Posts Tagged ‘communication’

I’ve been reading up on Prometheus and the Alien movies lately.  Why?  Well, here’s a Tesh secret: I’ve never seen any of them, and I never will.  I simply do not watch R-rated movies (or play M-rated games).  Still, they are sort of a Big Deal in the film industry, with echoes through the game industry.  My college degree was aimed at letting me work in film.  Maybe someday I still will, but for now, I work in games.  It behooves me to understand the cultural touchpoints that the Alien storyline offer to my professional interests.  If nothing else, understanding a bit about Aliens means I can communicate a bit better with those I work with.  “Ripley in a Powerloader” isn’t exactly “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“, but the principle is the same (and if you get that reference without looking at the link, you understand what I’m getting at).

Some of this is simply being aware of the linguistic and cultural effects of the Aliens IP, but I’ll admit, I’m also a bit curious as to why they became such a Big Deal.  I find horror movies to be… very distasteful.  It’s noted sometimes that the first Alien movie was a horror movie that happened to be cloaked in science fiction elements.  The sequel was apparently more of a prototypical Action Movie with Alien overlays, and the others were action…y.  Prometheus sounds like it’s more of an Alien-like film, in that it’s more about the horror with a little sci-fi musing for flavor.  Not having first-hand experience with these, I’m only speaking to what I’ve read about them over the years, so if those hasty generalizations are inaccurate, well, I’m not maliciously and intentionally misrepresenting them, at least.  I’m just wrong.

So why do I care?  Oddly, I find myself fascinated not with the subject material so much as why they are even hits in the first place.  It’s the same sort of fascination I have for trying to figure out the appeal of the endless zombie movies and games, like Romero’s stuff, F.E.A.R. or Silent Hill (and Shamus has a handful of really good articles on horror in games, especially Silent Hill).  Y’see, I don’t like zombies, but I think zombie game mechanics are actually a fair bit of fun.  They also serve as interesting social commentary sometimes.  Still, horror is not the sort of content I’m looking for when I think of “entertainment” or “enlightenment”, and it’s strange to me that these things make as much money as they do.

It seems to me that there are a few key concepts to dig into.  One, Fear.  Two, Horror.  Three, the difference between the two.  Four, catharsis.  Five, killing monsters.  Six, voyeurism.  Seven, schadenfreude.  Eight, fiction as a coping strategy for avoiding awful, horrible truths.  I haven’t really wrapped my head around all of it yet, and it’s a low priority with everything else I’m working on, but still, there’s something there or else this particular flavor of entertainment wouldn’t be making any money.

Also, a thought question I proposed on Twitter a little while back:

What would a horror film look like if there were no gore, no monsters, and most importantly, no death?

To which I might add:

What would the horror genre look like if death itself became unhinged in any of a variety of curious ways?

All this to ask, ultimately:

What makes horror stories most interesting, and why?  Can that be explored outside the realm of R-rated and M-rated schlock and actually be approached in a truly mature manner?  (I reject the ESRB’s definition of “mature”, which is a prime example of Orwellian doublethink, where most M-rated content is deeply immature.)

Also, and maybe more importantly, what really constitutes “horror”?

It seems to me that there are significant differences between Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven and Ridley Scott, but all seem to play within the “horror” frame at some level.  I have a very strong dislike for the gore, profanity and “torture porn” that might constitute the bulk of modern horror, but at the same time, I am often fascinated with stories that chase down the implications of bad decisions and how people deal with crisis, tragedy and their own failures.  That said, I prefer stories that show people learning, or walking a path of redemption, rather than stories that are dystopic, deeply cynical or calculated to be offensive.

I think there’s value in stories and entertainment, value in learning from someone else’s mistakes… but delighting in those mistakes and the often dark, soul-crushing trappings of the horror genre seems to me to be unhealthy.  I think understanding horror and fear is important to understanding life, so there’s undoubtedly value in fiction exploring them.  There really is Bad Stuff out there, and sometimes we have to deal with it.  It’s just… I think there’s a line between understanding it and embracing it, and flirting with that line seems like a bad idea.

This isn’t all just academic, either.  It’s practical, as I’m writing what will likely become a series of novels, largely dealing with a fictional alternate history’s huge war and how key characters deal with it.  Death is a bit unhinged there.  My characters will wind up living through things that nobody should hope to live through.  It’s important to face the horrors, though, and ultimately, to prevail in spite of them.  As in so many stories, understanding the psychology of these characters will be essential to selling the events and character arcs as interesting and believable, even in unbelievable settings.

So… I’m getting there.  I’m not angling for the horror market in any way, but I want to understand the psychology of fear and horror so that I can make the most of them without sliding into the Nietzscheian abyss that waits out there in the dark.  It’s good to know where the dark is and how to fight it, but delighting in the fight is dangerous.

Edited to add this link to a comic summary of the first Alien movie, just because it’s good.


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I’ve played a wide variety of games in my day.  These MMO things tend to want to monopolize your time, but I’m just not wired that way.  Some might consider World of Warcraft’s Azeroth or RIFT’s Telara to be home, then, for the social roots they put down there.  Me, I don’t really have such a “home”, but no MMO feels more comfortable to me than Puzzle Pirates.

I have several characters there, but my “main” character and identity on their forums is Silveransom.  I’ve actually spent almost as much time on the forums and community art and game design projects as I have in the game proper.  To this day, my greatest “achievement” in the game is getting some of my art in as an Easter Egg, this little Croatian-inspired beauty.  It’s no big deal in the grand scheme of Life, but the game and the community have been good to me, and I’ve had fun chipping in.

It’s not a traditional DIKU-flavored MMO, but it’s the first one that really wound up capturing my imagination.  I actually made friends there.  I started playing more than six years ago, and it has consistently been the one game I can go back to and feel comfortable.  To be fair, I did try World of Warcraft thanks to a ten day friend pass shortly after trying Puzzle Pirates, so that wasn’t my only MMO at the time, but even then, the clear dichotomy between the DIKU level-grinding loot-heavy pedigree in WoW and the different design of Puzzle Pirates was very clear, and I had a strong preference for the latter, even though I really liked the sense of world that WoW offered (as I’ve noted a few times, especially here).

Anyway, as is so often the case when I’ve occupied a space for a length of time, whether it be mental space or physical space, I’ve developed habits and traditions in Puzzle Pirates.  The very first sloop I bought was second hand, one a crewmate didn’t need any more.  She left a piece of small driftwood up in the bow of the ship.  It’s technically furniture in Puzzle Pirates, so it was placed there on purpose sometime, but she had just forgotten it.  She let me keep it, though.

Thing is, that piece of driftwood, possibly the cheapest bit of furniture in the game, became a tradition.  That little sloop was my transitional vehicle from a newbie in the game world to a pirate, more or less in control of his own destiny.  That ship was freedom, and that little personality quirk of a piece of wood in the bow was inextricably tied to that phase of my Puzzle Pirates experience.  It was, in its own way, a symbol of my change from a lowly deckhand who might just have washed up on shore, clinging to a piece of driftwood, to a ship’s master, boldly sailing into dangerous waters.  To be sure, there are other, bigger ships (like my favorite ship, the Longship that I painted and renamed the Silver Dragon), and other transitional phases in the game, like when I scored my first Ultimate trophy (in Rumbling, on my alternate Silveransom character on the test ocean), but y’know, those “firsts” stick with you.

As such, I’ve had occasion to give a sloop to other pirates once in a while, and I always leave a bit of driftwood on the ship for them.  Is it silly?  Of course.  Is it fun?  Yes.  Will they remember it?  I hope so.  It’s the little touches like that that remind people of where they have been and why.  That’s important for charting a course to the future.  To be sure, the future will happen whether or not you’re ready, but if you know where you’ve been and why, you can position yourself better for when it does come.

So what does this have to do with blogging?  Well, tradition is a strong tool in maintaining information through generations.  It can also be a strong tool in reserving headspace in readers, carving out your own little niche in the blogging hivemind.  The human mind is geared to find patterns.  Traditions are patterns, ranging from the tenuous to the tedious, perhaps, but the whole point is that they are repeated events.  And people remember them, for better or worse.  If you do something more than once, especially with any sense of regularity, you may well be establishing a tradition.  Memes had a start somewhere, for that matter, but they grow because they are repeated and shared.  The tradition goes viral.

If you are trying to maintain a tone or tradition for your blog, maybe you use a particular “signoff” line like Mark Rosewater’s Magic The Gathering articles.  Maybe you just maintain a role or character for your posts, like Warchief Garrosh.  Maybe you post a random My Little Pony cartoon or a photo.  Whatever the case, you’ve done something patterned, consistent, and readers will remember it.

So go, have fun, and maybe, just maybe, carry over or establish a tradition.  You might have fun with it, and your readers might have fun with it.  That’s one of the best parts of blogging, when you share something fun with those people out there.

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This one’s simple:  Blogging is a social activity.  It’s not “social” like a FaceBook “cow clicker” pseudo-game, or “social” like raiding in an MMO, more like a good dozen-plus-player version of Frozen Synapse, with sparks flying between ideas as people connect thoughts and forge new conceptual links.  It’s asynchronous and persistent, both very useful for fostering communication.

Yes, it usually starts with just getting words in type for one’s own benefit, but blogs are, by nature, getting words in type out where others can see them.  At some level, socialization happens.  Bloggers engage in hobnobbing, rubbing digital shoulders with each other.  Ideas cross-pollinate, links sprout, groupthink evolves, and every once in a while, the pulse of the “blogosphere” actually indicates a strong interest or opinion on a topic that is relevant outside of the blogging circles.  (Case study: Blizzard’s RealID kerfluffle, where the voices in MMO blogging circles tended to be almost uniformly… concerned.  For good reason.  It’s not so much that bloggers drove opinion, more that they were a good cross-section of gamer moods, and near consensus among such a disparate group is usually significant.)

It’s even possible to forge friendships online.  Now, noting that it’s possible you’re befriending a persona instead of a person, it’s still true that social interaction online is still social interaction.  Those are people out there, not Turing-complete bloggerbots.  (Though in twenty years or so that might no longer be true.)  People with interests, feeling, histories, preferences, and sometimes even a sense of humor.  Over the years I’ve met a bunch of pretty cool people, like PsychochildProfessor Beej, Larisa, The Friendly NecromancerGordonCynwise, Ixobelle, Klepsacovic, Gazimoff, YeeboMBP, Dblade, Saylah, Nugget, Dusty, Syl, Thallian and Anton, Tipa, Ferrel, Pete, Victor Stillwater, AnjinModran, ZombiePirate, Void, Rog, Stabs, the guys at KTR and Word of Shadow… others I’m forgetting at the moment, and others that have dropped off the grid, like Wiqd, Mike Darga, Phaelia and Andrew of Systemic Babble.  Anyone I link to over on that Blogroll on the right is someone worth reading.  I might not always agree with any given one of them, but then again, I don’t always agree with my local friends or family.  Even when I don’t agree with them, there’s usually still something interesting there.

Blog writing often follows blog reading, and the two tend to positively reinforce each other.  Commenting on someone else’s blog is a great way to make the two work together even more.  It’s about communication, really, and as some are wont to remind us, humans out here in “monkeyspace” are social animals, for better or worse.  Thing is, with a blog, you can take it at your own pace rather than diving into a real time social gathering with real people around.  The ability to filter and react at leisure isn’t exactly a magic potion to make wallflowers into butterflies, but it does go a long way toward opening conversational channels that might not otherwise exist.  Blogging isn’t a FaceBook or Twitter pith contest, neither is it an Instant Messaging textspeak competition.  It’s not a Ventrilo cacophony or monkeyspace mosh pit.  It’s a more sedate matter, allowing for deeper thought and more civil dialogue.

In theory, anyway.

Practice, as always, varies as widely as fingerprints, but blogs really do offer a communication platform that isn’t quite of the same nature as some of the other big “social” media.  They are valuable as a result, and a crucial ingredient to the social stew that is the modern internet.  I’d even go so far as to call it a leavening ingredient, one that counters the leetspeak ADHD impetus of far too many “social” media outlets.  There’s great value in the long form of written communication.  There’s value in having outlets that aren’t controlled by big media conglomerates or corporations.  It’s important to have places where impassioned writers can make cohesive arguments and keep public records without being shouted down by troll hordes or censored by The Man.

You may not change the world in big ways with your blog, but blogging is changing the world.  If nothing else, it’s a good thing to be aware of and understand the potential of the beast.

…and sometimes, you don’t need to be a big force of change, you just need to be a good part of someone else’s life.  Blogs can help forge links that might not otherwise exist between people, and sometimes, that makes all the difference.

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If I ever get a custom license plate, I think that’s what it would have on it.  42A113 is vague enough that it reads a bit like a “real” license plate, but for someone with an eye to detail and some geek knowledge, it’s a couple of fun references.  Mixing the two shows my druthers as a reader and animation nerd, and might even suggest some interesting similarities between them.

I tend to believe that good stories function in similar ways.  If there are layers of detail to be plumbed, especially if there are subtle interconnections between details, a story can reward those with better memory, larger vocabulary and greater experience.  Allusions to other works can be valuable as well, though pushing in the direction of “pop culture” like WoW does at times can be a bit… distracting.  Still, a passing reference to Plato in a sci-fi novel makes me smile.  It also suggests that a story is part of a greater whole of the human experience, rather than a universe in a bottle.  (Which, to be fair, isn’t always the point, so these elements must be carefully used… or guarded against.)

It’s all about connections.  I believe that education is best when it teaches students to connect disparate bits of data and find reasons for why things are the way they are.  It’s a foundation of critical thinking (you need to have the facts and see how they interact) and creativity (mashing ideas up in new ways is the backbone of creativity).  There’s a physiological basis for this notion as well; neurons in the human brain build connections to other neurons, and it’s that vast web of interconnections that makes the brain so powerful.  The more we learn and connect, the more we are capable of learning.

One big problem is one of vocabulary.  If you don’t know the basic building blocks of an idea, it won’t make much sense.  Much has been made of the supposed Cambridge experiment where readers manage to understand words even if the internal letters are scrambled.  This writer thinks it’s poppycock, and I agree. (Fun bonus article from a Cambridge researcher.)  Even if it were a legitimate study, however, I submit that people can only read those words well because they already know what those words are supposed to look like.  If you didn’t know what supercilious meant, or that it was even a word in the first place, scrambling it even simply like this would just throw you off completely:

His superlicious gaze made her uncomfortable

I can just imagine the internal reaction:  “Wait, what?  Is that supposed to be ‘superluscious’?  What a stupid portmanteau.  This writer is worse than Stephanie Meyer.

Readers need to know what the words they are reading are in their proper form and what they mean before they can see them “through” scrambling or incompetent typos.  I saw this on Facebook, for example:

“I don’t loose things. I place them somewhere safe which later alludes me.”

Grurgle.  Not only do we have the trendy-but-idiotic misuse of the word “loose”, but “allude” is very different from “elude”.  I can read it just fine and know what is meant because I know the real words, but it comes across as an incompetent stab at fortune cookie wisdom.  Don’t use fancy words if you don’t know how to spell them.

On another hand, jargon can be terribly opaque.  My wife and sister have occasionally read my walls of text here at the TTT repository of blather, and more than once, they have told me afterward that they liked the parts they understood, but that they just didn’t understand some of the terms or phrases I use.  They are both intelligent.  My wife has read a lot of books, and my sister is an English major who reads almost as much as I did growing up.  (Hint:  WAY more than the average nerd.)  Both of them are familiar with my gamer… ness, and my somewhat expansive vocabulary.  They have learned to understand me in most settings, but here, where discussion so often meanders into game design territory, they lose bits and pieces of the logic.  They just haven’t learned the gamer vocabulary, and they don’t have the experience with games that I have.

Similarly, I’ve written up game design proposals that tend to cobble together ideas from various inspirations.  In a sort of metatextual shorthand, I’ll often cite those other games in the proposal, in lieu of writing out a paragraph of explanation, counting on fellow gamers to understand.  A quick referral to “4X gaming” makes a lot of sense to an old school Master of Magic fan, but to someone outside the industry and outside that particular niche of “old school strategy gamer”, that can come across as “something even dirtier and contemptible than hardcore pornography”.  Communication can be very difficult without the proper framework and fundamental elements of discussion.

Oft times, this sort of shorthand is very useful, cutting down on unnecessary repetition, pedantry and blather, but it can also be a real barrier to clearly expressing ideas.  The sort of  “quick pitch” five second summary of ideas that makes some game pitches function out of the gates simply won’t work if your audience doesn’t understand the references.   (That’s a great article on pitching games, by the way.  Know your audience!)

Inside jokes and clever allusions are great if you can tuck them away in an otherwise superficial narrative, but if you don’t have at least some common ground, the allusions themselves aren’t going to carry the conversation very well.  It’s possible to communicate largely with allusion and jargon, or so Captain Picard would have us believe, but it’s not simple, and it’s rife with potential for miscommunication.

So, as I am wont to do, I want to take this into game design.  Sure, literary tools are important for writing and reading, but the principles of good design that lead to those tools being used properly carries over to proper tool usage in game design, both when we’re using words as tools in games and also when we’re using game mechanics.

Game terminology can be difficult to explain, especially if you’re trying to write for a non-gamer audience.  Not only do we have weird terms like “frag” and “gank”, but we also have acronymitis, with things like DPS, FTW, MMO, FPS, RPG, BFG and so on.  A simple phrase like “DPS, watch your threat so you don’t steal aggro!” can be utterly incomprehensible.  Sometimes context helps, but I do feel bad for my wife sometimes, muddling through my denser articles here.  It would only be worse to spring a game design proposal or technical art article on her.

Then again, something like this bit of scientific fluff is nigh impenetrable to someone in, say, marketing (and a real scientific paper would be even more troublesome).  Marketers, in return, have all sorts of weaselspeak at their command.  They might employ it to different ends, to be sure… but if communication is the goal (not always the case in marketing), sometimes it’s easy to get lost without really meaning to.

As for game design itself, one of the biggest things that we as designers need to do is teach the player the “verbs” in the vocabulary of our game.  “Verbs” in this context are those actions that the players can use in the game world.  Naturally, then, “nouns” are those things that players can act on and influence.  Until players know what they can do and what things they can do it to, the game can be frustrating.  Clear communication about how to use the tools in the game sandbox is vital to making a game work.  There is certainly a balance to be struck between playing Galactic Civilizations without a manual or help file, and this sort of overcompensation… but players really need to understand what the game does, especially if the game vocabulary changes over time.  (Say, by adding a double jump or picking up a new weapon.)

I’d suggest this video for another take on the teaching experience, by the way.  Aquaria is a sweet little game, but it has too many hidden functions.  When the narrator notes that most players will probably need a walkthrough file, to me, it sounds like an admission of failure (though it’s fair to note, as the narrator does, that it can be a design choice, for better or worse).  It’s one thing to hide a lot of nouns, feeding the Explorer and Achiever niches, but when the game has hidden verbs, it can get very frustrating or even impossible.

A game, in some ways, is a conversation between the designer and the player.  They meet somewhere in the middle to share authorship of the play experience, and it’s vital that they understand each other… even if they wind up arguing in different directions.  If there is no shared language, however, that conversation can never take place.

Something like Braid might have allusions to previous games, like Super Mario Brothers, but it also has to function on its own if someone doesn’t have that in their “gamer vocabulary”.  It’s a fine line to walk sometimes, but it’s worth the effort it takes to make the gamer/designer conversation as clear as possible.  Talking past each other just results in frustration and other assorted PR nightmares.

Once you have the basics down, you can start slipping in the clever allusions, references and in-jokes as appropriate, like spices into a fine soup.  (See?  Metaphors, similes and allegories are almost inevitable in conversation; we build from things we know into things we don’t know.  It’s perfectly natural.)  Peeling back the layers of a story and its details, or a game and its subtle interactions between verbs and nouns, can be very satisfying.  I believe that the best stories and games foster this sort of depth, and gently entice the consumer deeper, even as they continue to move forward.  Might that not be one form of “immersion”, for that matter?

That said, it’s worth remembering that immersion can also mean obliviousness.  One would hope that there’s something there worth being immersed in, something worth learning whilst having fun.  With luck and care, the game designer/player conversation can be something more than mere Ferengi acquisition covered in Klingon aggression.

Oh, and this is what the 42 is about, and this is what the A113 is about.  I should probably get a Pizza Planet truck to put the plate on.

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