Desert of My Real Life

{April 30, 2008}   King of Kong

A few weeks ago, Ann, Greg, Evelyn and I went to the Red River Theater in Concord and saw King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I was prepared to see a movie that did for competitive video gaming what Spellbound did for spelling bees, what Scrabylon did for competitive Scrabble and what Wordplay did for competitive crossword. I got that and so much more. You need to see this movie.

The documentary tells the story of a Donkey Kong rivalry between Billy Mitchell, a restaurant owner from Hollywood, Florida, who gained a modicum of fame in the early 1980’s when he scored the first perfect score on Pac-Man and Steve Weibe, a family guy from Seattle. Billy is part of competitive gaming royalty, a rock star admired by other competitive gamers for his charisma, gaming ability and mullet haircut.  In 1982, he set a high score on Donkey Kong that stood for many years. The film shows Steve Wiebe’s quest to beat that high score. At every turn, Steve is thwarted in his quest by the fact that he is not an insider. The judges of the competition are from an organization called Twin Galaxies, an organization in which Billy Mitchell plays an integral part. At every turn, Steve is screwed over by Billy’s buddies who seem to be unusually invested in maintaining Billy’s mythology. Billy is a bad guy in the movie, proclaiming lofty philosophies of gaming while behaving in ways that are directly opposed to those philosophies. Throughout the movie, I was angry at the injustice of what Steve faced.

And isn’t that the mark of a good movie? Why should I care about whose name goes into the Guinness World Book of Records next to “Live Donkey Kong High Score”? But I did. And that’s why you need to see this movie. It makes you care about a bunch of geeks and their attempts to set records on an obscure game from the early days of video gaming. Even Steve’s young daughter understands the ridiculousness of it all when she tells Steve that Donkey Kong ruins people’s lives.

{April 29, 2008}   Interdisciplinarity?

Ian Bogost’s keynote presentation at this year’s Game Developer’s conference is about the notion of interdisciplinarity. Interesting stuff.

{April 27, 2008}   Games for Little Ones

The other day, Evelyn and I were in BJ’s in Tilton buying large quantities of gum and soap when I spotted a display of games for the Wii. I’ve been wanting to check to see if there’s a boxing game with more realistic physics than the game that comes with Wii Sports so I checked out BJ’s display. Although they didn’t have a boxing game, they did have all kinds of other games packaged in pairs and selling for the price that one game normally sells for. The one that caught my attention was Winter Sports, with 15 different sports (although the various types of skiing really should count as one sport). It was packaged with a game called Action Girlz (yes, with a z–that’s how I know it’s a cool game) Racing. Although I was annoyed at the obvious marketing ploy (and stereotyping) of a game for boys (the Winter Sports package is blue) packaged with a game for girls (you guessed it–Action Girlz Racing comes in pink), I decided to buy the games.

In the checkout line, we listened to our cashier tell a long meandering story that had something to do with a gay rooster to the people in front of us. When the story finally ended, she gave them their receipt (which you need in order to be let out of the place and which the cashier was holding hostage to make them listen to her story) and turned her attention to us. She commented on each item as she scanned it. When she got to the games, she hesitated, took a second look at us and said, “Someone must have a little one at home. Either that or a grandchild.”

A part of me wanted to say, “I’m not old enough to have a grandchild.” Except that I am–my grandmother was a year younger than I am when I was born. But the bigger part of me wanted to say, “Why do you assume that games are for kids?” Raph Koster (in his amazing book A Theory of Fun for Game Design) says, “I also find it curious that as parents, we’ll insist that kids be given the time to play because it’s important to childhood, but that work is deemed far more important later in life. I think work and play aren’t all that different, to be honest.” The rest of the book is an argument about Koster’s belief that when we play, we practice skills that are important to success in life. We socialize with friends. We laugh. We persist in the face of seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. We try out a variety of solutions. We expand our understanding of the way our world works. We keep our minds active and engaged and questioning.

I believe, as Koster does, that play is practice for life. When we play, we learn. And the recent popularity of games gives me hope that more and more people will understand that play is appropriate and important for all of us, regardless of age. So maybe one day that BJ’s clerk will understand that I do have a “little one” at home but the “little one” is me.

{April 16, 2008}   Professional vs. Personal

Ann recently said to me that she was surprised to find that I had put pictures of my niece and nephew on my PSU web page. She had expected my web site to present the professional side of me and not the personal side. Her comment started me thinking about how to separate these two sides of myself. I’m not sure I can. If I think about my life as a continuum, with the professional side on one end and the personal side on the other, I can see that some things fall clearly on one end or the other. Most things, however, fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum.

For example, I have been a huge game player since childhood. I played all kinds of games with my family. One of my favorite game-playing memories is of playing Scrabble with my mother when I was about eight and she had no mercy on me and my eight-year-old vocabulary. I played organized sports all through high school, college and into adulthood. I play video games and board games and card games even now. For most of my life, I would have considered this to be on the personal end of the continuum. But then, about nine years ago, I started to incorporate games into my classes. When I taught Fundamentals of Computing, I would have students play Sherlock and then write an algorithm for how to make guesses in the game. When I taught Client/Server Programming, I had students work on an Internet-based game for their semester project. When I taught Artificial Intelligence, I used games of all sorts to motivate the discussion of various algorithms. When Evelyn and I wrote our Software Engineering book, the project that we developed within the text was a large-scale, multi-player, Internet-based game. Gradually, my interest in game playing has moved further and further to the middle of the continuum between my professional and personal life.

And then two years ago, I had the opportunity to move to the Communication and Media Studies department and teach classes in Digital Media. With this move, my interests in game-playing have become the center of my professional life. Now I spend some part of every day thinking about games, talking about games, writing about games, teaching about games, and playing games. Games are everywhere in my life. How could I separate the professional aspect of game-playing from the personal aspect? I don’t think I can. And that’s part of what I both love and hate about academia.

{April 3, 2008}   Email Problems

We have been having some email problems on campus this week. I’m not sure what’s happening but I do know that our email server will be updated in some way on Sunday. I’m guessing the announcement of this update has something to do with the problems that I’ve been experiencing.

Email has been very slow. I’m using Zimbra as my email client and the slowness manifests itself in a number of ways. First, when I click on a message in my list, it sometimes takes 5 minutes or more for the body of the message to appear in the reading pane below the list. Second, once the message appears and I try to reply, it can take so long for the server to respond that I get a message saying that the server appears to be busy. The dialog box that appears makes it seem as though I can cancel the request to send the email and therefore, send the message again. Doing so will send the message to the recipient twice. Of course, waiting for the server to respond as I move from email to email or try to respond to an email is incredibly frustrating.

The thing that strikes me this week is how much I rely on email. I almost feel like I can’t work at all when my email isn’t working properly. I rely on email for so many things–committee communications, students handing in assignments, me grading assignments and sending the grades back to the students. Yesterday morning, I was trying to grade assignments for a class that had been sent via email and the delays between choosing the email from the list and the email actually being displayed were so significant that I would lose my train of thought about what I was doing. I was unable to grade the assignments in time for my class. The delays in email prevented me from doing my job! It’s not until email doesn’t work properly that I realize how much I rely on it in my work.

et cetera