Archive for September, 2011

Gamification and Interactive Fiction

September 29, 2011

I just read my friend Max Gladstone’s excellent post, which in turn references Tim Rogers’ essay on gamification. I think Tim makes an excellent point about how behavioral economics and psychology have ushered in a new generation of video games that are less fun, less artful, less genuine if you will than games that came before. Like Max, I’m not sure the mechanics of these games should be applied outside of the game industry; like Tim, I’m not sure these are even Good Mechanics, in a moral sense. There is an element in games like Farmville that encourages us to become addicted, and to do something that we don’t ultimately enjoy.

However, I do not believe the situation is as clear-cut as (in Tim’s words) “videogames killed videogames.” There is nothing inherently wrong with creating digital objects, or digital spaces, not directly connected to the physical. These spaces allow us to construct narratives that, in turn, allow us to escape from other parts of our lives. Further, these narratives can be enjoyable in their own right, beyond escapism. Games like Farmville constrict these objects to ones that feed into behavioral mechanisms that get us to pay more and play more, but they also lower the barriers for participation, sharing, and building. It doesn’t take a hundred million dollars of special effects and 3D rendering to build a Farmville, to deploy it on Facebook and share it with your friends. We can build on the platforms these games are creating to build new social games that are more like stories and less like Skinner boxes.

The counterpoint to “we can do it too!” used to be – yeah, but it won’t be profitable. That counterpoint, however, is only relevant in a context where it’s only ever worth it to build something profitable. When costs are high and resources (skilled developers, server space) are limited, this context applies; as costs shrinks and resources become ever more bountiful, we enter a new context – one where it’s worth it build a story just to entertain your friends, or maybe your friends and a few other other people. The value proposition is the smiles and the excitement and the shining eyes that come with being in a fun story, not the currency (of whatever form) derived from a virtual space. I would argue that social games, wittingly or not, are taking us one step closer to that context of freedom. It’s not all a world where we’re sitting in our underpants in front of our computer looking at avatars sitting in their underpants in front of their computer. It’s also a world where we can hack up a game like this, or this, over a long vacation or a few weekends, send it to our friends, and play it together. I think that’s a good world.


The Moffat Doctor Who, Peter Pan, and Growing Up

September 26, 2011


With one episode left in the current season of Doctor Who, and such great episodes out as The Girl Who Waited and the God Complex, I wanted to reflect on one of my favorite themes in Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who – the theme of growing up.

My first experience with growing up was Peter Pan (no, it wasn’t; it was Winnie The Pooh but I don’t want to tell that story now). I loved Peter Pan, and hated the ending. Peter comes back, but Wendy’s all grown up, and they can no longer understand each other. Their friendship has faded and broken. Only by abducting Wendy’s children can Peter find happiness again.

Stephen Moffat deals with a similar plot narrative. The Doctor is excitable, impulsive, dismissive of adults – all traits of Peter Pan. He takes Amy away to a wonderful world where she can travel through time and space and have many adventures. And, in the end, after going through death and cracks in space-time and the destruction of a whole universe together, they part. Amy grows up, and the Doctor leaves her. Presumably, in the future, the Doctor meets a new companion and the cycle repeats.

The current state of this plot thread, as depicted at the end of the God Complex, is no less bittersweet than Peter Pan’s. However, I think Moffat handles this resolution much better than James Barrie. The transition of Amy into adulthood is not painted as a bad thing, in contrast, it is a tough but ultimately rewarding journey, the scariest adventure of them all, in the Doctor’s own words. Amy’s feelings of adoration for and excitement about the Doctor slowly morph into her feelings for Rory, who turns out to be as dedicated, adventurous, and strong as a fictional hero – but also her nurse husband, her partner who shares with her in the good and the bad of life. Amy’s daughter does not continue the cycle of abduction, adventure, abandonement; she is infused with the TARDIS, which makes her more Time Lord (Time Lady?) than human being, and she has her own dark and passionate history with the Doctor, independent of the companion cycle.

In the end, the scene where the Doctor drops Amy and Rory off at their new townhouse (with Rory’s Favorite Car parked up front), is still deeply bittersweet, filled with a sense of loss and profound change. At the same time, however, I feel a sense of positive transformation whenever I watch it. I do not feel like emotional closure has been achieved between the Doctor and Amy, I think they still care for each other deeply. At the same time, however, I feel like they’ve both changed for the better, and that their bond will, likewise, change but not break, space and time be damned.

Speak Out With Your Geek Out: Interactive Fiction

September 15, 2011

The wonderful Alana Abbott invited me last weekend to post for Speak Out With Your Geek Out – to write about something that inspires me, something that I geek out over. A passion. This post is about interactive fiction (not so surprising for readers of this blog, I am sure :))

Let’s start off with a personal and biased definition – interactive fiction, for me, is fiction that integrates the fiction producer (writer, director, designer) and fiction consumer (reader, viewer, gamer) in a way that goes beyond the traditional model. By the traditional model I mean one where the fiction producer works tirelessly on his / her work, releases it to the world, and then fiction consumers passively consume said work.

To me, this model is boring: in it, the producers and the consumers are both silent and isolated. They never get to exchange ideas, or give feedback (except implicitly, through purchasing decisions). The little engines of conversation and creativity that fuel a lot of fiction never get started, because there is no space for readers and writers to talk to one another.

In contrast, interactive fiction provides just such a space. Fanfiction sites allow fans of books and movies to get together and expand upon their favorite works. Forum boards let readers speculate on what’s happening in the next book, or when the next game in a series is coming out and what changes it will bring to design and story. Role-playing games allow players to take up the mantle of their favorite characters and do things differently. Everything from writer panels at geeky conventions to viral marketing campaigns that give teasers for the next part in the story makes it a little easier for fiction consumers and fiction producers to talk to each other, to learn from each other and to affect each other – in other words, to interact.

I love interactive fiction. I love thinking about it and blogging my thoughts. I love doing it, such as when I write or run roleplaying games. My biggest geeky project right now involves designing a platform for that makes it easier for readers and writers to talk about books together. And since I am blessed to have great novelist friends like Max Gladstone, I’m constantly thinking about how to help them spread the word about their novels with the help of interactive fiction (I’d say more, but that project is Sooper Sekrit :)).

So, yeah. I am an interactive fiction geek. I hope this post has explained a little what it is and why it’s so interesting. I also encourage you to get out there and write, read, game, post, comment – make your voice heard, as reader or writer or both – and help make fiction a more truly interactive medium!


September 9, 2011

Maybe you weren’t
The girl who waited,
But I came back,
I came back.

I saw worlds destroyed
And worlds created
Through a crack in your walls,
A tiny crack.

I brought my blue box
(Bigger on the inside),
I said, do come along,
Won’t you come along?

Just another companion,
I thought, but in hindsight,
I see I was wrong,
So very wrong.

I watched you fight angels
And bring down tyrants.
I told you lies,
So many lies.

I watched you get married
I watched you inspire him,
And then he died,
And then you died.

It’s me and my spaceship
Now, desperately searching,
For you in time
In all of time.

And if I find you
Scared or hurting,
I’ll give you my smile
I’ll make it right.