Some Stuff I’ve Been Up To

Man, I sure wasn’t kidding about being busy in that last post. (I guess I was kidding about doing another post “soon,” given that that was two months ago. Yikes.) I hope you’ll agree, at least, that I’ve been keeping busy with interesting things lately.

Let’s Sing!: Not too long after I wrote that last post, I got to work on graphic and interactive design for an iOS game designed by Lex Friedman and Marco Tabini. It was my first foray into designing for an iOS app and doing visuals for a video game, so I was pretty excited. Also, it’s really, really fun. (Think “Draw Something, but with humming instead of drawing.”)

Five Ways Games Appeal to Players: I did a bunch of research about why people play games – quite a bit of it appearing in an earlier form on this blog – but finally decided I’d rather get it in front of game developers than just in front of academics. (Long story short: it’s a little more complex than “people play games because of challenge!” or “people play games for different reasons based on their personality!”) I’ve been a fan of Gamasutra for a while now, so I was pretty proud to get this in there.

Hate the Gamer, Not the Game: This piece at PocketNext is specifically about gamer identity rather than geek identity, but I think the sentiments will be pretty familiar to readers around here. While some people wish that terms like ‘gamer,’ ‘geek,’ and ‘nerd’ would go away entirely, normalizing the habits they describe, I think it’s problematic to deny people the right to choose their own terms of identity.

The Worst Company in America: As long as I’m going to defend my fellow nerds with one link, I might as well chastise us with another. This PocketNext piece is about EA winning the Consumerist’s “Worst Company in America” poll over Bank of America, and what problems that might suggest about geeky voting blocs.

The Flip-Flop President: Look, there’s just no way to say this that doesn’t sound awkward: I made an political attack ad against President Lincoln. But it was for a good cause! is a humorous spinoff of, dedicated to educating about political communication through humor. This is part of a campaign to use modern-day political advertising techniques against our nation’s most beloved president, encouraging viewers to think critically about how ads are made.

All right, I’ll try do to better than two months before getting to the next post I have in mind – some links on geekdom by others I’ve been looking forward to sharing for some time now.

Playing in the Streets

The following is an excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, Geek Cultures: Media and Identity in the Digital Age. It has been edited for the web.

Just south of Central Park, walking north on Broadway, we were spotted. A group of 50 or so people hurled their attack at us from across the street, shouting at the top of their lungs: “Can we help you?”

We screamed our response: “We’re amazed by you!”

Both attacks flew wide. We announced, “You’re too kind,” and each team proceeded on its way.

Cruel 2 B Kind is a game of “benevolent assassination.” It’s played in normal social spaces, where you don’t necessarily know who’s in on the game and who isn’t. Like the “assassins” games that have been played on college campuses for years, the purpose is to hunt some target and avoid being hunted yourself. In this particular variant, however, there’s a twist: You “kill” enemies with a warm greeting. If you hit the right players with your compliment, you absorb them into your team. If you hit the wrong players, they inform you that “you’re too kind.” If you hit someone who’s not playing – well, it’s friendlier than traditional crossfire, at least.

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It’s About Games, Not Pockets

After months of blog silence, I emerge from my internet hibernation to unleash upon you a flurry of articles about video games. I’ve been quiet around these parts mostly because of all the writing I’ve been doing elsewhere – and the venue I’ve poured the most into finally launched today. PocketNext presents reviews, previews, interviews, and features on free mobile games (but their new Features Editor is kind of a big nerd).

We’re launching with a bunch of reviews already up, with plenty more on the way. I’d especially like to draw your attention, however, to some of the commentaries and features I’ve been working on over the last few months, including pieces on…

I’ll have more to say soon about some of the other venues I’ve been writing for. For now, though, I’m too excited about this project finally seeing the light of day to share this space with anything else!

The Tales Dead Men Don’t Tell

Remember Dead Island? Maybe you saw the award-winning trailer some months back. Internet audiences were captivated by its short, strangely affecting story of a family torn apart by zombies (both literally and figuratively). The reviews coming out now, of course, paint a picture of a game pretty unlike that singularly remarkable advertisement, and the comparisons aren’t really favorable. Dead Island’s ad seemed to promise something new that the game itself wasn’t prepared to deliver, something that developers still have yet to make a reality, something that gamers and even broader audiences are still hoping to see – and it isn’t just an especially emotional zombie game.

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Listen to Me Talk Too Much

I made a guest appearance on the latest episode of The Incomparable Podcast with my good friends Dan Moren and Tony Sindelar, and my new gaming idol, Scott McNulty. The topic: roleplaying games! (Apologies if you’re offended by podcasts that break Godwin’s Law as early as the title, though, even if it is in the context of a gaming joke.)

During the podcast, each of us chats about our personal experiences in gaming, I fail to restrain myself from babbling about my dissertation research, Scott awes and terrifies with his tales of villainy, and Hipster, Please! gets an unplanned plug (because we recorded it right when I finally got around to listening to 20-Sided Rhymes). I hope you enjoy it.

The Game(s) of The Year

I love video games. But….

I realized recently that just about everything I write about games could start that way. I write about games because I find them so interesting to play and to analyze, but as any of my friends will tell you, I am one of the most cantankerous and critical entertainment consumers you will ever meet. I’m the guy who complains on the way out of the epic movie we just watched together because of that plot hole in act 2, or who watches every episode of Lost just to pick apart every foreshadowed plot point that never comes up again, or who tells you in one conversation that he loved Red Dead Redemption and then will go write an entire blog post about its flaws.

I am hard to please, and even when I am pleased, I’ll probably still criticize. This is why I don’t really reflect much on the “Game of the Year.” I can’t pick one; I’m too picky.

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Red Dead Railroading

Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption represents an interesting contradiction in game design. On the one hand, as a “sandbox” game, it represents everything that game critics and scholars have been saying about how the real strength of the medium is in choice, challenge, and exploration, and not in traditional storytelling. On the other hand, the story it tells—if you make a point to actually follow instructions and go complete story missions—is exceptionally linear, sometimes even restrictively so. Critics seem pretty darn near universally tickled pink by both aspects of the game, gushing not only about the richness and fidelity of the world, but also about their involvement with story and attachment to characters.

I liked the game, too, but I think I must have been spoiled by all the RPGs I play that take “choice” as a matter of course in plot development. Actually, what bothered me most about Red Dead Redemption wasn’t the lack of choice per se in any given interaction—such as not being able to choose your own dialog in cut scenes, as you might in many RPGs—but the times where it looked like I had a choice and it turned out I didn’t.

(Some major SPOILERS follow.)

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Hunting for Mysteries

I have a new article up online, titled “Hunting for Mysteries.” It’s a short piece inspired by both my research and my personal experiences at the MIT Mystery Hunt (which I look forward to attending again in about a month).

You might notice that this isn’t the kind of peer-reviewed, open-access academic research article I normally link to here. For a change of pace, I thought I’d pitch this one to one of my favorite online magazines, The Escapist Magazine. I’ve been reading The Escapist‘s thoughtful articles on gaming since the publication was available as a (smartly designed) PDF download, and I’ve been pleased to see it getting some additional attention lately through features like Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation reviews.

Even in my academic writing, I try not to sound that academic. Still, it was nice in this case to just relate an experience without worrying about whether I mention enough French theorists or statistical data to be taken seriously by my readers. Also, did you know that some publications will pay you to write things? The novelty of this has yet to wear off. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the piece as much as I enjoyed writing it.

The “Lost” Appeals of Gaming

Back in February, I presented a paper at the Popular Culture Association conference in St. Louis on what I’ve been referring to around here as the multiple appeals of gaming. I’ve been coming back to the paper on and off ever since, poking and prodding it in an attempt to yield something I’d be proud to publish.

The basic point of the paper is to offer a rough typology of elements that players find “appealing” about games, providing an analytical vocabulary that critics, scholars, and developers can use in describing what “works” (and what doesn’t) in game, and why, without assuming that it’s the players themselves who exist in types. The appeals I’ve been looking at are those that I’ve heard or read players themselves describe, even if indirectly, when discussing how they engage with games. I’ve been describing these appeals lately mastery, story, sociality, and foolery (not too unlike what I called them in my early musings on this subject). Some other kinds of appeals have occurred to me as potentially worth discussing, though I haven’t heard other players specifically describe them as much—e.g., do the Wii and Dance Dance Revolution offer an appeal of physicality distinct from other kinds of appeals?

It’s occurred to me recently, though, that I’m leaving out a couple other kinds of “appeals” almost willfully, and maybe that’s just a bit too convenient for me. You don’t hear players describing these as things they like about games, but you might hear players note them as reasons why they play games.

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