International Games Day @ your library Game on November 15, 2014!

Book folks on games: Hugh Rundle

Posted on July 31, 2014

I'm very happy to have the next entry in this series be a profile of Hugh Rundle, one of the many interesting local library folks I've had the pleasure of collaborating with here in Oz. This is partly because - full disclosure - last year he invited me to submit a piece to a fabulously provocative library journal he helps edit. (And no, it wasn't about games! Well, maybe in passing.) I'm glad to have a chance to repay that honour... which this totally does, right Hugh? And the fact that we get a short burst of Hugh's typically insightful analysis and prognostication doesn't hurt, either.

Hugh Rundle is a librarian at the City of Boroondara Library Service in Melbourne, Australia. Hugh blogs at hughrundle.net and serves on the Editorial Board of In the Library With the Lead Pipe. He also wrote a chapter for the ALA publication Planning our Future Libraries: Blueprints for 2025 and was chosen to be part of the inaugural cohort of the International Network of Library Innovators - Oceania.

Hugh, thanks for your time! Please tell us about your history with games.

I've never really considered myself a 'gamer', but when I think about it games have always been a big part of my life. Somewhere in the family album there's a great photo of me playing 'Cowboys and Indians' by myself! Family holidays when I was young included long nights at the shack playing cards - nearly always 'Solo'. This came in handy in high school when I played 500 every lunchtime without fail for two years. Family gatherings and holidays were always filled with games - Monopoly before the parents got out of bed, cricket in the back yard after breakfast, Squatter or Crib in the afternoon, and Dictionary and Canasta after dinner.

My parents were both teachers so we ended up with a BBC Micro when I was still in primary school. I spent the late 1980s playing BBC Micro classics like Snapper, Labyrinth, Philosopher's Quest, Moonlander, Cybertron Mission, Great Britain Limited, Eldorado Gold and, of course, Frogger. I also learned to program BASIC and made my own text-based RPGs to play with friends. In those days computer games were pretty simple, so the distinction between a PC game player and game maker was a little blurry. Thinking about it now, there was also a lot more of an emphasis on things like mathematics and logic, rather than eye-hand coordination. That theme continued when we moved Windows machines later - I've always been more attracted to strategy games like Civilization, and Total War, where being a klutz isn't such a handicap.

Where do you think games are now, both in general terms and in relation to libraries in particular?

Games and gaming seem to me to be at an interesting moment where it is now acceptable, even fashionable, for adults to talk about playing and designing games. Games and that horrible term, 'gamification', are widely and seriously discussed in education, business and also libraries. With digital games in particular, I'm noticing a much more confident and widespread push for diversity in gaming culture and games design - game companies are being forced to justify their conference 'booth babes' and their refusal to design games with strong female and non-white characters.

I think libraries have a way to go on this before we reach a sophisticated level of discussion and bring games into mainstream library practice. At the moment it seems to me that games in libraries are still mostly discussed either as a lure for teens (in public libraries) or a gimmick to trick students into learning how the library works (in academic libraries).

Where do you see this going, and where could it go?

I'm really interested in how the recent interest in Maker culture and gaming culture could intersect. With the rise of the Web in the last couple of decades we've seen an explosion of new cultural works and interactions. Despite what some conservative politicians might have you believe, libraries and librarians have been both participants and keen observers of the changes in publishing and cultural sharing online. Lately this tends to be expressed in the idea of repositioning libraries as primarily places for 'content production rather than content consumption'.

I think this undersells the opportunities here and misunderstands what is happening. The Maker movement is really just a physical manifestation of what has been happening with culture online, but it's often easier to understand things when we can physically see them. If you think about something like NodeBots the idea that this is moving from 'consuming' to 'producing' or even 'making' is inadequate. A NodeBots Day starts with making the NodeBots, and ends with a Sumo Bot battle. The people involved in all this are neither producers nor consumers - they are participants. This is really a very old way of 'doing culture' where a community prepares for a big event together, participates in the particular cultural event, and then celebrates afterwards. It's like trying to work out who are the 'producers' and who are the 'consumers' in a big traditional family Christmas lunch - the question doesn't make any sense.

Looking back on my days coding BASIC games on the BBC Micro, I think there's a big opportunity for public libraries to provide opportunities for communities to not just play together but to use games as the glue for a bigger cultural experience. Joining the dots on maker spaces, games and participatory culture can see libraries taking a lead role in things like getting more girls and women into computer coding by offering fun and supportive environments like NodeBots days. Ronald Dow once said that "A library is a place where readers come to write, and writers come to read." When it comes to games, I think libraries could be places were gamers come to design, and game designers come to play, and everyone comes to participate together.

The future of gaming is Christmas Dinner.

Game profiles: Hanabi, or, Theory Of Mind In A Box

Posted on July 28, 2014

Hi folks! Thanks to life not running according to those famous Other Plans, we've been caught a little on the hop by this month's Game Profile piece. So rather than another survey of a genre, like the superb effort Ben gave us last month, we're going to concentrate on a single game.

But whooo-ee, what a game.

Hanabi, which Australian donors Good Games are donating to Aussie participants, is like a haiku - or perhaps something a little less sparse, like a sonnet. It has a tiny number of components and systems, but they are arranged so artfully that they are more even than the product of their parts, let alone the sum.

Hanabi is Japanese for fireworks, or literally "flower fire". The story of the game - and it's largely decorative, with little connection to the mechanics of the game - is that it's New Year in a Japanese village, and the players are the fireworks crew who are about to put on the annual show. Some klutz has knocked over the carefully sorted fireworks and muddled them all up, and you're all frantically working together to reorganise them before the show starts - but if you make too many mistakes, the fireworks will blow up and take you all with them.

I'm going to skip over a detailed rules recap at this point - like many games, it's hard to grok from a description and I would just bore you. The key point is that this is a co-operative game of hidden information: you hold the cards facing away from you!

Yep. When you're playing Hanabi, everyone can see the cards in your hand but you. And there are strict rules that govern what players can tell each other.

This means that you are constantly thinking about what's going on in your teammates' minds. What do they need to know? Why did they think you needed to know that these cards were blue? Should I play them, discard them, or hang onto them and wait for more information?

And, as you get more advanced, you start thinking about how to convey information indirectly: if I discard this red 3, even though we still need one, will my friend work out I only feel safe to do that because I can see that her "unknown-colour" 3 is the other red?

You'll also start using negative information ("if these cards in my hand ARE blue, then all the other cards are NOT blue"), card-counting-style probability juggling, and more.

Just this surprisingly sophisticated level of puzzle-like logic, theory-of-mind, attempting to read other players, etc. is enough to make the game a keeper. But the real value of the game comes one layer deeper. In addition to those other skills, you're also receiving a lesson in the fundamental unknowability of other people. And you're doing it in a framework of co-operation.

Emotionally, it is far easier to engage with the "other people" problem in a competitive or even hostile mode. Our more basic natures reflexively resent the things that make us exert ourselves, and that meshes well with a goal that involves somehow triumphing over them. (One could argue that this is at the root of many modern socio-politico-economic ills - for starters, the rabid anti-intellectualism of large pockets of mass culture.) This is part of the pleasure of competitive play: expressing that basic egoistic subjective sense of the self’s defiance against the world, but doing so in a consensual context where that hostility is licensed, constrained into forms that contain the possible harm, and channeled in ways that mean that even the journey to defeat can still be a pleasurable and educational experience.

But real life – especially a good life – is much more about getting inside other people’s heads in order to help them, whether because doing so helps us too, or simply because we love them. And that’s what Hanabi is all about.

The puzzle that you are collaborating to solve – sort cards drawn randomly into sequences of 1-5 in 5 different colours – is childishly simple. But the fact that you know nothing of the cards you hold except what your partners tell you – and vice versa – plus what you can see of cards in other players' hands and on the table, and what you can deduce from all that information, makes other people not only a crucial part of the puzzle but utterly indispensible to the solution. Failing to trust your fellow players to tell you what you need to know can completely paralyse you. Failing to consider how even the slightest action will be seen by your partners in the game may well lead to you sending false signals. And most importantly, feeling antagonistic towards other players only distracts you – and probably them; most humans are incredibly sensitive to even slight inflections of blame – from the problem at hand.

This forces the higher functions of the brain not only to engage with the intellectual problem at hand, but to examine and control those resentful lizard-brain “how dare you make me work” impulses. In other words, you are not only practicing being smart but being good; blaming other people for not automatically conforming to internal expectations is at the root of evils ranging all the way from petty to genocidal.

It's a lot to read into a simple game, I'll admit. But play it - with someone you're close to, and with someone you're not - before you dismiss it. If a handful of words, well-chosen and perfectly arranged, can detonate in the mind and force a re-evaluation of an entire life, why can't a tiny bundle of choices and rules, actions and consequences, take us deeper into human nature than we even know how to recognise in "just a game"?

And if that's possible, isn't it our responsibility as libraryfolk to try and make sure it happens? It is our duty, I would contend, both to seek out the playful works that offer these kinds of possibilities, and - even more importantly - to provide the context and the vocabulary that enables our communities to realise them.

That this vocabulary is still in development, that our culture as a whole is only starting to wake up to the power of play - surely that only makes it more exciting, not less... and more important that community-minded, culture-minded, people-minded voices like ours be woven into the conversation right from the start.

Sponsor Profile: Steve Jackson Games

Posted on July 24, 2014

Steve Jackson Games is one of the icons of the US - and indeed global - game industry. They have everything from casual tabletop games, to more involved family games, to their own roleplaying game line, to crunchy strategy games, to apps and online modes of play.

Their casual games include the Munchkin family of games, which has been running for 13 years and shows no sign of slowing down its satirical take on new genres - having started with a heroic fantasy theme, they have quickly moved on to affectionately mock the clichés of space opera, superhero comics, zombie movies, paranormal thrillers, Lovecraftian horror, spy films, Westerns, post-apocalyptic sci-fi... I don't think they've got to noir or romance yet, but it's probably only a matter of time. (Oh - and the base set is also among the donations you can get for free this year!)

GURPS, their Generic Universal Role-Playing System, likewise covers a huge range of genres, but from a less mischievous angle (mostly). Instead, it provides a basic set of rules for creating characters and resolving story actions, and then offers a hugely modular set of rules and setting information to allow you to play through stories in almost any milieu imaginable. All the geek genres above are covered, but so are the Ice Age; both fantastic and historical versions of past Earth civilisations such as the Aztecs, Celts, Greeks, various Chinese dynasties, the Old West and more; near- and far-future science fiction; magical realism; a range of other fiction franchises, such as Star Trek, R.E. Howard's Conan, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, Discworld, Hellboy, and the Vorkosigan Saga; and more. And because they all use the same basic ruleset, they all interoperate! So if you want to tell a story about, say, US conscripts and Viet Cong in mid-battle suddenly falling through a portal to a distant science-fantasy world, you can.

These are only a few of their offerings - they also do crunchy tactical games, single-die push-your-luck games, reprints of obscure classics, and more! You can see a great selection on our donations page, and the full range at their website! But I wanted to move on, because awesome as all their games are, there's more of interest to libraries about this particular sponsor.

You see, Steve Jackson Games was a central figure in the early skirmishes in the battle over the government's interception and seizure of private information, and their case was one of the catalysts for the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, leading defenders of freedom online. It's a terrific story, though indubitably it must have been awful to go through - it nearly put SJG out of business - and one told very well by SJG themselves, as well as Bruce Sterling in his book The Hacker Crackdown. I recommend you read at least the SJG page linked above, in which the US Secret Service appears to exhibit one or both of:

  • the same tendency to indiscriminately violate the rights of people adjacent but unrelated to the actual subject of their inquiry (in this case, computers from the home and workplace of someone who had talked to hackers for a writing project) that has now metastasized into programs like PRISM.
  • the kind of inability to distinguish the imaginary from the real that people used to worry about gamers supposedly showing.

If you're interested in knowing more, there are more source documents on the SJG site, and the court documents are available at http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=15578406156657124091.

I can't help but think, though, that if game publishers back then[1] were accorded a comparable degree of cultural respect to book publishers, we might have seen an even stronger response to such a blatant violation of the rights of a premier independent publisher with an international reputation - perhaps even one that might have slowed the rise of the surveillance state? It's a might-have-been, of course, but nonetheless it's a sobering thought that our assumption that play and everything about it is inherently trivial might have had such a serious cost.

So thank you, Steve Jackson Games - for producing games in every flavour of fun from frothy silliness to strategic depth, for donating some of them to libraries for International Games Day, and for being the canary in the mine that helped kickstart the movement for online freedom.

What’s afoot, July edition: The last month in games

Posted on July 21, 2014

Hey folks! Another semi-random sampling of news from the games world, this time with extra bonus feature - profiles of games news sites!

News

  • Huge news from the world of eSports - the International DotA2 Championships are on now. As in, the finals are tonight, Pacific Time.
    (If you have no idea what DotA2 is, get started here. The TL;DR: it's a fast-paced team-based game that plays like a cross between team sports, superhero comic faceoffs, and mythic battle.)
    This is big because not only is it one of the largest videogame tournaments ever (with a prize pool reported at $10 million), it's actually being broadcast on ESPN - making the eSports folks' ambition of parity with physical sports (pSports?) one step closer. It's not the first time a geek game has been on ESPN; Magic: the Gathering did that back in 1997, and they've covered poker and even spelling bees as well. More and more, spectatorship of non-pSports competition is becoming part of the mainstream.
  • FPS space horror franchise Doom - the game that took the momentum built by Wolfenstein 3D and used it (rocket-jump style?) to propel the first-person shooter into its current status as probably the iconic videogame genre - has had a new entry announced. It seems a lot like a reboot - down to the door sound that triggers adrenalin flashbacks in just about any action-gamer active in the 90s - but it looks nothing like one.
  • In addition to the price drop (and removal of mandatory Kinect) from the XBox One we covered a couple of months back, Microsoft spokesperson Major Nelson has just announced an update that addresses a bunch of other criticisms, mostly UI-based.
  • The Zeldathon has just passed $100,000 raised for St Jude Children's Research Hospital. Gamers are so antisocial.
  • A couple of interesting game-related reads at The Atlantic: Are Multiplayer Games the Future of Education? and How Family Game Night Makes Kids Into Better Students.

 

Site profiles: YouTubers

YouTube can be a great way to keep up to date of gamer news, find out how to play games, and generally up your gaming knowledge. There are literally thousands of channels dedicated to gaming topics, so keep your eyes out for the channels that call to you. YouTube is a wonderful place tofind  Let's Play videos, which show people playing through games with commentary. Sometimes Let's Plays have a particular goal, such as speed runs, where you complete the level/game as fast as possible, but the majority are people just showing how they enjoy a game.

There has also been a good deal of coverage of this shift in games journalism - and accompanying ethical questions - at more-traditional game-developer-focused news site (think of all the newspaperfolks spinning in their graves at the idea of a "traditional" news "site"... and there are plenty still alive who'd feel similar!) Gamasutra.

Here are a few channels that IGD folks love:

 

General news

Geek & Sundryhttps://www.youtube.com/user/geekandsundry/featured

We're hoping to talk more about (and... with?) the good folks at G&S later in the year, but we couldn't pass them up in this roundup. G&S has a ton of gaming related content. You can see Felicia and Ryan Day experience vintage games (often of dubious quality and hilarious results) on their show Co-Optitude, learn more and see celebrities play Magic: the Gathering in Spellslingers, and let's not forget Wil Wheaton's amazing show Tabletop, which features Wil and 3 guests playing an amazing variety of board, card, and dice games.

 

Polarishttps://www.youtube.com/user/Polaris [Some content may be confronting or NSFW.]

Polaris is a consortium of various game-related YouTube channels that have come together to make one amazing station. The Daily Byte is your one stop shop for nerd culture news in 5 minutes or less. Polaris has a ton of different Let's Play and game Tournaments that they put online, so you can check out or experience different games. They also have a lot of long format (over 2 hours) vodcast shows that include game play and/or game discussion pretty heavily. Besides the channel itself, you can check out all of it's partner channels for more specialized and deeper content such as HuskyStarcraft's Starcraft 2 videos or Yogscast's Minecraft videos.
[Editor's note: as noted above, some Polaris content is very much not for kids and possibly NSFW - not for sexual content but for profanity and violence. The video that was featured when I checked the link was "Sniper Elite III Headshot Highlights", which as you might expect contained a selection of most spectacular (i.e. gory) kills, accompanied by some decidedly salty language. The bulk of the content isn't anything that extreme and there is more substantial fare than that - but it's made by, and pitched at, that sort of adult gamer demographic.]

 

Press Heart to Continuehttps://www.youtube.com/user/PressHeartToContinue

After checking out Polaris, Dodger, the creator of Press Heart, might look a bit familiar - from Daily Byte, from Friendzone, from the Podcasts... but her channel includes a great roundup of weekly gaming-centric news - from AAA to indie kickstarter. There are also great nerd crafts and casual Let's Play videos.

 

Analysis

Feminist Frequency: http://www.feministfrequency.com/ [Some content may be confronting or NSFW.]

[Ed's note: For the record, this one was added by me: a blokey Aussie bloke of the male bloke persuasion. I couldn't not mention a site of this prominence! The following comments are my responsibility entirely.]

If we're talking serious analysis of games, we can't go past Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency, which has even had mainstream coverage over the last couple of years for reasons outlined below. (Given her Wikipedia page has been sabotaged in the past, I'm not going to link off to it now; excuse the potted summary.)

Sarkeesian's channel had previously hosted videos subjecting pop culture in general to feminist scrutiny, but when she decided to turn her attention specifically to videogames - and ran a Kickstarter asking for $6000 to fund the research and writing time needed for the series - a disturbingly large number of bigots from some of the toxic backwaters of the internet decided to prove that she was wrong, feminism had gone too far, and misogyny didn't really exist by bullying her into shutting up and getting them a sandwich through a voluminous and in parts highly co-ordinated campaign of sexualised (and racialised) hate speech, intimidation and harassment. (Clearly logic was not their strong point... but then, we already knew that.)

To her credit, it backfired: she responded by not only refusing to fold but allowing the abuse onto the record - or some of it, anyway - and letting it speak for itself. (Though she does talk about it in this TEDxWomen talk.) As a result, she became something of a lightning rod for the growing awareness of how poorly women are treated online and in the culture in general, and got far more attention - including from the mainstream media - and far more Kickstarter funding than she otherwise might have, as it became inescapably clear that this was a real issue and needed to be confronted. (Though mind you, you'd have to call it well-earned hazard pay.)

The only major caveat I'd give to Sarkeesian's excellent series on representations of women in videogames as an entree into the topic is that - as she herself has explored previously - this is symptomatic of wider social problems rather than being peculiar to this medium. (In other words, don't blame games.) And in fact I've been known to argue that, thanks to the work of numerous folks including but also predating Sarkeesian, the gamer community is much further advanced in the process of lancing this particular festering boil, getting the poison out into the open, refusing to let it out of the spotlight, and actually dealing with it than the general community. Regardless, she has stood her ground for the greater good in the face of pretty awful intimidation; she's already been honoured far more substantially, including an Ambassador Award at this year's Game Developer's Choice Awards, but I too salute and thank her for all she's done to improve videogames - and the culture at large.

And now, to end on an equally interesting and slightly less grim-tinged note:

 

Extra Credits: https://www.youtube.com/user/ExtraCreditz

Their tagline is "Because Games Matter", so it was inevitable that we would include them!

We mentioned James Portnow, one of the people behind this channel, in the news post a couple of months back as well, in connection with his Games for Good work. This channel was where it all started: they talk seriously (well, at an underlying level) about a range of aspects of games from... you know what, just go and check their back catalogue. (There are only 234 episodes... so just skim the titles and click on a few that sound interesting.)

Among the most visible of folks talking about videogames from a more reflective perspective, they have done wonders both to improve external perceptions of the medium's maturity and to help the more foot-dragging wilfully-immature elements within gamer culture come to terms with the fact that "fun" doesn't require you turning off your brain. (Quite the contrary, in fact!)

Games folks on libraries: Julia Bond Ellingboe

Posted on July 17, 2014

This third installment in the series is pretty exciting for me - I have been a fan of Ms Ellingboe's ever since I first came across her indie RPGs, and in fact they were one of the early examples that helped wake me up to the possibility that games could, like fiction, tackle serious issues in ways that seemed likely to help people learn and deal with them constructively, while still being - in fact, because of being - engaging... and even, given a non-trivialising definition of the word, entertaining. But enough of me gushing - on with the interview!

Thanks so much for joining us, Julia! Can you give our readers a brief bio?

I'm a part-time freelance editor, writer, and roleplaying game designer. When not telling stories or writing, I am the human resources manager at my local food co-op. Having missed my chance to become an itinerant storyteller, my work draws on various folkloric traditions, such as African American slave narratives, Japanese kaidan stories, and the Francis J. Child Ballads. My work includes Steal Away Jordan: Stories from American’s Peculiar Institution, Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife, and short fiction. I have a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Biblical Literature from Smith College (where I got almost all my library work experience). You can find my short stories in several anthologies from Stone Skin Press and Broken Eye Books.

[Quick editor's note: As you'd expect from the source material, both the games listed above potentially deal with mature themes. As is usually the case with story games, this will largely be the product of the group that plays them, and they are excellent, so don't hesitate to check them out - but if you still have a trace of that unconscious "games=kids" assumption, don't apply it here! These games were written by an adult for a mature audience.]

Thank you! What is your history with/past experience of libraries?

I started working in libraries when I was in college, and continued to work in academic libraries and a public library for about eight years after college. In my junior year, I was an art library assistant. After I graduated, I worked at our local public library for about a year and then got a job at my alma mater as a circulation assistant. I worked there for about five years. Then for two years I managed the college library's storage facility. When I worked at the college library, I was the chair of our library staff development group ("LSD"). My alma mater has a wonderful alumnae benefit that allows us to borrow from the college libraries and use online journal and ebook databases like JStor and Project Muse, which I've used fairly regularly in the 19 years since I finished college.

So it's fair to say you have a passing familiarity with the library world then! What is your current sense of where libraries are, both in general and in relation to games?

In my area of the country, libraries are one of the first town resources to be cut. We've seen the hours in my local city library reduced and nearby town libraries shut down completely. I think people assume that now that there's so much free stuff online, brick and mortar libraries are practically obsolete. What we forget is that libraries provide access to so much more than books. They provide free access to the internet to people who don't have computers, they offer educational programs to both adults and children, they are social hubs and safety zones.

I don't have a good sense of where libraries are with games. That said, a few years ago, a librarian friend of mine invited my neighbor (another game designer) and me to do a workshop for teens on creative writing and game design. This was part of her regular teen tabletop role-playing game group. I've seen my own game as well as others in public library collections. Game books and board games--heck, even video games--fit in just fine in libraries!

Where do you see this going, and where could it go?

I recently, finally came across a Little Free Library in my town. I'm going to put a copy of my game and a few others in it this weekend. [Ed: this was a week and a bit back, so some lucky person may already have found it!] Anything that offers access to books is awesome to me. Micro-libraries and Little Free Libraries have their limitations, though. You can bring the book home and never play it. On the other hand, library-sponsored game days and gaming clubs at brick and mortar libraries would be great ways to bring in new patrons and keep current patrons coming.

Thanks once again to Julia for her time!