To Scotland.

Not even going to bother alluding to the fact that it’s been about a century since I updated this blog:

[Copy/pasted from my Facebook announcement.]

Friends and family, I have news.

Many of you may already know, but I have been offered a post as lecturer at the Institute of Art, Media and Computer Games of the University of Abertay Dundee in Dundee, Scotland, and my family and I are moving to the UK at the end of this month. It’s the oldest game design program in Europe, and I’m looking forward to pursuing my ongoing research on games, software and culture, while teaching courses on the history, theory and contexts of digital media and games.

I have been very fortunate to be part of the USC Interactive Media & Games program: I believe there is none better. I will deeply miss the colleagues and friends I’ve met here, who provided me with ongoing intellectual stimulation, creative energy, and unabashed support. Also, I will miss the students: I continue to admire their enthusiasm, focus, and dedication to making wonderful and compelling interactive work, and though it sounds like a hoary clich√©, I’ll say it: I’ve learned as much, or more, from them than I believe they learned from me.

Fortunately, I will still have the privilege of working with USC Interactive faculty and students: Abertay and USC are collaborating on a research project with the Victoria and Albert Museum, called Video Games in the Museum. And I’ll continue to advise USC students as an outside advisor. In fact, I would like to see a USC team or two participating in Abertay’s Dare To Be Digital 9-week residential game jam.

I’m going to miss California (I’m a native!) and everyone here, but I’m also looking forward to meeting old and new friends and colleagues in Scotland and the rest of Europe.¬† Many thanks to many!

Oh, and add me as a Steam friend, and let’s play some games.

Nature, childhood, Pokemon.

I read an introduction to a book filled with suggestions for back-to-nature activities for children. The book is very good and all, but it felt a need to start by decrying the contemporary (first-world, comfortable) childhood filled with “virtual worlds of Pokemon and Digimon.” There are a couple of ironies to that charge: first, that Pokemon’s rhetoric of legitimization included a lament for the loss of places of free exploration for (Japanese) children growing up in tower blocks in urban environments: the game was seen as partial compensation for the disappearing experience of youthful discovery in nature. (That rhetoric is a common one in Japanese game design.) The mechanics of Pokemon were drawn from a tradition of collecting and cataloging stag beetles, and setting them against each other in contests. Pokemon was a palliative response to the condition, not its cause. 

The second irony is that the activities in the book are themselves compensatory: the activities are supervised, structured, and involve an adult creating a managed experience usually involving crafts. Henry Jenkins’ classic article on video-games as (gendered) spaces of play focused on how vital unsupervised play and exploration was: many children still get curated and organized “exposure” to nature, but have lost the opportunities for social self-organization and development that used to be available to them. Virtual environments and game culture still offer this to them, and few of the critics provide alternatives in the “wild” which truly allow children to gather and self-organize without supervision.

Jiro Dreams of Objects

Since I don’t write about philosophy or theory or their near cousins, you might think that I’ve lost interest in them. I’m actually preoccupied with questions that are ultimately theoretical, but I don’t believe that this kind of work is served by a lot of writing. Insight is, for me, a rare and specific thing, and the easy participation in discourses does not seem to produce more movement in thought. Once a stance has been articulated – as Deleuze would have put it, a concept is formed – the dance around the concept seems like a waste of energy. Better to respond to the concept to produce other kinds of activity.

Having just seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the film illustrates the insight of the trend in thinking called object-oriented ontology, which I think of as a very productive cluster of concepts for those working in digital media and  rule-based cultural forms. The sushi chef, Jiro, exists in a relationship with a network of objects – the fish, heat, water, rice, ginger, customers – each of which is inexhaustable, the possibilities of them being both finite (bounded) and infinite (no knowledge system can capture all of their consequences, affordances, or effects, yet knowledge systems rely on them to be effective.) From the outside, at first, it seems that Jiro’s work with sushi is static, that there is nothing “innovative” about it. But the dialogue between Jiro and sushi – to eke out small improvements and enhancements in taste, working with pressure to improve the flavor and texture of the rice – is neither static nor “innovative” in the sense usually meant in, say, tech culture. In those differences lie more than just aesthetics.

Glitchhiker (2011)

Glitchhiker was a game submitted to the 2011 Global Game Jam by a group of six Dutch game designers associated with the studio Vlambeer. It doesn’t exist any more, because playing it – specifically, playing it badly – would corrupt it, introducing more glitches until the game become unplayable, and then extinct. (“Extinction” was the theme of the competition.)

If you go to the download page, you’ll be told that the game is extinct and can not be executed.

The game relied on a client/server architecture: like an MMO, social game or a virtual world, everyone was playing in the same “game,” albeit with different clients. This complicates Benjamin’s model of reproducible art – instead of every player having a copy, each player uses a copy to access a unitary “original” (albeit one which can be backed up, updated, patched.) Games of global persistence have their own kind of aura, but unlike a traditional auratic work, they are really only “gazed” at by the client software, which also provides the mechanism for altering–and in the case of Glitchhiker, destroying–the “original.”

Glitchhiker’s finitude is part of its poetry, as well. We participate in a fantasy of perfect cultural memory, in “archive fever,” as a way of dealing with (or avoiding) death (and perhaps as a strategy for capturing and domesticating cultural fields.) Anxiety about archiving the history of games and digital art projects, rather than simply documenting them, is a recurrent thread in discussions within new media art circles, game studies, and the digital humanities. Glitchhiker’s commitment to its own oblivion as a way of escaping it is connected also to its decision to delegate its own “execution” to the players.

Apparently, the game was killed by a “drunk Canadian.”

There’s more coverage of Glitchhiker on Vlambeer’s site.