For the last few weeks I’ve been travelling and crunching like mad on finishing my first academic book before the manuscript submission deadline. I’m still planning to get another URRpdate out in the near future, as I am finding small moments of time to code here and there, but it won’t be until after the book is submitted (May 30) that I’ll be able to take a month to really focus on URR, do all the coding I wish I could have done in the last few months, and get 0.8 actually released. I know, I know – it sucks, and I wish I was able to just not sleep and do URR coding in the hours I’m not book writing. But you guys have seen what’s coming in 0.8, and have seen how it’s going to play out, and your enthusiastic comments and support really mean a ton to me, and I’m really confident the release will be something special once it finally comes out. URR isn’t dead, it’ll speed up once the book is done, 0.8 will be out in the summer, and 0.9 will be released this calendar year; and the combination of job-moving and book-writing is one I hope to avoid ever again in the future. (Also, replies to all the amazing thoughts on the previous blog entry will appear soon!).
But enough of that depressing stuff. In this entry I’d like to throw out a bunch of thoughts from three things I’ve encountered in the last two weeks of travel (currently on a visiting fellowship position at the University of Alberta, up in Edmonton in Canada). Firstly, some thoughts on the discipline of “gambling studies”, the study of gambling as one’s object or one’s subject, and the value i think there is to bringing the study of gambling more fully into the study of games (video games and others). Secondly, I encountered for the first time the concept of the Virtual Reality Arcade, which I found curiously fascinating, and want to talk a little bit about. Thirdly, and lastly, I came across a range of mechanical games whilst here in Canada, and although I certainly won’t even think about doing this for years, I find myself now oddly fascinated by mechanical games, and almost inclined to make one myself. So if these sound like topics that would take your fancy, do please read on; otherwise, I’ll be back in a week or two with an URRpdate, or some thoughts on Dark Souls 3, depending on how my schedule plays out, and how quickly I get the book finished…
Gambling and Video Games
The main reason I came up to Canada – to the rather beautiful town of Banff, basically in a pine forest on the side of a mountain – was after an invitation to speak at the annual conference of the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, and subsequently a meeting of the International Think Tank on Gambling Research, Policy and Practice. In both cases I was speaking about fantasy sports betting, and gambling in esports (two domains I’m planning to shift my research into increasingly in the coming year or two). The thing that interests me about fantasy sports platforms is the extent that they very clearly, and very deliberately (I think), mirror the aesthetics, themes and gameplay mechanics from sports management video games. Some of the user interfaces between the two are surprisingly difficult to distinguish if one didn’t know beforehand which was which, and I think this represents something very new. We’ve all seen video game versions of existing gambling forms – video game poker, slots, blah blah – but a new form of gambling disguised and presented as a video game is quite new. In terms of esports gambling, meanwhile, the black market of skin betting and so forth fascinates me, and is something definitely worth looking at further. I’m very pleased with how the talks both went, and I think I made some great new connections, heard some other interesting talks, had a close encounter with some bull elk (you are meant to stay 30m away – I did not know this at the time) and wrote a lot of my book. I also learned a lot about a divide in the field from studying gambling as one’s subject, with the disciplinary expectations which go with it (a focus on problem gambling, responsible gambling, quantitative research) and studying gambling as one’s object, which is to say looking at what gamblers actually do, the ideological superstructures gambling takes place within, and so forth. Here’s a post-conference pic:
These were all fantastic people in the field I hadn’t met before, with great ideas for what studying gambling and moving beyond an emphasis on industry-funded psychological studies into problem/responsible gambling might look like. In front of me and holding the blue coat is Rebecca Cassidy, Professor and Head of Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London (where I’ll be starting as a postdoc in just a couple of weeks). For those interested, she has published a range of truly fascinating ethnographic work on gambling communities which I recommend in the strongest possible terms; she’s definitely one of the leaders in what we might call “critical gambling studies”. The intersection between gambling and games is now increasingly interesting me, and I’ll certainly be starting to work in this kind of area in the coming year or two. With that done, I travelled up to Edmonton to start a short visiting fellowship at the University of Alberta, which brings me to the next two interesting things in games I’d like to talk a bit about.
Virtual Reality Arcades
A few days into my period in Edmonton, myself and some colleagues did a little impromptu tour around the gaming venues in Edmonton. We found traditional arcade machines primarily in one venue I’ll talk a little more about below, and they had a tremendous range of games, some of which – to my profound amusement – captured full-motion videos of actors looking terrified, aiming guns whilst dressed in general army gear, etc. There were also several escape rooms in Edmonton, which varied from one which seemed to be a more bottom-up, less-professional outfit offering four different rooms in the brightly-coloured basement of another building whose purpose I couldn’t quite identify, to one which seemed to be a very slick and professional outfit, offering a medieval escape room, one with a military/espionage theme, one with a Saw-esque theme where one would begin the game shackled to the walls (ha!), and several others. I’ve never been to an escape room, but I increasingly think I should probably start going to these at some point in the future. Any of you visited escape rooms?
However, most intriguing to me was the presence of a Virtual Reality Arcade. Now, it’s possible that I’m a little behind the times here, and everyone reading this already knew that these things existed. However, if you didn’t, this was basically a warehouse which had been filled with a bunch of black-painted drywall. In each “quadrant” there was a VR headset hooked up to a computer with a wide selection of VR games; in one quadrant there was also a device (I didn’t catch the name) which you basically strap yourself into the middle of, and then gain the ability to actually walk and move around the game space. I confess, from looking at the device in question I’m not entirely sure how that would work – one had to wear a special pair of shoes, apparently – but I was fascinated by this entirely new kind of arcade which has just appeared. When did this last happen? Has there ever been a kind of arcade for an entirely new kind of game/gameplay since the earliest days of the arcade? Equally, alongside the economic/demographic repercussions of a new form of arcade emerging (apparently this is not the only one), I was also struck by the architectural aesthetics/semiotics of the space. More than anything else, it evoked the kind of virtual-reality parlours of cyberpunk novels, films, and games; buildings with a multitude of small spaces, each of which allows one person to hook into a personalised computer simulation and escape the real world for a period of time. With its segmented areas of play, and its focus on virtual reality gaming rather than the more traditional gaming of the more traditional arcade, it very strongly evoked these kinds of ideas in my mind. It’ll be interesting to see how this grows (or not) over time – and as I was just asked on Twitter, do they spray VR headsets like one sprays shoes in bowling alleys?? – and how, if it does really take off, the economic need for space in these areas might lead to a compressing of the space available to each player. A fascinating trend, nevertheless – have any of you encountered these?
Lastly, and quite unexpectedly, I’ve found myself acquiring quite an interest in mechanical games in the last week. This was triggered by briefly passing through an art exhibition in one of the rooms in the University of Alberta’s campus (in the Faculty of Arts building, I think?). There was a bunch of interesting stuff there, but the one that really caught my attention was the structure I’ve uploaded a picture of below. The basic idea – sadly the first handle was broken – was transporting a ball up to the top, and then adjusting various levers, dials and switches and sliders to make the ball descend down a range of different paths, some of which, from what I could see, would probably require the player to think quite a few moves ahead. Firstly, I thought the structure of the object itself was very aesthetically pleasing, although I’ve always liked intricate wooden toys, but I thought the general idea was very charming. It’s almost like a combination of wooden puzzle boxes and something like pinball or pachinko, and I haven’t really seen anything like this in the past; it’s fully deterministic, but the level of complexity would, I suspect, make it feel like some of the decisions were quite unpredictable, at least when one was first trying this. For me this piece was the real stand-out highlight of this little exhibition.
As such, I must be honest: I find myself oddly compelled to make something of this sort. Don’t worry – I certainly wouldn’t consider doing so for many years! – but I’ve always found the aesthetics of physical puzzles to be extremely appealing, and building something like this (probably in wood?) suddenly seems remarkably compelling to me. I’ll come back to this in a few years once URR is completely finished! But not quite yet, I don’t think… but perhaps a limited edition set of wooden puzzles which somehow relate to a future video game I make? That’s an interesting idea, I think…
That’s it for this week: I just wanted to share these three reflections and experiences and put some of my thoughts about them down on paper. I’ve also decided that even if I don’t have an URRpdate to put out, starting this week, I’m going to get back to uploading a weekly update on something. I’ve actually been avoiding doing that because I know most people – myself included! – want URRpdates, but I think it’s better to have regular blog updates on any topic, rather than no blog updates until there’s something new to show on URR. As such, I actually have a series of three entries written in a little mini-series, and unless something new comes up between now and next week which means I want to post about something else, I’ll start those series of entries then, and try to get us back to the weekly schedule, even if the URR element of that schedule might be less than I would like for the next little while. Either way: thanks for reading, I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have, and I’ll see you all next week!