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.


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.

Zombies online

Of course, knee deep in my current academic project, I look ahead to the next ones.  Aside from a couple ideas for books, I’m interested in thinking through ways to experiment with the massively online education course stuff.  I’m pretty sure I could get a grant from my school to develop something about this next summer, but I’m not clear what it would be.

So readers, what role do you think online free education materials should play in conjunction with the academy? In particular, I’m wondering if my ZOMBIES IN POPULAR MEDIA course would make a good trial for this kind of work, and if so, what that would be.

Some quick ideas:

  • lecture-type modules are easy enough to assemble.  Coordinate with my ZRS colleagues on this.
  • Lessons to go with films? Ongoing debates about what films mean and how to understand them?
  • Theme based modules — look at zombies through this theme or that one
  • Assignment modules — work on your own through key ideas

I tend to think the humanities gets its value in driving students to engage with complex material and guiding them through that.  How does this work with a very small instructor to student ratio?  Do you encourage students themselves to create and rate responses?

Development ideas:

– I may see if I can get a research assistant grant (our school has these) to get a student to help me set this up

– a tech development grant would also be helpful to fund my summer work

Lots to think about.

Project Book Shelf

step7-finished2During my recharge week (May 21-25), I had lots of academic work to do, but I also wanted to do something that activated a different part of my mind.  At the same time, one of my big tasks was to clean my office, something I try to do two or three times each year, usually at the end of a semester.  Two forces had been leading me to accumulate a bunch of books on the floor of my office, in piles.  First, I had too many books. Second, When I would use a book at my desk, I would get up to get it, and then set it on the floor around me so I would have it handy if I needed again soon.  Then, when I was in a hurry and needed more room, I would move the pile to another spot on the floor and WHAMMO, I have a mess on my hands.

So as the start of my semester cleanup, I decided to build a bookshelf.  But I don’t have wall space in my office for another bookshelf, and that wouldn’t solve the pile problem.  Solution? Two sided rolling bookshelf.  Read the rundown and all the messy details after the jump.

Continue reading Project Book Shelf

Callin my science peeps

"Dark Field Ice Tea" by ttstam (cc-licensed)
"Dark Field Ice Tea" by ttstam (cc-licensed)

This has happened to you.  You have a mug or a glass or something without a pouring spout, and you want to transfer some of your delicious beverage to another glass.  Despite having failed in this task before, you attempt to pour the beverage and end up spilling some down the side of the cup.  Less commonly, you have a freshly brewed pot of coffee or some other beverage, mostly full.  When you begin pouring it, you pour too fast and suddenly the water begins running down the side of the pitcher instead of pouring out of the spout into the glass.

Science people — what’s this phenomenon called, and what is the term, or terms, for the tipping point at which the pitcher goes from being helpful liquid transfer device to desk-splattering bane of my existence?

Not that I spilled coffee all over my desk this morning or anything.

Collaboration in the age of the ebook

At our faculty retreat last Wednesday, I was part of a panel called “The Future of the Book in the Age of the Ipad.”  True to form, I talked about “books” only a little.  I had a lot of ideas, but when we compared notes, it seemed I had the most to say (out of the group) about Collaboration.  I spoke extemporaneously, but worked up the talk from the rough script below the fold (Click slide to see full-size image).

In MY version, Han shoots first: Remix, Collaboration, and the future of “books”


How might the collaborative possibilities opened up by new technologies offer new ways to construct texts, demand new ways to think about texts, and ultimately change what we think a book might be?  My talk will intersect a little bit with Kevin’s (especially as I bounce off the notions of the dynamic text) and a little bit off Teresa’s (especially with regard to the relationship between the book and its place in academic tenure and promotion evaluation).  The new possibilities for collaborative scholarship will depend, in many ways, on the changes the digital era brings to how we understand the process of book writing, the distribution of book writing, and the place of text in the ephemeral digital world.

Continue reading Collaboration in the age of the ebook

My Breuer

St. John's University Abbey
St. John's University Abbey

A short essay on Marcel Breuer and the Bauhaus spirit at my alma mater, St. John’s University, appeared recently on the BAUHAUS 9090 site. It’s the 18 August 2009 page. Isn’t that the delight of the Internet? You can retroactively publish something. Anyhow, here’s an excerpt from my essay about SJU’s Bauhaus buildings:

…The campus has a distinctly divided architectural flavor. On one hand, many of the buildings are red brick and stately. The stately Monastery itself, the “Quad”, and a few of the dorm buildings preside over the grassy expanse of campus. They feel old, weighty, traditional. And then there are the Bauhaus buildings: the old science building, a couple more dorms and the library. These buildings feel modern. Not trendy, modern; they bring this century, this country, the modern world into the alcove of medieval tradition that monasteries represent. If this were the whole of the experience, the campus would feel shockingly divided. The grey, modular buildings striped with cold bands of concrete would stand in contrast to the weathered old brick buildings.

Instead, the crowning achievement of Breuer’s work at St. John’s acts like a keystone supporting the two styles on campus: the Abbey church. (more…)

Asterios Polyp

Asterios Polyp
Asterios Polyp

by David Mazzucchelli

Asterios Polyp follows its eponymous architect through two phases of his life, his late-life career change after a fire and his earlier grim romance with his wife.  The comic also asks about the nature of identity, the world of graphic and architectural design, performance, lust, love, arrogance, and more.  It’s a richly layered work with lovely coloring and twisting, turning art.  It brings in classical literature and youthful rebellion, the vagaries of the universe and the questions of the intellect.

Some additional thoughts:

  • To be honest, the story itself doesn’t fit the usual scope of my interest.  Mid-life crises and restrained love lost don’t usually capture my interest, but the artful storytelling and wealth of detail worked for me here.
  • This is definitely a “re-read it” comic.  I’ll give it a few months and then have another go.  I feel like there’s a lot I missed.
  • The art is particularly compelling, using a variety of textures and styles, from scratchy to architectural to classical.  My favorite passage involves a dream Asterios has in which he becomes Orpheus traveling to the underworld — the underworld looks like something from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
  • There are lots of great small moments as well.  At one point, Asterios’ wife, Hana, is telling a story and he keeps interrupting to change the details of the tale.  Eventually she says, “Do you want to tell the story?”  and he replies “No, I’m just helping you get it right.”  Jenny and I have a running joke about that same interchange.
  • I feel like I missed the most in the comic’s discussion of design and architecture theory.  While I could often tell that stuff is going on, I feel like it went over my head.
  • I feel like I got the most satisfaction from the sequences of carefully orchestrated panel layouts — there’s one image in particular where Asterios, Hana, and two other characters are all talking about one thing, implying a second, and their overlapping panels imply other relationships as well.

Entertainment Weekly called Asterois Polyp one of the top ten fiction works of the 2009, and I can see why.  It’s an exceptional and masterful comic, in league with comics like MAUS and Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth.

The Game

The Game
The Game

My Writing for New Media class watched The Game this week as part of their preparation for their ARG project (Alternate Reality Game). The idea of the project is to propose an Alternate Reality Game that one might fund if one had lots of money and even more time.

Some new things I noticed this time around (Spoilers ahead!):

  • When the pranksters behind The Game tag his house, they include a twist of his name (Nicholas Van Oorton) that says Nicholas Van Cocksucker. How droll.
  • The “C.R.S.” initials from the company that runs the game appear everywhere, even on the van “Cable Repair Specialists” and the taxi “City Regional Service.” The ubiquity of these villains is everywhere.
  • There are a few moments in the film that strain credulity: the holes that appear all over the apartment (when Nicholas first comes under gunfire) seem beyond real (though I guess they weren’t real when they made the movie). The tenuous placement of his giant jump from a building is the most preposterous. I suppose that lands in the same category as JAWS‘ scuba tank — if the audience is in for a penny, they’ll be in for a pound.
  • I love the way nearly every person he interacts with turns out to have been “in on it.” The one I never noticed before but caught this time is the silent business man in the airport who points out the ink stain on NVO’s shirt. It’s the same guy who handles the bill at the end of the film.
  • When Nicholas goes into the San Fran bay in the back of the taxicab, he uses a hand-crank to roll down the window and escape. As we’ve learned from Mythbusters, the pressure differential would prevent you from rolling down the window until the car completely fills with water. Note to all readers: if the car goes in the water, open the door or window immediately, before you sink under.

The movie holds up really well, I think. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve watched it in class and everybody still likes it. Plus, it’s old enough now that most of them haven’t seen it.

Some lessons we drew for devising our own Alternate Reality Game scenarios:

  • Such games can’t have clear boundaries — users can’t know when they’re playing or not.
  • Personalize the experience — users will be sucked in if those crossed boundaries include personal spaces that should be inviolate. Early testing or other elements can be used to assess what the user is like.
  • Danger plays a key role — make the user afraid to help suck them in.
  • Activate their curiosity — draw on the things that get them to involve themselves.

How to post a custom banner image in the Barthelme WordPress theme

Barthelme screenshot
Barthelme screenshot

I’ve had to look this up a couple times and have to keep re-learning it, so I’m just making a simple step-by-step here to explain the process.

The default look for the Barthelme theme includes a gradient banner. If you want to replace the banner, it’s actually not too complicated, but you have to replace one line of code. So here’s the process.

0. Before you start, you should, of course, make backups of all the Barthelme files, so if you screw up you can restore them. You should also enable the Barthelme theme.

1. Create your banner image and upload it into the Barthelme images directory. Find the URL for the image. Mine is called “personalheader.jpg” The image will be displayed as a background css element, so be sure you know how that will scale and/or appear in your browser.

2. Now you need to edit the file called “functions.php” in the Barthelme theme directory. You can do this in one of two ways:

2.a. From the WordPress “Design” dashboard, you can use the “theme editor” to open functions.php

2.b. You can edit the file using a text editor, but be sure you use a programming-appropriate one like emacs or notepad. The key is that the program mustn’t add metacharacters to the file. Using Word will likely bork your file.

3. Add your new background instruction:

3.a. Go down to line 710. It’s part of the section labeled “CSS inserted by Barthelme theme options.” You can do a search for the string “div#header{background”. The line you’re looking for looks like this:

body div#header{background:#<?php echo $lowercolor; ?> url("<?php echo get_template_directory_uri(); ?>/images/header-img.php?upper=<?php echo $uppercolor; ?>&lower=<?php echo $lowercolor; ?>") repeat-x left top;}

3.b. Change line 710 to say this:

body div#header{background: url(wp-content/themes/Barthelme/images/personalheader.jpg) top center;}

You should change “personalheader.jpg” to whatever file name you used, and if you want to monkey with the alignment or display of the image, change “top” and “center” to appropriate commands.  Also, you should check to see if “Barthelme” is capitalized in your installation or not — apparently it sometimes installs without the capital B. Be careful, though, CSS is tricky and will do nothing at all if it’s coded wrong.

4. Save your new functions.php and upload it (if you used method 2.b.) to the server. Refresh your page and your new image should appear.

5. Depending on the size of your image, you may want to monkey with the alignment of the header block, the title and the subtitle. You can find these settings in style.css attached to the label “div#header”. I made my adjustments to “body div#header” by altering the “em” count slightly, uploading and refreshing, and repeating this process until the site looked the way I wanted it to.

Please add a comment if these directions have been helpful to you.

What will they think of next?

So I’m working on a website created by someone else and I’m trying to figure out what font they used for the graphic headers at the top of the page (because, of course, they didn’t put the layered photoshop/fireworks files on the website, so I only have the .gifs). I can’t figure it out from the relatively small assortment of fonts I have available to me.

So I Google “identify a font” and I find this website:

Welcome to Identifont

Welcome to Identifont, the largest independent directory of typefaces on the Internet, with information about fonts from 534 publishers and 144 vendors.

Identify a font

Identify a typeface by answering a series of questions:

And sure enough, eight questions about heights, slants, widths, and textures later, I’ve identified my mystery font as Futura BT.

How cool is that?

SCMS roundup

I went to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Philly this last weekend. A good time was had by all, or by me at least.

1. My paper

My presentation considered my same ol’ shtick, what happens to the detective as we enter electracy. This time I took a run at the discussion through mise-en-scene (the stuff in the movie that isn’t dialogue, plot, or sound). In short, I suggested that the pregnancy of possibility that film noir revels in encourages its detectives to operate differently, not by ratiocination but by intuition (conductively, to use the grammatological neologism).

2. Other people’s papers

Sometimes I’m a conference marathoner, going to oodles of panels. This year, I narrowed the field a bit, attending five or six panels only (out of a total 16 at the event). My highlights:

  • Jonathan Frome did an interesting paper on the paradox of fiction as it operates in one of the Zelda games.
  • Bob Buerkle pondered the odd use of the term “first-person shooter” for an operation that is really “second person” if we use the original meaning of those terms. I don’t entirely buy his argument, but I appreciated it.
  • Zach Whalen did an excellent talk about excavating useful nuggets of knowledge from inside game code. Reminds me a bit of the branch of film studies who look at shooting scripts and the like.
  • Josh Guilford spoke about advertising and the real/sellout dichotomy in early skateboard advertising. An amusing and interesting talk.
  • Rob Jones gave an interesting talk about the evolution of machinimateurs and its shift from free production work toward being a potential career. Interesting implications in conversation with the talks I heard about mix culture and its similar potential for monetary value to its producers.
  • Amanda Fleming did a fan-culture analysis of serial killer fan sites. It was an interesting expose, but I felt the salient issue in exploring these fan cultures is not just to point out what techniques and ideas they share with other fan communities, but also to consider the ethics of their behavior (which she avoided doing).
  • Nic Guest-Jelley’s paper about Chaplin was excellent. I like this notion of the wisdom of the slapstick comedian. Perhaps he will eventually help me understand why the Three Stooges are so popular.
  • My paper was, well, see above.
  • Brian Doan’s always enjoyable writing shone as he wove an entertaining and insightful discussion of The O.C. using the entrypoint of Peter Gallagher’s Eyebrows.
  • Joshua Green gave an excellent talk about fan culture and how it needs to change as it begins to wrestle with “produsers.”
  • Patricia Lange’s audience analysis of YouTube videos was great, and fit nicely with conversations I’ve had with my Game Culture students about how our we have to manage our personae online.
  • Peter Decherney gave a very interesting talk about Chaplin and his copyright battles.
  • Abigail Derecho’s talk about the early days of mix culture before the law and the music industry decided that any unauthorized sampling was illegal highlighted how important it is that we understand the law around copyright.
  • Peter Jaszi’s discussion of the Center for Social Media’s best practices documents and their effect on publishing practice with regard to Fair Use kicked ass.  An excellent, inspirational talk.
  • Lucas Hilderbrand led another interesting talk about copyright law, focusing on the Family Copyright Act of 2006, which clarified some weird bits of copyright law that I’ll write about a bit more some other time.
  • The Workshop on Scholarly Writing in the Digital Age was invigorating and excellent.  It highlighted for me, though, the rule that when we move to new media, we take old media forms with us, and they continue to limit our thinking.  We heard several talks about ways to make more interactive books.  Books.  Online books.  Why keep the book model?  To be fair, Jason Mittell did explicitly change his language to focus on “project” rather than book.  The conversation after the presentation was even more conservative in some ways.  Nonetheless, a fascinating and interesting workshop.

3. Philly

I did a bit of walking Saturday afternoon with Brian.  We checked out the Liberty Bell and the outside of Independence Hall (which closed minutes before we got there, darn it).   It was a nice walk and pleasant, but not as organized as some of my other trips.  Nonetheless, I took lots of photos.  You can check out my Flickr Philly set for more about that.

A better mousetrap. Er, stapler.

Power Ease stapler

I heard about this stapler on, um, boingboing or pharyngula, I think. I finally picked one up when Jenny swiped my desk stapler to use at school.  It’s called a “power ease” stapler; instead of transferring the unsteady, uneven, unreliable power of my hand directly to the staple, it stores that kinetic energy in a spring, which releases for a perfect staple each time.  It’s like an electric stapler that’s powered by pressing down on it.  I haven’t really had a chance to put it through its paces yet, but in tests, the effort on my end is just like a regular staple, but the effect on the bottom is just like an electric stapler.