Desert of My Real Life

{March 29, 2008}   Desktop Layouts

My friend Ann (who, despite being one of the most astute critics of the technological life that I know (or maybe because of that fact–don’t you love the parenthetical to the parenthetical?), surprisingly does not have a web page or much of a web presence–otherwise I would put a link to her here) and I are working together to read a number of texts at the intersection of our two fields, computing and literary theory. We have read, among other things, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Obviously, the work we’ve done together has inspired this blog. The other day, we were discussing our latest project in the HUB (PSU’s student union), each using our laptops to make notes. When I showed her my computer, she was intrigued by the arrangement of icons on my desktop.

There are many limitations to the desktop metaphor for organizing files and folders. But Microsoft has introduced additional problems into the metaphor by only considering it at a superficial level. The default for Windows XP is to put icons in alphabetical order starting in the upper left corner of the desktop. This has never made sense to me. The desktop metaphor is a spatial one–the screen of the computer is supposed to represent a real, physical desktop. On a real desktop, WHERE you place an item is of primary importance. The NAME of that file is not important at all. And yet, Microsoft has chosen a default organizational structure that depends on the name of the folder or document. I have chosen to organize my computer desktop in a way that is very similar to the way I organize my physical desktop. In the upper right corner of my desktop are the things that I want to deal with first when I sit at my desk or start my computer. There’s a shortcut to NHPR’s streaming audio which I always start first thing. (I am addicted to National Public Radio–that will be the subject of a future post.) There’s a shortcut to my web browser which allows me to check my email next. As I move down the right side of the screen, there are the folders for my current classes, followed by articles and other projects I’m working on followed by the applications I use most. Across the bottom of the screen are zip files which contain the work of previous semesters. On the left side of the desktop are the items I use most infrequently. These items tend to remain in alphabetical order because I don’t care enough about them to move them around.

Ann pointed out to me that my desktop organization is kind of like a clock, with the things I want to be able to deal with first at 1 o’clock and things I don’t care about at 11 o’clock. The clock is an apt metaphor for how I organize my desktop–and I guess I see more of a relationship between my time organization and the desktop metaphor than between Windows’ default alphabetical organization and the desktop metaphor.

One of the things that interests me is how we understand what the computer is presenting to us. The use of metaphors is clearly important. But when the metaphors are superficial, they fail to help new users understand the information they face. We may think that there are no new users, that everyone knows and understands how Windows works. But it isn’t true. I spend my Friday afternoons at the Interlakes Senior Center in Meredith, NH, teaching senior citizens how to use computers. I am constantly amazed at how much one has to know in order to interpret the information presented by the computer in even the simplest interaction. As I explain even the most basic activities, there is a constant tension between too much information so that I overwhelm them and too little information so that they don’t really understand what’s going on. If the metaphors worked on deeper levels or if the information presented could be organized in more intuitive ways, I think some of this tension could be lessened.

{March 26, 2008}   Games as Rhetorical Tools

My friend Beth sent me information about a game that has been making some headlines in England and France. It’s called Miss Bimbo and apparently there are about a million subscribers in France and about 200,000 subscribers in England. Many of the subscribers are 7-17 year-old girls. Its creator is a 23-year-old web designer named Nicolas Jacquart. In this online game, which appears to be similar to Webkinz, players attempt to keep their “bimbo” alive by occasionally feeding her (but, of course, maintaining her low weight), encouraging her to find a sugar daddy rather than doing something nasty like working, and “if necessary,” getting breast implants and other kinds of plastic surgery.

An interesting thing is that when I pointed this game out to a group of friends, Robin said that when she first read about it, she thought it was a smart critique of Barbie culture. Then she realized it wasn’t a parody but was supposed to be taken seriously. It would be interesting to see what kind of game the Barbie Liberation Organization might design.

I love the idea of using games as rhetorical tools for social criticism and editorial comment. Ian Bogost has created a company called Persuasive Games which is based on exactly this idea. He says, “Our games influence players to take action through gameplay.” The idea of using games as rhetorical tools has huge potential that has hardly been tapped. It’s one of the core ideas of my class called Creating Games. Students in that class are required to create a board game that has a point of view. The way we talk about this in the class is that the game needs to have a message or teach a lesson of some sort. After some initial hesitation, most of the students understand what I mean by “point of view” and actually develop interesting games. I’ll be discussing some of these games and some of my ideas about using games as a communication medium at the Eastern Communication Association Conference in May.

{March 23, 2008}   Online Viewing

Living in central New Hampshire means that access to independent cinema can be problematic. I’ve been a NetFlix subscriber for about 4 years–I’ve appreciated the range of their offerings and have seen some films that I probably wouldn’t have paid to see in a theater. Increasingly, however, I’ve been troubled by the quality of the DVDs that I receive from NetFlix. Often, they are badly scratched. Even when they aren’t BADLY scratched, they might have enough scratches on a section of the DVD that makes that part of the film difficult to view. Several times, I’ve sent a DVD back, asked for a replacement and received a second DVD that also has problems. In fact, that’s the reason that I still haven’t seen A Scanner Darkly–I tried three times before I finally gave up.

Then I discovered that I could watch some movies and TV shows at NetFlix online (free for subscribers). What a great idea!  The downside of viewing on NetFlix, however, is that you have to download and install their viewer, which does not work with Firefox (which is my main web browser). But finally, the broadcast networks are discovering that they can extend their audience by offering content online. All four of the major networks have begun offering online content, including of their current shows. And the best thing is that these sites do not require a special viewer. I’ve enjoyed watching Lost at ABC’s site. About a year ago, NBC and Fox collaborated to open CBS’s content is hosted by The two things that will make or break these sites are the quality of the content and ease of use. The quality of content is pretty good, I think. The ease of use is fine as long as you want to view the content on your computer. The next step in the ease of use battle is to make it easier to connect the TV itself to the Internet.

{March 21, 2008}   iPods and the “Real World”

There have been a number of stories in the past few weeks linking a rise in violent crime rates to increased popularity of small electronic devices like the iPod. The stories are based on a study by the Urban Institute, a non-partisan Washington think tank. The study found that violent crime rose in 2005 and 2006 after falling for the previous fourteen years and that the reason may be the popularity of the iPod.

When someone is using an iPod, he is fairly oblivious to his surroundings–in fact, that obliviousness is part of the point of using the iPod. It allows the user to exist in a world apart which in turn makes him a fairly easy target. An iPod is expensive and desirable which provides the motivation for the crime. And because the iPod is small and popular, once stolen, it doesn’t stand out which means that there is a high likelihood that the perpetrator will get away with the crime. When these three factors come together–a motivation for a crime against a suitably vulnerable victim and with a low likelihood of getting caught–crime is likely to occur.

We went to Boston for a few days earlier this week and I was surprised by the ubiquity of these portable music devices. Here in Plymouth, I’m mostly used to seeing students wearing them–and most students seem to own them. I own one myself but I tend to use it only when I’m exercising. So they are very common in every day life here but mostly just among the student population. In Boston, it was a different experience. People of all types were wearing them on the subway. In fact, there were several times when I saw business men dressed in power suits wearing what looked like very large earrings. When I looked more closely, however, the earrings were ear buds for their iPods. What is it about these devices that make them so popular, especially, it seems, in urban settings?

When I was in college, I spent a semester at the University of Edinburgh. To go from Hanover, NH to Edinburgh, Scotland is a culture shock in so many ways. For me, one of the most challenging aspects was getting used to living amidst so many people in a big city. In Hanover, I would hardly ever wear my Walkman but in Edinburgh, I wore it constantly. As I walked from where I lived to the campus, I listened to mix tapes, my own personal soundtrack. I used the technology to create a private mental space in a place where I lacked a sense of physical space. The technology helped to keep the “real world” at bay so that I could deal with it in my own time and my own way. That’s what I think is going on in today’s urban areas and probably even among my students here in Plymouth who have to share their physical space with roommates. The technology allows us to not pay attention to what’s happening around us. The technology is (in Baudrillard’s words) a deterrence, a distraction that keeps us focused on something other than what’s wrong with the world and with our lives.

{March 20, 2008}   War–A Game-like Activity

I teach a class called Creating Games that fulfills the Creative Thought requirement within our general education program. The class is focused on game design principles that can be used in creating games of all kinds. Because of the limited availability of the technical tools required to create digital games, this class focuses on the design and development of non-digital games although I believe that there are plenty of principles that apply to games of all types.

The main challenge I have in teaching this class is to get students to understand that games can be studied and analyzed just as cultural artifacts such as novels and movies can be studied and analyzed. It seems that many students want to say whether a game is fun or not and leave their comments at that. So we go through a series of exercises in which we break a game apart and try to figure out how it works. In one of these exercises, I use Greg Costikyan’s article “I Have No Words and I Must Design” as the framework by which we will analyze the classic card game War.

Costikyan provides a definition of a game that includes six elements. The six elements are decision-making, goals, opposition, managing resources, game tokens and information. If an activity does not include each of these six elements, Costikyan argues that the activity cannot be considered a game. When the students apply this framework to War, students quickly find that Costikyan would not consider War to be a game, primarily because it requires no decision-making. You simply flip a card and hope that it beats your opponent’s card. Although most students are able to easily understand this lack of decision-making, they struggle with some of the other elements that Costikyan discusses, perhaps because Costikyan doesn’t make the relationships among the elements absolutely clear.

Students do not seem to have difficulty understanding what Costikyan means by goals but they do have some difficulty understanding the relationship between the player’s goals in War and the weaknesses of War. The player has one goal in War and that is to get all of the cards. (Some people play that the game is over when one player wins three wars–in that case, the goal is to win three wars but the argument remains the same.) This is a very clear goal and by itself, it does not constitute a weakness of the game. The problem is that there is nothing that the player can do to increase (or decrease) her likelihood that she will achieve her goal. And that’s because there is no decision-making within the game.

One element that students find particularly challenging to understand is opposition. Costikyan says, “In a two-player, head-to-head game, your opponent is the opposition, … .” So since War is a two-player, head-to-head game, the opponent is the opposition, right? But Costikyan makes a big deal about the word struggle when he talks about opposition. He says that when players don’t struggle to reach their goals, they won’t feel the thrill of victory because it was all too easy. He says that the game designer must make the players work to achieve their goals. But in War, there is no work to be done because there are no decisions to be made. There is no struggle. The player is left to face the forces of nature and hope that nature is kind. The player can do nothing to manipulate or change her destiny. The luck of the draw will determine who wins the game. In fact, as soon as the cards are dealt, the winner has been chosen and all the players can do is mechanically flip the cards to find out what nature already knows.

Costikyan then goes on to discuss managing resources. He argues that adding decision-making isn’t enough to make a game. The decisions must be meaningful decisions and they can only be meaningful if they involve the management of some kind of resource. War has a set of resources–the cards themselves. But because the game provides no decision-making at all that can be made in the game, by definition, there is no meaningful decision-making. So the weakness of the game isn’t that there aren’t enough resources to manage. In fact, lots of card games use only cards as resources and are outstanding games. No, the problem is that there is no way to manage the resources of the game because there is no decision-making in the game.

Students also seem to have difficulty with the distinction that Costikyan makes between resources and game tokens. He says, “A game token is any entity you may manipulate directly.” And the relationship between resources and game tokens? “Resources are things you must manage efficiently to achieve your goals; tokens are your means of managing them.” Part of the reason that students have difficulty with this concept, I think, is because in many games, there is a one-to-one correspondence between resources and game tokens. That’s true in War, for example. The cards act as both resources and game tokens. Just as it is not a weakness to have only cards as resources, it is also not a weakness to have only cards as game tokens. There are many fine card games that have no tokens other than cards. Once again, the problem is really that there is nothing the player can do with the game tokens to manage his resources in a way that increases (or decreases) his likelihood of winning the game.

The last element of a game that Costikyan discusses is information. Of the player, Costikyan says, “he must have enough information to be able to make a sensible decision.” In War, all information is hidden from the player. The player knows nothing about her opponent’s cards but she also knows nothing about her own cards. Students will sometimes address the lack of decision-making in War by dividing a player’s pile of cards into two piles. The player will then choose the pile, still without looking at the cards, from which her next card will come. Although there is now a decision to be made, it is not a meaningful decision because the player still has no information to help decide which pile will be best. So information is critical to meaningful decision-making. The player needs to have some information that will allow her to make a sensible decision, a decision that might help her get closer to her goal.

The main reason that people over the age of eight get bored with War is its lack of decision-making. The lack of information and the inability to manage resources are both related to the lack of decision-making. These things mean that War is not even a game if we are to use Costikyan’s definition. Students who remember fondly their hours of playing War are sometimes hostile to the idea that it isn’t a game. I would argue that War is game-like and serves two useful purposes for children who engage in the activity. First, kids learn the ranks of the cards. They learn which cards beat which other cards which will help them in learning to play many other games. Second, and perhaps most importantly, they learn how to engage in game activities. They learn that games have rules that must be followed, even when it means that you don’t win. They learn the patience that is required to engage in game activities–you can’t just jump to your goal without paying attention to the obstacles that have been placed in front of you in the name of the game. And they learn that everyone loses sometimes and sometimes that loss happens because of bad luck. Since game-playing is so important to humans, learning these lessons of games via a game-like activity is akin to learning to be human.

{March 19, 2008}   Buying a Wii

So is it strange for a 45-year-old woman to covet a Wii? I’ve been intrigued by this game system since I first saw one two years ago. So I finally bought one. I’ve been looking around in Best Circuit Shack-type stores but everyone has been sold out. Last week, I bit the bullet and ordered one online. I went all out–extra remote, numchuk, classic controller and so on. And to top it all off–I got DDR to go with it. It arrived today via UPS and it took only about 20 minutes to set it up.

Evelyn and I played all the sports right away. It turns out that I’m really good at tennis but she’s really good at boxing. She’s a brute and I should be eating strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. In the boxing game, I haven’t quite figured out how to protect my face and body but score hits on her face and body at the same time. She beat me in a decision and then in our second match, she outright knocked me out in the first round! We had a blast and were both sweating profusely by the time we were done. We got so tired out by the sports that we haven’t even tried DDR yet. We need to get another dance pad before we really have a great time with it.

One interesting thing to me about the Wii is the how poor the graphics are. For years, game reviews have focused on increased realism in the rendering of the game worlds. The technological challenges involved in rendering a tree blowing in the wind in a realistic manner are great but the average person doesn’t get excited about those challenges. The Wii moves us in the direction of ignoring the graphics to focus on the game play and how the player interacts with the game world. In the baseball game, for example, the Miis run around without any legs. In the boxing game, the Miis’ hands are separated from their bodies. And yet there’s something about the interface that has captured the imagination of all kinds of people, especially people who aren’t typically gamers. While Evelyn and I were playing, we both got into the games with our entire bodies. In fact, when Evelyn would serve in tennis, she would use her left hand to toss an imaginary ball into the air. Her left hand didn’t have any sort of controller in it and so she did that movement solely for her own brain, rather than for anything in the game itself. I think that’s the key to the appeal of the game–your movements in the real world are almost directly mapped into the game world. The manner in which we use the Wii remote (and the numchuk) are mapped into the game world in a way that makes us feel as though the remote is both a part of our world and a part of the game world. It exists on the boundary, the threshold, of the real, physical world and the game world. Like the dance pad in DDR, it is the threshold object (what Janet Murray would call the “liminal object”) that engages us, immerses us in the world of the game.

With the success of the Wii, all kinds of companies are focusing on different ways to interact with games. Ars Technica today has a review of a new game controller that sounds interesting in the way that DDR’s dance pads and the Wii are interesting. It’s called the Novint Falcon. It remains to be seen which of these new hardware interfaces are going to be successful but I think the focus on them is a positive development.

{March 13, 2008}   Dance Dance Revolution

One of my favorite ways to pass a cold New Hampshire evening is to play Texas Hold’em with a group of friends. One Saturday night in late January, I went to spend just such an evening at the home of my good friends, Scott and Tab. As luck (and my poor play) would have it, I was knocked out of the tournament rather early. In most situations when this happens to me, I wait until enough people have been knocked out of a tournament and start a new tournament with those folks (because, really, you can never play enough Hold’em). On this night, however, I went down into Scott and Tab’s basement and found a game I like far better than Texas Hold’em–I found Dance Dance Revolution.

The game is surprisingly simple. A competitor stands in front of a television set that has game console attached to it. Rather than using a joystick or some other standard controller to interact with the game, the competitor stands on a pad that has four arrows on it. One arrow points to the front, one back, one left and one right. A song begins to play and the screen is animated with arrows that keep the beat of the song. The goal of the competitor is to step on the appropriate pad arrow at precisely the moment that the screen arrow hits a designated spot at the top of the screen. The more precisely the competitor steps on the pad arrows, the more points she scores.

Scott and Tab have a PS2 and two dance pads set up on the TV in their basement. As people were knocked out of the tournament upstairs, they came downstairs into a world of dance. When Evelyn came down, she established herself as THE ONE AND TRUE DANCE QUEEN by beating all comers for over an hour (maybe it was two hours–my mind was a blur amid the swirling disco beats). And then came Scott. It’s his game, of course, and so you would expect that with all the hours of practice that he’s had, he would have an easy time beating Evelyn.  He did beat her but it was the closest match of the evening.  As the new queen, he owned the dance pad for the next hour.

Finally, it was Evelyn’s turn for a rematch with Scott. Before choosing the songs that they would dance to, Scott threw a ten dollar bet onto the floor. Evelyn eagerly matched it. After three songs, she had amassed more points than he had. As the victor, she snatched the $20 off the floor, having now won back all the money she lost in the Hold’em tournament that had brought us all to this place. Unfortunately, we had to leave before a rubber match between Scott and Evelyn could occur so we still don’t know which of the two is the DDR monarch.

So why is this game so addicting? I think the biggest factor has to do with the mode of interaction. The dance pad is a threshold object, an object on the threshold between the real world of our bodies and the artificial world of the game. A movement of the body in the real world results in a satisfyingly equivalent movement of an artifact in the artificial world of the game. The more precise your movements in the real world, the better you will do in the game world. This is a perfect example of a game in which better graphics will not result in a better game experience. Instead, the close linking of real world movements to the actions within the game world result in a greater sense of agency for the player. And this agency results in a more immersive, engaging experience for the player.

{March 12, 2008}   About This Blog

The desert of the real is Jean Baudrillard’s phrase that explains our lives today. The phrase was made popular by Morpheus in The Matrix, when he shows Neo that the world that Neo thought was real is instead constructed by machines that are trying to keep humans under control (which Baudrillard would call a deterrence). Throughout the Matrix trilogy, Neo learns to use the constructs of that world to his advantage. So this blog is about the role that technology plays in my life in particular and in society in general. Is technology under our control or are we under its control?

et cetera