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.

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)

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.

2014-09-12 17.13.40

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)

Kalmykia’s Alien Chessmaster’s Chess City

Games don’t need to be linked to an existing IP or storyworld to generate enthusiasm, excitement, and narrative. Indeed, they don’t need to start off with any kind of storyworld at all for players to engage with them, obsess about them, and tell stories about them. If they’re good enough, entire industries can pop up, theme parks will be built, and players will dwell on them even more than they will the latest theories about characters from Game of Thrones. Consider the contemporary world of chess, which includes things like a Russian dissident famous for representing humanity against the forces of artificial intelligence, a Kalmykian billionaire with ties to the Nazis who claims to have been abducted by aliens, and an international rivalry between superpowers. It even has its own city, the appropriately named Chess City:

Back in the days of the Silk Road caravans, this is what people might have called a mirage – a huge glass dome, surrounded by a California-style housing development, rising from the parched brown steppe. That shimmering vision has been brought to life here in Elista, the capital of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, a monument to the power of ego over nature, not to mention common sense and even reason. Its name is Chess City. Like a glassed-in Biosphere on Mars, the four-story dome encloses a cool, fresh world of carpets and comfort, of whispers and intense concentration, where the most brilliant minds of chess compete for diamond crowns. For miles around – in fact for almost all the rest of Kalmykia – 300,000 people live in poverty on the barren plains, where tank trucks deliver drinking water and where dried sheep dung, hoarded through the summer, fuels stoves in winter. (New York Times)

Chess City is one expression of how chess seeds the construction of its own strange world simply by being an interesting game to play. Like a sport, chess offers no storyworld to begin with; rather, it is through the play of the game and the accrual of narrative over time that it tells its tales and builds its monuments. This generative capacity is some of the most intriguing (and sometimes dangerous) black magic of game design.

DiGRA Talk: Drama, Narrative, and Sports

This talk presents an examination of hockey as it exists in early 21st century North America, paying particular attention to how narrative both emerges from, and is embedded within, the situations produced by the sport. 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 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 professional, amateur, and videogame versions of hockey, this talk examines how narrative emerges in, around, and among various contexts of hockey gameplay; how this narrative accrues and impacts both ludic and paraludic situations; and how it can become encoded in the formal structures of the game itself.

Talk delivered August 5, 2014 at DiGRA.

Paper forthcoming. Draft version available upon request.

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