Posts tagged gaming
I’ve been a gamer nearly all of my life, but I became a Gamer at the tender age of nine, when classmates at school invited me to play D&D with them. My first character was a Barbarian with a Dune Buggy, and it was all downhill from there.
Like many geeks of my generation, large portions of my teen years were spent in front of dining room tables, consoles, and PCs, playing games of all types: video, board, collectible card, strategy, miniatures, and so on.
Wil Wheaton had a distinctively different upbringing than I did, having been a child star and all, but this thing we have in common: a great love for tabletop games. Wheaton brings this love to Tabletop, a web series where he invites friends and colleagues to hang out and play board games, card games, and strategy games. Wheaton has taken up a role of advocacy for these games, touting their ability to train critical thinking, strategy, teamwork, and to strengthen social connections. But rather than doing it in a Suzanne Somers “Please adopt this hungry d12. Just a quarter a day can help it get the crayons it needs to have clearly defined numbers…” kind of way, more a “this is really fun, let me give you the jist and then we will show you!”
The gameplay shown in Tabletop is intentionally heightened, as the players are clearly ‘ON’ in terms of giving a performance to maximize watchability, but it is usually not a huge stretch from an animated game between good friends.
One of the benefits of the show for me (and I hope many others) is the chance to introduce loved ones to the joy of tabletop games. I’ve bought several of the games featured (at my friendly local game store, of course), and shared them with my girlfriend, who is very gracious about sharing my passions, and whom I hope to turn to the Dork side of the Force (at least a little, if she wants).
I’ve embedded the first episode here to give a sense of the show.
What are some of your favorite tabletop games? Anything you think would be especially good for the show?
I think my life has just been changed by a book again. The last book that blew my mind this much was Henry Jenkins‘ Convergence Culture. I’m not counting novels right now, because fiction and non-fiction blow my mind in such different ways. This kind of mind-blowing is the one that is potentially career-changing (I want a career as a writer, but other careers along the way might be useful to pay the bills). More organized thoughts may come later, but right now I want to share my enthusiasm and talk briefly about some exciting things.
The author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World is Jane McGonigal, whom you might know from her TED Talk:
Reality is Broken is a continuation of the thread of logic that McGonigal puts forward in the TED talk and in support of her biggest dream: she wants to see a game designer win the Nobel Prize for Peace by 2032.
The book is a concerted effort to take a reader through many of the corners of game design and to show off each area’s lessons, and presents a paradigm which enables every person on earth to participate in saving the planet and the human race: Games. Gamers, she says, are humanity’s secret weapon in our struggle to survive, thrive, and protect our planet.
Disclaimer: I’m a life-long gamer. Some of my earliest memories are playing computer games on my dad’s lap, as we pushed our Commodore Amiga to its limits with games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Land of the Rising Sun, and more. I started playing D&D when I was eight, Magic: the Gathering when I was 11, and so on. I was too young to be a part of the first video-gamer generation, but I am totally a representative of the 2nd-gen gamer. From what I can tell, this book is written in no small part to people like me, lifelong gamers, as an inspiration and challenge to go out in the world and turn our gaming experience to achieve Epic Social Win. And for this gamer, the inspiration has certainly been successful.
It’s actually somewhat difficult for me to talk about this book, for several reasons. For one, it’s got a crapton of material and ideas contained within. McGonigal puts forward fourteen ‘fixes’ for reality based on various ways that gaming is superior to reality in letting us be more optimistic, more connected, more engaged and so on.
Here’s Fix#1, from p.22:
“Fix #1: Unnecessary Obstacles
Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use”
The idea here is that adding an unnecessary obstacle to a chore or job lets you take it from a chore, a burden, and turn it into a game with a challenge. I have dirty dishes, and they should be cleaned. I hate washing dishes, unless I add something to the task. If I challenge myself to do the dishes while dancing to my favorite music, or to do the dishes using the least water possible, filling a bowl and cleaning everything out of that one bowl of soapy water, or something in that mode, I take control of the task again — I’m doing dishes, because they have to be done, but I’m doing more than just the dishes — I’m playing a game and the result of that game is both 1) clean dishes and 2) A happier Mike (having played a game, set myself a voluntary obstacle and met it).
McGonigal talks a lot about positive psychology/happiness psychology, looking at the ways that we think we can achieve happiness vs. the ways that current science thinks we actually achieve happiness. Unsurprisingly (since she mentions it), games, especially social games that involve touch, are great for happiness. I found this section one of the most illuminating, since it covered an area not of my expertise (My formal psychology experience begins and ends with Psych 101, a class on brain chemistry).
As a game designer, McGonigal seems to approach her world in terms of problems, and ways to make games to solve them. When she was recovering from a concussion in 2009 and unsatisfied with her rate of recovery, she designed a game called SuperBetter to help her take control of her own recovery and restore a sense of power. The game asks the recovering person to conceive of themselves as a superhero, their disease or injury as the supervillain, and to recruit allies to round out your team, identify power-ups which can help in recovery (taking a walk, doing things you love that aren’t effected by the injury/disease, etc) and making a superhero to-do list of things that will let you feel good about yourself, set goals to aspire to (gather enough energy to go out and do X).
SuperBetter let her ‘gamify’ the recovery process, taking control and empowering herself by applying an interpretive framework that cast herself as the heroine, possessed of the motive and means to get better.
There are countless games, designed for various objectives, but they teach us many lessons. These lessons, McGonigal argues, equip us to tackle the world’s largest problems — we can take big big issues like peak oil and gamify them, applying a framework that will inspire, challenge, and enable people to be creative, innovative, and collaborate to find solutions together (the peak oil example comes from the game World Without Oil).
Not just any old game will save the world. But everyday games can still do things like let us feel powerful and accomplished. They can give us a way to stay in touch with friends or family, give an icebreaker for meeting new people, and countless other things.
Games, McGonigal argues, are a central facet of humanity, and one of our greatest tools. Now we just need to take all of the time and energy we’ve put into games, evaluate and acknowledge what it’s taught us, and put those skills to use on social issues, political issues, environmental issues, and more.
If this sounds like your bag, read the book, then consider signing up with gameful.org, a social-network/collaboration tool for game designers working to make ‘gameful‘ games.
On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)
It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.
It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).
The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.
As Jenkins says,
The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).
In the hands of fans
An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.
The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.
I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.
Benefits of the transmedia approach
Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.
The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.
A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.
Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.
The 2008 film Role Models stars Seann William Scott, Paul Rudd, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, and more.
Scott and Rudd are Danny and Wheeler, promoters for the Minotaur energy drink who end up doing stupid comedy things and get sentenced to do 150 hours of community service.
Danny and Wheelerare paired with youths in the Sturdy Wings program (in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters mode). The overall message of the film is ‘find something you love and be happy with it and with who you are.’
The part of the film most interesting to me is the depiction of geeks and geekdom. In the plot with Danny and Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin’ from Superbad). Mintz-Plasse is Augie Farks, a bespectacled teenaged role-player who does boffer LARPS (Aka hitting your friends with padded weapons).
Augie’s mother and step-father/mother’s boyfriend look down at Augie’s hobby and want Danny to help them bring Augie into the ‘real world’ — but they do so without having ever gone to watch Augie at LAIRE (Live Action Interactive Roleplaying Explorers). Danny too is initially put off by Augie’s hobby, but after watching and then partaking, he sees the ways that LAIRE provides a social outlet for Augie, allows him to channel his passion into something that encourages exercise (even light exercise) develops skills (Augie sews/embroiders a badge for Rudd to wear), and is the place where he sees his crush, Esplen/Sarah. Danny urges Augie to talk to Esplen/Sarah rather than just longing after her from afar.
Overal, the representation of geekdom and boffer LARPs is even-handed to positive. The people involved are clearly having a great deal of fun with their hobby, with a large, active, and welcoming community. Some take things very seriously, to the detriment of others’ experience, but that happens everywhere. Danny’s embracing of LAIRE helps bring both pairs together at the end. Augie’s mother and step-kinda-not-actually-father see the group playing at the end, see how much it means to Augie, and come to appreciate it (and him, for who he is).
There’s a great exchange between Danny and one of the LAIRE players that captures the fun aspects of LAIRE and the hobbies it represents:
Warrior: I’m DEAD I’m DEAD!
Danny: Sorry, Sorry.
Warrior: Fun though right?
Danny: It’s a blast!
Warrior: Contagious! I know!
Warrior: Come back next year, we need people.
Warrior: Give me you email!
The warrior then remembers he’s been killed and over-acts his death.
In the battle Augie saves his crush Esplen from being killed, kills the King, and is finally killed by Esplen at the very end while he was celebrating his victory over the King. At the bonfire party after the war, Augie goes over to Esplen to congratulate her. Esplen/Sarah asks him to be her King (since she’s now the Queen), and then he kisses her. It’s all very cute awkward adolescent geek romance.
Augie’s part of the story is precious at times and fairly simple, but I’m happy to have more representations of geekdoms where the geeks are clearly humanized and their hobbies seen not as something to out-grow, but something to be enjoyed. Not that LARPs are all automagically wonderful and not that I think people should only be involved in LARPS/gaming/fantasy, but I’m pleased to identify Role Models as part of a more positive/realistic representation of geek cultures in mainstream media.
Leverage has arrived on TNT, and we’ve now had four episodes (the pilot which I discussed earlier and three more).
As the show settles into its digs, we can see what the series is likely to look and feel like in an ongoing fashion. Leverage is clearly over-the-top, trading mimetic realism for the joyous fun of heist and con-man action where Awesomeness is a clear and present aesthetic agenda.
In “The Two-Horse Job” and in “The Miracle Job,” the characters’ backstory is central both to the reason for the team taking each case and also plays out in the interpersonal drama between the leads and the guest-star clients. Other characters’ investment in the individual jobs waxes and wanes based on their personal beliefs regarding the lines which the team has to cross along the way, which keeps the procedural formula from growing stale.
Leverage plays like a 21st century A-team, but instead of being a group of ex-special forces soldiers, the show draws more upon the caper, heist, and do-gooder fixer traditions of series including Mission: Impossible, Burn Notice and films like Ocean’s Eleven, among many others. The characters are a WASP-y ex-insurance claims investigator, a black geek-chic computer hacker, an Autism-spectrum super-thief, an actress who is abysmal in productions but inspired in confidence games, and a wise-cracking thug. The actors bring enthusiasm and oddity to their characters, making sure that each character is just a couple degrees off-center for their archetype.
We’ve also been introduced to an ongoing antagonist for the characters in Jim Sterling, played by Mark “Badger” Sheppard. Sterling is a worthy opponent for our team, having taken over in the job formerly held by Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton), the team’s leader.
One of the main reasons the show is compelling is that for all the heroes’ schemes and plotting, things keep going wrong. They have a good idea which goes much further than intended, and then they need to come up with a new scam to un-do the earlier scam. This scrambling and reversal forces the characters to go out of their comfort zones, improvise, and get into more trouble.
Table Talk and The Joy of Planning
The show also plays like a tabletop RPG game, unsurprising since the show and certain traditions of tabletop play draw influence from the same sources. Each character is an expert in their niche, they have diverse and intriguing backgrounds, and most of all, they bicker and banter over planning in a way that is highly reminiscent of any number of gaming sessions where characters spend more time thinking of the plan than actually executing those plans.
And here’s the thing — in a caper/confidence game situation, the planning is one of the most fun/exciting things. The architecture of a scam, the construction and unfolding of a human Rube Goldberg machine provides one of the main aesthetic thrills of the narrative mode which Leverage makes its home territory.
Where shows like LOST have used extended flashbacks to provide B-plots for episodes, portraying characters at different stages of their life to show character growth or lack therof, Leverage often goes for quick flashbacks to provide punchlines to jokes our to counter-point/undermine what a character is saying in the present. Leverage‘s flashbacks are more mad-cap, and provide a fair amount of the sjow’s Over-The-Topness.
Leverage is a show to watch, and has the benefit of Prime-time cable-drama ratings expectations rather than Network Prime-Time expectations. I doubt Leverage will ever be a big hit, but it may be able to achieve a strong following based on its quirky and compelling over-the-top caper action.