(trigger warning: rape) (skip it)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every morning, we are roused by savage blows.

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

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

“But…” Says the slave.

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

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

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

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

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

“Go, and rape no more.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone, she won the match.

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

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

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

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

To say nothing of what it does to games gatherings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


UMPing the Devil

With a fresh new computer, I sank into Counter-Strike like a nice, warm bath. It was comfortable, stewing for long hours in my own nerdly fragrances.

I eventually met The Devil.

We shared a mutual love of the game's novelty weapons. Guns that were so refreshingly random, so delightfully chaotic, as to be considered solid comic gold. You'll see them in a lot of action movies – the MAC-10, the TMP, the UMP – but in Counter-Strike they were a wretched joke. One only the most selfish of assholes would inflict on their team. These so-called “troll guns” let you run around like a lethally-caffeinated 10-year-old, and still take down the occasional baddie.

My first memory of The Devil involved the use of such weaponry on the infamous Counter-Strike map de_dust. Picture, if you will, thirty-two people trying their hardest to shoot, grenade, and bomb one another across some Egyptian archeological site. Now imagine that two players are running around, killing the very serious-minded terrorists and counter-terrorists with the aforementioned novelty guns. I’d scored a few gigglesome MAC-10 kills. Meanwhile, my teammates were being consistently and thoroughly UMPed (often in the face) by a character calling himself Diablo.

At the end of one serendipitous round, the two remaining survivors just happened to be he and I, the two assholes utilizing slapstick firearms. That’s when I heard the scraping of a knife.

A rather welcome invitation.

Slicing the knife against random walls or boxes was loud. It not only made it easy to find your final antagonist -- it was a badass move. “Party’s over here,” it said. “Bring a knife, if you're a bad mother fucker.”

I chose the honorable move, and engaged The Devil in gentlemanly knife-to-knife combat. We met in a long, dusty tunnel that runs underneath one side of de_dust. On either side was sunshine and sand, and in between were boxes stacked in the shade. He could have been hiding behind any of them. He might have lurked behind a shadowy corner, or leapt down from on high. He could have pulled a bait and switch – bringing a gun to this knife fight. Instead, he rushed down the center, scraping his knife across bricks and crates as he charged.

I take a swing.

And then I take a shank to the face.



Booth Babes

The beanbag section of the Penny-Arcade Expo, in 2010, was a glorious spattering of randomly-colored seating where nerds – some better deodorized than others – escaped. Escaped into sleep, into Pokemon, into the kind of constant, welcoming alternate realities that make coming to PAX mandatory in the first place. I took my laptop.

Two beanbags to my right sat a pair of beleotarded women who'd been promoting a big, middle-of-the-showfloor battle game. One was a brunette in a Blue/Gold Poly leotard. We’ll call her Reese. The other, a subdued blonde in a noisier leotard, we’ll call her Kate. Kate seemed pretty exhausted. The day before, my group had wondered why Reese and Kate were even here. Why, if the PAX organizers had banned “booth babes” – the much-derided models hired to show skin to promote games – were these two rocking body-groping polyester? As happens, my mouth was open and doing conversation-like things before I realized what was happening.

“Hey, yeah you. Booth babes. Can I interrupt your coffee break?”

They stared with iron faces and mirrored shades. One of them (closest to me) raised her aviators.

She says, “Sure, what's up?”

My brain, still not quite engaged, “You are booth babes.”

She lowers the shades.

“Well, I mean, do you play games?”


“So, then, what are your impressions of We The Nerds?”

She grins.

“I mean...”

“Yeah, I've got my opinions,” she said.


“Yeah. I've got rules, actually.” She says. “But you won't like them.”

Her blonde friend grins, half-looking over. A man in his early twenties, wearing a Valve employee’s polo, looks up from a silver Nintendo DS.

“I will probably like them,” I say.

“So, yeah, just keep in mind,” she says. “I'm hurting you to help you. These aren't friendly suggestions.

“First: the armpit stamp. So I'm in this poly leotard all weekend, right? And it's hot. And everyone is hot. And you guys, you come up for pictures, right? You're hot, sweaty, soaking through your t-shirts and pressing that against me. I am now participating in your armpit stain because you pressed your arm against me. You wouldn't believe how many people do that – and I can't be like, “Dude, that's disgusting,” because I'm working. But what happens, since this thing is dryclean only, is that now I'm reverse pit-stamping your friends. See?

“In that vein – you can bathe, it's okay. It's all good. You could even use products like deodorants and/or cologne. But I don't need them hanging around me all weekend. In moderation. It mixes with the pit and makes life difficult. Like, I'm going and partying with these game developers, right? I don't need to smell like the perfume counter at Macy's.”

The Valve employee has a huge grin. I’m typing furiously. These two things have Reese charged up, going for broke. 

“No lurking. Don't stand around and stare, and don't visit more than twice a day – five times a day is not necessary – unless we clearly like you. That's another story. We'll give you hints either way. But we're technically working, so our normal evasive options are limited.

“Use words, not obscure hand signals. You can talk to us. That's okay. There's a lot of jerky, nervous grunting, and some of you have clear issues getting up and onto the podium. Relax. As long as you're not being a creepster and coming up behind us. I'm not going to say no to you, so don't try to sneak it in on me. Like this? Totally unnecessary.”

She displays a few choice groping maneuvers on Kate.

“On the flip side, no sexy poses. I'm not going to spank you, or bend over for you.

“Finally, and really, don't be offended. No, this is totally going too far, I know, but there's options besides shirts with ironic statements. We count them. I think we're up to, what?”

“No, I lost count,” Kate shakes her head.

“There was that one, ‘sorry about your face.’ Something silly on a shirt. Like you're all trying for individuality, and it's all just a bit homogenous.”

At that point I show off my paisley Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt, hoping to earn a little ire, to stick up for my inadequately-adorned brethren.

“Pff, nah, that's vintage. Huge difference.

“Oh, yeah, and the ironic shirts are the worst. The real soaked-through pit-stampers... Anyway. Those are the rules.”

We talk, off and on, for another twenty minutes or so. Reese The Booth Babe was a gender studies major, back in LA. The modeling stuff just paid the bills. I’d later approach their booth with my journalist friend and his camera. I kept my hands near my pockets – though they both reached over for a big friendly photohug and I instantly felt bad. I started to move my arms up to do the friendly photohug in kind, and then I remembered, pit stamp. I remembered, smiled, and participated in the communal armpit stain.

Because Reese and Kate may not have been a part of my tribe, but they were very nice ladies.


Back to chapter introduction

Next: Segregation>>


(3/7/14) Went crazy and posted entire chapter. But I'll leave this bit below, because it was here before. And, like, because because.

This is a brief blip from my book In Play, now available in paperback and kindle.

Read from the beginning



Bulldozing a house makes room for something else. It can be entirely utilitarian. But I’m willing to bet that there are more than a few construction workers who fucking relish the days they get to drive the dozer. Breaking things can be fun.

Even if it’s just the simple satisfaction of blowing up brightly-colored blocks, or mindless phone game you’re playing at the dentist’s, destruction can be both fun and necessary. It gets trickier when our fellow humans are involved. Richard Bartle’s Players Who Suit MUDs tracks a survey of players in the earliest online game, the text-based MUD worlds. As early as the 1970s and 80s, one of the key types of players were those who, “…use the tools provided by the game to cause distress to (or, in rare circumstances, to help) other players. Where permitted, this usually involves acquiring some weapon and applying it enthusiastically to the persona of another player in the game world." Bartle dubbed these players, “killers,” a title that – at least in the game development community – stuck.

For the easily concerned, it’s not that these were the types to stroll into a St. Louis bank with a Thompson machinegun in each hand, wearing a big black fedora. It’s not that they were “evil.” To Bartle, making those kinds of assumptions presupposed, “that those who attack other players are the only example of nasty people in a MUD. In fact, there is plenty of opportunity for players of all persuasions to behave obnoxiously to one another; killers merely do it more openly, and (if allowed) in the context of the game world.” He went on to say that games which, “allow player-killing tend to do so in the belief that in small measure it is good for the game: it promotes camaraderie, excitement and intensity of experience (and it's the only method that players will accept to ensure that complete idiots don't plod inexorably through the ranks to acquire a degree of power which they aren't really qualified to wield).”

Destruction, obviously, isn’t fun for everyone. Nor is it always simple. Take “trolling.” Whether you pull from the mythical root of the word: some cranky nerd who never ventures far from under his bridge; or from the fishing lingo: the lonely geek dragging his crusty nets across Reddit, Pinterest, Twitter, and whatever else may produce a bountiful crop, trolls relish the causing of distress. The notorious troll Jason Fortuny told the New York Times that he saw trolling as a public service. You show the world that they need to be on guard, by hitting a few people with a baseball bat.

Once someone really, truly gets under your skin on the internet, once someone steals your identity or reveals your sex life (Fortuny notoriously did the latter, with his “Craigslist Experiment”) you’re going to be better prepared. It’s really for your own good. It didn’t wind up being good for Fortuny, who posted graphic Craigslist responses of over 100 men, to his ad which read, “str8 brutal dom muscular male.” Fortuny blogged their names and pictures, even their private emails and phone numbers. Some lost jobs, spouses, and significant parts of their lives.

Trolling has huge implications for sexist bullshit online, a topic which gets more extended treatment later in this book. It’s also difficult for online games of all shape and size. One of the fastest-growing games in the world, League of Legends, built advanced player rating systems into their game to mitigate the effects of players whose only reason for logging on was ruining the next 20-50 minutes of a few people’s lives. The more spectacular your suffering, wrote Richard Bartle, the happier you make a Killer.

If only we could get anti-troll systems installed on interstate highways. Or elsewhere in life.

Destruction runs the gamut. We haven’t seen the last of games where we explode brightly-colored boxes. Nor does trolling, or even extreme player killing, seem to be on the wane. To some extent, we can learn to be more resilient to certain kinds of baseball bats. To dodge the killer’s sneak attack, and kill them right back.

Or we just turn off the game, and go take out some brightly-colored boxes.




Linden Labs’s Second Life wouldn’t be half so interesting if players couldn’t create things like their very own furry costumes, physics-defying strap-ons, or fully-animated sex beds. The latitude given to users for creating their own content has brought the game whole shopping centers where the buildings, the people inside, and the clothing and body modification sold (angel wings, devil horns, aforementioned dildos) – near all of it – has been created by the players. This caught the game a number of headlines when user Kevin Alderman (who’d just won temporary fame for ebaying islands on Second Life for 50,000 USD) logs in to see that his creation, the “Sex Gen Bed,” was being copied and sold for a fraction of the 45$ USD equivalent he charged. And since their in-game money has Earth-dollar equivalents, the budding entrepreneur lawyered up. To Kevin, it may have been about more than just money.

Gary Gygax’s Master of the Game, written roughly 20 years before the tools of Second Life, is ultimately Gygax’s search for the “Grand Master Game Master,” a nerd capable of creating whole worlds, “with geography, climate, weather, nations, politics, economics, population, flora, fauna, and so on…” Who can stretch the limits of pre-packaged things like D&D, since, "Even the most developed and expansive game system cannot cover everything. The human imagination is too fertile."

In a sense, he’s saying that rules like D&D, or its predecessor Chainmail, rules which dictated how much damage a sword might do, or how many sword swipes a champion could sustain before falling in combat… Those rules came second to being able to meaningfully deploy them. It’s more important that you can create a story, and make it fun.

Not that he had kinky pixels in mind, necessarily.

But those questions – about what it means to be a good illusionist, or Grand Master Game Master, or Second Life creator – will start to matter a great deal more. Or so says Gygax’s counterpart in online games: Richard Bartle. Without Bartle, there likely wouldn’t be a World of Warcraft. Nor a Second Life, Secret World, and probably no good phone apps or many interesting web pages. He’d created the first text-based online world, called MUD for “Multiple User Dungeon.” While he’s written some of the most wonderful, challenging things out there on creating such worlds, my favorite talk by him started with the gibberish of carpentering the very first online world:

Right, well, what I knew to start with was that memory is made of cores. These little torus-shaped pieces of soft iron and they're hung up over this little crosswork of wires with a read wire going through it. I also knew that I could build AND gates and OR gates out of electrical circuits by combining those in a NOT gate, a bit more sophisticated. I could make flip flops. JK flip flops, SR flip flops. You could combine flip flops together to build units which would do half adders, which would do a half the arithmetic or a full adder, which was made up of a several half adders. You could shift registers from side to side. You could also build a register which told you which of the other registers you wanted to use.

It went on for awhile. Later, he’d write, “Only having seen the transcript do I now realize how arcane what I was saying must have sounded to the audience. It’s like something out of Finnegans Wake.” But we weren’t lost on the point he was making, because after five minutes of that deeper magic from before the dawn of time, he spent one sentence on the little bit of imagination he added, the spark that gave his Frankenstein world life.

“What I want,” he eventually said, “is just to get to the point where all you need is that little bit of imagination on top.” AND gates and OR gates were that deeper magic. That, “no-one needs to know it, but someone needs to have known it.” We don’t need a PhD in Chemistry or Engineering to make use of the internal combustion engine. Same deal with games.

At some point, we’ll just get in and go. The way a writer hammers on a word processor, or a director splices together footage. Whether it’s in five years or twenty, the less technology people need to know, the more they’ll be able to do. That’s on the way.


Next: Destruction >>

(2/13/14) Tune in for more Richard Bartle, killers, and serial UMPings next week, or get your very own In Play now, in paperback and kindle.

Two Gnomes

Baldur’s Gate II was cool. Didn't have Counter-Strike's unpredictable humans, firing off semi-predictable TMPs, AK47s, flash bangs and AWPs. Rather, in BG II’s land of Amn, every forest, city, or sewer that you explored felt hand-painted. Every character hand-written, and lovingly, thoughtfully developed. The game was unique, involving, magic. It was the Dungeons & Dragons system, no dice required – just jump in, point, and click – but beautiful in a way I'd never experienced before.

In Amn, there lives a gnomish illusionist named Jan Jansen. In the wealthier districts of Amn’s capital, Athkatla, one finds Jan peddling a hodgepodge of questionably legal wares, explosive inventions, and turnips. My love for this gnome, from the programming that went into generating him, to the voice acting and writing that gave him life, I guess the word love is enough. It'll do.

So it's with a pinch in my chest that I admit Jan's illusions will always disappoint me. Just a little. It’s not that his long-winded tales in Baldur’s Gate II weren’t up to muster (it could never be that), nor was it anything that more or better 3-D graphics, sound design or writing will solve any time soon. But my nerdy little panties are all up in a twist. Jan only creates a handful of unique “illusions.” There’s no imagination. The player can't decide to whip up whatever they want: wisecracking black dragons, farting trolls, or whatever bauble that privileged noblewoman can’t live without (joke's on you, lady!). Jan just isn’t a great illusionist. He’s not programmed to be. And lest Jansen fanatics in the audience find themselves tempted to throw this book hard and fast into the nearest trash bin, let me explain with another gnome.

Me and five friends sit in a basement with concrete flooring and fire-retardant sheeting on the walls. We've resorted to dice, paper, and stacks of cheap neon mechanical pencils for summer entertainments. Poor bastards, right? We’ve adopted the new hybrid D&D system used by Baldur’s Gate II, and I’m dungeon mastering this weird experiment. These are the nerds from my home town. Four guys, one lady, all hilarious – all bringing a hodgepodge of gas station candy, off-color mini pizzas, and baser staples of the junk food pyramid (all requirements for afternoons of gaming, of course).

For the next two to three hours, everything I tell them is a lie. Not just The Essential Lie. The geography, the castle they’re visiting, it’s all a lie, run 24-7 by their new “gnomish peasant” guide: Goobie. He’s custom created rooms, lords, ladies, fine dining... All of it reacting as objects and people would and should to my players: these real, intelligent, inquisitive human beings. But they’re not idiots. They know that something is off, that this is all to camouflage what is, in point of fact, a more sinister kind of defunct fortress. Goobie ultimately wins the battle, locks them in a cellar with some variety of ancient beast, so they can distract it while he plunders the fort’s choicer treasures.

And they never played with me again.

Computer programming can transform staggering systems into easy, inviting experiences. But it's the living, breathing humans who make them less predictable, more diverse.

You can program Jan Jansen with clever scripts, a quirky voice, and the ability to summon the same mirror image of himself, every time. But a real-deal illusionist? Paint your car like an ambulance during rush hour, have your boss’ boss suggest a tidy raise, make unpalatable, cruelty-free foods taste like ortolan and fois gras? There's a lot Jan can do with the same pall mall invisibility spell, and his small stature gets him, pretty effectively, around.

But until he can muster a flying demon pony with zebra stripes, who farts pink sparkles and Nerdstank, Jan Jansen is a failure of an illusionist. Just doesn't measure up.

In or out of games, there's always room for live creativity. A conversation that reaches out through the ether and, for whatever reason, taps at your heart. Experiences that capture even shades of it – from the high-speed click-matches of StarCraft and Counter-Strike – to donut and licorice fueled D&D play-acting – they create a place. Sometimes spectacular enough that it's worth the smell.



A Wild Book Appears!

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

And on Amazon in 5-7 days. 

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

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

(2/13/2014) Happy birthday to me, rohoho. The paperback is up on amazon! The LOOK INSIDE even shows the back cover's clever red devil.




Is a really common thing to hear, in any online game. The expression originated in EverQuest, whereupon leveling up a player would hear something like a 40-foot-tall bronze gong being torn in half by another giant gong, with that sound being run through someone’s gravelly track & field loudspeaker. It’s not exactly my favorite sound in the world, but then I never got to hear it after days or weeks of grinding, as the harsh audio reward for my long labors.

Players would broadcast their glee, by telling nearby players and guildmates, “Ding!”

To great adulation and congratulation. It became such a cultural artifact, such a hallowed ceremony for the first big player organizations, that they brought the tradition into the games they migrated to later: Warcraft, Galaxies, Dark Age of Camelot, City of Heroes, EverQuest 2. The Ding! has since been repurposed not just for levels, but picking up coveted weapons, new skills, even sometimes a chance to practice rough fights. Lately I’ve even heard people who don’t play many games, using it after getting promoted at work, moving to a nicer apartment, or getting some hot guy’s telephone number.


A great deal of the ding’s power rests securely in its ability to inspire pride. It’s a part of fun. In fact, a lot of our language for fun – in this book – relates back to the ding.

Many of the game design languages built specifically for developers, for instance by designers Dan Cook, or Benjamin Ellinger, relate strongly back to musical notation. They take specific kinds of fun (or engagement, if you prefer) specific rewards, then paint in terms of very subtle dings, and very powerful ones. In this way, structuring rewards is central to design; it’s as key as grammar in developing a writing style, or as vital as pacing in cinematography. Especially in games whose systems ask us to perform actions we’ve never tried before, and to navigate systems that might work in stark contrast to the other realities we’ve lived. We often need to use the rewards, the dings, to teach a player simply how to walk around.

It’s inevitable that the artistic structuring of reward would have some crossover with behavioral conditioning. This is especially tricky ground to walk, because the implications of behavioral conditioning are chilling.

“We want to know why men behave as they do.” Wrote the father of radical behaviorism, Burrhus Frederic Skinner “Any condition or event which can be shown to have an effect upon behavior must be taken into account. By discovering and analyzing these causes we can predict behavior; to the extent that we can manipulate them, we can control behavior."

B.F. Skinner is best known for placing a pigeon, or rat, into a box. Inside these Skinner Boxes, he would eventually place a food dispenser, a signal light, an electrified floor, and a push button. By mixing the dispensation of food, signals, and punishing jolts of electricity, he displayed that it was possible to train pigeons and rats to any number of behaviors. Pigeons were trained to be more effective than early computer algorithms, in guiding missiles towards enemy ships. The only reason they weren’t ultimately used in wartime, was that the notion seemed laughable to officers.

In discussing his training of pigeons, and un-training of them, Skinner noted that they remembered what they’d been conditioned to do "… as long as six years after the response had last been reinforced. Six years is about half the normal life span of the pigeon." Skinner’s primary interest isn’t just placing exacting routines into pigeons. He wants to control the behavior of human beings.

We start this process by basic shaping. A boxed pigeon may wander to the left, wander to the right, but once he tilts his head slightly towards the button? We drop a food pellet. He dallies a bit longer, then takes a step towards it? Another food pellet. He taps the button? Maybe more than one pellet. Like a nice mini-jackpot. He taps it again? We give him pellets for every press, and so shape the behavior that we want. Though we don’t keep going indefinitely, or eventually the pigeon gets full (or  maybe we run out of food pellets).

Thankfully, we don’t need to reward him for every press. So enters the science, in Skinner’s book Science of Human Behavior. He believes that there are ways to structure rewards, so as to simply keep pigeons, or human beings, pressing the proverbial button. Skinner doesn’t believe in free will. In point of fact, he writes that "Man's power appears to have increased out of all proportion to his wisdom." That it’s the duty of better men to shape their lessers to “productive” ends, else they’ll never, ever, be satisfied.

So after shaping, we use Interval Reinforcement, reinforcing a behavior after a certain amount of time, a certain interval. “We are less likely to see friends or acquaintances with whom we only occasionally have a good time,” writes Skinner, “and we are less likely to write to a correspondent who seldom answers. The experimental results are precise enough to suggest that in general the organism gives back a certain number of responses for each response reinforced.”

Rewards based on the passage of time will never quite be so effective at encouraging behavior as Ratio Reinforcement, where rewards which come in response to some behavior. This could be a Fixed Ratio, as when “the schedule of reinforcement depends upon the behavior of the organism itself—when, for example, we reinforce every fiftieth response” He writes that this is essentially getting paid on commission.

What’s much more effective than every 15th press – if our goal is getting a pigeon or player to tap furiously on buttons – is Variable Ratio Reinforcement. When the pigeon doesn’t know quite how many responses it will take, somewhere around fifty, maybe it’s around a thousand. Skinner writes that the “… pigeon may respond as rapidly as five times per second and maintain this rate for many hours.” He continues, “The efficacy of such schedules in generating high rates has long been known to the proprietors of gambling establishments. Slot machines, roulette wheels, dice cages, horse races, and so on pay off on a schedule of variable-ratio reinforcement….The long-term net gain or loss is almost irrelevant in accounting for the effectiveness of this schedule.”

We can also combine schedules, “so that reinforcement is determined both by the passage of time and by the number of unreinforced responses emitted. In such a case, if the organism is responding rapidly, it responds many times before being reinforced, but if it is responding slowly, only a few responses occur before the next reinforcement.” When rats and pigeons are kept in physical boxes, tapping on buttons, it's the ratio schedules, especially variable ratio schedules, that get them tapping in the vain expectation of something. They go from tapping around 50 times – without reward – to thousands. Since they never know when the next food pellet is coming, they keep pressing the button.

Human beings may or may not need better rewards than food pellets, but our rewards can be so much more subjective. Shiny best-sword-in-game may fit the bill. Perhaps it's shiny best-shield-in-game, or shiny best-horse-in-game. Warcraft provides its players no dearth of variety for their (often game-actualizing) pellets. Last I left Warcraft, one friend was killing foxes on the 1/10,000 chance they'd yield a fox kit. Maybe the momma fox is pregnant? They don’t explain it. Anyway, probably fewer than twenty foxes were out in the world at any given time. When I last logged out he'd been at it awhile, with no dice. But if he got one of those kits? Boy howdy it'd be worth some gold.

And there is, always, gold. Skinner noted that with physical internal needs, say food, we can eventually get full. With sex there’s a refractory period. At the very least a Gatorade break. That’s why, when these “better” men went to improve life for their “lessers,” they’d also use Generalized Reinforcers. “The commonest example is money. It is the generalized reinforcer par excellence because, although "money won't buy everything," it can be exchanged for primary reinforcers of great variety…the exchange value of money is more obvious than that of attention, approval, affection, or even submissiveness.”

Oddly enough, in near every online world in which I’ve played, near every monster is carrying currency. How did I get seventy-five pieces of silver from that Embittered Dire Wolf? I really, truly, don’t need to know. I’m just glad to have it. I’ll need it for something, down the line, I’m sure.

I’m conditioned.

It's probably not that every big-ticket game designer spends all her time crayoning inside the lines of a BF Skinner coloring book. It's no huge surprise when game experiences wind up looking like even blatant Skinner Boxes, with a designer who knows what passion looks like. Not necessarily because she picked up a psychology degree, but because she lived it. Because, whether or not she has any inkling as to why, her imagination thrives, writhes, and lives within the language of systems.

But there is a difference. Even in our simple language of fun, we had eleven unique ways in which these rewards might speak to a player. I hope that the languages on community, place, challenge, and art provide more. I hope they spark insights on the artful crafting of rewards. When the depth of our world is reduced to the cold, hard, simple Ding!, it’s not about the designer providing something unique. The word “compelling” doesn’t even seem to fit, despite being so tied to its sister “compulsion.” At the point of compulsion, designers are being lazy. When their only goal is retention, they deserve less consideration than a sidewalk con artist peddling fixed shell games. This is why compulsion, especially when used to knowingly and willfully create grinds, is so far beneath fun.

B.F. Skinner was a man for whom culture and the arts were naught but the ringing of some dog’s food bell. "Literature, art, and entertainment,” he wrote, “are contrived reinforcers. Whether the public buys books, tickets to performances, and works of art depends upon whether those books, plays, concerts, or pictures are reinforcing."

Which is offensive. To Skinner it’s all about the science, “only the observable in behavior.” Which is nice in theory, but nobody can accurately observe everything. It’s almost painfully clear, the fissure between Skinner and the vitality and soul of the arts. Science without philosophy is like sex without condoms, and in rejecting free will B.F. notoriously infects his theories with a demented megalomania. Rejecting the philosophies that enrich and color our world gives the impression of a cold interior, to the boy who once wanted to write fiction. Who abandoned it out of the belief that he had nothing to say. Skinner once remarked, "I do not admire myself as a person. My successes do not override my shortcomings."

Gamers have been drunk on the deluge of sights and sounds and feeling, because we were the ones seeing something new come to life. But when it works, and more than that you uncover a new piece of vocabulary – so painstakingly carved – in the language of experience? Suddenly new dimensions of understanding, human understanding, become available. Your world is the richer, and all it took was play. That’s not the product of dumbfuck conditioning, it’s a hallmark of art. The two couldn’t be more different.

Novel systems are the height of game design, but they're unreliable at best. Expensive at best. Rather than capture something essential about the processes of human experience, rather than draw us in with the magic of the unknown – so painstakingly carved – many developers have turned to the more fiscally-responsible twisting of behavioral, motivational, even positive psychology. Some of you designers are my friends. Hear me when I say,

Cut that shit out. Make something fun.


This is a brief blip from my book In Play, now available in paperback and kindle.


Game designers have an old axiom, that good games are easy to learn, hard to master. If you’re thrown face-first into pit of enormous mutant spiders, it might help to have a sword you’re passably competent to use. Perhaps the occasional experience with a hefty gatling gun. If you’re a master with those, that’s probably good for you. Bad for the spiders. In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster writes that all fun stems from a primal human need to learn.

The brain wants to encounter new patterns and then “chunk” them, figure them out. “Games grow boring when they fail to unfold new niceties in the puzzles they present.” He writes. But when games do find the sweet spot in easy to learn, hard to master – when the system is as rich as a game like chess – you can find delight everywhere. You can fall right in.

We can feel fun, Koster writes, “via physical stimuli, aesthetic appreciation, or direct chemical manipulation.” It’s possible to trick the body into having those feelings – but he suggests their primary function is to make us seek out new and novel experiences. When we find a new pattern, the brain feels like a newborn looks: delighted. That moment of first putting a pattern together, Koster calls that “delight,” and he argues that it’s the feeling underlying all fun.

We can only play the same game so many times before it gets stale. Spend a little time killing whole armies of ravenous, bear-sized black widows, and you’ll get the knack. “Practicing can keep a game fresh for a while,” he writes, “but in many cases we'll say, ‘Enh, I get it, I don't need to practice this task,’ and we'll move on…In that sense, games are disposable, and boredom is inevitable."


Back to chapter introduction

Next: Two Gnomes >>

(2/8/2014) Yes, one of the gnomes is Jan Jansen.

From Scratch

It was a thing of beauty: three computer science majors just leering over my newly-arrived box from NewEgg. Like rabid hyenas over a fresh kill, eyes twitching, they ached to tear into the sumptuous, bubble-wrapped chipsets. Many a fine geek will know that special joy – the hallowed ceremony where friends hand-construct your first decent computer – and do it before your very eyes. But this one? These three were in a Computer Science program where Bill Gates almost literally hand-delivered hay bales of cash. One of these three would be a millionaire before the age of thirty. Each had near-fanatical ideologies on what should happen next. CS major #3, Walt, wanted the whole thing to be Linux, open source and free, man. CS major #1, John, was officially Having None of That Shit. And, by the way, fucked if any of them were plugging in the “On” light. That was a pain in the ass. Making it fast, like some laser-equipped death cheetah? That, to my growing delight, seemed for them the fun part.

Those first sweet steps into Counter-Strike, once I had my very own miracle machine? Like first stepping onto a pristine forest path. Or walking over the warm sand of a Hawaiʻian beach. It was freedom. Just after those first few steps, however, I'd be brutally, fully, repeatedly cut to pieces by AK-47s, Desert Eagles, combat knives, machine guns, shotguns, automatic shotguns, .50 cal sniper rifles, and my own hilarious clumsiness.

Computer Science major #2, George, favored gems like, “fucking idiot” and “full retard” when assessing my play. The former chess / Smash Bros. champion stood over my shoulder, heckling, pointing out the myriad ways in which I sucked. He also pointed out their common roots: a lack of forethought, experimentation, and attention to detail. George questioned, for instance, my penchant for merrily spelunking, gun in hand, into the midst of ten or twelve commandos. Or my inability to shoot straight. By virtue of teenage reflexes, I'd been a passable player. George taught me to be good. To be clever under fire, to practice smart, and to execute a plan.

The kind of basic life lessons that serve me to this day, in fact.


The Word "Fun"

In a room full of game designers, the word “fun” can be a bit like the word “Jesus.” Occasionally problematic. So – lest I be descended upon by the Flaming Armies of the Internet – I should invoke a certain geek deity.

Gary Gygax – without whom there would be far fewer (arguably no) good games in the world – wrote that, "It is absolutely necessary to understand the only valid purpose for role-playing games. The games exist to provide entertainment. Entertainment is basically fun.” Part of the fun he wanted came from jumping into a unique world. Part came from the imaginations of friends.

Among game designers today, “fun” is decried for being vague and misleading. I’ve flatly called it boring (and it is, if we don’t tie the word to something more specific). Alternatives like, “happiness,” “reinforcement,” and “engagement” fly better in certain crowds. The fact is, life offers up a huge variety of motivating blips. Pigeons in a cage can be taught to peck buttons at outrageous velocity, if you give them food pellets at just the right schedule (or cocaine, on any schedule). World of Warcraft raid guilds can pull in dozens of people, for hours every day, just to get the most enchanted of magical swords and hats and pants.

When designers do magical things with games, players experience a hell of a lot more than flat neurochemical blips. We learn wholly new ways of understanding our lives. But – for a variety of reasons – novelty doesn’t happen too often. Mostly, if publishers are shelling out tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, game developers copy designs that they know work. It’s why Call of Duty, Battlefield, and other modern war franchises look near-identical. When they do whip the batter in a slightly new way, such crazed architects of those designs speak in a hodgepodge of already-made games. They say things like,

“It’s a Skyrim-style open world with a Sims aesthetic. We’re calling it: High School. There may or may not be Animal Crossing collectibles.”

Makes sense to them, but only because they’ve each spent thousands of hours in different games (it’s disturbingly easy to hit the 100–hour mark in each Skyrim, The Sims, and Animal Crossing).

Basically, fun comes first. Whether it’s Debussy’s first time putting a finger on a piano, Picasso first putting paint on canvas, or Brendon Chung programming out his first level in Half-Life. There’s always that initial spark. Same for regular folk, a kid seeing carpentry, or boatbuilding for the first time. Or the future librarian, sliding that first book off the shelf. We need that spark.

The language I’m using here does come largely from games, because fun is that industry’s bread and butter.