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!