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Jun. 27th, 2014


Once Upon a WTF

Okay, so generally I've been getting pretty into "Once Upon a Time", and though the dialogue is terrible terrible terrible, the plotting is interesting and many of you know my love of retellings and it's pushing a lot of buttons so don't judge.
[Spoilers for stuff that is already rotten, believe me.]
Until.  The Snow White/Prince Charming storyline, which in its attempt to do both Destined Love and analogies between Story Book and Storybrooke has completely supported and excused protagonists lying to each other and cheating on each other with the complete commendation of the show.  Prince Charming trying to cheat on his wife (who might be Cinderella and the daughter of King Midas, I'm a little fuzzy here) because they were coerced into marrying but oh, it's okay because she's not pregnant, thank goodness.
Disney, did you write yourselves into a corner here?  And are you really about to resolve this by fridging the wife?  Oh, I hope these synopses are misleading me..

Jan. 30th, 2014


Oh well.

[Spoiler (click to open)]They threw beams of light at each other until a deus ex machina Jenora became the pesky light inside the darkness and was extracted to recreate Rava without destroying Jenora WHAT
Oh well.
Tags: ,

Fixing Korra

While holed up with a pretty high fever, I dreamed/thought of a way to ‘fix’ some of my concerns with Legend of Korra Season 2: The Inevitable Light Vs. Dark Storyline. I have a ton of problems with it, as you can tell from my renaming, chief of which is how the main conflict boils down to The Ultimate Spirit of Good fighting The Ultimate Spirit of Evil.  I have several problems with this, most of which boil down to how irrelevant this storyline is, no matter where you see it:

Frustrations with good vs evilCollapse )

So in point #3, there might be a way out, though to get it we have to stop calling the two sides of the conflict Good and Evil.  For this to work, they’re two sides, one of which is inimical to human life and one of which is beneficial.  We could call those good and evil, though it’s really unlikely that good is universally good and evil is universally evil.

One of the lovely things about Avatar: The Last Airbender was that the conflict was a human one.  Balance meant something, and the health of the world depended on it.   There was no absolute good and evil — the Avatar was not representative of good, but was a force of balance.  While there are sorta problems with that, it allows for a conflict, and it does so on a human scale.

But I have come to fix Korra, not to mourn it.  Let’s acknowledge that Korra breaks the canon of the first series and is some alternate universe, because that’s absolutely the case.

Another way to look at itCollapse )

My WayCollapse )

This is not going to happen, but a fellow can fever-dream.  On to the last episode.


Sep. 5th, 2012


The Kavajava Post

If you've been following me on Twitter or Facebook for the last few weeks, you'll know that on finishing up Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy I got curious about kava root and, specifically, the 'kavajava' combination with coffee that appears in Green and Blue Mars.  In the series one character facilitates Mars' first real political convention, where they're drawing up the political architecture for the planet, by taking kavajava around and noting how it keeps people up during long days while also making them mellower and more likely to accept compromise and bonhomie for what it is.  I could use some of that in my own life!  However, I could find little about it written online ... so I decided to geek out and figure it out.  For a couple of weeks, I tried a sampling of different preparations of kava, with different preparations of coffee, both from different vendors.  I also did a bunch of internet research to make sure that what I was doing wasn't dangerous or illegal (spoiler: it wasn't). 

Intro to KavaCollapse )

Sources of KavaCollapse )

Kava PreparationsCollapse )

ConclusionsCollapse )

So my guess, especially since it's the future, is that the Martians use some sort of instant powder.  They grow coffee and kava locally, and process it by the fairly natural methods into that instant powder.  They make coffee by the usual methods, toss in some soy lecithin (since large fauna like cows don't come along until later), flavor it with cinnamon, chocolate, or other spices, then pass it around.  And that's where I'm settling, too.  I can sacrifice a small cup of coffee a day to instant kava, and the expense isn't terrible.

So if you want to do that, hop online, order some "Quick Kava Premium" from the Vanuatu Kava Store, and start mixing it into some half-cooled coffee with some creamer. … and let me know how it goes!

Mar. 25th, 2012


Musings around Tools as Distributed Knowledge

[crossposted from textuality.org]

I'm reading the forward to the very academic book The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, edited by Katie Salen as part of The John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning.  I've nothing to report on the book itself yet, but a synopsis from the Introduction brought two ideas together and set me thinking.

Loooooong post behind the 'cut.Collapse )

Dec. 6th, 2011


Games of Skill, of Chance, and of Labor

[crossposted to textuality.org]

There are many ways to categorize games, but one keeps coming up for me lately given the kinds of games I have been playing, and I haven't found a good concise post to link to. So here it is.

There is a classic dichotomy in game analysis between games of skill and games of chance.  Winning a game "of skill" requires performing or manipulating the game with greater aptitude than your opponent.  Winning a game "of chance" does not depend on the player's ability at all; success is determined by chance events along probabilistic lines.  As with any taxonomy, this breaks down if you try to be pure about it.  Few games, although many of our best-beloved, are purely one or the other.  Darts is a game of skill, and chance can be nearly eliminated with sufficient skill.  The card game War is entirely a game of chance, as is Roulette.  There may be some skill in betting sensibly in Roulette, but the results of even that are up to chance.  The line is almost always fuzzier, though, and when there are stakes, the split can be contentious.  A good way to draw a line is whether the outcome is determined by skill or by chance.

A couple of years ago, Eric Zimmerman and Naomi Clark gave a GDC talk that presented a third kind of game that has been seeing increasing relevance in the last half-decade: games of labor.  In games "of labor", what matters most is the time or effort that you put in.  Skill doesn't matter as much, as you will eventually win or succeed if you just put in enough time.  Note that I am not saying "if you practice enough" ... I mean, literally, that if you do something 100 or 1000 times, you will 'win', without regard to how well you did those first 99 efforts.  Chance doesn't matter in these games either, as the game is structured around the expectation of success given a certain amount of effort.  You know that reward will come on the 100th action, and not if you get lucky on the fifth attempt.

Note, again, that it is rare to see a pure game of labor.  In World of Warcraft, as in many RPGs, there are mechanics that work to make the game 'of labor': grind for long enough against enemies that are not meant to pose a threat, and you will accrue enough power in the form of abilities or equipment that once-difficult enemies may be defeated with dead-stupid tactics.  Skill in the game can be overcome with sufficient effort - a new but skilled player might be beaten by a less skilled player who has merely put in the time in the game, for instance by having the right equipment for the job.   However, skill makes that grinding labor unnecessary, and chance may cut the labor short by giving you what you want more quickly.  Regardless of the purity of the mechanic or the game, what is important from a design perspective is the expectation of what leads to success.

A major part of their GDC talk, as with earlier good discussion about skill vs chance, was about the mindset of the player and the expectation of reward.  Zimmerman and Clark noted that much of the motivation in games comes out of what the player strives for, what frustrates their effort, and therefore what success will mean to the player. A major part of this ternary distinction is what the fantasy of success is for the player.  When a player engages in a game of chance, the obstacle is the odds, and the fantasy for success is being fortunate, being the chosen one.  When a player enters a game of skill, the obstacle is the skill of the other players and the fantasy is of being the best at the game.

The fantasy that appeals is really important for why and whether you play the game - players aiming to prove themselves will be frustrated by a win that felt like it was "pure luck."  In games of labor, the fantasy is that regardless of your skill, regardless of luck, if you do the work, you will be rewarded.  The fantasy is that success is ultimately a matter of effort or time, and NOT your innate or developed talent or who you are or fate.

Nov. 13th, 2011


Farmville and Glitch: Exogenous and Endogenous Game Mechanics

I'm warning you, behind the cut is a bit of an epic post.  I've been playing a game called Glitch lately, and I'm really enjoying it ... despite the fact that so many of its core game mechanics felt invasive, insidious, and irritating when I played them in FarmVille and CityVille.  I was ready for Glitch to be terrible but with high production values.  I named my character after an Italian slang phrase for "that's disgusting/that sucks", gender-bent my character as far as I could, and waded in.  What I found was a fairly charming game that takes all the mechanics that Zynga uses to manipulate its players and their friends and turns the mechanics inward, back into the game rather than out into the real world, and in so doing redeems the mechanics themselves. In simpler terms, from a game designer's perspective, Glitch is doing the good (or even Good) version of the new mechanics that we learned from FarmVille.

Zynga's games are notoriously focused on two things - virality and monetization - pushing the player to spend money to finish getting that thing that they started.  Zynga games will do anything toward those ends, and in fact will do nothing that does *not* serve either of them.  In the process, they introduced us to a few mechanics that hadn't been used much before.  Glitch uses many of those same ideas, but keeps them within the game -- the activities are performed by the character, rather than the player, and that makes a world of difference.

One of the most notorious features of FarmVille is the Energy Meter.  As you play the game, you have a set number of actions that you can take before running out of energy, and you must wait real time to get more energy ... or pay real money, or beg your friends to send you free energy.  It is a hard "gate" to participating in the game, and the solutions reach out of the game - money from you as a person or requests from you as a person to your real-life friends.  As in a coin-op arcade, you must pay to keep playing the game, that's not objectionable; the odious particular comes in how the game prompts you to turn your friends' attention into quarters for you.  And that energy will run out pretty quickly, so you really are dependent on your friends.

Glitch also uses energy, but not only does it take a pretty long time to run out, there are many in-game items that refill it.  As with Zynga's games, waiting for real time (narrativized around in-game time as 'game days') gets you a refill.  However with the slower burn and the periodic refill, the effect is that if you spend a portion of your actions working toward getting food or working toward energy production, you can stay in energy indefinitely.  Also, though your friends can give you energy (as food items) in Glitch, a) there is no way to beg them for it, especially if they are outside the game, and b) if they give it to you, it comes out of their supply (in FV it is free).  

Let me repeat that for the sake of the next point: if your friend isn't playing Glitch right then, there is no way to beg them through the game. There is also no way at present to purchase energy directly with real money.  By tying the energy to objects which exist exclusively in-world, are producible in-world, and cannot be created by external activity, food and energy not only contributes to the integrity of the game world rather than kicking you out of it, it becomes part of your activity within the game.  You can specialize in different ways of producing energy-bearing items.  It becomes a *game* mechanic rather than a social/interpersonal mechanic.  

Then there's recruitment-for-progress.  Zynga's games place another hard gate on progress within the game around recruiting friends.  In FarmVille, you need a minimum of friends within the game to pass certain levels, to get certain items that are only obtainable from other people, and to make your farm larger.  You cannot get very far without recruiting for the game, no matter how kindly your in-game friends are to you.  Those 'neighbors' can be drawn from people that you don't know, but you must have them.  In Glitch, though, you are never baldly required to have connections.  There are optional missions that require you to interact with other players, but you don't have to connect to them in a way that requires approval, it's all in-game interaction.  You are rewarded for them with badges, but even those rewards pass most of Hecker's tests by being descriptive rather than prescriptive (not announced ahead of time), by being absolute rather than relative, by staying within the world, and by being optional/small.  Personally, I connected soon to friends who were already in the game (and those were the only options given to me, I couldn't reach out to new).  I only connected to people I didn't know once I'd done some altruistic actions in-game, whereupon passersby spontaneously added me.  Again, recruitment remains within the game, and you're not pushed to reach out.  This might just be during the game's beta period, but I like it and hope it continues.

Glitch even pulls messaging other people into the game.  Where FarmVille asks you once every 1-3 minutes whether you'd like to let your friends know about something (and lets you give them free items as you do), you have to work to send notes to other players in Glitch.  After the first tutorial message, you need to find an object to even send a message to a friend, and then you need to spend an in-game currency as postage ... and you still have to wait time for them to receive the missive.  This is the very opposite of spam; it's enough of a hurdle that it prompts you to go outside the game to another communication system.  As you choose what protocol to use to chat, your communication falls under the normal social mores for that communication.  It's not the game deciding what you do with your friend, reducing your contact to mercenary demands; you decide in every way how to communicate.  The effect of this is again to sharply delineate between activities that you undertake as a player and those your character undertakes within the world, and to thereby let the rules for each context operate cleanly.

Both FarmVille and Glitch have what has come to be called an 'appointment mechanic', but the ways in which they function could hardly be less similar.  FarmVille's entire game is wrapped around a variety of appointments, which it asks you to set for yourself, presumably so that you can meet the commitments.  Crops take time to grow, and the game uses that to get you to come back later rather than abandoning the game.  Furthermore, if you don't meet your commitment by taking too long to return, you'll find your crops dead, your investment in them wasted. In this way, the game colonizes your time as well as your money.

The appointment mechanic in Glitch is in its skill system, and so much less punitive it is barely an appointment.  Skills take time to learn, real-world time.  When the time has elapsed, your character has the skill, and you need to go in and set a new skill to learn.  But you don't have to set a new skill, and if it takes you three days to come back, well, that is potential skill-building time lost but no more. Generally, you will spend some of the wait-time fulfilling quests related to the skill you just learned.  The commitment is an optimization strategy, not a requirement for play, and that is underscored by making even the skills be fairly optional.  Skills just tighten up your play experience or extend it into new areas, they are not a requirement for existing in the world. You'll be reminded by email when you've finished a skill, but that's it.

Both games have land and an avatar that is yours and which you customize.  In both, you can even establish a farm that gives you resources on a schedule, and you can visit others' farms.  In FarmVille, there is a heavy emphasis on vanity or cosmetic customization.  Many if not most of the items in the game are not functional, they are cosmetic.  Many of the items even work against your progress in the game by taking land that could be "productive".  I think there are larger points that could be made about blurring the line between purchases for utility and purchases for vanity, but it is enough to note that the game revolves around customization and that extensive customization comes at the cost of functionality, driving players who are engaged enough to care further into real-world money to satisfy their desire to play.
Glitch, on the other hand, separates customization from functionality entirely.  Your farm in the game can barely be customized in a personal or vanity-focused way.  Choices you make on your plot of land and what appears there are strictly on what you want to have producing for you, what you want to maintain, and it is hard for others to even see it.  And then on the other side of the cost divide, customization of the sort that you can show off is about 80% dependent on real-world money.  Outfits for your avatar are divided into subscriber-only and free.  What this means is that there is another sharp divide.  Everything in the game is functional, and cannot be bought for real-world money; real money contributes almost exclusively to your avatar's non-functional appearance.

It is worth a moment's attention on Glitch's payment options, which are unusually clear in their focus.  All gameplay, everything within the game, is free.  You can play forever for free, and nothing functional is sealed away from you.  Payment gives you a bunch of stuff that applies fairly exclusively to you as a player rather than you as a character within the world.  A subscription gets you access to those vanity avatar items, a monthly allowance that can only be spent on them, a monthly allowance of teleports that save you-as-player real-world time walking through the world, and votes in player community referenda.  These are all things that help you as a player, and don't make sense in-world to you-as-character.

Finally, everything within Glitch is contextualized. There is a narrative, set in a world, the world has a geography, and everything has an explanation, whimsical though the explanations may be.  Tutorials are provided by a pet rock that guides you and gives you quests.  Rewards don't come from the game, they're given by that pet rock.  Advancement is judged by "giants" that also have personality, a motive, and which give your character a reason to be doing what you're doing.  When dialogs come up in discussion with the pet rock, the buttons for going to the next message have dialog "from your character", which gives your character a world-consistent voice and more clearly distinguishes you (and whatever you personally would have said) from the character.  Finally, the world is whimsical.  You get grain by squeezing chickens (who backtalk you as they seem to resent being squeezed).  You may water, pet, and harvest ... bubble trees.  There is correspondence to our world --you can expect to get meat from a pig, and you do-- but the manner in which the action happens is distinct to the world of Glitch and even supports the world's story.

FarmVille instead operates within our world and at every point links activity in the game to you as a player.  Characters don't have usernames, they have your personal (Facebook) name.  You visit farms that your friends run without any regard to geography (since the game couldn't model that well without providing a barrier to participation).  Wherever there is an activity to be learned, the game tries to simplify or model a real world equivalent - you shear sheep, harvest your crops with vehicles, which run on gas, etc.  I think that it's overreaching to claim that FarmVille <em>colonizes</em>your personal life, but it certainly works within the world that you live in and blurs the distinction between you as a player and your character within the game at every opportunity.  The result is certainly profitable, as it encourages you to tie your performance in the game to your identity as much as you are willing to.  Look at how much better your farm is than your friend's! Wouldn't you like to have a farm as impressive, as creative as that other friend's, even if it means chipping in a bit of money to speed the process along?

I want to note that I have no idea how this will work out for Glitch.  Zynga is brilliant at what it does, and has surprised the industry multiple times by making ridiculous amounts of money with these techniques.  They have colonized new markets and pulled in people who would not have identified as gamers before, even if they might have played a game now and then, or everyday.  Certainly, the way that each mechanic stays within the game rather than reaching out into the player's life means that players have more freedom to choose not to play the game.  They can get turned off by the story or the world.  They could find the actions within the game too weird or silly.  They could decide that they don't want to pursue the goals that the designers set in the reward and advancement system, and they can't replace those goals with personal investment as easily as they can in FarmVille where they are the character.  Glitch asks players to role play to invest, and many adults aren't comfortable role playing.  Finally, the "value proposition" in Glitch's business model during this beta period is very much for the people who care about the game, and doesn't aggressively seek conversion or monetization of casual players.  Glitch could end up as a very talented starving artist, doing beautiful things that only a few people find a way to pay for.

Overall, I found three things interesting about the differences between the use of similar mechanics between FarmVille, CityVille, etc. and Glitch.  Many of the same mechanics, by staying within the magic circle of the game (defined by the game, the site, and correspondence to you as a player), feed back into the game and remain gameplay.  They don't cross out into a player's real life, and thereby avoid turning the player's life into part of the game's publishing strategy.  I think that is much of why so many game designers feel like FarmVille is so terrible - there are all these neat new things going on in the game, but they are used solely to turn the player into part of the game, rather than to make a space for the player to ... play in.  It is shallow game design (though brilliant marketing design) and aggressive commercialization.  FarmVille plays the player, while Glitch gives the player a place to play.  I hope Glitch succeeds.

Oct. 10th, 2011


Play Log: Minecraft 1.8: Playing with friends

As I told my patient and usually-interested coworkers about my adventures in geography and spelunking, we soon decided to set up a server so that we could play in a shared world. One of them had space on an Amazon server he was using to test an original Facebook game, set it up, and we were off.

Social adventures behind the cutCollapse )

That prompted a final reflection, as I closed up my work late the other night. The game has been increasing in population as I have played it. First I played solo in an early build, and the closest thing to me in the world was a skeleton. Then Endermen came along, with their inscrutable Crafting of their own. NPC villages appeared, though devoid of people, and now I share the world with friends. Eventually I understand that there will be NPCs and many other creatures. It's not a "Lonely Game" anymore. It's not a deserted world that you've crash-landed on, but a populous world that you wake up within and share.

Oct. 6th, 2011


Play Log: Minecraft 1.8: Adventure Time 2

Soon after I picked up Minecraft's latest update, I had an evening play session with two discreet adventures in it. I wrote about the emergence of geography in my last entry; this second is about emergent narrative.

Spontaneous Generation of narrativeCollapse )

Just as the map and terrain changes worked together to make significant geography emerge in my previous adventure, resources, terrain, and mobs combined to make a real adventure story emerge. Running short of one resource, being pushed beyond my intended range, and then having to conserve my resources to return to safety created the common thread of events which form a meaningful story.

Sep. 27th, 2011


Play log: Minecraft Beta 1.8.1 - Adventure Time!

[cross-posted to textuality.org]

No, Finn and Jake did not appear to me in Minecraft. However, an interesting set of elements combined last night to make two real adventures emerge during my play session. I'll even say that they shared many qualities with tabletop RPG sessions, albeit ones run by a very open-ended and open-minded GM. What amazed me was that emergence from something that had previously been a sandbox game. So where did the GM come from?

Explore!Collapse )I'll need to make the second adventure another entry. What impressed me about my overland adventure was how the biome changes and the new map feature pushed 'exploration' to a new significance as a core mechanic. Those additional features make exploration a richer activity, and allow mini-goals to join together into a narrative. I could push a little further, I could string activities together and give them meaning, and they could literally be set into a larger landscape of meaning. Granted, "exploration" is a much more significant mechanic for me personally than for many people, so not everyone will be as excited as I am by this particular update. But it's always neat as a player and designer to see emergent complexity round a corner.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

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