(Spoiler-tastic) Limbo: Not Out of the Woods Yet

Finishing Limbo feels like crawling out of an abusive relationship. Not the hamster wheel grinds of Warcraft, or the rohypnol time-loss of Civilization. This was a new brand of pain.

Oh, right. Spoiler alert.

Limbo's detached aesthetic works, I think, because most people would rather not see kids decapitated by bear traps, or impaled through the neck. We don't like hearing bones crack – over and over again – as the bleak shadow of that child crumples after a fall. But that's Limbo's ordinance. If we were used to the cold, almost clinical treatment of kid killing, this would just be another puzzle game.

Compare it to NightSky (2011), which feels aesthetically too similar (same brand of ambient music, same style of puzzles) but has a glass fishing float for its main character. If that float falls off the map, who gives a damn? When Limbo's kid is cut in half by automated machineguns, is electrocuted, dismembered by a spider, drowns unceremoniously, or falls into a buzzsaw, well, it adds that certain extra something.

In Christian Nutt's interview with Director Arnt Jensen and Exec Producer Dino Patti, they remark on this mix of macabre and atmosphere in a great back-and-forth:

DP: I think it's definitely Arnt's black humor.

AJ: Yeah, but it's fun.

DP: It's definitely something about you, I think.

AJ: It gives a good tension to the player, because you know you can die in an instant. [Snaps fingers.]

DP: There's a thing about combining calmness with brutality.

Like most repetitive emotional injuries, there are reasons to come back to Limbo. There's a tangible pleasure – instantaneous, direct pleasure – to being in the world. A melancholy calm that heaps on the dissonance, with such cool and efficient death. It's not surprising to hear that planning for the game started in 2004 (not getting released till 2010). That it began as, and remained, a desire to create a holistic experience.

I think that's one of our forces.” Said Dino, “Like we had everything integrated, the sound, the graphics, and the gameplay...having them fit together in a single piece. I think that's where we can do something bigger companies can't do, because they really have to modularize everything to have people work on it.”

Integration is impressive. I'm always especially jealous of musicians, even some painters and writers. They know enough about their medium that their art becomes a matter of getting at a guitar, a brush, or a keyboard. They just jam. That's harder to do with games. A lot of the pleasure is found during playtesting. The flamenco guitarist doesn't need to make sure a listener can use their ears, nor do painters typically test their patron's eyes. You can slip up with writing, with overly technical info, or maybe by presenting a Czech audience with Japanese kanji. In games, a lot of that language just doesn't exist yet. It's rare to find a game with the balls to just do away with the tutorial, as happens in Limbo.

Without those pieces, a player's conversation with designers can easily degenerate into caveman grunts and brandished clubs. Presuming that designer knew enough C++, C#, Unity, 3DSMax, AfterEffects, or whatever, to even make those conversations available. Limbo flew red flags on both counts.

I'd merrily sung the praises of Humble Indie Bundles for the last year, to every friend who'd listen. My musician buddy John finally gave in last month, having wanted to try Limbo for awhile. He ponied up a good bit better than the average – and clicked to start the game. Which didn't load. His Mac seemed to be too old, by an ambiguous but small margin. I offered to give him his money back, but I knew it had permanently fucked his opinion of indie games. It was also confusing, to me, given the Humble Bundle's reputation for DRM free, cross-platform goodness.

When Limbo does load, the controls don't always work as expected. Which is a real drag, with about 5 minutes invested into an intricate puzzle. What should be a simple jump, while climbing, or a simple matter of scooting to the edge of a perilous cliff, is the same unsatisfying death. For twenty minutes. At times, the controls start to feel as sadistic and unforgiving as the rest.

Even when the game works, and the controls function intuitively, weird design sometimes grinds the thing to a full stop. Twice during Limbo, puzzles had me feeling like a six-year-old separated from his mom at the grocery store. Is this just a cruel joke, Limbo? Like the old classic, “Wanna know how to keep an idiot in suspense?” Maybe there is no ending. Maybe it's a Molyneuxian social experiment, testing to see how long I kill this kid before giving up. Truly, this be Limbo.

In the screenshots pictured below, the hanging ropes are the only game object the player's interacted with, to this point. At first, none of the visible ropes work. Jumping from this roof long enough, I spied another rope. Underneath a comically oversized circular saw blade. The cheese in a masochist's rat trap. By the time I finally figured out what the devs were telling me (how to solve this) there wasn't any sense of accomplishment. I felt like the boy.

Yeah, try doing that for twenty minutes.

In other places, the conversation became utter delight. Where the system wasn't just clear, but where we could also catch fleeting glimpses of its underlying meaning. A statement that would only ever work as a game. My moment came on first seeing the sign for “HOTEL” – the ambient music bubbling up to match a deeper chill. It wasn't just monster spiders and bands of blowgun-wielding cannibals with a preference for dead kids. An entire society seemed to have lost its humanity. Here the experience appeared to say something personal and profound, but it was doing it with ambiguity.

That intellectual engagement added enormous depth.

A lot of folks got down on Limbo for being a short game. It is short. My first play-through was three, maybe four hours. Lo, having burned a straight four years on Warcraft, and sleepless 40-hour stretches on marathon games of Civilization, I'll admit to not minding a short game. Especially not compared to the recent 60-dollar EA title, Mass Effect 3. I know some folks explored it a bit more lovingly, but even with side quests, artifact finding, and dicking around on the Citadel, my play through was barely 20 hours.

Surprising noone, I agree with Jon Blow. A few months after Limbo released, he wrote, “A movie can give you a satisfying experience in 2 hours. A painting or a sculpture can give you a satisfying experience in 10 minutes. A song can give you a satisfying experience in 3 minutes...Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome? If you spend 20 hours playing a game, but the good parts could have been condensed into 3, then didn’t you just waste 17 hours?”

Waste might not be the right word. Part of what's neat about a game like Civilization or Mass Effect is that transport of the senses. I'd set it apart from Warcraft's anesthetizing grinds. Designers can and do use both to create a sort of stylistic prozac, the pleasant magic we accept and expect. Limbo does the improbable by using it's handcrafted, novel, and unified aesthetic to make something we'll reject.

Watching the kid die is repellent. Which, oddly enough, makes Limbo a breath of fresh air. Bastion, released with Limbo in this last Humble Bundle, also features “a kid.” This kid also dies now and again, falling to his death, getting bludgeoned by pick-axes, incinerated by defensive turrets. I like Bastion, in more than a few ways I prefer it to Limbo, but take them together and it's a reminder death is repulsive. Should be repulsive. Especially when its kids. 
Sometimes, Civ's genocides are merely sound strategy, and Warcraft's war crimes are part of an essential quest chain. Limbo asks you to watch the child die. 

Emotional salience, pleasure, interpretation of a creator's ambiguity - aesthetics scholars have called these (among others) objective, cross-cultural criteria for Art. Limbo itself speaks holistically, and persuasively. Just taking screenshots to write this, I grimaced at every grisly rock-and-hard-place demise. As the creators intended.

Art or not, it should be enough to say that Limbo made games a richer place. I'm glad it was concepted, tested, and released. Also, I'm glad to be done with the fucking thing. I never, ever want to play Limbo again.


In Which I Fall in Love with Games All Over Again

Screen capture wasn't really working, so, whatever. I'm not fancy. I used a camera.

First Impressions

 It's not OK.

This was not the point in Blendo Games' Flotilla at which I fell back in love with games. Nor was it meeting Fun Factory and Chu-Chu.

Or even the Goddess Afrodita.

No, to tell you how this game unclogged the fatty deposits around my heart, the cholesterol slowly but surely muddying appreciation for a brave new medium, we need to go back. Back to last year's PAX 10, and Blendo's Atom Zombie Smasher.

I was among the probably two thousand people to walk up to the Blendo display, manned by the studio's single coder/interface designer/3-D artist/3-D programmer/AI programmer/dialog writer/monetization strategist/brand evangelist/blog editor/game designer: Brendon Chung. In fact, as he'd later post, the man manned the booth single-handedly, all three days of PAX.

And I thought I was tired. Parts of the show had been cool - hanging out with some cheeky, mischievous devs, seeing a lot more of old friends than any previous PAX - but the main showfloor was depressing. Frag Dolls used, functionally, as makeshift booth babes. Endless lanes of clone shooters, a Skyward Sword indistinguishable, visually, from Windwaker. Branded beanbag chairs. So I went upstairs, where they'd cordoned off the indie games.
Blendo's setup at PAX 10, 2011.

Undercaffinated and shambling, I almost missed Atom Zombie Smasher. Walking in from the other side of that giant 10 poster (above), it almost looked like a couple unattended laptops, ala Jon Blow showing Witness. A fit Asian guy with close-cropped hair, in a particularly nice shirt, he looked at me neutrally. I see the flatscreen now. I point at it, then at him, then shrug.

Umm,” I say.

Oh, yeah!” He says.

There's a bounce in his step as he comes over. Now he's pointing at the minimap screen of AZS. I kneel down, take the mouse, and hover it over level 2 and 4 zed outbreaks. He's grinning, when I look back.

You might want to start with a 1.”

Pffaaaaahhh! Goes brain. Later, playing on my own, the rabid difficulty of early AZS would be one of the most pleasurable, compulsively repeatable failures I'd experienced in years. I still haven't beaten it on hardcore/permadeath. But I just look over at this gentleman and say, “Okay.”

I'm setting up snipers and artillery haphazardly. I ask one or two questions, but mostly am rarin' to hit the big red 'Done' button. It is, to the chagrin of my League of Legends friends, a staple playstyle. Works out in a lot of commercial games, though. They like rewarding us for lazy blundering. AZS's interface stops me before I can start, lets me know that I've not yet placed the civilian extraction helicopter. Not that any of them are making it out alive. I place it anyway, hit the red 'Done' button, and two Napoleon Dynamitesque aviators zoom in towards me with the text, “Let's Go!”

Gas mains are ruptured. Snipers lost in collapsed buildings. Over a hundred civilians dead. But I'm having fun. A shocking amount of it. All with this hovering guy, earnestly and clearly entertained by my epic chain of failures. He seems lost in concentration, logging mental notes.

I ask if the helpful attendant worked on the game at all. I mean, even with the indie games now, it's common enough that you only ever meet the PR department. And this guy was putting a solid, nerdy face on the game. He mentions something about having made it. I babble something about the genius blend of tropes and minimalist representation. More than anything, it's the difficulty that stays with me. Contrast with anything I'd played in the last four, maybe five years, the game itself didn't care whether I liked it. Didn't care what I'd tell my friends, once it'd thoroughly trounced my lazy ass. It was content to be exactly as it was. As I turn to go, this man who worked on the game (at this point I have no idea in what capacity) says,

Oh, hey, hold on. I keep forgetting about these.”

And he hands me a small card, with a code to download a full version on Steam. For free. This is the only piece of swag from PAX 2011 I keep. So it makes sense that it would sit, at the bottom of my canvas laptop bag, for three months.


Life had been sort of sucking pre-PAX 2011. Sort of sucking for years. The specifics are about as boring as the games I'd played during that time, so it was a good thing AZS had me giving a fresh look to Steam. Didn't take long for a fresh look at Steam to turn into another look at GoG. A couple indie bundles later, the brain was waking up after a good long Rip Van Winkle.

Then, for want of a more Blendo Brand difficulty and irreverence, I grabbed the Flotilla demo. It was free, as demos typically are. But this was especially good, in that Blendo's website was asking ten dollars for Flotilla. Sure, I'd shell out on Steam sales and indie bundles, but ten dollars for one game!? (Having gotten AZS literally hand-gifted to me by its creator, paying the man via his website wound up feeling wonderful)

Cracking it open, I think I got my first taste of directorial voice in games. Here was a work (yes, work) where everything aligned. The writing, the visuals, and they had this perfect juxtaposition with the space combat. Comedic or not, the whole experience had a synchronized direction, lo, it was no surprise it'd all been put together by one person. For anyone following the whole Games as Art conversation, one of Roger Ebert's major gripes with games is lack of unified voice, especially where it relates to market-centric entertainment. That commercialism, alongside the huge teams typically required, and how antithetical choice and interactivity are to a cohesive artistic message? They're a formula for mindlessness.

Not that he minds. He wrote, “I treasure escapism in the movies. I tirelessly quote Pauline Kael: The movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have no reason to go.” He's saying that the interplay scatters the ability to create a cohesive message - prohibits any fabled 'games artist' from making statements on par with Romeo and Juliet. A happy ending for Star Crossed Lovers misses the point. But with so much riding on games – $60 mil budgets and dozens of employees – commercial games usually can't help but give the audience exactly what they want.
The 35-year New Yorker editor William Shawn spoke to voice and markets, for journalism, calling out the atmosphere of writers only ever giving an audience what they want.

There is a fallacy in that calculation . . . That fallacy is if you edit that way, to give back to the readers only what they think they want, you'll never give them something new they didn't know about. You stagnate. . .

We sometimes publish a piece that I'm afraid not more than one hundred readers will want. Perhaps it's too difficult, too obscure. But it's important to have. That's how people learn and grow. This other way is bad for our entire society and we're suffering from it in almost all forms of communications.

I don't know if you tried to start up a New Yorker today if you could get anybody to back you.”

Games teams being so scattered, and large games being so essentially commercial, Ebert wanted to say that the medium would never get to the point of voice. Flotilla gives a clear example of how interactive voice can work, though I won't presume that's Chung's aim. Between his games, and what he's written about his process online, he strikes me as someone who's having fun. 

On his blog, he points out Manny Farber's essay White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.

Good work usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity. [...] The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is no where in evidence, so that the craftsmen can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.

Though I’m completely bastardizing the point of the essay, I love that description of nibbling forward purely for the love of nibbling. Is it a smooth ride? No. Will it function well? Probably not. Will it appeal to a mass audience? Not a snowball’s chance in hell.

But it’s damn satisfying on a personal level. There’s great joy in diving headfirst toward a direction you think is interesting. That joy is reflected in your work, and players instantly recognize it.

Flotilla, like AZS, is a great example of a satisfying, short game. You can get through a play in roughly 15-30 minutes, depending on the number of space battles. That's different from, say, realizing you've spent three bloodshot days binging on Civilization. Flotilla takes the very rare risk of fulfilling the player. Prior to a 20-100 hour investment of time. Or the perpetual motion, team hamster wheels in most social games.

It's 106 light years to Iloko. We've got a full tank of gas, half pack of cigarettes, 
it's the dark of space, and we're wearing sunglasses.

You start a game, usually with a selection of the white-lit, occasionally-safe planets, and red-lit planets which (so far as I've seen) always mean battle. Visiting a planet means a randomly-drawn card, which shows you a chunk of your procedurally-generated story. Think Choose Your Own Adventure. Help out Fun Factory and Chu-Chu, and you may eventually meet Little Lion.

Sometimes it's fowl space pirates.

In those cases, you go to the tactical battle screen. Here one typically moves hard-won ships like precious rooks, pawns and queens in a 3-D version of chess. Armor being weak below and behind ships, attempts to flank lead to weaving, complicated fights. You give the commands and hope that your missiles, torpedoes, and close-range beam weapons connect before theirs do.

More importantly, you give the commands and wait.

30 seconds. A lifetime in first-person shooter land. The battling flotillas take their turns simultaneous. You can zoom around the field, in all three dimensions. Look at it from the enemy's point of view, from yours, but in the end, that's the only interaction for half a minute. If you've moved in a silly way, exposing the unarmored sections of a ship, all there is to do is watch missiles glide through space. See whether they narrowly avoid your little destroyer, or send pieces of its smoldering hull toward the rest of your flotilla.

Once you've sent them on their way you must, essentially, let go.

And everything up to this point – all that procedural story, a very humble introduction to AZS and Blendo, by a harried Brendon himself, then planning the movements of my own flotilla once I'd bought the game – it was all great. It was. But it wasn't what relit my gaming torch.


Part of that might have been synergy. Battleships gliding through space, to Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude. The deep-running current of personal attachment one gets through interactivity. But, for me, it was the moment of surrender. I set my pieces to move. I watch. I let go. When the flagship of my flotilla explodes – let's say a battleship outfitted with Afrodita's artifact, then a piece of it takes out a ship I've had since the start – it's real. It's atrocious. It's OK.

And so antithetical to everything else in games right now. Edge called it melancholic. I'm not sure I agree with that. Brendon described it as 'sombre' and 'tragic', in the same piece.

Edge also included Chung's nod to Sam Beckett, and the chunk of his Worstward Ho that's easily and often truncated to “Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” Which feels ingrained into the directorial voice one gets in Blendo's works. The fact that neither AZS or Flotilla allow saving. That we cope with failure. Failing well is so essential to the human experience, yet so often trivial in the gaming experience.

Beckett's Worstward Ho may not end on the cheeriest of notes, but just beyond the 'fail better' part there's a neat context for games.

"Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

It stands. What? Yes. Say it stands. Had to up in the end and stand."

It's a game about letting go; we're all dying here. But in that, there's an absurdist beauty. There's triumph, and spectacular failure. Maybe when it all gets too grim, you self-destruct, go out in a blaze of glory. Or maybe you send your ships blasting forward, shouting with satisfied exasperation when the best of them explodes to sizzling chunks. Flotilla gave me a perspective on life that I didn't have before. An aesthetic nested in the interplay between system and experience. An aesthetic, in other words, that works best as a game.

And it moved me. That's all. 
Much respect, Blendo.

Cosmetic Enhancements Are Go

Really, really long time since I screwed with the blog layout. Little on the fabulous side, but that whole drab grey shit had to go. 

Also, screen caps from the weekend's adventures at the Pasco Walmart (with Sasquatch the Rock Notch as Fett). Joel, filming it, has so far only posted his video of all this via Facebook. I'm hoping it goes to youtube before long, he did an awesome job of cutting it to Fett's Vette.


Pondering the Reading List

I like books. Felt spectacular to sell one, even if it was three or four years ago. That after another couple years of sewing together the Frankenstein monster. Then it was out, ravaging the countryside, harrying the peasantry. These days, I can't stomach to look at parts of Game Addiction. My co-author's sections – child development, brain plasticity, psychological hardiness – I love those. My sections on immersion and games culture? I can but meh.

Reading Stephen King's On Writing was the turning point, though a long time in coming. All through writing Game Addiction, I never cared about nice (or even palatable) language. I cared about gaming, then occasionally riding my word processor like a bucking porcelain pony. I dreamed that finishing it – after my last wipe and flush – I'd be off writing, kick the habit. 
Years went by. I taught at DigiPen, a door largely opened by the book I couldn't stand. Even hammered out a novel-length derelict of fiction. The spine of King's book winked at me, once or twice. Still didn't pick it up. And then, for no discernible reason, I needed to be better. For nobody but me. King's autobiography/handbook was right there, and I slopped it up in one sitting. On Writing has been special to me, since then. I associate it with the decision to care. 
Outside that, I'm skeptical of books. I'm never quite sure how useful they are, for the mysterious art of putting words in order. As a mad professor, who regularly curses artistically-inclined students with reading on comics, art, design, even reading itself, I may have given this unhealthy levels of thought. Mostly because, just as often, it's action that teaches. Whether they're Artists or Musicians, Designers or Programmers, DigiPen students or Real Live Devs, there's a time to stop reading and just goddamned finish a thing. Or fail spectacularly and repeatedly until you can finish a thing. It's why the old writer's axiom has two parts: 
Read a lot. Write a lot.
Is one the more important for the procedural pudding? And if there's a place for books, movies, even games, in teaching games, then is there canon? Are some worth requiring? 
So, good time for partial disclosure. Here's a handful of nonfiction I really like:

Introduction to the art and science of design: Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Paraglyph, $16.15 on Amazon
Textual immersion: J.R.R. Tolkien's On Faerie Stories, Del Ray, $7.99 on Amazon
Relationship of text to image: Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, William Morrow, $15.63 paperback on Amazon
User Interface: Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think , New Riders, $22 on Amazon
The brain's processing of text: Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, Viking, $11.56 paperback on Amazon
Writing (big surprise): Stephen King's On Writing, Scribner, $10.88 paperback (or 2 bucks at Goodwill, common book)
Physiology of vision, from the eye to the brain: Anne Marie Barry's Perception Theory, in Handbook of Visual Communication
Relationship between mediums: Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage, $7.68 paperback on Amazon
Characterization: Constantin Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares, $16.64 paperback on Amazon
Academic sweep of meaning and process: Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games , MIT Press, $17.86 on Amazon
Games culture: Jim Rossignol's This Gaming Life $19.37 paperback on Amazon

But these aren't, generally, the kinds of books the axiom refers to. I've always interpreted Read a lot. Write a lot. as more saying that if you want to write Westerns, then read Westerns. Know your genre. Crime drama? Try Garth Ennis and Elmore Leonard. Horror? Stephen King, or maybe some of Neil Gaiman's youth fiction. In cinema, George Lucas got a lot from Akira Kurosawa, and in Michael Bay we see the clear influence of full frontal lobotomy. This last GDC, we heard CliffyB cite the Legend of Zelda, and John Romero Pac-Man.

But are those the most influential? The most useful? It's a fair question, with dozens of professors and devs hawking textbooks to games colleges. Students have got every right to challenge their texts. I've got a few quippy answers ready for just such an occasion, and suspicions on Useful Knowledge, but the truth is I really don't know if these books help them to do games better. 
If required gaming, viewing, and reading are all on the table (along with their fiction and nonfiction variants), is it fair to ask about required living? Philip K. Dick, in his How to Build a Universe that Doesn'tFall Apart Two Days Later, made the claim that writers created rough facsimiles of a truer reality. Base your works on older works, and you're making copies of copies. The original picture degrades, until all substance is derivative. If some of our artistic doings – our writing, filming, and developing – gets based off life, is that more the ideal? 
Fuck if I know. But I am curious. 


Get a Horse

About a week ago Sherry Turkle's TED talk went live.

She says that we love twitter, Facebook, and sometimes even that metallic “droid” ring tone, because they deliver on 3 gratifying fantasies:

1. we can put our attention wherever we want it to be
2. we will always be heard
3. we will never have to be alone

PARO both looks and sounds like a baby harp seal.

Turkle was surprised when researchers and nursing home orderlies gushed seeing an elderly woman pour her heart out to PARO the empathy bot. She says,
“I was thinking, that robot can't empathize, it doesn't face death. It doesn't know life. And as that woman took comfort in her robot companion, I didn't find it amazing. I found it one of the most wrenching, complicated moments in my 15 years of work.”
Margaret, my grandma, passed away a couple weeks ago. Four days before that, I read a book on bonsai while she slept, helped her drink water, and helped her to the bathroom when the orderlies were 15 minutes overdue. Recovering from the hospital, a couple months ago, she'd spent a few weeks in a well-staffed assisted living place. Sitting with her, I heard at least three distinct voices shouting from down the hall. They all said the same thing, “Help me.” I never saw visitors for the two elderly women sharing Margaret's room. Spending time with the elderly is not glamorous. It is by nature wrenching, and complicated.

Sounds good.

Maybe it shouldn't be much of a surprise that at an event called the “Tacoma Noise Rodeo,” plenty of hip youngsters, and decidedly un-hip 30-year-olds, had their phones out during the music. Everyone seemed to text, at least once. And once one person saw a phone, it wouldn't be long before they took out theirs. As if they all felt compelled to say, “Look how many other things I could be doing now, how valuable I am. How much is at my disposal, how disposable you are. God I'm fucking cool.”

At that point, says Turkle, people stop being people. Recipients and respondents to electronic pawing become, “spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.” So if we want to be heard, knowing how little we actually want to listen – why not tell 64 followers on twitter, or our 356 facebook friends (at least, the 36 who haven't blocked our feeds)? No risk of intimacy, with all the fruits of friendship. Why on Earth would anyone sit down to listen to some goddamned music? Not possible. We need that escape hatch unlocked – ready at any time, for any reason.

Until we don't. Last week Chris, a classy English gentleman, was visiting Seattle. We arranged the meeting details via email, text message, and phone. Chris, who I'd met over noir movies and 24-hour McDonalds take out, in a Malaysian hostel, was traveling up the West Coast with his fiance (the engagement was very cool, very new news, which they shared in person), and a couple from California. We wandered from the Space Needle to Pike's Place, got some donuts they'd seen on a British travel show (that I, Seattle native, had not heard of), drank, drank some more, ate some Dick's at Gasworks park, saw a troll.

Yes, and they're delicious.

It's nice to think that would have happened in an age of handwritten letters.

I write a lot about this one guy Jared, a.k.a. Sasquatch the Rock Notch. Never would have met him without games, instant messenger, and an ability to build real connection through fiber optic wiring. The guy lives three, maybe four hours away, over a mountain range and through at least two distinct climate zones. I hitched a ride to the tri-cities a couple weeks ago, in order to participate in his 12-team beer pong competition (team names included: two girls, twelve cups; sparkle motion; prestige worldwide). At the party, easily 30 people cycled between a garage outfitted with pong tables and couches, a kitchen, and other parties. Phones came out, but they didn't dominate conversations. A person whipping out their phone was phasing themselves out more than anything. Technology wasn't, basically, that big a deal. Sinking ping pong balls into red plastic cups was.

Turkle mentions people texting during funerals. I can't really speak to Grandma's, since I was in the front row, but I can say that two cellphones rang at inopportune times. After the second, a third one crooned as it was preemptively shut down. One of the offending telephones was understandable – it belonged to my mom, who'd spent the last five years caring for her mom, the last three months spending every day (sometimes whole days) taking care of pills, procedures, paperwork, and the last week with details - she was, frankly, exhausted. The other two phones? I'm not so sure. But the crowd was mostly over 50, or under 15. It was probably less disrespect, and more a matter of skill with technology.

I'm torn – it's tempting to see tech fetishism as a series of simple faux paux, thoughtless little indulgences driven by novelty (“holy shit, cars are new!” vs. “heyyy, new car smell!”) – most of us, presumably, will eventually figure out how to drive. Or how to avoid the careening Ford Model Ts. But I like the note that Turkle ends things on.

Why don't you chill the fuck out?

“An ad campaign,” she says, “promises that online, and with avatars, you can, quote, finally, love your friends, love your body, love your life.” But our real lives? Our own bodies? New technologies are at their best when they empower some form of true growth. And there's a whole world out there. Riding a horse across a green, or just walking, is a fundamentally different experience than whizzing by at 70, or floating over at 10,000 feet. Technology gives us utility, but that's no warranty on happiness. It reminds me of Stephen King, saying that, “Life isn't a support system for Art. It's the other way around.”

Some of us figure that out. Rest well, Margaret Chapman (1916-2012).


Sasquatch the Rock Notch

So, basically, my once-facebook-husband Sasquatch looks eerily like MineCraft creator / Mojang founder Markus 'Notch' Persson. Except with better hats. And corrective lenses.

Picture relevant.

Sasquatch the Rock Notch

LinkAnd that's all I've got, for now.


Social Media FTW!

Oh. Right. I have a blog, apparently.

I'm back to teaching Media Ethics at DigiPen. After four years of experimenting with some admittedly questionable methods, it's nice to finally have an idea of what that class ought to look like.

Last night, some DigiPen students and staff set up a few cameras for an after-hours Design Club. It was a lot of boisterous young nerds pointing at Mass Effect multiplayer interfaces, snickering, and then making grand, sweeping statements about the future of game design. Or, at least, the future of Mass Effect multiplayer design. Extra Credits writer James Portnow presided, and made it into a pretty enjoyable scene.

Just in case you lack incriminating photographs of yours truly, here's one that my once-Facebook-husband Jared took last year, at a WalMart in the tri-cities:

I've escaped Facebook, for the time being. Twitter is a nice semi-ironic replacement, though I'm never quite sure whether the role of ethics lecturer should be mutually exclusive to the retweeting of wang jokes.

Yesterday, my grandma celebrated her 96th. Go grandma.