23.7.15

Games with Friends on a Saturday Night

With much excitement I received this CD key to a closed alpha online game. It’s part of a franchise I’ve loved, with a brand that cares about its impact. The alpha is very, very good. Even without the leveling system. Even without the unlockables, consumables, or the customizables. It might eventually hearken back to Counter-Strike or AVP2, a place to meet friends on a Saturday night. The problem is it’s difficult to stop. Part of that is me. In 30 years I’ve played too much, about every way you can play too much. So I’m going to be susceptible. There are also a few ways (I’ve argued for almost a decade) that games can challenge our self-control. That distinction between what a game does, and what a person does, is important. There’s only so much a designer can worry about, with an individual’s susceptibilities. It’s why Blizzard, just before their Burning Crusade expansion, talked at a GDC roundtable about not ruining gameplay for the players without issues. And then they phased out 40-person raids. It was a good change. In some of my research, a preference for that grittier, more hardcore raiding held a statistically-significant relationship with reported behaviors like loss of sleep, missing meals, jeopardizing a job or relationship. That is, the functional problems that typically come to mind when we’re talking addiction. World of Warcraft launched with another feature, probably the most emblematic, of how designers can reward players for breaking up their play. In their rested XP system, the longer you’re logged out, the more you build up a bonus to experience gain. It’s effective because of the direct contextual link between the “work” of adventure and rest. What’s surprising to me isn’t how successful or lauded it was by players or developers, but why we don’t see creative extensions of it everywhere. Granted I don’t focus on phone games, so totally might not know good examples, but I’m surprised never to have seen a focused rest system (rewards for getting in and getting out quickly), or a deep rest system (rewarding players for not visiting too often in a given day). If you can keep players from feeling obliged to check a game every few minutes, or from feeling forced into huge daily binge visits, in certain reward contexts this is going to help players to have a much improved experience of your brand. If you can get context that explains why we powerlevel a certain game, or constantly check a specific app, you can design in rewards that cushion that. You can - like Warcraft - make elegant changes to encourage balance. So then, very promising F2P Game, some thoughts: 1. You don’t need to use the World-of-Tanks-style tiered meta leveling. Leveling can happen in game (WoW), in the meta (WoT) or as a hybrid (LoL), but I’m not sure that WoT’s flashy green dress fits on you. Like WoT, not all of your tiered grinds are very fun. Unlocking some of your stuff gives me these cold flashbacks to grinding the AMX 40. Just google that grind, and you’ll get page after page of bitter. What kills me is that your actual game parts are a joy. When you use that tiered meta and tie in months worth of compulsive design? Those will be some painful grinds. Upcoming F2P Game has a proven track record of making fun, balanced games. Chess, say, doesn’t have the same strategic depth if you can buy a slightly better pawn. 2. You already designed in the kinds of customizable characters that are the bread and butter for games like League of Legends. For just one example, those could all be unlockable champions with themed customizations. You’ve already designed those elements into the alpha. Making characters the foundation, rather than unforgiving grinds, it’s a path that’s been proven. 3. There are also already systems in place for customizing the unlocked stuff at different tiers. Aesthetic equippable items aren’t exactly built in to your meta chart yet, but identical pieces are in your game. It would be a significant, but not a monumental graphics/programming task to add them. At very conservative estimates it takes 750 hours of gameplay for one single top-tier tank in the World-of-Tanks-style meta. By comparison, I’m used to spending maybe 25-40 on the other games in your franchise. And besides, there's stellar content in the low tiers that a meta would bury. That would be a shame. There’s one last reason not to bring some of this into your beta. A healthy majority of the players I know take one look at grinds this invested and say, “I know what that is. No thanks.” As is, Upcoming F2P Game might still be the next CS, or AVP2, or LoL. Something I want to play with friends on a Saturday night. So long as my friends can grind.

15.4.14

Between Two Deserts

I don't always write narrative poetry. When I do, I write speculative narrative poetry.

--

My malady came from an old hotel
Where time ain't much of consequence
Heard 'bout it riding trains to Baghdad
Drinking coffee to ease my mind

Not every traveler finds it
These Turks said with some disinterest
So I asked 'em what to look for
Got told I could mind my business

Old Colt Army had I
Put to the Turk's eye
Found it in his heart
To loosen that tongue

Tells me about this half-blown town
Nestled 'tween desert and ocean
And every night the dying sun
Points through the square where time's tides run

Aims at a hotel, tall and orange
Flanked by palms and tents and fountains
"But wait for sundown," whined the Turk
"It is only found in the last light of day."

In the square, my back to the sea
I sit a spell and wait, and wait
Watching shadows paint a withered finger
Scratching at the hotel's old side-door

I brush off the dust, walk toward that door
Its hinges shriek like locomotive brakes
Find myself followin' my own
Dusty boots into the darkness

Before eyes have time to adjust
An Englishman says, "Good evening
"But it troubles me to ask, sir,
"Your name. Have you reservations?"

"Not as such," I say. "As for names,
"Let's just say I'll tempt the fates.
"Once claimed bounty on wanted men
"Faked my death, now here I am."

Was then my eyes could see the man
Pale blue ghost, with a tall head wrap
Eyed me awhile, smiled, and said,
"Checkout by noon, my American friend."

With that he vanished, like the heat
Inside was cool and candle-lit
Found my room, looked to the courtyard
Saw the only other guest I'd see

Oriental lady
Says with a perfect New York lilt
"Kissing you takes me
To a better time."

Next day, that strange woman was gone
But she left a letter I still keep
Got out of bed, threw my clothes on
Dropped off my key and didn't look back


29.3.14

Hawt Grrls, Dick Pics and Sexy Beards

Triggers: online harassment, sexism, rape

Here is a snapshot of a chat I received in the League of Legends, earlier this week:


I often play as "Hawtgrrlirl," although the person sitting here typing this is a rather unsexy bearded male. I first picked the name almost a decade ago - in WoW - as a 23-year-old grad student. Not a few hours into that character, a charming paladin (10 levels higher than me) took me under his wing! Neat! He followed me everywhere, offering me gifts, killing all my enemies, never acknowledging that I really just wanted to quest alone, and only very occasionally making awkward commentary about his possession of me.

So, yeah. I'm well aware that the name invites a variety of interactions, from the weird and not-so-fun, to the amazing. When people ask if I'm "rly a girl?" I usually answer honestly, and say no.

Tonight's exchange was typical, and ended in literally adding a new friend:

Summoner1: Hey, so... Are you a hawtgrrrlll?
Summoner2: garen ban plz
Hawtgrrlirl: Nope.
Hawtgrrlirl: I'm a dude with a beard.
Summoner1: Sexy
Summoner1: This is better than i though
Summoner1: thought
Hawtgrrlirl: Right?
Summoner1: Can i run my fingers through your beard?
Hawtgrrlirl: I'd really need to get to know you first.
Summoner3: can i jungle?
Summoner1: Well let's go out on a date then
Summoner1: I'm cheap enough
Summoner1: You like italian food?
Hawtgrrlirl: More of a teriyaki guy.
Summoner1: I'm cool with that, i'll eat about anything
Summoner1: Know any good places?
Hawtgrrlirl: I know a couple.
Summoner1: It'll be a bromance
Summoner1: i think i get paid here soon, so i'll even pick up the tab
Hawtgrrlirl: Right on. It's a date.
Hawtgrrlirl: Bromance is on the menu.
Summoner1: Sweeeeet
Summoner1: Added broski
Hawtgrrlirl: Same deal brohanna montana

I used to want to say that, at least in League of Legends, I got classy, humorous commentary and solid banter far more often than trolls. I'm not sure what changed, or if it was a steady shift, but now over half (at least) of my games now have some kind of intense, deeply disturbing commentary that directly relates to the fact that a "grrl" is in the game.

It cues off awkward rape talk,



Weird anatomical remarks,

Hawtgrrlirl: lololaf
Summoner1: Do you have a hawt beard, like Olaf?
Summoner1: irl, of course
Hawtgrrlirl: i do
Summoner1: Nice
Hawtgrrlirl: though its not red
Summoner1: Long as the carpet matches

And sometimes acts as a lightning rod for hardcore raging, blunt force ignorance, or the persistent homophobia:

Summoner2: i mean like
Summoner3: plz ban fagits
Summoner2: are you gonna play for real
Summoner3: ban all the fagits
Summoner2: or are you gonna be a little crybaby
Summoner2: if you are for real
Summoner2: then we can fuck them up
Summoner3: im down for mid or support
Summoner2: and maybe make babies
Summoner3: but I can fill if needed
Summoner2: if you are a fagit then we cannot make babies
Summoner1: are you really a hawt girl
Summoner2: ya seriously tho
Summoner2: whats open
Summoner2: besides hawtgirls legs
Summoner2: hohoho
Summoner2: see what i did tharrrrx2

And on and on. But back to subject 1: "nude for a dik pik"

After the GDC's brilliant talks this last week, by Brenda Romero, Jennifer Allaway, Zoe Quinn, Nika Harper, and many others, I have decided to start calling out other players, when their behavior gets weird, or violently discrimanatory. Regardless of whether it costs me games, goodwill, or even jobs.

This was what I said to the kind offer of "nude for a dik pik:


It's not perfect, but there's not a great script for this sort of thing. 

It's a work in progress. 

But let's do this thing. If legitimate harassment is happening - especially if it's not to you - speak up. 

26.2.14

Dickwolves

(trigger warning: rape) (skip it)

I vaguely remember dinner with Corvus Elrod, a smart indie game developer who sports a monocle and finely-waxed mustache. More than that, I remember him getting hit on by a muscular African American transvestite while waiting to be seated, outside the Taphouse Grill.

“Got any coins for Hot Chocolate?” Asked the transvestite, referring to himself in the third person. 

After Corvus politely deferred, Hot Chocolate could not help but persist.

Hot Chocolate whispered, “I want to see you twitch.”

Neither Corvus nor his wife, present, obliged Hot Chocolate. This left me with the impression that if something were to get under the skin of this man, that it’d need to be pretty fucking bad.

Enter the Dickwolf, a fictional wolflike character with phalluses for arms and legs. In an otherwise incisive comic, making fun of the sorts of quests which only allow heroes to save five slaves, though there are clearly more, we’re presented with the “sixth slave.”

“Hero!” says the chained slave. “Please, take me with you! Release me from this hell unending!

“Every morning, we are roused by savage blows.

“Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.”

The hero looks anxious. “I only needed to save five slaves. Alright? Quest complete.”

“But…” Says the slave.

“Hey. Pal. Don’t make this weird.” Says the hero.

The response, via Twitter, tumblr, and other social media, was enormous. In a large part, because this wasn’t just some backwater webcomic making rape jokes. This was Penny Arcade, the franchise responsible for what gamers saw as one of the theretofore safest, most inclusive gamer gatherings: PAX. Where for four days, almost a hundred thousand gamers flood downtown Seattle. To address that, the next comic featured Penny Arcade’s two main characters, Gabe and Tycho (meant to represent Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the cartoon’s artist and writer) sitting, talking about Dickwolves.

Gabe says, “We want to state in clear language, without ambiguity or room for interpretation: we hate rapers, and all the rapes they do.

“Seriously, though. Rapists are really the worst.”

Tycho says, “It’s possible you read our cartoon, and became a rapist as a direct result. If you’re raping someone right now, stop. Apologize. And leave.

“Go, and rape no more.”

Some responses were deep, thoughtful, and academic. Even the most disappointed critics seemed to care deeply that these gaming icons (who sponsor a float in the Seattle Pride parade, and run a massive charity for sick kids) understand what was at stake. Maddy Meyers probably best captured why the response comic was so awkward, writing “It’s almost impossible to tell Penny Arcade’s apology from a parody of an apology.”

Not everyone on the internet was so calm, and things escalated. One Twitter user posted, “A Funney Joke: Go to Mike Krahulik / @cwgabriel ‘s house, Literally Murder His Wife and Child #jokes #funny #murderwolves”

Fresh from the death threats, Jerry Holkins posted his On the Matter of Dickwolves. He cites a talk given by the science fiction author Philip K. Dick called How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. Jerry suspects that no conversation is possible because, “The perspectives in play, the lenses, are too different.” Holkins’ frame is that of the creator, “…that when it comes to expression nothing is off the table. It is the creator’s prerogative to create something - even something grotesque - out of anything they can find.” Philip K. Dick’s thoughts do work for that, sort of.

Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me wonder, If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn't we really be talking about plural realities?

Philip K. Dick, in How to Create a Universe, ultimately decided that, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

One in thirteen college-aged men report committing rape, or attempted rape. Read that twice. One in thirteen. In 2012, the FBI tracked 84,376 reported rapes in the United States, though even the US National Crime Victimization Survey (which was shown – in late 2013 – to be undercounting) estimated 346,830 rapes and sexual assaults in 2012. We can say this chilling pattern of human indignity exists in a bizarro dimension that doesn’t affect reality, that the perspectives and lenses “are too different,” but that sounds suspiciously like an excuse not to listen.

If you want us to respect your creative rights, respect our reactions. Melissa McEwan, on the feminist blog Shakesville, writes, “To say, “I was triggered” is not to say, “I got my delicate fee-fees hurt.”. . . A survivor of sexual violence who experiences a trigger is experiencing the same thing as a soldier who experiences a trigger, potentially even including flashbacks. Like many soldiers who return from war, many survivors of sexual violence are left with post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike soldiers, however, they are not likely to receive much sympathy, or benefit from attempts to understand, when they are triggered. Instead, triggered survivors of sexual violence are dismissed as oversensitive, as hysterics, as humorless, as weak.”

The second comic leaves a weird aftertaste, for we gamers who hear the word thrown around nightly. By dilapidated trolls who aren’t plying any constitutionally-protected art. In the heat of the win, when passion and adrenaline are running at peak levels, there’s apparently no word more potent, more devaluing of another player, than “rape.” I was surprised, at one academic conference, to hear it defended by a well-respected, middle-aged woman who works as a games professor. She took a break from signing her textbooks, and came to sit outside the USC Film School with our group of younger educators. She claimed that it was part of our culture.

Saying with a grin, “I rape my husband all the time, the noob.”

The games journalist Patricia Hernandez, a rape survivor, discusses an evening in an online shooter game in her incisive piece Three Words I Said to the Man I defeated in Gears of War That I’ll Never Say Again.

She writes, “Once the pre-game banter made it obvious that I was a woman, it was like Sam, my character, now had a bullseye painted across her forehead.”

They didn’t just force her teammates out, and then kill her.

“When you don’t fully kill someone, they go into a state called ‘Down But Not Out.’ This state is when a character model goes on all fours…a new, unintended dynamic arose in multiplayer: players would take down characters and pretend to rape them.”

They tried to get her to leave, sent taunting messages. See, the more players they could wedge out, the more the game would replace them with mindless AI, easy kills to make their scores look great. A tidy reward being assholes. Their ringleader sent Hernandez an audio message of himself cackling. She focused up, found him, “and, screw it all, I wanted to make it clear to him that he would not hold power over me. I downed him, and instead of mercifully killing him, my character raped his.”

Alone, she won the match.

“I raped you. I fuckin’ raped you.” She said.

They just laughed. As if for them the word, seeing it acted out, had no weight at all.

Gamers often wonder aloud whether the word ‘rape’ is worth enshrining as an indispensable cultural artifact, elevating it from out of the muck of private conversations and the routines of crass comedians.

The answer is no. This word represents one of the most caustic, dehumanizing acts that can be inflicted on a person short of killing them. If you’re raping face all over your husband, in the privacy of your own home, I have no beef. In random rooms, where you could be playing with just about anyone? Hell no. It’s the last thing we need to normalize. Nobody has carte blanche to flaunt words – whether racism, sexism, or homophobia – which will trigger some players. That makes games less fun.

To say nothing of what it does to games gatherings.

In the midst of the Dickwolves debacle Corvus Elrod wrote, in his Yes Virginia, There Are Nice Guys, that, “the majority of rape isn't done by raving lunatics in alleys. And that makes it tough. Tough to be a nice guy? Perhaps. But even tougher, for a rape victim, to accept nice guys at face value.” Conferences like PAX, where words like rape get thrown around with casual ease, are consequently not easy.

So-called Nice Guys know that they aren’t rapists, so they don’t understand the big deal with making the jokes. In fact, as a matter of personal freedom, they feel a certain obligation to make them as loudly and as often as possible. I suspect such champions of artistic freedom have never comforted their female friend, or sister, or girlfriend, or wife, when she’s asking questions like, “Do I get a rape kit?” or “Do I go to the police?” Though a number of women I’m close to have been raped, their stories aren’t mine. I just sit on the sidelines, hearing about the incurable STDs and the anxiety.

It’s not just that the first comic used rape as a humorous zing. The second Dickwolves comic very personally pokes fun at readers for reacting a certain way. A reaction they cannot help, and whose catalyst was chosen for them. This in an atmosphere saturated with gamers who are quite attached to throwing the word around, because it has shock value.

Gamers need to realize that for a large, often silent population, the voltage is too high. They turn off the game, or stop reading the comic, and feel unwelcome to enjoy a thing that had figured into their identity. Whether or not a joke perpetuates rape isn’t knowable. What’s completely fucking obvious is that it makes games, and certain games gatherings, less welcoming places to be.

That’s the reality. That, even if you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.



(2/26/14) I'll post most of the chapter where the above appears, eventually. I wanted to post this out of order, and early, because I still hear it in games once a week. Used lightly, by perfect strangers who think it's 1000% hilarious. If asking them to stop isn't yet a thing, it really should be.

(3/7/14) Gee, I happened to rant about just that in the chapter introduction. And all it took was a few straight hours of abuse. Go figure. 

8.2.14

A Wild Book Appears!

Print copies are here: https://www.createspace.com/4617177

And on Amazon in 5-7 days. 

And the kindle copies are here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00I3X7MRK

Crossing the Ts and dotting the Is took, like, effort.


(edit) Happy birthday to me, rohoho. The paperback is up on amazon! The LOOK INSIDE even shows the back cover's clever red devil.

30.1.14

Breathing Machine(s)

Reading early responses to Leigh Alexander’s Breathing Machine, it looks like a lot of folks couldn’t help but reminisce.

It’s the mark of a particularly powerful work, like a dish whose heady spices remind you of childhood.

Invoking things like HyperCard, and mazes of twisty passages, she mentions a “primitive voice program” on an old powerbook. That certainly shakes the rust off the old memory machine. I think of 7th grade typing class where I fed some boxy school mac a spontaneously-concocted and hugely offensive story, then set it to play during “quiet typing time.” I remember Mr. Frank (with his horrible lisp) infuriated, demanding to know “Whosse responssible for thiss?” And everyone shamelessly points to me.

I laughed most of the way to the principal's office.

In places, Breathing Machine feels like a book typed in a haze, when suddenly out of the mist Alexander’s surreal half-memories give way to vividly-painted “cool” disc jockeys and porn site promoters. It's part of what makes the book evocative. For me, that adolescent internet fog blends together like so many nights in bars. It is, I suspect, a mix of fog and memory that defines childhood for so many of us.

Too few books talk about that, let alone capture it.

Back then they really were breathing machines, for some of us.

AOL had a button to randomly contact any other user. And it was not completely unexpected or unwelcome to get such a message. One night you could be telling flirtatious Australian ladies that you were a 24 year old hunk (with a monstrous and efficacious… pickup truck) the next a New York poker champion just rarin’ to give a 15-year-old The Lady Advice. It was in that atmosphere, and on the clunky Mirabilis chat program “I seek you” that I fell in love for the very first time.

And so, because of Leigh’s book, I thought I would share that story with you now.

Then I thought again. 

I was struck by the imagery, from her book, of sushi being served from the torso of a vivisected woman, who blushes. We're handing out our stories like so many ice-bathed kidneys, and I already plan to put plenty of my life on the rotating sushi bar of this new internet.

So I'll keep that one to myself. 

But thank the book, for a healthy little stroll down memory lane. 

13.1.14

This is happening

Why, hello!

I'm Neils.

Over the last three or so years, I have been quietly writing a second book. It's about videogames: weird adventures inside, and little conversations about what those taught me. I'm calling it In Play: Tales of the Gaming Netherworld. 

I sort of wish that I could just write blogs, and articles, and sell those like a normal games journalist. That's hard for me. Like, my brain literally doesn't function that way. I need to see the whole system. Writing one part of this book fundamentally changed other parts, for instance taking a few months to study oppression, or having studied compulsive gaming for the last decade.

This ultimately became a sort of letter, to my younger self. Things I wish I'd known, and stories that I hope will resonate and entertain.

I've had an interesting time trying to sell it. While I'd love to find an agent, for The Future, right now my plan is to release most of it on my blog over the coming months. This also lets me offer a print version, maybe with a few exclusive choice bits, for the price of inexpensive (something Game Addiction's publisher would never even dialogue about). But for whatever reason, I'm really excited about putting most of it up for free, at least for a good while.

I'm also semi-tempted to - at some point soon - make a pdf available for a few hours. Mostly for the friends who've snuck me into expensive conferences, given me places to stay, and generally make this book worth writing.

So, yeah!

Dear God I need some kind of elevator pitch!