Welcome friend! My name's Raph, and I make storygames*

I'm making THE ZONE, a tabletop storytelling game about a doomed expedition into a mysterious quarantine zone, whose center will grant one survivor their deepest wish.


Other games

  1. They Say You Should Talk To Your Plants: a game about dealing with life by talking to your plants, where you also play the plants. Winner of Golden Cobra award for "Best Use of Silence or Non-Verbal Elements in a Game"
  2. Your Ancestors Are Watching: a tragic tale of ancestral mechs for #sadmechjam
  3. The Tiny Book of Storygames for First Dates
  4. Other People: 2018 Golden Cobra entry
  5. Plotypus: a fun & quick hero's journey (with the wonderful Randy Lubin)

Wanna chat?

Find me on Twitter or drop me an email

*What the heck is a storygame?

Great question! It's a game where "winning" means telling the best story, not getting the highest score. There are many, many kinds! This is a helpful resource to get started.

2020.4: Thigmotaxis on the infinite canvas

February 8, 2020

A mother badger sheltering her cubs from harm in "Shelter"

Did you know there’s a word for the way animals, from mice to deer, avoid open space, choosing instead to hug the edges for safety?

We’ll come back to this.

Yesterday I attended Config 2020, the first conference ever by Figma. They make a tool for UX designers which has quickly become a favorite for two reasons. One, it thoughtfully implements all the basics of the craft, making it a joy to use. Two, and more importantly, it has brought design into the world of live multiplayer collaboration in the browser. Figma is to Sketch (another dominant design tool), what Google Docs is to Microsoft Word.

The event was inspiring, wrapped in Tori Hinn and team’s marvelous branding, infused with Figma’s raucous spirit of principled playfulness, and featuring dozens of talks and workshops by members of the community. I had a blast. You can watch the keynotes here.

There was something else simmering below—or perhaps that we were simmering in—that I couldn’t help but notice. Something that’s a defining principle behind why I make games, and what I started writing this blog to explore. It’s this one weird trick; one beautiful attribute: kindness.

Figma’s community is kind. And when I see a kind community, my ears prick up and I start analyzing.

WARNING: BROAD BRUSH GENERALIZATIONS ENSUE

When non-designers think of Designers, they often think of uncompromising assholes—Steve Jobs their patron saint—the archetype of the extravagantly turtle necked white dude with thick-rimmed glasses; usually found berating a poor junior designer or client, perpetuating a hazing culture where credibility demands you talk a big game about your perfectly motivated design and how every solitary sub-pixel has been placed with no less precision than the clockwork complications of a master-crafted Swiss watch.

It’s the notoriously unhinged Pepsi rebrand by Peter Arnell—once called the Bernie Madoff of branding for the striking trail of destruction he left in his wake.

And of course, this “design visionary” and his signature box:

Now, my observation is that there seemed to be a noticeable lack of these folks in the Figma community, both online (Twitter) and in person at Config. A remarkable thing.

Why?

Figma is a space, not just a tool

In a traditional design tool your work is locked away in a file that you—and only you—can occupy at any given time. In Figma, your workspace is now findable, linkable, explorable. Others can visit and see your cursor move around the page, an implicit invitation to help push those pixels with you. (Many cursors, light work as they say).

In the old model you were not visible, only the output of your activity. Others had to reconstruct your intent, your personality, your dynamism, from the fossilized remains of your output; the moment where you were caught in the act of saving by the pyroclastic flow of a deadline or meeting. In a multiplayer file, they can be right there with you.

This is a brand new social contract.

Who might be attracted to this new social contract?

My completely un-evidenced theory is that those who were drawn in first, and who seeded the community, share certain traits. Probably (and I’m generalizing), these designers care less about ownership of their specific pixels, and are more interested in creating together to the point where you can’t identify who did what. These designers want to invite others into their digital homes without feeling the need to clean everything up. They design with their successors and teammates in mind (the design equivalent of leaving really good comments in your code). These designers might be less likely to see their design work as something to be done in mountaintop hermitage, with a “perfect” output curated and presented—probably in a deck of some sort—when they are ready to come down from their isolation.

These are folks who want others in on their mess, without taking it too seriously. Who attempt to anticipate their needs and create a welcoming space.

And of course, this is a social product so environment matters! These folks probably have the benefit of the positive feedback loop of an environment that supports these traits, and gives them like minded collaborators to enjoy them with.

These early adopters are perhaps more willing—and able—to be vulnerable.

At this point, I’m guess every single one of you has come across Brené Brown and her game changing work on the power of vulnerability. If you haven’t, check out her TED talks.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.

Vulnerability and its close cousin, shame, are some of the most powerful emotions and working with them is absolutely necessary if we want to activate the human superorganism. The more we can safely let each other in, the less energy we have to waste on bullshit barriers and toxic strategies for survival.

When a tool becomes a space

This isn’t new. Google Docs did this for the typical office suite way back in 2006 with its Writely acquisition, soon followed by Sheets and Slides. But 14 years later the dominant form of document collaboration remains files attached to emails, so you still get to see that first moment in people when they realize that someone can see what they are writing, live. This remains terrifying for many. It’s no longer just a document editor; it’s a desk with two chairs, or worse an auditorium and you’re suddenly in America’s Jungian nightmare, that of publicly speaking without prep.

Some multiplayer tools work hard to counteract this fear by creating spaces with very explicit contracts. The loudest example is 37 Signals’ Basecamp, which not only implicitly embeds the team’s working style into the deepest bones of the tool but also explicitly attempts to teach that working style with countless blog posts and entire books (REWORK, Shape Up). Just take a look at this playful environment to look at project progress. They might not seem as such, but these hill charts are spaces, just highly restricted—I like to think in a David-Lynch-black-lodge-but-benevolent kind of way.

And if Figma and Google Docs are a real time multiplayer game, Github is turn based strategy. Compare it to Basecamp, and you can see how old school engineering culture trickles into it, for example in the command which reveals who made changes to a specific line of code. It could have been called many things—”author”, “writer”, “editor”, “credit”, “celebration”, “🎉”, (“who wrote that amazing line? “)

It was called “Blame.”

$ git blame README.md 
82496ea3 (kevzettler 2018-02-28 13:37:02 -0800 1) # Git Blame example 
82496ea3 (kevzettler 2018-02-28 13:37:02 -0800 2) 
89feb84d (Albert So 2018-03-01 00:54:03 +0000 3) This repository is an example of a project with multiple contributors making commits. 
82496ea3 (kevzettler 2018-02-28 13:37:02 -0800 4) 
82496ea3 (kevzettler 2018-02-28 13:37:02 -0800 5) The repo use used elsewhere to demonstrate git blame 
82496ea3 (kevzettler 2018-02-28 13:37:02 -0800 6)

It is perhaps no coincidence that this feature shares a name with Tsutomu Niheis’ epic manga about a world overrun by machines, in which the few surviving humans attempt to scrape a pitiful existence by trying remain unnoticed in the corner of impossibly large and fractal mechanical “cities”.

I always imagine the poor engineer outed by this feature, a mistake caught, pinned down suddenly like specimen in failure, ready to be eradicated like those few remaining inhabitants of the city are when spotted by the machines.

But then I have to remember the root of this in the specific humor of a certain type of engineering culture. Anyone remember the Bastard Operator From Hell? Perhaps I’m a wuss but I always struggled with this kind of ironic brutality. (No wonder tech still struggles to break out of its monoculture! Oof.)

Would engineering culture be different if things like these had different names?

Verbs matter—what they are called, and what they do. “Blame” is a tad harsh, and is used more often to get the bottom of errors than to celebrate. Ironically, it actually enhances collaboration by making it easier to know who to collaborate with. The name and the function are in creative tension with each other.

Counterpoint, the playful “Fork this” that once graced the top right of every website that wanted to support Open Source. You don’t have to be Eleanor in the Good Place to chuckle at this one—in this case, the verb’s name and function have the same concept, or I should say, conception, in mind.

“Blame”. “Fork”. “Comment”. All these are new actions make up the architecture of the wide open spaces that happen when singleplayer becomes multiplayer.

What all these multiplayer spaces have in common is that they initially create a feeling of exposure.

A primal fear

One of our most primal fears is of being in open space where a flying predator might swoop down and plant its talons into your back, lifting you bodily away from safety— carrying you while you bleed out, only to tear you apart at its nest, or perhaps drop you from high up to let gravity finish the job. We’re no longer the tiny mammals who developed this fear, but it’s still there, deep inside us.

At its best, Figma’s open space is the feeling of a welcoming plaza, a court to play layer tennis, or perhaps a cozy studio. At worst it’s a broad and exposed plaza where you might run into a predator at any time.

Yet it’s the same infinite canvas. How you end up feeling about it depends not just on the user interface, but how it intersect the social space you’re in. After all, the predator is no longer a great eagle with 4 inch long talons, but rather a hovering, swooping-and-pooping boss or buzzing coworker. Even if it’s just people you already know and love, the sudden change in social contract creates uncertainty, which can be just as scary.

UI and features define how you might encounter your predator—for example, is the file shared or not? Can you clearly see who is there with you? Can you tell what they are looking at? Can you easily ask them? Is there a trace of their passage that tells you whether they were just here? Do you know how long you have until someone jumps in?

Put together, does this user experience create a panopticon?

A wide and impersonal open space?

These are ancient fears, which to this day leads to animals—mice, deer, humans!—avoiding open spaces, choosing instead to move by sticking close to the edges. This even has a name: “thigmotaxis”, which I discovered in this striking study that used GPS mapping to show how people with different levels of agoraphobia and anxiety enjoyed a 15 minute walk in a soccer field. (HC= healthy control, HA = high anxiety, LA = low anxiety). Notice how clearly the behavior shows up here.

There it is: thigmotaxis, visualized!

(Side point, I like this tidbit “Active soccer players were excluded because of familiarity with the open field area.” That tells you a lot about how this process works.)

How do you address this?

As is often the case, this all takes me back to Christopher Alexander’s pattern language.

“Outdoors, people always try to find a spot where they can have their backs protected, looking out towards some larger opening, beyond the space immediately in front of them”

Is a Figma infinite canvas “outdoors” or “indoors”? How large should it be to feel “safe”? What does it mean to have your “back protected”, to be able to “look out”?

Spaces, whether they are digital or physical, are psychosocial pachinko machines that cause different statistical probabilities of running into certain interactions with other beings. With thousands of years of practice, we’ve identified physical architectures that lead to more pleasing interactions (just look at the diagrams above). But we are so new to the digital!

How do you pleasingly constrain interactions with other people in digital space?

Figma as home

The key is to take into account the different layers of the ecosystem, and by thoughtful design, Figma happens to have structured its strategy exactly in line with one of the most widely accepted behavior change frameworks out there; a true workhorses of serious behavior change interventionists such as public health agencies.

Just look. This is the strategy Figma’s CEO, Dylan Field, presented in his keynote.

And this is the ecological model of behavior change. It starts with the individual and expands concentrically outward, recognizing that change happens if every societal layer is supported by the layer around it. It’s something every single person attempting to change behavior should be aware of, and an essential antidote to the nonsense of our individualistic model of self-improvement (that—is a whole other essay).

Here it’s itemizing “factors affecting adaptation to extreme heat in rural communities.”

Look familiar?

Single player design tools like Sketch occupy just the center of that model. They exist within the context of a culture about how those files should be shared and worked on together, but don’t actively define that behavior (although they are trying to expand).

Figma, being natively multiplayer, is actively operating at multiple levels, with patterns both in the live multiplayer space where you are actively creating and also in the layers around it.

I can see the pattern language beginning to form. “Playful avatars”, for example. Something about watching those brightly colored cursors fly around the page, each representing powerful creative tools, sets a tone. (Quite the opposite of “blame”)

What about a pattern of “easy to roll back”. Sure, you could grief your coworkers and nuke their stuff, but they can just get it back with the built in version control, making the only permanent change your own level of assholeness. Not a great tradeoff. Nothing to feed the troll.

Step outside the file, and you have the sharing UI itself, the ability to group by Team (a pattern pioneered by Slack), and the big idea of turning design into an open activity with community repos. Could open source design rise out of this just as Github supercharged open source software? I’ll be watching carefully what kinds of verbs are encouraged. Is there a pattern of “community repos”?

What these patterns add up to is a new way of approaching design. A timeless way of designing?

Who knows, perhaps a new generation of designers will grow up sharing their work in the open community of Figma, instead of tiny 400x400px snippets on Dribbble (an online community for designers where people post images of their sexiest design work). On Dribbble, the function and mess is stripped out in favor of the perfectly manicured—a picture of single, handcrafted button; the corner of an artfully composed dialog box; a speculative UI turned 45 degrees, attractively hidden behind a rendered reflection. This is a beautiful and inspiring art gallery, but the opposite of Figma’s ideal of “View Source”.

If Dribbble is Instagram encouraging its posters’ eating disorders by putting out impossible images of perfection, perhaps the Figma community could be more like TikTok’s raw and messy conga lines of video remixing.

The fact that Figma’s strategy can be overlaid over the ecological model of change is fascinating and hopeful. By expanding out from the tool itself to broader circles, they have a chance at changing design culture itself.

A pattern language for digital space?

Going even further, I’m tremendously curious about the digital patterns that will emerge. Christopher Alexander had thousands of years’ worth of examples of human spaces to look at, and a philosopher’s wisdom in interpreting what he saw not just through an architectural lens but through the lens of how it felt to be a flesh and blood human in that architecture.

Just look at his pattern on the marital bed, which might as well be a couples therapy session—as opinionated as 37 Signals are about product process ;)

  1. Of course, the couple need a shared realm, where they can function together, invite friends, be alone together. This realm needs to be made up of functions which they share.
  2. But it is also true that each partner is trying to maintain an individuality, and not be submerged in the identity of the other, or the identity of the couple. Each partner needs space.

Conceive a house for a couple as being made up of two kinds of places—a shared couple’s realm and individual private worlds. Imagine the shared realm as half-public and half-intimate; and the private worlds as entirely individual and private.

He starts the entire section on family with the following premise:

The nuclear family is not by itself a viable social form

And from there he describes structures that support a more integrated and wholesome environment for groups of people to thrive.

Except they aren’t diagrams of space. They are—highly opinionated—diagrams of human relating. We need to be just as opinionated.

I’m so curious to see which of these patterns might apply in the digital. Some seem very promising. For example, the “building edge”, which can either support or reject life.

What is that in multiplayer spaces? Is it the “lobby” of the game where you hang out with your friends? Is it the little hidden nooks and crannies where you can have fun before jumping into the fray? What does this mean for something like a collaboration tool?

Other spaces are less obvious, or might seem less “necessary” in the prioritized world of product roadmapping, but that’s perhaps what makes them essential. I experienced this pattern as a child as the mysterious basement in my grandparent’s home in Normandy. At the end of a dusty hallway, behind a locked, half-height door, was a room with my uncle’s old train set and vinyl records, which me and my brother were very sensibly kept out of. Perhaps you need such things to make a digital space feel “deep” with mysteries for the masters to pass on to the next generation. Not everything needs to be revealed on day one.

Slow down

Community doesn’t happen when people simply pass through a space. They need reasons to slow down and feel their presence sink into it. A cursor moving at warp speed is just looking for its next hit of functionality. But slow it down, let it become a little more corporeal, and perhaps it will encounter the other avatar cursors in a different and more wholesome way.

As everyone from the Center for Humane technology to Robert Mueller have accurately described, Facebook and Twitter haven’t succeeded in changing culture because they directly nail you with a particularly targeted ad. It’s not a software ⇄ human relationship. These social networks managed to skew culture because they change the rules of interaction between people (in a way that could be weaponized by those dedicated and lacking-scruple enough to use as a scalpel to pry apart communities). It’s software as an intermediary. Human ⇄ Software ⇄ Human.

Software as a space, not empty, but endowed with norms and mechanics.

But perhaps as professional tool, one which encourages a deeper level of creation and presence, can slow things down even further, becoming a real place where creative community hangs out on the stoop.

And blame? Fork that.


Notes

2020.3: The paradox of language

January 28, 2020

Metabolic Pathways poster by Roche

This week, a paradox around language: when do you need fifty new words, and when should you use none at all?

Fifty (Pantone) shades of snow

It all started when I decided to revisit that landmark 1911 Franz Boas ethnography turned meme of the fifty Eskimo words for snow. I wondered, was that old statement still true? Kind of.

Inuit, the language Boas studied, is polysynthetic, which means a single word is assembled from smaller pieces, each piece more like a word in an English sentence. So the concept of fifty distinct “words” didn’t technically apply, sparking a debate that rages to this day amongst linguists. But according to Washington based anthropologist Igor Krupnik, the insight still stood; Boas had taken care to look at fragments with meaningful distinctions.

Phew.

But the overall point, that societies have many words for things that matter to them? Fifty is only the starting point! Krupnik himself documented about 70 terms for ice in the Inupiaq dialect of Wales, Alaska. Other cultures have even more:

The Sami people, who live in the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russia, use at least 180 words related to snow and ice, according to Ole Henrik Magga, a linguist in Norway. (Unlike Inuit dialects, Sami ones are not polysynthetic, making it easier to distinguish words.)

The Sami also have as many as 1,000 words for reindeer. These refer to such things as the reindeer’s fitness (“leami” means a short, fat female reindeer), personality (“njirru” is an unmanageable female) and the shape of its antlers (“snarri” is a reindeer whose antlers are short and branched). There is even a Sami word to describe a bull with a single, very large testicle: “busat.” (via the Washington Post)

Language grows around the things society deems important. It enables coordination around increasingly nuanced topics. It turns individual into collective intelligence—both in the moment and across time, as you need language to pass down complex concepts to the next generation.

This power is as real now as it was then. My favorite modern example comes from the world of commerce. Meet interior decorator’s superpower and 3am-bloodshot-eyed-designer arch-nemesis, the Pantone color fan:

/images/2020.3.pantonefan.jpg

In the 1960s, the central struggle of post-WW2 western civilization was no longer snow & ice but rather the free market & mass production. Television and mass media exploded. Munitions factories began making toasters, cars, and Coke. Companies suddenly found themselves with both the need and the tools to standardize their brands.

And a crucial dialect of brand is color:

Back in the early 1960s, Pantone was a printing company in Carlstadt, New Jersey, with a specialty in color charts for the cosmetic, fashion, and medical industries. Lawrence Herbert joined the company in 1956 and noticed how difficult it was for designers, ad agencies, and printers to communicate—identifying exact colors from names alone is tough. For example, there are red-based purples and blue-based purples, warm and cool shades, lighter and darker tones. Mistakes happened, there were tons of inefficiencies due to reprints, and Herbert knew there had to be a better way to do things. He bought Pantone in 1962 and launched the first PMS guide in 1963 with 10 colors in an effort to reduce the number of variables happening in the printing process. Creating an objective, numeric language means that any printer anywhere in the world can accurately produce a color.

Picture a shelf of Coke bottles where every other label was a slightly different shade. Yes, they’re technically all “red” but they’re not the right red. This might make you think some bottles are less fresh than others; therefore the brand isn’t reliable. (You even might grab a Pepsi instead.) Real Coke bottles in New York are the same red as ones in London or Mexico City or Mumbai: Pantone 185. (via Fast Company)

If a society’s central dynamic is the cold, language grows into nuanced descriptions of snow & ice.

If a society’s central dynamic is the market, language grows into nuanced descriptions of branded color.

Every domain develops specific languages, incredibly shiny & chrome (sorry, couldn’t resist). Sometimes these end up as colloquial terms, other times as highly technical jargon.

From “cook” to:

Acidulate, Al dente, Amandine almonds, Amylolytic process, Anti-griddle, Aspic, Au gratin, Au jus, Au poivre, Backwoods cooking, Baghaar flavoring, Bain-marie, Bakin, Barding, Barbecuing, Baste, Blanchin, Boilin, Braisin, Bricolage, Brine, Broasting, Browning reaction, Caramelization, Carry over cooking, Casserole, Charbroilin, Cheesemaking, Chiffonade, Red cooking food, Velveting, Clay pot cooking, Coddling, Concass, Conche, Confit, Creaming, Curdlin, Curin, Deep frying, Deglazin, Degreasin, Dough sheeting, Dredging, Dry roastin, Drying, Engastration, Earth oven, Egg wash, Emulsify, En papillote, En vessie, Engastration, Engine Cooking, Escagraph, etc… (via Wikipedia)

From “let’s play pretend” to:

0-level spell, 5-foot step, aberration type, ability, ability check, ability damage, ability damaged, ability decrease, ability drain, ability drained, ability modifier, ability score, ability score loss, abjuration, acid effects, action, adjacent, adventuring party, Air domain, air subtype, alignment, ally, alternate form, angel subtype, Animal domain, animal type, antimagic, aquatic subtype, arcane spell, arcane spell failure, archon subtype, armor bonus, Armor Class, artifact, Astral Plane, attack, attack of opportunity, attack roll, augmented subtype, automatic hit, automatic miss, baatezu subtype, Balance domain, barbarian, bard, base attack bonus, base land speed, base save bonus, battle grid, blinded, blindsense, blindsight, blown away, bolster undead… (I could go on)

(Related—my friend @randylubin mused on Twitter: “Maybe some day dnd will become the generic name for storytelling games, like kleenex or q-tip. I’m not sure if that would be worse than the current state of things. “Is The Riot Starts a dnd?”)

And let’s come back to the chart at the top. It’s a diagram published by pharmaceutical giant Roche, of the known metabolic pathways in the human body. This chart is naming at its most intentional, joined with a functional grammar of the interaction between its words, a razor to wrangle complexity. What gets languaged gets managed.

/images/Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 10.38.19 AM.png

Finally, language is powerful and also is power. As a white cis straight dude, it’s been thrilling to learn the expanding language of all the things that are not that. Terms like “white fragility”, “cultural appropriation”, and even “whiteness” itself are brilliant revealers that make the status quo unfamiliar again, allowing me to see the water that I swim in and the entrenched biases I perpetuate.

Language is how society wrangles things.

Language is how the collective brain thinks.

Shouldn’t we strive to greater linguistic precision, until we have named and categorized every single thing, and then use that to precisely negotiate our society’s priorities?

We should! But to a point.

Let’s start with pain

/images/2020.3.pain.jpg

I’m sure you’re familiar with the pain scale. I sure am—it’s the ceremonial 0-10 coin of passage that I must lay into resident Charon’s skeletal hand for passage across the dead river of clerical data entry and into my doctor’s appointment proper (melodramatic, yes, but a not inaccurate metaphor for the Epic EHR.)

I’ve got a variety pack of neuropathic pain symptoms that vary day by day, are contextual, and don’t always correlate. How do I say that I don’t hurt at all when I’ve exercised in the morning and am lying down, but am in excruciating pain when I sit in a specific way on a particular chair? And that all it takes is a slightly different chair, and I’m okay? These distinctions are crucial, as they are the roadmap of the subtle changes in my life that will actually help improve the situation.

The brain perceives things far from linearly. Have you heard of this guy: the sensory homunculus? His Mr. Potato-head proportions represent how much the brain perceives sensation from different areas (with the obvious PG-13 adjustment). Bigger means more pinpoint definition to signals from that area, which is why you know precisely where on your hand that cut is, but need to look at your arm to see where it’s bothering you. So how do you compare a blown knee to a paper cut on your pinky?

/images/2020.3.homunculus.png

To answer the 0-10 question, I have to throw away so much detail, so much subjective perception, so much empowerment! My heart sinks as I hand over the number, and my brain, responding to incentives, ditches the rest of the story as worthless junk. The doctor-turned-data-entry-clerk and I sit together, equally frustrated, but with barely ten minutes left in our allotted fifteen, have to move on. I tell myself the doctor doesn’t need that information and knows better through their external, objective—scientific—diagnosis.

Okay, there’s an obvious fix: ask for more nuance, right? Instead of just one 0-10 scale, let’s do several! Give me a picture of a person to draw on, so I can pinpoint it. Let’s ask for more detail on the pain itself—is it burning, stabbing, throbbing, numb, itchy, tingling, prickly, shocking, aching, electric, visceral? I know, let’s do a fifty point scale! A hundred point scale! Or just let me write a long-form literary essay from the perspective of the injured nerve (actually, why not). Oh, what the heck—let’s just add more buttons, checkboxes, and dropdowns to the intake!

It’s not working.

The clue for why it’s not working is that when a doctor does take the time to ask for the full story, I find myself unable to answer their questions. The intake forms have so conditioned me that they’re all I can see. But because the terms they use are so imprecise, they don’t map to my experience in the real world. In the moment, they slip away like a half-remembered dream, and I find that I’m left holding nothing at all.

The system is designed for the medical establishment to categorize and standardize treatment. But it doesn’t help me, the individual, to see more clearly what’s happening within me. Quite the opposite—it’s telling me, subtly, that the nuance doesn’t matter. And when a system tells you repeatedly that something isn’t valuable, you don’t just lock it away inside you; you delete it.

I recently did an exercise where our teacher asked us to walk for 20 minutes in a garden and bring our attention as carefully as possible to all the sensory experiences. The faint smell of individual flowers; the waxy texture of a particularly dewy leaf; the rough grain of on the wood of a fence; a ladybird’s jerky search for sustenance. That was it. Just sensing, as fully as possible.

It took more like 40 minutes for the instructor to drag us back into session as we became utterly entranced by the sensations, the same ones we’d barely noticed just a little while before as we rushed to class. Time disappeared.

When you take away the impetus to name, you notice that what you see as “grass” is made up of millions of individual blades, which—if you look closely enough—are all different in ways that words can’t capture.

/images/2020.3.xkcd.png

The larger principle? Focus on an unfamiliar dynamic range of experiences, and you’ll automatically start to see new gradations. It’s what happened with ice & snow for the Sami, with branded color in the 1960s, and to me when I stared at the grass and tried to ignore the part of my mind that was yelling, “IT’S JUST GRASS!”

It’s never “just grass.”

The language structure is just a scaffold, and there continue to be infinite divisions between the words that are valid.

I’ve started to apply this way of seeing without categorizing to my body, and it’s been startling to realize that the signals are there, still, and that if I listen, they will speak to me. But in exchange, I have to promise to try to remember the feeling they give me, not the description of the feeling.

The paradox

The question for me is how these two ways of approaching the world—seeing and naming—intersect because I’m learning that there’s a real tradeoff between the two.

/images/2020.3.seeingnamingv1.png

It seems that prematurely forcing yourself to name things damages seeing, and at the same time, the names you abide by prevent you from seeing clearly, like a person searching for their car keys only under the streetlight and not in the darkness around it.

/images/2020.3.streetlight.jpeg

As UX designer, I want the world to benefit from language that fits perfectly, like comfortable rubber grips right on the handles I need to pull and the buttons I need to press. Good language tells me exactly what to do, so much so that I don’t need to “know” at all—I just do it. But I also want to know that I’m not getting stuck uncritically inside a framework that is at best inaccurate and at worst actively harmful.

I want to live in a society that has a good process for creating common names for common purpose, but also values the practice of seeing without naming at all. There should be space for individuals to deepen their experience of the world without having to shove it into ill-fitting categorization. Let experience flow into language when it has to, and no earlier.

There’s another part to this, which is perhaps even more critical:

In any human interaction, the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust —Ben Horowitz

Valuing deep seeing also means honoring each other’s rich experiences without needing them dissected like so many butterflies pinned inside display cases. To make this concrete: I am glad that chronic pain is named so that it is no longer invisible, but I don’t want more detailed forms to fill out—I want a more compassionate, trusting, and spacious healthcare system.

It’s about balancing the paradox. Celebrate language and fight for it to represent what matters! At the same time, foster that magical space for all the things that cannot be put into words (yet, or maybe ever.)

This all makes me think about the way so many fictional and spiritual magic systems treat language. Almost all have the concept that you can’t just say “abracadabra.” That words are not enough by themselves.

Take “Naming” in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles:

Common names are names of simple materials, such as stone (Fela), wind (Kvothe), iron (Devan Lochees and Inyssa). However, even these names are extremely potent and extremely difficult to call: the name of the wind can stop the wind or start a thunderstorm. And to even call the name of stone, the arcanist needs to know everything possible about how the world can affect it: “how the light reflects from it, how the wind cups it as it moves through the air, how the traces of its iron will feel the calling of a loden-stone (via the Kingkiller chronicles wiki)

You need to know the depth behind the name for it to work.

And who doesn’t want to be able to call the wind?

Your creative prompt

I bring this all up because I think storytelling games are exquisitely placed to help improve this dynamic. A game can ask you to create a brand new language or put you in situations where communication is restricted, forcing you to experience yourself, others, and the world, in unfamiliar ways.

The best example of the former? Thorny Games’ multiple award-winning “Dialect”, where you live out the difficult journey of an isolated community, first as they develop their language (literally!), and then have their uniqueness contaminated by re-exposure to the rest of the world.

A foundational mechanic in the game is the creation of new words, that you write on paper tents and use more and more as the game goes on. The manual is full of specific instructions on how to form specific words, and even includes a ten-page article by linguist Steven Bird on how to deepen your knowledge and appreciation of language.

For example, you might:

  • Use an acronym: NATO, or Benelux
  • Clip the word or the phrase: e.g. Gasoline → Gas
  • Incorporate a sound: “A society surrounded by horses might incorporate their sounds into their speech”
  • Screw words up
  • Convert them (they quote Bill Watterson: “Verbing weirds language” ❤️)

So you have a loop where you develop concepts that are highly specific to the values and circumstances of your society, and then reify those concepts into brand new words. Magical!

/images/2020.3.dialectexamples.jpg

The latter? “Still Life”, by Wendy Gorman, David Hertz, and Heather Silsbee where players embody… rocks.

/images/2020.3.stillife.jpg

In this game one player takes on the role of the Elemental Forces (EF). The other players take the roles of rocks pondering the meaning of their existence with each other and their environment, as their lives are determined by the whims of the Elemental Forces.

Each rock will have a question about the meaning of its existence. The focus of play will be striving to find an answer to this question. Players may do this by interior meditation and by talking to other rocks about their questions. Both methods are encouraged. The players may or may not ultimately find an answer to their questions. The important thing is to explore the possibilities presented by your question.

Example questions, from the game:

  • Piece of Brick. What if I can’t carry them forever?
  • Marble. Why haven’t I been chosen?
  • Granite. Can I be tough enough to withstand the elements?
  • Unidentified Pebble. What am I?
  • Shale. As parts of myself break away, am I still the same rock?
  • Sandstone. What does it mean to be both stone and sand?
  • Quartz. Do I only exist for the human gaze?
  • Petrified wood. I was once alive, but am now a rock. Which side do I truly belong to?
  • Fool’s gold. If I try hard enough, will people think I’m authentic?

I love that huge chunks of the game may elapse in almost total silence, with players’ meditations on their question expressed in pure movement. (And note the fractal descent again into domain languages with the many specific words for “rock”, each of which has such different connotations). Sometimes, the right thing to do is to dance about archi… life’s most profound questions.

Still Life was a massive inspiration for my own game, “They Say You Should Talk To Your Plants”, which won the Golden Cobra for best use of silence and non-verbal elements. I wanted to explore this space in between words by having characters—the plants—who cannot speak.

More words. No words.

So this brings me back to the fifty words.

There aren’t that many games that play with this paradox. On the language side, I couldn’t find much beyond Dialect (the other obvious one is “Sign”, also by Thorny Games). As for games about seeing without naming, there’s a ton—but in adjacent domains like art therapy, dance, improv, poetry, music, and the like.

This is an opportunity! What would happen if we created games that forced us to generate new language?

  • Fifty words for the ways two lovers can argue?
  • Fifty words for the textures of a sandwich?
  • Fifty words for how an AI controlling a spaceship feels their “body”?
  • Fifty words for the feeling of missing a good friend?
  • Fifty words for the parts of having a new insight?

And the flipside—what happens when we try to move away from words?

  • To encounter in its entirety, without naming, an argument between two lovers?
  • To encounter in its entirety, without naming, the experience of biting into a sandwich?
  • To encounter in its entirety, without naming, the experience of being an AI in charge of a generation ship?
  • To encounter in its entirety, without naming, the feeling of missing a good friend?
  • To encounter in its entirety, without naming, the experience of having a new insight?

Just putting the prompts next to each other is such a clue about how different those experiences might be.

And perhaps one level up, how might create experiences that explore the duality of naming and seeing, of the social and individual?

  1. What things should we as a society have better names for so we can wrangle them together?
  2. What things should we as individuals practice experiencing in greater depth, without naming at all?

(And how should we create trust and spaciousness so the two can live in balance?)

So much to explore! More than can be put into words ;)


Notes

  • To my delight, Matt Klein, a former member of Yo’s team, read my eulogy and added some context. “I believe Yo was ahead of its time, and its trivial novelty was both a driver and barrier to its potential success. It was absurd. But as we look to unplug and find some humanity in tech (increasingly so over the last five years), I’m optimistic Yo would fair much better today.” Thanks, Matt!
  • My friend and reader, Dharmishta, shared with me Miranda July’s “Somebody”, a short film that inspired a real app where you could ask strangers to be your surrogates. The app is dead now, but the short film remains entertaining and provocative.
  • This piece was getting very long, so I punted this, but if you want more on how language shapes thought, listen to this fascinating talk by linguist Lera Boroditsky.
  • Something I only learned while researching this piece is that the pain scale as we know it only becomes ubiquitous in the 2000s, with the passage of H.R. 3244, a law that—practically in a footnote—defined the calendar decade beginning January 1, 2001, as the “Decade of Pain Control and Research”. Via Radiolab
  • I didn’t go down this line, but Ian Bogost has a fascinating article that explores how adding more emoji is changing the fundamental nature of emoji communication, from ideography to illustration.

2020.2: a premature and biased eulogy for Yo

January 14, 2020

Stunning closeups of human eyes by photographer Suren Manvelyan

The world:

Me, very late to the party: have you seen the App Store reviews for Yo?

I was stranded in the belly of a beached whale, swallowed whole and yet to be digested. The only thing I had was my phone with only 2 bars of LTE data. My phone was quickly dying and inhaling whale slime was unappetizing. There was absolutely no way that I would climb out of the whales throat, so I pulled out my phone. I was not able to call anybody, as my data suddenly went away, and then I remembered the app Yo! I tapped on the app and sent a Yo to the nearest turtle. The turtle notified all of crabs who were hiding underneath the sand. Just seconds after I Yo! ed the turtle, I heard crabs clawing at the skin of the dead beaches whale. Eventually, I breathed fresh air! I thanked the turtle and said he could go on his way, but he told me his work was not done yet. He proceeded to lay his head on the eye of the whale, and murmured some soft words. Suddenly, the beached, dead whale was sealed up, and alive again! The whale tipped his head towards us, and dragged himself back to sea. Neither I nor the whale would have survived without the amazing app Yo.

These reviews are an eddy of mindwarping microfiction not seen since the legendary Amazon Banana Slicer. But to me, this is more than just a festival of ironic takedowns. I see something that struck a societal nerve, and I want to revisit the damn thing because at every intersection of ridicule and virality are clues about the human spirit.

So yeah, I’m going to talk about Yo.

Yo

Once upon a time, I lived just a hop over a low wall from one of my closest friends. If I sent a Yo and received a Yo back, it was code to hop the wall and hang out. And it worked for the short time we used it. Remembering this made me think: how much time did we spend just feet away from each other, alone?

How easy it was to sink into the comfortable attentional cocoon of Netflix…

Yo, completely accidentally, is about love. Specifically, a magical thing our brains do for those we love; when someone has made enough of an impression, our minds spin up a simulation, a tiny homunculus process that runs in the background so those we love are always with us.

You’ve felt it. You were thinking of calling a friend, and they called you. (Back when people still used phones, I guess.) You remembered to send that good luck text just before your spouse’s interview—and felt their anxiety while they were in it. Just now, you heard the voice of an ex-partner in your mind who reminded you to take out the trash.

Luke, with a force ghost in his brain. Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

We have what psychologist Kurt Gray calls “the ability to have offline models of people’s minds.” And these are very, very tangible parts of your neuronal matrix. That version of your friend is literally occupying a chunk of your brain, in the form of a particular set of neural pathways. Real tangible, fleshy, stuff.

I love how Douglas Hofstaeder wrote about his wife Carol lives on within him—and even beyond—even after her unexpected death from cancer:

Along with Carol’s desires, hopes, and so on, her own personal sense of “I” is represented in my brain, because I was so close to her, because I empathized so deeply with her, co-felt so many things with her, was so able to see things from inside her point of view when we spoke, whether it was her physical sufferings… or her greatest joys… or her fondest hopes or her reactions to movies or whatever… For brief periods of time in conversations, or even in nonverbal moments of intense feeling, I was Carol, just as, at times, she was Doug…

(So)…The name “Carol” denotes, for me, far more than just a body, which is now gone, but rather a very vast pattern, a style, a set of things including memories, hopes, dreams, beliefs, loves, reactions to music, sense of humor, self-doubt, generosity, compassion, and so on. (via Psychology Today)

With that model of your friend is a model of their schedule, their interests, their whole life. For a particular set of people in your life, you don’t need to spell everything out, as you are bound in a web of shared subtext and context.

That’s where Yo comes in.

Other times, it’s the context of the world at the moment of the sending, and knowing that this particular context—football—matters to you both:

By removing the content, you force the context to do so much more. Forget bubbles with text in them. Yo is the tip of the hat, the meaningful look, the gentle hand on the shoulder. A Yo says only: “I’m attending to you right now.” And into that intention flows meaning.

Zen teacher Deborah Eden Tull says: “Attention is the most subtle form of love.” That’s all a Yo is, really. Just a little bloop of attention.

Yo only works between those who have these shared models of each other in their heads, so of course it’s not a general solution. Far from it. But when it does work, it’s an affirmation of your love for each other. Like an unexpectedly good dance, a shared in-joke, or a “jinx” moment when the never-ending rube goldberg of your two minds accidentally blurt out the exact same word.

It’s affirmation of the magic already going on in your head.

Now, is Yo the right word? Does it speak to everyone? Should it have been Hey!, ❤️, Sup, Heeeeeeeeey, !, ?, or any number of things? I don’t think so. Yo perhaps has a bit too much of the cap backwards bro. Does the archetypal Yo wear a tank top? Is it holding a Red solo cup full of weak beer and ping pong balls?

Is Yo crushing it?

Perhaps, but it’s so ridiculous, such a “Fonz” like caricature, that it can be reclaimed from its frathouse roots. A Yo has undeniable warmth. If it were more neutral, perhaps it wouldn’t work.

And why does it need to be a separate app, anyway? Can’t I just text you a little bubble with the two magical letters, “Yo”?

Well, here’s the crux of it. The medium is the message. A text means an unlimited world of potential responses. I have no guarantee that you will “Yo” back. Instead of giving you a narrow choice, I’ve given you infinite possibility to think about. The limited functionality of a Yo is precisely the point.

It’s a glance, not a word. It’s body language.

Staying within Yo means lower friction—which also means you’re more likely to send one. You opened the app, saw who was around, tapped once. That’s it. All it tells me is that you performed a ritual look at a list of people you care about. If I told you I could make a technology that could make people mindfully look at their friends and express a burst of attention towards them, wouldn’t you love that?

Attention is the most subtle form of love.

By making the digital communication as small as it can be, Yo also puts the phone in its place. It says, gently: “Tap your friend on the shoulder, then go talk to them for real”. The immediacy and power of texting, the ability to think asynchronously and compose the perfect thing, makes it tempting to never use any other communication channel. We didn’t grow afraid of phone calls for no reason. We’re afraid of phone calls because the texting alternative exists.

As a designer and economist I know that the tools you make available incentivize behavior. Would our connection to each other be deeper if instead of endless texting while half-watching Netflix we could only “Yo” at each other? If all our devices supported was keeping our internal homunculi of each other alive, and then made us call each other or meet up?

Is the single bit Yo a more respectful version of the role digital communication should play in our lives?

It’s a ridiculous question. But that’s exactly why it’s worth asking.

A social particle accelerator

Now, I’ve intentionally left out so much context, including the fact that Yo itself has added a few more features. But let’s callously ignore that.

I wanted to talk about the Yo debacle because this beautiful pop culture moment of collision between accidental art and venture capital forces us to think about what “connection” means.

I called this a eulogy because Yo, in silicon valley terms, was not a “success”. But it reminds us of how valuable it is to make experiences just to poke and prod at behavior.

The collisions of ridicule and virality is like that of two protons smashed together in an accelerator, and the trails in the bubble chamber are our insight into what this means for the laws of human communication.


A simulated ATLAS collision event in which a microscopic-black-hole was produced in the collision of two protons. (Via CERN)

Waaaaay back in the primordial soup of 2004, designer/artist Matt Webb created a Mac app that put a little eye in your taskbar.

Behind that eye is your chat client. Every time you check your chats, the eye opens for a little while, then slowly closes.

If someone else checks their chats right then, they’ll see a new option “Glance”.

If lots of people are glancing, the option is “Chat”, which opens a group chat with everyone.

The model for Glancing is people sitting at work, focused on their own stuff. Every so often, somebody looks up to rest their eyes or because they’re thinking, maybe actually to look at someone else. Maybe they catch someone’s eye and that person nods back. And then they all get on with their work. If there’s more of that kind of eye contact going on, the eye is more open (or obvious). If there’s less, it’s smaller.

You should check out the whole deck, still up on Matt’s site.

I often come back to Glancing because it’s an example of a deeply thoughtful effort to translate a small and subtle signal into the digital. Unlike Yo, it’s an earnest attempt, and as you’ll see in Matt’s deck, based in both deep observation of human behavior and study of the science.

The takeaway for me is that there is huge possibility (and fun) in zooming deeply into tiny elements of the human experience, and seeing what happens when we push them.

How small a piece of body language can we transform into a whole experience?

What meaning do players invest in it, when this behavior is isolated, put out into its own grand, empty mechanical space?

What happens when you remove most of what’s expected?

This post is really an invitation to go explore.

Go play with subtext!

Go ahead and remove 99% of the functionality that people thought was necessary!

Go create things that only work in a narrow set of ludicrous contexts!

Go create things that make people uncomfortable, that force them to dance about architecture.

Go remove the D20!

(Ok maybe not that—via @jaceaddax)

But seriously, go make something ridiculous.

I hope we all one day make at least one thing that has an App Store reviews page full of ironic microfiction. Do that, and we’ll know we made something that made the human superorganism twitch.

And that, I think, is more than enough.

2019.52 | 2020.1: End of year recap

January 7, 2020

The Laughing Kaiju, by Autumn Haynes

Hello friends,

It’s been quite a year! A challenging year, in fact, featuring burnout, chronic pain, healing, deep friendship, and quite a few games! I released several, won an award, and am pretty psyched to say that The Zone is almost ready! On to the update.

The Zone (ghostly noises 👻)

Before we go any further, check out the gorgeous cover artwork by Veronique Meignaud.

I’ll talk about this more in a future blog post, but I’ll just say here that I wanted a piece that would capture the metaphorical Hadean descent into annihilation of the game. Tremendously grateful to have had had a chance to work with her!

The game itself has been enormously refined in the last year, with quite a few in-person and blind playtests. It’s just about feature complete.

Most fun was bringing it to Big Bad Con with a couple of dozen large sized glowsticks, which I’ve decided are the absolutely definitive way to play!

I’m starting to hone in on the layout and details. For example, check out the rainbow shimmer I’m hoping to have for the card finish. When you hold these choices I want you to feel the color out of space ;)

The plan is to have it in your hands sometime this year. Stay tuned for more announcements!

The Laughing Kaiju Weekly

Game design is as much about mechanics, UX, and figuring out the right weight of paper stock as it is about social science, psychology, and anthropology.

I started writing The Laughing Kaiju Weekly back in November so I’d have a weekly space to explore these topics and amplify other voices in the community. It’s been wide ranging, just like the design process. Previous topics have included:

If that sounds like something you’d like to receive in your email, sign up here.

Golden Cobra!

I won two Golden Cobra awards this year for my game: “They Say You Should Talk To Your Plants”, a weird meditation on how living things, even those as immobile as plants, help you stay alive too. I’m really proud of it!

Dungeon Court

A hack of Jason Morningstar’s Ghost Court, a party game featuring fantasy monsters and heroes pleading their cases, which me and Randy Lubin designed for Roguelike Celebration. The players brought the room to tears of laughter. Watch it here!

Other stuff

  • I entered the Sad Mech Jam with a game of ancestral mechs called: “Your Ancestors Are Watching”. It was indeed sad.
  • I made a wallet sized book of tiny storygames to play on first dates.
  • Prototyped quite a few other games. I’m particularly excited about this idea of a backward storytelling and insurance inspection (yep) game. Stay tuned
  • Worked with Autumn Haynes on a logo for the eponymous Laughing Kaiju and she knocked it out of the park (you can see it right at the top of this post.) I love this little guy and Autumn was a pleasure to work with!

Looking into 2020

Last year was extremely challenging for me, but also a great teacher. Health and chronic pain remind you what’s truly important: friendship, support, play, love, the taste of a shared meal, caring for your body. It’s no surprise to me that I made a game about self-care; or that my most beloved project is a game about self-destruction (ego death?).

It’s terribly easy to ignore these things until it’s too late, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned is that love and connection are not an academic pursuit. Which is why I’ll absolutely be doing a detailed academic investigation of them over the next year in both game design and the weekly update 😅

Ha.

Seriously, though. The founding principle of everything I do—and the reason you should join me on this journey if this is something you dig too—is that games are the playground of human connection, in all its forms, deep, shallow, with hundreds of people, or just two.

I’ll say it again: games are the playground of human connection. Game design is the laboratory—or perhaps the garden—of the very same thing.

Everything I do ultimately comes back to this. I hope to live by it. And I also hope to create by it in 2020.

Hope you’ll come along for the ride with me 🙏

2019.51: the temperature of kindness

December 22, 2019

Chinese artist, Yang Yongliang (via @WeirdlandTales)

Would you look at that—Christmas is just around the corner! Perhaps you’re on your way to a warm reunion with those you love, or anticipating a tense standoff broken only by an armistice of present unwrapping. The holidays can be rich and full, or dark and lonely. Sometimes both at the same time. Each holiday gathering a different relational pattern.

I’ve always felt tuned to these social flows, to those souls floating at the rim of the whirlpool. To the rough edges of conversations. To the sweetness of the middle and the sense of where that middle ends. I know this sensitivity is what made me want to design games in the first place. It’s no coincidence that we talk about a conversation “flowing.” It’s just as fun to talk about the eddies, the stagnant areas, the dead pools. Shift a mechanic here, a norm there, and you can get things moving again. A good game is like good plumbing, or just to torture the metaphor further, like a good pour of Dräno.

I want to show you an image that profoundly influenced me, years ago when I was getting into design. On the left, stressed out piglets huddle for warmth in a corner of their pen. On the right, happy piglets splay without a care in the world.

Now, what’s the difference between these two pens?

Did you guess it? It’s just the temperature.

The image comes from an interview with Usman Haque, an early internet of things pioneer, where he talks about his vision for intelligent spaces:

My focus as an architect has always been to consider what I’ve called the “software” of space (sounds, smell, light, temperature, electromagnetic fields, social relationships, etc.) rather than the “hardware” (floors, walls, roof, etc.) as it has traditionally been considered. The image (above) really sums up why I think this is important.

It’s the same piglets, in the same box, but on the right hand side the temperature has been increased. This small change in how the space is “programmed” has dramatically changed the way the ‘inhabitants’ relate to each other and how they relate to their space. This approach to architecture became my challenge: how to translate such strategies into the general architectural discourse and how to bring into reality such possibilities for the construction industry.

Hosting in-person tabletop games, this couldn’t be more obvious. You take a room, bring the coziest things you can—lighting, warmth, snacks. You layer in the game’s rules and norms and you enter a different world.

Aside—this is why I absolutely love how the Powered By The Apocalypse system recognizes this and calls the game loop “The Conversation”. It’s made explicit in games, but every conversation is guided by some system of implicit and explicit rules and norms. Games are an alibi to play with tweaking this social code.

But what about those darn digital spaces, in all their legendary toxicity? Well, I present to you Kind Words. I’ve never loved something so much at first sight.

2019.51.kindwords.jpg

It’s a cozy game where you write kind letters to real strangers dealing with real shit.

Kind Words makes no bones about its purpose. When you begin the game, it tells you that it’s a place for “real people” to discuss “real problems” and quickly adds that “this is not a place for mean jokes, bullying, or flippant responses.” It encourages players to report people who engage in that kind of behavior. This, evidently, makes a strong first impression; I’ve never encountered any trolls while playing Kind Words. Moreover, as the game’s own players have pointed out, trolling in Kind Words isn’t all that fun. When you respond to requests in the game, you don’t get a reaction. You just send off some (hopefully) kind words in response to another person’s concerns, and that’s it. If someone receives a troll response, they can just report it and get on with their day.

What’s remarkable is how Kind Words subverts the current paradigm for dealing with toxicity in online, which is to try to shape expressive ability, usually by limiting it—think Journey’s nameless, wordless companion, Death Stranding’s “Like” button, Hearthstone’s limited palette of emotes.

Kind Words lets you speak freely, and it’s working:

“Out of well over half a million letters written, we’ve had to address just shy of 3% of that content, and most of that is off-topic—not trolling.”

It’s a brand new kind of experience, somewhere between checking your email and playing classic floaty-stranger-kindness-game Journey.


I’ve been following the development of game social systems for years. As with the internet as a whole, gaming has grown from a bunch of unmoderated niche communities to a gigantic social space and toxic garbage fire, but it’s only in the last 5-10 years with the explosive growth of streaming, e-sports, and gaming as a whole, that triple-A game companies have begun seeing this as their responsibility to solve, rather than just “gaming culture” and “boys will be boys”. Gaming culture is now simply culture. It belongs to everyone.

Perhaps this is a reach, but for me, the biggest symbol of this is not a multiplayer game at all: it’s last year’s reboot of God of War, a game series which had been all about its rage-filled protagonist slashing through the pantheon of Greek deities. The new game is a startling reinvention; the surprisingly heartfelt tale of a grizzled old codger mourning his errors and learning to love and nurture the next generation. Cory Barlog, game director:

When I came back to Sony I realized that the biggest thing that happened in my life — I was shipping Tomb Raider, and my son was born. I was either going to make a ripoff of Tomb Raider or incorporate my son into this story.

As I started thinking about it, I realized that there’s a lot that changes. Everybody says a kid is life-changing, but your perspective on things changes. It made me think about this idea that — okay, here’s a character that everybody dislikes. We built him as an anti-hero. The whole goal — at the time there were not a lot of anti-heroes in games, so that’s what we leaned into. But it was this idea of giving him a reason to want to change.

As the old generation of developers hands gaming to the next generation, they find themselves questioning what they created in the past. These new worlds are an uncharted frontier, virtual and real merging together into a high-frequency maelstrom that is as incomprehensible as it is addictive and all-encompassing. Games like Fortnite are spaces. And those creating those spaces are waking up to their responsibility to make those spaces good.

As VP Tami Bhaumik at (insanely successful, btw) massively-multiplayer-game-creation-thing Roblox says:

“Your generation and my generation have no idea how this younger generation lives and operates,” Bhaumik says. “In our world, there was a line between the digital and physical worlds. But our society has evolved so quickly that young people now have no line. Their virtual world and their physical are one and the same. They socialize, they learn, and they play seamlessly between digital and physical. It suddenly just happened. So now it’s about taking responsibility and teaching our younger generation how to be able to create positive experiences.”

What taking responsibility looks like

This is why I was so excited to learn about the Fair Play Alliance, which is a coalition of over 100 game companies pooling resources to develop best practices for reducing toxicity. The talks from the most recent summit at GDC are an incredible resource, particularly this primer on the latest patterns in online social mechanics by Riot Games’ Naomi McArthur and Kenny Shores. Let’s look at some examples.

Example one: the negativity bias of text chat. Text chat has been the foundation of communication since the very first online games. It’s robust, reliable, simple. But who, in an intense game where every single second counts, has time to chat?

Turns out it’s the players whose characters were just blown up, spattered, slashed in half, or otherwise forced to shuffle off their coil, and have equal parts time on their hands and frustration. Dead, frustrated players chat more, which means text chat itself has a negativity bias!

So they added Emotes, which allow players to quickly communicate without having to type out full sentences. Emotes are graphics, similar to a sticker in a chat app, that appear above your character for everyone else to see. Players map them to individual keys to trigger them effortlessly. Here’s what they look like (from the 2017 feature launch video aptly titled “Stop Dying While Typing”)

But gotta look for those second order effects! Emotes’ splashy imagery also made for a perfect tool to mess with and abuse other players (oof, this brutal example from another game). So the devs added the ability to only see emotes from your own team, freeing you from the abuse of your opponents. But that didn’t stop competitive teammates from attacking their own if they felt they weren’t performing to a high enough standard, so they also progressively added a wide variety of celebrations that made the tool more useful and fun. Now, teams routinely can use emotes to mark victories.

You can’t just suppress negativity—you also need to create tools for positivity.

Example two: moderation mechanics, from Blizzard’s Natasha Miller and her talk on common player behavior myths. Back in 2013, Riot was pioneering its “Tribunal,” a system which not only helped assign penalties automatically but also packaged them up into shareable pages that made it easier for those who had been banned to share their sentence for community judgement if they didn’t understand it, or felt it was unfair. Very cool. Very automated.

Now, nearly a decade later, the conversation has shifted once again. It’s as important as ever to have tools that deliver clear, swift, and transparent punishment, but the industry is recognizing that it’s just as important to model positive behaviors. You don’t get the community you want just by telling folks what not to do; you need explicit standards for how you want folks to behave, and the tools by which players can reward each other for living up to these standards (e.g. Overwatch’s system of endorsements).

Tying it all together is a growing understanding that the solution must be socially nuanced. We’ve moved from “clever” solutions (“Let’s just put all the bad players together and watch them suffer, haha”), to solutions that are more rooted in true human psychology and dare I say even a little bit of compassion (“Let’s recognize that most people have bad days, and create an environment where they are exposed to good behavior and empowered to be their best selves”).

It goes without saying that American society at large could use this kind of nuance in how it approaches rehabilitation

Example three: anonymity! An easy scapegoat, but turns out that there is no less toxicity in Korea where online gamers are required to link their player accounts to their government IDs, or of course in Facebook where most people use real names. Anonymity is simply a proxy. What matters are underlying variables:

  • how likely you are to see people again (repeat interactions)?
  • can express your identity?
  • how easily you can define in-groups and out-groups?
  • are there are ways to meaningfully connect, etc…

The list goes on. Anonymous spaces often do worse on these elements, but not necessarily. It’s slow and nuanced, but engaging directly with these underlying social patterns is what actually improves the player experience. It’s so exciting to see the industry take high-level dogma and break it down into the underlying pattern language.

And this brings me back to Kind Words, which is entirely anonymous, but which could not express a clearer contract, upfront, and without mincing words. Sign on the dotted line, and be kind.


So what’s the takeaway? It’s this: try to notice how much social warmth is coming not just from within yourself and others, but from what’s around and between you. From the actual software of these digital spaces to the metaphorical “software” of physical space—are there snacks, what sounds are playing, is this chair comfortable—and the unseen rules and norms by which you are interacting.

We have to remember that we’re playing with a stacked deck. Our brain has a negativity bias. It is exquisitely evolved to keep us safe, not happy! As psychologist Rick Hanson says: “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” We need positive cues in our environment to counter this.

Game spaces are such interesting case studies because developers have godlike power to choose what to draw our attention to. They can make the negative signals loud, or celebrate the positive ones, as in this story Naomi McArthur tells about “Left for Dead 2”:

If you have a teammate behind you who hits you with friendly fire the game registers this pretty subtly, especially compared to other types of damage you take in the game.

However, if you have a zombie gnawing on your face and your teammate protects you from them, the game will celebrate this and call it out loudly to you to celebrate this teamplay moment.

How might we create systems that point our attentional cameras towards the good things those around us are doing?

An extremely unsubtle example of pointing the attentional camera

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Back when I used to do improv my team (Emergency Sandwich, ha), had a ritual that we used to warm the ultimate blank canvas: the black box theater whose blank walls and bentwood chairs would somehow have to become a new world when the curtain went up. This wasn’t easy. You had to prime the engine, to prepare correctly for this transmogrification we’d perform together. At the end of a long Tuesday, some of us would be a little frazzled. Rushing in from school. Or perhaps the day’s work hadn’t gone quite as well as we’d hope. We were still separate, and needed to be one. That takes love. And intention.

Here was our ritual. We circled up, and each person in turn received an expression of love from every other person. “You really nailed that joke last week!” “I like the way you smile.” “Those pants look really good on you!”

It took a solid 10-15 minutes to do, but by the end each of us was shivering with euphoria, the day’s troubles forgotten, absolutely pumped to be on stage with each other. In that moment, I’d have donated a kidney to any one of those beautiful humans.

Just like the affordance-creators of game worlds, we could decide to play by a different set of rules. A clumsy, deeply unsubtle, and time-consuming game, but one that lit a fire between us.

Kind Words indeed! ❤️

‘till next time! Happy holidays my friends!

2019.50: be kind, rewind

December 16, 2019

'Aftermath' by Norwegian photographer Øystein Sture Aspelund (via @nickpunt & @AlexJayBrady)

Posting this a little later than usual because I was at a week-long training in Kristin Neff and Chris Germer’s exceptionally research backed methodology of Mindful Self-Compassion, a secular framework for deep inner compassion. It’s an individual practice, but with our paleolithically social nature ends up being all about the mechanics by which we interact and interpret our relationships with others.

And holy moly does that draw bright lines to tabletop rpgs and larp.

May I be kind to myself

The core idea of mindful self-compassion is this: what if you innertalked with yourself as you would to a dear friend going through a tough time (can you see the relational nature yet?)

There is a beautiful mantra at the heart of the practice:

This is a moment of suffering

Suffering is a part of life

May I be kind to myself

This is a triptych of three reminders: mindfulness (see things clearly, even the suffering), common humanity (suffering is a part of everyone’s life), and self-kindness (nuff said).

Because each person resonates with different methods, our teachers, Chris Germer and Sydney Spears, taught through experiential exercises. This way we’d be empowered to directly sense which practices resonated and which fell flat. For five days, I experimented. I roleplayed, sometimes solo in activities that felt like filling out the character sheet for the already-so-self-compassionate version of myself. At other times, we were in duos or small groups with instructions that felt like freeform larp of the indie-est kind.

Take this one:

Guided by the workshop leader, one person closes their eyes while their partner visualizes them as a child. First, prompts draw you to imagine childhood joy. In the second half—again, just looking at your partner’s face as they sit with eyes closed—you visualize all their life’s struggles. Then you switch. At the end, you discuss & debrief.

Now that is a tiny little larp. One designed and scientifically validated to foster connectedness to the dyad’s common humanity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this come out of an itch.io jam.

What games embody this?

Inspired by his experience, I took the following question to the internets:

Facilitated well, the simple act of playing rpgs/larps brings people together, but let’s take it one step further:

❤️ What games have explicit mechanics that kindle love, compassion and connection between folks at the table?

😊 What games leave you feeling warm fuzziest?

And the internets bore fruit. Juiiiiicy roleplayfruit. (Thank you all who replied!)

Let’s get cozy

🐍 A Cozy Den, by Kira Magrann, is about half-human, half-human, lesbian snakes “denning up” for the freezing winter, with gameplay centered on negotiating life in a close space. This quote from the rules says it all:

A big point of conflict is what cozy means to each Lesbisnake. With some needs that are similar and some that are different, how do they compromise and make a space that is cozy for all?

It uses the Powered By The Apocalypse system, but with moves like “Arrange the Den” and “Nap,” and threats such as “No one can decide what movie to watch.”

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🍄 Moose Trip, also by Kira, is literally about a group of moose (goose, geese? moose, meese?), who just ate psychedelic mushrooms. The engine of the game is describing your current “mushroom feeling”. Example:

You are floating and looking down at yourself. “What do you love most about yourself?”

How could you not feel closer to your friends after all playing this game?

🦊 Golden Sky Stories, by Ryo Kamiya, has players tell heartwarming stories of magical realist Japanese countryside, reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro.

You play henge, animals with the power to take human form, with verbs that are non-violent, just like Cozy Den. “Alluring,” “Oracle,” “Fox Fire.” Poetic! Even more evocative are the additional powers you can choose by accepting “Weakness.”

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And what do you do? You gather Wonder and Feelings by creating bonds with others, and can inspire Dreams. What a delight!

Just reading it brought me back to the childhood wonder I felt reading The Little Prince. It still sits on my shelf.

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👨‍🎤 Swap Meet, by Ashleigh La Porta, not out yet, but I’ve heard great things about. @adanarama replying to my tweet introduced it as

you are androids (and also varied archetypes of trans experience) swapping body parts at an underground club. Swaps are represented by colorful ribbons that you tie/untie from each other. It’s intense, tender, and my favorite game I played this year.

I love how a mechanic of exchanging body parts models the primal community concept of interdependence.

🐟 Deep Love, by Jason Morningstar, a game about a relationally complicated foursome exploring the oceanic bottom in a “two and a half ton iron ball” (of FEELINGS). Over four dives, different pairs of characters are plunged together in the dark, hot depths while the remaining two run through a checklist of technical questions (oxygen! pressure! heat!) and ask what weird uncharted creatures they see through a narrow viewing window.

Just like A Cozy Den, there is no great external or interpersonal conflict here—everyone loves and likes each other—but intimacy is explored not in action verbs but more structurally through the setup of the relationships. For example brilliant inventor Otis is in love with marine biologist Gloria, but it’s not reciprocated. Her character sheet reveals that she sees him as a tragic & lonely figure, and includes this CRUEL instruction (oh Jason, how could you):

What can you do to be kind and encouraging to Otis?

GAH 😬

There’s another neat exploratory tool, moving towards the lyrical. The pair on the surface must draw the sea creatures described by the duo in the depths, with a twist:

They should keep the divers in mind as they sketch—perhaps each fish is less scientific illustration and more emotional metaphor.

I love this dynamic because words are oh so limited. Changing medium changes what you can express. Sometimes you really do want people to dance about architecture.

🧜‍♀️ The Underwater People, related and also by Jason, has you larp a support group for underwater creatures—mermaids, swamp monsters, even the god of the sea—who used to be underwater and miss it terribly.

I absolutely love this game. It’s a great example of how people take their behavioral cues from context. Players arrange the space into a support circle of chairs, with a separate table of refreshments, and enter the space greeting a “host”, just as you would in a real support group. All of this gifts players (I imagine even fairly new ones) with a clear idea of what kind of moment-to-moment actions are appropriate, and also the appropriate level of kindness and support.

The other engine of the game is that each player has a need, from mermaid’s need for adoration to the swamp monster’s self-hating desire for pity, and that need is given to another player who then seeks you out.

💔 183 Days, by James Stuart and Sara Williamson, is about a relationship with a time limit, asking the question: “If you could see the future, and change it / not change it, what would you become? How do you live with that?” (author’s words)

Sam can see the future. Dylan can see many possible futures. Tomorrow, they go on a date. Their relationship lasts 183 days

We’re getting more freeform here, but also more intimate as it’s a two-player game. I can’t say too much about this game as I don’t have the cards (but have ordered it and eagerly await a chance to read it!), but I find that two-player games of love like this one create fairly direct (positive) bleed for me—warm and pleasant if I have a certain level of intimacy already with the other player.

And this game knows it: one of the first cards instructs you to stare into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes.

🥺 I’ll end with Your Dead Friend, by Jeeyon Shim, which I want to let speak for itself:

You are taking a walk with a friend the day before they will die. You know they will die because you keep getting transported back to this day, over and over, and today is the day you decide you’re going to give up on trying to divert their fate by warning or dissuading them from what will happen. You are going to savor the time you have and enjoy looking at the trees and the birds with them. You are going to say goodbye.

It’s a lyric game which I have wanted to play since I first read it, and creates connection with a different, ritualistic approach. There is poetry. There’s a ritual phrase that initiates play (or reinitiates it if the time loop resets). You breathe together, creating physical synchronicity. To end the game you say “I Love You.”

These are powerful, perhaps even sacred moves.


The veil between game and life

These games offer such different but related tools to create warmth and connection between players, and I’m just scratching the surface. Of them I’ve only played Underwater People, so this is a critical analysis based on reading them alone, and I can’t wait to try them to see how they feel.

There is, however, a rhyme to how I’ve listed them out. I wanted to start with the game that had the most explicit moves, that created connection via verbs, and track from that place the messy path to the lyrical, with a pit stop along the way to games that push folks together via their overall structure.

And let’s face it: the very form of larp and roleplaying games connects people. Done in a safe way, the simple act of choosing to get together with friends and play together is incredibly bonding. When a group of friends invents a world together, they are joined in an almost parental relationship with it. They become a family, raising a Creation together.

But some games have a thinner veil between play and life. In this article for First Person Scholar, Sharang Biswas writes:

In Just a Little Lovin’ (JaLL), players embody queer individuals in the ’80’s trying to comprehend the AIDS epidemic [4]. Beat Generation casts the players as the artistic, musical, and literary luminaries of the ’60s [5]. The two games discuss complex queer issues, from loss and how it forges friendship during the AIDS epidemic in the former, to the role of queer art in resisting the status quo in the latter. Both LARPs synergize game mechanics and game narrative to enhance feelings of queer community, and encourage camaraderie and social support among players.

Both JaLL and Beat Generation recreated historical worlds and characters relevant to modern politics and to a relatively queer player base (indeed, one participant of JaLL had grown up in New York during the 80’s AIDS epidemic). By doing so, the games perforated the player/character membrane. All kinds of bleed were encouraged to ooze in, including feelings of friendship, camaraderie, and emotional support—explicit themes in both LARPs—leading to what Jonaya Kemper terms “emancipatory bleed”, or bleed used to uplift marginalized identities [9].

This all leaves me with a question: what creates more connection, games that are explicitly cozy and warm, or games that take players through intense hardship together?

Going even further and perhaps coming full circle with the beginning of this letter, Sarah Lynne Bowman and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas propose a framework for Transformative Role-Play:

We propose that although transformative effects might occur—and certainly do occur—by chance or as a result of intuitive choices that designers and participants make, we can seek to maximize the potential of such impacts through intentional design, implementation, and post-event integration. We argue that designers and players who wish to maximize the potential for transformative impacts should consciously and transparently focus on the following goals throughout the entirety of the process:

  1. Establishing a clear vision explicitly detailing the desired impacts,
  2. Providing environments that feel safe, and
  3. Offering structures and resources for post-event integration at the end of play.

We are barely scratching the surface! I’d like to see more play at this boundary.

What other games exist in this space? What part of this space would you like to explore (or see explored)?


Take one breath in for yourself. Now take breathe out for someone you love.

Repeat


I’ll leave you with a transition back to the other side of the veil: Kristen Berman and Dan Ariely’s “No Small Talk” cards, which I’ve experienced and can say are fantastic. From the Wired article about it:

Usually dinner parties involve two social co-ordination problems. The first is arrival times: if everyone arrives at different times, the party always seems to be in flux - “getting going” or “dying down”. The second is one of conversation topics: no single person will take the social risk of talking about complex personal issues with mere acquaintances. The alternative is surface chat that makes no lasting impression on anyone.

To help combat the problem of co-ordination, we added one simple variable to this dinner party - rules. 1) Show up between 7:30-8pm. If you can’t make 8pm, don’t come. 2) Absolutely no small talk. Only meaningful conversation is allowed. These rules eliminated some individual freedoms in favour of better outcomes for everyone.

By establishing a common rule for behaviour we created an environment with a new set of social norms that redefined peoples’ best interests. And everyone was happier. As added proof, two dates came out of the evening. Perhaps meaningful conversation also makes us more attractive?


There’s so much more I want to write about this, but I think this letter is long enough already! ‘till next week my friends.

Be kind to yourselves!

2019.49: asking the skeletons nicely

December 6, 2019

Bernie Wrightson’s original cover illustration for the Marvel Comics version of Frankenstein. WOW

This week, themes of agency. Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, the bots that welcome people into Wikipedia’s editing community, and of course, the mind-blowing artificial GM of AI Dungeon 2.

In our current economic model, how much agency are players/workers/citizens supposed to have? Titles like AI Dungeon 2 feel transgressive compared to the perfectly crafted rollercoaster of a Call Of Duty game. Where do you put DLC when the player is creating their own experience?

Iceland’s prime minister said, “having sex with your wife doesn’t count in GDP, but with a prostitute it does.” Writing your own adventure doesn’t count either.

We suck at measuring creativity that doesn’t contribute to Gross Domestic Product. What would happen if we didn’t?


Let’s start with Nick Walton’s AI Dungeon 2. It’s a text adventure. A text adventure where you can do anything.

In AI Dungeon 2 we do away with pregenerated actions and allow the user to enter any action. The model then continues generating the story resulting from that action. We also upgrade the size of our model to OpenAI’s largest 1.5B parameter model and fine-tune it on a collection of text adventures obtained from chooseyourstory.com.

The results don’t always make sense, but when have you ever seen this kind of interaction in a video game? I’m so excited to see what happens when we create experiences with more verbs than “shoot.” This game is verbs all the way down.

For example, Alex Blechmen told the AI characters they didn’t exist, and things got weird.

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Janelle Shane has a particularly delightful series of examples. She asks nicely for things. I want more games where you can ask nicely for things!

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Todd Martens writes a fascinating overview of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. He spotlights Imagineers’ big question: how much agency do you give players who might not all want the same level of interactivity? Reminds me of escape room design: mix ingenious puzzles that require analysis and dissection with problems that can be solved purely through brute force. Everyone gets something to do, not just the puzzle-fiends.

Disney public relations officials cringe any time the phrase “role-playing” is brought up, but Trowbridge has said the vision for the land is to allow guests to opt-in to game-like experiences that fall somewhere between simplistic choose-your-own-adventure activities and live-action role-playing, or LARPing, as it’s known.

“Not everybody wants to be a hardcore LARP-er,” Trowbridge says, adding that Disney has spent much of the last decade experimenting with how the parks can safely — and unobtrusively — allow guests to take on more active roles. One solution for Galaxy’s Edge is to embed many of the more overt game activities in the Play Disney Parks mobile app, which will house a multitude of exploratory quests, including a land-wide game for control of Galaxy’s Edge.

Researchers at the Stevens Institute of Technology did a “census” (a census!) of all of Wikipedia’s bots, divvying them up into types that sound right out of an RPG:

[There are] “fixers,” which repair broken content or erase vandalism; “connectors,” which link pages and resources together; “protectors,” which police bad behavior; and “advisors,” which suggest new activities and provide helpful tips.

(Full list: Generator. Fixer. Connector. Tagger. Clerk. Archiver. Protector. Advisor. Notifier. Someone make a game out of this please)

Look at this beautiful taxonomy diagram (from the team’s summary):

The first bot was born in October 2002 to add and maintain U.S. county and city articles. They now play a huge role, with 1200 Fixers responsible for 10% of all edit volume. But check this out:

New members of online communities are more likely to stick around if they’re welcomed by fellow members – but Nickerson and his team found that new Wikipedia users who interacted with advisor- and protector-bots were significantly more likely to become long-term contributors than those greeted by humans. That remained true even when the bots were contacting users to point out errors or delete their contributions, as long as the bots were cordial and clear about their reasons.

I love this example because it shows a cold machine used in a way that perfectly fits its limited function. Human society is full of repetitive social rituals. A well-governed community choosing to automate some of its practices seems like a great model to learn from. Let’s keep our most precious rituals, perform them with care and love. Other processes should have humans in the loop because they already have embedded prejudice or bias. But it does feel like there’s a role for small, targeted interventions.

Indie AI, if you will.


How about a weekend thought experiment?

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin found that human-bot cooperation in a prisoner’s dilemma was stronger if the bot pretended to be human.

…bots impersonating humans were more successful in convincing their gaming partners to cooperate. As soon as they divulged their true identity, however, cooperation rates decreased. Translating this to a more realistic scenario could mean that help desks run by bots, for example, may be able to provide assistance more rapidly and efficiently if they are allowed to masquerade as humans. The researchers say that society will have to negotiate the distinctions between the cases of human-machine interaction that require transparency and those where efficiency is key.

When might it be right for a bot to lie about their identity in the pursuit of a greater good?

…and some trippy AI sci-fi

“How Alike Are We,” a beautiful story by Korean author Bo-Young Kim in Clarkesworld, a trippy, twisting yarn about how intelligence fits the body, what thoughts are possible, undesirable, inevitable, in the messy human flesh. It channels the best of Ann Leckie “Ancillary Justice” and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Aurora.” And it’s fresh as hell.


Ethan Zuckerman writes about “Building a More Honest Internet” in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Of the world’s top hundred websites, Wikipedia is the sole noncommercial site. If the contemporary internet is a city, Wikipedia is the lone public park; all the rest of our public spaces are shopping malls—open to the general public, but subject to the rules and logic of commerce.

I dream of a parallel world where Twitter is a public benefit entity like PBS. I even explored the idea little.

Let’s keep zooming out. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, writes the “Davos Manifesto 2020”, seeking to define “The Universal Purpose of a Company in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” incorporating customers, employees, suppliers, society, shareholders, and “our global future.” Easy to be skeptical of these kinds of Davos pronouncements. But this is good stuff:

iv. A company serves society at large through its activities, supports the communities in which it works, and pays its fair share of taxes. It ensures the safe, ethical and efficient use of data. It acts as a steward of the environmental and material universe for future generations. It consciously protects our biosphere and champions a circular, shared and regenerative economy. It continuously expands the frontiers of knowledge, innovation and technology to improve people’s well-being.

B. A company is more than an economic unit generating wealth. It fulfils human and societal aspirations as part of the broader social system. Performance must be measured not only on the return to shareholders, but also on how it achieves its environmental, social and good governance objectives. Executive remuneration should reflect stakeholder responsibility.

Ties in well with the efforts of some countries to begin to measure more than just GDP.

[Iceland’s PM,] Ms. Jakobsdottir said an Icelandic poet had joked that “having sex with your wife doesn’t count in GDP, but with a prostitute it does”.

I’m an optimist. These experiments with player agency help me imagine a world where we don’t talk about “consumers” anymore. “Consumer.” That word is a disempowering, drooling thing. It casts us as unsatisfiable digestive passages chewing through an endless supply of bulging shopping carts. I want us to be players. I want it to be the norm for companies to care as much about money as they do about stewardship of their community of employees, customers, and suppliers. I want governments to base the rules of corporate play on measures of human thriving, not “gross domestic product”.

I realize there’s a terrible irony here. The first experiment I quoted lives inside a megacorporation’s AI infrastructure. The second’s in the bowels of a different megacorporation’s empire of entertainment. But you gotta look for the bright spots wherever they are! They give you a taste of the kind of thing that better incentives could spark a whole lot more.


Did you know there is a GDC event where game devs share “homemade tools, solutions, or hacks that could benefit or inspire you”? The archive goes back to 2015! Submissions for 2020 are open now ‘till Jan 7.

Helpful game marketing tips by Kitfox Games’ Victoria Tran

Some excellent practical tips on how to communicate more effectively over email

An interview with Dr. Emily Silverman, host and creator of “The Nocturnists,” a podcast that uses Moth-style storytelling to humanize medicine

Aurora Almendral spent ten days without the internet on a cargo ship

I’m late to the party on this one (it’s been going since 2016), but there’s a search engine for fake news that helps you visualize its spread in a bunch of different ways. Heard of it via this strongly worded reply to a fake news tweet.

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Projects

Pound of Flesh, a new supplement for Mothership. I’ll be honest, Mothership is too crunchy for me. There. I said it. But I can’t resist buying every single new issue because of the design and generator tables. I freakin’ love these. Video review here.

Mark Marino’s Flight of the Code Monkeys is an extraordinary game that is entirely in, and also, a Google Colab notebook, via Em Short. (Yep, this week there are TWO games hosted in a tool designed for data scientists. Bah.)

And While You Be, Be True, a short two-player ttrpg by Justin Joyce where you play two people whose relationship exploded, meeting again for the first time. Right as you come together, time freezes everyone—except the two of you. I love this concept. (Via this great thread hosted by Party Of One’s Jeff Stormer, ft. lots of other great games)

Honey & Hot Wax: An anthology of Erotic Art Games was just announced, not to mention funded by a grant from the Effing Foundation! Featuring a host of brilliant game designers. A win for sex-positivity.

Moment of Zen

Former Rock Paper Shotgun writer John Walker has a delightful website where he reviews rare, undiscovered indie gems such as Rock Simulator

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I thought that time passes far more slowly in the desert. It took me a concerning while to realise it just doesn’t pass at all, the Sun fixed in the sky. Which is kind of disappointing, as I wanted to see the stars over this setting. Which is also to say, I was now so into Rock Simulator that I was feeling disappointment at the lack of features.

Somehow I’ve gone from goofily wanting to post this silly thing because it’s so inappropriate to the remit of this site, to really thinking this silly thing meets the remit of this site. I kind of really like it. Even though it’s obviously deeply stupid.


Alrighty. Till next week y’all wonderful humans. Would love any feedback on this thing (tweet @raphdamico or email me), or ideas for the next one!

2019.48: 4am phonecalls and interdependent music

November 29, 2019

Gloriously backhanded love letter to the British seaside by artist Jack Hurley. As someone who grew up in the UK, the mood is perfect. Recommended soundtrack: Burial.

One of the things I was hoping would happen from looking back over my week’s information diet—instead of just letting it flow off into oblivion—is that I’d have a clearer sense of what actually grabs my attention.

And holy moly, even in just a few weeks there could be no theme clearer than the idea that we need to move from an individual to interpedendent model of happiness. There are so many forces pulling us apart in the current social order, so much trauma to deal with, from that faced by specifically by marginalized people to the widely felt low-level trauma-bath of climate change / late-stage capitalism / whatever Mr President butt-tweeted 5 mins ago.

So on that note one of the most vital posts I came across this week was Cass Kay on “Designing Games in a Traumatic World” by injecting the principles of trauma-informed care right into games’ bones. Here they are:

  • Empowerment: Using individuals’ strengths to empower them in the development of their plans
  • Choice: Informing people about different options so they can choose the options they prefer
  • Collaboration: Maximizing collaboration in organisation and treatment planning
  • Safety: Developing settings and activities that ensure people’s physical and emotional safety
  • Trustworthiness: Creating clear expectations with people about what proposed activities entail, who will be involved, and how care will be provided

I deeply believe that games have the theoretical power to remap and heal relational patterns, and that we’re just scratching the surface. We’re still in a stage where games often wield safety tools as a separate “add-on” rather than in a fully integrated whole. Feels like the next step is to find ways to infuse mechanics themselves with elements that promote nuance & safety even as the topics explored get harder. This framework gives me a bunch of roads to explore.

Secondly, I can’t stop thinking about how our communities exist on top of an existing game: social media—which has distinct, non-neutral mechanics of its own. Mechanics that subtly skew us away from healthy, safe, restorative discussion and tilt us towards anger and dissociation. Mechanics that make it harder than it should be to love and support each other. We’re trying to heal, but the game is rigged right out of the box. We’re all trying hard to cobble together a better game on top of this one, which is not easy at all.

It’s tough to swim upstream while also trying to change the river itself.


And how deep does the American cultural stress go? Interesting question posed by Scott Berkun earlier in the week:

I often feel there is something deep in American culture that even if you don’t really have something to worry about, we’ll find something to worry about.

It’s healthy instinct gone wrong? When did it happen? Good friends is the counterbalance but most have fewer than ever.

It’s something to do with external vs internal - consumerism makes us think things make us whole, but our social nature means it’s relationships that make us whole. Things are easier to obtain than relations. So it’s a kind of trap we want to believe in.

He ponders the “technologizing of our psychology”, which unbundles the complex but rewarding interdependence of humans into a series of single use-apps, fraying trust along the way. (This by the way is why I have very mixed feelings about the multi-trillion dollar “mindfulness” industry)

In the replies, @davecort links to the Okinawan concept of Moais which seem like a powerful counter-example:

Moai, one of their longevity traditions, are social support groups that start in childhood and extend into the 100s. The term originated hundreds of years ago as a means of a village’s financial support system. Originally, moais were formed to pool the resources of an entire village for projects or public works. If an individual needed capital to buy land or take care of an emergency, the only way was to pool money locally. Today the idea has expanded to become more of a social support network, a cultural tradition for built-in companionship.

Similarly Michael Ungar, a researcher in the field of resilience, writes in The Globe and Mail about how resilience is a team sport. It’s a great piece, and includes the story of how communities recover faster if they are kept together after disasters:

Colleagues of mine who work as social workers discovered that after major flooding destroyed towns at the base of the Rocky Mountains, people who had their claims settled within a year recovered quicker and showed far less stress than those who had to live in hotels and cope with being away from their community for longer periods of time. As a resilience-promoting factor, a quick claims settlement means people can start rebuilding their homes. It gives them purpose and focus. It rejoins them with their communities and gives their children the chance to return to their schools. It also decreases the daily stress of living and the worry associated with an uncertain financial future.

The banks and insurance companies must have taken note. When wildfires destroyed Fort McMurray, Alta., in the summer of 2016, residents were scattered across nearby towns and cities and packed into community centres. Financial institutions loaded their staff onto large buses, the kind that touring rock bands use, and on each bus were bank machines, loans officers and insurance adjusters. The bankers travelled to the shelters, sleeping on the buses so they would not burden the scarce local resources. By travelling to people who had been forcibly displaced, the bankers were able to give their customers access to cash and an opportunity to start the paperwork required to submit a claim for compensation.

As a final thought, bringing it right home, this provocative question from Martin Seligman’s “Flourish” (also via @davecort):

Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to? If your answer is yes, you will likely live longer than someone whose answer is no.

It’s a powerful framing. Who could you call at 4am? What steps could you take right now to have more folks in your life who could be that person? Who in your life would feel comfortable calling you in the middle of the night?


What to do about the feeling of despair that the above paragraph might have inspired? Perhaps create narratives that go beyond the apocalypse. Here’s Alyssa Hull on hopepunk and solarpunk, two genres that try to do exactly that:

While I find the fashion, architecture, and energy proposals of solarpunk inspiring, I am looking for narratives that offer me something besides absolute optimism or total despair. Enter hopepunk, a term coined by Alexandra Rowland in 2017 to describe genre fiction that is the opposite of the ever-popular grimdark everything-sucks-and-is-terrible mentality. Hopepunk stories are not specifically climate-focused and, more importantly, do not necessitate hopeful worlds. In the age of Trump, this basic act of extending to another person kindness, rather than disdain or vitriol, becomes a political narrative, found in the writings of speculative fiction writers Becky Chambers and Cat Rambo, among others. (If This Goes On: The Science Fiction Future of Today’s Politics, an anthology of speculative fiction shorts edited by Rambo and published this past March, was conceived from her tripartite of “rage and sorrow and hope.”)


Musician Holly Herndon has a searing, beautiful take on music, AI, capitalism on speed, and how it’s not about the technology, it’s about creating a new ecosystem that she calls “interdependent music”:

I’m not worried about robot overlords. I’m worried about democratically unaccountable transnational companies training us all to understand culture like a robot or narrow AI. […] AI is just a new coordination mechanism in the legacy of human coordination systems. Song may have been the original coordination mechanism…

Rather than independent music, with its focus ons special individuals augmented by technological tools and unencumbered by institutions or society at large, we are wondering what interdependent music would look like.

[…] Individual success is not very rewarding if everyone around you is struggling, just like individual freedom is meaningless if you have to erect borders around your home. We need other people to make music and life mean anything at all.

This song btw. Wow.


Game designer Jay Treat has been compiling a list of games that teach culture , like Clio Yun-su Davis’ “The Long Drive Back from Busan” which both has a concise primer how to approach playing a Korean if you aren’t, and richly written characters that double as an introduction to K-Pop. Was struck by Nashra Balagawala’s “Arranged”, which tries to educate on the nuances of arranged marriages. From her BBC interview:

“People in the West often confuse arranged marriages with forced marriages,” Nashra Balagamwala says, on the phone from Islamabad. “They go by a lot of what they see in the press. The acid attacks. The so-called honour killings. The complete absence of choice. My game was not meant to be part of that dialogue.”

“I wanted to create an innocent platform where families could talk about some of the silly aspects of my culture, in a non-confrontational way. Like how a ‘good girl’ knows how to make a good cup of chai and doesn’t have male friends.

“Secondly, I wanted to explain arranged marriage to white people, so they could better understand the nuance of South Asian traditions.”

If you know of other games like these, I encourage you to reply to Jay’s thread on Twitter!

Projects

Riley Rethal’s “VENTURE” is an introspective take on classic heroic fantasy tropes through the prism of Avery Alder and Ben Aldern’s belonging outside belonging system. which if you don’t have Dream Askew // Dream Apart is kindly summarized here. At a high level it’s a system to enable stories about a marginalized groups establishing an independent community within a dominant culture—an interesting lens on adventuring parties that maybe elevates them beyond the traditional band of murder hobos? I dig the character’s motivations and focus questions. For example, as the Bard, you play to find out:

“How does your art affect those around you?” “How much of yourself is a performance?” “What do you truly long to create, and will you be able to create it?”

Clio Yu-Sun Davis’ “But Not Tonight”, a larp about high school social dynamics and nuclear panic, is now on itch.

itch.io has bundled 7 awesome ttrpgs by designers Sharang Biswas, Matthew Gravelyn, Nathan D. Paoletta, Austin Ramsay, Ben Roswell, and G. Michael Truran! Matthew Gravelyn was kind enough to summarize each one in this thread

Image

This action choreography from 1985’s “Yes, Madam” is NUTS

Danielle Baskin attends Dreamforce in a ghillie suit, which to me is the most perfect critique of its ridiculous pseudo island decor

@negative_cone reimplements Apocalypse World with no dice to reduce cognitive load

Obsidian’s Josh Sawyer writes about how experience changes the types of risks you take. Posts like these are an epically valuable roadmap to help you understand and navigate the road to experience, to see what you don’t know you don’t know. Related: Julie Zhou on Senior vs Junior Designers.

Batman and Catwoman modelswap brings insight and laughter

17 years old and still gold. Ya don’t need a combat system—you need a resolution system

A helpful list by @thousandheads of 10 indie ttrpgs specifically about relationships.

@Rocketeer_Vee writes a clear and helpful overview of how to playtest your tabletop game

Moment of Zen

metalcrab @papa_shell, doing the lord’s photoshop to give the world’s most accidentally metal images their fullest realization. 🤘😎🤘

Coda

What have I been listening to? These scientifically approved psychedelic playlists

2019.47: magnificent desolation

November 22, 2019

Stunning spaceships by Ben Nicholas (@BelgianBoolean)

When was the last time you fell over in a video game? Been playing Death Stranding this last week and I’m surprisingly touched by its grueling hikes across a barren pseudo-Icelandic America. I fight for every step, brace across a river, carefully wind my way down a treacherous slope, desperately trying to keep my cargo balanced on an aching back. I arrive at my grateful recipient grimy, covered in muck, visibly exhausted. The only way to save the game is to have Sam, our protagonist, literally rest. It may have epic purpose, but I can’t stop thinking about the mundanity of Sam’s trek, a porter piled high with everyday supplies and the world’s fanciest wi-fi password. It captures the idea of how difficult it is to really connect, the grueling, ‘boring as dirt’ everyday work that brings people together. It’s… a mood.

Most of all I appreciate how it trusts the player with its uncompromising vastness—what Buzz Aldrin called “magnificent desolation”—without trying to fill it with a thousand blinking side-quests. But don’t listen to me, watch Jacob Geller’s beautiful video essay about what happens when games leave unexpected space. It’s an ode to loneliness via the gigantic and magnificent desolation of Red Dead Redemptions’s enormous world, the untrafficked, in-between spaces of a Call of Duty map, and the astonishing work of Aristotle Roufanis Studio.

Infinite checklists. Lightning fast gameplay. Anything to keep you from a moment where you think “What should I be doing now—also, what am I doing in a more general sense?” That’s why these experiences stand out for me. What they’ve given me is space without objectives. Time without a timer. It’s startling to not be told what to do in a medium basically created to give us things to do. What’s left is… me.

What’ bizarre is that I seemingly had to be tricked into doing them. None of these happen naturally. I am so averse to spending time reflecting, seeking out that quiet, that it had to be snuck into a 300 million blockbuster game.

Speaking of holding space, Dr. Jacqueline Antonovich asked a question about how you should ask questions and reminded me that how you speak has a profound effect on the space created for others.

“Last year, I switched from asking students, “Any questions?” to “What questions do you have for me?” And it’s made a world of difference. It’s got me wondering: what simple shifts in phrasing, wording, or questioning has helped your teaching?”

Just check out these replies!

@FitzyCalHerb: “As a counselor, I never say “why are you upset?” Instead I ask “What has caused you to be upset”. Puts the client at ease and doesn’t feel accusatory to them. They don’t have to think of the Why and instead start by focusing on the What in the situation”

@RobertLepenies: “Open group discussions rarely accomplish much: it’s the same people who speak (the usual suspects, usually trying to impress another or the professor). Any way to break this up is interesting: anonymous/written questions, group work, role play (in groups!), peer grading, etc”

@mbishop_uk: “I also ask at the end of each session ‘What is one thing you have learnt today that you will take away with you?’ - love seeing people making the connection with a new piece of knowleding and how it links into their existing practice (I work with healthcare professionals)”

@jcrichman: “In @amandaripley’s “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes And Why”, a police trainer says that he got huge results when he switched from saying “if you don’t do this you’ll die” to “if you do this you will be safe”.Our minds instinctively reach for safety.”

@jkhuggins: “Last year, I stumbled onto something helpful. I often email students who haven’t submitted an assignment (and are earning late penalties). I used to ask “when will you be done?”. Now I ask “how’s it going, and how can I help?” Makes a world of difference in the responses.”

In this case we’re talking about a classroom setting where the speaker is in a position of power, but it applies everywhere there’s conversation. I’ve seen it in my own life. For example, I switched from “What’s new” to “What’s top of mind?” when catching up with folks because “new” is simply the wrong frame for getting to what’s important. Trust me, it cuts right past small talk.


Fascinating thread by Filipina designer Pamela Punzalan on how international culture has shaped the game community in the Philippines. It’s easy to forget the structural factors we benefit from in the US, and the view from elsewhere. (via @ladylakira)

There’s no kind way of saying it. For most Filipino consumers of narratives and pop culture, a creator must be “international” to be “relevant”. Now, obviously this is a weird idea. What do you mean by “international”? What are the goal posts here? What qualifies, what does not?

We’re relying not on ourselves to determine whether our work is any good, but on the tastes and sensibilities of people who do not know our lives, do not understand our context, and are not privy to our realities.

In essence, we’re buying into extremely colonial/imperial structures. We are also wholesale contributing to hierarchies that don’t make any sense, my favorite being “There Can Be Only One” or “The Token Filipino”.


I didn’t know Muzak wasn’t just a term for inoffensive elevator music, but an actual company! This article by Liz Pelly in The Archive charts how Spotify’s algorithms are homogenizing music like an out of control paperclip making AI. I love and listen to those playlists myself—but always forget the systemic second order effects of my clicking. 2017 vintage, but all the more relevant.

Digital strategists have identified “lean back listening” as an ever more popular Spotify-induced phenomenon. It turns out that playlists have spawned a new type of music listener, one who thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, moods and activities, where they just pick a playlist and let it roll: “Chillin’ On a Dirt Road,” “License to Chill,” “Cinematic Chill Out.” They’re all there.

These algorithmically designed playlists […] have seized on an audience of distracted, perhaps overworked, or anxious listeners whose stress-filled clicks now generate anesthetized, algorithmically designed playlists. One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,”

Em Short shoves Pride and Prejudice’s three potential suitors into a dating sim to illustrate how non-obvious edge cases in narrative state can be made more visible, and how different game design decisions can affect this. This is diagramming at its best, making visible the underlying structure from which experiences emerges.

Designer Robin Rendle writes about the “boring as dirt” problem and how important it is to find ways to celebrate the massive amount of soul crushing labor below the surface of sexy solutions. Love his advice about starting a newsletter

The “boring as dirt” problem exists in our industry and every organization we work with. For instance, the performance of a website is obviously a terrible problem for users when they’re trying to report a blackout in their area and the website can’t load because there are a dozen or more third-party scripts loading at any given time.

But fixing that problem? It requires going through each script, talking to the marketing department, finding out who owns what script, why they use it, what data is ultimately useful to the organization and what is not. Then, finally, you can delete the script. The solution to the problem is boring as dirt and trying to explain why the work is important—even vital—will get you nowhere in many organizations.

New Weird interlude

Alexandria Ne❄️nakis 🎄 on Twitter: “The illustrations in this horseback riding book are making me feel weird“ Me too. Me too.

Secure C++ coding meets trashy romance novel thanks to Paul Stone and a GPT-2 neutral text generator”

2019 Queer Adult Sci-Fi & Fantasy Gift Guide by K. A. Doore. So many great books! (Via @ladylakira)

“Every shot in Piper is composed of millions of grains of sand, each one of them around 5000 polygons.” 🤯.

Jason Esterhuizen is getting his sight back via a brain implant, and is tweeting the journey here.

People are using VR to learn sign language and are developing their own dialect because of the limitations of VR controllers

Kirk McKeand on Twitter: “Apparently Overcooked is called “Divorce Kitchen” in China, and that fact has just made my day.”

Projects

Holovista! This looks stunning and my god—what a dream team!

“The house is one of the most important characters in our story,” Lev said. “Our amazing narrative designer, Strix Beltrán, initially described it as a ‘a strange ode to post-modernism and Western capitalism, bathed in vaporwavey aesthetics.’ When we put together the mood board for the house, we were inspired by the opulent gaudiness of MTV Cribs, the eternal elegance of Art Deco, the calculated polish of a well-funded selfie museum, the multiplicative interiors of photographer Sandy Skoglund, and ’90s graphic adventure puzzle games such as Myst.”

One More Thing, a two player narrative murder TV drama by Nathan D. Paoletta is Kickstarting now. This looks fun and accessible, and I’m tickled that the “board” tracking game state is the fictional 80s TV audience’s perception of the murderer.

Coda

Follow up on last week’s WORST EVER IMAGE and its sequel: the worst diagram. Animated spell cards!. Drop tables!

“Cotton-Headed Ninnymuggins.” “Dillhole.” “You smell like hot dog water.” Dungus. “Dingleberry.” “I hope you step in bubble gum.” “Lying crapweasel.” “Clambake.” “Son of a monkey biscuit.” “Fudgebuckets” “Sentient muppet.”

The world’s most accurate depiction of the creative process..

2019.46: the place people notice you're not

November 15, 2019

Incredible illusion body art by Dain Yoon

This week: the battle between bottom-up and top-down, between illusory individual control and systemic misalignments. When you observe everything, when you try to control, you snuff out the rich, messy process by which community knits itself into a “home where people notice when you’re not there”. On the other hand, you can start small, thinking about the subtle mechanics that make people feel comfortable and let that organically grow into community.

“The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.” —Charles Eames

So I want to start with Avery Alder’s thread about the Mist-Robed Gate by Shreyas Sampat where she talks about how the game influenced her own designs with its rich attention to the cozy game outside the game:

The text teaches you how to be an audience for this particular game, and how to play to your audience when your character is in the spotlight. It lets you know what the room should feel like (cozy, energetic, collaborative, enthralled). It talks about setting a mood.

It includes instructions for preparing tea, suggestions for snacks, and recipes for the meals that you can feed people before play. It talks about the importance of food not only in nourishing your players and building trust, but also in establishing a mood in the room.

One layer up Johann Hari’s interview with Tristan Harris & Aza Raskin rocked me, particularly this line he quotes by Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon “Home is where people notice when you’re not there”. Hari charts countless examples of how an individualized model of treatment for things like addiction and depression misses the underlying pain caused simply by our fragmented society.

If you have a separated a bee from its hive, it goes crazy. It doesn’t make sense on its own right. In fact, a human being separated from the tribe in the circumstances where we evolved, was depressed and anxious for a really good reason, you were in terrible danger. These are the impulses we still have. This is in a very deep sense who we are. But we are the first humans ever to disband our tribes, to tell ourselves a story, actually you should go it alone, actually you don’t need other people. You see how deep this is in the culture when you realize that even our kind of cheerful self-help dictums are wrong

@visakanv thread summarizing Tribe by Sebastian Junger is a perfect complement.

“I do miss something from the war. But I also believe that the world we are living in—and the peace that we have—is very fucked up if somebody is missing war. And many people do.” –Nidzara Ahmetasevic, survivor of the siege of Sarajevo

As is @QiaochuYuan’s very personal thread exploring “escape addiction”.

And did you know the UK has a minister for loneliness?

It is supporting “friendly benches,” which are public benches where people are encouraged to go and chat with one another. It’s pushing to keep community spaces open and to stop public transportation from being cut in ways that leave people isolated. The government is also putting social workers in doctor’s offices for “social prescribing” — connecting lonely patients with local organizations.

One early lesson, Barran said: Because of stigma, don’t post a sign inviting lonely people to show up. Rather, have an upbeat sign inviting people to take part in a dog-walking club, a community garden or some other activity.

Now to twist the knife. Jathan Sadowski coins the term “The Captured City” to describe the increasingly dense network of corporate and police surveillance (and self-surveillance) that seeks to optimize and control the population. Consider the stark opposition between the warm, bottom-up community building highlighted on a small scale in Avery’s thread, Johann Hari’s interview, Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”, and this top-down nightmare:

“surveillance extends far beyond the obviously ‘criminal’ to include data as exotic as feeds from radiation detectors — sensitive enough to pick up recent chemotherapy treatment in passing bodies — and sophisticated enough to rapidly recall up to five years’ worth of stored ‘metadata’ and temporally unbounded (and undefined) ‘environmental data’ in its continuously mined databases.”

The captured city, as this suite of surveillance and analytics suggests, is captured in two interrelated senses: as data and territory. The web of surveillance systems built and operated by the military-industrial complex accomplish the data capture, which enables the police to better capture the city’s territory, maintaining a data dragnet across the city and keeping tabs on targeted groups. The goal is to enmesh the city so tightly in these systems, to make them such a critical part of the urban infrastructure, that the two can never be disentangled.

And how this might feel on the ground? A different context, but M.D. Emily Silverman’s experience using Epic is a perfect illustration of inhumane it might get. Spoiler alert, this is also a UX story (as are all of these).

But few have written about the product’s voice. Spot an incorrect diagnosis on a patient’s list of medical problems? Good luck deleting it. Much easier to “resolve” it — a word choice that suggests an expectation of unmitigated success, as if Epic were your helicopter parent.

Checking in on a beloved patient who was hospitalized? Enter his chart and an accusatory pop-up may appear: “Deceased Patient Warning: You are entering the medical record of a deceased patient. Are you sure you want to proceed?” This can be a jarring way to hear the news. But Epic offers no condolences, no empathy, no acknowledgment that doctors, too, have beating hearts.

Who is Epic? I try to imagine. Perhaps a clean-shaven man who wears square-toed shoes and ill-fitting business suits. He follows the stock market. He uses a PC. He watches crime dramas. He never bends the rules. He lives in a condominium and serves on the board of directors. He rolls his shirts into tubes and arranges them by color in his drawers.

And of course, this exists within a larger system of regulation which the software is simply enacting.

It’s all about looking at the nested stack of problems. Work small, but also if you can, look one level up too.


Jeeyon Shim threads about her sister Jeemin’s very insightful design talk about their stunning collaboration. I talked about this last week in my playthrough of Twain, but, particularly in solo roleplaying games, there is an incredible opportunity to use every tactile & sensory detail of the physical experience to undergird the emotional experience. (Or just watch it to see a centaur whose body is also a beer cooler. A BEER COOLER.) A quote from the thread about her game of sirens “First Lesson”:

I chose fabric as the material for this LARP guide because it can be carried into the water with the player. I chose a soft material, because there’s a fragility in the writing that made fabric feel more appropriate than other materials such as wood. I chose this size because it felt appropriate in proportion to a human body: small enough to handle without difficulty, but large enough to feel against your skin in a substantial way.

Patrick Klepek interviews writer Kate Dollarhyde about how she (and previous designer Chris L’Etoile) imbued Outer World’s Parvati with a nuanced ace identity. I took away two things from the article. One: specificity. A real person just unremarkably existing does so in the context of real life choices created by the subtleties of their identity interacting with those around them, not grand philosophical discussions or ham-fisted, sweeping generalizations (looking at you Hideo Kojima). Go small, represent the details, get folks to do it who have that lived experience (Dollarhyde & L’Etoile’s both identify as ace). Two: it’s not just the writing—mechanics and player choices must support this representation:

In most RPGs like The Outer Worlds, players are granted a wide range of responses to every situation. You can be nice, you can be an asshole, you can be indifferent. In this moment, when Parvati chooses to be vulnerable, the game explicitly limits your range of responses.

“I want that conversation to feel like a safe space for the players who are playing it and identify with it,” she said. “I don’t want to pull the rug out from under them and say, ‘Haha, actually you’re a joke,’ or ‘other people think you are a joke.’ […] I don’t want to write a homophobia simulator. [laughs] That’s not what I got in the game writing for.”

Emmanuel Carrère seeks out the real Dice Man (via Rock Paper Shotgun) in this fascinating story of the fictional Luke Rhinehart, a man who lives his life by dice rolls, and the real (or his he?) Luke Rhinehart, author of the book, and the weird movement that popped up around it. As a game designer, the thing I most take away from this is the idea of intentionally designing the moves in your life as ritually as those on a PbtA character’s sheet. Buried in the story is another beautiful throughline; in life, when do you decide to give up one game and move to the next one?

He has three rules. The first is to always obey. But obeying the dice is ultimately obeying yourself, since you set your options. Hence the second rule, concerning the decisive moment when you list the six possibilities. You have to examine yourself and try to find out what you want. It is a spiritual exercise, aimed both at getting to know yourself and getting a better grasp of the infinite possibilities that reality offers. The options you select have to be pleasant, but at least one – the third – has to be something you would not normally do. It has to make you overcome resistance and break with habit. When you throw the dice, your desire has to be tinged with fear.

Projects

Mist-Robed Gate, by Shreyas Sampat. As I mentioned above—I just had to read it after reading Avery’s thread. Beautiful and thoughtful.

Jen Adcock and Todd Craper are Kickstarting “The World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game: The Zine!” which made me both chuckle and think with what looks to be a bunch of ways to hack 5e with indie game mechanics. This is a clever way to use game mechanics to directly critique and poke the behemoth. Backed!

Avery Alder is running her four day intensive workshop “Designing Games That Matter” on how to design transformative tabletop roleplaying games. I deeply admire her work, writing and advocacy. Looks amazing. (15-19 May 2020 in Tatamagouche, Canada)

Oh—side note—one of the things I admire about Avery is how transparent she is about her work. The past workshops page on her site is loaded with reports and the resource lists, which helped me a ton when starting to dive into my own game design last year (I mean, just look at this, and this!) Thank you for sharing this goldmine for designers new and old 🙏

Chuck Yeager tells the story of his plane disintegrating around him at Mach 3.18

Felicia McEntire writes a concise and helpful guide to video game PR (See also DC’s huge TTRPG Marketing Q&A from earlier in the year)

Whoah, Vincent Baker has a huge collection of game design essays called “How RPGs work” (via John Harper)

Seven systemic reasons for the falling birth-rate in the UX, once again showing that you have to solve the problem one level up from the problem

@braak: “just thinking about how Baz Luhrman solved the “how do we put guns in modern adaptations of Romeo and Juliet when they’re always talking about swords?” problem by just showing a close up of a gun that had “sword” written on it. Legend”

Coda

Huge kudos to the Sonic The Hedgehog team for fixing the movie, and hope they document how they pulled it off. And was it pure Machiavellian (Robtonikian?) gonzo marketing? WAS IT?

The worst image ever made. Cyberchondria. “It makes me want to fuck the moon”. Chuckle-worthy UX affordances. “Sometimes good design is the act of not putting a hat on someone”. The most stunning visuals in cinema. Mechs! So many mechs!

Sometimes it’s worth going on a sunrise walk: might just run into the planet Mercury.

GIFAANISQATSI! ‘till next week folks!

2019.45: haddaway, no duck, cobrassss!

November 8, 2019

Pieter de Pannemaeker from Jean Linden's l'Illustration Horticole, Brussels, 1888.

Golden Cobra! 🙌 🎉 🌱

My game “They Say You Should Talk To Your Plants” was awarded at the Golden Cobras! This friendly contest brings out such a joyful creative explosion and this year is no different—I’m so honored and also so excited to read everyone else’s beautiful games!

They Say You Should Talk to Your Plants is a beautifully quiet game about loneliness, the passage of time, and the conversations one has with their plants. Throughout the game, each player experiences existence both as the human protagonist who is navigating the hurdles of life and as one of the protagonist’s attentive plants. We appreciated the unique role that silence plays in emphasizing the simultaneously sweet and isolating experience of talking to an audience who can’t reply in turn (for the most part!). This game is ultimately about caring for each other, whether you are a withering plant or a lonely human.

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Me & my co-designer celebrating our Golden Cobra award

Also a couple of updates on The Zone. The site now features Veronique Meignaud’s beautiful cover artwork. So grateful to have had a chance to collaborate with her and love how it turned out! (Also super fun to animate it—try moving your mouse)

I also wrote up a thread on the Big Bad Con experience of running The Zone, putting it in context of all the ways it’s been staged in the past. One of the players, ErikTheBearik, was also kind enough to review his experience!

Still planning a Kickstarter soon—sign up for the mailing list to hear about it!

Writings

Keith Stuart writes about the The Healing Power of Making Video Games Like ‘Minecraft’. This really struck me. If making video games is therapeutic, does the more participatory nature of tabletop RPGs & larp also allow players to experience more healing from playing them?

Ten years ago, Seema Iyer was on a night out while living in Mexico when a friend of a friend offered her a lift home and then assaulted her. […] In 2017, she joined Fusebox Games, the developer of /Love Island/, a smartphone dating game based around the reality TV series in which young people in a tropical villa hook up. She became a narrative designer on the second season of the game, and in the early stages of development, when the team got together to discuss the mechanics and ethics of sex and relationships, she found she was able to confront what she’d experienced in Mexico without feeling overcome.

“We were having really frank conversations about safe sex and consent,” Iyer says. “Approaching consent as a writer caused me much less anxiety. The whole process of writing characters who were aware of the need for consent, working on a game that talks about women’s bodies, women enjoying sex but also being able to say no, was healing. What he’d done — it wasn’t my fault. It was totally immoral. There was no way I consented to anything. He had no right.”

Vincent Baker on the psychology of getting better at game design. When you’re in a hole it feels you’ll be there forever, so remembering these patterns lets you trust that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Pin this chart to your wall.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night from the Roxbury is the latest issue of Chelsea Davis’ amazing newsletter “Shrieks & Howls” where she analyzes the connections between horror and comedy (ft. Haddaway), this time via SNL’s cursed A Night at the Roxbury and subversive vampiric masterpiece A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night._ I love the finding of connections between unrelated works—reminds me of the pleasure of “apologetics”, where you start with the assumption that there’s really good reasons behind sci-fi UIs and then try to figure out what those are.

A certain demographic difference between these movies (besides, like, the existential chasm that separates vampires from the living) should be becoming clear. Because Roxbury centers on solidly upper-middle-class men, a “bad night” consists mostly of mild disappointment—a failure to procure the fun, inebriation, or tail that they feel they’re owed. Amirpour’s film, on the other hand, focuses on far more vulnerable people, groups for whom a bad night means injury, rape, or death. These are the awful fates that could await a girl so foolhardy as to Walk Home Alone at Night, as parents (Iranian, American, or otherwise) warn their daughters from the moment they’re old enough to walk at all. […]

Sociologist Henri Lefebvre argues that nocturnal debauchery, no matter how depraved, can offer no real rebellion so long as it operates through the exchange of money. Under capitalism, even the most privileged among us can purchase nothing more than “profitable pseudo-transgressions.” We pay good money to let off steam at the club or at Burning Man so that we can more obediently earn good money from our office overlords again come Monday. It’s enough to suck the life out of you.

I agree with Tiago calling this “the most important paragraph I’ve ever read on modern education”. To extend this to game design: I’m sure that the way roleplaying games “disclose” their experience and the amount of structure players are given vs forced to create through messy, complicated gameplay has a huge impact on the learning outcome.

Learning requires effort, because we have to think to understand and we need to actively retrieve old knowledge to convince our brains to connect it with new ideas as cues. To understand how groundbreaking this idea is, it helps to remember how much effort teachers still put into the attempt to make learning easier for their students by prearranging information, sorting it into modules, categories and themes. By doing that, they achieve the opposite of what they intend to do. They make it harder for the student to learn because they set everything up for reviewing, taking away the opportunity to build meaningful connections and to make sense of something by translating it into one’s own language. It is like fast food: It is neither nutritious nor very enjoyable, it is just convenient.

Philip Goff writing for Nautil.us about retiring our dualist view of nature

We treat other humans not as objects but as sentient centers of value and purpose. We feel their presence when in close proximity, and we instinctively interpret their actions as flowing from their individual agency. Imagine if children were raised to experience trees and plants in the same way, to see the movement of a plant toward the light as expressing its own desire and conscious drive for life, to accept the tree as an individual locus of sentience. For a child raised in a panpsychist worldview, hugging a conscious tree could be as natural and normal as stroking a cat. It’s hard to tell in advance the effects of such a cultural change, but it’s reasonable to suppose that children raised in a panpsychist culture would have a much closer relationship with nature and invest a great deal more value in its continued existence.

Based on plant research in recent years by scientists Suzanne Simard, Monica Gagliano, and Ariel Novoplansky, we now know that plants communicate, learn, and remember. Simard has shown that “mother” trees at the center of a forest network not only give greater amounts of carbon to their own kin, but also send them defense signals which can increase by a factor of four the young trees’ survival chances. This intergenerational transfer is particularly pronounced at the point when the mother trees die, as they pass on their wisdom to the next generation. I can see no reason other than anthropic prejudice not to ascribe to them a conscious life of their own

Architect Ben Garbow’s breakdown of gender neutral bathrooms captures how to solve the problem in front of you (bathrooms), you really have to solve the problem one level up (building codes).

part of an architect’s job, their moral imperative, is to design space that is inclusive and accessible to everyone, regardless of physical ability or identity. adding a ramp to that entrance, using soft sound-absorbing materials in that restaurant.

Talia Shadwell on overzealous tracking by her period app

I find several aspects of this unsettling. Firstly, the likelihood in future that my technology is likely to know I am pregnant before I do

The second is less creepy and more telling about who designs this technology- it assumed, perhaps based on my age and the fact I used a fertility tracker, that I would be happy about being pregnant right now so began sending cheery mummy ads

Plenty has been written about the strange assumptions of these apps - often pink themed, and designed with the assumption women use them to get pregnant - not avoid it. We are used to having personal data monetised - but this is the most striking example I’ve experienced to date

Book: A tiny history of Service Design …starting around 10,000BC

@SpeaktheSky’s epic thread of all non-finalists to 200WordRpg. Thank you!

The SwiftUI “Disable Autocorrection” modifier icon is “no duck” Now this is knowing your users

Narrative designer Em Short put the call out for more POC & narrative folk to follow and everyone in the replies seems wonderful

“If you’re building pipes, you have to make sure they don’t carry sewage, that they’re carrying clean water,” says [Pinterest founder, Evan] Sharp. “That’s our responsibility.”

Projects

Subcutanean’s IndieGogo continues! Aaron Reed has a new post about creating meaningful randomness in the book.

Subcutanean has a number of these narrator variables. Some narrators are more verbose or prefer bigger words than others; others prefer to say things as simply as possible. Some prefer more subjective language: they would rather use a bruised sky metaphor over an objective statement about its color. Some narrators enjoy alliteration (“gray and grim”). Some would prefer to paraphrase dialogue rather than quote it directly (by simply disfavoring variants that include quotation marks). What each _Collaps_ing ends up with is a unique set of narratorial preferences that together determine how texts get selected in that particular rendering.

Rusalka, a card based, GM-less game of tragic fairytales is a direct hit to my game design and play sweet spot. I’m very excited to play it.

Rusałka is a storytelling game for 3-6 player about tragic fairy tales and wishes gone wrong. Each player will roleplay as one of the rusałka. You will also take turns portraying the mortals who come to the pool to request help from the rusałka. Playing the game should take 2-4 hours.

A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II. I’m not a wargamer, but I’m here for any story where games save the day.

By 1941, Winston Churchill had come to believe that the outcome of World War II rested on the battle for the Atlantic. A grand strategy game was devised by Captain Gilbert Roberts and a group of ten Wrens (members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service) assigned to his team in an attempt to reveal the tactics behind the vicious success of the German U-boats. Played on a linoleum floor divided into painted squares, it required model ships to be moved across a make-believe ocean in a manner reminiscent of the childhood game, Battleship. Through play, the designers developed “Operation Raspberry,” a countermaneuver that helped turn the tide of World War II.

LudoNarraCon 2020 submissions are open. This seemed like a really cool narrative design conference last year, and best of all it’s hosted online so it’s easy to attend. Due Dec 13 for exhibitors, speakers have until Jan 29th.

Coda

I wrote up my experience playing J Li’s beautiful Twain, now successfully crowdfunded (congrats J Li!). With Alan Watts and Richard Powers’ mind expanding “The Overstory” in the back of my mind, I reminisced on my childhood disappearing into nature with my fictional twin, and briefly rediscovered that barefoot in a nearby park.

I wondered if my paper towels were trying to communicate with me, Interstellar-ly, from the future. I reflected on how cyclical design can be, and how it’s easy to get trapped into the pattern of being too clever for our own good. I discovered that Britney Spears’ perfumes are a billion dollar side hustle that seems to be founded on true individual authorship. Respect!

A couple of interesting workplace experiments caught my eye—Microsoft Japan tried a 4 day week and it went rather well, while some of the makers of Dead Cells have left behind the co-op model to try to scale.

Just finished reading Cixin Liu’s new book, “Supernova Era” . As with the Three Body Trilogy, it’s really not about the characters but about the social systems one level up. Idiosyncratic, a bit wild, and well worth a read.

Listening to Neo Cab OST. Ok who I am kidding, actually I’m listening to Haddaway.

“Aequora tuta est”

2019.44: a podlarp, unreal books, cacteyes

November 1, 2019

@deadlydmndraws's amazing and creepy succulents (available as prints)

Writings

A crash course on marketing your indie RPG, by the makers of Mothership.
I needed this because I feel tremendous anxiety telling folks about my game. (Side point, it’s called The Zone and I’m quite happy that I managed to talk about it in a cool way this week!)

The GMDK Guide to PDF Accessibility
Accessibility is craftsmanship. We should revere a game you can play with a screenreader as you would a perfectly balanced knife. Appreciate the practical guide!

Asian Representation And The Martial Arts
As usual, James Mendez Hodes breaks down a difficult topic in a way that is both uncompromising and gives a path to doing it better.

Sami Schalk’s twerk with Lizzo, an act of political defiance

My twerking with Lizzo does no harm to anyone; in fact, it has brought joy and inspiration to many. Everyone deserves to live complex, joyful lives where they can cover their basic needs, feel fulfilled, and experience non-harmful fun without fear. This includes academics. We are not just old white men in libraries. Professors are millennials, queer and trans people, single mothers, and women of color. This is what the future of academia looks like, folks. Get used to it.

Sami Schalk is such a badass and this story reminds that 1) professionals have lives too and 2) we view what’s “appropriate fun” through the same structural biases as everything else.

A thread of sensitivity readers hosted by Clio Yun-su Davis
TIL I learned that there is a company called Salt & Sage, an agency of sensitivity readers, but the whole thread is worth bookmarking. As a white cis game designer, I’ll be coming back to this one.

Jeeyon Shim’s list of support principles for RPGs
In keeping with her timely and brilliant Big Bad Con 2019 keynote centered on Stewardship, Courage and Joy. As we make increasingly challenging and artistic games, our tools need to keep raising the bar beyond basic safety. Feels like we’re starting to climb a new Maslow’s Hierarchy.

How to deal with your playe…—I mean, child’s behavior, ft. Jane McGonigal

“As a parent, when I’m trying to influence my child’s behavior, I would leverage one of the phenomena we see in gaming, which is that kids love being better at their favorite video games than their parents,” she said.

“So, I would create a game where I would ask my kid to help me do the thing I want them to do. I would ask them to try to spot me not using my fork and eating with my fingers, or to notice if I’m not looking someone in the eye,” she added, “and I would enlist their cooperation in this way and turn it into a multiplayer game where they know more than me and they are helping me. This would give me the chance to model for them why the behavior matters, by thanking them and explaining why I want help remembering.

“Basically, instead of trying to directly change the behavior and telling them what to do, let them experience the fun of ‘owning’ the behavior and being in charge of telling me what to do.”

Good lessons on how scolding bad behavior actually makes it more salient, and it’s more effective to ignore and feed positive behavior through positive feedback. Important part of a game facilitator / GM’s toolkit—whether for adults or kids.

Projects

Subcutanean, a procedural horror novel where every copy is different
I absolutely love Aaron Reed’s work and thinking and cannot wait to read this. Backed two copies just so I can see the differences! Who wants to book club it with me?

Five Trials, by Jason Morningstar
A recorded 30 minute larp you can play with your friends. I played it at Big Bad Con and thought it was a super interesting experiment in form, like a larp podcast. I think I’ll call it… a podlarp?

Coda

I’ve been trying to fall asleep faster and have ended up listening a lot to this collaboration between East Forest and Ram Dass. I spent months last year falling asleep to recordings of Alan Watts, and the combination of hypnotic music and Ram Dass’ voice seems to short circuit some of the inner monologue that likes to keep me up.

I tweeted the two words “Gaius. Baltar.” as an experiment. I find it interesting, and a pretty good benchmark for what it means to write a memorable character, that just those two words triggered replies!

This. I won’t be able to look at home ventilation ducts the same way ever again.

A very atmospheric playtest, and some musical goodies!

May 27, 2019

I ran another playtest of The Zone last night, staged astonishingly well by my friend nickpunt@, and the amazing jeeyonshin@ live tweeted the entire thing.

She captured precisely the eerie wonder and horror of the game. Gives me chills!

A taste:

The beauty.

The horror.

Go read the whole thing!

Looking for the perfect soundtrack to listen to it by? Here’s the atmospheric playlist we played by which I’m just going to now call the official soundtrack of The Zone. It was amazing to experience the synchronicity of our storytelling and the music, each influencing and enhancing the other. (Thanks Nick & Dana for putting it together!)

Giving players time to reflect

February 18, 2019

Looking again at my blog post on Escalation, I realized I’d missed an important pattern, which I’m going to call Reflection & Clarification. It solves one of the important pitfalls with pure escalation: that players may generate contradictory and extreme content that pulls the story apart. The Reflection & Clarification pattern is the inclusion of explicit structures in the game that give players time to synthesize different directions they’ve created into one coherent whole.

There is a great concept in chaos theory called “criticality”, that I was introduced to via Jason Morningstar and J Li’s “Pattern language for larp design”

In chaos theory, the criticality of a system describes the system’s overall sensitivity to being completely disrupted by a given input. For example, a pile of cards on a table is subcritical, or very unlikely to be changed in any meaningful way by just shifting a card around. A house of cards, by contrast, is supercritical, or extremely likely to be categorical transformed by shifting a card around (because it’s likely to collapse). When a supercritical system transform, it often collapses to being subcritical (in this case, the house of cards turns into a pile).

A system that is critical, however, is one in which many actions are likely to have a substantive impact without destroying the larger system as a whole. In a game, this looks like a situation in which characters can have a meaningful impact without breaking the game.

A satisfying climax will often often the process of bubbling a critical situation into a supercritical explosion, in order to reach a new stable state.

Unchecked escalation risks making the story supercritical. It’s obvious when this is happening: the reality and rules of the story begin to splinter; players stop being able to build on each other’s ideas (or are not sure which ideas to continue with); the energy gets sucked out as players start feeling like their decisions don’t matter.

Group storytelling is fundamentally an information efficiency problem. Part of why “yes and…” is so important in improv is that it’s simply a ton of cognitive load to generate new ideas, but it’s a lot easier to take half an idea and build on it until it’s whole. When you negate another player’s reality, you are literally kicking the foundations out from under yourself.

One way to overcome this is to ensure that there is enough space in the game for disparate ideas to become one. Two weak ideas that are not shared can collapse under the load of the story. But if you give players time to share their inner thoughts and knit them together, they can continue on with a fewer, stronger, collaboratively owned ideas.

Another positive side effect is that Reflection & Clarification usually leads to the world becoming more concrete and specific, which also amplifies the story. The concept of a spider is not that scary. A car sized lump unfolding into a humongous spined tarantula, your pale terrified face reflected in its eight giant eyes as its chittering drowns out your pounding heartbeat—that’s something a story can build on.

The creative process

This connects to a bigger idea which is that all creative processes are carefully sequenced moments of diverging and converging.

You diverge to generate tons of content, ideas, concepts that don’t have to make any sense together. But if you only diverge, your story doesn’t go anywhere and collapses under the weight of randomness like a supercritical house of cards.

You converge to edit, simplify, and synthesize them into fewer, stronger ideas. But if you only converge, the story never lifts off and play feels constrained, narrow.

But balance the two and each reinforces the other, keeping the story fresh and coherent.

(Side point, one of the most awesomely nerdy attempts to catalogue this in the design world is Hugh Dubberly’s “How Do You Design”, a maniacal compendium of dozens of attempts to model the design process).

Details are storyfuel

With all this in mind, I added these examples to the “Escalation” post:

  • In Downfall, every round has an explicit “Reflection”, where the hero “describes the current state of the world” and whether it is ready to collapse, which naturally forces the cracks open by making them clearer.
  • In Lovecraftesque, every round ends with each player individually theorizing about the true nature of the horror in a mechanic called “Leaping to conclusions”. Making their own interpretation more concrete amplifies their ability to escalate the story in that direction.
  • In THE ZONE, this is the Campfire.

The Campfire: a welcome respite

In this midpoint moment, players can take a breather (no one can be hurt in this scene) and share theories about the true nature of the Zone.

The campfire comes after the first handful of locations. Players have generated a bounty of ideas, but may have pulled the world in contradictory directions in figuring out the role of Director. Before I introduced this reflection, tables didn’t have a way to come to a shared theory of the zone. Going into the second half of the journey, players were too worried about stepping on each others’ toes to properly intensify the drama.

Now, the Campfire is a welcome respite from the tension, and I love how it helps focus the second half of the story—when everything goes so terribly wrong.

There are many other ways to Reflect & Clarify. What are some of your favorites?

How should I talk about horror?

January 20, 2019

I made a somewhat maniacal map of the influences on THE ZONE, as an exercise to see if I can talk about the game without mentioning the word “horror”.

Four key themes came out of the exercise:

  • SELF DESTRUCTION. The loss of humanity that comes from hubris, ambition, and enthusiastically joining with forces you don’t understand. This is about players “playing to lose”, putting their characters in harm’s way at every opportunity, to rise… and then fall spectacularly. This is the primary theme of the game. The other three support and enhance it.
  • MYSTERIOUS JOURNEY. An epic trip into uncharted territory, full of forbidden sights most people will never see—or which are the last thing they experience before the journey consumes then. Expeditions move inexorably forward, never looking back.
  • MAGICAL REALISM. The accurate physical detail of the real world, inflected with the laws of poetry, magic, and dream logic. There is more sublime psychedelia the deeper you go, but it’s in constant contrast with hyper-real sensory details.
  • BIOLOGICAL WEIRDNESS. Bodies, fauna, and flora mutating and metamorphosing under the influence of magic, science, or the supernatural. Strange, incomprehensible monsters. In this game, they are external metaphors for character’s inner phobias and temptations.

(And thank you to all who replied to yesterday’s tweet with comments & suggestions!)

But wait, isn’t THE ZONE a horror game?

Now, I loooove horror, and some of my deepest inspiration for the game are Annihilation, but also clear horror classics like Alien, The Thing, or Akira. As a result, I’ve tended to pitch THE ZONE as a “sci-fi horror storytelling game”. This typically elicits one of two reactions:

  1. _“I loved Annihilation / Stalker / ! I’m so excited to play!”_
  2. “Not for me—I hate scary movies!”

Good right? The people who will enjoy the game have opted-in, and those who won’t have exited. Self selection achieved—right?

Not so much.

The problem became clear when I’d ask followup questions to those in group two. Did you enjoy Stranger Things? “Yes! Binge watched it with my friends!” The Walking Dead? “God was that first season good.” Scary stories around campfires? “So fun!” From Game of Thrones to Black Mirror, horror themes are woven deeply through the biggest hits in mainstream media, which many (though not all) folks who were self-selecting out had seen and loved.

And no wonder! Horror is thrilling. It may allow us to experience and learn to overcome fear in a safe place. The physical sensations—bone pounding, heart racing arousal—awaken the body and make us feel poised and alert. As Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe puts it, terror “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life”. And that’s just scratching the surface (I could go on about horror vs terror for hours). But that’s a whole other blog post.

But horror is so broad and some of its sub-genres so horrific that people’s perception tends to be dominated by memories of “torture porn” movies like “Hostel” and “Saw”, slashers like “Friday The 13th”, or the gruesome and transgressive experience of “The Exorcist”. These powerful reference points would drown out the themes and reference I’m trying to elicit.

Check out this map of horror genres courtesy of the folks at horrorscreen.com. When I say “sci-fi horror”, I’m asking people to navigate to a tiny spot in the giant map full of gore. No wonder they get lost.

The golden rule: Empower players to create their own level of horror

THE ZONE uses horror in a very specific way: to explore the larger theme of our human hubris & self-destruction in the face of the things we cannot understand.

There is a particular kind of horror that inspired the creation and aesthetic of the game, but that is subservient to an ironclad principle I’m following: that players should be empowered to create their own horror. There are deeper reasons for that principle (nothing is scarier than what’s already in your mind) but it also supports diversity of experience. The last thing I want people opting out because they have slightly different reference points than the Annihilation “scream-bear”.

Because of that, the game is designed explicitly to allow each table to imbue the game with their own interpretation and level of horror.

For example:

  • Content variety: Each location card is designed to have three variants: the gruesome, the uncanny, and the magical
  • Safety tools: The safety tools include the X-Card, but I also encourage players to do a light version of “lines & veils”. In some games, this has meant all gore ending up completely offscreen
  • Positive opt-ins: Safety tools tell you what not to do, but I also suggest players have a positive discussion of the horror themes they want to include.
  • In-game opt-ins: the key escalation mechanic “Something’s not right” empowers players to decide when and how to escalate the horror

Put that all together, and you have an extraordinary variability in the level of horror, from constant blood-soaked-body-mashing to magical fairytales.

Guess what—even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory can be derived from the basic principles of THE ZONE. (Side point, go watch this right. now. I’ll wait.)

But does it check out against the principles?

Self-Destruction?

Mysterious Journey?

Magical Realism?

Biological Weirdness? I mean… come ooooon! ✅✅✅✅✅

From Tim Burton's version of Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryThis seems like a good time to reference Seanan McGuire’s awesome spectrum of alternate worlds from her book “Every Heart A Doorway” (it’s sooo good):

Here in the so-called “real world” you have north, south, east, and west, right? Those don’t work for the most of the portal worlds we’ve been able to catalog. So we use other words. Nonsense, Logic, Wickedness, and Virtue. There are smaller sub-directions, little branches, but those four are the big ones. Most worlds are either high Nonsense OR high Logic, and then they have some degree of Wickedness or Virtue built into their foundations from there. A surprising number of Nonsense worlds are Virtuous. It’s like they can’t work up the attention span necessary for anything more vicious than a little mild naughtiness.

Tor.com created a giant map, of those lands, including Oz, Wonderland, and Narnia. My hope is that, similar to the variety of this map, players will create an incredibly variety of exclusion zones, from the wicked and violent world to the virtuous and beautiful!

And that’s why I’ll maybe de-emphasize “horror” in the top-line description of the game, and maybe just describe it as a “storygame about a doomed expedition into a mysterious quarantine zone whose center will grant one survivor’s deepest wish.”

What do you think? Let me know on Twitter or via email!

Storygames For First Dates

December 31, 2018

I had a delightfully awkward first date a few days ago. The inevitable moment came where I found myself blubbering an explanation of storygames, but this time it was interrupted with: “Hey, let’s play one!”

What a great suggestion–but I froze! The the next day, in a rush of inspiration, I posted an epic thread of the micro games I wish I’d thought of at that moment, which you apparently quite liked.

So for my last creative act of 2018, I’ve collected them into a cute little book you can print out and take with you to the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops where they might just help make things slightly less awkward.

The tiny book of first date storygames

Click here to download the booklet (folding instructions here)

I hope you have a ton of fun (and tweet at me if any crazy stories come of it!)

Metatopia 2018

November 15, 2018

My first time at Metatopia and I loved it! I’m still sleepless, feeling the con crash hard. I played some amazing games with staggering emotional range (particular credit to Alex White’s “A Cool and Lonely Courage”, which ended with 20 seconds of silence to process at the end. Thank god for a whimsical game of Fiasco In A Box immediately after).

Other highlights: Chad Wolf’s wild diversity of ideas (in one LARP I was a fairy light, blinking in and out of existence, in the other we manipulated Ursula LeGuin’s “dreamer who dreamt the world”!); Stephen Dewey’s “Gather: Children of the Evertree” (deeply elegant conversational mechanics and diegetic teaching of the rules), Tim Hutching’s “Operation Linebacker” (a script made of real Vietnam cockpit recordings that shockingly subverted our expectations).

Thank you Avie & Vinny for an amazing time, and—what a segue!—for getting me the perfect space for three playtests of THE ZONE. It doesn’t look like much… but it was beige perfection. Oh “Headquarters B”, I will never forget thee.

IMG_5570.JPG

And most of all thank you so so so much to playtesters Anne, Whitney, Allen, Robin, Elias, Brian, Eleanor, Sean, Korey (x2!), Michael, Jenna, Mike, Nina! Your feedback was an amazing gift and your stories were perfectly, teeth-clenchingly, shiver-my-spinefully, delightfully… horrifying. Squeeeee.

What did I learn?

I had hoped to test out player death mechanics (a crucial part THE ZONE and why the “Director” role is about scene instead of character control)—how it felt to have your character die, and whether it had the desired escalation as players shifted roles from embodying characters to being THE ZONE.

Instead, I found myself focusing almost entirely on the instructional design of the game.

The game doesn’t start when it starts

There’s an adjacent framework from the terrifying world of gnarly startup growth tactics called Psych’d, that puts this rather well:

  1. Every element on the page in the instruction adds or subtracts emotional energy
  2. Inspiring users players is as important as reducing friction

Or to put it differently, how might I avoid this?

How might I maximize the emotional energy of my players during the necessary 30ish minutes of instruction? And which parts of the instruction actually correlate with a better game?

My first playtest was a perfect stress test: people were sleepless, stressed from prepping their own games for playtests. By the end of my rambly intro, the energy level was gone. We’d spent far too long discussing safety mechanics, trying to internalize rules out of context, and my decision to skip character creation saved time but left people without skin in the game.

A humbling start!

Just before that playtest I’d attended a great panel on horror, moderated by Anne Ratchat, in which an audience member paraphrased the genre as: giving players interesting bad choices”. I had a realization: I had to give players stronger incentives to define their character’s psyches, then create explicit reasons to express their character’s fears out loud so other players could learn and act on them. I want THE ZONE to be an engine for defining and playing with the two sided coin of fear & temptation. Every mechanic should make players complicit in ratcheting both up mercilessly.

(And yes, fear and temptation—horror & love—flipsides of a same coin. Horror isn’t just about removing agency. It can be about getting exactly what you want… at the wrong time.)

I had to focus on the singular goal of the game: to help players safely explore themes of horror and loss of humanity. The entire game world, the intro to the game, and every part of the instruction of the rules should help set the tone. Even the microcopy on the character sheets and the sample Phobias & Temptations were a surprisingly important part of this world building.

In the second playtest, I completely changed the sequencing. A short storyful intro to the world, then character creation. I used the Phobia part of the character creation as a jumping off point for safety mechanics, which worked well, then taught the 3 key moves in a set of short workshopped scenes. 40 minutes! Too long, but it mostly worked. People felt more invested and excited having just created rich characters.

The third playtest was much better. I got a wonderful piece of feedback to take the time not just to level set on safety—what people wanted to avoid—but to also to explicitly discuss what people wanted. I learned a cool thing from a game called Annalise where players are encouraged to explicitly write down on an index card when a cool theme is introduced, so that everyone remembers to build on it.

The world exists to define & amplify the characters

This video essay about Guillermo Del Toro’s monster design sums it up well: the world that gets created around the monsters—or in this case the players—should exist to mirror, amplify, and twist the knife in their deepest fears. THE ZONE doesn’t exist for pure world building—it’s a foil to the characters.

Very excited for where the game has ended up after Metatopia. My next playtest will be an explicit test of the refined rules and instructional design. My goal: to be able to hand players the materials and have them up and running with only limited influence from me.

Can’t wait until Metatopia 2019!

Epilogue: how to cram a 3 hour game into 90 minutes

  • Skip character creation… but only if it’s not integral to empathy in the game. In THE ZONE, you really need it. On the other hand, it did no harm to skip the location setup
  • It didn’t matter that we didn’t get to the ending. In fact, ending halfway created a rather nice cliffhanger
  • You can shorten the story by switching the depth of the scene. It worked very well to have players do quick epilogues for their characters. The hierarchy here would be LARP —> Acting out conversations —> Rich descriptions with everyone involved —> One player just tells the story —> Quick summary. Nice way to still get to the ending
  • Safety is the one thing that I’d never skip, but you can certainly shrink it down, particularly as players will have heard it in a bunch of other games
  • It will start 5-10 mins late. Decide on a start time and stick to it
  • Don’t rush feedback. Ending with a full 30 minutes to go was about right, with an extra 5 minutes of buffer to give people time to get to their next game
  • Know what you want to test! If players are stuck in an area you’re not trying to test, it’s OK to course correct and move things along
  • Feedback forms were great! Give them out at the beginning, with pens, so people can jot notes as they go

IMG_5584.JPG

Escalation

October 29, 2018

This week I focused on a big open question for THE ZONE: pacing & escalation.

My Big Bad Con playtests were the first where I simply facilitated instead of participating, and made me realize that I needed to amplify the escalation mechanics so the game would unlock its potential even without a strong facilitator. Crucial for a GM-less game.

To start, I did a thoroughly incomplete and unscientific survey of some of my favorite storytelling games, and an interesting framework popped out:

Escalation via:

  1. Individual moves
  2. Group moves
  3. Looming pressure
  4. Triggers
  5. Role changes
  6. Schedules
  7. Reflection & Clarification
  8. Collision courses
  9. Staging
  10. Jenga

Here are some examples of each:

1. Individual moves

Things each individual player can choose to do to escalate the game—”pulling the slot machine” for new content or questions.

They can be completely self-paced content (like putting the mask on in Old Friends, or pressing the button in Juggernaut), “moves” (like “Shiver with fear” in Bluebeard’s Bride), or part of the turn structure itself.

Perhaps my favorite is the gruesome escalation of Beastfucker, which happens entirely through individual players choosing to leave the room to “fuck the beast”. This happens offscreen, and is represented by two prompt questions they must return with answers to. Because of the subject matter, the move itself is an escalation, and the answers just make it so, much, WORSE.

2. Group moves

Moves whole or part of the group can choose to perform to raise the stakes.

An example of this is Welcome Guests, where the hosts—a family of cannibals—can decide at any time to eat one of the guests, but only if two of them agree.

Turns out eating a person does indeed raise the stakes. Check!

Another way to define the stakes is to better define how characters feel about the stakes. Randy Lubin has a lovely way of doing this in his hilarious “Behind The Magic”—interludes where all the characters answer questions in a Big Brother style “confessional” chair.

This is very similar to the practice in long form of improv of “group games”. In the venerable Harold, improvisers start with a freeform group game that expands poetically on the audience suggestion, generating tons of tiny ideas that stimulate later scenes, and a thematic bed that subtly knits them together.

3. Looming pressure a.k.a. “Sword of Damocles”

The top down pressure of a decision weighing ever more heavily on the players as the game goes on. The squirming avoidance is a tension machine; knowing that the decision must be made creates a driving force.

The decision to eat a guest in Welcome Guests is also a perfect example of this. You know it’s coming, which forces each player to come to terms with how they feel about it, and act.

4. Triggers

Specific actions players MUST take in response to a certain situation.

I encountered a brilliant example of this playtesting Luke Crane’s “The Gift” at Big Bad Con. It’s a LARP of stuck up elves and kleptomaniac dwarves, and each side has trigger cards that must be played:

  • For the elves: breaking their moral code or seeing another elf threatened
  • For the dwarves: whenever they see a shiny thing

In our game, a grief stricken elf drew his ancient golden blade—a true, jewelled marvel—which triggered a dwarf’s MUST HAVE IT “Greed” card, making him a droolingly, drunkenly leap over the table John Woo style to try to take it at all costs, triggering another elf’s “Grief” card when he drew blood in the ensuing tussle… It. Was. A. Bloodbath.

As you can imagine, these triggers can cause wild chain reactions that players cannot stop easily—use with care—but can be a lot of fun!

5. Role changes

Unlocking new abilities, or completely changing a player’s abilities based on circumstances in the game. This category inherently pairs with other escalations, as it needs some kind of triggering condition.

Examples include:

  • In Welcome Guests, eaten players return as ghosts. They cannot speak, but they can interact through freezing touch and eye contact
  • In Bluebeard’s Bride, an aspect of the Bride can become “Shattered”, removing her ability to control herself with that aspect
  • In the Battlestar Galactica board game, several players discover halfway through that they are Cylons

I haven’t seen a storytelling game do this, but something like the Shadow of Mordor Nemesis system could be a very interesting way to do this based on history and rivalries in the game.

6. Schedule

A fixed pacing forced on the players, perhaps literally (as in the fixed length of The Climb), or by having a fixed structure of scenes.

One example from boardgames is in Betrayal at House on the Hill, which begins with group exploration (and creation) of the map, followed by a dramatic midpoint twist where everything becomes horrible and a randomly selected player is revealed as the antagonist.

7. Reflection & Clarification

[Added this section Feb 18, 2019]

In Downfall, every round has an explicit “Reflection”, where the hero “describes the current state of the world” and whether it is ready to collapse, which naturally forces the cracks open by making them clearer.

In Lovecraftesque, every round ends with each player individually theorizing about the true nature of the horror in a mechanic called “Leaping to conclusions”. Making their own interpretation more concrete amplifies their ability to escalate the story in that direction.

8. Collision courses

This is all about initial setup. Two characters want the same thing, need something from each other, hate each other but must work together, or want different things but are in each other’s way.

This is somewhat table stakes for a good character based LARP or storytelling game, but I’ll call out Honor Bound, which explores toxic masculinity through the lens of a duel nobody wants but which is made inevitable by the interpersonal dynamics that the game explicitly sets up.

9. Staging

This final category is fuzzy but incredibly awesome. Certain ways of delivering mechanics are inherently emotional or can make people do crazy things.

  • In Old Friends, players summon the dead by putting a mask on and embodying a spirit described on a prompt card. You could easily play the game with just the prompt, but the mask changes things. People do weird things with masks.
  • In 10 Candles, you get to burn character sheets! (oh, and the whole game is played by candlelight). In Reflections, the losing samurai, whose body is bisected by their opponents’ blade, tears their character sheet in half at the same time. So cool!
  • The loud 30 seconds of electro-mechanical clacking that plays when you press the button to reveal another of Juggernaut’s predictions

10. Jenga

Nuff, said. 🤣

Where did I land?

This is a very rough and incomplete framework, but I found it helpful to go through the mechanics I have in THE ZONE category by category and see if there were opportunities to amp things up. There were indeed!

Individual moves: THE ZONE uses the “Not so easy” mechanic from Archipelago, and explicit scene cards that the spotlight player pulls at the start of their turn.

I added in two more explicit moves that I’m so excited to playtest:

  • “Something’s not right here” any players can say this, and the group pauses and each person adds a sensory detail (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) or character feeling to better define the horror
  • “Don’t go in there!”—inspired by “Shiver with fear” in Bluebeard’s Bride: if a player is dilly dallying, anyone else can say “Don’t go in there!”. They must say what they’re afraid of, and then MUST go in there. What’s inside is much worse…

Group moves: THE ZONE explicitly has players add sensory details, which is working realy well.

Looming pressures: This is something I’d like to think more about. Better defining the “Center” might help.

Triggers: Each character has a Phobia & Temptation. These were mostly character development, but I’ve now changed them to be explicit triggers: when a character encounters either of them, they MUST immediately act on them.

Role changes: Yes! When a player dies they become one with THE ZONE. I’ve redesigned the character sheet so you flip it inside out to more dramatically represent that change.

Schedules: Going to try predetermining player’s deaths in more detail

Collision courses: I’ve explicitly dialed this one down after realizing that this game is less about interpersonal conflict than it is about world building.

Staging: I talked about this in the previous blog post. so important!

Jenga: hmmmmmm… HMMMMMMMMM…

Final thoughts

Perhaps the biggest insight for me was that it’s not just about raising the stakes: simply defining the stakes with more specificity can increase their emotional weight and give players more ideas for what to do (this episode of Writing Excuses on “Raising The Stakes” is a great resource here).

I’m left with interesting questions:

  • What are the consequences for characters (die, gain or lose abilities, change role, become nemeses?)
  • How prescriptive (sequentially scripted content) or open ended (just questions)?
  • Divergent (generating new content) or convergent (defining things)?
  • Raise the stakes, or simply make them more tangible?
  • Escalate the world, or in your characters’ feelings about the world?
  • How might an escalation make the stakes more personal to your character?

…and of course: when do I do the Jenga version of THE ZONE?

Hello World (and Hello Big Bad Con!)

October 22, 2018

Well this is exciting. After my very first Big Bad Con last weekend, it feels time to gather some sticks, pitch a tent, and kindle a tiny little spot on the internet to talk about storytelling games… including the one I’m actually rather far along in making: THE ZONE.

First of all.

THANK YOU to the wonderful people of Big Bad Con, to everyone who playtested THE ZONE. Stephanie, Aaron, Jonathan, Dani, Peter, Tom, Rick, David & David, Adrian, Chris—you are all master storytellers, lovely humans, and I so appreciated your thoughtful critique and ideas! The game is already better because of you all.

First playtest

I learned so much, but I’ll focus on one big thing: staging.

I’d underestimated the importance of props in creating the necessary atmosphere, but a few days before BBC I undertook a last minute flurry of semi-random purchasing on Amazon, which led to some very fun experiments:

A fun, pulsating experiment with LEDs

The materials around the game can help set the tone faster, making it easier for players to get into the right frame of mind. Although some of the experiments were a bit too “busy”.

An overly loud playmat

It was important to embody the game’s main principle: “Campfire Stories. Controlling the lighting to create a sense of isolation and creepiness really helped.

Credit to @nickpunt for coming up with the brilliant (ha) idea of playing the game with only a flashlight for illumination. This was thematically strong, but also crucial for the usability of the game because it helped people read cards in the dim light and made crystal clear whose turn it was.

An overly loud playmat

And when you’re looking at the photos above—here’s a key data point: it was 11am. 11AM, and a bright 86 degree California day outside, complete with rolling hills, blue sky, and a busy highway right outside the window of the Walnut Creek Marriott. Staging the game was crucial to transporting people away from that world, and into one of mutation, loss of humanity, and psychological horror.

So much kudos to Big Bad Con for giving all the games appropriate spaces to work in. (I’m sure the time will come where I’ll run THE ZONE in a loud convention with 300 other people in the room…)

Oh, and after hearing so much about it I just bought Stephen Dewey’s game / OG case study in how to do this (10 Candles). So excited to play it and be reduced to gibbering bolus of lonely terror! 😱

(Other recommendations welcome!)