Friday 24 February 2012

Reflecting on Webstock 2012

Over on my work blog, I've written two posts reflecting on Webstock 2012:

Thursday 23 February 2012

Odds and sods

Some days on the radio feel like a job interview - you have your spiel prepared, but the first question wrong-foots you. Yesterday Kathryn asked me a bunch of unexpected questions about dealer galleries. I'm not sure where her perspective comes from, but it's quite different from mine. (Links to some of the things I talked about are on the RNZ website.)

Completely unrelated: here are the reading lists I've put together for the 'What I've Been Reading' sessions at the last two Kiwi Foo Camps.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

It's the ludonarrative, stupid

I read Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and Pippin Barr’s How to Play a Video Game in one long binge over Waitangi weekend. I realised at the end of the weekend that I had read the books in what would seem to be the wrong order - Bissell’s longer memoir first, Barr’s slim primer second - but I think this accident brought more depth to both.

Let’s start with autobiography. Barr uses autobiography as a framing device, taking us through his near life-long history of gaming, from playing Aztec as a four-year-old on the family’s new Apple IIe to his job now in Copenhagen, 28 years later, teaching video game design in a university. The journey wends past games arcades, rented Sega Mega Drives, teaching his uncle to play Red Dead Redemption, and Barr’s moment of internet splendour last year, when his own game The Artist is Present broke out of the niche of indie game forums and hit the online pages of publications as diverse as HuffPo and The Arts Newspaper.

Barr tells us the personal narrative of his history with his subject matter; this is a hallmark of Awa Press’s Ginger Series, of which How to Play a Video Game is the 12th release. Ginger Series authors give us an entry into a world they enjoy, even adore, through sharing the story of their own romantic relationship with it. Bissell takes this autobiographical approach much further. His book criss-crosses between reportage, travelogue, love letter, and excoriating self confession, especially when it comes to his several years spent not writing (he was the author of several books of fiction and a regular columnist for a number of magazines), playing games in marathon-like sessions, and throwing cocaine up his nose:
Soon I was sleeping in my clothes. Soon my hair was stiff and fragrantly unclean. Soon I was doing lines before my Estonian class, staying up for days, curating prodigious nose bleeds and spontaneously vomiting from exhaustion. Soon my pillowcases bore rusty coins of nasal drippage. Soon the only thing I could smell was something like the inside of an empty bottle of prescription medicine. Soon my biweekly phone call to my cocaine dealer was a weekly phone call. Soon I was walking into the night, handing hundreds of dollars in cash to a Russian man whose name I did not even know, waiting in alleys for him to come back – which he always did, though I never fully expected him to – and retreating home, to my Xbox, to GTA IV, to the electrifying solitude of my mind at play in an anarchic digital world.
Video games and cocaine feed on my impulsiveness, reinforce my love of solitude and make me feel good and bad in equal measure. The crucial difference is that I believe in what video games want to give me, while the bequest of cocaine is one I loathe. I do know that video games have enriched my life. Of that I have no doubt. They have also done damage to my life. Of that I have no doubt. I let this happen, of course; I even helped the process along. As for cocaine, it has been a long time since I last did it, but not as long as I would like.
So Barr’s story is a beginner’s guide that shares his own beginnings; Bissell’s a classic bildungsroman. Both writers verge into being obsessive players, regularly logging 80+ hours on a game (‘I can think of only one other personal activity I would be less eager to see audited in this way’, writes Bissell, ‘and it, too, is a single-player experience’). Bissell seems more performance and personality focused (his interviews with figures in the game design world are a strength of the book that prevent it from becoming me-me-me-ish), Barr somewhat more philosophical and reflective.

There are many points where I could do a compare and contrast, or just write a list of 200 Things I Learned Reading These Books (I need to declare at this point that I am a hopeless non-gamer, and that everything here was new to me, from William Higinbotham, to the use of ‘training sessions’ at the start of a game to teach you the controls, to the beauty of Flower). But the thing that really interested me, and the thing that I really want to explore here, was each writers’ underlying concern in their book.

For Bissell, the writer, this concern is storytelling, and how video games are still weighted towards game play rather than narrative:
This is one of the most suspect things about the game form. … A game with an involving story and poor gameplay cannot be considered a successful game, whereas a game with superb gameplay and a laughable story can see its spine bend from the weight of many accolades—and those who praise the latter game will not be wrong.
Early in the book, Bissell reflects on a piece of juvenilia, an essay for an anthology of “young writing”, where he wrote about ‘video games and whether they were a distraction from the calling of literature’. Then he questioned where video games land on ‘art’s fairly forgiving sliding scale’; today, he says, with video games the youngest and increasingly dominant form of popular art, such questions are redundant.

However, he continues, in that essay he was trying to talk about the intelligence that distinguishes art works from everything else. Intelligence, he says, can be expressed in all sorts of way; morally, formally, technically, stylistically, thematically, emotionally. Masterpieces - the things we identify as wiping the table with their intelligence - are comprehensively intelligent; intelligent in all sorts of ways. And they are generally the result of one unified vision, one single game. Video games, he notes, are usually the products of many minds: many games ‘have more formal and stylistic intelligence than they know what to do with and not even trace amounts of thematic, emotional or moral intelligence.’

Can game play and narrative ever be happily melded? Bissell is unsure:
A noisy group of video-game critics and theoreticians laments the rise of story in games. Games, in one version of this view, are best exemplified as total play, wherein the player is an immaterial demiurge and the only ‘narrative’ is what anecdotally generated during play. (Tetris would be the best example of this sort of game.) My suspicion is that this lament comes less from frustration with story qua story than it does from the narrative butterfingers on outstanding display in the vast majority of contemporary video games. I share that frustration. I also love being the agent of chaos in the video game world. What I want from games - a control as certain and seamless as the means by which I am being controlled - may be impossible, and I am back to where I began.
Bissell also observes that video games are different from other art forms in one very exact way: the player is just that - not a viewer or reader, but an active, decision-making participant. Bissell casts around extensively on the potential conflict between narrative and gameplay and, by extension, between the player’s agency and surrender. ‘You get controlled and are controlled’, he notes: the balance is more equal than most forms of art, but the fact that you get to shape the story to any extent reminds you that ‘a presiding intelligence exists within the game along with you, and it is this sensation that invites the otherwise unworkable comparisons between games and other forms of art.’

For Barr, this is less a conundrum than a fruitful tension. His special interest - as a gamer, an academic, and increasingly the game creator - it is playing against the grain, exploring what the world offers, how far you can probe it. What happens if you walk away from your mission and instead decide to drive your car into a lake or watch a rabbit hop around your horse?

In one chapter, Barr describes going off the rails in Grand Theft Auto IV:
When the game demands you ‘drive to the second diamond pickup’, go rogue: veer the truck away from this destination and start calling the shots yourself. Drive for a while, and listen to a jazz station on the radio as you search for something new to do.

Eventually you find yourself in the game’s version of Central Park. You carefully drive the lage garbage truck down leafy pathways, swerving to avoid pedestrians. Looking for an amusing diversion, you drive into a lake and somehow manage to keep going with half the vehicle submerged. The music becomes muted by the water, lending a muffled soundtrack to the already strange scene. You drive like this for a while, tooting the horn at people walking next to the water. They stop and star at the incongruous sight of a garbage truck driving in a lake in Central Park.
I’m pretty underwater jazz wasn’t what the morality police were thinking of when they condemned Grand Theft Auto IV in one of those regular Think of the Children pieces about video games. And a following paragraph gives an interesting spin on Bissell’s worries about control:
So, there are two very different ways to approach a video game. You can perform - focusing on trying to do the right thing, succeeding, and ultimately winning on the game’s terms. Or you can play - doing what you want to do, not what you ‘should’ do. The idea that we can decide how we feel like relating to a video game is important, even revolutionary. It means we are playing the game, not the other way around.
Gaming the game doesn’t necessarily mean gaming the game’s maker, however. Instead, it’s more like picking up the ball they’ve just tossed you:
... it’s not just that you can do these things, the game’s creator wants you to. Playing a game can be seen as a kind of conversation with its designer. Each time you try something … it’s like asking the designer a question: ‘What if I do this?”. Their answer comes in the way the game responds to your actions.
This was the point that really fired my imagination in the two books - and brought me circling back to the frustration Bissell feels. No matter how many diversions you take or daft things you attempt, you’re still playing inside a circumscribed world, one where every pixel is controlled by rules someone else put in place.

The one exception might be the kinds of game that Barr clearly loves: simulations like The Sims, and the collaborative world-building game MInecraft. It is the potential for collaborative play that really seems to thrill him:
A big part of the excitement of playing a game with someone else is sharing a world with them. Even the simple act of handing an object to a friend in Minecraft invests the experience with a strong sense that you’re both really there. Some of the most magical experiences I have had in a video game happened when a friend and I walked together through the world of Minecraft, commenting on each spectacular rock formation we saw, and decorating entire landscapes with torch patterns just so that we could stand together at a vantage point and admire the beauty of what we’d made.
But it’s not just the happy happy joy joy game worlds where this feeling is evoked:
Video games creators have lately been catching on to the idea that we might not always want to engage in mortal combat against our friends and families, but play together instead. Often this means teaming up to engage in mortal combat against others. In Left 4 Dead, a zombie-based game, four players join forces to try and survive in various zombie-infested locations. While battling zombies is entertaining on its own, having a friend rush to your side to dislodge a zombie and then give you medical aid can really get the adrenaline pumping …

… There are few gaming experiences more immediately stunning than seeing another person run past you in the same virtual world. The realisation that various moving figures around you are, in reality, all people who are playing the same game, following the same rules, and sharing many of the same objectives as you is a paradigm shift. [These virtual worlds] take on a greater significance because you are literally in it together.
With more space and a different remit, but to the same conclusion, Bissell also discusses Left 4 Dead. He recounts one game in which he had to choose between personal ‘safety’, and going back out to rescue his three teammates, against seemingly impossible odds:
At great personal risk, and out of real shame, I had rescued two of my three friends and in the process outfaced against all odds one of the best Left 4 Dead teams I had and have ever played against. …

The people I saved that night still talk about my heroic action - and yes, it was, it did feel, heroic - whenever we play together … All the emotions I felt during those few moments - fear, doubt, resolve, and finally courage - were as intensely vivid as any I have felt while reading a novel or watching a film or listening to a piece of music. For what more can one ask? What more could one want?
I want to bring in a quote now from a recent post on Barr’s blog. It was through Barr’s blog that I began to develop a curiosity about video games - their making, their playing, their legends, their philosophies. Barr’s blog is more sophisticated, more revealing, more humourous than his book - perhaps because it is written for that marvellous thing, the half-imagined, half-obscured audience of people who are just like the author.

In this post, Barr comes back to this point he and Bissell have been circling, this magical opportunity. Reviewing an article by another writer on the four types of video game tragedy, he concludes:
we could suggest that much of the tragic isn’t about making choices but rather about the inability to make them. Perhaps one of the challenges for tragedy in video games is to jettison the notion that the player should always be the explicit author of their circumstances but instead as merely one part in a larger world which is not always impressed or even affected by their actions.

Beyond this, however, I think it’s simply true that we, as players, need to get our shit together a bit and attempt to engage with the drama of the games we play. If it’s really true that we’re incapable of choosing a tragic ending, then to my mind that suggests a degree of apathy and weakness of spirit on our part and we ought to train ourselves to be stronger participants. It would help, of course, if games themselves respected us more in this same way, but it’s clearly a shared problem, not the pure responsibility of game makers.
My overall impressions? Barr’s book is (by design, I believe) more simplistic than his wonderful and self-effacing blog; I think he has a deeper and stranger book hovering in his near future. Bissell’s book is a little baggy-seated, and occasionally repetitive, but also very entertaining. But both have opened my eyes, not just to the rich, deep, wide, silly, expensive, violent, harrowing and pluripotent world of video games, but also to the conversations that go on within it.

Monday 20 February 2012


I'm sloooooooooowly tapping out a review of two books I read over Waitangi weekend, before my brain went on the fritz due to the annual overload of Kiwi Foo Camp and Webstock: Tom Bissell's Extra Lives and Pippin Barr's How to play a video game.

The aspect of Barr's book that really struck me was his notion of playing games against the grain - departing from the central narrative in order to explore the world you're in, or departing from the given context to play the game from a different perspective.

Barr's latest blog post is on another writer's article, Line Hollis on tragedy in video games, and picks up somewhat on this theme:
I think it’s simply true that we, as players, need to get our shit together a bit and attempt to engage with the drama of the games we play. If it’s really true that we’re incapable of choosing a tragic ending, then to my mind that suggests a degree of apathy and weakness of spirit on our part and we ought to train ourselves to be stronger participants. It would help, of course, if games themselves respected us more in this same way, but it’s clearly a shared problem, not the pure responsibility of game makers.
At the risk of sounding all Shit Non-Players Say About Video Games, these two books have introduced me to a medium to which I've previously given very little thought. It means that now I click through to things like this article about the career (and death) of the video game artist Adam Adamowicz, and feel a new sense of interest and understanding. It's the gift that good writers give you.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Geek in residence

A fascinating job up for grabs at Opera Australia

Opera Australia aims to present opera that excites audiences and sustains and develops the artform. As part of this mission, we have established the role of Geek in Residence to assist the Company in developing several online initiatives designed to connect with a broad audience over a 12 month period. These projects include building on the Company’s current social media activity, developing an opera-based interactive game, researching a Facebook online ticketing facility, and improving existing online portals for multimedia access.

They're also asking for killer project management skills - it's a complex bundle. I'll be interested to see how it turns out.

Monday 13 February 2012

Let us roll all our strength

For the second year in a row, my favourite session at KiwiFoo Camp was run by the extraordinary Robert Neale. This year Robert blew the room away by reciting then helping us unravel a selection of love poems.

Here's what we heard (and if I've missed anything, please let me know - @auchmill):

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
    So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error and upon me proved,
    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

In response to which, Tim O'Reilly  mentioned Richard Wilbur's Praise in Summer: "Then I wondered why this mad 'instead' / Perverts our praise to uncreation."

Shakespeare's Sonnet 138

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor'd youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress'd.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
    Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
    And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be.

Andrew Marvell's To his Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

    But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

    Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Sonnet 138 made me think of Philip Larkin's Talking in Bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
 Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

And in the session, Tim also quoted from Yeat's Brown Penny

Ah, love is the crooked thing.
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it.
For he should be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.

And given that it is the season, the Guardian's selection of love poems made by contemporary writers (including some of my beloved Thomas Wyatt) makes wonderful follow-on reading.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Pinterest and museums

After dismissing it for several months (on the basis of adorkability overload), I've started playing with Pinterest.

If you've been hiding under one of those handy internet-rocks for a while, Pinterest is a social sharing site on which members create 'boards' of images gleaned from around the web, which can then be followed and liked by other members; individual items can also be 'repinned' from another member's board to your own. The site is very popular with designers, stylists, crafters, and the kind of people who tumble pretty shiny things. Like Tumblr, there's a certain element of look-at-me-and-my-exquisite/quirky-taste.

I started using the site because I wanted to see how heritage items would fare on it. Would they pique the curiosity of members? What would prove of the most interest (pinterest?)? Could pinning an item from a website lead people back to the source? Might all this lead people to start investigating heritage material for themselves?

More than a year and a half after leaving the National Library, where I worked on several channels aimed to open up the collections to a wider online audience (like the @NLNZ twitter account, and getting the Library on Flickr Commons), these are questions I still spend a lot of time thinking about. And, to be honest, I spend a lot of time scouring the collections, through Digital New Zealand and National Library Beta. I constantly find things that tickle my fancy, start a Wikipedia trawling session, puzzle me, move me: above all, I find things that require sharing.

So, I have started using Pinterest.

I'm only a couple of days in. I've set up boards for old photos of hats and hairstyles, beautiful commercial and social marketing posters, Kobi Bosshard, Karl Fritsch, and hotties from history (because I'm still disappointed about not being able to add Bob Semple to My Daguerreotype Boyfriend). From the little bits of activity I've seen so far, graphic design is by far and away the most popular content, and colourful also attracts attention (so more Karl Fritsch, less Kobi Bosshard).

If I were still at the Library, and not doing this myself, I'd be far more active - searching the site, following boards, repinning and commenting away merrily. As it is, the site's content is by and large not to my personal interest: I'm not going to while away time as I do on Goodreads.  I have started following a couple of existing (real world) friends, and following SFMOMA's It's hip to be square board (totally to my liking).

From my brief experiment, I'd say Pinterest is definitely worth collecting institutions' attention. It's easy to sign up (although it's interesting that you create accounts by authorising connections to your Facebook or Twitter account: you're a bit buggered if you haven't started taking those basic steps) (also, you have to wait days to have your membership activated - WTF?). The bookmarklet tool is convenient to use (and highlighting text on a page automatically inserts it into the item's description on the site). And maybe most importantly, copyright seems to be well managed.

The community rules encourage good acknowledgement of sources and accurate links back to the original item.  Individual items display their original source prominently. You can tailor your description to include all the source acknowledgements you like. There are ways of seeing all the items from a specific site. The Copyright page has clear instructions for anyone who feels their work is being misused. This won't be nearly enough for some institutions, but really - it's time to come play in the real world.

This blogpost has (painstakingly detailed) instructions for getting started on the site; this one identifies a couple of museums that are already on there. I feel like my (aging now) questions you should ask yourself before setting up one of these channels for your organisation still hold pretty firm:
  • Why do you want to do this? What's the big good reason for doing this, and can your aims be achieved using any existing tools?
  • What are you offering? Where will the content come from, and is there anything you have to do to ensure you can use it or make it?
  • Who is this for? Who is the audience you're reaching out to, how will you engage with them, and do they want to hear from you?
  • Who will be doing this? Any form of outreach needs staff with some time allocated to the endeavour, and a knack for tweaking people's interest.
I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's had a good (or bad) experience using Pinterest from an institutional point of view.

Friday 3 February 2012


I think this is the first time I've ever written about a movie tie-in, but this is very clever.

The Hunger Games opens in March this year. The Capital Couture tumblr is a beautifully designed teasey sneak-peak at the outrageous fashion of the decadent Capitol (really - if you haven't read the books, I'm not going to bother to summarise them here for you - Wikipedia is your friend).

The stylistic escapades didn't really grasp me when I read the books - they felt like a blatant grab at the teenage girl market (not that there's anything wrong with that). But as soon as I saw this tumblr, I understood in one of those blinding flashes of d'oh insight just how important style and presentation are going to be in the movie trilogy.

The tumblr is intriguing in that it's taken a sidenote in the bigger story and very successfully spun it off. It's almost entirely self-contained, steering away from the plot to focus on the delicious surface. And by leaking shots of a character in McQueen booties and speculating on Mugler bodysuits, the site latches on to a potentially new audience of fashion obsessed tumblrers and Pinteresters. It's very very sharp, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it evolves.