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generation n+1

When thinking about one cares about, there are two general positions: to care about something extent, or to care about something not yet extent. Both, in some sense, are future oriented: the first orients toward the future experiences and condition of a thing (even if in the very near, immediate future), the latter to the existence or non-existence of a thing, its conditions, and its experiences.

Those of us with children, often funnel our care through our children: they are the first locus of what we care about (outside our own future experiences). Our children’s lives, like ours, culminate in death. We care past the horizon of the death of our children to the extent that we care about their care: perhaps (and most easily) their children. We can imagine a future-chain of caring about children, in which we take concern in generation n+1 as part of our care for the interests of generation n. There will still, as far we understand, still be an end case, a last generation – the end of the universe itself, at least according to current cosmological models, but probably well before that; there are also possibilities of a post-generational humanity.

Care is contingent on time. Conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck distinguished two categories of time. I have only recently understood how materialist his conception of human historical time. He distinguishes between the space of experience (what we might call “past and present”, although by understanding it as experience, we recognizing that the past is not a “place/time” where things exist, but the possibility of producing a representation or other enactment of something experienced) and the horizon of expectation (the winnowing of possibilities to probabilities and then to expectations.)

Memory is an active process: this means that when we remember something, we are assembling a mental representation that we then identify as located in the space of the past. Even archival footage is a residue or after-effect, one which creates variably isomorphic sensory experiences (“if you had been behind the camera, you would have had the same visual experience your are having now” – very different from “this is what it was / this is what it was like.”) The technologies of history and memory – writing/reading, building statues, repeating stories, various archaeological methods – are material practices in the current moment which produce effects of past experience.

(It seems that memory is such an active, present process, that the act of recalling a memory may disrupt the mechanisms by which the memory was encoded, and then rewrite them – with revisions. The consequence of this is that the thing long-forgotten and then remember may actually be better remembered than the memory often-returned-to: the latter is a copy of a copy of a copy etc.)

The horizon of expectation includes the immediately-dawning conclusion of a process that one starts. To even begin thinking a phrase, one has the expectation of concluding it: the form of the end of a sentence one has started to think is not present to consciousness, but is held in the imminent future as the inevitable consequence of the process of thinking (or speaking etc.) Care about anything, too, is care about an expectation of its conditions and experiences, however far in the horizon of time that is. But the expectation is also a process of representation, at least when it extends beyond the completion of a current process. (The end of the sentence, the destination of a step: these are unmediated even if they extend outside the present moment – this can be said of many processes which are underway, including those with longer timescales.)

The question for the extension of care into the n+1 generation is its relationship to our ability to represent generation n when it extends past the threshold of the representable. We know a pre-hominid primate would care for its offspring, and for its offspring’s offspring. Would it care about us, even if we were it’s nth offspring? When our offspring’s offsprings aren’t human, or are alien from us in some other sense, will we care? But can we not care if n-1 does?

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 cliché, 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.

Agriculture in D&D

Dungeons and Dragons – and the fantastic in gaming in general – seems to straddle a deep contradiction in its escapist longing for a pre-modern episteme and it production of a very modern one in the act of operational play, and the players’ imperative to identify the narrative patterns created by the game master and perform effectively within them.

The following post was actually written by my friend, Keith S., and published on his LiveJournal as a protected post. He’s letting me copy and paste (and re-format) it so that I can share it with a different audience. Keith’s interests are in political philosophy and metaphysics (as are mine, but through a lens of media, games and play), but he’s recently become interested in old school D&D and the OSR (old school revival.) … our interests have doubled back on each other and intersected:

Agriculture in D&D:

“Leaving his arms in the field, let no man go a foot´s length forward.
For it is hard to know, when on his way, a man may need his weapon.”

– The Havamal: 38

One of the difficult aspects of engineering a realistic alternative world, even a fantasy one, is dealing with the economics of food production. I confess that we never worried about food much when we played D&D in Junior High. People usually bought some food (“iron rations”) when they created a character, and then forgot about eating after that. While this was convenient, it’s hardly realistic. In the sorts of medieval worlds D&D took place in, food – growing it, hunting it, finding it, eating it – would be extremely important and nearly all the population would involved in little else in many areas.

I have also had a hard time understanding where the food came from in various towns, cities, villages. Suppose the characters come across a lonely castle, or citadel, at the edge of some snow capped mountains. While certainly a picturesque moment, even quite a captivating one, I still have to wonder, now, where the people in the lonely citadel and/or castle are all getting all their food from. The mountainous and wooded terrain may be fine for hunting, but where is the rest of their food coming from and how many square miles are they going to need, per person, for both hunting and cultivation? The more people in the citadel, the more area they require.

It turns out that I was not the first person to think about this.

Check it:


“The population density of an area will largely be determined by the civilization and tillable land within the area. There is 13.856 acres and 21.65 square miles in each 5 mile hex. Hunting tribes require one square mile per member while one square mile of farmland will support a population of 320. Agriculture requires a density of 30 per square mile for maximum utilization. A Village of 220 pure hunters would require a hunting range of ten hexes for support. A village of 660 farmers which farmed an entire hex would support an additional 5740 population group. The wilderness map assumes all hexes are lightly wooded excluding mountains. The woods shown are especially dense, requiring horsemen to walk mounts. The only true clear terrain hexes are those within and adjacent to the names of plateaus and plains. Tillable land is the farmland cleared by farmers. Any civilization above two has 10-100s tillable land within the hex in which it is located. Thus, agriculture hexes will support a population of 640 to 6400. When entering a hex containing a village, tower or castle, a 6 on a six-sided die indicates that the feature in question has actually been found, a 5 indicating that a small farm or hamlet (10-60 population) has been found instead. Players following a road, coastline or river that intersects a village, negates the necessity of ‘encountering’ same.”

This is from the Judges Guild’s original D&D game aide masterpiece: Ready Ref Sheets.

The passage above is one of the reasons I love the JG stuff so much. They were putting this much thought into it back in 1978 and earlier. There’s more on this subject, from other sources, over here. A “hex” is 5 miles across.

Despite this fine summation, I have to wonder how good the JG’s own productions were at sticking to these formulas. As I look, again, at some of the famous “Wilderlands” maps and guides – the JG’s sprawling, and famous “campaign area” – it seems that they may have played a little fast and loose with the stats. The various City States described in the JG product line do not seem to me to have the agricultural support they need to feed their large populations. Nevertheless, I think we can go back to these rules to get a better grasp of what food production and population really entails.

As I picture it, the characters would come across areas “cleared” of monsters by the rulers of any populated zone. Were I ruling a little castle or citadel, I would post monster skulls and skeletons at the boundaries of my area to warn away any wandering creatures that might have a mind to harass my peasants working in the fields for me. You would know you were approaching a “civilized” zone by the sight of these gruesome, unambiguous and cautionary monster trophies.

Naturally, a roving guard of warriors would be necessary to keep order among the peasants as well as to protect them from predation. Some more intelligent monsters might see the heads of their kind posted on spikes at the outskirts of the area, take the hint, and find other, safer places to hang out. It would be my duty to make sure that word got out, or a vibe developed, that my little castle area, and its surrounding woods, fields, and water sources, were anything but a healthy and safe place for the monsters to get too close to. Everything harboring evil intentions would quickly get the point that me and mine were not easy pickings.

Other, less intelligent creatures might occasionally blunder into a populated area and they would need to be quickly and skillfully eliminated by my band of local warriors. This fighting force of mounted guards would have to be paid money, and that money would come from taxes. If a peasant wants to peacefully farm his little area, – and not have to always worry about giant centipedes carrying him, his livestock, and his little family away – then he has to pay for it. There’s no getting around this. I think the most dangerous areas to farm would be at the edges of the cleared area, but these border areas, which might prove tempting to the braver of the beasts, would be where I would make sure my guards would be present often. They don’t get to loaf around the castle and collect a salary. If one of the younger guards flirts with your daughter and helps himself to an apple off one of the trees in your carefully tended orchard, whenever he and his partners come riding through on their patrols, just relax and be glad he’s out there keeping the bugbears, orcs, and lizard-men, who may be lurking just over the next hill, at bay.

The other issue, related to the above, that has vexed me somewhat, is looking at the abilities and powers of most of the population. None of these people, for the most part, should be very high powered. The AD&D “clone game” OSRIC notes:

“0-level npcs [non player characters]

“Most of the NPCs encountered while adventuring in urban or civilised countryside areas are normal folk, with no adventuring profession such as fighting, spell-casting or thievery.”

In other words, don’t expect the peasants producing the food to be able to do squat. This makes total sense, but it is difficult for many people to remember. In an effort to populate their game environment with interesting challenges to the players, a kind of “power creep” starts. Suddenly, every peasant in every little hovel is a 4th level fighter, with a +2 sword under his cot. No. No. No. If they had this kind of power, they wouldn’t stay a peasant in the fields. They’d be off looking for dungeons to explore, monsters to kill, and would instantly be out gathering experience and adventuring like the players. The only way an agricultural community like this makes sense is if the peasants are – for the most part – weak and only good at one thing, if that. It seems difficult for most DMs to keep this foremost in their minds, because they want to preserve “play balance.” It’s not a good idea if the players, as they wax in power as the game progresses, can just run roughshod over nearly all the peasants, but this is what often happened. The “balance” has to come from giving the players challenges at their own level. In the fabled D&D “end game” – which rarely, if ever, was played – the characters become responsible for their own group of “0 level” peasants and have to figure out ways to tax and protect them themselves.

I like the ecological balance that has to exist between the monsters and the human outposts. This kind of struggle seems to define the technological limits of the game’s background. No one area, or fiefdom, or little kingdom, can develop too much, or advance too far, before the monsters come in and reduce everything to ruins and disaster. The more you work on developing an livable, productive local economy, the more tempting it looks to the forces of evil – and the more unstable it can become as the threats to it start to mount.

This is one reason why I don’t like the Gygax-style campaigns – which seem like these present, practical problems are all totally ignored. On the one hand, the Gygax model insists that characters wandering from place to place might encounter monsters. On the other hand, he has any number of complex political entities who can build large armies and wage war. This makes no sense. If you have enough of an army that you can keep paid and fed, then you can, and should, use that army to clear away all the wandering monsters – thus forever ending their threat and presence in the game. If you don’t have this ability, then you have lonely little outposts of civilization fighting off dragons and zombies – with really, really dangerous and unprotected areas in between – and no grand territory and no large army to defend it and define it.

There has to always be, as I see it, a precarious balance between efforts to carve out enough stable, protected areas for decent food production (tillable acres), and efforts made by the monsters and evil forces to sweep all of that away. Add in the disease elements and risks that D&D co-creator Dave Arneson kept pushing, and it’s easy to see that the human forces are really going to be up against it. Even in the City State of the Invincible Overlord, there was a lot of disease present. Life is nasty, brutish, and short. Overcoming that, even temporarily, would be what the game would, and should, be about.