Posts Tagged ‘gaming’

Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Preparing to head back to Durham for the Nerd East convention has me feeling all nostalgic. I lived and studied there for seven years in total, and though I didn’t do much writing it has really shaped me as a writer. Joining the live roleplay society got me back into fantasy and science fiction in a big way, as well as giving me lots of great friends and character ideas. My first published story was in the university Science Fiction and Fantasy Society’s in-house fanzine, and won me a week’s worth of calories in chocolate form.

And as always, there were the lessons that weren’t directly writing related but have proved useful. I learned to work with others creating plots through LRP, as well as finding out how much chainmail weighs. I gained the confidence to put my stories and other creations out there. I watched a wide range of science fiction and fantasy films, making me better informed about the genres. And where else but a university game of killer could I have experienced what it’s like to stake out someone’s house? (I mean aside from the mob.)

Often the things we label as distractions provide useful lessons. Sure, that’s less true of all the time I spent drinking in the Student Union bar, but then I never needed my dignity all that much.

Or my liver.

If you’re in north east England then you can hear me talk on this more, as well as enjoying a day of geekery and gaming, on 30 May at Nerd East.

'Hello, God? I know I don't believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens - things are getting way too tense down here.'

‘Hello, God? I know I don’t believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens – things are getting way too tense down here.’

I love that the world is changing. I love the variety that brings and the novelty it creates within our culture, even as the dark fingers of uncertainty send tremors of fear through my body.

Unfortunately, fear of change is currently rearing its big, ugly head all over geek culture.

The most prominent and hideous example of this is the treatment of feminists in computer gaming. There are some great designers and critics out there critiquing the domination of gaming by white, straight, male gamers and characters, and the way this excludes others. This has triggered a huge backlash, in which people have been called the vilest names and even had their lives threatened for expressing their opinions on a medium they love.

Then there’s the fuss, for the second year in a row, around science fiction and fantasy’s Hugo awards. I think there are a lot of problems with the Hugos, but they’re certainly high profile within the core of sf+f. This year, a reactionary group have managed to dominate the nominations with a slate of conservative, white, male authors. It’s a shame, but it is at least getting people engaged with the awards, and may favour the pro-diversity arguments in the long run.

Outside the world of geek, anti-immigrant party UKIP have risen to prominence in this year’s British general election. It’s no great revelation to say that an anti-immigrant party is reactionary and playing on people’s fears.

I find all of this distressing, especially given the way that it has impinged upon what I normally consider a safe space, the welcoming a varied world of geek culture. And I find it hard to balance my own emotional reactions.

On the one hand, I understand that change is frightening, that many of the reactionaries respond this way because they feel threatened. I feel sorry for their hurt and for the way that they aren’t able to embrace all this wonderful variety. But in understanding them and trying not to become reactionary against the reactions, I risk undervaluing my own feelings on the subject. They’re attacking things I value, they create an unpleasant atmosphere, and it’s not unreasonable for me and others like me to feel hurt by that, even a little frightened at where this is going.

I remain hopeful. I’ve always been something of an opportunistic humanist, and the history of humanity, as well as that of the culture I love, to me shows an upward trend toward great diversity and understanding. But there are downward moments as well as upward ones, both becoming ever shorter and more frequent as humanity grows and change accelerates. For the sake of my sanity, I’ll lean into the hurt as well as the hope, use it to power my own work, and remember that this too will pass.

Whatever the outcome of the Hugos, the general election, and a series of nasty Twitter spats, the diverse and joyful things I love aren’t going away. The ranting of sad and angry reactionaries will never stop that.

‘Dammit, I’m the sheriff! Bring me my coffee and donuts or more bodies are gonna drop!’

The high noon standoffs.The crazy magic carnival. The steampunk capitalists with their mechanical horses. As I’ve mentioned both here and elsewhere, I love the weird western card game Doomtown, and one of the things that makes me love it more is the fiction.

Combining Game and Story

AEG, the company who publish Doomtown, regularly post short fiction based on the game on their website. As a way of keeping players’ attention and building excitement around a game, I think it’s rather nifty. It builds up the plot, gives context to some of the cards, and makes me a little more interested in the characters of the game.

As integration of game and story goes, it’s no Device 6. But it’s really cool to see a company playing with what they can do in already playful mediums – short stories and games.

Moments Not Stories

These Doomtown pieces aren’t always what I’d describe as stories in their own right. They’re there to show a character, action or item in context. Something usually changes over the course of the story, but it often feels insubstantial.

For what it is, that works. It strings together the existing material of the game into a more coherent narrative full of character and tension, not just coloured pieces of card. I’d be surprised if the writers thought this was going to draw in new fans. It’s about maintaining existing interest, not bringing in more.

That said, I think weird west fans might enjoy the little snippets even without the bigger context of the game and the scenes written for the card sets. This is a world full of atmosphere and dark ideas, perfect for those who like to see spells and six-shooters in the same place.

Art as Marketing

This fits with a wider trend at the moment, where marketing cultural products has become less about badgering an audience into buying and more about giving something away to grab their interest. It’s common for serial fiction to include a cheap or free first e-book. Instead of badgering people into reading, the creators give them something and hope they like it to pay for more.

Speaking of which, my own collection of science fiction short stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, is free on Amazon until Friday. So if Doomtown’s fiction doesn’t grab your interest, or you’ve read it all already, why not give that a go?

Wesley Crusher says games are cool, it must be true!

Wesley Crusher says games are cool, it must be true!

One of the frustrations of freelance writing is that I often can’t point toward the things I’ve written and say ‘I did that’. Sometimes even when I can I don’t want to – no-one wants to read three hundred words designed to sell toothpaste. But right now I have a gig that not only has my name attached, it’s about something readers of this blog might be interested in – board games.

I’m currently writing blog posts for a price comparison sight called Board Game Prices. These aren’t in depth, critical analyses – it’s a site selling board games, so I’m focusing on the positives, the things that make me enthusiastic. Fortunately I have a lot of honest enthusiasm for board games.

Not all the blog posts there are by me, but if you want to read the first couple you can see my top tie-in games or read me enthusing about Doomtown Reloaded (again – I think I may love that game a little too much). I’ll have articles going up there fairly regularly, and they’re tagged with my name, so if you’re interested in board games then please go check it out.

Wait, Now Who’s Mightier?

Posted: February 21, 2015 in enthusing!
Tags: , , , ,

pen swordMy trusty blade – a souvenir from Stabcon, my local board games convention. It seemed particularly apt, given my work.

There are few things more awesome than seeing your passions combined in one great story, film or game. My pleasures include westerns, fantasy, steampunk, boardgames and clever design. Based on all of this, it was inevitable that I’d get into Doomtown Reloaded.

Doomtown Reloaded is a card game from AEG, in which you grapple for control of a lawless Wild West town. The factions involved include ranchers wielding mad science gadgets, a creepy magic carnival, ruthless outlaws, and of course lawmen. There’s a great mix of genre elements in the setting, and character cards that hint at so much more depth than they have space to describe.

But what really sold me on it is the game mechanics. Doomtown cards have suits and values like normal playing cards, and you win or lose shoot-outs by creating poker hands. It’s thematically perfect, not just because poker is so evocative of dark dealings in the Wild West, but because of the tension it builds. As each of you looks at your draw hand, deciding whether to take a risk on changing some of your cards, maybe trying to bluff the other player into a risky play, you can feel the tension mount. It’s like a shoot-out in a film, this long drawn out build-up followed by a sudden, swift moment in which everything is resolved and one side lies dead.

It’s a mechanic that elegantly captures the tone of the setting. And that, to me, is massively pleasing.

Laura and I now play Doomtown most days. It’s not the most relaxing game, but it’s really interesting, and a whole lot of fun. And it’ll probably have me writing magic card game stories like ‘Straight Poker‘ for months to come.

To my own shock and horror, I realised this weekend that most of us love a traitor. And it got me thinking – why is that?

Don’t Hate the Player

This whole line of thought started with a board game, or more accurately three board games. On Saturday I was at Stabcon, my local twice-yearly gaming convention. I spent most of the day playing games of back-stabbing and treachery, and relishing every moment.

Despite the box, my friends insisted that I play with my shirt on. Apparently writing ‘abs’ on my chest in biro isn’t the same as having the real thing.

First some friends and I played Spartacus, the game of the TV show, in which you play Roman families trying to outmanoeuvre each other for profit while casually throwing gladiators and slaves to their deaths.

Then it was One Night Werewolf, the speedy version of the classic game of bluffing, gruesome murder and rushed lynchings, in which players are either werewolves or villagers, and your only aim is to live through the night.

Finally I sat down to play Battlestar Galactica, based on the modern version of the sci-fi show. It’s a cooperative game, in which the remnants of humanity look for a promised land – sounds much nicer, right? Except that one or two of you are secretly cylons, murderous robots trying not to get caught while you plot your comrades’ downfall. We survived, to the immense relief of most of the players, but it’s a tense game in which one false move can see you locked forever in the brig or mankind doomed to starvation.

Pick Me! I’ll Be The Baddy!

Two things about these games made me ponder the appeal of treachery.

First is the obvious the games are all driven by trickery and double dealing, and they’re all fun to play. Even as my friend Matt destroyed my Roman household’s reputation, I took great relish in declaring my intention to take bloody revenge (in the game, of course – there were no beatings in the hotel car park).

But the choices of characters people made were also revealing. In Werewolf, nobody chooses to be the werewolves, but everyone knows they’re the most fun. If you’re playing Battlestar, Gaius Baltar is always one of the first characters picked, because fans of the show love the conniving and egotistical scientist who accidentally doomed mankind. Similarly in Spartacus, anyone who’s watched the show wants to be Batiatus, even though he’s one of the hardest characters to play. After all, he’s the fun one.

For The Love Of Conflict

But I don’t think this is just about our love of villains. I think it’s about the value of conflict.

These games are fun not because every single action is a fight for dominance, but because even acts of cooperation could have schemes and conflicts hidden beneath them. It means that every moment is exciting, because every moment is filled with suspicion.

Similarly, these favourite characters are constantly in conflict with the others in their stories. That makes them more fun to watch and to be. In real life, we strive to be helpful people. But in stories and games, when it’s all about aesthetics, picking fights is way more fun. It’s why I swore vengeance on Matt – if I couldn’t win, I could at least have fun going down fighting.

So there you have it – my theory of why treachery makes for great stories. From the classic example of Long John Silver selling out both sides in Treasure Island, to Littlefinger’s duplicitous shenanigans in Game of Thrones, treachery means we see conflict even where there is none, and that makes everything exciting.

What do you think? And who are your favourite traitors, historical or fictional? Share your thoughts in the comments.

I’m really bad at keeping on top of modern culture. There’s just so much of it, and so much stuff around the corner behind us that I want to peak back at. That’s no bad thing, just a reflection of how much awesomeness there is out there. But it means that as I think back on what I’ve really enjoyed this year, not all of it’s actually from this year. Still, here are the new(ish) things that really rocked my brain in 2014:

Reading

I’ve done more reading recently, as my befuddled brain has emerged from the fog of the last few years. And from that enshrouding miasma appeared a thing of spell-binding beauty – Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. I cannot recommend this pair of books enough – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are breathtaking in their majesty, their immediacy and their beauty. They’re big, slow, weighty reads, but well worth the heavy lifting. Many thanks to Glenatron and Everwalker for pointing me towards Kay, and to Sheila for the present.

This was the year Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie returned to their old stomping ground of pop culture as magic, launching The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a beautiful looking and cleverly written comic that explores what it is to be an artist, a fan and a believer. There are clever layouts, smart references, intriguing characters and a fascinating plot. The only thing currently matching it is Chew, with its crazy world building, madcap plotting and offbeat characters. These two together show that comics can be fun, wild, entertaining and carry a serious emotional message all at the same time. They also show that the medium doesn’t have to get all dark to get beyond superheroes.

Viewing

Speaking of superheroes, did Marvel bring their A game this year or what? Agents of SHIELD turned from a limping pet only fanboys would love into a TV show that is dark, twisty and full of character. Tying its fate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier crippled it for most of its first season, but then created a moment of spectacular cross-platform awesomeness. The film and TV show spiralled around each other in ways that let them entertain as stand-alone viewing but break new ground as a cultural project. It helped that the Winter Soldier was a good film in its own right.

As if that weren’t enough, Marvel also brought out the biggest, funnest thing I watched in the cinema this year – Guardians of the Galaxy. A bunch of bickering misfits, forced to work together to save themselves and the universe? A talking raccoon and his walking tree buddy? A dance-off against a villain? Hell yes, I’m in for that. It wasn’t a smart film, or a ground-breaking one, but man was it ever entertaining.

But my favourite new film this year didn’t get a cinematic release, and that’s part of why I loved it. Joss Whedon, mastermind behind Marvel’s Avengers movies, took time out from his regularly scheduled blockbusters to help create In Your Eyes, a beautiful and unusual film about love and an inexplicable magical connection. It also took a bold approach to distribution that, for me, points towards the future I want to see. Just when we thought Whedon couldn’t get any more awesome, he upped his game again.

Aside from that, I’ve been making much more use of YouTube, and particularly recommend the PBS Idea Channel. Every week they come out with a slice of smart commentary, combing intellectual insight with popular culture. So cool.

 

Listening

Here’s where we leave science fiction and fantasy behind. I listen to some sf+f podcasts, and a bit of geeky music, but my favourites this year have been other things.

The Revolutions Podcast is an entertaining and extremely well presented show covering some of the most fascinating slices of history – political revolutions. So far it’s covered the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Now it’s onto the French Revolution. Mike Duncan previously created the excellent History of Rome podcast, but this is even better. If you like history at all, check it out.

Musically, my favourite discoveries this year haven’t been new to this year, but they’ve been new to me. A friend pointed me toward the Wanton Bishops, a spectacular blues rock outfit from Lebanon. For pure grinding energy, they’re hard to beat.

 

Then there’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I like to hear clever rapping and pop musicians getting away from tired themes of romance and and self-aggrandisement. Macklemore absolutely hits the spot, backed by Ryan Lewis’s catchy and diverse beats, from pro-equality anthem Same Love to the ridiculously exuberant Lets Dance to recycled shopping tribute Thrift Shop. Even when they’re crafting whole songs about Cadillacs, basketball or trainers, their sheer passion keeps me wanting more.

 

But my heart really lies with folk rock, and for that I recommend checking out The Patient Wild. Theirs are beautifully crafted storytelling songs, the sort of thing I can’t get enough of. And a member of the band reads this blog, so everybody wave to Glenatron – hi dude!

Gaming

As Laura will testify, I’m pretty much obsessed with the card game Smash Up, in which you combine genre favourite factions to battle it out for domination. Whether I’m leading robot ninjas against time travelling pirates, or dipping into madness with the Cthulhu expansion, I would happily play this all day every day. It’s a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the story/game combo of Device 6, which showed just what great things we can do with storytelling in the age of phone apps. Looking back, it feels like a test piece for greater things to come, but it’s a fascinating and atmospheric test piece.

And now I’m addicted to Minecraft. I’ll probably blog about this another day, but it’s kind of like having a giant Lego set on my Kindle, except a Lego set where zombies try to kill me. I don’t know why I didn’t play it years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t given how much time it’s sucking away.

Other stuff

Tiger stripe espresso beans. Manchester’s beautiful new central library. Costa Coffee’s caramel crunch cake. This year has been full of great stuff. Here’s hoping for more.

And so, in a variation on yesterday’s question, what have been your cultural highlights this year, big or small? Please share some recommendations in the comments, give me cool things to check out next year.

I love writing for a living. Despite that, I’ll occasionally have a bit of a moan about the work, especially my monthly gig writing management theory articles. But the truth is, I enjoy thinking a bit about management, for the same reason that I watch some YouTube shows about computer games, even though I hardly ever play computer games.

It’s because of the other issues they bring up.

Both computer games and management are, in different ways and for different reasons, fairly new areas of study. Management theory has a few more decades under its belt, but neither was considered a serious subject of study a hundred years ago,* and some people still don’t treat them seriously now – my dad is endlessly surprised to hear that I can find six management topics a month to write about, despite the huge wealth of books, blogs and academic departments dedicated to the subject.

This makes these fields fertile areas for innovative thinking. There are relatively clear lines drawn around maths, history, English and other traditional disciplines. Cross-disciplinary work exists, but the central core is fairly solid and stable. Management and computer games, on the other hand, are built around borrowing ideas from other disciplines and mashing them together to see what works. That means they also produce insights that can be useful for other areas. For example, the recent furore over gender representation in computer games raises serious questions about what is and isn’t acceptable in society at large, about what free speech means and about how people respond to change.

This means that, when I sit down to read the Harvard Business Review blog or watch an episode of PBS Game/Show, there’s a decent chance that I’ll stumble across something that’ll inspire me in other areas of my life, and that will be interesting not because of the small extent to which I’m into management or computer games, but just because I’m a human being and this stuff is inherently fascinating. Sure, sometimes there’ll be things I don’t care about, like an interview with a hedge fun manager or a talk about why the Mario franchise is popular. But more often than not, I’ll find something that justifies the time.

I like that we have these fluid, open areas of our culture, and I suspect that they’re capable of faster innovation than more traditional fields. But most of all, I’m just glad there’s so much interesting stuff in the world. And if the stuff I’ve said has got you even a little intrigued then go browse the Game/Show videos, look for a title that sounds interesting, and give it a watch. They’re usually 5-10 minutes, and often get into fascinating areas of psychology and cultural theory. Great stuff.

 

* Yes, I know, one of them didn’t even exist then, and that feeds into my point.

I had a couple of moments yesterday that reminded me of the immense power of human creativity and just how awesome that is.

One was posting yesterday’s flash fiction story, ‘Love That Never Lived‘. Months after first writing this story it still churns me up inside, and that’s hardly surprising as my rawest emotions that went into it. But I also got some really touching responses from other people who had been moved by the story. It’s hardly news that a good story can move us to joy or sorrow, but it’s worth being reminded.

Then in the evening I was playing the computer game Minecraft, which I’ve just got into this week. I was building a tall tower to that I could see the surrounding area, and building this tower involved standing on the edge and seeing the surrounding landscape from my character’s point of view. Looking out from up there I found myself suffering a moment of honest to goodness vertigo. Just looking down, realising my character could easily fall and be badly hurt or killed, brought up the same feelings I get if I look down from a tall building. It was absurd but strangely powerful, as if the combination of perspective and movement in the game made it real despite the blocky, cartoonish visuals.

If we ever need a reminder that all forms of creativity are equally worthy of the label of ‘art’, or that they can be powerful forces and not just escapism, it’s moments like this.

What’s moved you recently?