E3: Putting Play in its Place Since 1995


There’s so much wrong with the videogames industry, and there will always be important work to be done within it. But sometimes, in our attention to urgent matters, we can lose the forest for the trees. The entire enterprise deserves our critical attention. Events like #E32016 (and many other games conferences and events) should remind us that this business exists because it is lucrative to corporations and their subsidiaries & dependents — from media conglomerates to resource extraction firms to hardware manufacturers to startup dev teams and beyond.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, we should never forget that this industry, at almost every level, is fundamentally about capturing and holding our attention and playfulness so as to convert them into various forms of capital — and that the preponderance of that capital ends up in the hands of a relative few. Events like #E32016 continue the process of normalizing this kind of capture (and our willing surrender to it).

It’s a dark irony that this supposedly pro-play industry is ultimately about disciplining play, rather than liberating it, by putting play and players into their “proper place” as controllable and measurable commodities. It is about using play to turn a buck or build a brand. Sure, all play is transformative, and all play activities can be understood in one way or another through a lens of “use” — but not all transformation is for the better, and not all uses bear the same relations to justice and equity. If we really want to talk about play and democracy (and take action accordingly), we have to talk about what videogames are, and how, if at all, we might resist this uniquely subtle form of spectacle that seeks to chew up and “monetize” our will-to-play.

TL;DR – the Latin root of the word, “entertain” is “to hold.”

A summer filmmaking assignment for my students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts

The film is exactly 97 minutes long, including credits. All the dialogue adds up to a total of 109 words. The story is told in eighteen scenes. Each scene is a single uncut shot. The main character is a superhero. The superhero does not wear a costume. The superhero saves no one, solves no crimes, does not have a rival, does not engage in combat, and does not have a secret identity. There is no love interest. The superhero dies in the end. We learn nothing about how the superhero became the superhero. The superhero is not famous, nor are they known as a superhero, nor do they think of themselves as a hero of any kind. There is nothing special at all about the superhero. The superhero is neither rich nor poor, tall nor short, fat nor skinny, smart nor stupid. Four of the film’s eighteen scenes have no dialogue at all. One of the film’s eighteen scenes is in a different language than the rest of the film, for reasons that are never explained (the scene involves the superhero talking on a cell phone). Subtitles are allowed in this scene, but must be in a third language, and that language must not be referenced at any other point in the film. Any music used in the film must have been recorded no later than January 1, 1982, and no earlier than February 16, 1966. The music must not contain any lyrics unless they are in a language different from all of the other languages featured in the film. The superhero must have the most screen time of any of the characters in the film, but must also speak the second- or third-fewest lines. The dominant color of the film should be either mustard or mallard green. The film must have a main title and at least two “alternate” titles. At least one of the titles must include a number or symbol. The director credited for the film must be a made-up character/pseudonym, and the real name of the director of the film must be listed in the credits as “Volunteer Assistant Office Manager.” The film should cost no more than $500 to produce, and must be completed and uploaded to Vimeo or YouTube prior to August 15, 2016.

Network Earth

Is it possible to predict when a complex system will collapse? Might network analysis enable us to identify the “tipping points” of economies and ecologies at a variety of scales? Could such analyses increase our odds of averting catastrophe? This data visualization by Mauro Martino and Jianxi Gao illustrates recent findings by Gao, Baruch Barzel, and Albert-László Barabási, published this week in Nature. Abstract here:

Resilience, a system’s ability to adjust its activity to retain its basic functionality when errors, failures and environmental changes occur, is a defining property of many complex systems. Despite widespread consequences for human health, the economy and the environment, events leading to loss of resilience—from cascading failures in technological systems to mass extinctions in ecological networks—are rarely predictable and are often irreversible. These limitations are rooted in a theoretical gap: the current analytical framework of resilience is designed to treat low-dimensional models with a few interacting components, and is unsuitable for multi-dimensional systems consisting of a large number of components that interact through a complex network. Here we bridge this theoretical gap by developing a set of analytical tools with which to identify the natural control and state parameters of a multi-dimensional complex system, helping us derive effective one-dimensional dynamics that accurately predict the system’s resilience. The proposed analytical framework allows us systematically to separate the roles of the system’s dynamics and topology, collapsing the behaviour of different networks onto a single universal resilience function. The analytical results unveil the network characteristics that can enhance or diminish resilience, offering ways to prevent the collapse of ecological, biological or economic systems, and guiding the design of technological systems resilient to both internal failures and environmental changes. (Nature)

Wikipedia Method #1

WikiGalaxy Wikipedia visualization by Owen Cornec.

Think of a known idea, person, place, or thing you care about and/or want to learn more about.

Ideally, this whatever-it-is should have its own Wikipedia article. For example, “Love,” or “Austre Moland.”

Now go to Wikipedia and click on “Random Article.”

Try to get closer (in whatever way “closer” makes sense to you at the time) to the idea/place/thing/whatever you originally thought of by clicking on a link contained in the Random Article. Take care to only click on internal Wikipedia links.

This will load up a new Wikipedia article. Once again, try to get closer to your target idea by clicking on a link in the new article.

Repeat this process until you arrive at the Wikipedia article for your whatever-it-is.

You may go back or start over entirely if you hit a dead end.

Note down each step in your journey.

Transform your notes into a narrative or essay.


High-fives at a distance:

The [Haptoclone] system concentrates ultrasound energy at the intersections of the real and clone objects, which creates pressure to the real objects. If the “real object” is your finger, you feel contact force from the 3D clone object by the ultrasonic radiation pressure. At the same time, the same forces are applied to the original real object (of the clone) in the other workspace. The posture and the shape of the hand can be arbitrary. (Shinoda-Makino Lab)

Reality is an Emergency

CNTV101 - Week 4 - Narrative

The following is an edited version of my remarks delivered to close the Fall 2015 run of “Reality Starts Here” (CNTV-101), a foundational class attended by all first-year students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Designed as both a stand-alone class and a curricular complement to the school’s opt-in pervasive media-making game, Reality Ends Here, the class explores the theory and practice of entertainment, both as a timeless element of human affairs, and as something undergoing radical change. These remarks address the constructed nature of reality, the responsibility of the artist, and the necessity of empathy.

Reality is an emergency. Everything in the universe is quite literally in a state of emergence, changing from one form to another each instant, each minute, day after day, eon after eon. As Heraclitus once said, “no one ever steps in the same river twice.” Everything is in motion. Your world today is different from your world yesterday. We try to explain it all and lend it some sense of unity with science and story, but nobody understands what’s actually going on, not really. We are only ever able to illuminate a tiny part of the proverbial cave. Everywhere we look there are unanswered and unanswerable questions. 

So: how to act? What to do? Where do we start? I can’t give you a straight answer to any of those questions. For the most part, you’ll have to get there by yourselves. I know you’re on your way already. But I do want to leave you with some provisional insights, not specifically about filmmaking or virtual reality or game design, but about life in general, and the relationship between art and life. 

You can take it or leave it. You people are smart and well-positioned and you’re doing a thing — entertainment — that for whatever fucked-up set of reasons can and does have a huge impact on this world, and I’m charged with teaching you, if only for a semester. This is me taking a shot at making some closing comments that might have some meaning to you or might come in handy in some way wherever life ends up taking you. 

Reality is an emergency, and we’re all in it together. That’s kind of the starting point here. I like to think of what we do as artists as a kind of mercy, a way to mitigate this dire situation of being alive. At its best, art is a gift we give others because we recognize on some level that our fellow beings, whoever they may be, are just as baffled and longing for insight and hopeful and fragile as we are, and we make art to make things better somehow, if only for a limited time, by enlightening, distracting, comforting, empowering, thrilling, inspiring, tickling, or what-have-you. It’s a wonderful thing, art. It’s a light in this sometimes very dark world.

What I’d like to ask you to do is take that merciful, giving, empathetic attitude that’s already obviously built into you in one way or another, into every corner of your lives. 

Of course, being merciful, giving, and empathetic isn’t always easy or possible. Other people can be hell. Personalities can clash, especially when not everyone is as zenned-out as you are. There really is confusion and evil in this world, and sometimes you need to fight. But always try to give in life as you give in art, even (and maybe especially) in the most trying moments you face in your dealings with other beings. In such moments, I’ve always found it best to take the high road (and I’ve learned this from taking the other path), and to look upon meanness and selfishness and other forms of confusion with compassion. Even the biggest asshole you’ve ever met ends up gasping a last breath and dying someday: feel that, and the route to the high road becomes obvious.

The high road leads away from the noise of petty bullshit and takes you to the quiet places where there’s room to make art. Go far enough up and you get to the clouds. It’s misty and cool up there, and you can only see just a bit, just enough to make out the things that matter, the things that are close to you and that you can touch and that you invite to join you. Don’t get caught up in the lowlands of the trivial because life isn’t trivial. Rise up to the level of reality.

Reality is absurd and strange and epic and infinite and there are no solid answers and we all end up losing everything. On the other hand, each of you is a full-on human being: a sentient, conscious, creative entity capable of doing the most incredible things. Squabbling over small stuff is a tragic waste of this precious kind of being, and you should do as little of it as is absolutely necessary. So long as you have the ability to do so, spend your days seeking out and creating moments of transcendence and magic and connection and let the rest of it fall away.

I sometimes think of all the individual perceiving subjects on this planet as being one in the same, like a forest of aspen (you’ve probably heard this analogy before), which looks like many trees, but is actually only one: a single tree with many trunks and a giant shared root system. And so maybe when we look at each other, it’s just the same thing looking at itself from two different points of view. Or maybe that’s not it at all. Whatever you think life is, all of it is in the same boat, stuck on this plane to die; and for us, in particular, the humans, it’s maybe a little extra difficult because we know we’re going to die: we can anticipate it and ask questions, like “why are we here,” but we can’t do anything about our fundamental condition as mortal beings subject to the whims of an indifferent universe. It’s enough to make a person anxious, even desperate. 

One way to deal with the uncertainty and unfathomabilty of it all is through the acquisition of power and the domination or exploitation of others. You separate yourself off, pitting yourself against the world that you are a part of, and try to impose a fixity on a thing that is inherently always in flux. But of course that fearful, willful, denial-driven style of being is exactly what leads to the kinds of inequities we see tearing the world apart. It takes you off the high road and away from the giving and truth-telling impulses of art. Have no illusions. Own the anxiety associated with being alive, with this emergency situation. Truly feel it and embrace it because if not now, when? Don’t try to bury it or forget about it. Use it. Be honest.

Be honest with your art. Do the kind of art that makes your heart sing, because if your heart is singing, well, then that’s at least one heart that’s singing, and the world needs more singing hearts. Remember that this isn’t just about you. It’s about all of us, all the trunks of the proverbial aspen. What you bring into the world matters. Making art isn’t just about saying something because saying something is never just about saying something. Saying something does something. Everything you make does something. Be mindful of that. And be honest.

Be honest and find ways to share that commitment to the truth. Speak truth to power. Stand up for the marginalized, the oppressed, the abused, the forgotten. Right wrongs. Call out the gaslighters and the manipulators. Do some good, or at least, try to minimize the harm you do and step up to stop the harm that others might do. Try to be the shepherd.

It’s not always going to be easy. You’ll be tempted to drift away from honesty and to recycle old ideas or follow some safe formula that’s worked before because that will seem like the easier path. Resist that temptation. Seek after the new. Remember Heraclitus: the world is new every year, every day, every moment, and we need new dreams to come to terms with those new worlds and to push them toward the light.

Everything is constructed. The future is yours to shape through story and play and experience. Take that responsibility seriously, and never lose track of what got you here — that spark, that joyful instinct to create and to dream. Remember that reality ends here, precisely where it starts, in the ever-present Now wherein the dream makes the dreamer and the dreamer makes the dream.

Thank you and happy holidays, dreamers.

Distant Early Warning


In 1969, Marshall McLuhan published Distant Early Warning, a playing card deck his estate describes as “a problem-solving device.” The deck was a part of the DEW Line Newsletter project (a “startling, shocking Early Warning System for our era of instant change”), which delivered McLuhan’s dispatches to subscribers via a range of unconventional formats, including records and decks of slides.

Based on these images, there are a few zingers in here — “With data banks, we are taped, typed and scrubbed” — and some thought has been put into which kinds of slogans or quotes appear on which kinds of cards. But much of the text hasn’t aged well, and it is sometimes hard to see this as much more than just a customized poker deck. I love the idea of people in 1969 getting curious bespoke “Newsletters” from Marshall McLuhan in oddball formats like card decks, but, at least compared to other popular works by McLuhan — notably, The Medium is the Massage (1967) — this feels slightly mailed-in. Even so, it remains a fascinating object.

You can buy the DEW Line card deck from Eric McLuhan.

Cyberpunk: Past and Future


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.