Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Adventures in Cookie Rolling - Vienna!

Vienna_November07 009
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
I landed in Vienna after 18 hours of travel and two sleepless flights. It was snowing, and it was late, and I was exhausted.

The conference organizers had arranged a car for me, and the driver met me after baggage. He was just a little older than I am, very energetic, and we struck up a conversation right away. When he found out I had flown in from San Francisco, he told me that his daughter lives there, or near there – Union City. I told him my husband and I lived in Berkeley, and he seemed to know a fair bit of the local Bay Area geography.

The drive into the city center turned into an impromptu city tour, and a historical introduction to Austria. I was regaled with information about the countrywide use of spring water as tap water, the utter absence of street crime, the great art museums, how highly Austria’s neutrality is valued by OPEC, the best wine shops, the pedestrian friendly city center, the rational design of the numbered city districts, how to read the street signs, and on, and on, and on. It was quite awesome.

Considering the fact that I obviously had a local expert on hand, I decided to ask the driver about local cookies. I planned to cookie roll the next day, and I didn’t really have a good lead on a quintessential Viennese cookie.

At first, the driver wanted to tell me all about the famous Viennese strudel and the many outstanding varieties of kucken – but I quickly explained that it had to be a cookie, like a biscuit. (Kiyash had advised me before leaving on this trip to use the word “biscuit” to better communicate what I was looking for – and he was right!) To explain why I specifically needed a biscuit and not a struden or a kucken, I vaguely mentioned that it was a kind of project I’m doing in different cities around the world – getting local cookies. I left out the rolling, the spelling, and the Sisyphus part. He took my question quite seriously and thought for a moment before offering up what he thought the best cookie for the project would be.

It was the vanillekipferl, he decided – a kind of small, crescent shaped, power-sugared, nutty shortbread. He explained that it was a very old, traditional cookie, dating back centuries. He mentioned some great time of poverty in Austria, during a royal era (my history is a bit foggy on Eastern Europe, and I didn’t quite follow his references). He said, to my delight, that apparently one faction of people living in Vienna would throw these cookies at the other, poorer faction, “to taunt them, because they had no food.”

This was definitely the best history I’d heard of any cookie ever.

And of course, any cookie with excellent aerodynamics would certainly have outstanding rolling affordances as well!

So I said I was absolutely certain I would use that cookie, and I had him spell the name twice so I would remember it. “V-a-n-i-l-l-e k-i-p-f-e-r-l.”

As we neared my hotel, I explained my purpose for being in town – to talk about games at a scientific meeting – he talked about having studied digital aesthetics at university, and he told me about his interest in new media and architecture. I thought that was a very interesting coincidence – and having just published an essay and a design manifesto in Space Time Play, a book on the relationship between architecture, public space and games, I gave the driver my business card just as we were pulling up to the hotel. I told him I’d send I’d email him my article if he wrote.

This seemed to catch him off guard a bit. The last thing I remember as I was dragging my suitcase up the red carpet toward the hotel lobby was him looking me directly in the eyes, smiling, with an expression I interpreted as somewhat happy surprise to have had made a small, but meaningful, connection on the ride over.

I went to bed immediately – I hadn’t slept on either of the flights over – and I was extremely confused and groggy when the phone in my hotel room rang about an hour and a half later.

The woman at the front desk said, “Someone has just dropped off milk and cookies for you, and the porter is outside your door right now if you would like to accept them.”

With my earplugs still in, I stumbled over to the door, opened it, and the porter began apologizing quite profusely when he saw how asleep and bedgraggled I looked. He was holding a pint of milk and a box of cookies in a small, clear plastic grocery bag. Along with the pint and cookies, stashed inside the bag was the name card from the airport – the sign that the driver held up so I would find him at arrivals. Here’s what the surprise special delivery looked like, and from another angle.

They were vanillekipferl cookies.

It felt quite strange and magical. I thought at the moment I should take some photographs of me being startled and half-asleep with the cookies, and so I did, including one of me holding my earplug while I ate a cookie. At the time, this detail seemed really important to capture. I actually about five or six, okay or maybe seven or eight, of the cookies before going right back to sleep.

I dreamed about the cookies all night long.

The morning, I went cookie rolling with them in Stadtpark. I considered a few different locations for the installation – a small statuary of penguins, a funky bridge over the Danube canal. But I knew the ideal location as soon as I saw it. And so with the help of an unexpected skateboard park, I was able to get quite a good amount of rolling action, down a ramp, before the final spelling of the word commenced.

The word was “grund” – “reason” in the local German language. What an interesting juxtaposition – reason from magic, “grund” created out of a box of utterly fantastic, magically appearing cookies.

As it turned out, the shape of vanillekipferl is ideal, I mean IDEAL, for spelling “grund”. It is hard to express how overjoyed I was to discover the perfect match between the shape of the cookies and the shape of the letters.

In fact, in the great history of cookie rolling (two and a half years and going, unbelievably), I would say that only the affordances of stroopwaffel for spelling “Sisyphus” in Utrecht compares to the affordances of vanillekipferl for spelling “grund”.

This experience in Vienna was without a doubt a perfect illustration of why I cookie roll. I am taken out of the otherwised tightly controlled agenda of my trip, and I am left open to unexpected encounters. And it is with the help of a concrete and absurdly specific mission, that I find my strongest connection with local reality.

See for yourself.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Do I know anyone in Vienna?

I'll be in Vienna Monday through Saturday, November 12 - 17.

Do I know anyone there? I'll be at a science summit all week (yay -- more about that soon -- big new science game is happening!) but will have some time for fun, if I know anyone in the city?

Also, I need to go cookie rolling and would appreciate any advice on the best cookie in Vienna!

Email me at my first name @ the name of this blog dot com!

Monday, November 05, 2007

"Gamers Have Skills - Let's Tap 'Em"

I have a full-length Op-Ed in the Christian Science Monitor today. The topic: harnessing the power of gamers, naturally... from Halo 3 to World Without Oil!


Halopedia is currently the fourth most active wiki on the Wikia network, with almost 4,000 articles and counting. In fact, three of Wikia's top five most active wikis are dedicated to creating shared knowledge about digital games.

These gamers' collective knowledge-building projects represent one of the most important aspects of contemporary video game culture, but also one of the most overlooked. Despite stereotypes of antisocial gamers who prefer to consume rather than create, most video-gamers are in fact engaged in a highly collaborative effort to exhaustively understand their favorite games. The video-gaming community is, quite simply, engaged in intense and highly successful "collective intelligence."

Read the rest of "Gamers Have Skills - Let's Tap 'Em."

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Alternate Reality Society

November 2007 246
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
Kiyash and I spent Friday night alternate reality gaming in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. Along with our co-conspirators and ad hoc teammates -- Kid Beyond, Kristian, Robin , and Cate -- we dedicated the entire evening to completing a custom-designed itinerary of SF0 missions.

SF0 is my favorite game these days, besides Werewolf. I call it the world's first Alternate Reality Society -- we're talking about a 24/7, 365 real-world MMO that emphasizes face-to-face gameplay, making, crafting and hacking, and creative intervention in public spaces. It also has a really great, functional interface that allows you to submit, organize and annotate all kinds of mobile evidence of your gameplay. Their social network features are really fun and functional, too.

I spent a large part of Chapter Seven ("Powers and Superpowers") of my dissertation This Might Be a Game writing about the SF0 game, in its earliest incarnation. If you're interested, download the full text and do a PDF search for SF0.

These are the three missions we completed Friday night. Clicking on the links above will take you to our mission reports, with stories and photo sets, for each.

Something Very Good

INSTRUCTIONS: Go to a street corner of your choosing and wait for something fantastic to happen.

Seeing Beyond Sight

INSTRUCTIONS: 1. Blindfold yourself. 2. Go out in public and make your way in the world. 3. Photograph things you notice - while blindfolded.

Object Annotation

INSTRUCTIONS: Pick a local public object that you enjoy and leave a note on it describing your feelings in great detail.

SF0 is brilliant and I'm so happy it exists. You can play it anywhere in the world, and if you're not playing it yet, I encourage you to sign up -- and make me (I'm "avantgame") a friend! (Or a foe... if you dare...)