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Lois Lane, Girl Reporter

March 28, 2011

I just got clued in to this wonderful pitch for a YA series in the DCU focussing on an 11 y.o. Lois Lane. It sounds brilliant.
Too bad DC decided to take a pass on it.

I guess they’re too busy publishing classics like Batman: Odyessey.



Gamers will not save the world

February 1, 2011
tags: ,

This post is a direct response to the recent Lagomorph post, Gamers Save the World?, which itself was a reaction to the following TED talk by Jane McGonigal:

In addition, I am also commenting on another critique of McGonigal that was linked in the Lagomorph post’s comments: The Dwindling Difference Between Play and Work: Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken.

OK, Jacob, here I come to rain on your parade!

After more time musing on this since our email exchange, I’m becoming even more deeply skeptical of McGonigal’s premise.

I don’t agree with the critique you linked that Games are not a medium. They are, which means that there’s a lot more going on than just the direction McGonigal wants to take, and her attempt to claim the entirety of gamerdom into her project is deeply problematic. The 3 billion person hours invested in gaming each week are not a unified productive activity the way, say X person hours invested in an engineering project or public health campaign are. That actually strikes me as coming from a rather privileged perspective.

What McGonigal’s designing and putting out doesn’t dovetail with the vast majority of gaming, either. She’s creating online environments where there’s a lot of participant empowerment (judging from what I’ve seen based on her talk) and which are designed to encourage that and provide direct feedback to encourage that. That’s not what you’re getting from most computer games.

To start with the worst possible example of evil game design, consider Farmville, which is the premier offender when it comes to creating a game designed to cause addiction, anxiety and to compel the player to just keep playing and to try to recruit others without actually providing any sense of fun.

Cultivated Play: Farmville:

Farmville is not a good game. While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine. Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o’clock that evening or risk losing the crop. Each pumpkin costs thirty coins and occupies one square of your farm, so if you own a fourteen by fourteen farm a field of pumpkins costs nearly six thousand coins to plant. Planting requires the user to click on each square three times: once to harvest the previous crop, once to re-plow the square of land, and once to plant the new seeds. This means that a fourteen by fourteen plot of land—which is relatively small for Farmville—takes almost six hundred mouse-clicks to farm, and obligates you to return in a few hours to do it again.

Farmville is also pretty scammy:

Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem of Hell

Typical scam: users are offered in game currency in exchange for filling out an IQ survey. Four simple questions are asked. The answers are irrelevant. When the user gets to the last question they are told their results will be text messaged to them. They are asked to enter in their mobile phone number, and are texted a pin code to enter on the quiz. Once they’ve done that, they’ve just subscribed to a $9.99/month subscription.

Note that Farmville is being played by more people than World of Warcraft. So much for those billions of person hours being invested in gaming, eh?

Let’s continue to consider casual online gaming. I have, myself, done a ton of casual gaming over the past decade as a means of stress relief. The kinds of games I go in for include word games (such as Bookworm and Word Challenge), tower defense games and various puzzle and side scroller games.

These are all the equivalent of doing a crossword puzzle. They’re engaging. They require some problem solving ability and they let you get into the flow of playing them pretty easily. In fact, it’s so easy for me to dive into these that I have a real problem sometimes with my using them as a means of distracting myself when I’m feeling anxious about getting some sort of work done at the computer. I’d go so far as to say that games of this nature have contributed to a severe downturn in the amount of reading I do both online and off.

That said, I can’t say I don’t enjoy puzzling games or that I don’t benefit from the mental workout they can provide. But these games have a strict game structure, with a goal and a set of rules to manipulate. They aren’t going to contribute to real world brainstorming (although they can help you learn logic and problem solving skills).

These games also aren’t social. Like I wrote above, they’re the equivalent of doing a crossword puzzle.

OK, that’s another chunk of McGonigal’s 3 billion person hours eliminated.

So, now we can move onto MMORPGs. World of Warcraft is the obvious example here, although there’s plenty of others. Now, I can’t really comment much on this genre/medium as I’ve never found much appeal despite efforts to engage with them. Now, this is a genre (along with Real Time Strategy) that McGonigal is putting a claim to. However, I am skeptical about this as well.

There certainly are a lot of interesting things going on in the MMORPG world, but I don’t think McGonigal’s model really grasps what’s going on within them. The main commercial ones that have the largest user base provide a structure that allows a lot of directed and cooperative gaming opportunities (as well, I presume, as opportunities for enjoyable solo play as well), with incentive systems for that as well as in-game economies and the like (the better to monetize the gaming system, my dear!). And that does let folks go online with friends near and far and kill some monsters together and shoot the shit (pardon my lack of proper jargon here with regard to the ins and outs of MMORPG strategy and tactics). And these opportunities are the gaming bits McGonigal seems to think give one the chance for the EPIC WIN.

But, dear gamer, those activities are hardwired into the gaming environment. They don’t provide the players with much of an opportunity to tell their own story and drive the game in directions they find interesting. It’s a strategy and tactics game with built in rules and win-conditions (even if there isn’t a game-ending win condition). There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what McGonigal is talking about.

OK, MMORPG gamers, you’re probably sputtering at me right now because there’s a huge element of these gaming environments I haven’t touched on. You’re right! There’s a ton of player-driven drama and storytelling that’s possible in these games, and which I’m sure goes on all over the place. I remember my time on MUDs and MUSHes and know well the great hijinks that are possible.


That kind of play grows out of an environment where a great number of real people are able to interact together and improvise and build on each others’ ideas and actions. The actual interactive portion of these games that define your combat ability or skill at basket weaving do not have a direct, first order contribution to this. There is an influence, since the kinds of avatars you have available to you and the kind of things you can do to affect the coded game environment (as opposed to the social environment) are going to mediate one’s experience very strongly. If you’re playing a strongly graphically oriented fantasy RPG with the choice of Elves, Dwarves, Humans and Goblins for your avatars, that’s going to reify the games milieu pretty strongly. You can present yourself as a replicant on the run from blade runners in such a game, but you’re going to have to be pretty compelling to get your fellow players to go along with it, and you’re still going to be stuck using a club to beat on rats to level up as far as the game engine itself is concerned (at least until you can afford to upgrade your gear, but you’re still not going to be able to buy a fancy ray gun or a flying police car).

Not every online world straitjackets you so strongly. There’s plenty of places where one can build the environment one wants and design one’s online persona to exacting standards, but then we’re moving on from games to varieties of cyberspace such as Second Life, not that there’s an absolute and discrete line between the two. However, I would posit that a truly ludic space requires that the participants have the power to define that space themselves.

The likes of World of Warcraft can be said to be a ludic space by those lights, but only as a side effect of being a large social space that allows various people to get together and play together. This play is influenced greatly by the milieu imposed by the hard coded rules of the space, but the actual play takes place despite those rules. Even if the powers that be cooperate with the gaming population and reify some portion of of the socially constructed world created by the participants into the actual code that creates the game and the virtual space within which it is played, the actual ‘play’ is still coming from the players themselves and will remain, as such, subject to wild flights of fancy that the game’s hosts will be hard pressed to control.

I submit that McGonigal’s approach to games is directly in contradiction to what gaming is and to what makes it valuable. She is approaching games as a means to an end, when they are an end in themselves. The value of play is play itself. It can certainly have other benefits as far as developing mental and physical skills, but if you start to focus on play as a means to an end it ceases to be play. I hesitate to say that it then becomes work, since to my own thinking contrasting work and play as discrete opposites is a mistake. Instead, let me say that making play a means to an end can drain all the fun out of things pretty quickly. The consequences of this can vary. Often this sort of thing just results in a party nobody goes to except for the host. In other cases, the party might just get highjacked into something that the host did not have in mind (as per the kind of socially generated play I discussed going on in WoW).

McGonigal may have some success in making games/cyberspaces that appeal to some people. I haven’t tried any of her designs. However, I’m quite comfortable predicting that they will not scale and that they will remain a small niche of gaming at best. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some of my favorite games and gaming experiences are also the results of niche gaming cultures.

Roll Library Use

April 20, 2009

I just spent a good five hours doing archives research the old fashioned way. None of this online database searching, nope. Don’t even ask for any sort of computerized database to search with. I’m talking about flipping through boxes and boxes of slips of paper! And that’s just the beginning. Those slips just refer me to an accessions index. So, all I’ve done at this point is compile a monstrous list of leads that I then have to look up, again, in an indexed volume. And because I tried to be very very thorough, I know that I’ve got duplicate entries that were filed under different headings. Right now, they’re all written down on about 5 or 6 sheets of paper.

My next step is going to be typing all of it up into vi so I can sort by index number, which is what they’re sorted by in the indices. That way, I’ll also see all the duplicate entries too, so I can get rid of them and not waste further time on them.

My hands are sore and so are my shoulders. I’m going to have to take a hot bath tonight to recover from an archives trawl. Now I know what investigators in Call of Cthulhu are up to when they have to go make a library use roll that takes up an entire day in game time to find just a couple of points of information. I can’t say I’m sorry to have missed that era as a burgeoning academic.

I must say that I do not understand the county’s failure to convert their indices to a computer database. Sure, most of my fellows investigators today were unambiguously elderly, but they were also rocking their mac and PC laptops, so it’s not like they wouldn’t be able to handle a computerized index. I suppose many of them are used to the bizarre setup, but damn. And a country records office isn’t used only by retired hobbyists. That system must be wasting a lot of county employee time. Come one, hire someone who’s computer literate enough to manage a conversion and set them to it. There have been black box solutions for this kind of thing for over 20 years now. Buy hardware, buy software. Set it up. Hire an IT consulting company if you have to. Then you just need a small army of data entry people for a few weeks or a month.

I did get a kick out of imagining myself looking up the ownership records of the old Whatley farmstead though.

I also glommed on to an idea for an interesting (to me) Burning Wheel (or whatever fantasy engine you like) campaign. I’m imagining the early Roman annexation of Brittania (or a fantasy analog), where players are either citizens of ‘Rome’ or some of the recently annexed subjects who are given responsibility for managing, negotiating and implementing the infrastructure of the new regime somewhere remote. And while there will be somewhere relatively nearby to flee to, if necessary, there really isn’t any sort of military enforcement. It’d all be up to the players’ negotiation skills. They’d need to recruit and train people from the local British population. I’m specifically thinking about this in the context of the Roman lead mining activity that went on in my heritage management plan region.

I’m thinking of the whole soup to nuts of infrastructure building here. Actually, further than that, I think it’d work quite well to start out with a group assigned to go find out where all that lead (or whatever resource) that Rome knows comes out of the area comes from. So, start out with a group of Gallic Roman citizens, say, or at least start out in Gaul. The Players’ job will be to get to Brittania, find the source of the resource and implement an extraction industry.

I think there’s a lot of potential there for political intrigue along with a bunch of mining/archaeology geekery.


April 20, 2009

OK, time to get back on the horse. I just spent what amounted to a long weekend spinning my wheels, again. I managed to get some good stuff accomplished in the early part of last week, but from Thursday on I didn’t manage to accomplish much, school wise. Ugh. If I don’t have somewhere to go in the morning, I seem to just laze about and by the time I get revved up for some work, it’s the afternoon. And in the afternoon I’ve been hitting a wall of sluggishness and falling asleep. Then I wake up in time to cook dinner and wind down for the evening, resulting in my accomplishing zilch.

I think I really do need to get out of the house to get any work done without an imminent deadline hanging over me. This morning, for example, when I’m on the train to Worcester once again. I wonder if I can entice any of my cohort into some sort of morning kaffe klatch as a way to get ourselves out and to work…

Something to think about, anyway.

I did manage to do a bit of project housekeeping yesterday, at least. I set up my bibliography for the management plan, made an incomplete list of the salient features that need managing, and sent out some more email to various stakeholders. Now that Easter holidays are over (I hope!), perhaps I’ll actually hear back from some of these people. I did, at least, hear back from the head of my program and it sounds like I can get an extension for the project if I need it to get input and feedback from the various interested parties.

Still need to determine a dissertation topic though, and polish up the proposal for same. Grah.

On the plus side of things, the weather continues to improve and I’ve joined a softball league, which will have me getting dirty and sore on Tuesday nights. The advantage to playing softball in the UK is that my limited range of skills are just fine for the lowest league level. Most everyone else is still trying to learn to catch, hit and throw. I just need to figure out how to throw properly again, and also to improve my range as a fielder, although I did better practicing at shortstop than I had anticipated. I still probably make a better outfielder or first baseman though.

I also want to start riding my bike out on the Bristol/Bath trail more. I was really impressed with it, once I got out of Bristol. There are plenty of great spots to stop and picnic and the trail is in quite good shape. Even better, the people who use the trail are, for the most part, courteous and conscientious. I may just pick up some inline skates too, as skating the trail should work quite well.

OK, now I’m just repeating myself from last week, aren’t I? Just about into Worcester anyway, so it’s time to pack up. Now, if I can just keep myself working, I can actually start writing entries that are more than complaining about not working.


April 14, 2009

Well’s feeling kinda dry this morning.

I’m on the train to Taunton today, off to dig up all the records I’ve decided aren’t really all that crucial for my management plan, but at least it gives me something to do for it while I wait to hear from folks after the Easter holiday. And it’ll also have me in Taunton in case I do hear back and someone’s available today.

Managed to do some organizing of the project last night, although it took putting on my ruthless mindset. It’d be nice if I could get shit down without doig that. After I do my requisite writing here, I’m planning on doing some more reading before I arrive. On the way back, I should have a butt-ton of further material to absorb as well. Then! Then. I’m hoping to actually write a section of the plan tonight, as I should be more than prepared enough to write up a history of the site, at least to a zero or first draft level.

This past term, and the sort of projects I’m currently working on, have all been pretty concrete. That’s one thing I’ll give to the Materialities section, it gave us a dose of theory and of looking hard at interpretation of material remains. I’m not doing much in the way of interpretation with Worcester or up on the Mendips. And that, I think, is coloring my thoughts about my dissertation too. I’m just focusing on nuts and bolts, and that is also exacerbated by my increasing sense of urgency as I spin my wheels trying to get traction on my management project.

Laying that out like that, I do believe what I need is a dose of pie in the sky archaeological reading. Heh. That points right back to my issues with not getting a lot of reading done. And, what I have been reading has been dreadfully practical. I’m currently reading another dissertation advice book, and before that was a volume on heritage management. I’m thinking that my next volume should not be the one about open source GIS, but rather something like Stonehenge, Biography of a Landscape. That, and I probably could do with another go through of The Craft of Research. The latter’s what got me cranking on my materialities essay and may be the kick in the pants I need for my dissertation topic dilemma.

Time out. Hitting the diary…

Well, writing this up today has just paid for itself, methinks.

Here’s a thought I just had. I’m mortified at the thought of calling myself an archaeologist right now, and even have a hard time imagining myself saying that with confidence in the future. I just feel too under-skilled and too unfocused Yeah, I’m still dealing with imposter syndrome, and this despite having seen that one does not need to be Wile E. Coyote, Super-Genius to be a successful archaeologist.

One thing I’m intimidated by is the technical writing aspect of things. I absolutely hated and felt a failure at doing grants when I got (inappropriately, IMHO) tagged to do that when I was the network manager for several school districts in Illinois. Now, I’m well aware that there’s going to have to be that sort of thing in my working life as an archaeologist, and while I don’t feel the same hostility to it that I did when I was doing IT, I still feel like it’s something I can easily mung up.

K 3

April 13, 2009

We’re sitting out in our garden today, enjoying our third day of nice sunshiny weather. That’s not doing much for my feeling of malaise, as I’m wondering where the last two weeks went when I should have been getting up to speed on my management plan. Today hasn’t been any better either. Got up, fed the cats, fell asleep.

After I get done writing here, I’m going to try to grab all the material that I have so far and organize it a bit, so I can work on discrete chunks. Tomorrow, I’m planning on going to Taunton to do a bit more research, although perhaps not as much in depth as I had intended.

I have to get onto the site again this week too. That’d have to be on Wednesday or Friday.

No word as yet from any of the parties with a stake in the site, but that’s not much of a surprise, what with the insanely long Easter holiday weekend.

I still need to arrive at a topic for my dissertation too. I’m leaning more and more towards adopting a part of my work placement DBA study, much as my heart still yearns to track down traces of scientific tinkerings scattered across the landscape.

I’ve got a variety of minor bits and pieces I need to take care of too. I have to get the information about my work placement submitted, and make sure that I do get a risk assessment plan for that. I also have some homework I need to do for that project before I hit the records office up in Worcester. Nothing all that tough, but I just have not managed to do jack all while at home for the past two weeks.

So, what might I get done today/tonight?

Heritage Management Plan

o collect all my materials and assess them
o organize the site features and take notes on them
o read the management plan for the Peak District lead mines
o read up on the history of the area
o start to write up the history of the area

Worcester DBA

o collect materials and assess
o organize site features, take notes, etc.
o collect bibliographical references from current materials
o limited map regressions
o upload CDs with LIDAR, Doherty map, etc. to my computer
o Look up any info for tracking down relevant garden architects/designers


o On doing Worcester work, assess validity of potential dissertation topic

I really ought to grab my diary and get to work on that too. I’ve been pretty lax in keeping up a
list of to-dos. That really should be the first thing I reach for after I’ve fed the cats.

Hmmm… What kind of morning routine can I shape?

Cats -> Diary -> Journal -> Exercise -> Breakfast (reading?) -> To Work…

Oh, I did do taxes this weekend, so that’s something.

Definitely need to get this crap sorted out, as it’s all I tend to think about at the moment, which just amps up the anxiety and limits the productivity.

Path of Dreams

April 12, 2009
tags: ,

OK, that was awesome.

Took a ride along the Bristol/Bath cycle path and loved it. The folks using it were by and large good about sharing the path. Only one really stupid kid who needs culling from the gene pool, which kept the experience from being infinitely better than my experiences skating in NYC, but was still about 3 orders of magnitude better. I think I need to get set up with inline skating kit here.

Also, great spots for picnicking along the path and some interesting remains of old train stations to boot. Looks like there’s a steam engine line running along part of the path as well.