March 31, 2004

Campus on the Mall: Games People Play

The Smithsonian Resident Associates Program is hosting a seminar on May 16, 2004 (2-5 pm) entitled Games People Play. If you have the $40 to spare, it looks to be an interesting program. The participants are:

Doug Church, chief technology director, Eidos North America, is the game designer of Ultima Underworld (I & II), System Shock, and Thief: The Dark Project, three games in the top 20 of PC Gamers’ recent list.

Richard Garfield, a mathematician by training, is the designer of the alpha version of Magic: The Gathering card game (Wizards).

Shigeru Miyamoto, senior managing director, Entertainment Analysis and Development Division, Nintendo Co., Ltd., Kyoto, Japan, is the inventor of Donkey Kong.

Moderator Bernard Yee has managed product development of computer games in Asia and the United States, most notably at Sony Online Entertainment, developers and publishers of EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies. He also served as Director of Product Development at Disney Interactive and Director of Creative Development at Disney Online. Bernard has been a journalist, analyst and consultant for the computer games industry, and is currently teaching a class in Game Design and Development at Columbia University.

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March 29, 2004

Game Writing White Paper

Note to self: read the white paper by the IDGA Game Writers' Special Interest Group [via GTA]

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March 26, 2004

Two Months

wherein the beautiful daughter poses for her 2 month old portrait

Yep. She's cute. More pics on the family blog.

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March 24, 2004

Green Valley Book Fair

In the spirit of JBJ's post, I offer the Green Valley Book Fair. Right near my alma mater JMU, nestled in the Shenandoah valley in Virginia, the GVBF offers some great deals on books covering a wide range of subjects, styles, and genres.

The GVBF is open 6 times a year for a 2 week stretch (3 total weekends). While I usually recommend getting there for the first weekend, you still have two weekends left during this 2 week open period (March 20 thru April 4).

Booklovers beware. You will spend more than you can afford. L and I put ourselves on a budget now whenever we go.

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March 19, 2004


Well, I missed it.

I started Misc. on March 14, after my brief attempt using blogger in Feb. Either way, it's been over a year and after about 250 entries and over 500 comments, blogging still seems valuable to me. If anything, it has helped me keep in touch with friends, colleagues, and family as I've moved into a fulltime job, continued working on the dissertation, and joined the ranks of fatherhood.

For someone who used to hesitate before writing anything down - probably a product of getting busted by my mother for some youthful crimes (all relatively innocent) when she looked over a letter I left out (ah, the follies) - I'm pleased to note that writing feels more comfortable for me. In fact, I find myself wishing I had even more time to write, which is generally a good thing.

In any case, happy belated birthday to Misc. May you continue to be a random assortment of facts, follies, and vague claims (and unclear as to which is which).

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March 15, 2004

Notes on Form(al) Theory for Games

[Edit: apparently my pings freaked out, so apologies to anyone I linked to that suddenly found several trackback entries. Not quite sure what happened there. Please delete all but one. Thanks. JR]

I've been following with great interest the posts and comments surrounding the recent Princeton conference on games. The conference and ensuing discussion reinforced my regret; it sounds like it would have been a wonderful event to attend. The conference title - Form, Culture, and Video Game Criticism - highlight three things very close to my academic heart. Blogosphere conversation sparked by the meeting has ranged from reports (GTA, Jerz, buzzcut), responses to the blog reports (, Jesper Juul), and discussion about "getting along in game studies" (Watercooler Games, and Nick Montfort's Combat vs. Air-Sea Battle at GTA).

If anything has been reinforced by reading through the friendly arguments and academic discourse this past week or so, it is that - to paraphrase Stanley Fish - "being interdisciplinary is hard" (props really should go to Matt K., rather than Fish, for giving me this handy segue, delivered during his lectures for Word and Image. The proper citation, if interested, is: Fish, Stanley. "Being Interdisciplinary Is So Hard To Do." Professions 89. NY: MLA, 1989. 15-22.). The central difficulty of speaking outside of one's own discipline is in part what seems to foster and even bolster our need for things such as a "common vocabulary" and our fears about the colonization of departments, fields (narratology v. ludology, etc.), and so forth.

The critical discussions of games, which draw on a variety of (and occasionally contrasting) traditions, media, and disciplines, unsurprisingly creates in some the sense (sometimes false, other times not) of contention. After all, there is a long history of inter-arts competition. Critically, one early example is Lessing's Laocoon (1772), which explored the relationship of poetry and painting; creatively, we can see examples of competition in artistic representation as early as Homer's ekphrastic description of Achilles' shield (a verbal representation of a visual representation) or later in the familiar poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by Keats (see CJ's post on Conventions of Ekphrasis, especially the commentary on 'paragone competition'; also see W.J.T. Mitchell, esp. Picture Theory, for discussion along these lines).

Goals such as common vocabularies to account for competing interdisciplinary perspectives are admirable but are ultimately chimeras. Certainly we will achieve some common understanding as the field progresses, but it always a responsibility of the writer-researcher to situate their assertions with the appropriate context, peppering articles liberally with clear articulations of key terms and references to supporting documents. Games are objects that draw from a variety of antecedents, which may or may not include (depending on the game) visual art, literature, rhetoric, textual studies, narrative, culture, social science, media studies, computer programming, game theory, film, and any number of fields, disciplines, theories, etc. that I certainly forgot (I'm sure someone will remind me). Expectation of common understanding is not only unrealistic, but ultimately detrimental to the field; of course, this point was made more forcefully by Nick in his simple contrast of Combat and Air-Sea Battle.

In that spirit, I'd like offer some thoughts about the use of form, especially in the context of form from a literary perspective, and how it is useful in the context of game studies. In his reaction to the Princeton conference, Jesper Juul rightly points to the history of structuralism as one possible concern when discussing aesthetic objects in terms of "rules, structure, or definitions":

This is the history that makes a lot of people automatically assume that if anybody talks about rules, structure, or definitions, they must be ignoring the experiences of the user. But the problem is that while this to a large extent is true with literature or film - if you reduce a novel to a semiotic square, almost everything interesting is lost - it is completely wrong when it comes to games.

Yet theories of structuralism and attention to form are not the same thing. Formal analysis may be a component of structuralist thought (certain Russian formalism was an influence), but the study of form is not bound to structuralism. A semiotic square is an interpretative tool - a device that has also been criticized for its lack of attention to cultural contexts as well as potential bias on the part of the user. Using a semiotic square (a critic's tool) is entirely different than examining the formal attributes of a work. Formal choices are sometimes (but not always) at least in part decisions made in the creative process. We should distinguish between noting that a poem is a sonnet (the form is a creative choice) and using a semiotic square to (as Jameson does) provide a reading of Dicken's Hard Times (a critical model).

Obviously, issues of form and theory are not so easily reduced to questions of creative forethought and critical afterthought, but it is an inaccurate assertion that attention to form necessarily reduces novels (or any other literary text or object of critical study) to a point where "everything interesting is lost" and necessarily ignores the experience of the user. Formal analysis is a long standing component of careful literary interpretation. Attention to poetic form helps shape a clearer understanding of a most common reading; a sonnet, for example, leaves clear markers as to how a reader would *most likely* encounter the text. Departures from the norms of the form call attention to the variants and encourage close scrutiny. The use of a particular form also roots the text within a social, literary, and historical context. This kind of thing is the bread and butter methodology of any number of literature sub-fields and especially of textual studies.

Ultimately, I would assert that texts are - at least in part - rule based systems. This is not to say that all texts share the same rules or that all aesthetic objects might be accounted by a single semiotic system; both assertions would also be inaccurate (see Nelson Goodman's Language of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols as an example of a worthy, yet unsuccessful attempt towards such a system). Reading a codex is an operation in perhaps one of the most commonplace and commonly accepted rule-based systems in place today. Books are literary machines, a technology of reading developed and made familiar over hundreds of years. Claims that books are without rules as just as suspect as the claims that computers and their texts are immaterial. Matt Kirschenbaum's recent talk at the Library of Congress, where he dramatically drew upon both textual studies and advanced forensics, was a fascinating rebuttal to such assertions. Textual studies, with its history of exploring variant readings and texts, reception histories, detailing formal attributes of works, and its theories of materiality and contextual history, is just one of many other critical antecedents to the project of a formal analysis for games (and, though I didn't get a chance to read it when it was online, Nick M.'s conference paper seems to be very much in this vein).

Film theory also relies heavily on the analysis of form in order to assert viewer experience and interpretation, including attention to particular shots (establishing, long, close-up, etc.), montage (relationship between shots), motion, angle, lighting, etc. Attention to such form only enhances, rather than detracts from, an interpretation of a film. Understanding film form is a key component to our collective visual literacy, which is in turn one component (again, of many) that informs the design of some games. Certainly, these formal terms are heavily invested with theoretical assertions; it should be a tacit understanding that formal terms are neither static nor without cultural and historical weight.

Acknowledging indebtedness to critical roots is not the same as being bound to them (assuming theories have boundaries anyway). And part of the value in exploring the relationships between (so-called) "old" and "new" media rests in what may be one of the most powerful arguments for our discipline - instead of applying old theories to new, the study of the "new" might just reveal some misconceptions, corrections, or interpretations of the "old."

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The Politics of Information

The Politics of Information, edited by Marc Bousquet and Katherine Wills, is available at ebr

Contributors include Charles Bernstein, Bennett Voyles, DeeDee Halleck, Fran Ilich, Bruce Simon, Mark Amerika, Katherine Wills, David Golumbia, Tiziana Terranova, Nick Dyer-Witheford, John Monberg, Matt Kirschenbaum, Donna Haraway, Lisa Nakamura, Mark Poster, Kembrew McLeod, Caren Irr, Tara McPherson, Anne-Marie Schleiner, Paul Collins, Harvey Molloy, Marc Bousquet, Ken Saltman, Timothy W. Luke, Stephanie Tripp, Katie King, Laura L. Sullivan, Susan Schreibman, Chris Carter, Gregory Ulmer, and Victor Vitanza.

Lots of familiar names in there, including people I've worked with at UMD: Matt K, Susan Schreibman, Katie King.

Makes me wish my Gameboy could also function as a PDA so I could read this on the Metro.

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Not only are "millions of cicadas are expected to infest the nation's capital and parts of Maryland and Virginia this spring," a swarm that "bug experts say ... will be of biblical proportions" (that's rather daunting, eh?), but school administrators are talking about removing nap time from Pre-K school.


"They can't be babied," Seabrook Principal Marvel Smith said. "These are young minds. We have to take advantage of this early stage when they grasp everything."

Makes you want to move to Sedna.

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March 10, 2004

Game Over (UPN)

Game Over, UPN's animated show about what happens when you turn that console off, premiers this evening at 8 pm. Voice actors include Lucy Liu (of Ally McBeal and Charlie's Angels fame), Patrick Warburton (from Seinfeld), and Rachel Dratch (of SNL).

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March 5, 2004

Year's Best Headlines

I tend not to pass along joke emails, usually because they aren't terribly funny, but I thought this one better than the norm. Enjoy.


  • Crack Found on Governor's Daughter
  • Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says
  • Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
  • Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
  • Is There a Ring of Debris around Uranus?
  • Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
  • Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
  • Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
  • Miners Refuse to Work after Death
  • Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
  • War Dims Hope for Peace
  • If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile
  • Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
  • Enfield (London) Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
  • Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
  • Man Struck By Lightning Faces Battery Charge
  • New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
  • Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
  • Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
  • Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
  • Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
  • Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
  • Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead

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