• "In Space Alert you and your friends make up the intrepid (doomed) crew of a Sitting Duck class exploration vessel. The way these ships work is that they’ll jump into a comedically hostile sector of space, spend 10 minutes scanning their surroundings, and then automatically jump you back out again. A game of Space Alert only ever lasts 10 real-life minutes, and during that time it’s the job of the players to listen to the ship’s hateful computer (a CD which comes bundled with the game) as it reels off what threats are approaching and from where, and then prevent these threats from destroying you in an orderly and professional manner. Surviving isn’t necessarily that hard, but the professionalism part? Impossible." Space Alert is brilliant. Even if most of our missions involved us falling over a lot, because we forgot about the screensaver. Quintin summarises it nicely.
  • So, I began nodding my head a tad, but then halfway through it became clear that this is born out of a somewhat large chip on a shoulder, and that chip is primarily about "social games" (as they are commonly described), and that really, I don't agree with much of this. The "you" in question is quite narrow, and cheap shots like the notion that the title 'games consultant' has "an inherent tragic quality" don't help. Experienced, outside eyes often make things better. Does that mean there's going to be a cavalcade of barely-qualified games consultants in the impending gameificationpocalypse? Of course. Does that mean McCrae's point is true? Not really. Obvious disclaimer: I know several games consultants. They are all very good at what they do. They also bear no resemblance to what McCrae describes.

Things Rules Do

27 January 2011

The video of my talk from Interesting North is now online. Well, they beat me to finishing my transcript – which didn’t include the adlibs and diversions anyway.

Things Rules Do is twenty minutes that looks at games of all forms, and the rules and systems that make their skeleton. It’s about the weird things that rules can do, beyond “tell you how to play”, such as inspire mastery, encourage deviance, and tell stories. It was written for a general, interested audience – not specifically for gamers – and covers a few topics close to my heart. You might like it.

And, of course – thanks to Tim and the team for their work in getting this online.

  • "Trust is the key to breaking [this cycle]. And I think Talese’s method shows us how we might gain it: by checking with our subjects and making sure we understand what they’re trying to express, beyond what they actually say. Because if our subjects are interesting enough to report on, they’re deserving of respect. And if we respect them, they will respect us. That’s a much more virtuous circle." I think Alex is right, you know.
  • "Oregon Trail pioneering is basically the story of trying to get 500 pounds of jarred bison over the border before succumbing to necrotising poison from eating the wrong kind of strawberry. It’s the story of dying at Chimney Rock with bits of Conestoga wheels lodged in your skull. When you look into the Trail, the Trail looks back into you."
  • "If you were to rise before dawn on Christmas Eve, and walk down the empty Hackney Rd past the dark shopfronts in the early morning, you would very likely see a mysterious glow emanating from the workshop at the rear of number forty-five where spindles for staircases are made. If you were to stop and press your face against the glass, peering further into the depths of the gloom, you would see a shower of wood chips flying magically into the air, illuminated by a single light, and falling like snow into the shadowy interior of the workshop where wood turner Maurice Franklin, who was born upstairs above the shop in 1920, has been working at his lathe since 1933 when he began his apprenticeship."

The Story of a Lost Bomber

23 January 2011

It was History Hack Day this weekend. My friend Ben Griffiths scraped the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s register to try to contextualise the death of his great-uncle in World War II.

Before you read on, please do read his story. It’s worth your time.

Ben’s hack is intelligent and, as ever, he explains it with precision and grace. But really, it wasn’t the hack I wanted to draw to your attention; it was the story he tells.

Like many hacks at such events, it begins with a data, scraped or ingested, and Ben’s plotted it over time, marking the categories his great-uncle is represented by.

But data over time isn’t a story; it’s just data over time. A graph; or, if you like, a plot. What makes it a story? A storyteller; someone to intervene, to show you what lies between the points, what hangs off that skeleton. Someone to write narrative – or, in Ben’s case, to relate history, both world and personal.

I’m left, after all this, thinking of just how young these bomber boys were. Looking at this data has been a much more moving exercise than I was expecting.

I found it very affecting, too, but not just because I was looking at the data: I was looking at it through the lens that Ben offered me in the story he told. When you consider it’s the story of one tragic loss amid 12,395 others, you pause, reflect, and try to perhaps comprehend that.

In the end, I couldn’t, entirely, but I tried – and because somebody told me just one story, about one individual, his plane, and his colleagues, I perhaps came closer to an understanding than I otherwise might have. And, because of that, I’m very grateful Ben shared that single story. I’d call that a very worthwhile hack.

  • "Unless the behaviours and personalities of these things that compute are designed well enough the things that are not so good about them or unavoidable have the potential to come across as flaws in the object’s character, break the suspension of disbelief and do more harm than good. Running out of batteries, needing a part to be replaced or the system crashing could be seen as getting sick, dying – or worse – the whole thing could be so ridiculous and annoying that it gets thrown out on its ear before long." Lots of cracking stuff in this: designing personas, making personalities that aren't annoying, persona-design as role-playing or improv.
  • Lovely trailer from BBC America for Law & Order UK. Sadly, it illustrates roughly what the British trying to make American-style procedural drama looks like. Lots of slamming things down. And tea. (Although: they don't know what "knackers" means, clearly.)
    (tags: culture tv bbc )
  • "The iPad is an intensely personal device. In its design intent it is, truly, much more like a "big iPhone" than a "small laptop". The iPad isn't something you pass around. It's not really designed to be a "resource" that many people take advantage of. It's designed to be owned, configured to your taste, invested in and curated." On the assumptions built into devices, and what understanding them requires.
  • "Ships will subscribe to the service through a third party, and receive the latest copy of the book when they dock at port. They tear out each page, and apply the relevant changes to their paper maps with a pencil and transfer paper. They’re paper map diffs, if you like." Awesome. And, as Tom said, it's a beautiful book.
  • "Here at the Cow Clicker ranch, we've learned an important lesson about cow clicking: people don't just want one chance to click a cow every six hours. They want as many opportunities as possible to click a cow every six hours." And then Ian launches the API. And Connect. And everything else. And wins again.

Links & notes for this month