Thursday, 17 April 2014

Factories of Nothing.
Yesterday night I was very tired working on my Russian test. I needed to rest a little, so I went in the kitchen, looking for a beer. I found the beer and my flatmate too. After a few chatter he showed me this:

Such beauty! Oh, marvelous factory of nothing made out of Lego, I would stare at you for all the night (instead that studying Russian)! I started to imagine an u/dis-topic future in which Lego will become the fundamental resource of humanity. Houses, cars, computers, all made of Lego. All integrable, upgradeable and mixable! Maybe the Lego shoes can be problematic (not to mention the Lego underwear), but who cares this would be an incredible technological breakthrough! There would be no garbage, because the package of your food can become the upgrade of your car or, if you eat a lot, a new floor for your house. Old Lego could be melted and forged into new Lego in an happy circle of wealth and economic growth! After the American dream we could live the Legoland dream. So let's sing it all together: <Everything is awesome!>...
N7: the Lord is my Shepard.

The Heildelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet has just released a special issue on videogames and religion. One article immediately draw my attention: Joshua and Ita Irizarry's The Lord is My Shepard; Confronting Religion in the Mass Effect Trilogy.
I have a strong emotional link with Mass Effect, that I should explain before going on. Five years ago (or maybe six?) I was at my best friend house and he proposed me to try the last video game he has bought: Mass Effect. I've played less than an hour, but I truly loved it and I decided that I needed it. However it was impossible: I had not the money to buy a computer good enough to play it (my old PC was coughing dust like a locomotive) and I was leaving my home and country for an year of Erasmus, an year that become much longer. Long story short this summer I at last had a new PC f(wedding present) and, as my friend had already bought me the whole trilogy an year before, I finally started to play my beloved Shepard. In all those years I kept in mind her face and history in order to restore her as she was mean to be (yes, my Shepard is a female). In two months I've finished the series and I was in total depression because of the ending.

Now, about this article on ME and religion, I've to say that it is quite enjoyable. It doesn't say anything definitive, but it is really good at tracing any reference to religion in the trilogy, implicit and explicit and it presents a good review of a lot of players' opinions on different issues of the game. I will not make a resume here: even if a bit long it is a really reader-friendly and I'm sure you will enjoy reading it. I have although to make a “Spoiler Alert!” if you did not play the game don't read the paper!

Spoiler Alert! Here the link:

You should probably also stop reading this post, because from now on we will speak about the ending of the trilogy... Do you copy? Ok, let's move on.

The last part of the article, my favorite, focuses on the conclusion of the trilogy and on the very negative response that most of the players had towards it. The paper analyze the “Indoctrination Theory” and wonder if, in fact, the end of the trilogy wasn't that bad, after all, but a sum of all the issues of the game. What if Shepard has finally been indoctrinated and can't complete her mission anymore? What if after years of fighting for free will she will chose to become a Reaper herself or simply to create a bionic galaxy of enslaved peace?
This theory is good enough to answer the criticism about the ending being flat, but I think that it's something else that deeply bothered the players.

Me too, like most of the players, felt quite bad at the end of the trilogy. And I played the better possible ending, I mean, I had the extended cut and Shepard eventually survived! So why was I so deceived? While depressed I was intrigued by my own emotional response and I started to wonder a lot about it.
To understand this deception we have to answer an other question: What's the most involving ans enjoyable feature of ME? In my opinion it is not the fighting, nor the story. They are both great, really great, but that's not it.
It is the social relationships. In Mass Effect NPCs becomes true friends. The player spends a lot of time to talk with them, to protect them, to help them or even to simply listen to them. After every single mission he spends half an hour walking up and down the Normandy, just to be sure that he didn't miss any line from none of them. And, then, when he finally opens the galactic map, he stops and wonder: “did I spoke with Joker?”. He curses, he closes the map and he starts again his tour.
When you play ME the hardest decisions to make are always involving your friends. All the geth will die? Who cares! But wait... you mean... Legion too? Not him, I like him! Not Legion! Let make peace with the geth than... Maybe we can wipe out those bloody quarians, I've never liked them. But... what will Tali think of me if I genocide her race? Oh, bloody hell, I'll have to save the quarians to...
That's how the game works. Those NPCs become really your friends. You know them, you love them. You know exactly what Garrus would say if he was here with you. You know how Liara would laugh at your joke or how bad Joker would dance at your party (almost worse than you, Shepard).
My friend told me that, even if he played the game a dozen times he was never able to kill Wrex. Every time he thought he should, just to see all the different possibilities, and every time he looked his friend in the eyes and couldn't shot.

In London, Shepard has the occasion to say goodbye to all of them, before her last mission. But when the game ends, you don't. You would like to be able to talk to them one last time, even if you have to die, to tell Liara that she will live long enough to find someone else to do blue daughters with, to tell Garrus and Tali that you wish them the brightest future together, to hug Joker and tell him that you are so sorry for Edi but that there was no other way. But you can't.
After the end I felt quite bad for a couple of days, missing my ME friends. Than I found a solution. I'm no programmer but, hey, I have a brain and a good imagination. I closed my eyes and saw a monitor with an electrocardiogram beepping constantly. Liara was near the bed and Dr. Chakwas arrived in an hurry:
<She's waking up> Liara said.
Shepard opened her big black eyes. She had some nasty scars, but you could still recognize her. She immediately looked at Liara and the asari started to cry.

My own ending took half an hour and happened all in my mind, but, well, after that I felt damn good.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

How to: Game Design.
Do you want to know how to create your own board game? Well, our favorite Geek found it out turning the game designer Andrea Chiarvesio in a comic!
Follow the link below:

Monday, 14 April 2014

Magic Circles.
Of the Special Issue on selected articles from Nordic DIGRA 2012 I particularly appreciated the article “In defense of a Magic Circle” by Jaakko Stenros (he is also one of the authors of a book on pervasive games that I enjoyed very much). In this article he investigate the concept of “Magic Circle” an expression widely used and abused when talking about Play.
I won't here summarize all the article (if you are interested you should read it, follow the link below), but rather focus on some of the conclusions.
Stenros hit the middle of the question when he says that “Magic Circle” is often used to indicate indiscriminately three very different things:
- The mindset necessary in order to play;
- The social contract between players that allow play to exist;
- The material space and time of the game.
Starting from Huizinga, the author trace the use of this term through the history of game and play studies, and in the end try to clarify, and define the three different kinds of Magic Circles.
The first one is the Psychological Bubble, theorized by Michael J. Apter who wrote:
In play, we seem to create a small and manageable private world which we may, of course, share with others; and this world is one in which, temporary at least, nothing outside has any significance, and into which the outside world of real problems cannot properly impinge. If the ‘real world’ does enter in some way, it is transformed and sterilized in the process so that it is no longer truly itself, and can do no harm
Apter, M. J (1991) “A structural-phenomenology of play.” In J.H. Kerr &
M.J. Apter (eds): Adult Play: A Reversal Theory Approach, Swets
& Zeitlinger, Amsterdam.

The second one is the Magic Circle of Play that is, according to Stenros: “the social contract that is created through implicit or explicit social negotiation and metacommunication in the act of playing”.

Ant the third one is the Arena that is “a temporal, spatial or conceptual site that is culturally recognized as a rule-governed structure for ludic action” such as the recreation time at school, the chessboards or a stadium.

Personally the one that I find more fascinating is the first one. I've always been amazed by what happens in our mind, or even better in a child mind, when we suddenly exit from the real world to dive in the world of play. There is a sort of click in our mind and suddenly we are tuned to another universe.

Yet I don't like very much the image of the “bubble”. A bubble is always in tension and extremely fragile: once a bubble explodes it cannot be recreated. Additionally being in a bubble means that the player should be completely separated from reality, when in reality is quite the opposite, the player continuously fluctuates between reality and play, without ever being in the one or in the other. More than a “bubble” thus, I see it as an endless repetition of concentric waves of playfulness that risignify, or risemantise, the world around the player.

I watched Lego The Movie with absolutely no expectations. Oh, yes, I used to love playing with my legos as a child (well, not only as a child to be honest) but the movie? Whats the point?
Films inspired by videogames doesn't work very well, in general, and film from boardgames doesn't work at all! How could a film on toys work? Ok, Toy Story come out pretty good, but it was about toys not on some real-life toys. What story could they tell?
I watched the movie anyway, in part out of curiosity, in part because I wanted to write an article about it despite its quality.
The film starts with some weird Lego guys in a fantasy-like world arguing about fake prophecies. One of them doesn't even look like a real Lego. Ok, I told myself, two hours will be spoiled. Then the scene is set in the utopic society of Lego City, in which anyone is happy and work happily all day singing the last pop tube “Everything is awesome”. And it is, awesome. It was one of the cruelest parodies of today society that I've seen in a long time, focusing on politics, media and society. It portraits a world governed by President Business in which dumb TV shows and smart agenda setting avoid people to think, or understand, too much. A strong dose of pop music, always the same song, makes everybody happy.
That's not a movie for children, not even for every adult in fact. The story turn out to be about the struggle between anarchy and order in the Lego worlds, between who follow the instructions and who prefers creativity. It's far deeper that I thought and it was really enjoyable on different levels.

And, of course, there is another thing. One of the characters was exactly the firs lego that I ever owned when I was like six years old. The space pilot, with the suit completely blue and the broken helmet without visor, identical to my memories. You can't ignore him when an old friend appears on the screen, something happens. I think the authors were pretty good in finding references shared between any Lego player, e.g. the relics, the objects that inevitably are lost in your Lego box, like coins, elastics or patches, or the very dark gray bricks that you're forced to use when you run out of black ones.
Now, if you excuse me, I have to go in the cellar looking for some of my old friends...
The Place of Art among other Modeling Systems.
Between Semiotics and Game Studies it had been a love at first sight. Different scholars used Pierce or Greimas, Eco or Morris to approach videogames and playfulness. Then come the struggle between narratologists and ludologists and Game Studies grew more and more independent and mediacentric. But for someone, as my-self, who want to approach play and games in a wider way semiotics is still the better tool to do it.
Between the forefathers of semiotics one stands alone, forgotten by the games scholars: Jurij Lotman. Even if the Russian scholar was passionate of cybernetics he never wrote anything on videogames, but he did wrote something on play. The title of his article is kind of misleading: “the Place of Art between other Modeling Systems”, where is play in all this? Well, in fact most of the 1967 article is exactly about play, that for Lotman is the simultaneous assumption of a conventional (thus fictional) behavior and a practical (thus real) one. Play as half-real than, as Jasper Juul said some decade later!

I found this article very interesting (far more because I was expecting some boring talk about art...) and therefore I warmly suggest to read it to any semionerd!

G|A|M|E call for papers, only few days left.
The deadline of the call for paper for the 4th issue of GAME (the Italian Journal of Game Studies): “Re-framing videogames in the light of cinema” is in the beginning of May.
Here the link, what are you waiting for? ;)

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Two weeks ago a colleague, here in Tartu, invited me to play some card-games together. It isn't simple to find fellow gamers, and when it happens you immediately grasp the opportunity.
This colleague is madly in love with card-games He owns two thousand cards of Star Wars the Card Game, hundreds of Netrunner cards, a dozen of other card-games like Lord of The Rings the Card Game and Call of Chtulu and, of course, something like twelve millions of Magic the Gathering Cards. All this in a dozen of different languages. In my wildest dreams I imagine to shuffle all this cards and play an endless, multi-front game on a table of 20 meters long. With a wheelchair to move more quickly.
Anyway, when I first visited my cardaholic colleague we played Netrunner, and I immediately fell in love with this game. I don't know it enough to say that it is perfect, but I adored both its setting and its gameplay.

©Fantasy Flight Games

The gameplay is quite original because it is an asymmetric game. The two players have different cards, different strategies and different objectives.
On the one hand one play the Runner, an hacker who steal information and escapes the law. If you play the runner you need to steal cards from your opponent, installing software, gaining credits to pay for new hardware and so on.
On the other hand if you play the corporation your goal is to advance enough agendas in order to win. You have to conceal and protect them with ICE: dangerous programs that attack the intruders. If the runner has always to guess, the corporation's strategy is to lie and bluff.

Regarding the setting, it is a Cyberpunk game. As I teenager, out of curiosity, I bought Gibson's Neuromancer without knowing anything of it. The first sentence was love at first sight:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”
I mean, that's it, no need to read anything else. All the cyberpunk genre is concentrated in this incipit. A single metaphor incarnate all the melancholy of a world in which a futuristic, yet malfunctioning, technology is inscribed in the body of ordinary people. After Neuromancer came Burning Chrome, and then nothing was like before.
Even the film Johnny Mnemonic, so awfully bad that it's nearly terrorism, wasn't able to change my mind. And as an Italian I'm proud to mention Nirvana as my favorite cyberpunk movie, one of the last bright example of Italian cinema.
Well, when you play Netrunner you really feel like an hacker, trying to put together enough money to buy good hardware, hoping to avoid been tracked down by the corporations. You patiently install icebreakers and software to penetrate the secrets of the powerful corporation and to hide from the authorities. Run after run you struggle for a better world or just for some more zeros in your bank account.
If you play as a corporation, on the other hand, you start immediately to be paranoid, to obsessively protect everything you own with as much ICE as possible. You start thinking how to trap the hacker, how to burn his/her criminal brain. You bluff, you sidetrack and, when the moment come, you kill, merciless as market laws, and in your spacious office in a crystal tower you erupt in the typical laugh of every villain: “Bwahahahahahaha!”.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Geek Comics.
So there is this really good firend of mine (read: I barely know him) who tries to escape the sadness of everyday life pretending to be a cartoonist.
One of his series, my favourite, is called “the Geek” and it tells the dark path that brings a normal, random guy, to become a nerdy boardgamer with an unhealty feticism for wooden cubes.
As a nerdness infector myself I can't avoid sharing it... So read it, you fools!


Well, as I own his first-ever-made autographed drawing, if he becomes famous, I'll become rich.

Lotman & Me.
I'm spending a semester at Tartu University, so here my photo with their most eminent scholar. Founder of the Tartu-Moskow semiotic school and separated at birth twin of Albert Einstein, he's the inventor of Semiotics of Culture and the mind behind the idea of Semiosphere!