Saturday, December 23, 2006

Berkeley is earthquake central (UPDATED)

This morning, we had our third earthquake in four days, centered 2 miles from our Berkeley apartment along the Hayward Fault. All of the earthquakes have been rated just under 4.0 magnitude, but it's starting to get a bit eerie. I've been brushing up on my earthquake safety tips. Kiyash has vivid memories of the big Loma Prieta quake in 1989, and so I've been asking him lots of questions about that. Growing up on the East Coast, I never really learned too much about the phenomenon. (Although I distinctly recall that "San Andreas fault" was the answer to an exam question in my sixth grade science class.)

Looking at the Richter scale is a bit worrisome: 8 - Total damage. 7 - Buildings collapse. 6 - Buildings crack and things fall off shelves. 5 - Furniture and pictures move. 3-4 - People feel a rumble and hear noise. 1-2 - Most people do not notice anything. I guess I didn't realize that "total damage" was a charted possibility.

I've been thinking a lot about the notion of "vulnerable cities" (a la New Orleans in the face of Katrina), a term being used by the Institute for the Future to talk about flexibility of emergency infrastructure. (Here's an Economist article on potential California city responsiveness to the "big one".) Anyway, I guess we should probably get some emergency supplies for the apartment; the closest we have right now is my stash of diet coke.

UPDATE: And because you know I am incapable of experiencing anything without thinking about whatever community issues might be related, I should add the following observation. Shortly after I posted about the earthquakes, I started poking around Technorati to find other Bay Area folks being publicly nervous (or not) about the threesome. Here are a couple of the ones I found most interesting: a satisfyingly angry "wish we had a decent FEMA" political response and an adorably neuortic "best earthquake emergency kit ever" poem-like mediation. I don't know either of those two women, haven't even met them digitally, but I feel some kind of almost imaginary node of connection to them now.

Other posts give me occasion to reflect on my own reactions. This woman reacts by becoming more certain about her desire to move to New York City: "It is time to move. It makes the most sense for someone like me. There are no natural disasters in NYC. There are terrorists. I choose terrorists." I admit that this morning I said to Kiyash, "Well, yet another reason to look forward to moving to Copenhagen." (Yes, our goal is to live in Copenhagen 5 years from now, we'll see how that works out.) This guy's total unflappability manifests itself in a refreshingly techno-geek fashion: "Ok, this is getting tedious. It looks like I need to investigate writing some code to automating writing the inital part of these earthquake posts." I am glad there are other people out there who feel the urge to blog about the quakes; for me, I think it's a way of personally engaging with a phenomenon that has no personal interest in me or any other human. This woman announces: " had a really hard time getting to sleep because of anxiety from the earthquake so I'm kind of a mess today. I'll definitely be spending some time on Second Life to unwind!" I know the feeling-- I have immersed myself in the comforting structure of games on more than one occasion to escape a sense of helplessness. (Kiyash and I, after being turned away by the Red Cross on 9/11, of all things, played an endless game of Parcheesi because it was the only action we could seem to manage.)

Anyway, yeah, I really have to investigate that whole earthquake kit thing. Bug me if I don't update this announcing that I have one!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What do Malcolm Gladwell, Ze Frank, Paul Krugman, and *me* all have in common?

Here's the riddle of the day: What do the blinking Malcolm Gladwell, the sports racing Ze Frank, the opining Paul Krugman, and the avant gaming *me* have in common?


Ah, yes! As of this week, I am joining their collective ranks at the Leigh Bureau, an amazing speakers' agency. (Founded in 1929, the bureau's alumni include Eleanor Roosevelt and Boris Yeltsin!)

I've signed with the agency in order to better manage my speaking and event puppet-mastering engagements. I'm really excited, because the bureau is going to help me organize an ambitious schedule that will give me a terrific platform for spreading the avant gaming word. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to talk with much more diverse audiences about my design work on ubiquitous games, and how that relates to larger techno-culture trends; to present my research on how networked gameplay is changing society, and what new kinds of collective desires and needs and social intimacies and public practices are being generated by our games; and most importantly to share my vision for how we can use massively collaborative play to engineer a better, more sustainable future with a higher global quality of life.

So: From now on, you can still email me personally if you have a speaking invitation for an academic talk or non-profit event. All other requests and invitations for corporate and conference talks and games should go through the bureau, contact info here.

P.S. A big thank you and kiss to danah boyd, who is also newly signed with the Leigh Bureau, and encouraged me to make the same positive life change. ^_^

Let's play a game from the year 2017!

Good news about a new project: Beginning next month, I'll be creating games from the year 2017! (And some from 2012 and 2032 as well.)

What does that mean? As some of you may have already read on Boing Boing, beginning in January 2007, I'll be affiliated with the independent non-profit organization, the Institute for the Future. I love the world of future forecasting research, and no one is better at it than the IFTF.

My primary role as a senior researcher there will be to create social challenges, personal missions and other playable "experiences from the future". My goal is to help make IFTF's forecasts and reports directly inhabitable, now.

While I'm working with IFTF, I'll also still be teaching, working with the MacArthur foundation, lecturing, consulting and developing new games. 2007 looks to be a busy but exciting year!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Live interview in Second Life - play with me!

mcgonigal_secondlife_CNET_001, originally uploaded by Avant Game.

Come play with me in Second Life on Tuesday December 19th, 11 AM to Noon Pacific (2 - 3 PM Eastern) where I'll be interviewed on stage for an hour by CNET's Daniel Terdiman. Topics for conversation will include designing games from the future, play in public spaces, why Wii is good for democracy, and maybe existentialism if I can convince Daniel to let me rant a bit!

The second life URL is .

If you don't have an account yet, let me try to convince you to take 10 minutes to download the free metaverse software, sign up for a free account, and play dress up with your new avatar. It's easier than you think if you're intimidated by sign-up processes. And it's fun to pick a new name for your second life! Do it! And see you there.

My resident's name, by the way is Playful Moonsoo.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Game Design and the Survival Instinct

Tonight marked the 13th finale of Survivor, which I've been blogging about since Season 1 in 2000 (back when I was writing for the now defunct!). And it's still by far still the most important show for game designers, and probably other kinds of social experience designers, to watch. Kiyash asked me the other night if I was still watching Survivor to learn, or if it was just a guilty pleasure. I suppose it's both--but I'm definitely still learning. And so I thought I'd share a few ideas about how watching a TV show can inform design. (By the way, props to Henry Jenkins for blogging about Survivor spoiler culture and including a chapter on Survivor audiences as collective intelligence in his new book Convergence Culture. Another interesting phenomenon of the show, although much less active as the fan-base has become less rabid.)

The thing about Survivor is that it's a very carefully constructed game that evolves to maximize three aspects: 1) emergent (surprising, player-driven) drama, 2) meaningful gameplay (each player controls his or her own fate) and 3) satisfying outcomes (in hindsight, like the outcome of an Aristolian tragedy, seems inevitable--the winner is the person who deserves that fate most). A good season of Survivor needs all 3 of these traits... and so does any well-designed game or goal-oriented collective experience.

Because some seasons were less satisfying than others, the producers began to change the game. (In this way, Survivor is a lot like a puppet mastered game -- the designers are flexible, changing it in real-time to fuel the positive momentum and minimize problems or boredom.) Each season has offered complicated, thoughtful tweaks to its design and deployment to ensure that the game continues to work as player strategies evolve from repeated exposure to the game. Moreover, it seems to me that the producers have consistently worked to ensure that the ultimate outcome of each game (who is the sole survivor) satisfies the audience as much as possible. This season marks the pinnacle of success in that respect-- the two vote-getting finalists were extraordinarily likable, admirable competitors. It was hard to know who to root for because they both played so astonishlingly well, and it was also hard to predict who would make the final four because so many diverse and surprising player strategies seemed viable.

Guaging online response to winners by reading things like the TV Guide Survivor blog or Survivor Sucks forum is an important aspect to reading the show's success and implementing different strategies. When an audience grow increasingly frustrated because it seems inevitable that the most popular, and 'best players' (according to audience opinion), have no viable strategies because other players are playing too conservatively, or subverting the spirit of the game through bad sportmanship--then the game needs fixing. Indeed, in this way, the game has as much of a survival instinct as the players. (The meta game of Survivor is the puppet masters keeping the audience engaged and the players off guard.) After several seasons of lame finales with loser winners, this season changed the most aspects of any previous season -- and it worked. Each change can be analyzed for its impact on the social aspects and competitive aspects of the game, which is the kind of thing that I spend my free brain bandwith thinking about as specifically as possible. (And if we ever wind up taking a road trip together or on a long hike or camping out for tickets somewhere together, I'll be happy to spill those insights. Actually, I think I got one of my first game design industry breaks based on a 3-hour conversation in which I broke down a couple seasons play by play.)

Okay, so the big take away: A thoughtful reality show competition that evolves over more than a dozen iterations is a powerful lesson in how micro changes in design can impact player and spectator experience. All the seasons are on DVD, so if you are stuck in bed with the flu for a week (LIKE ME!!! I am still bed-bound, argh) I highly recommend grabbing a few and watching the good and the bad iterations unfold.

Friday, December 15, 2006

"Well... have you seen a guy in a bunny suit?"

Got the DVD, found the footage. Whee! Yes, that's me in the wedding gown; yes, that's Rufus Wainwright asking me question; yes that's my husband Kiyash in the bunny suit. The footage of me on the cell phone is of me coordinating back stories with other Go Game plants. Enjoy. For the full story, read the blog post "Rufus Wainwright plays with me!"

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Rufus Wainwright Plays With Me UPDATED

Originally uploaded by Avant Game.

Okay, so it's a lazy Saturday in May 2003, and I'm sitting on the steps in front of a North Beach church, looking as desolate and disconsolate as I can. I'm a plant in a Go Game, and I've got sneakers tucked under my wedding gown, and teams have to convince me not to run off (I run pretty fast! and they chase me!) and to wait for my groom to return to the altar. For this particular game, I spin out a tale above and beyond the normal plant backstory, telling teams and other passersby that my groom showed up in a bunny costume instead of a proper tuxedo, and I told him not to turn our wedding day into a joke, and to come back in a tuxedo or not to come back at all. Hence, I wait for him. The story is particularly funny because there's a separate Go Game mission that day involving a man running around the same neighborhood in a bunny suit. (Yes, you guessed it -- Kiyash was the man in the bunny suit.) So chances are my players and other folks will see my wayward groom. (Indeed, I hear from that Kiyash later that a ton of people were yelling at him to get a tux! and when, hours later at the end of the game we met and kissed in Washington Square Park, the park errupted in cheers.)

So, while I'm waiting in between teams, I'm approached by a man with a film crew. It's super awesome glam folk rock singer Rufus Wainwright. He's filming a documentary about himself. He wants to know what I'm doing. It's the first time ever in the history of more than a year's worth of games being a Go Game plant that I am temporarily speechless. Do I keep the game story up? Do I tell him I'm playing a part in a game? What if a team approaches? Is Rufus playing the game and I didn't know about it?

I decide to stay in character. I give him my best version of the sad, tawdry bunny costume tale. He seems to like the story a lot but might not quite be buying it. I stick to it, I'm committed. We have a great exchange, but it is quite surreal. I'm playing the Go Game with Rufus Wainwright!! And he may or may not know it!

Fast forward three and a half years later to December 2006. I get an email from a Berkeley pal of mine. "Did I just see you in the Rufus Wainwright DVD?!???!!"

Has anyone seen it? Can anyone confirm? I can't wait to see it. I can't believe a Go Game character made a Rufus Wainwright documentary. I wonder if his crew got any footage of the bunny! I'm pretty happy that this one monent that always stood out to me as a confusing boundary between game and real life has been captured on film. I can't wait to watch it so I can see how blurry it actually was. Maybe I just come off as a crazy person doing some weird performance art or something. :)

I hope I get to see Rufus again sometime and explain!!

UPDATE: Thank you to the anonymous commenter who pointed me to the Amazon customer reviews for the "Live at the Fillmore" DVD, which includes this line: " It's Rufus live at the Filmore in San Fransisco, over an hour long, and includes footage of him on the town. (gotta love the guy who showed up to his wedding in a bunny suit...) Highly recommended!" Ha ha ha. AWESOME. I hope Rufus doesn't mind being wrapped up in our game, perhaps he will feel better knowing that the bunny and I did get married a couple of years later, eloping to city hall!

A Feverish Culture/Pop Culture Report

Most of my work as a game designer and games researcher is influenced by my take on different emerging trends and exceptional phenomena in pop culture at large, as well as exposure to traditional cultural practices in other countries (because globalization not only brings global to local, but makes it possible for local to influence the global).

So I thought instead of writing about games, and to distract myself from my flu, I would blog a bit about some culture/pop culture experiences I've been enjoying lately. If my writing rambles, blame it on the fever...

Curacao and the Matt Savage Trio
When I first heard the new jazz track Curacao--described in a review I found later as "crazily percussive and hypnotic"--it only took about 30 seconds of listening for me to know, just know, that it was composed by someone with autism. Listening to the track is like hearing a fractal being created. (Fractals can be visualized, but have you ever heard one?) It is intensely chaotic and yet clearly, wickedly, ordered using some kind of massively-multiple dimensionality that the average brain doesn't process. I looked up the song online and found out that it was composed by Matt Savage, a 14-year-old prodigy who indeed was diagnosed as a young child with autism. (You can also listen to samples here.) Listening to the patterns in the music on Matt's is the closest I've come to personally experiencing the differences in brain architecture between average brains (like mind) and alternately structured brains (like Matt's). It's an amazing experience. I guess I'm a little late to the Matt Savage game-- I just dug up a Wired profile of him from 2003! But I think his compositions are really maturing and taking a turn into uncharted neural territory.

The Death Note Series
This is a phenomenon I'm still learning about-- the film series and TV series based on a best-selling vigilante/Death God fantasy manga series. (Here are some trailers.)Kiyash and I saw the theatrical film Death Note 2, live-action with huge manga influences, in Hong Kong, without even realizing we were going to a sequel. We found out later that Death Note 1 had been released only a couple of months earlier-- a really remarkable time compression between sequels. Also, curiously, a fully animated TV series of the same original manga IP is running concurrently, as a big hit. When something saturates multiple platforms -- print, film, tv -- simultaneously, you know to pay attention.

The aesthetics of the films are amazing. It's live action, with frequent appearances by "death gods" -- animated manga characters that look as if they were created using a Game Dev software and engine, Maya built all the way. It's a gorgeous blend of the real and the virtual, and done with such a straight face and little fanfare that you know the culture has reached a point where virtual landscapes and the real-world blending together is no longer remarkable, it is expectable. Brilliant.

The plot and themes are equally cutting edge: they deal with amateur justice, which in Asia in general is becoming a strange edge trend. (See my earlier post on Chinavenging, for example.) The characters using a powerful notebook to kill known sex offenders and murderers ("Write their name in the Death Note Book, picture their face in your mind, and they will die in 8 minutes") and use public Internet databases of criminals to figure out who to kill. This seems extremely relevant to me... especially given the New York Times' story today, for instance, on amateur online justice. The rise of amateur-driven social infrastructure to fill in perceived gaps is something to keep an eye on.

Dhoom 2 and Don
My best souvenir from my recent around-the-world trip is my newfound appreciation for Bollywood action movies. Kiyash and I had the opportunity to see Don (in Hindi, without subtitles) and Dhoom 2 (in Hindi, with English subtitles). You can watch the trailers for the films here and here, respectively; they're both like Mission Impossible with intermittent Bollywood musical numbers, and they're by far my favorite movies that I've seen in years. (The Dhoom 2 trailer is way better than the Don trailer, but Kiyash and I were both much more blown away by Don as brilliant, breath-taking action cinema.) The soundtracks are now among my most played tracks, and I can't get over the amazing masculinity of the singing and dancing heroes. While the women in the films tend to be objectified not much differently than U.S. pop culture--their songs and music montages most closely resemble a cross between a Britney Spears video and a Sports Illustrated photo shoot--the men represent a kind of masculinity I just haven't seen in Western culture. They sing, they dance, they are joyful--and they just work so hard to woo their women. The joyfulness of the interactions in the song and dances is a fascinating and somewhat jarring contrast with the rampant poverty and suffering we encountered in New Delhi, Udaipur and Agra. It reminds me of all of the photos I took of women wearing the most joyfully vibrant colors, fabrics in hot fuschia and bright, bright blinding yellows, shuffling along the roadside with exhaustion. I wondered how the culture could wear such colors while living with the difficulties of a largely undeveloped nation, which of course is an observation born out of some ridiculous Western fashion perspective.

At any rate, Dhoom 2 and Don epitomize my ambivalence about visiting India. I feel strange enjoying their pop culture out of context, taking the art out of the context of a missing social infrastructure that leaves so much of the country in appalling poverty and disease. For instance, the climate changes caused by global warming are making certain cities without robust public health infrastructure in place extremely susceptible to vector-bourne disease epidemics. India is expected to be most vulnerable in the coming years, according to recently published research. The month we were in New Delhi, there were 3000 cases and nearly 100 deaths from dengue fever, for instance, in the capital city. All of this is to say that in some ways it seems the pop culture of India is completely disconnected from the social realities. That's true of Hollywood, to some extent, but nothing like the gap between India's gorgeous films and the heartbreaking suffering of so many of its citizens. It's something I"m thinking a lot about -- nothing yet, but I know there's some important work to be done in terms of bringing reality closer to our art -- including games... what we achieve in our fictional expressions and virtual worlds we need to create in reality as well.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Homeward Bound!

Copenhagen Cookie Rolling
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
Blogging from the British Airways Terraces Lounge at London Heathrow... our time in Copenhagen is now complete, meaning the last leg of the round-the-world trip is over and we are flying home!

We are ready to move to Copenhagen and have started spinning out fantasies of how we might make that happen. It doesn't seem feasible in the near-term, but maybe a few years down the road we'll figure out a way to spend at least our summers there...

This photo is of the cookie rolling adventure outside of Tivoli Gardens, compliments of the wonderful George Dyson, who came along for the installation, making it a doubly surreal experience!

I'll blog more about Next2006 and my visits with ITU when we're back home.

Back to the plane!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Around the World: Copenhagen!

CopenhagenDay1and2 022
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
I'm blogging from my Toki-Doki room in Hotel Fox in Copenhagen. Each hotel room is designed and decorated by a different artist, and I am thrilled to be sleeping under the watchful eye of Toki-Doki characters. Both my twin sister Kelly and my good friend Natalie carry stylish Toki-Doki handbags, which I could only afford if I weren't traveling around the world staying in fashionable Toki-Doki hotel rooms. However my Natalie had this to say about my email description of the room, which I think is lovely and made made feel all warm and happy: "It is like you are living in a toki doki purse, you and Kiyash have been shrunken down and some young hip girl is carrying you around Copenhagen." I felt much less stressed working on my powerpoint slides for my two talks here this week thinking about being carried around in a hip young girl's handbag! I love it!

Speaking of love... Kiyash and I have much, much love for Copenhagen. Kiyash, in fact, keeps saying "I LOVE Copenhagen!" Like, every 5 minutes. Literally. We are gorging on the crisp winter air, Scandinavian food and design culture.

Last night's meal included Elderberry cocktails, had lunch at the famous Bleu restaruant in Sankt Petri, we went to my favorite bakery in the world today for Sportskage, Alderkage and Rubensteinkage at La Glace, and we had nice mugs of Glogg with gingerbread as our happy hour in the central square. And that's not even 24 hours in Copenhagen! Woo! We are so happy to be here, India was an adventure of a lifetime, but also trying and exhausting. Copenhagen is pure pleasure!

If you are in the area, come to NEXT at ITU on Friday, and ping me if you want to play Werewolf here in Copenhagen!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

4 Indian Wedding ceremonies down, 1 to go!

IndiaDay4-002 042
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
The Indian wedding ceremonies have been beautiful and spectacular. The groom rode an elephant, his two brothers on Arabian horses, the father and mother of the groom on camels... the main ceremony was on a palace floating in the middle of a lake in Udaipur... hundreds of photos from the four days of ceremonies are here in a Flickr set
Kiyash and I are taking a day off from festivities in Delhi to relax, recover (it's hard not to get a little sick traveling around India), prep some notes for my talks in Copenhagen next week, and watch some Bollywood movies in our hotel room hopefully! Tomorrow is the big reception and Sunday we go to the Taj Mahal...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Citizen Cows in Delhi

IndiaDay1 087
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
Delhi is too crazy to write a blog post worthy of the (mis)adventures we are having! Also sadly I am not taking nearly enough photos, it is so chaotic preparing for the Indian wedding (the amount of shopping required for our many different outfits for the 5 days' worth of wedding activities is insane) and avoiding being hit by random cabs that photos are not happening alas. However I wanted to say one thing: The fact that cows wander around freely like citizens is so unbelievable cool. As a vegetarian (for over 10 years now) there is something so happy about seeing cows walk around with dignity, not like "cattle" but like individual creatures each. I've never seen a cow with so much dignity before and I love it. The rest of Delhi is a little hard and crazy but we are adjusting. More soon!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hong Kong Day Five: Buddhist yum yum

HongKongDay5 048
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.

Kiyash and I visit the brand new Nan Lian Garden, a public park designed in the Tang Dynasty-style, that officially opened for the first time yesterday. It's beautiful, if a bit restricted in terms of activity and interactivity...

We have a Buddhist vegetarian feast at a restaurant that has just opened inside the park. It is a wordless transaction--we sit, and they bring us plate after plate of food, with no description of what any of it is. It is brilliant and delicious and by far the best meal we have enjoyed in Hong Kong!

We visit a nunnery and learn more about Buddhism, which I have to admit, I love for what strikes me as its fundamental parallels with existentialism (my own philosophy/religion of choice -- What Would Sisyphus Do? and all that).

Then we do a bit of shopping in a mall that feels like a theme park. As we take the train all over the city, we are reminded how much we love the MRT!

While I stayed in the hotel to finish up my research article for the MacArthur Foundation (all about collective intelligence gaming), Kiyash did our laundry. I love my husband!

Tonight, we're off to Art Jamming, an all-you-can paint party that is a bit of an institution here. According to the website: "Whether you are solo, or bring friends and family, artjamming has a way of opening up your imagination and pushing aside your inhibitions. Artjamming makes creativity contagious.The price of artjamming includes a canvas for each jammer, a buffet of unlimited acrylic paints, and the use of aprons, brushes, sponges and spatulas. Juices, teas, coffees and mineral water are complimentary for all in-house artjammers. .... Housed in a pre-war building, people from just-about-everywhere come here for a healthy dose of artjamming. There are 2 floors of artjamming; both have high ceilings with great acoustics. The music played rouses inspiration; a cool weave of acid jazz, funk and chill-out bounces off the ceiling joists into your imagination." They call themselves "the pioneers of paintertainment." How can you not love that?

Lucky Timber City! I win! I win!

HongKongDay4 072
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
Off to the races we go last night... Wednesday is the big night for horse races in Hong Kong, and who am I to miss out on mass live entertainment? At the Sha Tin race track, Kiyash and I each bet 20 Hong Kong Dollars on each of five races. In race #1, I bet on horse #6, the super-underdog Timber City, to place. My horse comes in second! I win! I win! It's the biggest payoff odds of any win the entire night (there are eight races total) I make more than six times my bet back, and it feels great to cash in my winning ticket for $132. However we both lose all the rest of the races all night, so collectively we're down $68, or about $10 USD. That's okay... it was a really beautiful night, watching the horses race in the drizzly cool fresh air, eating turnip cakes and drinking coke light from the food kiosk.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Hong Kong Day 3: "I can feel you touching my spleen!"

HongKongDay3 059
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
Quickfire notes... must head off to the racetrack soon for some Happy Valley fun time! (Wednesday night is the big horse night racing in Hong Kong... yes, it's Wednesday night here already, we are living in the future as my friend Artur helpfully pointed out!)

Kiyash and I started the day yesterday with a sunrise rooftop dip in the hot tub... then we raided a local bakery (the Hong Kong based Panash chain) for bean buns, mochi donuts, and green tea souffles, which we took to an outdoor eldery recreation park. (A jungle gym for grown-ups, and one of my favorite urban design ideas of all time. I've been obsessed with them since our trip to Beijing and Shanghai in 2004.)

Then we explores some more nooks and crannies of Hong Kong, including the Soho and Hollywood neighborhoods cut into the moutainside. There, we got an hour's worth of foot reflexology, which was so good, I could feel the reflexologist touching my spleen when she yanked on my pinky toe.

We also did my cookie rolling installation, with yam cookie, alongside the urban outdoor escalator. It went really well, local passersby were benevolently intrigued!

Ended the night by browsing and haggling our way through the Temple Street Night Market. Ate rice bowls and very weird flavors of cake in bed and watched a DVD until we fell asleep...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Transits of Delights!

HongKongDay2 132
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.

Hong Kong, Day Two. Summary: There are myriad transits of delight. Nevertheless, our primary means of transit--our legs!-- are very, very tired.

We get up around 7 AM and start the day with a trip to the hotel's pool/fitness center. I run 5K and Kiyash swims laps on the roof... then we have a sushi breakfast, coffee, and it's off to Central via our first trip on the Hong Kong subway, the MRT!

The MRT works just like the BART, only better announcements, maps and lines to get on and off the train. Also, as Kiyash marvels at, the train cars have no partitions... it's infinite train in both directions! (Transit of delight #1)

On arrival in Central, which is the business district on the island (our hotel is on the mainland) we start a loop of the Hong Kong Land Company's aerial concourses. The Land Co. has connected all of the Central properties they own via aerial walkways, which collectively pose a kind of 7-bridges problem: How can we cross all the walkways without doubling back on any of our paths? Unfortunately we do not solve this riddle as we are not really sure how many walkways there are total. Still, a fun puzzle. ^_^ (Transit of delight #2)

Next we take the urban escalator up the mountainside, which has been so densely developed that they have built an outdoor public escalator going block after block after block... imagine San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood with escalators up all the hills! Crazy. We love it. It goes on for 792 meters (Transit of delight #3)

Now we're in a neighborhood called mid-levels and we follow signs to a secret playground, which turns out to be a giant soccer court cut into the side of the mountain, nothing else around in view except for the distant city skyline. Crazy. We love it.

There is a free, open zoo in this area. We see a jaguar, buff-cheeked gibbons monkeys and more.

We make our way to Hong Kong Park, where we see a SARS memorial, a tai chi court, an audio art installation (all about the sound of interior air conditioning!), amazing water sculptures, and more.

We find a supermarket that specializes, apparently, in junk food. Aisle after aisle of international cookies and chocolates and candies (tim tams, Picnic, wine gums...) that inspire us to box up a ton to ship home. So that's our plan for tomorrow: woo! Also, I find the perfect cookies for cookie rolling. Yam cookies, made right here in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The word I'll be rolling... "mountain". We already asked the hotel concierge to show us the Cantonese character so I can install it in the correct language.

There's more, but that's enough for now. :) We still adore Hong Kong, although I had a small ping of panic realizing how far from home we are... and how much further we have to go before we are home. It's a long trip and we are literally flying around the entire world. I will try to ignore the small travel anxiety that tends to creep up on me...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Around the World: Day Zero and Day One

Summary: HATE FLYING to HONG KONG! but also We LOVE HONG KONG! Flickr set tells the story so far in photos...

HongKongDay0andDay1 046
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.

It is 6:50 AM when we land.
Hong Kong airport rocks. Easy, fast, calm. LOVE IT. Luggage appears seemingly instantly off the plane, customs/immigration takes less than 5 minutes including the wait in line, everyone smiles as we walk by.
Take a cab ride from the airport with the coolest cowboy rock star taxi driver ever. Straight out of Jarmusch-- the perfect cross between a character from Mystery Train and Night On Earth.
Our hotel is awesome. We're staying at Langham Place in Mong Kok. They let us check in at 8 AM, seven hours early. They are the best.
Our room is amazing and high-tech. It's the ultra-connected home of the future that Intel is always imagining and the Digital Home. There's also a DVD player and a 67-inch High Def widescreen plasma TV and so we are totally going to buy movies on the street and watch them in our room if we have time.
We nap for 3 hours and then walk the streets. Take lots of great photos, scout the local payphones, drink a malted lychee soft drink called Jolly Shandy that may or may not have actually contained beer, we're not sure. Visited a GIRLY arcade called Game Zone where cluster of girls squealed and screamed as they kicked girly claw-game ass. LOVE IT>
Had a high tea buffet... noodles and Earl Grey... just starting to appreciate the British/Chinese culture mix. LOVE IT.
Went to see new Pang brothers (Hong Kong horror film makers) movie at the local teen cinema. We were the oldest people and only non-Asians at the almost sold-out show and it was awesome hanging out with local teens. We are picking up serious style and trend insights here. Also I bought two kawaii tchockes out of a huge bank of vending machines, one is a Lucky Frog toy and the other a bucket of stickers. The movie, Diary, was wicked awesome crazy weird. I won't ruin it by posting any spoilers, but freaky and awesome AND is all about a psycho puppet maker.
We're going for a drink at a bar now... Hong Kong rocks.

Day Zero:

Worst. Flight. Ever. Now, I know I said the very same thing last January, when our SAS flight was diverted from Copenhagen to Stockholm and they lost our luggage for 5 days after the kid sitting in front of me threw up on my legs... but that was bad in a different way. This was bad in WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY DOING FLYING IN THIS WEATHER and make-younever-want-to-fly-again way. First, we rode for about 90 minutes through Tropical Storm Rose, and you know riding through a storm that gets a name means it's not fun. But that was nothing compared to about eight hours in the flight, when thanks to El Nino in the Pacific Ocean, we went through 3 hours worth of horrid storms. I start thinking... "Well, maybe I don't REALLY need to travel so much... I can be very happy just padding around the bay area and taking road trips for the rest of my life." However once you get off the plane, your brain starts to block it out so that you can continue having a normal travel life. Already I am in denial about how awful it was. Let's just say I hope that it really is the worst flight I ever have.^_^

Fortunately, because this is an AROUND THE WORLD TRIP we will not be flying over the Pacific Ocean on our way back! Woo hoo!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

exit stage left, enter far east

Off we go!

Tomorrow marks two big departures for me.

First, and a bit of big news: Tomorrow is my last day as a full-time lead designer at 42 Entertainment.

I'll still be very involved with the company, which is something I'm very happy about, because there are so many amazing immersive entertainment projects on the horizon for us. But leaving full-time employment is a significant change for me, in terms of how I spend my day to day and my ability to work with different organizations.

Going forward, I'll have more time to explore some very exciting opportunities, and I can't wait to see what other cool things pop up. (Needless to say, feel free to contact me -- my dance card still has room for interesting work and engagements over the course of the next year!) I'll save the details on what I already have planned for when I get back from our around-the-world trip. (see below!) For now, I'll just say that I'm looking forward to putting more of my day-to-day energy into future forecasting, design research, publishing, and public speaking. (Not to mention, teaching!)

The second big departure is this: Tomorrow, Kiyash and I leaving our very first, around-the-world trip! We are flying westward around the entire world, making stops in Hong Kong, Delhi, Udaipur, Agra, and Copenhagen. Because of the opposite climates of Scandinavia and far/south-east, I had to create an Excel spreadsheet to work out how to pack effectively AND fashionably for the extremes of 85 degrees versus 30 degrees in just one suitcase. :)

We'll be gone almost a month, but I'll be on email and blogging and looking forward to staying in touch during the trip! (And in case you're wondering, Meche will be staying with her best friend and our neighbor, Maurice the dachshund, so while we expect to miss her like crazy, we also think she'll be very happy.)

I'll check in again this weekend with initial thoughts on Hong Kong, after our 15-hour Cathay Pacific overnight flight! (I have a feeling MAJOR jet lag is in store.) We'll be spending 5 nights there before flying on to India, where we'll have 10 days, including taking part in a big week-long Indian wedding complete with elephants and camels in the ceremony. Then it's on to Copenhagen for a week, where I get to give some cool lectures and organize some Werewolf games, and finally back to San Francisco.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

It's a happy day in America

I am overjoyed today.

The American voters have restored oversight to our federal government by electing a Democratic House and, it very much looks like, a Democratic Senate. And the rest of the world will see, hopefully, a country that rejects the lawlessness, corruption, incompetence, doublespeak, and cronyism of the Bush administration. I know there is a big international audience for this blog and I hope you all know that we are taking our country back from the edge of the void.

I wept after the previous presidential election and felt dead inside for months. I despaired. I tried with a very heavy heart to understand how people I care about (including conservative members of my family back East) could choose to re-elect the same administration that lied to us about Iraq, passed tax cuts we couldn't afford, gave us the Patriot Act, traded on homophobia, and on and on and on... I know to some this will sound awful, but talking to people who voted for Bush and other republicans again in 2004 was like talking to people who reject evolution and want to teach intelligent design in public schools. It's like a willful ignorance, a conscious choice to screw other people to keep your own fantasy world intact. I'm sorry if conservative readers are offended by that, but honestly, I believe that the damage caused by re-electing Bush in 2004 is so severe that we are owed a public aplogy by every single person who voted him back in. I consider yesterday's election of democratic candidates in so many previous republican strongholds a very good start on that apology.

But... but... but. Today is a new day. It is hard to describe how overwhelmingly good it feels to watch Nancy Pelosi speak on TV, to watch a political leader speak who is not a scumbag, who isn't filled with rage and hate and self-righteousness. I love Nancy Pelosi. A woman speaker of the house! It is a great day in America.

I am relieved, optimistic, and above all else happy that there is hope for change.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

SF Bay Area Gamer Alert! Play with me 11/8/06

Originally uploaded by qio.
Tomorrow, for the first time ever, *I* will get to play Cruel 2 B Kind.

No puppet mastering behind the scenes... I'm going to be out there, on the streets, killing with kindness!

Come play with me on your lunch break if you're in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This game is being organized by urban adventure art groups Rebar and SOEX, and it will be played in a series of neighboring "privately owned public spaces" -- you know, those "public" plazas, rooftops, lobbies and fountain areas that technically are privately owned by by law have to allow the public to use them during certain hours of the day... like the lunch break!

More info about this particular event here

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Everything has a secret

I have a new game that I'm hoping to debut at State of Play IV - Singapore. (The conference on virtual worlds is still looking for sponsors, if you want to support the most interesting conference lineup I've been a part of ever!)

Here's how my participation is described by the organizers:

7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. Dinner: Ubiquitous Metaverses
Traditional dinner talk, benign conspiracy or mind-bending event that threatens to unravel your understanding of reality? During this special session, the innovative pioneer of genre-defining alternate reality games (ARGs) and urban superhero games explains how pervasive communication technologies enable the creation of virtual worlds that immerse players in the physicality of real-world people, objects and spaces.

That's a rather daunting description to live up to, so I'm REALLY glad I have a crazy new idea I can't wait to deploy!

So what's the crazy new ubiquitous metaverse game? It's called Something Secret, and it has a future home. There's nothing here yet, but the URL is now mine:

I can't wait to post details, although it might wait until after I deploy (because I want to spring it on the State of Players and catch them unawares!) But for now... Think: benevolent conspiracy meets urban superhero games meets blobjects.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Alternate reality basements

Last month, I visited my parents' home in New Jersey. It's actually our childhood home, where my twin sister and I grew up from age 8 to 18. (A small Flickr set of the best affordances of that house, including the rusty hooks in what we called "dead man's alley", is here.)

I was really stunned and amazed and happy when I went to do yoga in the basement to find remnants of the first game i ever designed, 21 years ago at age 8, on the tiled floor.

The basement tile in our house was (and still is) amazing, made up of giant squares in a dozen vintage colors in odd patterns on the floor. Very quickly after moving in, my twin sister Kelly and I spotted the most playful affordance of these tiles and started designing life-size board games for the basement. (This was the summer after third grade).

Each giant block, made of up four tiles, represented one square, of course. Our first, and to this day my favorite, monumental work in this genre of basement gaming was called PROM DATE. You had to get a date and stuff before landing on the final square marked PROM.

My sister and I tried to make the games as unobtrusive as possible (so that our parents wouldn't yell at us and make us stop.) So to mark out all of the spaces, we used transparent scotch tape to show borders of squares and to label the spaces. (Strips of tape could be used to form transparent letters on top of the tiles.)

The effect was that it looked like an ordinary basement floor until you looked closer and from the right angle. Then, you suddenly would realize that there was all of this secret marking that told you how to play a game.

Although we would peel up the tape after a game was played out, in order to get ready to lay down the new one, sometimes the stickiness stayed behind and collected dirt and grime over the years. In front of my feet here in this picture taken in 2006 is four letter's worth of grime collected since 1985 on what used to be the final space of "PROM DATE". The letters, of course, spelled PROM.(Click on the photo to see my flickr annotations of which grime meant what originally!) I was so so happy and amazed to find these traces of the game still present. I can hardly imagine a more moving artifact from my childhood.

So I guess that two decades ago at the age of 8 I was designing "transparent" and "ubiquitous" games already. That makes me happy. Don't be looking for the alternate reality game "prom date" any time soon though. ;)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Interoffice Games

I did not invent this myself-- I received it in an email from my mother-in-law today. She and her colleagues at a wonderful Bay Area design firm are actually doing this. All I can say is... in accordance with the prophecy!*

*see 10-point dare #6

How many points can you rack up in a day? A week?

1) Run one lap around the office at top speed.2) Ignore the first five people who say 'good morning' to you.3) Phone someone in the office you barely know, leave your name and say,"Just called to say I can't talk right now. Bye."4) To signal the end of a conversation, clamp your hands over your ears andgrimace.5) Leave your zipper open for one hour. If anyone points it out, say,"Sorry, I really prefer it this way."6) Walk sideways to the photocopier.7) While riding in an elevator, gasp dramatically every time the doors open.

1) Say to your boss, "I like your style" and shoot him with double-barreledfingers.2) Babble incoherently at a fellow employee then ask, "Did you get all that,I don't want to have to repeat it."3) Page yourself over the intercom (do not disguise your voice).4) Kneel in front of the water cooler and drink directly from the nozzle(there must be a 'non-player' within sight).5) Shout random numbers while someone is counting.

1) At the end of a meeting, suggest that, for once, it would be nice toconclude with the singing of the national anthem (5 extra points if youactually launch into it yourself).2) Walk into a very busy person's office and while they watch you withgrowing irritation, turn the light switch on/off 10 times.3) For an hour, refer to everyone you speak to as "Bob."4) Announce to everyone in a meeting that you "really have to go do a numbertwo."5) After every sentence, say 'Mon' in a really bad Jamaican accent. As in"The report's on your desk, Mon." Keep this up for 1 hour.6) While an office mate is out, move their chair into the elevator.7) In a meeting or crowded situation, slap your forehead repeatedly andmutter, "Shut up, all of you just shut up!"8) At lunchtime, get down on your knees and announce, "As God as my witness,I'll never go hungry again."9) In a colleague's DAY PLANNER, write in the 10am slot: "See how I look in tights."(5 Extra points if it is a male, 5 more if he is your boss)10) Carry your keyboard over to your colleague and ask, "You wanna trade?" 11) Repeat the following conversation 10 times to the same person: "Do you hear that?" "What?" "Never mind, it's gone now."12) Come to work in army fatigues and when asked why, say, "I can't talk about it." 13) Posing as a maitre d', call a colleague and tell him he's won a lunch for four at a local restaurant. Let him go.14) Speak with an accent (French, German, Porky Pig, etc) during a very important conference call. 15) Find the vacuum and start vacuuming around your desk.16) Hang a 2' long piece of toilet roll from the back of your pants and act genuinely surprised when someone points it out.17) Present meeting attendees with a cup of coffee and biscuits, smashing each biscuit with your fist. 18) During the course of a meeting, slowly edge your chair towards the door.19) Arrange toy figures on the table to represent each meeting attendee, move them according to the movements of their real-life counterparts.

And if that wasn't enough for you... How to keep a healthy level of insanity:1) At lunchtime, sit in your parked car with sunglasses on and point a hair dryer at passing cars. See if they slow down. 2) Tell your children over dinner. "Due to the economy, we are going to have to let one of you go."3) Every time someone asks you to do something, ask if they want fries with that.4) Put your waste basket on your desk and label it "IN". 5) Put decaf in the coffee maker for 3 weeks. Once everyone has gotten over his or her caffeine addictions, switch to espresso.6) Finish all your sentences with "In accordance with the prophecy."

I'm very interested in some of the dares' references to players versus non-players. Clearly this game is meant to be played among a particular group of co-workers co-conspiring in a larger office environment full of other colleagues who are not in the know, or "in the dark" about the game.

I love the humor of the dares, but as I've said before, "dark play" is not really my favorite kind of play. Dark play, a term I borrow from performance studies co-founder Richard Schechner, is play in which there is no clear frame separating the game and reality. Some players know they’re playing, other players might not, and people looking on might mistake the gameplay for reality.

I prefer “transparent play,” which allows onlookers to intuit that others are playing, grok the rule set quickly and join in the gameplay if they wish. So I would love to see a fully transparent version of this game.

One simple design tweak would be to post the list of dares somewhere public in the office, like on the refrigerator, or in mailboxes. Keep some of it a secret--is this for real? am I supposed to do this? is this authorized?--to keep the thrill of the dare, but at least make it clear what all the orchestrated chaos is about!

Teaching: Ubiquitous Play and the Everyday

I'm teaching again!

Here's the course description for the BFA/MFA seminar I'm teaching at San Francisco Art Institute next semester. For those of you who aren't familiar with the school, SFAI was founded in 1871. It's one of the oldest schools for contemporary art education in the U.S., and it's known for emphasizing intense conceptual and critical work alongside the development of technique. The course I'm teaching is for SFAI's Design + Technology program, which is a really amazing interdiscipinary major that emphasizes theory and writing and a critical understanding of designed systems, while also developing a strong technology practice in terms of both hacker and maker skills. I taught Game Design as Art Practice there in Fall 2004, and I really loved the students and the creative environment. I'm really looking forward to being back there in 2007!

An Introduction to Ubiquitous Play in the Everyday

Experimental game design is the field of interactive arts that seeks to discover new platforms and contexts for digital play. This course examines the contemporary intersection of ubiquitous computing and experimental game design. The convergence of these two fields at the turn of the twenty-first century has produced a significant body of games and performances that challenge and expand our notions of where, when, and with whom we can play. This course explores how and to what ends such projects reconfigure the technical, formal and social limits of play and performance in relation to everyday life.

Throughout the semester, we will design and test a series of playful interventions and performances that seek to turn everyday life and public spaces into a “real” little game. A primary goal of students in this course will be to develop a critical gaming literacy that can be applied to ordinary, everyday life. Together, we will work to read the “real” world as rich with playful opportunities, carefully testing everyday media, objects, sites, and social situations for the positive and negative consequences of inscribing each within the magic circle of a game. Readings will concentrate on classic design manifestos from the fields of ubiquitous computing and game design, as well as theoretical essays on collective intelligence, public space, and the performance of everyday life.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Citations and Spectacles: Chapters 3 and 4 are live!

I've been posting my dissertation chapters in serial format (my favorite rhythm for engagement, as I wrote about here). In case you missed them, Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 are now live!

If any of my chapters are going to be controversial, I suspect it is these two.

Throughout my dissertation as well as my blog, lectures and actual design work, I have expressed a fairly strong preference for certain game design practices: scalability and sustainability of participation and iteration, rather than "situated" play and one-off projects; transparent play that invites direct engagement rather than "dark"play that produces mostly gawking, confusion, or alienated spectatorship; and actualization of concepts and prototypes for a real, public audience so as to best support the discovery of emergent uses and desires. In these two chapters, I occasionally challenge some well-known projects in terms of their aesthetic choices and deployment practices. I hope that the fact that I hold their designers in high regard is clear even as I ask some difficult questions about the goals of different genres of ubiquitous play and performance, and the kinds of significant technical, social, cultural and personal impacts they are most likely to have--or to not have.

For years, most of us working in this particular gaming space have limited our discussion to cheering on the projects we like best. At the start of a field, I think this kind of positive support is extremely important. But by now offering a critical take on some of the original canonized projects of the categories of ubiquitous computing games and pervasive games, I am arguing that the field is strong and diverse and socially important enough that we can--indeed, we must-- ask the tough questions that typically have been left unasked. I certainly do not expect to have the last word in reply to these questions; I can already imagine (and hope to see written!) challenges to my own critiques and intrepretations. And I look forward to a real dialogue, where researchers and designers have enough confidence in the field to publicly disagree with each other, developing in this space.

Here's a sneak preview of the topics and themes of each.

From Chapter 3: Colonizing Play: Citations Everywhere, or, The Ubicomp Games

... In a lecture for the 2005 International Conference on Pervasive Computing, Laurent Ciarletta proposed a ubiquitous computing research and development strategy based on mimetic technological performance. In the face of ubiquitous computing’s failure to manifest itself in the present, Ciarletta suggested a playfully performative mode of redress: faking it. The title of Ciarletta’s talk, “Emulating the Future”, recommended imitating now an imagined, future state of truly ubiquitous computing in order to better understand the destiny of the field. In the accompanying paper, Ciarletta writes:

In order to specify good applications, it would be interesting to completely
emulate those systems, creating fake worlds where the specific piece being
developed can be embedded, tested, compared with other solutions and
demonstrated in its context, even though some of the technologies have not been
developed yet, or are available only as prototypes on a small scale (3).
In other words, by creating as-if ubicomp systems—working, local demonstrations of ubicomp technologies and infrastructures that are not ubiquitous yet, but which might someday be—the field can mimetically manifest ubiquitous computing’s hoped-for “there”.

Ciarletta’s suggested “fake worlds” call to mind a kind of theatrical play, a staged magic circle in which computing behaves as if it were already ubiquitous. To adapt theater-games activist Augusto Boal’s famous provocation, such emulation might not be the ubicomp revolution in itself—but it could be a rehearsal for the revolution.[1] If this language of revolution sounds rather confrontational, consider Schmidt’s proposed solution to ubiquitous computing’s problem of not being there yet. He encouraged his HCI audience to continue aggressively pursuing Weiser’ vision, “confronting real people in real everyday environments” with more and more functional ubicomp prototypes ([20]). If we are not at the desired “there” of ubiquitous computing yet, Schmidt suggested, perhaps it is because we have not staged a dramatic enough confrontation. Ciarletta’s plan to fake effective ubiquitous computing by “emulating the future” offers precisely such a dramatic means to advance the field.

The term ‘emulation’, of course, has a special meaning in computer science: emulators are programs that allow computers to masquerade as a different make and model. The most popular such emulators are those that allow users to run programs from the past. (For example: I can use an emulator program to install and run Commodore 64 code written in 1988 on my 2006 Sony Vaio laptop.) Given the close relationship of technological evolution and games development discussed in Chapter Two, it is not surprising that game programs for obsolete personal computers and consoles comprise the vast majority of available emulator-related downloads. Widely circulated emulators for various Commodore, Amiga, Spectrum, and Colecovision models, to name just a few, enable users to play literally thousands of classic and cult-favorite computer games.[2]

Whereas traditional computer emulators are designed to allow us to play games from the past, could ubicomp emulators let us play games from a specific, hoped-for technological future? What might we learn from such provisional, forward-looking games—about the present state of ubiquitous computing, and about the future of gameplay in a ubicomp society? Would emulating the future of play help define and advance the field toward the ultimate there of ubiquitous computing, the there where we are not yet?

In this chapter, I explore the role of experimental, emulatory game development in furthering the expansionist efforts of ubiquitous computing. First, I will examine how researchers create novel game prototypes that aspire to be both smart and persuasive. By smart, I mean designed to produce research insight about current ubicomp platforms, infrastructure and interfaces. By persuasive, I mean designed to convince future ubicomp users and technology gatekeepers that the manifest destiny of ubiquitous computing is indeed a vision worth pursuing. A smart ubicomp game aims to advance the field technically closer to its goal of computing anywhere and everywhere by revealing how to better construct, embed, network and deploy ubicomp technologies. A persuasive ubicomp game aims to advance the field socially and organizationally by demonstrating to the public the potential benefits of ubicomp technologies.

Then, I will explore the performative function of play in ubicomp games research. It is not enough to design smart and persuasive games; their arguments and results must be made citable, that is to say, replicable. As a fundamentally scientific practice, ubicomp gaming therefore constructs its own “theater of proof”, Bruno Latour’s term for the mechanism through which scientific aims and findings are introduced into a network of circulating references (The Pasteurization of France 85). Organizational sociologist Diane Vaughan argues: “For engineers, a design is a hypothesis to be tested. But tests only approximate reality. The proof is in the performance” (quoted in McKenzie 96-7). Ubicomp game design, I will argue, formulates hypotheses about the value and feasibility of ubiquitous computing. Playtests—a term frequently used to describe the prototype demonstration of ubicomp games—are the experimental performances that provide citable proof of these hypotheses. I will examine how the network of playtests attempts to make manifest, that is to say to make legible and credible, the destiny of ubicomp technologies—a destiny whose self-evidence is arguably called into question by the persistence of the field’s question: “Are we there yet?” The work of the playtests, then, is to provide better evidence, to construct a convincing map of viable future ubicomp sites—both in terms of contexts and locations.

Finally, I will consider the play values expressed through ubicomp game design. What are the particular qualities of play that are explored and enacted in these games? What kinds of gamers do they produce? As I have argued previously, ubicomp games represent the joining of two mutually supportive manifest destinies: the tendency of games to colonize new technological platforms, and the desire of ubiquitous computing to colonize new everyday objects and social spaces. I therefore will analyze how ubicomp technology values, as articulated in major manifestos of the field, subtly transform the aesthetics of digital gaming and, more importantly, how these values train the players themselves to embody and enact ubiquitous computing’s vision of an ideal network.

[1] Boal originally writes: “Perhaps the theater is not revolutionary in itself; but have no doubts, it is a rehearsal of revolution!” in the essay “Poetics of the Oppressed” from his 1979 collection Theatre of the Oppressed.

[2] Perhaps the best current emulator resource is The Old Computer (, which houses downloadable emulators and game programs for 338 VIC-20 games; 842 Atari 2600 games; 913 Nintendo games; 2455 Commodore 64/+ games; and many, many more.

From Chapter 4: Disruptive Play: Spectacle Everywhere, or, The Pervasive Games

...The Situationists, in fact, wanted to accomplish with play then precisely what ubiquitous computing wants to do with technology now: to achieve a seamless integration into everyday life. In “Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play”, Debord argues precisely this point: “Play, radically broken from a confined ludic time and space, must invade the whole of life” ([3]). And just as ubiquitous computing dedicates itself to imagining and constructing a technological infrastructure for the future, so too do the Situationists aim toward a future eventuality of more ubiquitous play, what they term “the coming reign of leisure” ([3]). Debord writes: “The work of the Situationists is precisely the preparation of ludic possibilities to come” ([5])

Debord wrote “Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play” in 1958. Is it too early—or too late, for that matter, considering that the Situationist movement officially dissolved in the late 1970s—to ask precisely which ludic possibilities have already come in the wake and in the spirit of the Situationist movement? Where might we find examples of play radically breaking free of the magic circle and pervading the whole of everyday life? In the 1960 “Situationist Manifesto”, Debord et al write: “So what really is the situation? It's the realization of a better game” ([5]). Here, the Situationists use the term game metaphorically as a way to understand the potential for a more participatory culture and a more fully engaging quality of life. By a better game, they mean a better social structure. But I want to suggest that examining contemporary projects designed and deployed as real, experimental games offers an excellent opportunity to explore the Situationist philosophy in action as well as to understand urban computing’s application of Situationist techniques. Therefore in this chapter, I will explore the emerging category of pervasive games, a genre of city-based, ubicomp-inspired games that invade public spaces with highly mobile and visible play.

The Integrated Project on Pervasive Games (IPerG), a leading pervasive games design research group, defines their category of work: “Pervasive games are a radically new game form that extends gaming experiences out into the physical world” (“iPerG Welcome”). I want to make several points about this proffered definition.

First, the introduction of digital gameplay into the material environment can be understood not only as an interest in a more embodied gaming practice, but also and more importantly as a desire for more integrated gaming. IPerG writes: “Our vision: to produce entirely new game experiences, that are tightly interwoven with our everyday lives” (“IPerG Vision”). This vision statement strongly echoes the Situationist play strategy as well as quintessential ubicomp claims, such as Mark Weiser’s statement that “the most profound technologies are those that… weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it” (94). The physical world is appealing to pervasive game designers, then, primarily for the opportunity it provides them to create digital gaming that is not as easily compartmentalized as screen-based play. Material affordances of everyday things, I will demonstrate, are not necessarily explored or exploited by pervasive game design. Materiality is significant, instead, for the new sites and social contexts it provides, suggesting new arenas and occasions for gameplay. Indeed, pervasive games embrace the friction and fusion that occurs as a result of this relocation of digital gaming into novel physical settings. This creative relocation is what I call the gaming détournement.

Second, the verb used by IPerG in its pervasive gaming definition to describe the work of the genre is to extend. As this diction implies, the pervasive genre is an active exploration of how far boundaries can be pushed. To accomplish this exploration, the games use what urban computing researchers Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins call “urban probes” to break the magic circle. Urban probes are “rapid, nimble, often intentional encroachments on urban places”—in the case of urban computing, designed to provoke awareness and discussion, and to collect data, about the role of technology in city life (““Urban Probes: Encountering Our Emerging Urban Atmospheres” 1). In the case of pervasive games, urban probes provoke awareness and discussion about when, where and how it is appropriate to play. But because these are gaming probes, rather than gaming installations, we will see in each pervasive game’s design a sense of mobility, of designed routes for channeling the flow of gameplay through different parts of the urban environment. This designed flow is what I call the gaming dérive.

Third, it is important to note how the IPerG definition adopts a rhetoric of design revolution. Just as the Situationists saw breaking the magic circle as a radical intervention, so do pervasive game developers. In the tradition of urban computing, pervasive games explore urban identity, critique habitual behaviors, and seek to construct experimental social structures. Such construction often requires highly disruptive design. Indeed, a sense of breaking the rules and defying social norms is fundamental to all of the pervasive games I will discuss in this chapter. These urban projects aim to shock the public into new ways of seeing and socializing; as a result, the aesthetic of these projects tends to be big (scaled) and visually arresting (spectacular).

Through a close reading of the design and implementation of four major pervasive games, I will demonstrate that pervasive games operate on two different, and often conflicting, levels: as both situation and spectacle. The former affords public game play opportunities, while the latter offers the public perception of someone else’s game. Measuring the degree and the ends to which a pervasive game creates an open situation versus the extend to which it operates as a closed spectacle is ultimately, I will propose, the most important evaluative tool for analyzing the socio-technological work of projects in the genre.

Can the aesthetics of public spectacle, when combined with iconic game imagery and interaction patterns, be used to organize and to inspire direct participation in a playful situation? If so, what kinds of urban communities and technological relations will emerge in and around this participatory spectacle?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Happy Birthday, Kelly! Happy Birthday, Me!

Happy Birthday, Kelly! We are 29 years old today.

To celebrate my half of the identical-twin birthday, Kiyash and I have planned a Bay Area transit adventure. First, we are driving to Sausalito, where we will take the ferry across the San Francisco Bay to the Embarcadero. Then we'll walk along the waterfront to Pier 39, where we will drop some quarters at Musee Mechanique. From there, were continute walking along the waterfront, stopping en route for some kind of picnic lunch, and then on to the Golden Gate Bridge. We'll walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and wind up back in Sausalito, where it's a couple more miles to the car. So 12 miles urban hiking, plus some old-school amusements and gameplay and fun public transportation. Sounds like the perfect birthday celebration to me!

We'll catch up with Kelly and her partner Brian on the East side for vegan brunch tomorrow morning. Photos on Flickr when we return...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The perils of avant garde baking

Those of you following the cookie rolling adventures know that I have a thing for playful baking adventures.

Well, late last year, before I started my final dissertation crunch, I wanted to have a few last hurrahs before I disappeared into writing oblivion. So Kiyash and I had a blow-out night of improvisational dessert making with two of our favorite gameful people, Liz and Zach Radding (at whose birthday party, you may recall, we invented Chicken Soccer Bowling). I made a traditional Finnish pannukaku in anticipation of our pending Scandinavian adventure. (And as it turned out, the stacked pancake dessert I made that night turned out a lot better than the disastrous first leg of our trip!)

Anyway, I've finally gotten around to posting online an infamous 20-second video that emerged from that night. This video was taken about a minute after we four took our first (and for very good reason, our LAST!) bites of one of the improvisational desserts, Zach's spicy, citrusy flourless chocolate cake. It must be said: No amount of tropical fruit syrup or Autumn fury spices could save the orange-infused graham crackery madness of this memorable, if not entirely edible, chocolate event.

My two favorite pieces of ancient Germanic wisdom: "I laugh, because I will cry if I do not" and "I cry, because I will laugh if I do not". You decide which of the two we four victims of a certain disastrous chocolate improvisational dessert item are doing in this video.

(If you look closely, you'll be able to spy the pannukaku I made on the table, a big round fluffy mulit-layered thing of double-broiled pancakes which fresh whipped cream layers smothered in guava-papaya sauce!)

By the way, the 2006 follow up to Improv Dessert Night is an epic baking battle: El Mejor Alfajor vs. El Mayor Alfajor.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Approval Matrix

Finally back in Berkeley after a whirlwind week of Come Out and Playing in New York City, meeting with other MacArthur Foundation research grantees (looking at the ecology of games and youth culture), and attending the MIT Emerging Technologies conference in Cambridge, where I met the other TR35. Oh yes, and also cookie rolling in Cambridge-- it's been awhile since I rolled (a year?) but I wanted to resume, in anticipation of upcoming trips to Hong Kong, Delhi, Udaipur, Agra, Singapore, etc. (If you're curious, the Cambridge installation was oatmeal-cranberry "dunkers" underneath some public canoes by the Charles River.)

Lots to catch up on, a million things on my mind, but a couple quick comments that I am theming around the subject of "The Approval Matrix":

First, Cruel 2 B Kind made New York Magazine's awesome Approval Matrix as the most brilliant event to hit NYC last week, and perfectly poised between high-brow and low brow. Other events listed include the Mets clinching their division, Madame Butterfly opening at the Met, and "Saddam Hussein says to 'agents of Zionism' that he will 'crush your heads'', inadvertently channeling Kids in the Hall". (hee hee.) I am teh happi0r!!!

Speaking of approval matrices, now that the game is post-World Premiere, Ian and I can finally start officially "approving" the requests we've received to host C2BK games. There are wicked many. I'm going to jump on that this weekend, so if you submitted a request, look for an email soon! We've got requests to run games in really interesting places as far as China, Australia, Ireland, and the UK, as well as more locally all up and down the West and East Coasts and across the rest of the country (LA, SF, Seattle; Florida, New Jersey, Boston; Madison, Phoenix, Shaulmberg; and so on).

Basically, the benevolent assassins are taking over the whole world. ROCK!

There's no limit to how many games can be run in any town or city, so feel free to request a game-- you tell us date, time, and location; we create a registration page for your players; they sign up; the game runs automatically! You can even play too.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Serial engagement is the cornerstone of community

Quickfire insight rattling in my brain that I want to post here so you all know that I'm thinking about it:

What do Battlestar Galactica, American Idol, Lost, lonelygirl15, America's Next Top Model, and alternate reality games like ilovebees and Last Call Poker have in common?

They have a remarkable power to build incredibly multiple levels of meaningful community through serial engagement.

First, let me explain what I am identifying as the 3 scales of community they create. Here are the 3 levels: online, watercooler, and intimate communities. The first is mediated community at a massive scale and constructed through public communications (online). The second is face-to-face community in shared social spaces, through semi-pulic communications, at a macro scale (watercooler). The third is mediated but intensely personal community based on private communications, at an intimate scale (intimate). Think, respectively, of online forums and IRC channels (online); office and barber shop conversations (watercooler); and SMSing or IMing good friends or family not about real life but rather about the entertainment property (intimate). So I take part in spoiler and speculation discussions online about the Battlestar storyline, e.g.; I gossip about American Idol performances at work with colleagues and at the dog park with familiar strangers; and I SMS and IM with my sister and a good girlfriend on commercial breaks of America's Next Top Model to talk about the live broadcast. These are all interesting kinds of community that we would do well to consider separately, particularly the second and third categories. I know that I have a closer relationship with my sister, for instance, during seasons of reality TV shows we both watch, and I feel more connected to familiar strangers whose names I might not know but who I have discussed TV episodes with the night after they air.

Second, I want to argue that what makes this possible is the rhythm of serial engagement. Community requires multiple instances of collective engagement. Certain kinds of serial drama (Prison Break!) 24! and persistent storytelling (lonelygirl, ARGs, etc.) and campaign-based entertainment (So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, etc.) are perfect for this. Each episode or massive update represents a live node for plugging into the various levels of community.

This is hard to create around theater, which although is inspires collective (whole audience) engagement does not repeat-- unless there are multiple viewings are likely (think the obsessive $20 student rush crowd for RENT circa 1998); hard to create around movies, which also have local collective audiences but are typically one-off engagements; hard to create around unschedule console gameplay, where most people are at different levels/stages from the rest of the audience (although launches of highly anticpated sequels create something of these communities, e.g. Halo 2's launch....)

On the other hand, traditional folk games are meant to be experienced serially, iterated over and over again in multipled instances of gameplay. You can have a serial engagement with someone over a chess board or a scrabble board or on the tennis court or the golf course or in the Werewolf or Mafia circle. Indeed, one reason I am launching GROWL the International Werewolf League next month is to promote serial engagement through mutiple local Werewolf chapters.

I'm just trying to get some thoughts formally out here, because I have been obsessing about the pleasures of serial entertainment since the Sweet ValleyHigh series, which I started reading when I was 7 years old. And I have a feeling that investigating the psychology and social power of serial experience, specifically around both traditional broadcast and new digital distribution networks, is going to be an important task for me going foreward.

Alternate reality games as bionic software and existential intervention

Alternate reality games, at their best, are bionic software.

There-- I've said it. That's my primary stake in designing and researching ARGs.
(What is bionic software, you ask? Here you go.)
As you know, I am most passionate about the physical, reality-based gameplay that occurs during ARGs and other genres, like urban superhero gaming and big public games. This is not because I think digital games or virtual worlds aren't real or physical enough. Rather, it's because I think: 1) digital gameplay and virtual world building offer engagement models that we desperately need in real life and 2) physical systems (our bodies) offer software and digital systems important tools and capabilities.
Regarding #2: I don't mean to de-emphasize the very real pleasures of story, interpretation, collaborative challenges, and interactive drama that are at the center of most ARG players' experiences with such games, or to tur the absolutely electrifying art practice of puppet mastering into a seriously goal-oriented agenda. ARGs are still amazing entertainment experiences and art works. But there are lots of ways to create pleasure and many media forms in which to make art-- why ARGs? For me, I believe the pleasures of ARGs feedback into a bionic software loop that ulimately is going to create very powerful benevolent systems of embodied collective intelligence and coordinated problem solving and massively multiplayer social action. I cannot get away from the social experiment aspect of ARGs.

Regarding #1: My other primary stake, as many of you already know or suspect, is an existential one-- games as a palliative intervention of orientation, meaning, purpose, feedback and social engagement into people's real-world lives. I can't help it-- that's just the way I see things. In other words: What would Sisyphus do? I think he would turn rolling that rock up and down the hill into a game.

I just wanted to post this because I've been getting a lot of questions lately about what I do and why I do it... and ultimately, it's the stakes of ARGs as powerful systems--moreso than their aesthetics or technical aspects--that I want to focus on.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Notes from a cruel puppet master...

... in which I post some of the nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes machinations that goes into staging a public game on an epic (specifically, a Shakespearean epic) scale.

I'm in New York City for the next few days, doing final on-the-ground scouting and prepping for Saturday's big world premiere of Cruel 2 B Kind, the game of benevolent assassinations. Stay tuned to this blog post for updates on the puppet mastering!

Thursday... late

79 teams are registered to play. That is huge! We are seriously going to be a major ludic force to be reckoned with on Broadway. That number of gamers is going to make a big social impact on the game space. We expect to get even more players registered once the festival actually kicks off tomorrow. Therefore, I have spent most of tonight hacking our game algorithms to accommodate more, more, more players!

Originally Ian and I capped our system at a maximum of 100 teams. I had created algorithms for each number of teams, 5 through 100, that specify the number of weapons, iterated how many times each, for every conceivable number of alive teams at any given time. For instance, a game with 88 teams begins with 11 weapons assigned to 8 teams each; 90 teams begins with 10 weapons assigned to 9 teams each, 42 teams begins with 7 weapons assigned 6 times each, 29 begins with 1 weapon assigned to 29 teams, and so on. I like these diverse patterns for a bunch of reasons, but mainly because it means the game is different each time it's played depending on how many teams there are. A game with 1 weapon deployed by all teams requires great stealth; a game with 23 weapons assigned to only 1 team each requires luck, observation and strategy.

However, to keep things interesting and provide a range of gameplay experiences with a single game, and most importantly to ensure that each team has surviving targets and hunters at all times, I created algorithms for reassinging weapons from scratch. So a game with 88 players resets at 69, 44, 34, 16, and 7 players. Each of these resets deploys 23, 11, 17, 8 and 7 new weapons, respectively, to 3, 4, 2, 2, and 1 players each.

Anyway, I've been creating these algorithms for 101 - 150 teams tonight so that if registration keeps going up, we can accommodate even more players!

Thursday, even later

Now with room for 150 teams, I had to generate 50 new "kill codes" to add to the current database of 100. Kill codes are the unique codewords each team surrenders when they are assassinated. The attackers text the kill code to our game system to receive points and update the game to know which teams are dead.

The secret of our kill codes: each word is taken from the original text of Hamlet, since it was he who first spoke the phrase "cruel to be kind." You would be surprised by how few short, non-homonym words appear in a Shakespeare play. (Need to be non-homonym so teams shouting the codes are understood clearly and specifically by their killers, need to be short to allow for speedy texting!) It's all "lord" this and "woe" that. But I love the subtle texture it adds to the game!

Thursday evening, earlier

Fielded calls and emails from all kinds of press today, from MTV to the Finnish Broadcasting Company to the Villager, one of the oldest local neighborhood papers in the city. The more people who find out about the game, the better--because anyone who hears about it can sign up to run their own C2BK event!

Thursay afternoon

I've been scouting local bakeries and groceries for a good deal on self-catering supplies for our post-game assassins' picnic and awards ceremony at a secret location in Central Park. It's difficult to figure self-catering for upwards of 150 players! However, I think I've found a solution: mini cupcakes and lemonade. Yay! Also, I found cookies that look exactly like the daisy bullets on our C2BK logo and website. So I will buy a bunch of those, even though they are fancy and expensive, because they are too perfect not to bring along!

Friday Afternoon

Brainstormed levels of top assassins awards with some of the festival volunteers today. They were a great help-- and I can now proudly reveal the official levels of honors it is possible to receive in the game! In order of ascending awesomeness, we have Mad Assassin, Bad Assassin, Super Assassin, Elite Assassin, Extreme Assassin, and Ultimate Assassin!

Lots more interviews today... BBC Radio and the Village Voice were highlights...

My mom is coming into the city to play the game as an innocent bystander! I love that the game is mainstream enough for my mom. I also love that the game affords casual participation as someone willing to hang out in the game space and be attacked with kindness by the actual, registered players.

Friday night

Turnout at the opening night reception downtown was fantastic-- a packed room all night long, hundreds of folks, many familiar faces from Gamelab, Eyebeam, Glolab, MIT, NYU ITP, GDC, and so on... but even better, many totally unfamliar faces from the general NYC public! So exciting to see first-time reality-based gamers trying their hand at everywhere play.

...met folks who had flown in from as far as Mexico City and London to play Cruel 2 B Kind. I can't wait to give them a great experience befitting of such extraordinary efforts to be here for the game!

Meanwhile earlier tonight we hit 101 teams registered. Has there ever been a public pervasive game with that many teams in NYC? I think we are a first!

Ian finally got in from Atlanta, so tonight we're holed up in our room prepping and running a final test of the system from Starbucks (where we'll be puppet mastering the game live tomorrow) just to be 100% confident for tomorrow!

Saturday morning

It's raining in New York City today! That will likely have a bit of an impact on the turnout for the game... although at this point, even if half of the registered players don't show up with their cruel umbrellas, we'll still have a superabundnace of live assassins... we're up to 110 confirmed teams for today's game.

MTV will be here in about twenty minutes to film a special elite assassins orientation for a few teams I recruited yesterday for extra-special training.

Randomly, I am wearing a shirt that PERFECT matches the shirt the girl in our C2bK logo is wearing. I will flickr this later as evidence of my extreme fashion commitment to embodying the game! :)