200-foot-tall Death Monkey

The last thing I’d do in Galaxies, the night before this gazebo escapade, was to join Phobius at the Coronet spaceport to help him test some lance empowered by “Mind Fire.” I’d merrily gone to duel, to show him just how powerless he’d be against a Jedi-hunting, Dathomir-spelunking doctor-slash-ninja. But with three hits, he’d incapacitated me. So wild was the mind fire that he, a Master Combat Medic, could not heal faster than it permanently damaged my tender aquatic brain.

In fact, when I logged in for the last time – just before getting on a plane to grad school – the mind fire was still going. By conservative estimates, it’d be 28,678 Earth years before my fish could fully recover.

Magni had been next in line for a duel. Phobius presented the lance. Magni took out a 200-foot-tall death monkey. As with my fish, three hits and Magni was down. The monkey? The monkey was unstoppable. Magni claimed that, incapacitated as he was, he could not recall the fearsome creature. It savaged Phobius – who at first grew nervous about his ability to keep himself alive – then died. Then the monkey sent Phobius to the cloners. Completely outside of Magni's control, of course.


Structured Flow vs. Free Flow

Eric Weiner’s travelogue Geography of Bliss starts every chapter title with, “Happiness is...”  And each country gets its own catchy headline. Thailand is, for instance, where Happiness is Not Thinking, and in Moldova, Happiness is Somewhere Else. The former NPR correspondent chuckles at the “self-help industrial complex,” then consults glowing Indian gurus and happiness politicians in Bhutan.

Happiness seems to be the distracted, ephemeral promise of near every television, magazine, and news advertisement out today. A few hours after cracking Weiner’s book open, at the local supermarket I walked by a box for a Snickers-brand ice cream cake with the slogan, “It's what happiness tastes like!” Structured flow – flow that’s designed for us, so we can take the experience and leave – suffers from the same problem as a chocolate cake. Chocolate cake makes some of us happy, for awhile. But not if we eat it every meal, every day. Flavor without substance is just dumb stimulation.

And sure, I love cake as much as the next guy – probably way more – but I can only eat so much of it. Some games go on indefinitely. Though I haven’t exactly given Jane McGonigal a fair shake yet, I’m not convinced that every game fulfills “…genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy.” Like a lot of art, game experiences might take us outside ourselves, connect us with cool shit the likes of which we might never have seen otherwise. If she means the kind of escape Tolkien is talking about, I absolutely agree. To some extent, social organization and high technology have dug some deep moats between the planet’s human beings, her creatures, and her boundless physical beauty. Past that?

There’s a difference between flow that we can take from the world – that we consume like a Hot Pocket – and flow we create. In one, the experience is carefully structured (by someone else) to mete out rewards on just the right schedule, so that a mass audience can detach. So that with minimal effort we can feel one of the most powerful experiences available to humankind. Flow is just a good mix of challenge and skill. We can feel it at the start of a task (easy to learn) or even with the complexity of a massive task (hard to master). In both cases, good game design ensures that we’re always given hints as to where we ought to head next, or just how to better build ourselves up for the larger challenges. Those hints usually come in the form of rewards.

Jane talks about the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, in the happiness research. That the extrinsic “American Dream” goals: money, power, cars, can go so far as to make us unhappy. That’s certainly in-line what the research suggests. But the rewards, goals, what have you, which evoke the structured flow in games are by and large extrinsic. They’re gold, credits, currency. They’re rideable tigers, floating jet bikes, and other thoroughly pimped rides. They’re palatial mansions on Naboo, legendary swords, achievements, visible skill rankings, visible titles, and all manner of status symbols. That’s hard to see, because we’re still struggling with a more fundamental misconception about games.

The big problem in naming a book “Reality is Broken,” is that it establishes from the outset that false dichotomy between “games” and “real life.” The distinction is what’s broken. If all you can see is someone winning a staring contest with a computer monitor, it might look intrinsic. Like the motivation to sit twenty hours at a time is all coming from within. It looks just as much like flow as it does pathology. When you know how rich these worlds can be, about the people you can meet inside, the treasure troves of fun and the abysmal bullshit grinds, it becomes clear that they’re a place that’s real, imperfect, and changeable as any other geographical subsection of the planet. We can go after trite readymade goals (and many do), we can find readymade flow (and many do), we can also build our own flow, and in so doing learn a thing or two about ourselves (and many do). To be fair to Galaxies, I made a lot more of my own flow there than in later online games, say Warcraft or League of Legends. To be fair to Jane, I can’t be too judgmental where book titles are concerned.

Free flow – flow experiences we build ourselves, after listening to both the world and ourselves – show us that, in Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “…the old riddle “What is the meaning of life?” turns out to be astonishingly simple. The meaning of life is meaning: whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.”

If we can discover some “harmonious theme” to the chaos of our lives, then we can take steps to building for ourselves the experience of flow in more and more places. The individual who embodies free flow – who sticks to a goal, builds their skills, and tackles big problems – the universe might not be there cheering them on, life might be awful, but they have perhaps the most powerful gift an individual can give to themselves: purpose.

It gets really easy to just rely on the experts, who can build engagement into our entertainment, our jobs, our lives. We might get a lot more motivated (intrinsically and extrinsically) to do those jobs, and live those lives. But in so doing we might not notice the worlds we could’ve liked a lot more, which could have meant more, had we been the ones making them flow.

Games aren’t autopilot for happiness. That doesn't exist. They reveal life by giving it a basis for comparison. A fish doesn’t know it’s in water until you snatch it out. Galaxies did just that. It transported me to rich worlds populated by strange automated creatures, shady guilds composed of shady human beings, and people I’m still grateful to have in my life. It wasn’t exactly a shining golden age for the part of me doing misdeeds in Gig Harbor, but it wasn’t completely bereft of merit. Even without any so-called “experience language” I’d learned – first hand – a few things about fun, and the futility of grinds.

“...some readers wanted to know if they should move to happy places like Iceland or Bhutan.” Wrote Weiner, in his Geography, “Perhaps, if that is where your heart lies, but the point is not necessarily that we move to these places but, rather, that we allow these places to move us.

“I believe, now more than ever, in the transformative promise of geography. Change your location and you just may change yourself. It's not that distant lands contain some special “energy” or that their inhabitants possess secret knowledge (though they may) but rather something more fundamental: By relocating ourselves, reorienting ourselves, we shake loose the shackles of expectation. Adrift in a different place we give ourselves permission to be different people.”


Quite Done

A week before I’d fly to Hawaiʻi, a new busboy friend and I trespassed our way up a path overgrown with blackberry bushes, to an abandoned gazebo overlooking Gig Harbor. I partook of eight bowls of marijuana (roughly seven more than I’d ever had before). Time passed. He then took a call from his girlfriend, who absolutely, positively, needed him right that second. So he dropped me off at home.

It’s three AM. This is the last place on Earth I want to be. In the pale orange of the buzzing streetlight, my folks’ place looks the part of the haunt it’s been. Like the cult horror flick Hausu, I’m defenseless as a Japanese schoolgirl deposited at the home of a screeching vampire auntie, who will – no doubt – jump from the shadows at any second, dragging her rough, claw-like fingernails over my throat, draining every drop so that her cat can float around in a tub of my life's blood. Just running the key into the lock makes the sound of a bonesaw. The deadbolt groans as I twist this rusty blade. Inside, every step is the wail of my witchlike captor. The door to the bedroom opens no less banshee-like, and there. I finally see the thing that’s bounced around in front of my face without being seen, for over a year of my life.

In the corner of the room, on the hardwood floor and half in the shade of a sheet metal industrial table, is the enormous specialty computer monitor. The jet-hum of my computer’s fan growls. Circling the boxy CRT is a disabused shrine of weeks-old food, at least three empty bottles of Charles Shaw, piles of wine stained, printed notes on the art of SWG artifact-finding, and, the real clincher, sickly orange, circular blotches of dried and forgotten semen. I might have stared for ten minutes, I might have stared for an hour. I lost the ability to move.

When that changed, the barest step was an alarm, announcing a year of oblivion and indiscretion. But I cleaned. Completely outside of myself, I could finally meet the gaze of the lurker. The concentration and admixture of, for instance, an ever-present fear of my parents, regret over wasting my college girlfriend’s time, the moats I'd dug to block off stable employ, the crocodiles I'd been raising therein. Everything Galaxies helped me escape. But more, I saw the abject, clear and present need to escape the escape. A few days later I'd leave for Hawaiʻi, and graduate school, with the intention of never again owning my own computer. Once there I would try to understand what had happened, how things had gone so far.

I honestly wish I’d known then what I know now: the anchoring that comes from carving out a life you want to live. That you'll fight to live. Galaxies created a community unlike anything that’s been tried in the history of gaming. I would have loved playing it clear-headed. From 2003 to 2005, SWG was a geek Shangri-La, a place now lost, of which many travelers claim knowledge but few saw in its prime. In 2005, executives at LucasArts demanded it become, “More like World of Warcraft,” so insane were they with greed at seeing WoW’s billion-dollar annual profit. Commercially understandable, but sad. It would then die, officially, when servers came down December 15, 2012.

Some compare SWG’s early days to Woodstock, a free-love experience that you just “had to be there to understand, man,” while others reminisce in the way grandpa might, recalling bygone days of trudging thirty miles through five feet of snow, staring down grizzly bears and mountain cats. The antics of people like Magni, made possible by an as-yet unparalleled depth, made Star Wars Galaxies a welcoming and wonderful place. The kind that, when I’ve fallen so far into laze, malaise, and apathy that I’ve lost even humor, I might want to visit. If I could go back in time, I’d take my twenty-two-year-old self aside, show that pretentious, arrogant child what I feel I know now – as a thirty-one-year-old, pretentious, arrogant child – on the off chance that he might have played that game reasonably, loving every second he had the privilege to be there.

Or I’d set up to play Galaxies on the desk. He wasn't using it. I just can’t forget to pack plenty of Purell.



In his book Flow, father of flow theory Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, “We have called this state the flow experience, because this is the term of many of the people we interviewed had used in their descriptions of how it felt to be in top form: “It was like floating,” “I was carried on by the flow.””

We get there once we’ve mastered something, say, Stalking Jedi in Star Wars Galaxies, and then matched that mastery to some equally breathtaking quest, say Take Three Jedi Masters at Once. When we have the skills, and the challenge, we can feel utterly competent, and in the moment. We know what we’re supposed to do, but things are happening so fast that we lose track of our own selves. We’re completely invested. It was a state of mind that Csikszentmihalyi observed in factory workers, CEOs, professional athletes, scientists, pianists.

Action and awareness come together, “When all a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person’s attention is completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess psychic energy left over.” It takes enough of our attention that we can’t focus on the bad shit in life. It’s a double whammy, if the experience itself can also be involving and meaningful.

It is, perhaps, the most engaging experience available to humankind. Which can on occasion be a problem. Csikszentmihalyi explains,

Early ethnographers have described North American Plains Indians so hypnotically involved in gambling with buffalo rib bones that losers would often leave the tepee without clothes in the dead of winter, having wagered away their weapons, horses, and wives as well. Almost any enjoyable activity can become addictive, in the sense that instead of being a conscious choice, it becomes a necessity that interferes with other activities. Surgeons, for instance, describe operations as being addictive, “like taking heroin.”

When a person becomes so dependent on the ability to control an enjoyable activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then he loses the ultimate control: the freedom to determine the content of consciousness. Thus enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.

Flow is powerful, so it’s no surprise that in her Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal uses Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory as a major pillar for her definition of games. She calls the gamers who understand flow Happiness Engineers, saying they’re uniquely positioned to help fix reality. But she too seems aware of gaming’s potential to overwhelm, describing a weekend where she, “…spent twenty-four hours playing WoW – which was about twenty-three more hours than I’d intended. What can I say? There was a LOT of world-saving work to do.

“… When Monday morning came around, I resisted the idea of going back to “real” work. I knew this wasn’t rational. But some part of me wanted to keep earning experience points, stacking up treasure, collecting my plus-ones, and checking off world-saving quests from my to-do list.

“…I did go back to real work, of course. But it took me awhile to shake the feeling that I’d rather be leveling up. Part of me felt like I was accomplishing more in the Kingdom of Azeroth than I was in real life. And that’s exactly the IV drip of productivity that World of Warcraft is so good at providing. It delivers a stream of work and reward as reliably as a morphine drip line.

“…and it doesn’t matter that the work isn’t real. The emotional rewards are real – and for gamers, that’s what matters.”

While Jane only mentions one weekend of “blissful productivity,” Galaxies had me lost for a year. Her book means to use flow as the foundational evidence that games make us happy. Even if flow was ever really about happiness, there’s more happening here. At some point, games go beyond “fun,” or even “engagement.”

Galaxies gave me a first taste of that strange limbo, the awkward space where engagement stretches too long. Whether because the game world is simply too rich, or the alternatives in the rest of the world too awful, the ability to function in any world starts to corrode.



The Dark Side

Not an hour after James, Jared and I said our goodbyes, I was back in Galaxies. Alongside acceptance at the University of Hawaiʻi and a job as a fish restaurant busboy, things got manageable with the folks. Business also picked up on Talus. Getting serious about home furnishings, I’d eventually notice that the most coveted luxury décor, i.e. 'a broken lightsaber', would occasionally be offered on market for a couple hundred credits (common resale, 10,000-100,000 credits). Some “artifacts” could be picked up infinitely – no agonizing over resource quality, or dealing with shady Krayt Dragon hunting parties. Niche ahoy! Artifact Dealer. It wasn't long before I had prime merchant real estate in Coro-Compton, and the loot one needs to become a Jedi.

“Unlocking the Jedi Slot” a.k.a. “The Jedi Grind” a.k.a. “Kill Yourself, Sony” was, and perhaps remains, the most soul-grating time sink in the history of the MMO. George Lucas told Sony Online that they, “Could not include Jedi.” Their response was to make the process so utterly onerous, so completely secret, that they hoped to never see a Jedi. And yet, what better to a whole world of imaginative geeks than uncovering the esoteric mysteries of The Force? Once I’d gotten around to it, the esoteric mysteries were thoroughly uncovered, dissected, and loathed.

The sacred path to Jedi involved mastering four to seven of the game’s 33 professions (mastering Architect and Medic had taken me months – though that’d been without the geyser of cash brought on by “artifacts”). Sadly, the professions each character needed were secret, and random. Jedi Holocrons – softly glowing blue boxes – revealed all but the last profession, where they offered the text, 

“The Holocron is quiet. The ancients’ knowledge of the Force will no longer assist you on your journey. You must continue seeking on your own.”

I slowly surrendered hard-won Architect and Marksman skills, learning Bio-engineer, then Commando, and then Galaxies’s answer to Kung-Fu: Teras-Kasi Artist. With the intensity building, I ventured out in search of my own hard-won Holocrons. Find them I did: boxes that glowed a violent red. Sith Holocrons. It was on opening one of these the Holocron imparted no further knowledge.

In Gig Harbor, the general manager at my restaurant job seemed unable to grasp that years of gaming did not certify me to balance fourteen full glasses of icewater on one hand, while using the other to squeeze the green plastic cups between bulging socialites. Slapstick ensues. Consistently failing such dexterity checks made me unpopular, the sleep-deprived and caffeine-addled punishment for under-performing members of the wait staff. Then, well after a hasty firing was in order, the appropriate looks of derision and malice stopped. Tips increased. Everyone at the restaurant became… friendly. Warily, I accepted an invitation out drinking with the chefs and the bar staff. I was – much to my amazement – not stabbed. So preoccupied was I with Galaxies, that it literally took weeks before I’d realize what naïve faux-paus had changed my fortunes so drastically. The only important detail seemed that the rest of life was getting to be pretty fun too. The white and sheltered University of Washington graduate was getting a crash course in heavy drug and alcohol abuse, petty crime, and party-crashing, all under the tutelage of accomplished masters.

Back in Galaxies, grinding through random professions had gotten to be too much, especially after Master Doctor. Instead I ventured deep into the prosaic birthplace of The Force. A place I’d superstitiously avoided since my earliest days. Home to the rancors, and littered with caves and camps of the deadliest Force-infused humanoids: the Night Sisters. Armored in illegally sliced 90% composite, stocked with the luxuriously expensive healing gear of the Master Doctor, and temporarily empowered, or “buffed” by my own doctorly prowess. During the day I’d hunt and fetch rare “artifacts,” for my décor business, growing a war chest in the tens, occasionally hundreds of millions of credits. At night I’d venture out on high-stakes exploration, alone, on the dark and miserable surface of Dathomir.

Except on the nights with high bonfires, hundreds of people dancing in Douglas fir-encircled fields of dark, rainy and miserable Middle of Nowhere, WA. Black-out drinking, I was that solitary male asshole up on the makeshift plywood stage, dancing with the half-naked women. On one such night, between shots of Goldschläger at a trailer park, I played Halo for the first time. These guys and gals – who might not ever admit to playing games – were godly at Halo. It set a tone. That peculiar evening now comes to mind any time I’m getting murdered on any Xbox shooter game.

In Galaxies the Jedi Grind was no longer a priority. Killing whole families of rancors was long passé.  A Twi’lek exotic dancer working a backwater moon was all too happy to toss that and go on an intergalactic shopping spree. We went and earned some “badges,” which also set a tone. Since then, in-game achievements (whether they’re called badges, ranks, whatever) always seem the last resort of the drowning victim, the gamer who clutches greedy nails into anything that’ll keep him breathing digital air just a little longer. I followed Phobius to The Empire. Changed my face. Turned to the Dark Side.

My first and only experience with Madden Football was after a long night of binge drinking, bong-hitting, and fiddling with oversized firearms. The Sous-Chef was betting a half grand against the Head Bartender, and after further gratuitous bong hits they upped the ante to double-or-nothing. Suddenly I understood my invitations to restaurant escapades. It was that bulging plastic freezer bag – heavy with a fragrant green substance – five or six hundred bucks worth. Overhearing the Head Bartender mention Something Like That, I figured he’d make sure it got back to its rightful owner.

You live and you learn.

My new Imperial guild was teaming up with expert bounty hunters to hunt one of the server’s most notorious Jedi Guardians, a powerful warrior on the cusp of becoming a Master. The buildup took hours, with buffing and intelligence on his movements coming in slow.

And then – out of the blue – it was time to pounce.

The Jedi Guardian was protected by maybe a dozen Rebels, all lounging in a remote desert cantina. Within twenty seconds everyone had been killed, save three on our side and the Guardian. After fifteen minutes of fighting through the streets of this desert town, then giving chase up the side of a mountain, Phobius was killed. At the mountain’s peak, another fifteen minutes later, the Imperial bounty hunter fell – leaving me and the Jedi. We fought another twenty minutes, learning each other’s weaknesses and styles, but I – with my evil face and evil demeanor – would be the winner. The Jedi couldn't permanently wound a fish with so many overpriced healing tricks – and his health gradually dropped. He had impressive abilities to regenerate and press attack – but I’d learned them (firsthand, which “real gamers” don't cotton to these days) – I countered them all. The sun was rising. He panicked, tried to run. I knocked him down, started laying in.

He was mine.

And then, about ten of the individually-weak cantina Rebels attacked from behind. Slowed me, kicked me to the ground, and delivered the killing blow.

The volume was at eleven, but I couldn’t hear the music.



Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien supposed that literal magic pulled us into stories. He also supposed that detractors of fantasy were clearly confused, on some points. In his roughly 70-year-old lecture On Faerie Stories, Tolkien makes a distinction between the Escape of the Prisoner and the Flight of the Deserter.

He laments an Oxford clerk who welcomed the “real life” invited by roaring of factories and mass-production. For one, Tolkien supposed the term “real life” a bit odd. “The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm-tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of the escapist!”

To say nothing of the gasses, machine-guns, and other variegated weapons of mass-production.

As much as escape is chided by the champions of industry, there are a few kinds of escape worth our consideration. In the first, we appreciate older times, “…when men were as a rule delighted with the work of their hands,” as opposed to the present, where it’s more common to, “…feel disgust with man-made things.” He has no problem, at all, if we want to fly from, “the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine.”

But also the, “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice...”

Or more ancient limitations, which sit at the heart of fantasy. “…the desire to visit, free as a fish, the deep sea; or the longing for the noiseless, gracious, economical flight of a bird…” Tolkien calls such desires the root of our love of such escapes. Wishing to connect to life, to people and their stories, to understand the living things in the forests and oceans: these aren’t lesser desires. We want to converse with every other living thing – but will probably laugh at the guy claiming to speak “bird.” Fantasy is the answer. Tolkien calls that desire to conference with all things “as ancient as the Fall.” All these escapes have deeper, older meanings that we can lose touch with, especially where culture is reduced to repetitive jingles and complex branding initiatives.

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

Fantasy allows us one more escape, “the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.” Which he supposes the hallmark of the genuine escapist, or “fugitive spirit.” In this we can come closest to giving a reader, or viewer, or player, a taste of something utterly powerful, beyond even a story: eucatastrophe. That beautiful feeling when all is truly lost, and yet our heroes find the “turn” in despite. Where we pull through, and survive. Escaping like that moves us. We bring it into the other parts of our lives, and persevere, despite the cold marches of “real life.”


It Could Happen to the Bishop

I love vulgarity. Reading some of the shit twenty-two-year-old Neils saw fit to scribble in a leather-bound travel journal? Still gripped by his bloodlust of gaming and angst? It's a disheartening counterpoint. I won't venture too deep into direct quotes – the scrotal and anal irregularities one encounters on a fourteen hour flight, the wistful depictions of urinating into a 1.5 liter bottle during a nonstop five hour bus ride. Even the kind words of the elderly Irish gentlemen sitting next to you, on a nonstop five hour bus ride,

“Don’t worry, lad. We have this saying: It could happen to The Bishop.”

Pretty sure the Bishop knows not to drink 1.5 liters of water, on a nonstop five hour bus ride.

Point is, not long after I get a continent away from Galaxies? My brain appears to, I don't know, reset itself.

A week after the bus incident, I meet the kind of classy, gorgeous lady I’d only ever have a chance with because of an extravagant accent. Scribbling turns to poetry (the not-terrible kind – a trick I haven't figured out since). We spend a night walking the deserted Wellington waterfront. We're laughing one second, and the next our faces are too close. Things slow down, and the last few months cease to matter. I’d gone my entire life without that specific gravity. And Wellington emptied of people – but full of trees, life-sized Cave Trolls, and a wyvern-riding Witch King – was beautiful. She and I each had someone across a body of water, but I kissed her on the cheek.

Yeah, sorry. That’s all that happened. I’m a good little nerd, okay?


This was life at age twenty-two: effulgent, unstoppable; Galaxies holding it hostage. I'd stay in this nerdy city. Find work, and romance, figure things out, and never again touch a videogame.

Or, I could get accepted into grad school, fly home, and leap back into the mire. I did that second thing. Three days after touching back down at SeaTac, the magic of Wellington already evaporating, I’d write:

April 3, 2004 – It seems fitting to write while a pack is on my back, and I’m standing in the sun. 
Some East-siders are coming over this week – for the first time. I’m HIGHLY curious to see how this turns out, if at all. 
There’s nothing I can say to keep you from falling into laze, malaise, and apathy. I know you want that one sentence – the one that is immediately and lastingly motivational – meaningfully inspiring. It just doesn’t exist. What exists is the now, and if you’re so far gone that you can’t even try to enjoy the present – or at least appreciate the humor of its travesty… 
Then you’re in luck. That means it’s time to go traveling.

Those East-siders were Magni and Azrael. The following week, the then-high school seniors made the four-hour drive over Snoqualmie Pass, the mountains separating brown Eastern Washington barrens from grey Seattle drizzle.

Meeting online friends in person is always unique, and almost never what you’d expect. I couldn’t have asked for better than Jared and James. Jared – “Sasquatch” in friendly conversation and “Magni Jormund” in Galaxies – sports a commanding presence and messy mutton chops. James – often “Gnome” for his stature – always seems to regard his surroundings with darting, intelligent eyes. Over a weekend we explored Seattle, drunkenly wandered Gig Harbor at 3AM, and engaged in light criminal trespass. We got a picture of James and Jared with, “Neils and his dad,” which featured the most intensely pedophilic-looking 45-year-old fisherman we could find wandering the harbor, along with his 70-something father. Think a redheaded Zach Galifianakis and an age-progressed John Malkovich, linking arms with two bright-eyed high schoolers.

Jared would later show this photograph to his mother.

She said, “Oh he looks nice.”


Back to chapter introduction

Next: Escape >>


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



The very best comparison I have, for that moment of logging into a big game for the first time, is stepping off the plane in a foreign country. You’ve got a backpack full of things you may need. You’ve got your experiences till now, as a human being. Maybe a little cash in pocket.

Everything else is new.

I tend to fuck up those first few hours.

In a bus that was rapidly leaving downtown Auckland, I distinctly remember walking up to the bus driver and asking him, “We pass that hostel yet?”

Him saying, “Oh yeeh mate, sorry! We passed it fifteen minutes ago, but I keen drop you off here.”

And he did, he dropped me off at one of the biggest, most beautiful graveyards I’d ever seen. Old stone markers and tombs in tall grass, the waterfront off in the background, gentle breeze. My first time traveling alone, outside the country, and I’m in a graveyard where my anus was bleeding. It was the “synthetic fiber undergarment” a friend had been kind enough to get me, for long days of hiking. I never did tell them how or why those sandpaper undies made it to a Kiwi trash bin.

Nor did it help that, being an American traveler in 2004, fresh after George W. Bush’s somewhat unpopular invasion of Iraq, most walking directions I got were comically incorrect. With my enormous backpack and chafed undercarriage, I discovered the hostel after approximately five hours.

Pretty stoked to be alive. And able to gingerly lay down.

Even after that, neither the pain in my ass nor the sniggering locals could come close to the simple joy of just wandering in a place that was new. Seriously, I understand that this it may seem strange, at first, that I regarded this rough introduction with boundless gratitude. Stumbling into a hole-in-the-wall with one of the most delicious baskets of fish and chips I’ve ever encountered. The light off the water, at the end of a pier. A group of regular folk playing rugby at a park. Trees producing what appeared to be oversized ferns, along with the subtle botanical and cultural differences around every corner. Dropped off in the graveyard, with a history of free-form exploring in games, I forget the pain and have an adventure.

A few days and a train ride later, I found myself in a city named Hamilton, where at 8AM two men were hanging out the window of the local pub, both blindingly drunk. With startling coordination, one latched onto my arm.

“Yer a backpacker! Yer ass better get back here once you drop that pack. I’m getting married today.”

My ass had not yet properly healed. I wanted to sleep. I stammered, decried his aggressive drunken insistence, then acquiesced like a good nerd. I could have just stayed in the hostel.

Stepping into the pub, I was immediately greeted with “not quite proper, but surely not the worst,” Guinness. It was cold, and good. The youngest at the table was a 13-year-old girl, the oldest a leathery-tanned 81-year-old who still surfed the Gold Coast of Australia. Or so he said.

“Ya see, we Kiwis love backpackers,” said the groom-to-be. “Because we’re all backpackers.”

“It’s true,” says his brother. “If everyone came back at the same time, the island ’d sink!”

And it’s to do with love, too,” says the groom, putting an arm around his fiancé. “You need to travel the world before you find the right woman for you. I been to Asia, France, Germany, Sweden, I been everywhere. But this lady here, she’s from Scotland!”

Then we talk about love, weddings, beer, and before I can promise to attend the ceremony I drunkenly vanish from the party, stagger across six lanes of traffic, and pass out in a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The next day I meet back up with a German traveling buddy. We travel across an ocean to the South Island.

The stars there are brighter than anywhere I’ve seen. I go back across the ocean. On a hill overlooking Wellington, I watch part of a cricket game with the proper British version of a womanizing bro (“I always go for the ugly ones, you see. They’re quite a lot more energetic, and the lights are off anyway.”). At the hostel I get cornered by three Australian forensic scientists, and their 2-liter bottle of duty-free vodka.

That kind of exploratory chaos is a lot like the beginning of most games. Before grinds and weirdos and routines get their claws in us, we’re free to pursue every new thing. It’s a beautiful feeling, wherever you find it.



Falling In

The sun was up and shining outside the other bedroom window. While the world woke, I shut down my ailing jet-engine PC and snuggled in on an inflatable green mattress. Summer had always been that time best suited for cracking open new games. And wasn’t this recent college graduate all but owed a break before kowtowing to a life of soul-shredding careerism? Mom and dad wouldn’t mind.

And maybe they didn’t, on week two or three, or twelve. But by the point Galaxies really got going, I was already well-entangled in this other game called don’t get kicked out. Job applications, all to extravagant positions at games companies, all fueled by caffeine overdose, angst and procrastination, all politely refused or unanswered for months. Mom would give me time to figure this life thing out. Dad wanted a plan. Both, more than anything, wanted me to build a healthy and satisfying life; both set up smart boundaries, when they could corner me for conversation.

Easier said than done.

My bedroom’s side window was preferable to the front door as an entry and exit point, when exercise or escape became absolutely necessary. The house had a dozen kinds of nightingale floorboard.  The front door cried like a cat in heat. Socks had to be worn on hardwood floors, at all times. To my parents I was the ghost in the side room: unpredictable if disturbed, and rarely visible to the naked eye. The blind corners of my odd bedroom and large desk made for great comic stealth. In my own mind I was the plucky ninja, living undetected in the heart of the samurai fortress.

Meanwhile, the sheer depth of Galaxies, the volition and promise of that universe, hit me like meth. I started going twenty, twenty-two hours at a time if I could, fueled by five-shot espressos and whatever food I could snag when the kitchen sounded empty. I lost 40 pounds in two months.

Magni may have given me a rifle, but Medic held the most promise for tagging along with the cool kids. Magni Jormund used a huge, two-handed, nuclear-powered sledgehammer. His high school friend Azrael was a Master Ranger. Phobius played all hours at Azrael’s dad’s house, eventually moving in; the three of them had grown up with my very first in-game friend: Cameron.

Magni and Azrael, before long, would be the first two games friends I'd meet outside a game.

Waiting ten Earth minutes at a time to travel between Galaxies's planets, the four of us arrived in the misty green of Dathomir. Magni, Azrael, and Phobius had all spent an extra twenty or so minutes getting “buffed,” priming for battle by bartering with sidewalk doctors and watching exotic dancers (hey, they had to have some systems-based reason for sexy dances). I figured, why bother buffing myself? I'd only be healing.

Off in the distance, obscured in the digital mist, a couple of ancient bull rancors walked back and forth. If you’ve seen Return of the Jedi, this is the building-sized, leathery-skinned creature that Jabba the Hutt keeps under his chair, to terrify then masticate solicitors. Some of the Galaxies rancors are smaller, some are bigger. These were bigger. And, apparently, these would do. Rancors make nice, heavy, stack-of-phonebooks-dropping sounds as they lumber around. Their shrill calls are eerie, a roar you’d hear while lost in Jurassic Park. One walks up and starts to open Phobius like a lunchbox. I heal Phobius. I die instantly. Then, with the rancor looming over my broken body, I die permanently.

A few days later, apparently unfazed by my Dathomir performance, Phobius texts me in-game, sending co-ordinates.

“We’re at war!” He's repeating.

Thirty or forty rebels gathered to one side of the field. A yellow lightsaber glowed. I could see a vague outline of the Imperials, and a two-sided red saber. In the center of the battlefield, somebody dressed like Beat It Michael Jackson was dancing. Red leather jacket, black jeans, jheri curl. Heedless to the danger.

It was Magni.

Both sides traded energy bolts, and a mess of sword, axe, and hammer-wielding players met in the middle. The fighting went at least ten minutes, the riflemen and I crawling back farther and farther, until the Imperials overwhelmed our puny band. Before getting permanently killed again, I spy Magni. Still alive, still dancing in the middle of a battlefield. Surrounded by dozens of corpses. 

Back in Gig Harbor, the tension of perpetual stealth was taking its toll. My folks' ever more clever attempts to communicate impending eviction? Getting harder to avoid. The last two times dad knocked, there was barely enough time to leap onto the slowly leaking plastic air mattress to feign comatose sleep.

The girlfriend was tired of making 45-minute drives to pick my ass up on weekends. Oh yes, there was a girlfriend. A very thoughtful one. Well into SWG she hit me with a clever idea: apply for grad school. Her ulterior motives – being the high school valedictorian and a legitimate scholar – were my future stability and happiness. That was nice, but the gamer/con artist in me immediately saw two convenient nuances. First, students get to keep living with their parents! And dedicating myself earnestly to the scholar’s path would only add to the sizeable arsenal of reasons to contribute nothing around the house. I would instead spend every available second ardently preparing the highest possible quality of college application materials. Second, actually getting accepted? That’s two-to-five more years of classes in the afternoon, cocktails, then gaming all night. I think yes. Grad school. Quite the erudite decision.

I went to share this happy, happy news with my folks.

It didn’t do much for the perpetually-exhausted look in their eyes. Looking back, it didn’t do much for my calcified ambitions, or withering dignity. Some creature was looming, flat and banal. When its gaze got remotely close, I was long gone. Dived deep into SWG. At some point, the fifty-pound CRT monitor migrated to the hardwood floor, making me hunch awkwardly if I wanted to play. Intended as disincentive, the sharp throb in my back only furthered the miserable sentence that was reality. I’d started pilfering any beer, wine, or whiskey my folks hadn’t glued down – sometimes watering it after. Not knowing how else to get away from the unnatural gravitational pull of Galaxies, one early AM I spent the last of a nest-egg, about a grand my deceased grandparents had set aside for school, on a ticket across the Pacific Ocean.

One downside to getting a really good deal on airfare was not boarding the airplane sooner. Back Ba'aar, with healing losing its charm, I shifted gears to the crafting in Galaxies; it was like nothing before or since in online games. A miner in World of Warcraft can only ever get one kind of copper, can only smelt that with one tin, to make one bronze. All blacksmiths in WoW can use that one bronze to churn out identical bronze shoulderpads. No different in armor, strength and stamina bonuses, no matter whether the blacksmith is an illustrious grand master, or a journeyman. Galaxies had nine varieties of copper, with specific types required for the most coveted weapons, armor, or armoire. All these coppers, steels, low grade ores, had a selection of eleven attributes, like Conductivity, Overall Quality, Malleability, Flavor, each ranked from 1 to 1000.

We could geek the hell out, get real in-depth on material quality, surveying, and mining…  But...

Well, shit. Just a little. Imagine – hundreds of materials – some with six or seven attributes. Most changing in quality weekly. Some violently protected. Many stockpiled. The game had depth. Perpetually-identical bronze shoulderpads? Pfah, I say! Compare that to the armor all fighting players in SWG begged, borrowed and killed for: composite. Composite armor ran the gamut – from near-useless – to pieces that blocked 100% of all damage, from everything but lightsabers. Sony literally had to rewrite the goddamned game so players with 100% armor couldn't just roam through cities, heedlessly slaughtering anyone and anything not a Jedi. I wasn't keen on that kind of crafting. It took time – scouring shops for fragile dragon tissues – haggling with Night Sister hunting parties – dealing with smugglers.

A touch too much for the short attention span in me, though there was an easy crafting profession, with the goods I'd been wanting for awhile. It dawned on me when Magni re-arranged my furniture on the ceiling. My 'bearded jax' (a cat-sized alien with a devilish goatee) looked down as if to ask, “Why? Why must your furnishings be so plain? Also, why the fuck would you give Magni household permissions?” Two good points, bearded jax. Two good points. But since Magni is not easily outpranked, I'll start by working towards becoming a master architect.

This backpacking through New Zealand thing would be a minor delay only.



Before any of that, I had to make my face.

The first step was picking among the fictitious races in Star Wars: Zabrak, Twi’lek, Human, Rodian. Most had high health and endurance: perfect for hand-to-hand combat. Not weird enough. Then I spotted the aquatic gentleman. A race called “Mon Calamarian,” made famous by that fishy admiral at the end of Return of the Jedi. The one who gruffly shouts the obvious, as dozens of ships speed toward the Death Star, “It’s a trap!!” My Mon Calamari came standard with low health, not much endurance, but an enormous reservoir of a mechanically useless attribute called “mind.”


Never before had a game presented me with so many options for body modification. The color, size, and spacing of my enormous fisheyes. My height, the musculature on my scaly arms. The green splashes of color on my brown calamari-shaped forehead.

And here, some researchers will bemoan the boring familiarity of most virtual worlds.

Nick Yee, Jason Ellis, and Nic Ducheneaut, in their paper Tyranny of Embodiment, remind that, “…we oftentimes forget that we can do the impossible in virtual worlds.” They think it’s fascinating that we’re so cozy with the idea of familiar realities that we, “...create a legion of artifacts that revolve around our bodies.” Including, “…virtual chairs, virtual tables, and virtual people.” That when we can make anything, anything at all, we make what we know. Rather than embody ourselves as floating triangles of pure energy, we pick fleshy blobs with arms and legs.

Virtual worlds allow us to hijack certain elements of embodiment. The speech patterns of living people within the game might add words like, “please,” or “thank you,” without the speaker’s knowledge or consent. People running tall avatars, or more attractive avatars, not only barter more aggressively. They more often get what they want. The confidence built while so embodied carried over to their Earth embodiment.

Galaxies did a few neat things. For the first time, when you spoke, other players would move their heads to look at you. Such seemingly simple details of animation joined a hundred others, and brought out a depth of emotion I couldn’t have gotten from Baldur’s Gate, to say nothing of the bullet-based communication in Counter-Strike. I was Mon Calamarian, in a Brave New Galaxy.



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. 


hath no bottom

If you dumped LAX in with the highrises of downtown Los Angeles, surrounded that with two miles of California barrens, then circled that with Compton, you’d have something approximating Coronet City. I showed up close to midnight, on the home planet of Han Solo; heavily armed pimps, strippers, and Wookies barreled into one another drunkenly, their dutiful droids whirring by at polite following distances. No matter where in the city you go, Coronet sounds like the inside of a factory that makes dying refrigerators. Wandering anxiously, I occasionally glimpse up at the skyline, black and neon. The hydraulics on the next interstellar transport fire off somewhere behind me, in the punchbowl center of the starport.

Magni Jormund was supposed to be waiting.

He’s not. Instead, some horned alien with a leather jacket and facial tattoos inches towards me, holding the same icy expression and body language for several minutes. His clothes look bloody, with a mean-looking energy rifle slung out in front. I sidle away slowly, but not carefully. Before I’ve figured out how my legs work, the mysterious force called lag has me suddenly out into the dark barrens between Coronet and Coro-Compton. The gnarled rifleman might not have killed me for fun. The weird animals out here?

Magni finally sends a text. Says he’s waiting on another planet. Talus, not Corellia. Of course.

He and a few online friends just lured me onto the Sony/LucasArts game Star Wars Galaxies. It’s mid 2003, back on Earth, now midnight, and I just spent the last hour fine tuning the facial coloring for the half-man, half-fish I’d masquerade as for the next year or so. If you know Star Wars (but not Galaxies), the game was set after the destruction of the first Death Star, and before the icy battle at Hoth. Vader, Luke, Leia, they’d make appearances. Jabba and the Sarlacc? Ayup.

Back on Talus, what would soon be my home world, Magni missed the interstellar transport that comes once every ten Earth minutes. So he’s tussling with Imperial Stormtroopers, and I’ll need to find my own way. First, he text-talks me out of the barrens. Next I'll need to find the spaceport, ticket console, spaceship, then ticket collector. Then, on Talus, find the map feature, the planetary shuttle, the booking agent for a flight to the player-created city of Ba’aar.

Total simplicity.

Only, after winning the scavenger hunt, the automated ticket console politely reminds me I have no money. No problem, says Magni. Think you could work the email console? I’ll drop some credits in escrow.

Early SWG tossed new players in with naught but the clothes on their backs, so it was a good thing I had Magni. He got those credits into that escrow, and I got that ticket. With its mean-looking players, their flurry of textboxes filled with ALL-CAPS product advertisements, and gangs of lady aliens on humming hover-bikes, this world was starting to make sense. Not quite natural, yet. SWG – Coronet in particular – was notorious for lag, an experience not unlike attempting to walk mid-seizure.

Once I’d gotten the hell out of Coronet – an entire planet away, in fact – machines politely informed me it'd take another 300 credits to get to Ba’aar. Without another thought, and partly because lag was no longer at brain aneurism levels, I walked. Despite Magni insisting that he was actually pretty close this time.

A few minutes later, completely lost atop the mountains of Talus, I had my first truly magical moment in an MMO. It was Magni’s turn to ask where the hell I was. My only reply was to inquire as to how the discerning semi-aquatic gentleman might photograph what was on his screen. Having walked a sheer mountain ridge and evaded violent mountain Ewok creatures, as well as Stormtroopers, I came across a huge, peaceful, brontosaurus-like reptile. It casually defied laws of physics, strolling along a near 90-degree slope. Think David Bowie in Labyrinth, sashaying up the side of a wall. The info bubble let me know it was a vicious huf dun. I wanted to pet it. No command for that. Instead, I figured out how to take pictures, learned the technical commands necessary to smile, and captured the moment. The screenshots are still floating around on old backup disks, and I still can’t look at the things without a grin.

Not long after, Magni pulls up in his X-34 landspeeder.

“hey babe,” he says. “want a ride?”

Back in town, Magni sets me up. There were the little details: admission into his guild: Self-Righteous Paladins, joining the Rebel Alliance (requirement to join The Good Guys? Kill a few dozen Stormtroopers!). There were basic items: a jet bike, Ubese armor, a black T-21 rifle, finding the marksman trainer. Finally, the deed to a small house. With permission from the mayor of Ba’aar, I dropped my new home in view of the sea. No furniture, decor, or house pets, yet, but in this world I'd carved out a space of my own.


Back to chapter introduction

Next: Embodiment>>

Intro to Pt3: Engagement



"The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be the vast government-sponsored enquiries into what the politicians and the participating scientists will call "the problem of happiness" -- in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude."

-Aldous Huxley, from the 1946 foreword to A Brave New World




In her well-known GDC talk on Train, Brenda Brathwaite describes hearing Mary Flanagan, another designer, refer to a game as, "my work.” That the subtle change of language brought on a weird transformative moment, helping to further shift how she thought about the medium of games. Not long after, at Ian Bogost's tenure party, she's having the standard games industry conversation, 

"So what are ya workin' on?" 

"Can't say." 

"Yeah, me neither." 

But, this time, Brenda was working on some board games because she wanted to, because she could. Trying to use games to capture the difficult emotions open to other mediums. Trying to see if that's possible.

"So, what are your games about?"

She'd made one about the Middle Passage, called The New World. One about the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland. And just then she was working on one called Train, about The Holocaust.

"But, Brenda," says this industry person, "That's not fun."

Was Schindler's List fun? Is fun what makes blues music compelling? Brenda started to question whether fun had anything to do with meaning. That of works most likely to move us, and stay with us, some (if not most) deal with human pain. With suffering. And that under the worst atrocities in humankind, Brathwaite says we can always find a system. And with a system, designers can make a game. If we care to treat games as emotionally complex experiences, as mediums for big, moving ideas, then we need to look past the fixation with pleasantries.

This is where the word “fun” starts making no sense at all. If we’re talking about the most atrocious in life, about pain, it’s time to call it something neutral – probably “engagement” – though even benched standbys like “delight” or “reinforcement” are better (if only marginally). Anything but fun. Friends pleaded I not call this a language of “fun,” but this is where I’m finally convinced. The draws to gaming are too complex, and “fun” is a nearly ghastly word to use if we’re talking about Train, Black Dog Game Factory’s Charnel Houses of Europe: the Shoah, or any work that deals with those elements in life that we’re meant to challenge.

In the past, if I was being belligerent enough, I’d argue that holding a newborn baby has resonance, a first kiss has resonance. You could call those “fun,” but they sit more at the fringes, they ask fun to grow up. And much to the chagrin of those around me, I probably can’t grow up completely. I like engagement as a more neutral term, but I’m not giving up on fun. This chapter, and the next, are about the same fundamental concept that underlies fun and engagement, but at some point I gave myself permission to keep both words. I decided that I didn’t have to decide. And yes, I am fully aware that at this point most casual readers will probably be saying,


But this matters. This is a book about words, okay?  As long as we realize that it evokes a rich rainbow of meanings, and that sometimes engagement makes more sense, I’m okay with fun.

Some fun might just be icing, but style can help great ideas stand out. I think that up till now, the stylistic ordinance of games originated at the simple delight of them. Gamers frolicked in dreams, in ways not possible a generation ago. Of course these worlds would catch the eye. When The Great Train Robbery's highwayman pointed his revolver at the audience and fired, at the turn of the 20th century, some members of the audience literally ducked. We don't do that anymore. Novelty eats itself.

Fun still comes first. Some of what raised up great works of the last three millennia was decorative -- the arresting styles of Bram Stoker or Van Gogh; historic shifts in skill and execution brought out by Jimi Hendrix or Imhotep. It makes a difference, in the final product, but it's also a mistake to confuse it with substance. In every creator just named (and, sure, it's my subjective opinion) style and substance came together. The language of fun only takes us so far.

It’s also, sometimes, enough to carry us away.

And always a little fun to say.


Back to chapter introduction

Next: Chapter 3, Engagement

Or start reading from the Introduction to In Play 


(3/12/2014) There may or may not be an update next week, since I haven't decided if I want to stash the craptop in my hostel at the GDC. Ping me if you'll be there and want to say hi!

The Wolf Was Here

One exceptional gentleman would occasionally burst in, rescuing me from the accumulating stank of Counter-Strike and Baldur’s Gate II. Blonde and tall, he gallivanted around campus in a German officer's coat, calling himself “an elitist” and “The Wolf,” unapologetically quaffing as much of my rum as he could get.

The Wolf had a knack for making sumptuous, stunning websites. He had grown up using Photoshop, writing poetry, and coding clever little experiences. I remember opening up his personal website, alone one night in my dorm room. His rambling blog (a word that wasn't yet in common use) spoke like Kerouac, but was backed in explosive, Picasso color. You could tell it was The Wolf. It made eye contact. Compare that to 2013, where two-thirds of the population of the United States shares their lives in the same homogenized blue-white dentist office waiting room called facebook. I guess that layout shouldn't surprise anyone, Zuckberg's parents are dentists.

If The Wolf had never shown me how elegantly individualized websites could be, I might've been just as content as the other billion members of McFacebook.

I had this professor at the same time, Dr. Aaron Delwiche, who'd been teaching us Wolf Skills. He made the point then – and has since made it in a TED talk – that if nobody knows how to program for themselves, if everyone starts believing that only men in white lab coats can do it, then we're essentially leaving the internet to folks like Zuckberg. We'll pour in the words and pictures that make up our lives, just so that a billion dollar company can own those. In 2001 Delwiche made a pretty straightforward affair of helping 20-year-old, caffeine-addled students (like me!) pick up basic HTML, CSS, ActionScript, Photoshop, and so on. With that literacy, I'd start adding my own color and voice to places I'd only been an observer, or a player. I'd held up The Wolf – who'd known how to work most of this since the seventh or eighth grade – as a true-to-life Wizard.

I'm not convinced I was wrong, not completely. As much as the fear of programmer magic might be out of proportion with the reality, as much as I'd love to see more color and voice online, most people do blithely settle for boring, banal shit. With everything, they take it in every other part of their lives. Why not online, too? For now, people like The Wolf are Wizards. They might wear German Officers Coats, or black turtlenecks, or lab coats. The magic comes from a desire to express themselves – to do more than just sit on their asses playing, watching, or reading.

All this, sadly, never really clicked for me in college. Play, for better or for worse, had me locked in its spell. I didn't even see the magic in The Wolf's site until he drowned. When his real, vibrant, stick-thin body slipped under the cold waters of Greenlake one night, was not retrieved in time by any of the poets or artists he’d been with. The last time I saw him, a couple days prior, I'd cruelly denied him a second glass of my rum, straight-up.

I skipped the funeral, avoided the poetry slam he’d been organizing (now dedicated to his memory) and in both cases sat alone in my dorm room, finally seeing his website. I just stared. It was just The Wolf. Just there. And very, very occasionally, just staring back.



Easy Nukes

I’ve been playing the Civilization games for nearly twenty years. You select a nation, and a leader (say, Russia, with Stalin, or America, with Washington). Different versions of the game let you select certain social policies (in Civ IV, slavery has its benefits). Some let you raze enemy cities, essentially allowing for ethnic cleansing (though you only see basic icons for things like cities, ships and armies). When Civ V came to PAX 2010 – especially offering an, “Addiction is Uncivilized” full-sized poster for visiting their preview – I had to see it. I waited in line with a buddy named Jamison. It was Sunday, the show was nearly over, so the line only took a few minutes. Once inside, I immediately disliked the PR douchebag up front. His script involved showing us how clean and pretty the animations were, when armies attacked cities, and armies attacked armies. At one point, with a city under siege, his script had him call on an ambiguously Asian woman to drop a nuclear bomb.

Everyone in the room gives a fake plastic chuckle, or head lilt. As if to say, you're so funny, PR Man, now give me something nice to take home. The woman playing gives the practiced but tired smile you'd expect after rehashing her script dozens of times in the last few days. We’re all so completely disconnected from the meaning behind these semantics, that nuclear war gets a chuckle.

Maybe it means we’re all cosmopolitan enough to understand our human history of nuclear detonations in a hip postmodernist sense. This room full of slightly overweight white American guys, with their hoodies and neckbeards, we all hate war and suffering, man. And like, in games, breaking taboo is totally the point. Each and every one of us is a reasonable adult, so bring on the fuckin’ nukes already!

Judge me as you will: I’m okay with that view, if that’s the reasoning.

Civilization is a game about war, culture, politics, and the systems behind them. Nuclear war is part of that, and it belongs in that kind of game. There are games, say the Saints Row franchise, where you get naked and car-surf in traffic. Both have Interesting Things to Say (SRIII is a good comment on the impunity of fame). It’s just, Civilization leaves a lot to the imagination. In previous Civ games, nukes left all kind of obnoxious cleanup. They were mechanically interesting, but neither giving nor receiving them was ever very fun. At this PAX, nuclear war was clearly just a laughable commodity, a weapon we launch for giggles. A weapon we launch to launch a game. So the script went on, the maybe-Japanese woman clicks to launch nukes at the bidding of this professional salesman. And then he'd tell the same two empty jokes about how funny that was. I guess I was being a bad fucking sport and a buzzkill when my gut churned. It’s just, I wasn’t convinced that my fellow nerds had actually read into what the game meant. The problem with Civilization is that – after enough bombs have dropped, enough tanks have rolled, and you’ve presumably reigned supreme – the player may or may not recognize the cost of their victory. The implied cultural, racial, religious, and idealistic annihilations. Winning the game is triumphant, but almost always a little tragic.

In games, I’ve cut down thousands of folks heedlessly, with lightsabers, AK-47s, coat hangers, whatever was handy. My fission nukes in Alpha Centauri – a sister game to Civilization – had killed billions in a single strike. Dropping nukes is bad news in almost any playthrough of Civ. This hired actor seemed oblivious. This setup was completely disconnected from the essence of the game. It was a release meant to bolster the stock prices of the company 2K Games, and we all smiled like good little Oppenheimers so we could have our pretty “Addiction is Uncivilized” posters.

If a game developer can draw oppression in sharp relief, evoking the difficult emotions and situations involved, then great. Good job, game developer. Whether it’s torture, slavery, rape, genocide, gross appropriation, institutionally-sanctioned violences – or any of the other shit inflicted out of the ignorance of privilege – games have unique, novel gifts to give these dialogs. Unfortunately, just as often they take.

When a work uses oppression as a scintillating zing, a tool to move product, it’s attempting to profit from the anguish, dehumanization, and/or wholesale murder of others.

Unique identities and weird shit? Great. I’m not saying life ought to be the some curdled bottle of homogenized milk, toning it all down at all times on the fear of offending groups we don’t know anything about. Artists have enough filters to worry about, like “what’s going to get me banned at WalMart?” Maybe even, “What’s going to feed my two-year-old?” Cultural and intellectual diversity, like genetic diversity, gives the human race a broader toolkit for surviving the universe’s fickle apocalypses.

Just, you know, listen. Now and again. Listening may or may not be, as Jesse Schell suggests, the most important skill for a game designer (though I suspect that it is). It just behooves every human to be aware of our natural proclivity for fucking each other over. We do it, it follows a few patterns, but can always come in new and unique flavors. It’s right to challenge this when we see it, and be aware of the tremendous amount we’ll be blind to. Even those who understand the value of empathy will be completely oblivious now and then.

bell hooks wrote of her Ain’t I a Woman?, “Although the focus is on the black female, our struggle for liberation has significance only if it takes place within a feminist movement that has as its fundamental goal the liberation of all people.”

Games – at the very least – could be safer places. We could do that.


Start reading from the introduction to In Play


(skip it)

Sometimes, one group of human beings will murder another on a mass scale. We call it different things: ethnic cleansing, holocaust, genocide. Compelling writers account for it. Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is the tale of a Polish Capo, one of the prisoners who aided the Nazis in the extermination of the Jews in World War II. Amy Chua’s World on Fire attempts to theorize on the structural causes of more recent genocides: in Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe.

What matters is that we have the capacity for this, as a species. As individuals, we have the capacity to quietly condone it, to ask for it, to joke as we burn the bodies. The recipe is never exactly the same. It usually involves minor distinctions between one group and another, usually in physical appearance. Simple othering. Combine that with economic inequalities between the two groups, a dash of ignorance. Let it simmer.

Even today, these ingredients exist in abundance. They aren’t going away any time soon.

Genocide will happen again.


Back to chapter introduction

Next: Easy Nukes>>

The Red Cross of Azeroth

(trigger warning: torture, medical torture, genocide, The Holocaust) (skip it

The International Red Cross wasn’t too happy with the Warcraft expansion Wrath of the Lich King. There were two quests in the newly-revealed locations where advancement meant the light application of torture. I mean, to be fair, one of them involves a rotting undead psychopath giving the implements of torture to a “Death Knight.” Whose base of operations is the evil floating citadel Naxxramas, which looks like a spider made from frozen-together kitchen knives. You’re slaughtering peasants and priests. You’re killing former best friends.

What’s a little torture?

There’s probably some segment of the League of the Concerned Adults worrying it’s their kids clicking some big, red “torture” button that Blizzard has made conspicuous in the game world. But if they’re already not sure what their kids are up to in some online community, then their kids are probably the unchained terrors going on about wet farts and their recreational drug regiments. So yes, concerned adult, please remove said child from my gaming experience. Games aren’t babysitters, and parents who treat them like one aren’t doing themselves or their kids any favors. They aren’t doing me any favors.

Parents who actually do play with their kids often hit these quests first, and either help their kids to sidestep them, or they prepare for one of Those Conversations. Which might be interesting, come to think of it. The Red Cross – whose mission is to protect human life, ensure respect, and reduce suffering – cares about war crimes in games because apparently 59% of all American 12-17-year-olds think torture is okay. Two-fifths of American children think we MUST keep landmines from getting banned. Landmines. The anti-personnel balls of evil that feral armies sprinkle over fields in wartime, only so other 12-17 year old foreign kids can run over them when they’re out playing tag, a few years down the road. These are either some hardened, embittered 12 year olds with badass vengeance on the mind, or critical conversations aren't happening.

So I don’t know, honestly. Maybe we do need a big conspicuous torture quest.

I’m not a child psychologist, keep that in mind. Just playing these games, it struck me as creepy that these quests were positioned alongside “gather 12 furs,” and “rescue 5 slaves.” These quests come in chains, so if you don’t finish the torture part, then later on you might not have access to the part where you get to save a basket of adorable kittens. You click to apply a neural needler to a prisoner, then click again, as he’s whispering for you to stop. You click about six times, and then he’s dead. Move onto the next quest. Get the next patch of experience. Level up.

The Red Cross developed out of the need for a neutral party to provide aid in war zones. Its creation would lead to the first Geneva Convention, in 1864, and later amendments dealing with the treatment of naval forces and POWs. In the wake of the Second World War, however, we heard accountings from concentration camp inmates. We learned that German doctors had been performing tests on civilian and military prisoners. They had attached objects to bone and tissue in operations without anesthesia, they exposed victims to mustard gas, they experimented on children, they sterilized millions. They employed a variety of tortures, medical and otherwise. These prisoners had no say in what was done by doctors and guards. At Geneva, in 1949, the major powers of the world met and agreed to condemn the torture of civilian and military human beings. Furthermore, any kind of experimentation involving human subjects would require informed consent. People needed to freely agree to it before anyone could cut into their bodies.

Cheap experiences may not hurt reasonably functional adults, and I'd be skeptical of anyone who comes anywhere near saying that. But they don't teach us anything. There are conversations that we as a society, especially with our children, we need the bravery to engage. If we get that from Vette the sex slave, a Dickwolf, or some fickle torture quest in the Northrend area of Warcraft, then so be it. It's not the job of a game to care for our children. And it’s not that children are completely unable to form their own opinions about the world. We are moral agents, but trite experiences only have value if someone can add it.