Saturday, August 13, 2016

On Academics

I've been messing around on

For those that are unaware, it is a repository for academics to interact with each other, post papers, and generally serve as a virtual nexus for academic thought on nearly every academic subject imaginable.

How cool is that?

Thus far, I've posted several papers out there that I've written and gotten some positive feedback on my work.

I'm working on cleaning up more of my stuff, getting it out there.

I wonder if the social psych aspects of my paper is good enough for PCA/ACA...

Friday, May 13, 2016

On Firefly/Serenity

So, I was one of the many who came to the Firefly/Serenity party late.

It came and went when I was working on my associate's degree.  To save money, my roommate and I paid for cable internet but no TV.

We were cable cutters before it became a thing.

As a result, I was introduced to the property much much much later.

The film "Serenity" was my introduction, it was my pilot, and I really enjoyed the movie.  It was an origin story for the 'Verse and if viewed through that lens, it was a fairly tight one. The characters arc, the story progresses, the world changes, and the heroes move on. We get shown the origin not just of how folks got out onto the frontier, but we got to be exposed to the culture without exposition dumps, get a more humane understanding of the inhumane Federation, and the origin of the Reavers is established as a core aspect of the story and not hanging over the heads of the characters like a boogeyman that requires an exposition dump to understand.  The movie does an effective job os establishing the universe as one long, engaging exposition dump.

Which brings us to "Firefly".

Look, I get it, it was shown out of order.  When I purchased the DVD pack on Amazon in 2006, I found out the correct order to watch the series. So, I popped in the DVDs and watched them in the proper order.

The pilot was bad.

Now, I long had a problem with the high concept of the series. The thin veneer of Post-Civil War US means that Mal and Zoe are Confederates and that was something I never sat well with me. And add to that the fact that the rest of the 'Verse production design pulls in two directions - we want it spacey and futuristic but everyone talks like they just finished working on the Trans-Continental Railroad. But that wasn't the problem with the pilot - the pilot was just boring.

The pilot had a few moments, but it was not good as a television show. Not at all. It was dull, and I think that comes from the scope that Whedon had planned for the entire series. The pilot was written to payoff several episodes or seasons down the road. As a result, there was not a whole lot for folks who may not be SciFi fans to glom onto - particularly when it comes to any sort of action. I can totally understand why Fox reorganized things. The first two-parter was boring with no payoff during the episode to hook the audience...well...beyond it being a Joss production.

The pilot clearly hooks into a larger series and doesn't establish itself as a self-contained story.  As a point of comparison, I'm going to look at three other series, one a SciFi two-part pilot and one single episode pilot, that went on to anchor larger stories as well as fit the same sort of story format Whedon appears to have been gunning for:

Battlestar Galactica Miniseries (2003)
This might not be a fair comparison, due to the length of the BSG Miniseries (4 hours), but bear with me.

This was a self-contained miniseries. It told an entire story. Characters arc. The story hits all of the beats. It did not require any additional episodes for any of the content contained within the four hours to "get it". Even if you never watched the four seasons, the story told was the basic premise of the original series - Galactica escapes to find Earth. While there are hooks to future episodes, they aren't required for the arc of the miniseries to be complete.

The first part is is a kick in the pants within the opening minutes - new Cylon Centurians, Capirca 6, new Basestars, and a huge explosion. Moore and the rest of the showrunners knew there would be tension going into the series, so they capitalized on it.

More than that, it is FILLED with conflict. Not just combat, it has that in spades between the ambush of Galactica's fighters to the fight outside of Ragnar Anchorage, but is has tons of character conflict. Adama and Lee, Lee and Kara, Kara and Tigh, Boomer and Chief sneaking around while Agathon covers for her, a reluctant President and a potentially mad scientist who sold out his entire species.

By comparison, the Firefly pilot was not self-contained. Nothing is settled in the pair of episodes. It works so hard to set the stage that it doesn't do much to keep the audience in their seats. The lack of conflict both literal or character-driven led to a flat showing because too much was focused on prepping for a larger story which sacrificed the "now". Whedon admits that he wanted to illustrate the bonds of family and that the crew was a family. In the TV series, it was a very stable family. Compare it to the film "Serenity" and you begin to see where I'm coming from.

The film "Serenity" had loads more conflict - whether it was the escape of the Tams, River going off twice, dealing with the Alliance Fleet and the Reavers. There was greater conflict between Jayne and Mal, Mal and himself, Mal and River, Mal and the crew that was absolutely missing in the television version. The crew was dysfunctional, and the conflict kept things moving.

The reason is obvious: in both cases, the creators had to craft their world to a broad audience to ensure that the investment of funds would have a return without the guarantee that there would ever be another time to tell that story as it is. So, the writers and creators had to wrap it up within its own context - they were constrained to tell a good story to people that might have zero involvement in the original content (the old BSG series or the Firefly series).  In the case of Firefly, the film forced Whedon to write an interesting story with the constraint of NOT being able to serialize it, and he did it well.

The same sort of thing can be seen in Whedon's Dollhouse - the entire first season was ambitious. It was written with a total of 5 seasons in mind.  5!  Whedon falls into the usual trope of creative people that can be seen - without constraints, the production gets muddled and the message lost. Creative work thrives on constraints, it forces the creator to focus and get to the essential elements of the creation without distraction.  Working under severe constraints can be rewarding, but it is difficult, and even worse, can be seen by real creatives as limitations rather than benefits. Whedon's best works were done when there was little pressure (Buffy) creatively but constraints with budget demanded creativity, or when greater constraints were placed on his conceptual work due to market concerns or realities on the product being delivered (The Avengers, Serenity).

This can be illustrated best by Joss who said "you have to be the general and the scout - in other words, that you have to keep an eye on the big picture and the reason you're telling the story, but also keep an eye on the small obstacles and figure out a way around them," Too often he sets his eyes several years down the road, focusing too much on the big picture.

The one, pervading theme that I find though when it comes to Whedon and his works is his - at times - complete inability to see the common theme in all of his failings: himself. He's very good at passing the buck when things go wrong, but is quick to absorb the praise when things go right.

If an artist is oblivious to his own failings, then he can't and won't grow as an artist. Growth, change, that is how the craft gets perfected in an artist, and Joss certainly is one. Criticism and self-review, being able to say "Yes, I made this, and yes, it wasn't very good" is critical to the creative life of an artist. Comments are a blessing, but only if you leverage them to improve.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

On Summer

I'm not a fan of summer.

Since leaving Delaware at the ripe age of 10, summers have meant oppressive texas heat and lawn work in said heat.

And some 25 years later, summer still means oppressive texas heat and lawn work in said heat.

During the summer, I've had to focus a great deal of time on family things.  As a full time grad student, with a wife working full time, it means I spend an inordinate amount of time running kids to and from camps.

It also means that I don't get to do a lot of things I love to do in terms of my schooling.  I have to engineer time into my schedule to do things like read, analyze games, and things of that sort.

What I have done is gotten myself invited to two separate academic conferences.

The first - GLS 12 - is in Wisconsin in the middle of August, so it should be downright pleasant.

The second - Videogame Cultures - is in Oxford, England at the beginning of September.  This is extremely exciting and I'll get into it more when I have more than two brain cells to rub together.

You see, I've completed my Masters in Arts and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The day has been spent at graduation, walking the stage, doing all of that, while coming down with a tremendous head cold.

I feel awful.

And I'm out of bourbon, which is supposed to be great for colds.

I need to go to CostCo tomorrow and get bourbon...

Thursday, December 3, 2015

On The End of a Semester

Well, the winter break and associated holidays are upon us all.

This will be my last spring semester working on my Masters with the goal of moving on into the Ph.D. program in Arts and Technology at the University of Texas-Dallas.

The idea of going elsewhere appeals to me, but that is more from a traditional background. In the humanities, going to another school for one's masters, then another for their Ph.D. is the usual progression.  Game Studies, on the other hand, is often looped into other schools - so, normally those going into the studies are coming from a more relevant school. Often, one has done their undergraduate work in their bachelor's that relate directly to their Masters.

I'm in a curious position.

My undergraduate work was back in the 1990s and isn't really relevant to what I am doing now. Back then, I was going to be an attorney. Over a decade later of being deep in game design and development, a history degree isn't worth much beyond affording me the chance to earn a Masters degree.

So, I'm finishing my Masters and finding that, getting a Ph.D in something like Game Studies often requires glomming into something else like Media Studies.

I want to focus specifically on Game Studies.

So, I'm looking around, but in all likelihood, I'll be remaining here for the next few years - at the very least - as I dive headfirst into a Ph.D at UTD


Friday, November 27, 2015

On Writing

I really need to write more often.

Which is an odd thing to say as a grad student.  I'm finishing out what should be the last fall semester of my Masters Degree and the last fall before I begin my PhD.  I'm working on a class where I'm putting together an article to submit to a conference (which will need cleaning up, assuredly), I'm about to start working on my final paper for my Cognitive Ethnography Class, and I need to do some work on my final Interactive Narrative Class.

And I need to write more often.

It is definitely an odd thing to say.

Part of me wants to throw out some of the screen play I was working on for class.  The characters involved mean a lot to me, even if I cannot claim supreme authorship, and they remind me of better times creatively.

I'll need to think about that a bit more before I commit to it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On Kerbal

For my game studies class this past semester, I spent a lot of time with Kerbal Space Program.

I really enjoyed this game from a very early time, though, I'll be the first to admit that rocket science is something that I actually know very little about.  In fact, I know so little that I'd never been able to get a satellite into orbit.

See, I played the game VERY early on.  I love the idea of a serious game teaching a difficult subject in an engaging and fun environment.  Kerbal is the definition of a serious game to teach a complex subject along the lines of James Paul Gee and his work.

Kids are able to put something together in an engaging way, communicate with other players, and put it all together to move forward.

The trick here is convincing parents and educators that games can be a way to teach children. Slowly, but surely, this is happening.

I recently looked at some of the curricula implemented for Common Core in New York via Eureka Math (sample here). I investigated based on some discussion surrounding the wisdom of instructing kids in Kindergarten, and if doing so was "too early".  In looking at the lessons, the goal is the kids learning, certainly, but each of the lessons are actually games.

A bit of deconstruction here:  parents questioning the wisdom of Eureka Math often assume that "learning" and "lessons" involve the very conventional, post-industrial age education.  We all know this stereotype: rows of desks, kids sitting, quiet, heads down, scribbling answers on papers for grades, listening to instructions by the teacher.

Eureka is gamifying mathematics for kindergarteners. The kids don't sit at a desk and memorize facts and figures and recite them back to the teacher.  They play with beans and gloves, interactively manipulating tokens and the learning environment to build useful facts within the context of play.

How awesome is that?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

On Critics

Well, another day, another complete misunderstanding as to the role of a critic within the cultural context.

As usual, this spins from Anita Sarkeesian.  In this case, from her inclusion on the Time 100 Most Influential list.

Most of the comments I've read in my circles are either the trite (polite rehashing of GamerGate comments) to the other usual comment that artists make of critics - because she doesn't make games she cannot possibly be informed enough on the process to provide a complete and intelligent criticism of games.

This sort of commentary completely misses the point of a critic in the relationship with an artist.  Critics are informed, they are studied, and most of all, they represent a specific voice as representatives of good taste in a broader cultural context.  A good critic will do more than simply point out shortcomings either in form, style or taste.  A good critic will also point out when something works and representing a shift in form, style or taste.  More to the point, critics represent good taste talking back to the artist so that the artist can improve their craft. This analysis of play aesthetic is key because it represents a voice separate from fandom, a dispassionate voice who provides feedback so the artists can grow and create better works of art.

Is it good form when developers ignore player feedback? No. Why? Because the players represent the audience in play. I've lost count the number of times I've been told by developers far more learned than I that audience feedback is essential for tuning and balancing play.

Yet here is a critic pointing out feedback and is met with polite be firm denial.

This reminds me of the MDA method of game analysis.

For those that aren't familiar, it is a method of analysis used to analyze games.

MDA stands for Mechanics -> Dynamics -> Aesthetics.

When a developer creates a game, they create the mechanics, tune the dynamics of play, and create a specific emotional response or aesthetic.  They experience this sequence from left to right.

Players and critics experience the sequence in reverse order. When a critic plays the game, they engage the emotional response to play, react to the dynamics and perhaps delve into the mechanics that create those dynamics.

When Anita and other critics engage with games,they experience a specific emotional response to the content provided to them. The critics response is based on whatever cultural perspective that they bring to the game. This is no different than any other player.

What this means is that a critic does not need, rather, they are addressing the aesthetics of play as they interpret it and respond accordingly based on the current standards of taste.

So, what does Anita do?  She responds to the aesthetics of play from her cultural perspective as it pertains to current standards of taste.

Why does that bother people?  Because it challenges several deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes of who consumes games. It is also much easier to attack Anita than it is to put together a coherent response. But this all side-steps the fundamental truth that the artist and the critic are a relationship that is required for growth of games as a true art form. If games are to be taken seriously as an artistic form, it means that games must conform to matters of taste. In that regard, the critic is essential. 

The critic is the curator of taste within our culture. The critic is to point out when a creator does something well or when the creator does something poorly, and inform the broader audience of these points.

It's time for the game industry and its fans to grow up. As long as I've been a developer, game developers and creators were sounding the clarion call that games are art. 

Now that they are recognized as such, these same developers and creators are upset when critics point out the deficiencies of games as they reflect larger cultural deficiencies when it comes to gender.

Take from that what you will...