On Game Design: Go Play Outside

I wrote a little bit over at Rattlebox Games about playing games outside:

This might be a bit of a conundrum.  The old stereotype of nerds huddling inside on nice sunny days isn’t entirely without merit, in part because of all the valuable cardboard bits our games have — we don’t want chlorine from the pool on them!  But just because you’re in fresh air doesn’t mean you need to leave the hobby at home.

Read the rest…

Head on over there to see what I wrote.

On Game Design: Yes, and…

I’ve written a bit about the improv rule “Yes, and” over on the Rattlebox Games blog.  Check it out.

…Like Improv, RPG storytelling takes real trust between the game master and the characters. And like Improvosational comedians, they need to remember the “yes, and” rule.  (“Yes, and” refers to the philosophy that Improv performers should pick up and add to the ideas offered by the previous person, rather than negating them or leading off in a different direction.  It goes back to trust.)  In RPG design, “Yes, and” is a useful and necessary mechanic.  In Board Game design, though, I think it’s pretty underused. (link)

On Game Design: The Kitchen Sink

I am an unabashed sucker for Kitchen Sink games.  I don’t know where I first heard this idiom applied to game design, but I definitely can’t claim it for myself.  I’m using the term to describe the following kinds of games:

  • They have lots of complex, interconnecting rules
  • They have multiple game mechanics to learn, often that affect one another in weird ways
  • They allow players to use different play styles
  • They are usually pretty thematic (which is probably the only way to hold all these pieces together)

Some examples of Kitchen Sink games I like:

  • Dead of Winter – This collaborative ‘survive in a village after the zombie apocalypse starts’ game has several different awesome mechanics in play: there’s a saboteur in your midst, maybe, which means you can vote people out of the colony; the group has to manage resources for each crisis and for the overall health of the community; each player has their own secret goal which will allow them to win; you can play defensively against the zombies or offensively; dice play both a mild role (determining what kinds of actions you can take) and a major role (the exposure dice can be brutally punishing).  Then there’s the cards that ask the group to make moral decisions as well.  So there’s some role-playing.  Awesome.
  • A Study in Emerald – This anarchist 19th-century Cthulhu-bombing mystery area-control deck builder is just as complicated as it sounds.  There are hidden roles, three or four ways to end the game, all sorts of secret information, cubes, cards, permanent effects, a few cards that radically change the game.  Then, when the game ends, you really don’t know who won until you reveal roles and tally points.  It’s amazing.  Also, Sherlock Holmes!
  • Vampire: The Eternal Struggle -is the first kitchen sink tabletop game I really learned (and loved).  Players can win by subterfuge, by politics, by brawling, through minor chipping-away actions or major bloodletting.  There are many factions, each of which plays differently, and even more skills to choose from.  It’s too rich, by half.  And awesome.

Of course, as board games get closer to RPGs, they get closer to the all-encompassing kitchen sink that is a good pen-and-paper RPG.  But I still find the contained aspect of these games very satisfying.

As a designer, one has to think carefully about what all these interconnected mechanics can mean.  Do the overly-complex rules turn off players (some, certainly).  Do they add to the overall experience and theme?  (Study in Emerald works particularly well this way, because it’s supposed to be about the madness of the Elder Gods.  And Dead of Winter tries to provoke the tension of living in this embattled colony, so having tons and tons of rules that you have to keep track of stimulates some of the same anxiety the characters are dealing with.)

One question I’m wrestling with is whether to cut a rule because it doesn’t get used very often — but a player who makes use of it well can radically alter the game, perhaps.

Which Kitchen Sink games do you like?

Game Design: The Rules that used to know

Have you ever had a game whose rules you didn’t know as well as you thought you did?  Discovering that the rules are different than you thought can be a real blow–suddenly that game you thought you had all figured out is something else altogether.  It’s like somebody you used to know.

Three stories:

  1. Nearly everybody who reads board gaming news has encountered the Jonny Nexus essay arguing for the real game of Monopoly, in which you trick people and try to buy properties at auction.  I have to say, I still think Monopoly sucks, but he makes a cogent argument for why it’s better than we all remember.  The takeaway from this essay and the seven-years-later Internet freakout about it is that Monopoly is not the game we thought it was.
  2. A bit closer to home, Finn and I got out Forbidden Island for the first time in several months to give it a whirl, and I couldn’t remember how many cards we each get at the beginning of the game.  So I opened the rulebook and scanned the “setup” section, at which point I discovered that we’d been playing the game wrong THE ENTIRE TIME.  For the whole time we’ve had this game (at least three years), we’ve played by setting the game up and beginning with all tiles dry.  The rules indicate that three tiles should begin the game flooded.  This makes a HUGE difference in how the opening turns begin, as you’re already behind on upkeep when the game starts.  The Island’s treasures just got a lot harder to claim, I must say.
  3. Playing Last Night on Earth with some friends I hadn’t played with before, things were going swimmingly until we got to our first fight.  We rolled the dice and then tried to determine who won the fight.  Different ways.  As we realized that there was a fundamental disconnect between our understanding of the rules, we had this “oh shit” moment.  One of us–and both of us have been playing this game for a long time–had been resolving fights incorrectly.  For years.  When you discover that a fundamental rule for a game is different than you thought, it can be pretty disorienting.

Last-Night-on-Earth-title

So, dear reader, what rules have you mis-read?  Have you ever discovered that you’re playing a game wrong, and what happened when you did?

As a designer, we need to ponder, carefully, the way we communicate our rules.  And have people who haven’t played the game before read them to find the hidden rules we forgot to share.

Dispatch from the Age of Electracy: C2E2 edition

One of my prized possessions (thank you, Joe Hancock and Joy Sperling) is a Dawn of the Dead poster signed by George Romero, Ken Foree, David Emgee, Scott Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross.  Among the various bits of stuff that the seller provided were photos of the signings — attesting to their provenance.  With C2E2 today, I now find myself in the position of preparing to seek photos and autographs from luminaries and scribblers, so this seemed an apt time to offer a few comments on signatures.

Paintings or It Didn't Happen
Paintings or It Didn’t Happen

The signature attests to presence and agreement.  It used to be ubiquitous on contracts and love letters.  It had to be witnessed (the more important the contract, the more crucial the witness).  We have special people whose job it is to watch other people apply their signatures.  In encounters with celebrities, we ask them to sign things as a souvenir, as an agreement (I was here with this thing).  It’s a tangible thing we can take away from our encounter with them.  I can imagine two teens in high school in the fifties:

Teen 1: You’ll never guess who I met when I was in Los Angeles last weekend.  Maryiln Monroe!
Teen 2: Autograph or it didn’t happen.

Of course, the signature only stays reliable as long as we want it to.  In the age of the digital manipulation, it’s but a matter of moments to scan, copy, paste, and render a document that looks as though it was signed by someone who didn’t sign it.  One of the more bizarre ways we maintain a belief in the integrity of the signature is in the use of Faxed, but not emailed, documents.  Two different financial organizations I work with accept faxes as legally binding documents, but NOT email.  Of course, the easiest way for me to fax things is to scan them and use a PDF to Fax service to send them.  We’re approaching angels on pinhead territory here.

With the rise of ubiquitous cameras, the autograph has given way to another form of “I met a celebrity” — the selfie or posed picture.  When we were at Comic-Con last year, we were far more interested in getting photos with recognizable celebrities than autographs.  First, they’re much more compelling as something to share.  Second, they document the human interaction — I met this person — rather than the human/object interaction — this person touched this thing.  Third, for the celebrity, the photo attests to true fanhood because it’s not a commodity.  No one will want to buy a copy of my photo of me and John Hodgman, though there might be people who’d pay slightly more for my autographed copies of his books.

It will be interesting to see if the photograph of the signing makes its way back into legal spaces.  I can imagine photos embedded as part of legal documents showing all the signers and witnesses together, holding up the signed document.  There would be joyous photos (the shared signing of incorporation papers, for instance) and grim ones (I can imagine a thread somewhere highlighting the most depressing divorce-papers-signing photos).

Someday, we’ll have to upload a photo to attach to our e-filing of our taxes, face next to the screen.  It will be automatically updated as our driver’s license picture, and the circle will be complete.

 

Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend
Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt is a really good memoirist.  He has the deft touch of a seasoned comedian, a keen eye for metaphor and the important detail, and a strong sense of storytelling.  Silver Screen Fiend imbues his early standup years with a strong narrative arc, one of artistic stagnation and malaise, a lesson he learned and a cautionary tale for us.  It’s also damn funny.  A few thoughts:

  • I couldn’t help but recall Steve Martin’s amazing Born Standing Up in light of this book. Martin spends much more time on his thoughts about technique, whereas Oswalt does so mostly in service of the larger questions about artistic endeavor generally.
  • I love Oswalt’s metaphor of the Night Cafe.  He relates the story of Picasso’s first venture into work from memory rather than from sight, and how painting that vibrant red room made him into a different artist.  Oswalt calls these moments (or rooms or experiences) “night cafes,” and explores how his own such experiences shaped his life as an artist.  It recalls Gregory Ulmer’s assertion of the guiding image, an idea that shapes who we are and how we work as a creative or intellectual person (see Internet Invention).
  • I love the inside-baseball stuff about the comedy scene in LA in the late 90s.  One of the overwhelming impressions I have of L.A. is that people circulate in their own bubble there, and we have no sense of how it works.  The tales about how the one particular comedy club insulated and ruined comics were a great sense of how Oswalt maintained his sense of perspective.
  • The one negative thing I have to say is that Oswalt occasionally gets a little too elaborate with his comedic metaphors.  They overflow the first half of the book like a clogged toilet in a punk bar.

The audiobook is especially good because, as a performer, Oswalt knows the nuance and flow of the work, and knows how to make the beats land well.

See also: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Unbreakable

I’m not sure how much of an essay is worth writing here.  Slate excellent pieces about the race issues in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in particular the disturbing trope of the “hilarious black neighbor” trope that has become so common.  Aisha Harris writes:

The tongue-in-cheek song will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the news or viral trends in the past few years. You may not remember their names, but the faces of the notorious bystanders who have provided unintentional laughs via YouTube sound bites have clearly inspired the character of Bankston, and are impossible to forget. So are their inadvertent catchphrases—“Ain’t nobody got time for that!”; “Hide yo’ kids! Hide yo’ wife!” “I was eatin’ my McDonald’s …”—which have been quoted, remixed, auto-tuned, and meme-ified to excess. These are, of course, the “hilarious black neighbors.” …

Indeed, the hilarious black neighbor has long been an accepted part of contemporary culture, though fraught with race and class connotations. There is a very subtle creative choice here that distinguishes Bankston from the way Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown, and Antoine Dodson have been received by the public, however: In Kimmy Schmidt, the song is both cleverly subversive and empowering. “White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes,” he says, making the cult leader the butt of the joke; and then, “But females are strong as hell!” It’s not quite as hard-hitting as Ramsey’s oft-ignored, brutally honest statement that “he knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” but the sentiment of pointing out the long-held racial division in the U.S. remains. (link)

Like many things about Kimmy Schmidt, the opening sequence doesn’t easily fit into a particular spot as we talk about race.  It’s a complicated commentary on popular culture while also engaging in many of the tropes that shape that same culture.

But what I’m interested in writing about today is the remediation of the auto-tuned news opening.  Consider this path:

  • Six years ago, the Gregory Brothers began posting auto-tuned clips of the news, and quickly became kings of a new style of news interpretation and remix. Sparking many imitators.
  • Over the last several years, some of the most viral moments of news coverage have been auto-tuned by the Gregory Brothers (and others), and the people involved in those stories have, themselves, become famous.  (See the essay quoted above for a discussion of the troubling implications of this trend.)
  • Then, when the creators of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt–a show purchased by a network that only “airs” its shows through online streaming–were inspired by the Ariel Castro case, they decided to use as the introduction a song written in the style of the auto-tuned news songs of Charles Ramsey that circulated after the original kidnapping.
  • So they wrote a satire/close copy of the “hilarious black neighbor” trope, filmed it as a news package (or a bunch of news packages), added in some B-roll, and gave it to…
  • The Gregory Brothers, who then auto-tuned the fake news to be a simulacrum of the real auto-tuned news pieces they create regularly.

I’m not sure what it is that fascinates me about this arc.  Perhaps it’s the meta-and-not-meta aspect of the auto-tuned news package prepared by the same people who auto-tune real news packages.  Perhaps it’s the way tropes of the digital age are finding their way into popular culture in ever-faster cycles. (Evan Gregory says, in an interview about the song, “You know something is an accepted part of culture when it begins to be placed as a plot point in sitcoms.”)

Many people have lamented the notion of “infotainment” or “news as entertainment,” and the way that ratings and the 24 hour news cycle create unwanted (perhaps) market motivations for sensational storytelling.  One aspect of the digital age’s single channel of information might be the blending of that content in our mind.  When we watch news clips on Youtube and we watch fake news clips on Youtube, does our sense of the truth value at the heart of those news clips diminish?

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Two (un)related notes that I wanted to share:

  • As I was writing and reading about the Antoine Dodson and Charles Ramsey viral auto-tunes, I must admit feeling divided about what to say and how to talk about these individuals.  On the one hand, the narrative of the “hilarious black neighbor” is troubling, and the way the Internet chews up these people is pretty disturbing.  And for their part in it, one could be critical of the Gregory Brothers.  In addition, there’s potential friction to be read in the racial implications of white people using a black person’s work to make money.  On the other hand, the fact that the Gregory Brothers have been making this kind of music for a while reduces many of those concerns for me–they’ve established their bona fides to songify the news. Criticisms of the songs are further dampened, to my mind, by the ethical approach the Brothers take to the song publishing — they credit the author of the original video as a co-writer, and split the proceeds 50/50.
  • During the course of researching for this piece, I encountered the strange story of Jay Jackson, the amazing actor who played straightforward news anchor Perd Hapley on Parks and Recreation and has played a newscaster in several other venues. (I know I always giggle at him in Scandal, as his Parks and Rec role has destabilized him as a serious news anchor for me.)  As NPR reports, Jackson is so good at playing an anchor because that was his career before he went into acting. So again, we have a real professional who goes into acting to play a pretend professional doing the same thing.

Comics, Threats, Censorship, Free Speech

Having written this, I don’t think it says anything new, so let’s categorize this as a summary of recent events for convenience sake, rather than a blistering think piece.

A. The Killing Joke Cover – A recent sequence of events in the comics world:

  1. Recently, DC comics announced a bunch of variant covers celebrating the Joker, and one was released that recalled The Killing Joke, a famous if unevenly celebrated comic by Alan Moore.
  2. Some people reacted negatively to the cover, expressing their ideas that it was too far afield from the current Batgirl comic, and that it generally promoted the wrong idea about the comic.
  3. Some other people reacted negatively to the criticism, directing harassment and threats at the people who had criticized the cover.
  4. DC and the artist decided to pull the cover, citing, in part, the fact that it had generated harassment and threats.

Now various misogynist assholes are crying censorship!  But not about the company’s decision to remove its own artwork, but rather about the fact that protest got it removed.  That protest, in their mind, is censorship.

Here are two interesting and useful takes on the discussion from Shoshanna Kessock and Zac Thompson.

B. Female Thor – A slightly older sequence of events in the comics world:

  1. Marvel announced that a new iteration of Thor would be a woman.
  2. Some people reacted negatively to the news.
  3. Other people argued with them.
  4. Marvel decided to go ahead with the plan (and seems to be making a tidy sum)

Had Marvel decided to pull this comic, would they have cried censorship?  There’s no way to know, but my gut says they would not have cried censorship.

C. Threats vs Censorship – On the recent misogyny, threats, and censorship.

There’s a fascinating feature on BoingBoing about “How imageboard culture shaped Gamergate.”  It makes it much easier to understand how many otherwise pleasant people could adopt such an horrific behavior profile online.

But it’s crucial to think about different kinds of suppression of speech.

  • Censorship is, of course, when someone is kept from speaking / publishing / participating by the government.
  • Intimidation (in this case) is when someone is kept from speaking / publishing / participating by means of threats and harassment.

The enduring irony of #GamerGate and other prominent “defense of that thing I like” movements is that they cry censorship while perpetuating intimidation.  Without irony or a sense of distance.

The proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Not threats, not intimidation. The marketplace of ideas needs to be won with ideas.  Any other tactics are unethical, and using them degrades the value and quality of your position.

 

 

 

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Mea Culpa

For your consideration: Apologies.

It was the third episode in this list that got me thinking about the topic.  But here are three moments in my podcast listening that struck me as interesting:

  1. This American Life – “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” – After using a whole hour to explore one reporter’s experience in China visiting an Apple factory, This American Life spends a full episode retracting its coverage and apologize. (3/16/2012)
  2. Startup, “We Made a Mistake” – After slipping up by failing to inform one interviewee that they were being interviewed for a commerical, Startup did a whole episode exploring what happened. (12/9/2014)
  3. TL;DR – “Quiet, Wadhwa” – After spending a whole episode (approx 20 minutes) on how a prominent male spokesperson on women in tech is resented by some women in tech, WNYC pulled the episode because the subject of the story had not been given the opportunity to comment on the story.  (2/19/2015)
"Sorry Explored" by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)
“Sorry (Explored)” by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)

Other examples of mistakes and apologies from the last few years:

  • The Newsroom – The entire second season of the Aaron Sorkin show was about a massive error and a retracted episode of the show.
  • Brian Williams – Williams is on forced hiatus right now as his exaggerations about his experiences in Iraq have caught up with him.
  • Bill O’Reilly – After excoriating Brian Williams for his errors, O’Reilly is finding himself under fire for similar mistakes in his reporting.

It all started with Dan Rather, to my mind.  Rather’s downfall over the fraudulent Killian documents occurred in the early days of web 2.0 (2004), when crowd-sourcing was possible and the news media in general was just starting to understand what a powerful fact-checking engine the mob is (many eyeballs make shallow bugs).  Since then, news media have had to answer errors in ever-faster cycles, and address them more thoroughly.

But I’m interested here in the genre of the apology episode. I like to imagine that the apology episodes I’m pointing to spring from a couple factors:

First, podcasts are intimate experiences that feel more like conversations than like stage shows.  A podcaster in your ear feels identical to hearing a telephone call.  So when these intimate acquaintances let us down, it feels more personal.  We expect a personal apology.

Second, with social media, the need for public apology rises dramatically — before social media, one angry person (like, say, the soldier who posted on Brian Williams’ Facebook Page that he didn’t remember Williams being there) now has the ability to be public immediately, and the rumor spreads at the same speed it would in a crowd, but now that crowd is the whole world.

Brian Williams' Apology
Brian Williams’ Apology

Third, they create an honest atmosphere in which trust can be re-built.  The newscaster who shies away from blame makes things worse, not better, for themselves.

I’m curious about this, and have a few questions to think about as the idea continues to evolve for me.

  1. Are apologies of this size and frequency new?  I know there are and have always been retraction columns, and occasionally stories will make big news for the story itself (the Sokal affair comes to mind), but the character of these feels different to me.
  2. Does the heightened awareness among media consumers about how media is made help or hurt these apologies?  In other words, are we more forgiving now that we’re all becoming media producer/consumers?
  3. Is there a lower bar for newscasters (or podcasters) to regain the trust of the listeners than there was before?  If media makers own their mistakes quickly and try to address them ethically (as in the episodes at the top of the page), does this make it easier for them to regain the public’s trust?

 

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?
What If?

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
by Randall Munroe; narrated by Wil Wheaton

If you don’t read XKCD or Munroe’s weekly “What If?” column over at xkcd.com, you’re really missing out.  This book collects some of the best What If columns, plus adds a bunch of new ones.  It’s a simple premise: people ask Munroe questions like “Can dropping a steak through the atmosphere cook it by means of the re-entry burn?” or “What’s the highest a person can throw something?” or “How long could I swim in a cooling pool storing nuclear waste before I died?” And he answers the questions in very funny ways.

The best part of the book is the repeating feature “Disturbing Questions from the What If? Inbox,” in which people ask things like the best way to chop up a body or how many nuclear bombs it would take to wipe out the US.  I imagine they think these are innocent questions (and they probably are) but Munroe rightly recognizes the problems with them, and pokes fun.

There’s not a lot else to say about the book.  It’s great, very entertaining.  And Wil Wheaton’s narration is great, though it’s pretty “Wil Wheaton-y,” so I imagine that if you didn’t like Wheaton or his performative style (as seen on, say, Tabletop), you probably wouldn’t like his narration.  The other down-side to the audio book is that you don’t get to see Munroe’s great pictures, of which there are many in the physical book.

Highly recommended.

 

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Obsolete before it ships

Rule 34
Rule 34

Charles Stross reflected on the relentless pace of culture and the difficulty of writing about the near future or the present in a post about his book Rule 34:

There is a certain pub in Edinburgh that I’ve used as a setting for some key scenes, because it’s quarried out of the side of a near-cliff and is notorious for having no mobile phone or wifi signal. Imagine my joy on discovering that it has acquired a strong 3G signal in the roughly two months since I checked the copy-edited manuscript. (link)

I’m watching this happen, a bit, in the context of my forthcoming book, Title Still to be Determined.  My book, which should come out sometime next Spring, is a monograph about the digital age and detective fiction.  At one point, I make an extended example of the anti-vaccine community as a group that flourishes through the Internet using gate-keeping and strong peer pressure to shape its conversations.  This is an example I wrote a couple years ago (this book has been slow in gestation) that’s now becoming too obvious.

On the one hand, I like that people are now waking up to the dangers of our reduced herd immunity, though I wish we’d not needed the Disneyland Measles Outbreak to get the conversation started.  On the other hand, I’d rather not see any examples or parts of my book become more common than they already are.  Can everyone stop writing about the Internet for the next fifteen months or so?  Thanks.

On Trigger Warnings and Empathy

Neil Gaiman’s recent short story collection is called Trigger Warnings.  Scott Kenemore (author of Zombie, Indiana among many others) wrote about how horror is supposed to cause feelings of discomfort:

in recent years a threat has emerged—a sinister shadow falling over our community, you might say—leaving us even darker than usual.  And I believe that a uniform opposition to it has finally become that elusive unifying quality I could never otherwise find.

This shadow is the movement—in academe and, increasingly, elsewhere—to protect readers from ideas that might trigger feelings of discomfort or trauma.  This trend is disconcerting to horror writers because creating discomfort and trauma is—more or less—what we aim to do.

Making people feel uncomfortable is not a byproduct of our project.  It is our project.  We write novels and stories (and sometimes even poems) precisely so that readers should jump at an unexpected noise, or pull the covers closer in bed that night.  Our goal is to horrify.  To traumatize whenever possible.  To trigger the deepest, darkest fears that we can.

We don’t do this out of allegiance to any form of historical oppression.  Certainly, we do not do it for the money—at least not chiefly.  (Since the “horror boom” of the 1990s, advances in our genre have decreased drastically.  Any opportunists in our ranks have long since decamped for the greener pastures of YA.) Instead, we do this because we think something important is going on when people are scared.  We think it’s possible to be sublimely and transcendently frightened.  We believe fear and discomfort are sensations which, rightly conjured, can put one in touch with some of the most interesting and profound aspects of human existence.  And, yes, also with vampires and zombies and tentacle monsters. (Read the rest here: We ARE the triggers)

I posted this in reply:

You make a good argument about unabashed horror, and the value of texts that cause discomfort. I agree wholeheartedly with your idea about what horror should be.

But I think you’ve misrepresented what trigger warnings should be for, to my mind. Trigger Warnings are about context. They’re meant to signpost upcoming moments for readers who might not be ready for them. Thus, I usually see trigger warnings on non-fiction pieces about controversial topics. I’d think a horror story written as a horror story ought to be its own trigger warning.

But even in the case of fiction (such as last week’s Scandal, a pretty violent show that this week included an extra “violent content” warning), trigger warnings shouldn’t be a way to coddle readers or help them avoid uncomfortable situations: they’re a recognition that for some readers, some topics invoke real life trauma. This isn’t to say those readers should avoid the texts, necessarily, but rather to give them the choice about how to handle them (even just being mentally prepared can make a difference).

By way of example, imagine a story including scenes of rape. Without a trigger warning, a rape survivor may be blind-sided by emotions from their own past because of the story. On one hand, blind-siding a reader with emotions is a great skill for the author. On the other hand, this is unearned reaction — you didn’t make that result as a writer, you happened upon a particular reader’s weakness. If your story’s good (and if you’ve written it, Scott, it would be), you don’t need the cheat of the reader’s previous trauma. Nor will your story’s effect be reduced for the reader whom the trigger doesn’t effect.

To me, a trigger warning isn’t about telling audiences to avoid texts, but rather about empathy, and about recognizing that different experiences urge different kinds of responses.

Pigs Have Wings

Pigs Have WingsPigs Have Wings by P.G. Wodehouse

Two gentlemen with big manors face off in a legendary fat pig growing contest, and right in the middle is the brother of one of the men, Gally Threepwood.  Of course, there’s some confusion with mis-matched lovers, a farce involving an uptight butler and stolen pigs, and an awful lot of bally great language.  A few thoughts:

  • I don’t like these quite as much as the Jeeves and Wooster novels.  Gally Threepwood isn’t quite as goofy or dopey as Bertie Wooster, and Beach is no Wooster.  Of course, I should probably read more before I pronounce judgment, but there it is.
  • Vocab: pre-phylloxera – wine from before the great French wine blight.  “Beach helped himself to a third glass of port.  It was pre-phylloxera, and should have had him dancing about the room, strewing roses from his hat, but it not so much as bring a glow to his eye.” (194)  Apparently wine made after the plague was less heady or something.
  • Favorite phrase from the book: “Penny seemed listless… It may have been merely maiden meditation but it looked to Gally more like the pip.”  I love the phrase “the pip,” which means “to be angry, or depressed.”

There are perhaps some class issues to write about with regard to these books, but really, Wodehouse books are just darn fun.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Empire State’s Worldbuilder

Empire State Building by Tom Simpson cc-licensed
“Empire State Building” by Tom Simpson
(cc-licensed)

When my students and I talk about the digital age, one of the changes we trace is the relationship between author and audience.  In oral cultures, the relationship is direct — the one telling you the story is standing within earshot, so you can ask questions and work out details together.  Literacy changes that, separating the reader from the author by the distance of a letter or generations.  This breaks the text away from the author (as the New Critics noticed) and changes the nature of the relationship of author to reader.  Electracy changes the relationship again.  The immediacy of digital communication means that a two-way communication channel has now opened up.  But because of the open publishing nature of the web, the audience is also filled with authors, and the two can reflect one another back and forth.  I finished reading Adam Christopher’s Empire State recently, and the end of the audiobook featured two addenda that I thought were particularly interesting illustrations of the shifting relationship between author and reader.

First, it had the soundtrack for the writing of the book.  Christopher explains each song choice for both its musical quality and the use he made of it while writing.  He also offers a link to the soundtrack so you can listen yourself.  This meta-narrative information is interesting, both as a tidbit about the writer and his taste in music, but also about the mood the novel should cast.  I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time until an ebook comes with a soundtrack that you listen to while you read.  It probably couldn’t be songs with words, but it could be a modular thematic instrumental soundtrack, broken up perhaps by chapter or even page.  Somebody go build that!

Second, the end of the book includes an invitation to produce fan fiction in the world of Empire State.  Christopher invites fan authors to create their own stories for the novel, and hosts a place where they can share them.  At the same time, he reserves the scenes in the novel from fan adaptation (because it could create conflicting storylines) and he asks people not to write in the future of the Empire State (after the end of the novel), as he may want to write a sequel and he doesn’t want to be influenced by something one of them wrote.  The website also features a pre-built set of terms in which fan artists whose work the Empire State folk choose to publish will get 25% of something–it’s not clear to me what or how much the royalty goes to.

Fan art will appear.  The savvy writer encourages it and helps guide it to fit his own goals for the source work.  This is storytelling in the digital age.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Tales from Kickstarter, part 2

This week’s Dispatch follows up on last week’s discussion of Kickstarter and board games.

Settlers of Catan Menaced (Tony J Case, cc-licensed)
Settlers of Catan Menaced (Tony J Case, cc-licensed)

In response to the three problems I pointed out last week, we’re starting to see a number of changes in KS habits for board game producers.

Stretch Goal Fever
The companies that do well fighting this problem have learned a couple things.  First, that free or cheap to produce stretch goals are key.  Adding a sheet of stickers?  Great!  Adding another miniature? Bad.  I like the companies that do small runs of KS extras that will be tossed in with the box — both Heroes Wanted and Epic Resort did this, adding little packets of extra stuff that regular buyers of the game wouldn’t be able to get.  On the other hand, sometimes we get extra trinkets that just feel like a waste of money (I’m looking at you, sheet of stickers).

Another response is to avoid stretch goals altogether, or only offer a couple at huge milestones.

Crushed by Success
Limiting specialized stretch goals is a key part of this process — individualized rewards mean tons of extra work in fulfillment, and thus lots of work outside of making the game.  Boo.  Ludicreations is the paramount of restraint here.  Not only do they do NO stretch goals at all, they actually limit the number of games they will issue as rewards so they can be sure to fulfill the game on time.  Here’s what they say:

NO BS KS

What You See Is What You Get – this is our doctrine, and we like to run simple, straightforward campaigns. We are aware that offering add-ons and/or introducing stretch goals would increase the funding total. However, we have already thrown everything into this game – a lot of time, effort, and money. We intend to print with the highest quality materials anyway and we will not cut any corners.

We also want to offer the game at the cheapest cost possible – and that is incompatible with stretch goals. We’d have to add “hidden” profit in the pledge levels, that we can then “spend” to give you stretch goals to get excited about. Therefore, raising money beyond our goal does not give us extra money on hand to create stretch goals.

Furthermore, because the games are made in Europe, and because we do small print runs, we do not benefit by economies of scale by producing more copies of the game.

If we do offer additional content, we will lock past pledge levels. That’s it – you do not need to pay more, or like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or be a fan on BGG – although all of those things are nice of you if you do them, we want you to do them if you want to, not because of a carrot we dangle in front of you.

We do not do add-ons (not even our other games), because we want to keep our operations simple, and deliver efficiently. We are in this for the long run, so it does not help us to squeeze a few more dollars from a few backers, if we disappoint *all* backers.

Will it be any good?
Ludicreations has also done a great job soliciting reviews of their games to combat the problem of games that look cool but aren’t fun to play.  As Steven Johnson predicted in Interface Culture, reviewers have become the filter for us, a way to find games that work.  By tapping into this fan culture, KS companies bypass the judgment of game production companies in favor of the wisdom of crowds.

The personal touch
My favorite company producing games through Kickstarter right now is Funto11 games (current KS: Epic PVP: Fantasy).  These folks have a long track record of producing great games and delivering on time.  They also do a great job of offering substantial and interesting stretch goals without going overboard.  I also love the personal touch at the heart of all their projects.  For instance, when they were doing the KS for Castle Dice, one of the stretch goals was bigger dice, but in the last week before the KS ended, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, and the team saw backers withdrawing at about an even rate as new ones were signing up.  They wrote this:

Just when a campaign should be taking off toward the end, we’ve been noticing a very large number of cancellations which is offsetting any new backer momentum. This is totally unlike our previous 2 campaigns and the campaigns that our friends have run in the past. It’s pretty clear to us that this is due to folks hunkering down from the storm on the East Coast.

We love making games and we think even expensive games like Castle Dice are an affordable way for folks to have fun (especially when you compare it to things like going to the movies or having a nice meal out). That said, We don’t want anyone feeling any sort of pressure to open their wallet more than they feel comfortable with to help us reach a stretch goal at a time like this.

As such, we’re taking down the stretch goal and marking it “achieved.” We’ll cover any uncovered costs associated with the upgrade (we have some extra money from MSfG and Flame War – none of us have taken a dime from Fun to 11 to date). And while we’re happy with any support we get in these last 3 days, we’re not announcing any new stretch goals for this product. Instead we will be donating 10% of every dollar raised between now and the end of the campaign to hurricane relief. It just feels like the right thing to do now. We’ve always said that Fun to 11 isn’t in this for the money, so it’s time we put those words into practice.

Thanks for all of your support folks and to all of you on the wrecked coast, hang tough,

Luke, Jay, Kai, Dave, and Rob

How cool is that?

All of this, of course, points to both the pleasures and the dangers of electracy.  On the plus side, we get to know game developers in ways we couldn’t before.  On the down side, we don’t have the smarts of the marketplace protecting us from flashy amateurs who don’t actually have the experience to get the game to market.  And having to use our own judgment to filter those folks means that sometimes we’ll get screwed.