Five Things I’m Thinking About

25 July 2010

Everyone’s doing it, so let’s get this out of the way.

1. Games Literacy

Almost certainly top of the list: this topic has been bugging me for a long while now, and I’m slowly finding ways to express what I mean by it. In a nutshell:

The standard of literacy around/about games is pretty bad. By which I mean: the understanding of games as games. What does that cover? It covers the understanding of them not as “movies with choices” (although they may have a narrative or plot), but as things in their own right, built around systems and players, and the interactions thereof. This isn’t about raising the standard of capital-C Criticism, as seen in magazines and papers and countless blogs around the internet; it’s about making lower-case-c criticism more prevalent, better understood, and even possible.

Also: there’s something about Alan Kay’s explanation of literacy, namely, the ability to read and write in a medium. Read-literacy is better than ever when it comes to games; write-literacy is perhaps worse than ever. How do you go about solving that?

In a nutshell: what does literacy for a systemic medium look like, and how do you go about improving it or educating it? How can we claim to be literate when we still need to remind professional games developers that “Theme Is Not Meaning“?

(I cut a vast chunk of exposition and further analysis here, and I’ll put it together in another post shortly).

2. Asymmetric systems and games

I talked a bit about Waldschattenspiel (video here) at Wonderlab, and it left me thinking a lot about asymmetric games and systems that, whilst asymmetric are, nevertheless, fair. To keep using games as an example, for now: games that offer the players different (though sometimes complementary) skill-sets, sometimes differing in capability, sometimes in power – and yet manage to be fair, well-balanced systems.

There’s something delightful in discovering the power in what initially felt like an inherently weak position. There’s something lovely about affording all the players different capabilities, that slowly turn out to be useful. It’s very easy to make a balanced system by simply mirroring capabilities – and it’s a very easy system to “read”. But I think the more satisfying ones are asymmetric, where series of rules interact with each other, and more delightful to be part of.

I’m trying to work out how that applies to systems that aren’t games.

3. Text Adventures / Interactive Fiction

I’m a self-confessed IF fan, even if I’m not as up-to-date as I was. When Peter asked me for a quick tour of the genre, I ended up playing a whole pile of adventures again and got sucked in. There’s so much invention and great writing buried in this genre, and it’s a real joy to find its gems. And, of course, it got me thinking about what I could do with the genre…

…which is why I now appear to be writing a text adventure. Or rather: before I can write the one I’d like to, I’m writing one about tidying my flat, purely as a learning exercise. It’s turning out to be surprisingly challenging but also great fun – in part because Inform 7 is a surreal joy to write. Here’s some sample code so far:

The bedroom window is north of the bedroom. It is scenery, a door and open.

Instead of examining the bedroom window:
  if the bedroom window is open, say "The bedroom window is open. [first time] A gentle breeze wafts through the bedroom. [only] Through the glass, you can see [description of the neighbouring gardens]" in sentence case;
  if the bedroom window is closed, say "The bedroom window is closed tight. Through the glass, you can see [description of the neighbouring gardens]" in sentence case.

Marvellous.

4. A history of music through preset sounds

Talking to Pat and Momus at Wonderlab last week, I hit briefly on the idea of a history of music through preset sounds: the default timbres built into electronic instruments, before they become edited or overwritten by musicians. This is mainly a product of the digital era, when preset memory became possible, but it has a nice: from original Mellotron tapes, through default disks with early samplers like the Fairlight or Synclavier, into the 80s and the FM synthesizers (and all those DX7 presets – the pianos, the basses), and then into the PCM era.

But, of course, there’s a separate history: one of the original sounds being sampled by musicians who couldn’t afford the real instrument; one of entire records being sampled, presets from one era burnt into the music of another; one of software and hardware being capable enough not to sample but actually model or emulate the instruments in question; and right up to the restoration and repair of old instruments – or the way circuit-bending takes old presets and makes them eternally new.

Mainly, though, I was thinking of a history of music seen through the TR-909 hi-hat – which is a sample, not analogue, a cymbal played in a studio somewhere in the world and reproduced across music for thirty years – or Fairlight Orchestra Hit 5, echoing across music and soundtracks for generations.

5. Driving

This year, I completed my New Year’s Resolution for 2006 (and, frankly, 2009-present) by passing my driving test. I now own a small car and have become a driver.

And it’s really reshaped the way I see the world. The country is now a different shape, for starters: it used to be pinched around train stations, between which I could travel quickly, but then was reliant on cabs and lifts and walking. All of a sudden, places that were surprisingly tricky to get to are now trivial. And also: places that were quick to get to can now be slow, should I choose. (Thanks, Old Kent Road).

My requirements for the road system are now different: I now care more about the A-roads I might have to take than when really, the only roads I needed fixed were in Southwark, making my bus rides bumpy. My requirements of the economy are different: I don’t feel great owning a petrol-powered car in 2010, especially as I watch two oil spills on opposite sides of the world, but I recognise the convenience I’m buying at a cost. I love trains (when they’re on time), because I like the views, and I work surprisingly well on them. I can’t work in the car, but I gain agency and a strange kind of relaxation.

And, of course, the systems return. It took driving alone to understand it: driving isn’t an action you perform, it’s a system you join. Traffic is lots of people driving all at once, and as long as they all roughly conform, not much bad happens. Driving’s frightening at first, because it feels like everything is on you: you have to be perfect all the time. But in fact: everyone else is juggling that responsibility as well, and we all make up for other deficiencies, and a system slowly emerges. The point of the driving test is not to assess perfection: it’s to assess if you’re good enough to be part of the system. And then the system takes over, and you fit in with everybody else.

As Jeff Noon pointed out in Pollen, the cars are the map. It took learning to drive, and doing it, to realise what that really meant.


And that’s my list, I think. A bit long, but definitely what’s on my brain right now, and a rough glance at what thinking about it feels like to me.

(Yes, there are no comments on this post. Feel free to email me, or link to this, or talk about it in your own space. These are very unformed thoughts that require further thought. I’m interested in discussion, but as a furthering exercise, not footnotes)

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