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May 31, 2003

[DG] Jesper Juul: The affinity between computers and games

Jesper is going to talk about the affinity of games and computers. [Abstract]

Why do we play computer games? Well, why do we play games at all? The real question is: Why do games fit computers so well? Computers are an enabler of games the way cinemas enable story telling.

He gives a nuanced analysis of classical games. Then he looks at what happens if you remove one of the elements. For example, games classically have rules. Take away the rules and you can have freeform play. If you remove the fact that we place a value on the outcomes (i.e., we like to win), you can get Conway’s game of life or watch a fireplace. So, this is a definition of games that — despite Wittgenstein — is useful since it provides a way to think about assumptions.

The elements of the classical model have been removed since around 1970. E.g., pen and paper role playing games don’t have fixed rules and Doom doesn’;t have a quantifiable outcome. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that the player feels associated with the outcome.

Games aren’t tied to any particular media. They can be “transmedial.” E.g., computer hearts is just like real world hearts, but John Madden Football isn’t.

He concludes: Games have moved onto computers so easily because we have spent millennia driving the ambiguity out of games. He says, “Expanding the field of games is one of the computer’s most important contriutions to human culture.”

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[DG] Edward Castronova: Virtual Worlds

Ted is an economist. He’s the guy who wrote the paper about the economics of Evetrquest. You can find more papers by him here. [Abstract]

He surveyed users of Everquest, and got 3,619 answers. He applied some standard economic techniques to evaluate the economics of that Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG, i.e., More-Peg). And, most entertainingly, he found that 20% of respondents said that they live in Norrath (one of the game’s worlds) and visit the real world. The average of all respondents is spending 4.5 hours per day playing the game and have put a total of about 800 hours into their main avatar.

“This is a frontier.” It attracts people who are stigmatized. It can greatly increase human well-being.

Ted reports on new, unpublished research. He wants to see if two characters sold at ebay have different prices because one is male and one is female. At a $400 typical auction price, the female sells at about a 10% discount.

Ted also tracks currency prices for the virtual world’s money against the US dollar. At the moment, Korean bucks are worth less than virtual simoleons.

He says that the current model in which a corporation is in charge of the virtual world isn’t working too well. Players are constantly pissed off and feel completely alienated from the governing body. It will have to change but he doesn’t know how.

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[DG] Greg Costikyan: Games in Crisis

Greg is talking about the severe pressure the game industry is under. Development budgets have increased in a Moore-like way but revenues haven’t: A game ten years ago cost about $200,000 to produce; now it costs $2M+. App size has gone up two orders of magnitude in just a few years. Most of the costs are for graphic design. I.e., it used to take a one person-day to build. A Doom III level takes 2+ weeks.

But the industry feels it has to keep moving up. The audience has no “Indie game” aesthetic. And games are sold to distributors on the basis of brief demos that highlight the graphics. Actual gameplay is too hard to judge to play much of a role in the decisions. And, historically, supporting advanced hardware has increased sales, but (says Greg) that’s because the hardware has sucked.

Games lose money. And it will get worse. Consequence: The field is driven by mega-hits. Over 89% of sales are generated by thhe top ten games. Publishers will continue to consolidate. And games will be more like other games; the most lucrative approach is to publish a sports game that has minor annual updates. And basing a game on a commercial character (or doing a sequel) reduces the risk. It has to fall into an existing category, with innovation only on the margins.

There is interest in independent game development because people are desperate for a hit. Also, mobile games are showing signs of life becausegames mobile platforms require much less develop time.

But, overall, says Greg, we’re facing the “comicization” of gaming, marginalizing it as an artform. But, the field is wide open in terms of possible innovation.

Possible solutions: Keep costs down by having the games companies conspire to work together. Or find new sources of revenue. Or online distribution, which works for puzzle games (e.g. Jewel, Tetris) on Yahoo Games, etc. We will see a revival of shareware. And mods will survive, although there’s no real business model. We need a parallel distribution channel for independent games, analogous to the indie music scene an d art house for film. Possibly we’ll see “advergaming” as per WildTangent. And the academic environment is producing some interesting games.

Or maybe we won’t keep pushing against Moore’s Law once we have cinematic quality games. And then perhaps cinematic quality won’t be required in every game: photography gave rise to abstract art, says Greg.

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[DG] Micah Jackson: SelfObjects

Micah is providing a way to think about the self online and off. [Abstract]

Self psychology was originally developed by Heinz Kohut to deal with personality disorders. He talked about selfobjects, which are anything you encounter that you consider constitutive of you. Some are healthy and some aren’t. Idealized selfobjects tell you how to be. Healthy ones might be a teacher or a hero. An unhealthy selfobject is destructive of your personality, e.g., Jesse James. A mirroring selfobject gives feedback to you, e.g., an audience that nods as you talk. A drill instructor might be both an idealized and mirroring selfoject.

What are online selfobjects?

An idealized electronic selfobject might be a computer (accurate, great uptime, logical) or Google.

An electronic mirroring object might be your program’s ability to compile (if you’re a programmer).

An electronically mediated idealized selfobject might be someone you know mostly online or online relationships (clans, guilds) you hold in high regard. Or the apartment on the TV show Friends.

An electronically mediated mirroring self objects might be comments on your blog.

Implications for real life: People who segment their online life from real life may appear significantly different when online. People who are more “integrated” may show online traits offline as well. And, of course, just because you use a technology doesn’t mean that you take as a selfobject.

I am my blog. My blog is me.

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[DG] The Happy Tutor

The Tutor begins by reminding us that his presentation is the property of the Happy Tutor. [Abstract]

His 19 aphorisms and one parable are essentially poetry. You can read a close version of them for yourself here.

Quite wonderful.

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[DG] Robert Moore: Brand

Semiotics has been associated with a type of idealism (Rob says), dealing only with immaterial signs. Rob is going to see if there’s a way of also anchoring it in the earth: something can be both a material thing and a sign (e.g., a communion wafer). [Abstract]

Everything is being branded these days. Brands are “unstable composite entities” joining a thing (product) and language. Brands don’t become real until tokens of them (e.g., individual cans of Coke) are taken up and used.

Rob will give three pathologies of brand will illustrate the way they are composite and what their semiotics are: genericide, ingredient branding, and viral marketing. These will show us how names and things are vulnerable in different ways.

Genericide=when a court decides that a brand name is now generic. Consumers take over the brand and the product is a mere commodity.

In ingredient branding, the product, not the name, becomes invisible. E.g., Nutrasweet, Intel, Dolby. In this case, the mark, logo or brand name, is the only part of the product that is visible to the consumer. The marketing folks think that the consumer needs help in making the value of the ingredient product. The host and ingredient brands circulate independently, but lending each other value: if you’ve seen Intel Inside on a Dell box and then a Bob’s Computers box, some of the value of Dell rubs off on Bob.

Viral marketing as in Hotmail means that the customer provides an “involuntary endorsement.”

In synthetic worlds (chats, MMORPGs), people’s interaction is mediated by names. We make ourselves available to one another via names. There is a chain of names from user name to IP address to social security to a real person. “Sooner or later, you strike meat.”

Conclusion: Brands provide a new type of relationship among people. The semiotic vulnerabilities exist in synthetic worlds. E.g., a man in the real world was arrested for selling someone else’s online property. So, there is something special about the earth after all.

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[DG] Molly Wright Steenson: Imaginary Architects

Molly is going to talk about similarities between architecture during the Weimar period (1919-1933) and the Internet. [Abstract]

Just as architects in the Weimar period took their work into a theoretical and communicative sphere in order to forge their conceptions of modern architecture, information architects, web designers and content developers explore their ideas through blogs, comments and email lists.

During the 20s, there was a lot of utopian discourse around design. But Molly doesn’t find much such talk on the Internet.

Molly uses Bruno Taut for her insight into the expressionist architecture of the 20s. He was all over the map, but believed that architecture could lead a revolution in art and thus in society. He formed “The Crystal Chain,” which was in effect a paper-based mailing list to talk about such ideas. There was an exchange of “fantastic, beautiful letters.”

Today there’s some interesting conversation going on, e.g., Crispin Jones, Howard Rheingold, Derek M. Powazek The digital revolution has taken place, but not in the boardrooms. It’s in how the Web “grows communities almost without trying.” But not enough conversation is stretching the boundaries. We’re in a time like Weimar when the contracts are boring. So, we ought to do what Taut recommends: become imaginary architects.

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[DDG] Anne Galloway: Writing the Digital City

Anne is going to talk about “technologically augmented cities.” [Abstract]

There have always already been four facets of “the real” that need to be considered when looking at the virtual. There’s the real and the possible, and the ideal and the actual. The virtual is the ideally real. The abstract is the possibly ideal. The concrete is the actually real. The probable is the actually possible.

“The virtual is a real idealization. It’s like memory or a dream or even intention. It belongs in the past, in a sense.” (I hope she says more about the past.) The concrete is the present. The abstract exists outside of time. The probable exists in the future. Communication occupies all four quadrants. We shoujld be looking at movements between categories. Thus, we can’t say that the augmented city is a real city or virtual city. Rather, we need to look which elements are actual, concrete, etc. And for whom and when? And that’s what Anne is working on.

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[DG] Biella Coleman: IRC

Biella asks: “Might the categories of the virtual and post-modern to describe social interactive space on the Net obscure more than reveal?” She’s going to compare IRC and Carribean street culture. [Abstract] (Herpaper is here, at least temporarily.)

There have been two shortcomings in discussions of social interactions on the Net: 1. Proving that a community is “real” rather than looking at the community itself. 2. Lumping the Net into one universal bucket, missing differences.

Biella says (and I quote from her paper):

IRC and Caribbean street talk, both a result of diasporic realities, are public spaces in which clever word play, performance, and stream of consciousness conversation predominate. …

Like the street, IRC is not really a “culture” but a public space with its own norms and conventions where people can drop in from time to time to see what is going on, engage in the topic of the day, get some work done, or just lurk. In both domains, stream of consciousness talk readily flows because of the multiple threads of conversations that occur simultaneously…

There are, of course, many ways the two are not alike:

Caribbean street talk unfolded under the heat of the sun, with bodies in full motion, tone and gesture being an integral facet of the linguistic play borne from a brutal history. Understanding the female domestic zone of the yard and the familial push for respectability is required to contextualize street talk and reputation building as part of a broader social world.

IRC’s context is that of socio-economic privilege…

Why does this type of comparison matter?

The virtual may really not be as important of a facet in this case although really it is only through serious and sustained comparison that we can even arrive at a more clear sense of what is unique about this form communication

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Slashdotted

My Wired article on DRM was slashdotted yesterday.

In response: No, I am not a Holocaust-denier. Yes, there are other examples better than the ones I used. No, I don’t think all laws are bad. Yes, I am the biggest, stupidest jerk whoever walked the planet.

Glad I had an opportunity to clear that up.

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