DiGRA 2013 Talks


I’m presenting a paper and a workshop at this year’s Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) Conference in Atlanta. The paper, “A Reality Game to Cross Disciplines: Fostering Networks and Collaboration,” co-written with Benjamin Stokes, Tracy Fullerton, and Simon Wiscombe, “introduces a new possibility: that games can directly shape real-world networks, even as they educate.” We illustrate this possibility via a case study and network analysis of our pervasive game, Reality. You can download a copy of the paper from the proceedings here.

The workshop, “(Re)conquering Space: a Reality Game Workshop” (Aug 28 @10:15am), co-presented with Simon Wiscombe, is a remix of my “Stirring $#!!* Up With Games” talk. This is a hands-on workshop where we’ll be coming up with prototypes for games that address lived environments and spaces such as the DiGRA conference itself.

Readers who are interested in a more complete breakdown of the design approach discussed in the workshop may want to check out my dissertation, “Reality Ends Here: Environmental Game Design and Participatory Spectacle” (.pdf), or the project page for Reality.

Here’s an extended description of the workshop:

This workshop is intended for those who wish to explore how games can be designed to directly impact the social and cultural fabrics of lived environments such as public institutions, workplaces, and neighborhoods. In specific, this workshop is about how artists, entertainers, educators, policy-makers, and activists can design games to embolden and empower communities to actively engage in the creative construction of their own realities.

The kinds of games explored in this workshop vary wildly in terms of the ways in which they employ technology. Many draw more on the praxis of party games, Happenings, and Situationism than they do on traditional computational games. What all the games mentioned and imagined in this workshop have in common is that they are woven into or layered upon the lived environments of their players, and have an immediate impact on the ways that these environments are used. These kinds of games go beyond merely calling for change by actually bringing it about through playful interventions that both embody and enable transformation, discovery, and social engagement.

Attendees of this workshop will emerge with an understanding of the key principles of reality game design, including:
1. Design Around the Local
2. Action, Not Simulation
3. Optimize for Agency
4. The Social is the Medium
5. Iteration and Permeability

This is a hands-on workshop. It does not require any special technical abilities, but it does demand a willingness to play and experiment. Working in groups, attendees will use a flexible methodology to create prototypes for reality games. Using the play experiences that take place in the workshop as a touchstone, broader questions regarding the relationship between reality games and social/cultural impact will be addressed and discussed.

More info: DiGRA 2013

Pronunciation Book

“Empathy is the key to science. You don’t know that when you begin.” Tumble into the rabbit hole that is the Pronunciation Book YouTube channel, which has been counting down to…something…for the past 47 days. You may have stumbled across the Pronunciation Book before the countdown began, when all it was doing was telling you how to pronounce things like Quinnipiac, Enjolras, and banana. But since July 9th, 2013, the channel has taken a decidedly mysterious turn. Sarah Brin (@dinosaurrparty) of The Creators Project writes:

It may be possible that Pronunciation Book is not so much a game as it is an alternative reality. More specifically, it may be possible that the words and phrases repeated in the series are telling a story. However fragmented and sometimes Pynchonian the narrative may appear, this mode of storytelling may be a new development in the field of serial narratives. (Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov and many other writers were known to have published their work in regular installments, too.)

This is all pure conjecture, of course, and we’ll have to wait September 24th (77 days from July 9, 2013) to find out whether or not there is a message to be found within Pronunciation Book. (The Creators Project)

More: Unfiction: Pronunciation Book – Countdown 77

SXSW PanelPicker: Reality Games to Unleash DIY and Maker Cultures

Want to learn more about Reality? Want another good reason to go to Austin for SXSW 2014? If so, please head on over to the SXSW PanelPicker and vote for our Interactive Panel, “Reality Games to Unleash DIY and Maker Cultures.” The panel features members from our expanding Reality team, including Donald Brinkman of Microsoft Research, Tracy Fullerton of USC, Jason Pace of University of Washington, and me (of OCAD University).

SXSW panels are selected based in part on how many votes they receive via the PanelPicker. So please do vote for our panel — we want an excuse to come down there and see you!

The Nordic Larp Discourse

“The Nordic Larp Discourse” is a fascinating and inspiring collection of videos, essays, manifestos, and resources about Nordic live action role-playing. These games/experiences provoke a bevy of intriguing ideas about experience design, transmedia storytelling, immersive theatre, and environmental game design.

If you’re coming to this without any background at all, Nordic larp is the tradition of live-action roleplaying (it used to be an acronym, but it’s a noun in its own right now). It differs from traditional larp in other places by taking its stories much more seriously, and spending more time telling stories that emphasize naturalistic emotion. Nordic larp, as talked about here, refers to a specific community. While there’s no fully agreed upon definition, this community doesn’t include all larps in the Nordic countries — there are plenty of light-hearted fantasy games that have fairly little to do with what this community. (dymaxion.org)

See also: additional documentation on System Denmark (and many other larps mentioned in the Dymaxion article) at Nordic Larp Wiki.

# Jul 12, 2013

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample — that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him…Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is fearful behavior.”

Stephen King – The Adverb Is Not Your Friend

Half a shade off from the reality we are living already: an interview with Jacob Garbe of ISA

Jacob Garbe is a Bay Area artist, designer, and MFA student at UC Santa Cruz. His latest ARG-like creation, XMPLAR, involves an iOS and Android app, a frighteningly believable fictional corporation (of which Jacob is apparently an employee), a series of physical installations involving a dizzying array of display systems and interfaces, and a live performance. If you’re in the area, you can experience the dramatic culmination of this phase of XMPLAR at the UCSC DANM ground (ctrl) exhibition on May 2, 2013. The exhibit runs until the 5th, but the opening reception on the 2nd promises to be extra special. Wherever you are, you can explore the app and website now and for the foreseeable future. Jacob spoke with me via email over the weekend:

First, could you tell us a little bit about XMPLAR, both from a storyworld point of view, and from your perspective as an artist?

XMPLAR is about a collective of nascent artificial intelligences created to learn and evolve with stimulus from crowd-sourced photography/surveillance. The gist of the experience is one where the player is put into an initially uneasy partnership with an AI, which gradually matures over time into a more whole-hearted commitment to its concerns and desires. It’s a world only half a shade off from the reality we are living already, with a soupçon of magical realism thrown in to spice things up.

As an artist, this piece is trying to concretize some ideas I’ve had for awhile now about the use of technology to create persistently reactive work. The intention is to make something that evolves over time, but never requires people to start from scratch. I’m looking to build a long-term relationship with my audience, over multiple experiences in different media. It’s also an exorcism/indictment of the always-hungry corporate façades doing their best to monetize, control, or package a product from the world around us.

How did you get into this kind of practice? What’s your background, and why are you interested in this strange hybrid of narrative, interaction design, and performance?

I was into computer science and robotics when I was younger, but had a change of heart while in undergrad, and ran headlong into Humanities. I’ve also always considered myself a writer in practice, if not so much in product at times. So there’s a thread of narrative to all my concerns.

After graduating, I started making my peace with the science/art, hard/soft disciplines through works of hyperfiction, which got me interested in the use of anonymized tracking in order to make readers’ experiences persistent. I was working as a web and graphic designer at the time in Kentucky.

I entered the UC Santa Cruz Digital Arts New Media program two years ago, and everything has exploded from there. I’ve gotten really interested in using web technology to make reactive projection installations, as well as bringing back my work with physical materials through electronics.

To me, working with all these different media is a way to push myself, and to also break through the barrier of normalcy we’ve built up around technology. I want to make it magical again. I love to make things composed of ordinary parts that, when added up, become extraordinary.

Who or what are some touchstone inspirations for you?

I’m inspired materially by the growing normalization of surveillance–both on a person-to-person level, and the organizational level–through mobile apps and GPS. Businesses like Internet Eyes, where we’re given the ability to spy on each other with sanction from the government through their own CCTV cameras, and given “prizes” for catching criminals, is a source of constant amusement and horror to me. There are so many corporate entities out there that eclipse any fiction I can create, the best I can hope is to pull faces at it and hope to expose that to my audience.

On a lighter note, I find a lot of inspiration in the work of other ARGs like the Jejune Institute and your own Reality Ends Here! I think these works are ultimately a real labor of love, and those sorts of experiences where creators take an intensely individual focus on the recipients is really ballsy and laudable.

I’m fascinated by the role of chaos in this project, particularly with respect to narrative. At first, the prompts I receive from my XMPLAR seem totally random. But as things move on, various structures — story figures, characters, etc — start to emerge. How did you do this — and, perhaps more importantly, why?

There are a couple intentions at work in the code. On one level there is an element of randomness, within the bounds of a selected set. I’m drawing from a database of millions of concepts, so things can naturally diverge quite quickly. But I try to build in checks such that the player is drawn into certain directions as they move through the experience. It sort of builds a bank as you go, and that informs its selection process. But it’s important to me to allow space for the player to map their own ideas onto the XMPLAR’s workings. There is nothing more interesting to me than hearing people offer theories on what they think the XMPLAR are doing when they take that picture!

There is also a particular story I am hoping to tell with this first chapter. But as with all good ARGs, it’s important to me to see what the players are thinking, and to let that shape the story moving forward. I’m hoping it will be a highly-mediated, but highly-responsive, dialogue!

I know you’re collecting a lot of data in real-time about usage of the app, and that this data is going to appear in a variety of ways at the exhibition. Are you seeing anything surprising in the ways that people are using the app? Are there any common trends in the way that people engage with their XMPLARs?

I’ve been surprised by how wildly the engagement varies. I was also surprised to see a fair number of people dive into the app before I’d really planned on any way of getting the word out! Thankfully having that information available made it possible to react quickly. It’s probably also horribly American of me, but I’m surprised at how the distribution of users has been pretty even-handed inside and outside the US. And to be honest, I’ve been surprised and a little unnerved at how the XMPLAR processes have been recovering from errors and ushering people onward in the experience. The chaos I’ve introduced into the project is hopefully a wave I can continue to ride!

I like interacting with my XMPLAR in front of my TV. It’s actually a great way of watching TV, as it gets me searching through the channels for images I could use as responses to the prompts. I find myself watching stuff I wouldn’t normally watch, and looking at parts of the frame I usually tune out. In this way, my XMPLAR is detourning my TV watching experience. How is this typical (and/or atypical) of the way you expected people to engage with the project?

Oh wow, I hadn’t even thought of that! That’s amazing. Taking a picture of a picture of a picture! But that’s exactly the experience I am hoping to create. I’ve had players come up to me and tell me how they had never noticed something totally weird in their day-to-day world until their XMPLAR asked them to take a picture of “fine-grained parallelism” or something like that. And that’s what I’m shooting for with this first chapter.

Where and when is the exhibition, and what can people expect to see there?

The big opening is on May 2nd from 8-10pm…this Thursday! It’s at the Digital Arts Research Center up at UC Santa Cruz. I’m exhibiting with other members of my cohort in the Digital Arts program. In addition to getting a chance to see some of the data visualizations of what’s currently happening in the game, there are some interesting plans in motion that should hopefully result in a very punctuated, transitory, and shocking experience. There will be some recording happening I think as well (as any automated security company worth its salt would) so people physically unable to attend should keep an eye on the ISA Website.

Finally, what’s next for XMPLAR — and for you?

If you can believe it, I’m going to be starting a PhD in Expressive Intelligence at UC Santa Cruz this fall. So there may be more fact in XMPLAR than people suspect by the end of things, as far as AI goes. The idea is to fold this ongoing piece into my practice moving forward, while pushing myself in the sort of “harder” areas of artificial intelligence to substantiate the fiction more fully, while also continuing to move the experience into weird areas like telerobotics and cybernetic systems!

Thanks, Jacob!

Further information: Integrated Security Automation, Inc., UCSC DANM ground (ctrl), Jacob Garbe.

# Apr 4, 2013

“I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

Roger Ebert – I do not fear death

# Mar 19, 2013

“It is by questioning the obvious that we make great progress. This is where breakthroughs come from. We need to question the obvious, to reformulate our beliefs, and to redefine existing solutions, approaches, and beliefs. That is design thinking.”

Don Norman – Rethinking Design Thinking

AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS: A web audio adventure


AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, a “web audio adventure” by Christy Dena, Craig Peebles, Trevor Dikes and Simon Howe, is the kind of project I’d love to see more of on the web. Described as “a unique audio experience that combines radio drama and web navigation,” AIAC uses the process of visiting and traversing among websites as an opportunity for story-rich flanerie.

Taking its cues from both the time-tested (and, in my opinion, much undervalued) art of radio drama, and the more recent practice of real-world locative storytelling, AIAC presents a hybrid experience that promises to mix the active engagement modes inherent in web navigation with more reflective or readerly modes of story apprehension.

We’ve created this new way to experience the web. What we’ve done is create a unique audio experience that combines radio drama and web navigation. But the websites you go to will all be fictional ones we’ve created especially for this experience.

You’ll download an app to play on your iPad. Once open, you’ll be guided by a narrator and the characters as they travel across the web to their fictional websites. So you’ll hear the drama unfold, see the fictional websites, and click around the web with the characters. (Pozible.com: AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS)


I’ve known Christy for a few years now, and she’s always at the forefront of imagining new ways of leveraging new media to mix storytelling and play. AIAC demonstrates that she’s continuing along that path. The project is presently in the stretch run of a funding drive, so head over to Pozible and help bring this new kind of interactive story experience into the world.