International Games Week October 29 – November 4

International Games Week

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.

Games folks on libraries: Johnnemann Nordhagen

Posted on June 12, 2014

In a lovely piece of synchronicity, our second game designer profile is from one of the founders of The Fullbright Company, Johnnemann Nordhagen. (You may remember that the Fullbright crew were responsible for one of the games we covered in last month's Game Profile piece, Gone Home.) Johnnemann talks about how his love of literature - specifically, Sir Terry Pratchett[1] - got him into a successful career as a creator himself, and then reflects on how those opportunities can be expanded.

Welcome Johnnemann, and thanks for your time! Please tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in a small resort town in Colorado, and began working on video games when I was a teenager. I was drawn to text-based games called MUDs, specifically Discworld MUD, based on the books by Terry Pratchett, and I learned how to code so I could help make the game. After college I got a paying job in the video game industry, starting as a tester and working my way up into Research and Development at Sony, then working on the Bioshock series and The Bureau: X-Com Declassified at 2K Marin, and most recently moving to Portland to help make Gone Home with the Fullbright Company.

What is your history with/past experience of libraries?

Libraries have always been one of my favorite places. My family are big believers in libraries, and I first began visiting our local library as a small child. As I grew, I developed a lifelong passion for books, and my biggest gripe was that the library would only allow me to borrow 6 at a time! After school the town library would be the place I spent time, reading or doing homework (but more often reading). I got to know the librarians and the local collections as well as the inter-library loan system, and how to navigate the paper and electronic catalogs.

In school I made friends with the school librarians, and ate lunch every day inside the library with friends. I still read, but we also branched out into games - we started a chess club, played Dungeons & Dragons (quietly) in the corner, and used the computer for Lemmings, Legend of the Red Dragon, BattleChess, and various other titles that the librarians had gotten.

In my rural high school, the librarian was also an IT worker and advocate, pushing for and supporting the computer labs and services. I started working as a computer technician for the library, supporting the games and technology that the school district used.

So, long story short - libraries were my sanctuary growing up, as well as the source of most of my entertainment, both books and games.

What is your sense of where libraries are now, especially in relation to games?

I don't feel that I have a good sense of that. I have seen some libraries starting video game collections, but it doesn't seem to be a universal program and it seems like a very difficult thing to do well. I know that I don't think of libraries as a source for video games, which is a shame. But as popular games are a hit-driven medium that is very dependent on the new hot products, it seems hard for libraries to compete with rental services or retail purchases for video games.

Where do you see things going and where could they go?

However! That said, video games are more than ever in dire need of curation and preservation. The current rise of the ability of so many people to make games, especially people from diverse backgrounds, is spectacular. However, with the explosion of available games, players really need knowledgeable guides to the medium, people who can steer them towards the best games, or the ones that will resonate most with them, and not just the most popular games. Game librarians would be an excellent fit.

In addition, most people's experience of digital games is focused only around the current technology, and when consoles or computer technologies go out of vogue or are superseded by more advanced versions, often the ability to play the games for those platforms is lost. In an ideal world, libraries could provide the hardware and software necessary to let people experience those games even years after they stop being sold in the retail world. Providing access to the most important historical games would be a valuable mission for libraries!

And lastly, I'd love to see libraries branch beyond digital games, and curate collections of card, board, and roleplaying games - these perhaps fit better with the traditional paper worlds of libraries, and offer an immense amount of value to players, game designers, and those seeking to better understand the medium.

Thank you Johnnemann! A very cogent outside view of our field.

In fact, if you'll permit a little editorializing, I would point out one thing: that the problems with electronic game curation Johnnemann points out are not limited to old tech, or bleeding-edge-too-new-to-be-affordable tech. Gone Home is a PC game that runs comfortably on my older laptop... but because it's on PC, there's currently no way to lend it. This means that - at best - we can have this well-known, well worth sharing, still-being-talked-about game installed on an in-library computer and hope people get through the game before their booking expires (the flow of the game matters, and it's a shame to interrupt it if you can avoid it). And of course not too many libraries even have games PCs when consoles are simpler! Given that independent developers, including those actively seeking to make the most interesting and experimental work, are heavily concentrated on PC because of lower costs, this means that our communities are missing out on exactly the kind of material we like to provide. I don't have any solutions,[2] but if we're serious about promoting access to culture - especially the good stuff - this is one to fix.

   
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