Finishing the Book, Part I of I

Well, it’s done. My first book – The Unpredictability of Gameplay, due to be published in 2018 by Bloomsbury Academic – is finished. I’m now just putting the final touches to the formatting on the footnotes and the bibliography, and then in the next few days finally submitting it to the publisher. At my suggestion they have kindly created an absolutely beautiful front cover for the work, which I can’t wait to see printed. I’m not sure whether I can post it here yet, but the moment I can, I will.

As long-time followers of the blog will know, this has been quite an undertaking, both contributing to and being made more challenging by the pretty severe burnout I’ve experienced in the last six or so months. This week I’ve had to crunch absolutely on finishing the book, and although this is only a small blip in my overall return to coding related over the past several weeks now, it has meant that things haven’t moved on from last week: which is to say, I haven’t yet fixed a few small remaining issues with speech generation, and then begun to move onto generating the variables in sentences, such as “[god]” or “[painting]” or “[place]” and so forth. As such, this week I instead wanting to reflect a little bit on the writing process – as I naturally haven’t written a full-length academic monograph before – and talk a little about what I wanted to explore in the work, what I’ve learned which will stand me in good stead for future work, and some thoughts on the future monographs that are presently flying around my brain.

The Book

As long-time readers will remember, the book is entitled The Unpredictability of GameplayI first came up with this idea at least three years ago, when I was approached by a fellow academic who edits a book series, who had heard of me and both my game design + game scholarship work, and was interested in getting a book from me. Originally I pitched a book specifically and solely about roguelikes. This was a series about game genres, and nobody had written in the series about roguelikes – nor, for that matter, other related areas like strategy games, the always-nebulous “simulation games”, and the like. I described what this project might look like, and although the editor was interested, it soon became clear that my thought process was inching toward something a little grander, and more conceptual, theoretical and “foundational”, rather than a study specifically of roguelikes. I think this was made clearer when I had a paper published on roguelikes, which I think is the first academic paper I ever had published, which showed me that there was a “market” for roguelike scholarship outside of books. So instead I drifted away from publishing in that series, and instead to publishing a standalone volume, which metamorphosed into a way of addressing a longstanding linguistic vexation. This problem, in essence, was over how we use terms like “chance” or “luck” to describe any kind of mechanical unpredictability in games, and the incredibly breadth of categories like “games of chance” or “games of luck” that encompass everything from slot machines to Dwarf Fortress. These categories – to put it mildly – seemed somewhat too broad. Consequently, the opportunity seemed to be there for unpicking these categories in more detail, and developing a useful framework for understanding perhaps the different kinds of chance, luck, or whatever we might want to call them.

After more discussion with Bloomsbury Academic, the book thereby shifted into an attempt to unpick these categories and find ways to distinguish between different implementations of unpredictability (what in the book I came to call “locations” of unpredictability within a game’s design). As soon as I confirm with Bloomsbury what I can post here, I’ll hopefully be able to post a contents list and that type of thing, but succinctly, the first two-thirds of the book primarily develops a four-part typology for thinking about unpredictability in games, depending on “where” in the game that unpredictability is found (roguelikes have all four, some other genres do not), and then the final third looks at three “case studies” where I think the typology is particularly useful: procedural generation, replay and grinding, and things that players do in order to remove or negate the unpredictability in a game (such as gameplay seeds or save scumming). The idea is therefore to first develop a more detailed way to think about game unpredictability, and then to hopefully demonstrate the analytic value of the typology I suggest in the earlier part of the book. This structure also works because although the book’s primary target audience is game scholars, and the theoretical foundations of the work are pretty dense, I’m also hoping that the work will have some impact for game designers, and indeed, game players. As I look over the final product now, I’m confident that the book does what I set out to do, and with the quality of writing I wanted – although it was certainly not an easy road.

Time and Workload

This book, even once it was my primary working focus, took me around six months of concentrated work. This came after over a year of more general work around it, reading relevant literature, sketching it out in greater detail, learning about some of the case studies I wanted to know but I wasn’t especially knowledgeable about, and so forth. Although I had scheduled ample time and energy, it was still more demanding than expected, and this was an important lesson to learn. So much of writing a book comes not from the actual content itself, and the marshalling of ideas and the analysis of examples and so forth, but rather from all the stuff in-between. Do all of the chapters follow logically from one another? Are there any glaring gaps in what I’ve written? Have I accidentally missed crucial citations? Am I repeating myself enough that people can keep track of where they are in the work, but not so much that the reader gets bored of reading the same signposting statements over and over? My doctorate, although the same length, by its nature a) was written over a longer period and b) was something that had to adhere to a slightly different set of rules. Dissertations are like books, but they remain different, and undeniably a simpler task; one simply has to produce a good piece of work which at most half a dozen people might read, rather than producing the best piece of work one possibly can, and a piece of work that a large number of people will read. These differences make the writing process into an intense and often challenging process, but also a tremendously rewarding one now that I look back at the final product, and one which also taught me a lot about writing monographs in the future; how to structure my time, and what elements to prioritise which might be less natural and inevitably more laboured than the purely intellectual component.

As a result, I’ve decided to make a few changes for when, probably next year, I commit to a new book project. My next monograph – assuming the proposal is accepted, of course! – will be a) co-authored with a colleague, and b) shorter in length anyway (we’re looking at around 80,000 – 85,000 words). This means, in essence, that I will be writing half a book next time around, and a half-a-book done in tandem with a friend and colleague one can bounce ideas off and who can take over when none isn’t in the mood (and vice versa), all things which I anticipate lessening the mental load significantly. And, of course, again, I’m only writing half as much. Even though (if we get the contract) we won’t be writing this until well into 2018, I’m confident that these shifts will prevent the project from coming to so completely dominate my life as it has in the last six or so months. Equally, the work we’re currently developing the proposal for is primarily empirical rather than theoretical in nature, which – from my experience writing journal papers – is a significant help in the writing process. Marshalling existing theoretical insights and concepts to give sense and meaning to one’s data and the analysis one wishes to perform is, inevitably, a project that is not simpler, as such, but certainly one which requires the author to step less determinedly outside of the existing boundaries of ideas. As such, looking back now, I feel writing this first book has allowed me to establish a kind of “base line”, if you will, for future work, and one which I think will be extremely useful going forward.

The Scope of the Question

Lastly, I was struck by simply the sheer number of previous engagements with somewhat-related topics out there: far, far more people have considered unpredictability in games (understood broadly) than I had imagined, even in the fairly-comprehensive review of existing literature I did in the production of the initial book proposal. Naturally, any monograph is going to draw on a tremendous amount of previous work, but in the process of developing a truly comprehensive look at the field I found myself citing a larger number of other scholars or game designers than, I think, almost any other book-length work I drew on. In part, I think this is a consequence of wanting to produce an explicitly foundational work for thinking about game unpredictability, which therefore necessitates making sure I’m being exhaustively detailed about other relevant literature; but also, in part, I was amazed by how much previous work there has been examining game unpredictability – yet without unpicking sweeping categories like “games of chance” or “games of luck” in greater detail! This ranged from anthropological work looking at ancient board games, examinations of the rise of casinos, or the growth of statistical thinking and games of chance in the Renaissance, or the relationship between unpredictable games and religious divination, the role of unpredictability in game theory, and far more besides.

This led to an experience quite unlike that of simply writing a paper, because although one is forced into brevity for a literature review, that sits in keeping with the nature of an academic paper more generally. One’s focus is expected to be more narrow, and thus a shorter literature review is not just appropriate for the length of the work, but also for the far more precise focus of any paper compared to any monograph-length work. By contrast, here – both due to the scope of my project, and the tremendous range of previous work in the area – a truly sweeping review of existing work was needed. This only continued to grow as time went by, eventually far exceeding any possible epistemological boundaries I might have imagined at the project’s start. This, equally, struck me as a crucial lesson about the delineation of one’s project in a book, and something I think I would have benefited more at the start of this particular project. Although the final product is as good as it could have been, the process could definitely have been improved by applying what I’ve learned here about how profoundly vast the body of work one draws upon in a book-length project can become, and in the importance of circumscribing more clearly the boundaries in which you are going to work. Again, as above, because my ambition was to write a foundational work this was inevitably going to need to offer the more reader an even more thorough review of the existing space than most, but looking back over the process, a tighter focus in the future will definitely aid in writing.

Final Thoughts

Overall, and despite a slightly bumpy road, I’m extremely happy with the final product. Numerous proof-readers (academics, game designers, and others) have been extremely positive in their comments whilst also giving valuable critical feedback I’ve since incorporated into the final version. At the same time, the process of writing monographs is now infinitely clearer to me than it was two years ago, and I am confident that moving forward it will be a process that will more streamlined, and less damaging to my work-life balance, than it was in this first iteration. As above, a second work is currently in development (to write in late 2018), and I also pretty much know what my third book will be (2019/2020?) – I’m excited about both of these projects, but even now I’m already applying the lessons learned here to their very earliest stages of development, aiming to build on my strengths I discovered in the process of writing this first book, and mitigate, streamline or evade some of the challenges or problems. As for TUOG, I’ll be posting more about the work as soon as I can and I’ve checked what I’m allowed to put up here, including, hopefully, an introductory chapter. In the mean time, this coming weekend I’ll be back to working on URR’s sentence variables: see you all then!

Burnout and the Future

So… this is what burnout feels like.

I’m almost now ready to submit the manuscript for my first academic monograph. It will have taken two months longer than anticipated, which was a great disappointment to me – it’s the only piece of academic work I’ve ever had to ask for an extension on. There were many factors at play there, some within my control, and some outside of my control, but the bottom line was that had I taken on less than I wound up taking on (and had the circumstances I was working within been different), I would have been able to get it submitted on time. Although I’m very happy with the final product, and I’m confident the work will be a valuable contribution to the study of unpredictability in games (of all its forms), I find myself reflecting specifically on the process by which the final parts of it – the crunch, if you will – were written. From around the start of March until the start of June, I can truthfully say I did effectively nothing with my spare moments except writing the book. All day on both days of every weekend was book writing; every evening was book-writing; every train journey and flight and coach trip was book writing. During this period I spent effectively no time with friends, no time exercising, and no time whatsoever doing any programming, much to my chagrin.

During this period, I began to experience for the first time what I believe is called “burnout” – my appetite dropped, I developed some anxiety (a deeply new experience for me), I developed some depression (similarly), and it felt at times as if there wasn’t really any point to what I was doing; that was I just speaking into the void because nobody else would read it; that I was letting everyone down by not working on URR (which I still feel quite acutely); and other feelings I’m not going to share here. Although certainly not the darkest time in my life, it has been, in many ways, a deeply unpleasant three months. Travelling a lot in this period helped me, and finding some times to engage with nature – whether meeting wild bison and wolves in the frozen tundra of Northern Canada or meeting wild tropical birds and lizards in the equatorial jungles of Hong Kong and Singapore – helped my mood a lot, but it only stemmed the bleeding, without addressing the underlying issues.

Academia, especially early-career academic before one secures a tenured faculty position, is notoriously stressful and time-consuming. One is always in competition with vast numbers of recent PhD graduates for a ludicrously small number of postdoctoral or junior faculty positions; one is constantly bombarded with requests and obligations and things that need to be done; one is strongly encouraged to submit only to top-tier journals, and yet doing so leaves one waiting for potentially years until publication, damaging one’s employability in the short term. The other crucial element of academia is that there is always more one can do. As academics, we don’t really have working hours, as such – just contracts that say we must “fulfil the expectations of the job”, or some equivalent language, using however many hours across however many days per week that takes. Many contracts even explicitly state we are expected to use evenings, weekends and holidays to meet those requirements where necessary – and that, assuming one wants to spend one’s academic career actually doing research, will always be true.

Up until now, I’ve always been able to field this and maintain the other things I want in my life, but in these last three months, I am not exaggerating when I say every spare moment has gone into the book. For the three months before that extreme compression of my time, almost every spare moment went into the book, and looking back, I can see my free time shrinking into a smaller and smaller gap with every passing day. Something inherently enjoyable – and I do enjoy academic work tremendously – quickly ceases to be enjoyable when it is something one must do, and when it is the only thing one is spending one’s time doing. Because of this the book became something of a chore, which itself made it harder to write, and which itself made it more of a chore, and made more painful my inability to spend my time on other things, and so forth. As a result of the stress leading up to and during the book-writing, I screwed up. I made two serious errors of judgement – one being a different but major piece of academic work I submitted, and another being a piece of work I submitted elsewhere. In both cases I made poor judgements about what I wrote, and over-estimated my knowledge of those domains, and was – quite appropriately – brought down a rung by those who do know those domains. They were both humbling experiences, which really brought home how much my judgement had been impaired by the stress of finishing the book.

But now, the book is basically finished, and I’m on my final visiting position of the year, having also just been offered an amazing new two-year postdoc opportunity in Canada where I will be able to drive my own research and make my own hours. However, as I sit here for now in a cafe in Nevada, trying to take stock of things, I realise that there are four things I must make time for, and a fifth change I need to make overall, from now, moving forward, no matter what, in order both to be the kind of academic I want to be, and to have the life I want beyond the academy.

Firstly, I need to make time again for programming, starting now. It’s something I enjoy tremendously, it’s creative work which forms a crucial balance to the intellectual work I make my income from, it’s something a lot of people are following and counting on me for, it’s something absolutely tethered to my online presence, and it’s something I simply deeply want to start doing again, and which gives me valuable balance in my life. It makes me deeply sad that I wasn’t able to get 0.8 out before I went into this period of total time compression and book-only-focus, and I want to put this right and get 0.8 released as fast as possible, and certainly before my new position starts later this year. Once 0.8 is out URR will be more than half-done, and psychologically, that’s an important marker I need to hit. Therefore, starting next weekend, I intend to devote a day per week to programming, no matter what else might be looming over me or might be requiring my attention. Either Saturday or Sunday each week, but probably I think Sunday, my intention is to always spend that day – as a minimum – programming. Despite the long hiatus, URR is not cancelled, but has certainly been on hiatus, and it’s finally time for that hiatus to properly, and truly, end.

Secondly, I need to make time again for fitness and exercise. I haven’t exercised once in the last three months, with the exception of hiking up and down Victoria Peak in Hong Kong and a couple of hikes in Alberta and Nevada. Normally I would exercise for at least an hour at least four or so days a week, but the book has simply dominated my time and my thought to such a degree that I’ve let this slip completely, down to zero. I can tell and feel that I’m less fit now, I’m less strong now, and less healthy now, and I don’t like it. It’s an unsettling and disturbing change from the state of being I’ve become used to, and I want to get back to my previous level of fitness as soon as possible. I’ve now managed to get this back to exercising twice a week, and hopefully I can push that back towards four as I decompress in the coming months. As I’m moving to Alberta, I’m keen to do lots of hiking there, too, and I have some interesting future travel plans which should also help with that.

Thirdly, I need to make time for a personal life. The fact that I am likely moving to a new country/city in a few months feels like a good time to make this kind of resolution – both to renew existing acquaintances in the UK and elsewhere, especially important now that I’m no longer in physical proximity to my friends in the UK, but also to go out there and find new friends and new colleagues. I’ve always been someone with a small group of close friends instead of a far wider social circle, but this, also, has shrunk to nothing in recent months, and my personal relationships have definitely suffered for it. I’m making amends to those I have unintentionally hurt, which I believe to be an important first step, and from this point onward I’m going to make a lot more time with friends and family in the coming months. It seems that the importance of this to one’s mental health only appears after it is lost, and that’s a lesson I don’t want to have to repeat again in the future.

Fourthly, I need to make time to actually play games. I got into game design and game scholarship and game writing and competitive game play because I love games; because I’ve played hundreds, probably thousands, and certainly own thousands; and I’ve been playing them since I was as young as I can remember. But I no longer find myself with the time to actually play any; in the last year I’ve played only two games for pleasure, which were Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3. Both were incredible experiences, but that’s only a fraction of the time I would normally spend playing games. Even in other periods of stress – such as when I was simultaneously finishing my PhD and dealing with a life-threatening illness – I still found far more time to play. It’s fun (most crucially), but it’s also important for my ability to be a good game designer and good games scholar. As such, my goal is now to at least double the number of major games I play each year for starters, and hopefully increase this number as time goes by. Right now, The Witness, Demon’s SoulsShadow of the Colossus, The BridgeAntichamber, and perhaps even returning to playing roguelikes all look very appealing, and that’s where I plan to start.

Fifthly, and lastly, I need to focus. Forgive the cliched phrase, but I now realise I need to work smarter, instead of working harder. I’ve been trying to be a game scholar, and a competitive game-player, and a game designer, and a game writer, and all the other things in my life outside games. This is just too much. As a result, I’ve decided to permanently “retire” any competitive gaming from my life. I want to really focus on scholarship/writing/coding, and in turn, to present myself specifically at the intersection of those three things. My background in poker remains a major informing element on my academic career – especially as I move toward studying gambling more seriously as a topic of study – but I think I’m spreading myself too thinly, both in terms of my effort, and in terms of how I appear. I want to focus in on my strengths, instead of trying to be everything, and do everything, when it comes to games.I think this will, without a doubt, be for the best, and strengthen my ability to work in my core domains without “distracting” myself with others.

As for the wider future, academia certainly remains my career path of choice. I take tremendous satisfaction from the unfolding of intellectual ideas on paper; I love travelling around the world to do research, to attend and present at conferences, to meet colleagues, and to experience new parts of this earth; I enjoy the freedom of working hours that academia (generally) gives one, even if that same freedom means working a lot of those hours, and the ability to largely work where and when I want. But these last three or four months have shown me what can happen when I take on too much – I make mistakes, and my ability to do anything else with my time beyond academia gets reduced down to a minimum, and then disappears altogether. This is not a “New Year’s” resolution, but this is certainly a mid-year resolution: I need to adjust my life back toward the kind of life I want to have, and I am confident this will have benefits both within and beyond my academic work. So with this written, and with this posted, I’m going to head to the gym in this hotel and work out for an hour, then head back to my hotel room and play something, anything, on Steam, then do some programming in the evening. The change starts now.

How Basic is Basic Gaming Literacy?

I’d like to start this entry with an anecdote, which outlines the basic issue I’m pondering far more effectively than an abstract discussion. A few years ago I found myself in the position of trying to teach someone who had never played a single video game in their life – and had extremely limited experience of board or card games – the very basics of video games. I chose Castle Crashers as an introductory game. I’m sure some of you will think that was a great choice for the reasons I did (fun, witty and amusing, easy to get into, not very challenging on the standard difficulty, simple mechanics), although I’m sure there are reasons why it would be a bad game compared to some others (if you had to choose a “first game”, which would you choose, and why?). Nevertheless: that was the one I went with, and even though something very strange happened, I remain fairly confident that it was a good choice.

So, maybe half an hour later and some way into the game, I noticed that my friend’s character was nearly dead. I said something along the lines of “You’re nearly dead, be careful, and I’ll finish off the enemies”, and they replied with “How can you tell?”. That surprised me just a little, but then I realized: ok, they haven’t connected the health bars at the top of the screen with their character’s status. Perfectly reasonable for a total video game novice. I said something like “Your health is at the top of the screen”, and they replied: “Ah, you mean that blue bar?”.

ss_6f64bb5c05c708d28d75fef76a8b000cb2151b81.1920x1080

Here is a screenshot of Castle Crashers. As you can see, each player has a health bar and a magic bar.

Now, hold on! Stop there, and just think. You just read that previous sentence, and that all made sense to you, didn’t it? You didn’t need to ask “which is which?”. You glanced at the screenshot, and it was obvious from the get-go that the red bar will naturally be health, and the blue bar – since this is a game of swords and sorcery – must, therefore, be magic. Were it something like Deus Ex, for example, you’d have probably thought that bar was something like “Energy”, right? Nobody needs to be told that the red is health and the blue is magic… and yet my friend didn’t know this.

Now, the friend in question is no idiot: far from it. But when this happened, I wasn’t even sure what to say for a few moments, and it almost felt as if I’d been bodily removed from the situation: it was as if we’d been reading a book, and I’d said “hey, look at this scene where the heroes go to the shop”, and they’d said “which scene?” and I’d said “this scene”, and pointed to the appropriate paragraph, and they’d said “ah, you mean the scene where Bob steps into the shower”. It was, for a brief moment, just inconceivable; I even briefly entertained the notion that they were joking. Again, I must stress: I wasn’t trying to be rude at the time when I think I then uttered a puzzled “No, it’s the red bar…”, and I’m not trying to insult this person here recounting the story; I’m trying to focus on the shock of this comment, and the fact that this person’s comment about the blue bar was entirely honest, and innocent, and just thought the blue bar must be their bar of health since (presumably, though I don’t recall exactly) it must have been very low. Naturally, had there also been a green bar, we as experienced game-players would instantly know that has to be a “Stamina” bar (what else could be a green bar be?!), but perhaps that would have been mistaken for the health bar instead (an example of a classical three-bar system would be Oblivion, as shown below, where the nature of each bar seems “obvious” to us even if we’ve never played the game).

Infra

In a manner of speaking, this event has been a major influence on my entire academic research agenda. It got me thinking about so much: how much gaming literacy do we take for granted? Why do we take these for granted? How have we all learned these assumptions? How can someone learn them for the first time, and can these even be learned without being explicitly told?

In trying to answer these questions I first came to think about the different sources of cultural assumptions in games. There are some aspects of games which speak of other games, and only other games, and never speak of books or films. By this I mean: once we’ve seen dragons in cinema, and read about dragons in literature, we can reasonably know what a dragon looks like in a game, and come to some fair conclusions about what kind of powers and abilities that dragon might possess. By contrast, nothing in literature or cinema prepares us for the health bar. Shakespeare never said that Mercutio and Tybalt wisely checked their health bars during their duel and adjusted their tactics accordingly; Michael never checked the DPS of his pistol before executing Sollozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant in the original Godfather. Health bars are only in games, so you have to play games and use health bars in order to learn how to use health bars in games… as it were. These things are reciprocally defined through one’s use of them and one’s knowledge of that they are, and both the embodied everyday experience of use, and the knowledge of certain norms and standards and games, mutually inform one another.

I feel now it is impossible for me (or any other gamer) to unlearn the ability to “read” a game based on these “obvious” assumptions, every bit as much as it seems impossible for me to forget how to read the English language. We can vaguely understand what it might be like to be illiterate by glancing at a language we do not understand (and ideally one with a script which is completely alien to us, so Arabic or Mandarin rather than French or German, speaking as a native English speaker with no other language knowledge), but that doesn’t really do it: we (as literate people) still have a model in our heads of how one reads, and we can try to pick out the gaps in symbols and identify words and phrases, we might be able to identify common words, or important terms via their capitalization or placement in a sentence, and so on and so forth (something that, one assumes, an illiterate person would not be able to do, regardless of what language or script is placed in front of them). I can look at a language I know nothing of and still draw some vague conclusions about how it might be read or structured, even if I couldn’t decipher a single word of it.

Increasingly, I also find myself thinking of these questions in terms of eSports. Many in the competitive and professional gaming world are keen to see eSports expanding onto “mainstream” TV rather than or alongside Twitch, but there’s definitely a literacy issue here. Someone who has never seen Tennis, for instance, can watch a match of Tennis and, within perhaps a minute, have a reasonable appreciation of the rules – hit the ball back and forth, don’t miss it, don’t let it bounce twice, don’t hit the net. By contrast, consider someone inexperienced watching a MOBA game. I own several thousand games, have played most of them, and have been playing since I was a toddler, but I’ve never actually played a MOBA myself, and when I watch one, I can barely make any sense of what’s taking place on screen. This question of game literacy strikes me as a crucial barrier to the growth of eSports into this kind of domain, and although systems like “spectator modes” do much to ease the transition for the inexperienced spectator, they certainly don’t go far enough. But how else might we raise the game literacy of the average spectator, without making such games simpler? Is that even possible? Watching some eSports games (like Counter-Strike) are relatively clear even if one misses the tactical nuance, but MOBA games are profoundly visually indecipherable. Game literacy strikes me as a fascinating topic as a whole, but in eSports, in some ways it reaches both its most extreme form (given the complexity of some games), and in some ways its most politically important form, as concerned as many eSports actors are with the expansion of the medium.

To answer the initial question in the title of this entry, I think there are two elements of game literacy that demand our attention. Firstly, the question of basic game literacy in the sense of the colours of bars and other questions of that sort; absolute, almost unquestioned, almost axiomatic norms that pass across multiple games, multiple genres, multiple eras, and which have reached a point of being taken-for-granted by most players and designers that they are never even considered. How do people learn those absolute basics, and how does the assumption that everyone knows those basics shape the experiences of new players? The other aspect, however, is a question of how much game literacy is required to understand the entirety (or at least enough to appreciate it) of one game, rather than concepts and ideas that cut across multiple games. This is surely an integral part of game broadcast as a whole, but has found a new importance with the push in eSports toward “mainstream” television, and in many ways is question is harder to answer. How would one convey the information about a MOBA to someone who doesn’t play? Can enough information even be conveyed? Will viewers hang around for long enough to get that information? There’s a growing body of academic work on game literacy, and it’s a fascinating domain; in some ways, however, I think the absolute foundations of this question (for all games, for one game) are where we want to start, understanding the precise processes by which this kind of information is acquired and learned – or, possibly, not.

Gambling, Virtual Reality Arcades, Mechanical Games

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?

Mechanical Games

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…

Other Thoughts

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!

Basic Conversations, Relics, Traits, Laws, Next Six Months

Another big update this week! (Isn’t it great to see URR development actually moving fast? At least, I think it is). As mentioned last week, I prioritised getting the basic conversation system totally finished this week, which is to say the ability to ask any question to any NPC, and get a logical reply, or at least the outline of a logical reply with some variables (like “[nation]”) that need to be filled in later. We had a lot of progress, and almost, but not quite, got there. But don’t worry! Other essential stuff for this release has been done instead of focusing 100% on the basic conversation system; we have still moved much closer to release in the last seven days, albeit in a slightly unexpected direction, by adding a range of other world detail that NPCs will shortly need to draw on when they reply to the player. I can also now finally announce some pretty big and very exciting changes to my life coming in the next six months, some projects ending, some new projects on the new, and what this all means for URR in the next half-year. Read on!

Basic Conversations Almost Finished

Basic conversations have been developed further this week, with NPCs now responding correctly to almost 100% of the large number of “option” queries they can be asked – which is to say, questions that need to draw on some other information and are fundamentally different depending on the outcome of that information, rather than simply being sentences which say “My homeland is X”, in a context where all NPCs will always have the same basic answer to that question. Option queries need to draw on a range of traits in most cases (within the NPC) and a range of broader cultural and religious elements (outside the NPC), and most of this code needs to be hand-written for every possible question, making it a fairly substantial piece of work. From these screenshots you can see that some bits of wording still need tweaking, but I want to stress, these are totally random selections from the hundreds of possible questions; although they aren’t perfect, I’m still extremely pleased with how these look right now, how much variation there is, and the fact that only some fairly minimal tweaks remain to be done to some minor typos, plurals, that type of thing. (Both of these is me talking to the first character I find, hence why I’m clearly talking to people from the same civilisation as me for the sake of these tests):

Irrelevant Replies

This week I have also begun implementing “irrelevant” replies – meaning things like “I have no religion” as a response to “What is your religion?”, and so forth – which apply when an NPC is asked a question they have no valid answer to, or is entirely irrelevant. This means a massive range of potential answers, some of which are specific to the question – such as “I have no siblings” – whereas others are more puzzled. An NPC might be asked about a painting they couldn’t possibly know of, for instance, in which case they would say “I do not know of that painting”. There’s close to a hundred of these irrelevant replies, all of which (like everything else) need to vary between cultures and individuals. Some of these require quite complex sentences, although others are relatively simple, but this has definitely need a substantial task. I’ve now put about fifty percent of these in place, and NPCs do correctly use them, too! Of course, in some cases NPCs can’t yet give the correct responses – the coding for siblings isn’t in there yet, so everyone just says they have no siblings – but the code for generating a sentence once siblings are present is in place. Dealing with these kinds of familial relationships and the answers to some of the more complex questions will come partly before the release of 0.8, and partly in the speedy 0.9.

Traits

Added some new traits this week, with a focus on four elements that will influence substantially what NPCs know (and what NPCs can tell the player) about the world around them. These are all affected by the individual classes of NPC – generally speaking someone who is likely to be wealthier and better-educated is likely to know more, but there is also significant variation written into the system, and the knowledge of individual NPCs (regardless of their NPC class) is then varied further by ideological preferences of their homeland. For instance, people from an internationalist nation will tend to know more about foreign matters; people from a nation with a system of vassalage will know more about their own nation than average; those from a bartering nation will know less about history, as few records are kept; those from a free trade nation will know more geography, as they travel to trade; and so forth.

geography_knowledge

How much the NPC knows about the surrounding area. This doesn’t mean the nations and peoples and so forth, but rather purely a question of physical geography – nearby mountains, nearby roads, coastlines, deserts, animals, plants, and the like. Affected

history_knowledge

How much the NPC knows about the history of the world (inevitably heavily, but not exclusively, focused on their own nation). This means their ability to talk to the player about the historical events they are familiar with, how many events they are familiar with, and also knowledge about historical artworks, people, places, and so forth.

national_knowledge

How much the NPC knows about their own nation – where things are, who lives there, where towns and monasteries and mines and so forth are and what’s within them, information about important people, etc.

foreign_knowledge

How much the NPC knows about other nations; their locations, capitals, ideologies, religious beliefs, leaders, famous people, practices, etc. As with all the above, this varies across NPC classes, and is then modified by ideological beliefs of the nations in question.

Relics

I’ve implemented the first part of the generation system for religious relics, which needed to go in now so that NPCs could actually talk about them. Naturally the image generation for these will take place at a later date, but for the time being the game can generate the names of religious relics, a little bit of information about them, and who they were originally owned by. Each religion will only ever create two kinds of relics, depending on their beliefs, and these fall into a randomly-chosen “major” and “minor” category. For instance, a religion might primarily produce “Crown” relics, but sometimes have a small number of “Bone” relics; or a religion might focus on “Book” relics with a small number of “Weapon” relics; and so on and so forth. Each has a unique generation system for selecting its name, and we can now end up with relic names like the following:

Twisting Key of Monn’morra
Slender Ring of Saint Ynnop
Wooden Garland of Grey Fox Running the Sacred
Orangejaw Moonblizzard’s Holy Engraved Locket
Fi-Un-Gat’s Pitted Skull
Consecrated Pointed Sceptre of Ibimmom, Sly Rose

The game also now keeps track of how many relics need to spawn in each church (which varies across different kinds of religious building) and ensures that an appropriate number will always appear. Generating the images for these is going to be a lot of fun, but isn’t going to come until 0.10 or somewhere beyond. Anyway, these are now in place, so NPCs will shortly be able to talk intelligently about relics, and specific relics will now be tied to specific reliquaries in specific churches and cathedrals!

Laws and Punishments

Three of the “list” questions (questions where the answer is often of the kind “A, B, C and D are examples of the X”) relate to the particular laws of a particular nation regarding various topics – currently “violence”, “trade”, and “religion” are the three listed in there. This means that nations now generate laws in each of these categories, and a set of punishments, and then assigns punishments to each broken law depending on the severity of the crime (as the nation sees it). Laws and punishments on trade are determined almost entirely by trade policy, but a nation’s perspective on smuggling is also affected by a range of other ideologies; “violence” laws are determined by a wide range of ideologies from across the eight main categories; “religion” laws are naturally primarily determined by the religious policy of the nation, with a few inputs from a couple of other policies.

To take trade as the example, there are now five possible laws that a nation can enact:

District Entry: how much money (if any) it costs to enter a district in the capital.
City Entry: how much money (if any) it costs to enter the capital city.
Foreign Goods: how much extra taxation is put on foreign goods (light, middling, heavy).
Black Markets: whether black markets are tacitly accepted or not, and if not, the punishment for using one.
Smuggling: the level of punishment for those caught smuggling/with smuggled goods.

Each of these then, if appropriate for the ideologies of that nation, has a value assigned to it. When punishments come into play, punishments now vary according to the five possible justice ideologies. I’m not quite clear on how the “Ordeal” justice policy is going to work out, so I haven’t really developed that element yet, but the other four now work nicely. The Frontier policy imposes fines on those caught breaking the law; the Vigilantism policy will see those breaking the law hunted by the general public, who for lesser crimes will demand items in recompense, or injury, or will hunt to the death in the case of severe crimes, the Penitentiary policy imposes a range of prison sentences, and the Gladiatorial policy involves battles to first blood for lesser crimes, and fatal battles for greater crimes. There is also something of the god system from DCSS here; I wanted to develop these in such a way that they would seriously affect the player’s actions in the future, and which nations they choose to take actions in, when they keep in mind what the potential ramifications are. Justice policies should now have a substantial effect on player decisions once implemented –  and, of course, NPCs can now talk about them, listing all the policies that are worth talking about in the area in question.

Next Six Months

In other news, some big changes are happening, which are going to lead to some very exciting things. Firstly, I’m leaving my position as a postdoc at the Digital Creativity Labs at the University of York – although keeping my current secondment as a Researcher in Residence at the UK Digital Catapult – and taking up a new six-month postdoctoral position at Goldsmiths, University of London, to study paper puzzles (crosswords, Sudoku, etc), and those who play them, design them, implement them, with a view to developing a new set of paper puzzles that might one day be able to challenge Sudoku in national and international print newspapers. Such an outcome is obviously an immensely ambitious goal, but that’s one of the many things that attracts me so much to this project; the potential to make such a big impact into the game-playing lives of so many people is incredibly exciting. I’ll keep you all updated on this goes as time goes by; this might lead into further research in this area, though I also have a range of other irons in the fire for the longer-term future.

Secondly, during this summer, I’ll be taking up a range of visiting fellowship positions at numerous institutions around the world. Firstly, the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where I’ll be giving talks and running and contributing to seminars on professional gaming and the intersections between video games and gambling practices; secondly, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where my focus will be very much the same; and then the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where I’ll be researching the histories of professional gamblers, specifically with a focus on how professional gamblers are represented and talked about in news media, films, literature, and so forth. Somewhere in the middle there I’ll also be giving a few talks at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore on my research, and potentially travelling to two other countries I’ve never visited before as well to offer guest lectures and further develop my Esports and live-streaming research, although those are still in discussion with the relevant parties. If you live in any of those areas, let me know – maybe we can meet up! The few times I’ve met fans in person has always been awesome, and I’d certainly be keen to do so again.

What does all this mean in practical terms? Well, firstly, my brain is going to be a lot clearer to focus on URR 0.8 and finishing my first book in the next four months. Travel has always been something that galvanises and focuses me tremendously well, and these, combined with a new position more closely aligned to my research interests, will do a lot for me. People who read this blog regularly will know the last few months have been tough for a range of reasons, and these new positions are going to be a big help with some of those issues. Onwards, to bigger and better things!

Next Week

Having really pushed on URR this past week, I need to focus on my academic work this coming week, so next week will be a games criticism entry; then by the week after I’ll be aiming to actually finish off the Basic Conversation system by fully implementing the answers to list questions, and making sure that the range of “irrelevant replies” are all implemented and functioning correctly. See you in a week! When we will be talking the notorious “P.T.”, or “Playable Teaser”, and its clever implementation of environmental puzzles…