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I'm reading the forward to the very academic book The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, edited by Katie Salen as part of The John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. I've nothing to report on the book itself yet, but a synopsis from the Introduction brought two ideas together and set me thinking.

(Continued beyond the jump)

I just started reading Raph Koster's A Theory Of Fun, and I am having a very heartening deja vu experience. Raph Koster's grandfather asked him, in the wake of the Columbine attacks, whether he was proud of his work making (digital) games. Though I have rarely been put on the spot so directly, I frequently have two similar experiences. First, when I tell certain classes of people that I make digital games, often those who might be politically or demographically grouped with Koster's grandfather, they get a look that raises the question. It's the "oh, that's nice" that you might give an IRS auditor or a hit man if you met them at a party. The other situation is when I am selling or explaining the game that I work on to people. I am lucky enough to be working on a project which I believe is pursuing the best work that I believe the field has to offer, and is doing so consciously. I am lucky enough to get to do the Right Thing with some of the Right People, and I think my work can make a difference in the world.

That second situation makes me sound very confident, but because of the first situation, and my psychological inclinations, I rarely have that confidence. When I am faced with skepticism, I find it easy to be defensive: "oh, not the shooter games," when I enjoy playing shooter games and see merit in their immersion. Or, "... Educational games. For kids. Wholesome non-time-wasting ones," when I think that every game is educational, and that while kids may need guidance toward the richest outlets for their energy and enthusiasm, I think they rarely tolerate real wastes of their time if given an option. It's about context, framing, but that is beside the point when someone thinks that I am asking them to become a dealer of temporal heroin.

Thus it is heartwarming, and familiar, to read about the significance of fun from someone who has spent some time doing, considering, and then articulating the idea. How part of our brains' way of deali with the world is to filter things out, clump concepts and perceptions, iconify them. And how art in general, and games and play specifically, encourage us to (re)consider the ways that we iconify our experience. What paintings are to visual stimulus, and symphonies to auditory stimulus, games can be to our understanding of how the world works and how we categorize or process our experience. Put more simply, games are close to the way we work, and as we learn more about the art (in the craft sense) of games, we learn more about how we work and how to make art (in the lofty sense). And we learn about how to use the art to effect positive change in the world, especially for and by people who don't have a lot of other opportunities to learn that lesson.

I am proud to be a part of that effort.

I spent a bunch of this week at the Games 4 Change 2010 Festival and thinking about the potential for games, mostly digital, to effect change in the world.  Luminaries at the conference (uncited in case I've botched their eloquence) have called games the "art form of social discourse" and "unique as a medium that enacts formal discourse and cultural interpretation with the audience."  Certainly, games are a medium of interaction and engagement, and often model rules that we believe the world to work by.  Playing games can be a powerful way to consider alternative ways of looking at the world within the safe space "of just a game."

As I was preparing for the conference, a friend forwarded me this letter or comment from the Atlantic Monthly's site, and it couldn't have been more timely.  An excerpt (beyond the cut), though it's short and you really should take three minutes to read the whole thing:

Current Readings

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This week I've been preparing for the Games, Learning, Society 5 conference coming up in a few weeks -- which, embarrassingly, means going through all the flyers, papers, and postcards that I picked up last year.  So this week's reading is GLS + links.

Beyond the jump: academics, academic papers, and transmedia.
The most common complaints I see on the Wii Fit are: 1) No one uses it after the first day anyway, and 2) it's a placebo - any benefit that people see from using it they could just as easily could/would have gotten from any other exercise.

To both of these complaints I say: who are you to tear something successful down, and you're wrong, besides.

If you know me, you know that I have very little time for people whose first reaction to success is to minimize and denigrate it.  Their efforts add nothing to the world and take much from it.  There is utility in analyzing a success to learn how it was done, and even more utility in looking at how something harmful has become successful and how to stop it.  But the arguments against the Wii in general, and the WiiFit specifically are not doing that.  Here's an example:

Talk to anyone that actually works in fitness - it isn't actually Wiifit helping them get fit. Wiifit is essentially a placebo. You'd get the same amount of exercise trying to play with the dial on a measuring scale by shifting left and right.

There were two paragraphs in this person's comment, but they both said just that: there are other ways to do this, the WiiFit is fake.  Now, there is nothing productive here.  WiiFit makes *some* people lead healthier lives, gives *some* people the little nudge they need to do that thing they'd been knowing that they should.  That nudge might send them to the gym, in other circumstances.  But in the cases under discussion, the nudge came from WiiFit.  And there is nothing *wrong* with that.  Additionally, if they're not misusing 'placebo', then it actually argues against them. 

Now, my frustration with this has an element to it that is very relevant to  One thing that is very special about playing and about games as they promote play is the creation of a space, temporal and physical, where some of the rules of everyday life are suspended.  In that space, you get a chance to try something that you would not normally do.  The "magic circle" around games allows people to practice at things as well as to sublimate antisocial desires.  Sometimes the thing being practiced is useless, but sometimes it's very very useful, as in the case of WiiFit.

I will, begrudgingly, admit that there's very little "game" in the WiiFit as people commonly use it.  There are mini-games within it, but they are by no means the focus, and there's no metagame around them.  

What there is, however, is a $70 peripheral, a console, and a whole bunch of software creating a "magic circle" ... around *exercise*.  Whether or not people get really into it, at some level they are role-playing a healthier person.  A home is a private place, which makes it excellent for self-conscious people to exercise in; the WiiFit gives them a structure to do that within.  It tracks their progress.  It lets them fail an exercise without embarrassment.  It makes them focus on the screen and their progress rather than on the jiggle of some body part that shouldn't jiggle.   And yes, I speak from experience.

Sometimes the lovers need to wander off into the forest and be enchanted by fairies to sort out their squabbles.  Sometimes a White Wolf LARP is enough to teach someone to socialize.  Sometimes a "game" is all that's needed to change habits, because what's really needed is an excuse to be someone else for a little while.  Sometimes the placebo works, and that's productive. 

Remix culture

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Weblogg-ed News posted about a recent Lawrence Lessig essay about the "Read-Write Web" in the Financial Times. The article caught my eye because it disusses Anime Music Videos, and I like AMVs. But I stayed, and read the article to friends, because the article is really good. It uses AMVs as a case study for looking at trends in copyright on the web. As technology increasingly enables people to not only consume media but to remix, retell, and share it, the potential is vast --as is the loss we face if we successfully prevent such creativity.

Lessig also makes a few points I haven't seen others making so directly, including the fact that we do this anyway. We retell stories to each other, we recreate movies to our friends as we complain or rave about them, and we fuse media constantly in our daily life in an effort to refine (or communicate) the effect that consumed art has upon us. Have you ever put on somemusic at a party with your friends because it created the mood you wanted? Have you put stickers on a notebook because they made you laugh, smile, or made some comment about what you were sticking them on? These are retellings, and the only real difference between them and an AMV is that technology has allowed the AMV to be more polished and more widely available.

Lessig ends the article with a great question to Wind Up Records, which recently forced an AMV community to remove all videos with Wind Up Records music: Now that you've succeeded in stopping thousands of kids from spending hundreds of thousands of hours to make fantastically creative content that promotes your work for free, do you really expect to sell more records next year?

I can cite personal example after example where his point applies to me. I found the Faithless song Mass Destruction in an AMV and almost immediately went to the iTunes Music Store to get it. I've bought several albums because friends put them on mixes and I wanted the rest of the album.

This is in my hypertext blog because I think the problem is a hypertextual one... how do you give credit (in any sense) for transclusion? What sorts of currency navigate the links formed by transclusion, and how do we formalize that exchange? For years it has been a clear sign that someone Doesn't Get It about the web if they demand that you get permission to link to their site... and yet that's what cracking down on AMVs is. Heck, in a larger sense, by linking to those posts I am adding them to my own narrative in a (very diluted) form of transclusion, just as I was remixing Lessig's article as I read bits of it to my friends. I don't think these acts --discussing, linking, remixing-- differ in form but rather in scope... and I don't think the difference in scope changes the message.

In the 25th Anniversary issue of Discover (Oct. 2005) there's a neat article in the reviews section asking scientists whether there are any science books that remain to be written, and what uncharted territory they (the scientists) would cover in the book.

Vera Rubin, astronomer and Senior Fellow in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie institution of Washington had this to say, and I love it:

I would like to see a multilevel book, written for toddlers, schoolchildren, college students, and adults, that would look at the world around us and answer questions that youngsters may or may not ask as a day progresses. ... Each page off a tall book might have four sections, top to bottom, with the first answer being for the child, the second answer for those a little older, the third a "scientific explanation," and the final one a philosophical discussion of pertinent concepts like forces or brains or animals. Alternatively, there could be four pages per question, each page hidden behind the first...."

I read this just as I was hitting the midpoint of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (more on that soon), and the convergence was frustrating. Exhilirating, too, but 'frustrating' because this multilinearity would be so easy to do, so valuable, and yet it really isn't done. For lack of a better term, I'm going to call it 'tiered engagement' and attempt a definition.

Beyond the cut: Definition and discussion

The blog Hypulp recently posted article 3 in a series on hyperlinking metaphors in print design:
  1. Hyperlinks in Print I - highlighted footnotes in International Design Magazine
  2. Hyperlinks in Print II - visual cross-references and indexing in the Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design Directory
  3. Hyperlinks in Print III - pop-up footnotes in The Atlantic Monthly
Beyond the cut: some thoughts

In the process of writing that last entry, I found a site that exemplifies several principles of good hypertext. Marla's site on the Structure of the Five Paragraph Essay takes a fairly simple topic and shows it from a variety of angles. With the same text as examples, you can see an outline of the essay, the marked up full text of the essay, or detailed explanations of each element of the essay. This multifaceted, prismatic view of a text, where the reader can switch between the raw text or a structural view, with multiple depths of engagement in the form of linked definitions and contextual expansions, is exactly what hypertext can and should do.


DeSoto, Marla. "Structure of the Five-Paragraph Essay." 2001. Glendale Community College. 31 Jan. 2002 <>

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