Cyberpunk: Past and Future

Cyberpunk_EmailFlyer

This Friday, Geoff Long and I will run a collaborative storytelling workshop during Cyberpunk: Past and Future, a special event at USC Visions & Voices co-curated by professors Henry Jenkins, Scott Fisher, and Howard Rodman. Later, we’ll be publishing some of the material created by our participants (a stellar group including seminal cyberpunk figures Rudy Rucker, Nalo Hopkinson, and Bruce Sterling) as a special “Cyberpunk 2.0 Story Sparks Kit.” Stay tuned — and please join us if you can!

The literary and cultural movement known as cyberpunk began in the early 1980s when a confluence of speculative-fiction writers remapped and reinvigorated their genre—and much more. Inspired by a rapidly changing present—the beginnings of the World Wide Web; the proliferation of man/machine interfaces; the global spread of Japanese culture—these writers integrated technology, politics, literature and cultural theory to create a genre that not only predicted the future but also helped shape it.

A day-long event will bring together seminal figures of the cyberpunk movement, including Rudy Rucker (the Ware Tetralogy), Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber) and Bruce Sterling (Bicycle Repairman, Taklamakan, Mirrorshades), along with figures from the worlds of film, music, technology, architecture and cultural theory, to discuss the cultural moment cyberpunk incited.

The afternoon will be devoted to “Cyberpunk 2.0”: small-group world-building and storytelling sessions in which USC students can collaborate with cyberpunk’s founding figures. Teams will [construct] a story and decide on a means of presenting that story to the conference participants. Led by Jeff Watson (School of Cinematic Arts) and Geoff Long (Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism). Participants will include the morning’s panelists, plus Stacey Robinson (Black Kirby Project). (USC Visions & Voices)

Additional information and background, courtesy Henry Jenkins, here.

What Hockey Wants: Drama, Narrative, and Sports

My paper, “What Hockey Wants: Drama, Narrative, and Sports,” was published this month (just in time for the Stanley Cup playoffs) in Well Played Journal from ETC Press. The paper draws on game studies, literary theory, psychology, and other disciplines to discuss how narrative works in one of my all-time favorite games, hockey. Here are the introductory paragraphs, which summarize the core themes of this project:

Like many sports, ice hockey, or “hockey,” as it is known to its players and fans, generates legend, myth, history, biography, autobiography, and other forms of narrative at a furious pace. In, around, and among instances of gameplay, hockey produces dramatic situations which resolve into a variety of public and private narratives. Some of these narratives, such as the stories of an individual game played late at night on a neighborhood rink, are ephemeral and known only to certain players; others are so widely told and acquire such cultural significance that they are memorialized in statuary, feature films, currency, or novels; and some leave traces in the game itself as strategies, traditions, superstitions, play styles, and written and unwritten rules. Hockey is a creature of narrative – it eats it and excretes it – and yet, somewhat amazingly, it does not require any kind of centralized story department or author to spin its yarns. Rather, like all sports, and to a certain degree like all games, hockey is a set of protocols that propagates and iterates itself by producing the kinds of situations that are worth telling stories about.

Despite this impressive narrative capability, sports like hockey are not frequently mentioned in the discussions game studies and game design communities stage around the topic of narrative. One possible explanation for this relative lack of mention is that the ways narrative manifests in sports may at first glance seem more related to modes of spectatorship than modes of play, and therefore may be considered exterior to the kinds of narrative thought to be more properly “native” to games. It may also be the case that narrative is perceived as simply more central or essential – particularly from a player experience perspective – to things like adventure games, role-playing games, storytelling games, open-world exploration games, and interactive fiction, than it is to sports. Such overtly story-centric games are certainly worthy of consideration. For scholars and designers interested in the poetics, aesthetics, and politics of digital gameplay, it is perhaps understandable that the sweaty world of sports be overlooked. It is also understandable that some researchers will prefer to explore more exclusively digital forms of gameplay insofar as their work may relate more directly to how narrative connects to current trends in technology and communications than to games as a broader category of design. Regardless, eliding sports from the discussion risks depriving us of important ways of speaking about and designing about games and narrative. Understanding the powerful and parsimonious ways in which sports instantiate various forms of narrative, and the ways in which those instantiations can in turn become incorporated into the most basic structures of the games themselves, can provide useful models and metaphors for examining all games as both artifacts and producers of culture.

This paper presents an examination of hockey as a cybernetic system, paying particular attention to the role of narrative. Like all sports, hockey offers opportunities for individuals to take part in dramatic situations that would not otherwise occur. As players, teams, and fans actively engage with these situations, they produce and consume various kinds of public and private narrative. These narratives in turn shape subsequent situations both within and beyond the formal boundaries of the sport. Through a series of examples from hockey and related games, this paper examines how narrative emerges in, around, and among various contexts of hockey gameplay; how this narrative impacts both ludic and paraludic situations; and how it can become encoded in the formal structures of the game itself. (ETC Press: Well Played Journal, Volume 4 Number 1)

Get the paper as a .pdf here, or get the whole journal issue here.

Thanks to Drew Davidson and ETC Press, and special thanks to Sean C. Duncan, who served as Guest Editor for this issue alongside Caro Williams.

GDC Vault – Teaching Games with Games 2

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GDC 2015 Education Summit Panel featuring Celia Pearce, Jeff Watson, Eric Zimmerman, Andy Nealen, Brenda Romero, and Tracy Fullerton. Moderated by Colleen Macklin and John Sharp. Viewable for free on GDC Vault.

One of our best tools for teaching games are games themselves. Name a facet of college-level games education and there is a way to teach it through gameplay. Want to explore continuity and consistency in storytelling? Try shuffling a deck of story cards. Want to think about gender dynamics? Mod a sport around gender stereotypes. Building on last year’s session, we have six more educators sharing a classroom exercise used to teach a different facet of games, using games! Seasoned and new faculty alike will share their best programming, design, story, collaborative learning, game studies and criticism play-based exercises. (GDC Vault: Teaching Games with Games 2)

(My bit comes on at 35:00)

Worldbuilding at Berlinale Talents 2015

As entertainment properties become increasingly spatialized and nonlinear, spreading across diverse platforms, contexts, and modes, how might they benefit if the ways in which they are developed were to undergo similar changes? What alternative approaches exist to the traditionally linear and “siloed” processes of conceptualizing and iterating narrative storyworlds? Is it always appropriate that an entertainment property should begin with a book, script, bible, or treatment and only proceed into design and visualization once preproduction is underway? Or could story material be developed in concert with the kinds of research, visualization, fabrication, and contextual exploration typically associated with production design? In short, how can production itself be a part of development? How can design fiction and visual/conceptual “worldbuilding” create the context for story, rather than the other way around?

These and other questions were at the heart of “Imaginary Worlds: Exploring the Unknown,” a panel and two day studio workshop held at Berlinale Talents, the annual summit and networking platform of the Berlin International Film Festival. Using a modified and extended version of the creative process framework developed for the 2015 Science of Fiction conference, our panel and workshop sessions explored new ways of structuring collaborations across media arts disciplines so as to imagine and visualize a fictional storyworld. Over the course of two intensive 4-5 hour sessions, our team, consisting of production designer Alex McDowell, educator and process architect Bruno Setola, transmedia artist Juan Diaz, and myself, led 25 designers, writers, directors, and other invited talents through a creative process exploring and developing the storyworld of Rilao, a fictional island nation in the South Pacific.

The result of this collaboration was five “deep dives” into various eras of Rilao, each illustrated with dozens of designed artifacts, images, place descriptions, characters, and story elements. Each deep dive coalesced around a “central disruptor,” or “story magnet” — a place or situation that participants identified as being especially rich in narrative potential — and radiated outward, bringing together elements of the world’s imagined histories, presents, and futures. Participants developed these elements through the play of an imagination game and the engagement in a secondary process that focused on elaborating upon and finding the connective strands among the diverse ideas generated by the game. As the whirlwind of creation drew to a close, the materials produced by participants were gathered together into an archive which will be integrated into the broader Rilao world-build.

For more on the philosophies behind this process, and how it might relate to emerging methodologies in domains ranging from entertainment development to education and social innovation, please watch our panel, here:

Special thanks to Romke Faber, Florian Weghorn, Andrea Rieder, and all the Talents, without whom none of this could have happened.

Syllabus: Documentary and Activist Games (CTIN-499)

DocAndActivist_Poster_2015

Filmmaker John Grierson famously described documentary cinema as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Documentary films can illuminate unseen processes, broaden our awareness of the past and present, and challenge us to make a better future. How might games achieve similar ends? What can interactive media do in the realms of non-fiction, documentary, and activism that other kinds of media cannot? How can we use games and interaction design to not only document the Real, but also to intervene on it, and to shape the world to come?

This course explores the past, present, and future of documentary and activist interactive media and games. Students will approach the topic from a variety of perspectives, drawing on contemporary art practice, cultural studies, game studies, cinema studies, and more. Informed by these historical and theoretical contexts, students will workshop documentary and activist games of their own.

CTIN-499_ActivistGames_Spring2015_Syllabus_rev2 (.pdf)

The IndieCade Award

The IndieCade Award is a peer-to-peer award-giving game played at the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games. Designer/game director/all-around-genius Gabe Smedresman describes the game as follows:

The Indiecade Award is a recognition that festival attendees can award to each other for a supportive word in a time of need, a critical donation or piece of advice, or for having created a personally meaningful game or written work.

Volunteers will solicit tweet-length awards and recipient info from attendees each day. During the awards ceremony and festival afternoons, we’ll engrave the awards onto acrylic cubes, locate the recipients, and deliver the awards.

On Sunday, those who have received and given the most awards will be recognized for their positivity and supportiveness.

It was an honor to be a part of pulling together a project like this. Based on the reactions of people who gave or received the awards, I think it accomplished it what it set out to do — that is, “encourage the kind of behavior we want to see [in the games community]: positivity, encouragement, and mutual support” — and then some.

Special thanks to Gabe, Mattie Brice, Crash Space LA, Christina Orcutt, Jessica Escobedo, Chelsea Howe, Laird Melamed, Tracy Fullerton, Peter Brinson, Rob Manuel, Jesse Vigil, Richard Lemarchand, Funomena, Indiecade, Elizabeth Sampat, and all the IndieCade volunteers for making this happen. Looking forward to doing it again next year!

Homily for a Game Jam

The following remarks were delivered at the USC MEGA Game Jam on September 12, 2014.

I’m going to keep my remarks short tonight so that you can get on to doing what you came here to do. This is a game jam, not a dentistry conference. If you want to hear more from me, please sign up for one of my classes.

Let me begin by saying thank you to the organizers for asking me to say a few words here at the first MEGA Game Jam of the academic year. And a big thank you to all of you, for coming out. It takes effort to build a community, and you’re putting in that effort right now, and for that, I think you deserve a round of applause.

I’m a big fan of game jams. There’s something about bringing together a bunch of people to play and create that feels like exactly the sort of thing that’s worth celebrating. There are a lot of things in this world that aren’t worth celebrating at all. There is intolerance, injustice, abuse, and tragedy everywhere. But this — this thing that says, “hey, let’s hang out and make some art together” — seems pretty wholly positive to me. If I saw a group of, say, chimpanzees doing something like this, I’d be like, “whoa, that’s some super wholesome chimpanzee action over there.” I’d think: those are some delightful and intelligent creatures. I would be lucky to be able to spend some time with them.

Sadly, the world of games — and it sounds ridiculous to even say this, but unfortunately it’s true — has been a rather scary and unwelcoming place over the past few weeks. I don’t want to feed the trolls too much. But I will say this: the holy war that #GamerGate fanatics have been waging against bloggers, journalists, indie game developers, and academics is more than just a transparent rationalization for misogyny, territorialism, and the willful denial of fundamental facts; it is also, and to me perhaps most objectionably, an insult to all the real problems that plague this problem-plagued world.

Everyone you love, everything you admire, your very self, and every trace of you will one day be gone. There are gangs of heavily-armed brainwashed murderers ramping up a genocide in the Levant. There are thousands — actually, millions — of human beings who must sleep outside on the pavement of the cities we live in. Outside on the pavement — right down the street from here! There are people serving lengthy prison sentences for extremely minor crimes or for crimes they did not commit. There are species of animals disappearing every day. There are people learning that they are dying. There are people learning that the ones they love are dying or dead.

This is the world we live in, no matter how much we may want to pretend it isn’t. Every life and everything ends — and there can be so much shit along the way. And so I find it both bizarre and just devastatingly sad to see that some people can be so wrapped up in bullshit as to think that the most righteous crusade they can embark upon — the best way they can spend their precious time on this planet — involves threatening, sexually harassing, smearing, or otherwise committing acts of physical or psychological violence against writers and artists who have dared to talk about or make games — games, people — in new or different or critical ways.

So I propose we initiate a reboot of the games space tonight. Instead of piling more meanness onto the world, I say we celebrate games and the simple facts of being together and having the good fortune in this moment to not have to run for our lives or face some irreversible loss. I say we have a good fucking time, and do what it takes to make sure as many other people as possible can, too — because that’s the point, isn’t it? I for one can’t have fun if the fun I’m having is ruining someone else’s day. In short, I say we lead by example. I say we remind everyone through what we do here that the thing we can all probably agree on about games is that they’re a way of bringing light into what can be a very, very dark place. Let’s bring that light tonight. Let’s see how brightly it can shine.

Games can be such beautiful things. However temporarily, they can free our spirits from the shackles of confusion, horror, loss, and unfairness that so often tie us down in our everyday lives. They can transport us to other worlds, bring us together, inspire us, thrill us, scare us, make us think, make us cry, make us laugh, give us something to look forward to, give us a moment’s respite, offer us a form of meditation or release, enlighten us, awaken us, teach us, empower us, make us jump up and down, move us to explore and discover, dazzle us, take our breath away, and so, so, much more. That’s what you came here to do. To give those kinds of things to the world. To love, not to hate.

That’s something worth celebrating.

Now go to it.

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Syllabus: Survey of Interactive Media (CTCS-505)

The tangled relationship between theory and practice presents us with something of a chicken-and-egg problem. On the one hand, we could say that all action emerges out of theory: we observe the world, generate various hypotheses about how things might work, then take action accordingly. But we could say with equal authority that it is action that comes first, for it is only through observing and interpreting the consequences of our actions – that is, through experimentation – that we ever really learn anything. Without action, there is no meaning, for there is nothing to make meaning with.

It is the position of this course that both these perspectives are true. Theory and practice are two sides of the same coin – or, perhaps more accurately, two steps in the same cycle. Enriching one enriches the other. Indeed, the one simply does not exist without the other. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our art and design practice always both informs and is informed by the contexts within which it occurs. The more we can be aware of where our work comes from, where it is heading, and what it does to the world it inhabits, the better designers and wiser artists we will be.

The primary focii of this course are the historical origins and theoretical contexts of interactive media and games. Our main objective is to deepen and broaden our awareness of the cultural, social, economic, and political implications and possibilities inherent to and latent in contemporary interactive media. Of particular interest are questions related to the functioning of narrative, the affordances of play and procedurality, and conceptions of space, time, and bodies. The first third of the course will entail the development of a common language for discussing these matters, using the concept of the situation, defined here as “an opportunity to act,” as a starting point for addressing interactive media from three perspectives: play, narrative, and space. The final two-thirds of the course will build on this foundation through an exploration via student-led discussions of a set of related themes.

CTCS-505-Rev1-2 (.pdf)
CTCS-505-Modules (.pdf)

Syllabus: Introduction to Interactive Entertainment (CTIN-190)

CTIN-190 Title Card
The rapid rise in the power and accessibility of digital technology has made possible myriad new forms of entertainment, artistic expression, and socio-political engagement. Among these new forms, videogames and other kinds of interactive entertainment offer artists and designers unprecedented opportunities to engage not just with audiences, but with players and participants. Drawing on voices from game studies, cultural studies, art history, social psychology, game design practice, and games journalism, this course will explore a range of critical frameworks for understanding and analyzing digital games and related forms of interactive entertainment. To facilitate this exploration, digital works and practices will be contextualized within the broader history of games, interaction design, and play – a history that predates electronic computation by thousands of years and includes diverse cultural practices such as performance art, ritual, and political activism.

CTIN-190-Rev4 (.pdf)

Metapixels: Life in life


Conway’s Game of Life, implemented in Conway’s Game of Life.

The OTCA metapixel is a 2048 × 2048 period 35328 unit cell that was constructed by Brice Due between the autumn of 2005 and the spring of 2006. It has many advantages over the previous-known unit cells such as the p5760 unit Life cell and deep cell, including the ability to emulate any Life-like cellular automaton and the fact that, when zoomed out, the ON and OFF cells are easy to distinguish (the ON version of the cell is shown to the right and the OFF version of the cell is shown below). (LifeWiki)

See also: More views of the metapixel

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