don’t think I’ll ever experience that level of shared commitment again in gaming or indeed any other medium.

Good things always come to an end. For me it started when World of Warcraft launched its first expansion ‘The Burning Crusade’ and broke up pretty much 95% of guilds on our server (the raiding limit was changed from 40 players to 10 and 25). A lot of really good players and friends left at that time. Like most obsessive Warcrafters, I’ve stuck at the game until Cataclysm, but it has never been the same. To be honest, the format is looking a little dated and tired now anyway – it needs a new direction; it needs to recapture the spirit and innovation of the original.

So, I’ve naturally dabbled in other MMOs, looking for a similar fix. Out of those that I have tried, the Lord of the Rings MMO is probably one of the best in my mind. Turbine did a fantastic job of translating the look and feel of the books… Which is exactly what I had been hoping for, with Warhammer Online. You can’t really get a more detailed and distinctive franchise, steeped in lore and great characters. That MMO should have been the next Warcraft, but for me (and I think a lot of others) it was something of a big disappointment. Age of Conan also.

What MMOs are you currently playing?

None, it might surprise you to hear. That’s really a time issue for me at the moment, but also boils down to the fact that there is nothing out there at the moment that feels innovative and new, or I haven’t already played until my eyes bleed.

There are a spate of new MMOs on the way and I am certainly intrigued by some of these titles. In particular, Guild Wars 2. I like their design approach – the whole idea of immersing you in a world where you feel you have an impact on what is happening around you; something that feels more organic. Warhammer Online tried it with the public quests but they were a bit of a disaster, in my opinion. It sounds like Guild Wars 2 might have cracked it – I’m really excited to experience what they have come up with.

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?

It depends how well written it is and how it is integrated into the game. Let’s take World of Warcraft as an example. I love the game, I love the lore – but really, because the story is presented in such a fragmented way, and often you really just want to get a quest done and move on, there is a tendency to click through quest text and never read it – or scan it in a couple of seconds. As gamers, I don’t believe we want to sit through reams of text. It breaks the flow.

It also happens a lot in RPGs and point-and-click titles (such as Dungeon Siege, Titan Quest, Diablo), where you’ve been slashing and blasting your way through countless mobs, your adrenaline is pumping, you are desperate for a bigger challenge and some better loot and…. <wham> you are hit with a faceless, expressionless npc who seems intent on reciting the whole of War and Peace to you, providing some convoluted reason why his cousins half-sister’s mother needs you to help save the world… again. Inevitably, after a while, you are going to hit the <skip> button.

This, as you might have guessed, is a real bugbear for me. Storytelling should be seamless – it should flow with the gameplay. I think games like Dragon Age and Oblivion do it very well (although there can be a tendency for the whole ‘War and Peace’ scenario to rear its head again – but at least you have voice actors instead of text windows). This is something I am very conscious of when writing DestinyQuest. I don’t believe players/readers want to read pages and pages of background text. If a story is told well, then you shouldn’t be pulled out of the experience. Think of it like screenplay writing; you might get the occasional ‘exposition scene’ in a movie but on the whole, the story is delivered through the main character’s actions – it is all told on the fly. That is why I think First Person games have the most potential for telling a great story; one where you feel it and experience it rather than being told it. Which is also why I do a /facepalm on occasion, when I play a FPS and the story is just so damn awful. You think, what a wasted opportunity. (And yes, Crysis 2 I am looking at you.)

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

Most definitely. I think gaming helps you to see scenes more viscerally; gives you the ability to imagine action in more inventive ways. And of course, DestinyQuest wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the countless hours I have poured into playing computer games; it was that experience – of playing a game – that I wanted to capture in the book.

Gaming also helps you to think about stories in a non-linear way – to explore the idea that readers don’t have to have the same experience going from A to B; that stories can be tailored to the personality and choices of the reader. I think, as technology develops and the potential for ‘interactive books’ expands and becomes mainstream, more writers will be approaching books as ‘non-linear experiences’. Imagine reading the latest P.D James, Robert Ludlum or John Grisham novel, for example, but instead of reading how the crime was solved or how the protagonist escaped a certain situation, it is the reader themselves who is helping to influence events and make important judgement calls – becoming more involved in the story; the environment. That could be pretty cool, if it was done well.

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

I think if there was ‘grind’ then you just wouldn’t do it – as there are certainly easier ways of making a living! You’re also talking to someone who really knows the true painful meaning of the word ‘grinding’ when it comes to MMOs and computer RPGs. Back in the day, I do remember running Stratholm (both sides), Upper Blackrock Spire and Scholomance (in World of Warcraft) about 50+ times each for my Shadowcraft armour set. The drop rates on some of those items were just so bad… and man, I became obsessive about getting them. I do remember going to bed at 4 or 5 am some mornings, having done dungeon runs all evening/night with nothing to show for it. Argh. But then, when you finally get your drops (I remember the darn Shadowcraft spaulders taking forever to drop for me), the sense of elation was just… geek joy.

But then, like all things – you are focused on the next challenge. And the amusing thing is, then I got massively into raiding, and got my nightstalker armour set in a 1/10 of the time it took me to get the dungeon set. So, really, those hundreds and hundreds of hours were ultimately for nothing. But good fun all the same. (I have to tell myself that, it’s part of the therapy…)

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

This probably relates to the above in that, when it comes to grinding in MMOs I know pain and I know dedication. I remember working on getting gold for my first epic riding mount (a swift stormsabre, if anyone is interested) – again this is back in vanilla WoW before everyone had about 100,000 gold and epics coming out of their eyeballs. I would put on my headphones, listen to some music and just spend hours farming mobs. To the point that I got reported several times by other players for being a BOT (an automated program used by gold farmers).

There was some crazy guy who /whispered me saying he had reported me: ‘You’ve been here like everyday; you’re here all the time. You’re a bot!! Good luck getting your account back, loser!’ (or something along those lines. He probably threw in a few rude words and a lot of misspellings too).

I replied back going ‘Are you crazy? This is me – this is what I do!’ He just didn’t seem to believe I wasn’t an illegal automated program. Until, of course, I duelled him, pwned him and then /danced on his corpse. Then he got the message.

That was actually a fine moment.

How do you tend to escape these days?

I wish I had more time to play games. I really don’t know where time goes – and I wonder if it is something to do with age. As you get older, time (or your perception of it) just seems to move so much faster. It makes me wonder just how I was able to spend so much time on MMOs in the past.  Perhaps it is all about priorities and those priorities are constantly shifting.

Michael J. Ward showing us his "game on!" face.

When I’m not writing or planning DestinyQuest, then escape for me is watching a good movie. I’ve always been an avid cinema-goer and DVD obsessive. I tend to watch a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, but also enjoy most other genres too.

Of course, I also like reading – but I’m a slow reader, which is a constant source of amusement to my girlfriend who can read about four books a week. Sometimes it can take me about four-six months to get through a book. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Occasionally, I stumble on a book that has me so engrossed, I’ll burn through it in a few days. But those are pretty rare.

Oh, I forgot to add computer gaming to that, but that is a given right? ;)

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

Sure. I guess I should never pass up the chance for a shameless plug! So, if you like computer games or you like table-top gaming – hell, even if you just live for grinding – then go buy DestinyQuest.

It might not get you all the way to Valhalla but hey… there’s gaming heaven in them there pages!  Game on!

(Did I really just say ‘Game on!’? That’s a shootable offense, no really…)

Thank you very much, Michael. Best of luck to you with DestinyQuest. Also, I’d like to thank Marty for featuring Michael’s book on his most excellent blog, Bullet Points.

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Reading the text: an interview with A. R. Rotruck

Posted by Randolph Carter on April 6, 2011

Amie Rose Rotruck is the author of Bronze Dragon Codex, one of the titles in Wizards of the Coast’s Dragon Codices series.  Her latest book, How to Trap a Zombie, Track a Vampire and Other Hands-on Activities for Monster Hunters, was also published by WotC and is now available.  I got the chance to ask her some questions about her writing and gaming experiences, what’s she’s up to now, and what she enjoys doing these days.  Hope you enjoy it.

For more information about the author, please checkout her website.

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I must admit, How to Trap a Zombie, Track a Vampire and Other Hands-on Activities for Monster Hunters is one of the coolest and most original ideas I’ve seen for a children’s book in a long time. Would you mind describing what the book is about, how you came up with the concept for it, and how it ended up at Wizards of the Coast?

I wish I could take credit for coming up with the concept, but alas, I can’t. I was approached by Nina Hess, an editor at Mirrorstone, about doing a book that would be The Dangerous Book for Boys meets Dragonology. I’d worked with Mirrorstone before on Bronze Dragon Codex and they thought I might be a good fit for this new book. I was absolutely over the moon about coming up with a proposal for the book, as I’m both a fantasy fan and craft addict. I thought of the book as a scouting guide for wizards and dug out my old Girl Scout Manual, as well as numerous craft books and The Dangerous book series. I sent in a proposal, which was accepted, and then I started writing it.

YWH ended up being a field guide to monsters with activities, games, and recipes that related to the monsters described in each chapter. There were also items about things that a monster-hunter would need to know, such as how to make a shelter or a lantern. I also threw some D&D basics in there, such as how to make a map and what type of people you want in your monster-hunting party.

Who did you have in mind when writing the book?

Myself at age 11. I would have LOVED a book when I was a kid. I was always going out in the woods behind my house and playing fantasy games in my head and I liked making things for my adventures, such as carrying pouches and wands. I would have loved a book that talked about making supplies for a fantasy world, but I had to content myself with some scout guides and books on colonial and Native American crafts. I hope that this book will reach young fantasy fans who enjoy pretending outside as well as indoors.

The book has a definite RPG vibe to it. How intentional was that?

I didn’t set out to have RPG tips in it, but I found that writing it as a scouting guide for a wizard naturally lent itself to that. For example, mapmaking is a skill that scouts learn in this world, so it made sense that wizards would need to know it too. From there it was a short leap to tweak the mapmaking section to easily translate to RPGs. It was a nice bonus and fit what Mirrorstone wanted with the book anyway.

You also “assisted” R.D. Henham in writing Bronze Dragon Codex. Would you mind talking a little bit about this book as well?

Bronze Dragon Codex is set in the Dragonlance world of Krynn. After I sent a writing sample to Mirrorstone, they asked me to come up with a proposal for a dragon-centric book from one of the characters from the Dragonlance: the New Adventures Series. I found Tatelyn, a girl in Dragonspell by Jeff Sampson. Her brother was killed by a zombie copper dragon that was raised by an evil sorceress. Since Tatelyn was so young at the time, I thought she could end up having a deep prejudice against all dragons, including the good metallic dragons. It was a short leap to pair her with a dragon who hated humans and see what would happen when they were forced to work together.

R.D. Henham takes the credit for the Dragon Codex books, but in reality they are written by the assistant scribes. It’s a fun job, even though the workplace is drafty and overrun with evil dragons these days.

You’ve mentioned that you were voted most likely to be eaten by a dragon in high school. Would you care to explain this?

I’ve been a dragon lover for a very long time, always reading and writing about them, and my classmates knew it. My school had some rather off-the-wall “most likelys” (one of my best friends was voted “most likely to adopt a British accent”), but I think mine was the absolute best and most fitting. I thought for sure that this would come true when researching Bronze Dragon Codex, but fortunately I’m still here.

Were you a big reader as a child? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

Very much so. I was a big fantasy fan, of course. Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain was my favorite series, and Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn remains to this day my favorite book of all time. I also liked Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, the Narnia books, A Wrinkle in Time and the sequels. I was out of college by the time Harry Potter arrived on the scene, but I know I would have loved those too; I certainly love them as an adult! I also was fond of what my one friend calls “little farm girl stories,” like the Little House and Anne of Green Gables books and I’m currently re-reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond, another favorite. I also was a fan of the Dragonlance books, so I’m very thrilled that I broke into the publishing world by writing one of them!

I’ve heard you’re a pretty slow reader. How long does it generally take you to finish an average length novel?

Hee, very funny. I’m actually quite a fast reader, which I assume you gleaned from my website. My claim to fame is reading the final Harry Potter book in a 2.5 hours (12:30 – 3 AM the day it was released). If I can read straight through, I can read a YA fantasy novel (I don’t often read adult novels) such as Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty or Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments books in 2-4 hours. It usually takes me longer, though, as these days I only read a bit before I go to sleep. I also usually am reading at least three books at a time, so I’ll read a chapter or two of one, then switch to another.

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 gamer dabbler. I’ve played some pen and paper RPGs over the years, and always enjoy a good board game, but months can go by without me gaming. Best RPG experiences I had were a few years ago when I’d get together with friends from two states and we’d spend the whole weekend gaming. Schedules unfortunately started getting in the way, so we’ve only been doing shorter and less complicated games lately.

I also like computer games, but I tend to like the simpler ones, such as the Lego Harry Potter and Indiana Jones games. My coordination is horrible, so I’m not a fan of games that require quick reflexes. I like watching them when people play, though, because some of the storylines are quite fascinating.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds?

Never been, actually, unless you count Frontierville on Facebook. I spend so much time working on computer between regular work (I’m an electrical engineer in my other job) and writing that I try to stay away from the computer for recreation.

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

I think any writer, especially fantasy writers, would benefit from gaming. It forces you to think through a story in mundane terms that are easy to overlook, such as how long it takes to get from point A to point B on an adventure. There’s also some acting involved in RPGs, and I think some acting experience, specifically improv, is also beneficial. It teaches you how to get inside a story rather than hovering over it. In my case, gaming also really helped because I ended up writing two books that were aimed at a gaming crowd and it was good to know the market.

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

I wouldn’t call it a grind, because I enjoy it, but I do a lot of scheduling when I’m involved in a project, especially ones with deadlines like Bronze and YWH. I start with the dates by which I’m supposed to deliver a project, and figure out how much I need to write every day to get a finished draft, and then have time to revise it. I love making spreadsheets so I can track my writing process.

When I’m working on other stories that I hope to market upon completion, I try to do the same thing, but it’s harder to keep at it. I’m a BIG fan of deadlines; for some reason they spark creativity!

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

The “ah ha!” moments. I LOVE working with a plot and then something just clicking into place. Finding the plot for Bronze when I met Tatelyn, for example, was an “ah ha!” moment. There were also plenty as I worked on different monsters and tried to find just the right activity to pair with each monster. Recently a friend suggested that I change the main character of a book I’m working on to male, as there aren’t many male protagonists in YA fantasy. I went with it, not because I wanted to make the book more marketable (although that would be a nice bonus!), but because it fit the story so much better that I was having “ah ha!” moments all over the place. That’s my latest writing project; changing the gender of my main character as I revise that story.

When do you find time to write?

Right now I’m trying to figure that out. My daughter was born about a week before Young Wizards Handbook came out and since then it’s been difficult to find writing time; been difficult just to figure out regular work time! But I’m starting to get back to it, I usually prefer having a bit of time after my husband gets home and can watch her to write before dinner. Sometimes I’m able to manage some writing time if she’s asleep, but that’s usually taken up with other, less fun chores.

BEFORE my daughter, I would try to write every day if I was immersed in a project. The key was in some advice I heard Stephen King give once: never a day without a line. If you just write one line a day, that keeps your mind in the story. Last year I was shooting for a page a day. Didn’t always get it in, but I did get a rough draft of a book finished between February and August.

How do you tend to escape these days?

A. R. Rotruck

Reading, of course. I love re-reading old favorites like the books I mentioned above, plus I’ve been reading Carrie Jones, Lisa Manchev, Maggie Stiefvater and all the wonderful YA fantasy that’s out there these days. Most recent book I bought that I’m reading is Carrie Ryan’s “The Dark and Hollow Places.” I’m also reading a lot of picture books to my daughter, which is so much fun!

I’m also a fan of crafts; I love crocheting mainly because it’s easy to do in front of the TV (another form of escape; but I find it difficult to just watch and do nothing). TV’s another good escape, especially because there’s so much good fantasy out there now. My current favorites are True Blood, Supernatural, both the British and US Being Human, and I’m really looking forward to Game of Thrones. I also like good action/crime/dramas like Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, Castle, Justified and Dexter. Survivor and anything with Gordon Ramsay are my guilty pleasures.

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

Read. Read a lot. Write. Write a lot. Try to write every day if you can, if only a sentence or two. Play. Don’t feel guilty about hobbies other than writing, you never know when they’ll turn into research for a book.

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

Keep playing and imagining. Outdoors is probably better for your physically, but both are excellent for you mentally. Just have fun with it and don’t take it too seriously. If your DM suddenly throws a blue knitted hat with snowflakes on it on the table, grab it and put it on, both in real life and in the game (this actually happened in a game my husband was DM-ing. Turned out to be a hat that could talk to the wearer and ended up being the funniest plot I ever ran across in a game).

And last but not least, when was the last time you rolled a twenty-sided die?

Last summer, before baby was born. Been far too long. :( I found a pattern for a crocheted twenty-sided die so when I get around to making that, that’ll probably be the next time I roll one!

Thank you, Amie.  Enjoy your little one and best of luck on your future writing endevors.

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Reading the text: an interview with Patrick Doud

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 14, 2011

Poet and first-time novelist Patrick Doud is the author of The Hunt for the Eye of Ogin, the first book in The Winnitok Tales series. In this interview we discuss some of Patrick’s writing, reading and gaming experiences and find out just how ancient he is (which unfortunately isn’t as ancient as me).

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Your first novel, The Hunt for the Eye of Ogin, is an epic fantasy which was published in 2010. What was that experience like for you?

It was a long, slow trawl writing the book, finding a publisher for the book, and bringing the book to print, so it felt good when it was finally done. It was also good to be able to turn my attention more fully to the next one. (Ogin is the first book in a series called The Winnitok Tales. The second book’s title is The Mornith War, and it comes out in May.)

Could you take a minute and explain what the story is about?

Ogin begins with an unknown power snatching up thirteen-year-old Elwood Pitch and dropping him in an alternate universe. In this other world he makes some friends, and from them learns of a lost demigod that might be able to help him return home. Naturally, locating the missing immortal requires a magic turtle shell (the Eye of Ogin) that might be found in a vast swamp ruled by a frog demon. Elwood and his friends go looking for the Eye.

Among other things, Elwood discovers there are unforeseen consequences to traveling between worlds. In the second book, which is set three years after the first, those consequences begin to play out.

The book is being marketed as young adult fiction. Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing it?

When it started I thought I wanted to write a book for children, but as the story grew that impulse became an unwelcome constraint. I abandoned it. Still, Elwood Pitch is a teenager, and I can see the sense in categorizing The Winnitok Tales as young adult.

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

Yes, I did read a lot when I was a kid. I remember being deeply involved with The Great Brain books and the Little House books. Then, when I was seven or eight, I came across a copy of Ozma of Oz at school. I’ve been partial to books about other worlds ever since.

This is not your first published work though. Would you mind explaining what else you’ve published in the past?

Three little books of (mostly) oblique poetry were published in the nineties. Two of them, Girding the Ghost and The Man in Green, were done by the wonderful Lee Chapman, editor and publisher of First Intensity.

Did you find moving from poetry to prose to be a difficult transition?

Yes, extended prose narrative was tough after years of poetry. But as far as practice goes, the two have more in common than not. For me at least.

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’ve always loved games. I have two older brothers and a younger sister, and we grew up playing all kinds of games. My brothers invented turn-based rules for toy soldier battles using dice and a ruler. We had a fair amount of Britains LTD soldiers and many, many HO scale … Creating settings for these games, forts and terrain, was one of the most fun aspects for me. We also played a lot of Stratego and Risk. And Battleship. When Atari came along we had a lot of fights over getting a turn.

When I was around ten or eleven–1978 or ’79–a friend’s older brother introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons. (This older brother also had a computer, on which he let us play Zork. We never got very far.) My friend and I were too young to play D&D with the older guys, but we managed to glean a sense of the game from their talk. I recall fantasising endlessly about the very idea of D&D before I ever played it. I borrowed a copy of Tunnels & Trolls from someone at school, and soon got my own copy of the D&D Blue Book. I spent a lot more time poring over these and designing dungeons than I did actually playing. Like so many others, I stopped playing altogether shortly after beginning high school. Whether this was because I was no longer interested, or thanks to nasty social pressures, or both, I can’t remember.

I played a lot of chess in college and a lot of 8 ball in the years after college. I still love those games, though I almost never play them anymore.

In the late nineties I fell into the clutches of pc video games. I still haven’t escaped. My favorite games combine FP perspective with RPG elements. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series (Ukrainian games based on the great Tarkovsky film, which was based on the scifi novella Roadside Picnic) does this very well, and is one of my favorites. I also love the Thief series. I like open game worlds: lots of choices, lots to explore. Not that I have to have it that way. Another favorite is the first Bioshock, which makes up for its linear, more limited world with delectable visuals and sounds (“atmosphere”).

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

I would say that. Most recently, while I was writing The Mornith War and wanting inspiration, I thought a lot about that golden age I just mentioned: the late seventies. It was such a rich period for my imagination. An uncle introduced me to J.R.R. Tolkien, the first Star Wars film came out, I discovered D&D… all within a relatively short period of time. While I was writing the latest book and thinking of those days, wanting to steal some of that magic and bring it back to the present, James Maliszewski’s “old school” RPG blog Grognardia was a reliable resource. Many, many posts helped me to reconnect with that time, and to retrieve memories that had been lost. I should thank him.

I’m not insinuating that you are a nerd, but if you were ever to aspire to become one, is there something from your past you wouldn’t mind sharing that would help in establishing you some nerd cred?

Something from my past…. Well, a while ago I got this letter from a gentleman called Randolph Carter asking me to do an interview….

Oh my…if that had been me, I would have shut down my computer and promptly drank myself into oblivion. Fortunately for us, that’s not what you did.  Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

Oh yes, there is grind. There are many days when I am uninspired, depressed, lazy … and the blank page/screen is as discouraging as a thousand miles of tundra to be crossed. The only way to get through those kinds of days is to keep writing–to grind away.

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

When the thing I need is granted me; when the story or the poem shows me the way forward.

When do you find time to write?

While my four-year-old is at preschool. He takes a dim view of anything having my attention that is not him.

 How do you tend to escape these days?

Armchair swordsman, Patrick Doud

I find lobbing a flash bomb then crouching in an alcove where my visibility gem shows black to be very

effective. Also, Miyazaki films. Depends on the situation.

You wake up to a world where The Hunt for the Eye of Ogin has been made into a pen & paper RPG. What character and/or class would you play and why?

It’s difficult to choose, but I’ll say a wolf truan scout. To be something other than human, and walk around in the woods a lot.

And last but definitely not least, when was the last time you rolled a twenty-sided die?

It must have been sometime in the eighties. Yikes, I’m ancient.

Thank you, Patrick. Best of luck to you on your future writing.

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Reading the text: an interview with Janice Hardy (pt. 2)

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 25, 2010

Here is another interview I did with Janice Hardy, author of The Healing Wars trilogy.  Her second book in the series, Blue Fire, has just been published and she’s currently in promotion mode.  I was happy to be one of the stops on her impressive blog tour.

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Last time we crossed paths you had just published your first book, The Shifter, which also happened to be the first book in The Healing Wars trilogy.  It appears now the second book, Blue Fire, has just been published.  Would you mind explaining what this latest entry happens to be about?

The story picks up a month after The Shifter ends. Nya and her friends are on the run, hiding from soldiers and the Duke’s trackers, and they realize the best way to stay safe is to leave Geveg. They get out, but not in the way they’d hoped and wind up in the enemy city of Baseer. Nya discovers that the Baseeri aren’t any better off than her people, and she gets pulled into the growing rebellion there. 

And where are you with the final book in the series?

It’s complete and with my editor, and I expect to get my revision letter to start on edits any day now.

You also have a story included in the recently published anthology, Eight Against Reality.  Would you mind giving us a synopsis of this tale and how you found yourself included here?

It’s called Man’s Best Enemy, and it’s set in a post-apocalyptic Atlanta after a viral outbreak kills off most of the county. Mutant dogs now rule the cities, and people are struggling to survive. The hero, Shawna, is a teen girl who steps in to take her brother’s place when he falls ill and can’t hunt the dogs anymore. And then of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong.

The anthology is a collection of stories by my critique group. We self published it as a marketing piece, and something fun to do. Almost everyone in the group is published (novels or short stories) and we thought it would be cool to have something we all contributed to.

Are there any other writing projects you’re currently working on that you wouldn’t mind telling us about?

I’m in the very early pre-planning stages for my next project, a YA fantasy about an undercover teen spy. I hope to start that one in January, but it’ll depend on when Shifter 3 is finished.

In your infinite spare time, what games are you playing these days (from the plugged in our even unplugged variety)?

Just finished Settlers 7, and I’m eagerly awaiting Fable 3 (I’ll have to fight my husband for the controller). I’m currently playing Civilization 5 — when I have time. It’s been very busy with the new release. I still play WoW on occasion, and have gotten addicted to the card game Munchkin. I’m not sure which is more fun — playing or just reading the cards.

Are there any online games that have their hooks in you, or at the very least, you’ve got your eye on?

Nothing grabbing me at the moment, but I’m looking forward to DC Universe. The preview trailer looked amazing, and I hope the game is just as good. I could really use a new MMO to dive into.

Last time you provided us with a wonderful story from your EverQuest days. Would you happen to have another gaming anecdote up your sleeve you wouldn’t mind sharing?

Let’s see… I think all my best stories are from my EQ days. One night, we were with the guild doing a raid in Howling Stones. I was playing my enchanter, and the guild was trying really hard to get me this beautiful green robe off one of the bosses there. We’d been at it a while, and were in between spawns medding up and taking a much needed break.

Our tank had to log out for a minute to fix a glitch. My husband came up with the great idea for everyone to run around the corner and hide so when the tank came back, he’d be all alone in a room about to pop nasty skeletons and undead. I think we even had to clear the hallway to do it, so we were rushing to kill off the baddies before he could reboot.

We make it and the tank logs back in practically seconds later. It’s quiet, then we see…”uh guys? Helllllooo? Where’d everybody go!” We all come charging around the corner and for just a second he thinks he’s being mobbed by a train. He was about ready to kill us. I wish we’d had Vent back then, because hearing him actually call out for everyone would have been hysterical. 

He eventually forgave us. And I got my new robe! Even if our tank kept pretending to loot it just to get back at me. But we kinda earned that.

Is there anything else you’d like to leave us with? 

Blue Fire is in stores now, and the paperback of book one, The Shifter, is also out. You can order both through my website or visit any bookstore on or offline.  You can even read an excerpt from book one here.

Thank you, Janice.

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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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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: 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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