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What I’ve Been Up To!

So things have been a little quiet around here recently. That doesn’t mean there’s not things to read by me in other places, though! I’ve been contributing book reviews to Magnificent Nose: Imagine: How Creativity Works by the infamous Jonah Lehrer, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, and Oneironautics: A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming by Dylan Tuccillo, Jared Zeizel, and Thomas Peisel. (This review was even featured on the book’s site!)

I’ve also started a new blog, Our Strange Universe, where I’ll be posting interesting, recent findings from the research world and dissecting what impact they’ll have.

I hope some of these articles will keep you duly entertained until next I post!

Little People Live Inside Me

CC BY-ND 2.0 by rexboggs5

There are little people that live inside me – a whole colony, a whole tribe: Little people of all sizes, shapes, and especially temperaments. I’m not really sure when they arrived; they never gave me good notice. Needless to say, they haven’t been good tenants ever since. They don’t even pay rent.

At first I tried to dote on them; they were unexpected guests for sure, but what else was I supposed to do? This only made them more insufferable, though, like spoiled children given too many toys. Their demands grew and grew, so one day I tried to evict them. (That didn’t work.) The police were useless, and just looked at me like I was a weirdo. My white blood cells just shrugged and said “not our business.” What a bunch of loafers. Macrophages and T-cells alike claimed this wasn’t in their jurisdiction. What do I pay them for, anyway?

So it was all left up to me. I tried shooing them away, using hand motions like those for a bad dog. “Is he doing some kind of dance?” they would say amusedly. Eventually they would join in the dance, clanging around inside of me like quarters in a clothes dryer. And like clothes lint in a belly button, they re-appeared day after day no matter the odds.

They don’t care for my daily goings-on. I’ll chastise them for hassling me while I’m enjoying a meal or when I’m with a girl, but they care little for my taste in food or in women. (Lil’ Ed and Crazy Bob are the worst of the lot.) Sometimes they like to hang out in my stomach; other times they might fancy an eyelid or cheekbone; heaven forbid they head to my heart and lungs.

Eventually the little people wanted to settle down, meaning building bigger and better things. They would strip off my copper wire and my insulation, my gears and my motors. They don’t seem to understand that this machine can only take so much. When they’ve run out of loot for the day, they grumble about their bad luck and pack off to somewhere just as inconvenient to me.

I don’t think they know of the whole wide world out there, out beyond me. They’re stuck in the past, convinced that the world is flat and bounded at my edges. Way out there, they must believe, are only these things: a vacuum, a waterfall, a sea serpent with very sharp teeth. Maybe that’s why they refuse to leave; maybe that’s why they’re so scared.

I think now that these little people don’t want my pity or my pampering, neither do they want harsh words, all they want is to be recognized. Each one just wants to be looked in the eye, to be respected and not feared. I’ve come to know the little people better now (even Lil’ Ed and Crazy Bob). All they want is a nice “hello” once in a while, to bring little smiles on their little faces. Maybe then, with enough courage, they’ll wade out into the void beyond.

A Letter from a Concerned Constituent Regarding Our Closing Local Dairy Queen

Dear Representative Brown,

As a humble member of your constituency, it behooves me to bring to your attention that the Dairy Queen on the corner of Mayberry and 7th is being closed.

You are probably clutching your chest right now. Don’t panic, that’s not a heart attack! Resist the urge to throttle your nearest intern, it’s not his fault – he’s only the messenger. Instead, blame me for not getting the news to you even sooner; I can shoulder that burden with ease. This issue is close to my heart, and I’ll take any kind of lashing you’d like to give me. I’ll take any punishment I deserve, sir.

Anyways, that’s beside the point. I know you don’t like long and complicated reports – those reams of mumbo-jumbo “research” about the economy are only appreciated by eggheads and weirdoes anyway. An egghead and a weirdo you are not, Rep. Brown. You’re a people person, a good guy who enjoys a tall, cold beer. You know what’s better than a tall, cold beer though? Don’t be hasty by ripping up this letter, give me a chance! A tall, cold Blizzard from Dairy Queen, that’s what, and soon you won’t be able to get one for a good 100 miles. Doesn’t that send shivers down your spine? And I don’t mean those really good, satisfying, o-face shivers, neither.

I know you care about your district, sir. You must know then that small businesses are the lifeblood of towns like these – franchises run by fine people like Ted Gupta, who started as a struggling salt peddler in Khandesh. He built up this business from nothing, and is now trying to live the American Dream. I know as well as you that we would not be the great country we are today without brave people like Mr. Gupta, who will do anything it takes to bring this economy back to the top of the heap using their guts, savvy, and unethically long working hours!

Yes, DQ Corporate is partially to blame for that whole Chill and Grill nonsense. At least the old DQ Brazier name got you a little bit excited before you were let down. Haven’t we all made mistakes, though? I mean, look at the car companies that we had to save when the economy went south, look at the bank bail outs, and look at your marriage! I mean, that was terrible but you sure pulled through. Don’t worry Rep. Brown, we’re all on your side – Margie was a bitch and everyone knew she was sleeping with the mailman.

I know that you are a great pragmatist, so let me quote you a statistic: 34% of towns that have closed their local Dairy Queen have had their suicide rates at least double. That includes Hincklesville, Charlottestown, and even our neighboring Marblesburg. I realize that means our greatest rival, the Marblesburg Angry Beavers, won’t have a robust high school sports recruiting pool for next year, but we surely don’t want the same thing happening here! Since you’re such a big football fan, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that Minnesota has a Dairy Queen for every city in the state. That’s right sir, the Golden Beavers, who beat your own Penn State 21-7 just last week, are winning on yet another front! I’m sure you’d like to slap that cheeky grin right of that fucking beaver’s face. What better way to break their spirit than take away their title of the creamiest state, eh?

Now I’ve been told by some very respectable people that all the best letters have anecdotes. When I was just a young boy, all of my birthdays would include one of those delicious DQ ice cream cakes. They made me so happy, that’s all I wanted each year. But now they’ve changed, and I haven’t had a normal birthday for 32 years. Once DQ took out the fudge next to those delicious crunchies, everything started falling apart. With the fudge layer gone, the crunchies devolve into a chaotic mess after just a few minutes. You end up cleaning up after your ice cream cake more than eating it. It reminds you of your wife, your useless, useless wife who doesn’t sleep with you anymore now that you’ve had too much ice cream cake. Now that DQ might leave my life all together, I really don’t know what I’ll do.

We should talk more about this in person. How about over a beer at Chumley’s? I’ll be there next Thursday, six o’clock. I have a very attractive wife, you’ll like her a lot. Probably more than I do. I think we can all come out winners in this: you, me, my wife, Dairy Queen. Maybe DQ could stick little American flags in all of their frozen treats? Or perhaps mini campaign signs would work. (Brown-ie Fudge Blizzard, anyone?) I’ve got all kinds of ideas; I’m quite an idea guy. Give it some thought!

Sincerely,

Your Greatest Friend / Worst Enemy, You Decide

P.S. Sorry, that was probably a little too aggressive. Seriously though, this is important.

Pledges and Affirmations for a Post-Digital Era

Flickr Image by JonJon2k8, Creative Commons License

Technology is a tool. This is my attempt to not hit myself in the face with the proverbial hammer.

I believe that technology is supplement, not a substitute.

I pledge to be in one world at a time, and in the moment.

I believe that ‘likes’ cannot make you feel loved.

I believe in doing nothing at all sometimes.

I pledge to tell you if something is important to me, not text you (or broadcast it on my Facebook feed).

I believe that newer doesn’t necessarily mean better.

I believe that older doesn’t necessarily mean holistic.

I pledge to not check my phone or email every ten seconds. I expect that you will not ask me to except in emergency.

I believe that technology adds both signal and noise to life.

I believe that just because somebody is connected at all times does not mean that they want to be connected to at all times.

I pledge to enjoy my life as it is without lusting after the next big gadget that solves everything.

I believe that too much information can actually be a bad thing.

I don’t believe in notification windows, bleeps, blips, or bings.

I believe that everything has its place.

Indie Game: The Movie

This is not a movie about games, or really even about making games.

I know, you must be sitting there in your comfortable chair, incredulous with jaw agape that a movie called Indie Game isn’t about games! Bear with me, though. As with all great documentaries, this is a movie about people – and it truly is a great documentary. If you want to see a blow by blow of the story, I highly suggest the Wot I Think review over at Rock Paper Shotgun, purveyors of many fine gaming related words and paragraphs. A warning, though, it’s spoiler-laden! Regardless of your choice to spoil yourself or not, you should listen to the amazing soundtrack while reading to set the mood.

Indie Game follows the lives of four independent game developers: Jon Blow of Braid, Ed McMillen & Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy, and Phil Fish of FEZ. Whether they say it directly or not, each of them believes that they are producing something both profound and personal. I’m inclined to agree with them; humans have been making art since the dawn of our species, and video games are as much part of the pantheon of art as any other medium (unless your name happens to be Roger Ebert.)

Art is how we communicate our most profound and complicated feelings in a way others can digest. Art is a means of communicating, of seeing through another’s eyes. According to Tommy of Team Meat: “It’s why a writer writes, I guess. You know, it’s because they can. That’s the most effective way they can express themselves, and a video game is the most effective way I can express myself.” And really, what is expression without somebody to express to? We, the viewer, see not only the story of these games but also the emotions tied up in it all: the fear, the love, the passion, and everything else under the sun. The games are wonderfully different, and so too are their creators; in fact, they act as near-perfect complements to each other.

To me, video games are the ultimate art form. It’s just the ultimate media. I mean, it’s the sum total of every expressive medium of all time, made interactive. Like, how is that not…IT’S AWESOME!

Phil Fish became a developer rock star  in 2008, when an early tech demo of FEZ won an art award at the Independent Games Festival, the Woodstock of the indie scene. With this new-found fame also came incapacitating media attention and fan pressure to deliver. From delay to delay, fan opinion turned cynical and Fish gained a healthy reputation for lashing out at his detractors. Fish binges and purges on grandiosity and style, and takes his image very seriously. (This is plainly reflected in his dress, which usually includes a scarf and thick, black Ray-Bans.) More than anything, though, Fish desperately wants to deliver on the promise of FEZ.

Jon Blow is a grizzled game industry veteran who has been almost perpetually unfulfilled with his past work. Braid was an outgrowth of his desire to do something close to his heart, seeing it as a way to emotionally connect with his audience. However, after Braid’s release and subsequent massive success, Blow became almost obsessively defensive over Braid’s intended message. Blow continues to struggle emotionally with the disconnect between his intentions and gamers’  experience.

Ed McMillen and Tommy Refenes are a tag team of developers with a number of games under their belts, but by no means veterans of the industry. Once the crowds saw Super Meat Boy they couldn’t stop talking about it, and now Microsoft has placed a hard deadline on its release or else they won’t get advertisement on Xbox Live Arcade. With no time to spare, they sacrifice just about everything else in their lives to get the game done.

Making [Braid] was about “let me take my deepest flaws and vulnerabilities and put them in the game, and let’s see what happens.”

Personally, I strongly connect with Indie Game because of the similarities between indie game development and grad school. Slow down, slow down, I know that’s a weird statement. For any creative process, whether it’s a dissertation or a game, it’s often fueled by a desire to share something meaningful with others. Ironically, even if it is a journey of connection, it’s also often journey traveled very much alone. In the grad school process, intense personal pressure tends to be the only thing keeping most of us going. For indie devs, though, that same internal pressure is amplified by the vitriol they receive daily from mercuric “fans.” Phil Fish put it best:

I’m working on it as hard as I can, all the time. It’s like “What’s taking so long? What the fuck are you doing, Phil?” (Fish’s eyes are practically bulging out of his head, blown up to poster size by his thick glasses.) “Fuck off!  … It really gets to me, I guess.”

Juxtaposed against the isolation of creative work, however, are the sources of strength: friends, family, spouses, and true fans. In difficult times, and perhaps even more-so in the face of success, these connections keep the protagonists together, ultimately even redeeming some. The “ache in the stomach” realization of Indie Game, though, is how starkly contrasted the characters’ inner lives are. Some of these guys are just not in a good place emotionally, and it shows. The cinematography serves this point and is sharp as a dagger, which like it or not gets plunged into your gut again and again. People who dislike Indie Game enjoy calling it “First World Problems: The Movie,” but seeing these people struggle with their lifelong passions makes me realize their existential pain feels just as real as physical hurt.

You fucking go crazy when you’re like this. Well, I obviously grew this mustache. It is the reclusive cowboy. I need everybody to know how crazy I feel, on the outside.

If there is any one moment (among many) in Indie Game that must be quoted to sum it all up: Phil Fish has just finished showing off FEZ to a huge audience of people, and reflecting on his feelings, he turns from enigmatic to vulnerable, saying somberly:

You wanna be liked. You wanna be appreciated, you want people to approve of your work. It’s just that, you know, you work on a project for so long like that in semi-secrecy, you can’t really show it, you can’t get that much or any feedback, really. You just want to get any old morsel of appreciation… Well, do anyway. It’s like when people say “I don’t care what people think about this and that.” It’s like, I care about what people think. I wish I didn’t, but I do. It’s kind of silly, like I’m a little annoyed about how much I care about that stuff. Yeah, I wish I didn’t care that much, it is kind of like I need any bit of feedback and love that I can get.

The entire movie is composed of these cut-to-the-core moments. I must have cried for the last 20 minutes straight. Again: This is not a movie about games.

You kind of have to give up something to have something great, in a way. I’m depressed now because I’m on the brink of something amazingly huge, but it’s a different kind of depression. It’s not a stuck depression, it’s a “oh holy shit” depression. It’s an unknown depression, which is kind of weird. But it’ll fade, because once it’s out, it’s out.

It should be apparent by now that this film is nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster, as hackneyed as that sounds. I was profoundly affected by its message and its immense heart. After all those words, I feel like I should make things simple for you, gamers and non-gamers alike: see this movie, see this moviesee this movie.

More Than a Feeling: Pacing in Game Design

So, I’ve been playing a lot of Diablo III recently, as if any self respecting PC gamer would think to do otherwise. Beyond all the hullabaloo and flim flam about DRM this and auction house that, it got me to thinking about just how well its design promotes fast paced gameplay. In stark contrast are games like Dark Souls, which play comparatively like decade-old molasses. The funny thing is that Diablo and Dark Souls are both technically “action RPGs,” and yet they are so unalike. If you put them on a blind date, Diablo would start blabbering about loot tables and unique mobs; Dark Souls would look blankly into space, wondering why she was in the same room with this nitwit.

So what makes them so different? Why is Diablo the hare and Dark Souls the tortoise? Essentially, Diablo gives the player more tools, more freedom, and more information.

Wait a second. What? There’s no speedy or zippy words in there: no faster, no quicker; I call shenanigans! Except it’s true. Those are the defining factors that injects adrenaline straight into Diablo’s catorid artery. (Side note: I always want to spell it carrotted, as if vegetables could establish a symbiotic relationship with me.) None of this is to say that Diablo is the better game, just a different one. Let’s examine why…

Tools

No, not the triple-popped collar tool-bag. However fun it is imagining all the monster in Diablo being replaced by fraternity bros, you must restrain yourself! We’ve got work to do. When I say tools, what I mean are the abilities and actions available to the player at any given moment. In Dark Souls, there are a few things you can do in a fight: light attack, heavy attack, block, use your selected item, or kick. (Did anybody actually use kick?). In Diablo, once your character has gotten past the crackly-voiced puberty of Levels 1-24, he can sport a total of six skills of your choice, in addition to a potion. Now, the number of options in Diablo doesn’t seem like it’s much more than Dark Souls.

However, what is even more important than number of tools is the variation between each tool. In Dark Souls, most attacks are similar to each other expect to the extent of how much stamina they take to use, what their wind-up animation is, and whether it’s a sweep or a stab. Attacks in Diablo, however, can vary from spitting out a gigantic frog to creating pools of red hot magma. Going back to the tool analogy, imagine that one bag has a bunch of different hammers; the other has a saw, a chisel, and a snorkel for some reason or another.

A wider variety in tools, leads to more options available at any one time. This increases the complexity of the decisions the player must make to find a good strategy, which in a real-time game increases the pace of gameplay. If we more closely examine the tools available to the players in each game, one important distinction emerges: Dark Souls allows for perfect or near-perfect damage absorption by blocking or parrying. This does have restrictions, as I will discuss in the next section, but by and large it allows the player to ‘turtle’ much more effectively than in Diablo. Dark Souls’ design allows the player to wait for the right moment. Diablo will have none of this pussyfooting around; it’s fight (or run) or die.

Freedom

There’s a term in military lingo known as the force multiplier; it describes something that makes one trooper as effective as many. Freedom is essentially a pace multiplier with respect to tools. If you have a lot of tools, but little freedom to use them, the pace is going to stay slow. Similarly, with few tools but a lot of freedom, the pace can still be as cool as one of those delicious push-up pops that you probably enjoyed as a kid. (Oh no, the brain freeze!) The more freedom a player has, the more actions he can be either doing or considering at any one point in time.

Dark Souls has two ways of restricting player freedom during combat: the stamina system and wind-up times. Any combat action other than walking around or blocking drains stamina instantly, which limits the player’s ability to, well, do things at all. While Diablo has class-specific pools that are spent on abilities (Rage, Spirit, Discipline, the word soup goes on!) standard attacks are always available regardless of how much your character has been fighting or running around. In Diablo, you should be doing something at all times because the game lets you.

Diablo also gives the player more freedom in how their character moves in the world. Dark Souls enforces that you must turn around like a normal human being; in Diablo, turning and adjusting direction is instant and without penalty. Even running costs vital stamina in Dark Souls; trying to get away from danger can come back to bite you more quickly than you expect when your foe raises an axe the size of your torso in the air and you have all the stamina of an octogenarian left to defend yourself. Almost everything in Diablo happens instantly at the press of a button, while in Dark Souls everything takes time to do, whether it’s swinging your sword or healing yourself.

Information

The amount of information given by the user interfaces drastically affect play style. Dark Souls is a tightly bound third person game, focusing the player’s attention mainly on what is just directly in front of him. Diablo III has a wide isometric view which gives swaths of information about the condition of the battlefield all around. This dichotomy between conservative and liberal information also affects pacing.

Because information is more restricted in Dark Souls, decisions must be made with great caution. In Diablo, so much is readily known that the player can make quick, impulsive decisions with relative impunity! Additionally, the camera view in Diablo simply allows for more to be going on at once. The implications of that should be pretty readily obvious to all but the most un-gamery types.

Long hours are for suckers!

Photo by crashmaster, CC BY-NC 2.0

I’m in the middle of my doctoral candidacy right now. This process is supposed to be a nightmare, but I feel oddly at ease with it all. However, I certainly know a few people right now who are freaking out about it. Why the big disconnect? Simply, I think it all boils down to hours. No, I haven’t been driving myself crazy by working 70 hour weeks. Not 60, nor 50, but 40 like every other week. In fact, in times of great effort and potential stressors such as this, I redouble my efforts to not work more than I absolutely need to. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it keeps me sane and productive.

The Great Career

You might ask, “If I don’t work hard, will I ever be successful?” Larry Smith, an economist at the University of Waterloo,  has a great answer to that question:

Mommy and Daddy told me that if I worked hard, I’d have a good career. So if you work hard and have a good career, then if you work really, really, really hard you’ll have a great career. Doesn’t that, like, mathematically make sense? Hmm, not, but you’ve managed to talk yourself into that. You know what? Here’s a little secret. You wanna work? You wanna work really, really, really hard? You know what? You’ll succeed; the world will give you the opportunity to work really, really, really hard. But, are you so sure that’s going to give you a great career, when all the evidence is to the contrary?

This cuts right to the core about why working hard isn’t necessarily the path to a great, fulfilling career. I take the saying “past results are the best predictor of future performance” very seriously. In this context, the types of jobs that you will get in the future will closely mirror the kind of work you are doing now. So, if you work yourself to exhaustion, the types of jobs you will do in the future will likely be the same way. By working in a particular manner, you are building career capital of a particular type. If you want to have a successful, happy career then you need to start working the way you want immediately and stray from that course as little as possible. A post over at Study Hacks sums this up very nicely :

If, for example, your vision involves working four hours a week from a beach, the capital obtained from an investment bank is not the right type of capital for the career traits you seek.

If your vision instead involves impacting major world events, then banking capital can serve you well.

If you think that simply working really, really hard will automatically bring you a great career then you’re taking a big misstep; you’re just inviting more hard work, whether it’s fulfilling or not. Long work hours don’t do us any favors, either. Even adjusted for work stress, the simple addition of extra hours per week drastically increases the likelihood of a depressive episode. Another study shows that personal health is the largest contributor to happiness, and we all know how stress affects health. Peoples’ deepest regrets are most related to love and social relationships, not work. Quality of work depends far more on how time is spent, not on how much time is spent. In some cultures, the worship of hard work is so sacrosanct that it drives people to death. I learned something interesting while researching for this post: Japan has it’s own word for “death from overwork,” karoshi. I’m considering posting that word up on my cubicle wall.

Protect What’s Yours

Graduate school can become a trap for workaholics and people who are easily intimidated into working long hours; I’ve written about that before. If you don’t watch out for yourself, it’s easy to fall into bad working habits. So how can you break those habits? First, ask yourself this question: “exactly how many hours, on average, do I feel comfortable with working?” For me, that number was 40. Make a weekly hours chart, and stick to that number as closely as possible. At the end of the week, write down everything you accomplished; this builds a sense of pride in what you finished, and inoculates against workaholicism. Taking control of your time is strongly linked with happiness, so take advantage of that!

If you think your boss won’t like it, be prepared to defend yourself. You might be confronted by bitter or holier-than-thou coworkers who think that you are a worthless slacker. Pay no mind, you’ll soon be able to tell the sane and insane apart. Never lie. Tell people exactly how much you work if you are asked. Keep fresh in your mind that your life belongs to you. Not your parents, not your boss, not even your family, you. Take a moment and think about your life:

For employees, the fundamental realization is that an employer who asks for more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week is stealing something vital and precious from you. Every extra hour at work is going to cost you, big time, in some other critical area of your life. How will you make up the lost time? Will you ditch dinner and grab some fast food? Skip the workout? Miss the kids’ game this week? Sleep less? (Sex? What’s that?) And how many consecutive days can you keep making that trade-off before you are weakened in some permanent and substantial way? (Probably not as many as you think.) Changing this situation starts with the knowledge that an hour of overtime is a very real, material taking from our long-term well-being — and salaried workers aren’t even compensated for it.

Raise your hand if you’re still okay with working long hours. Don’t everybody go at once.

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