Pocket Lint #6: in the dark

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Georgina Henry obituary
I was privileged to work with George, albeit briefly, and she will be very much missed.

How colleges flunk mental health
“Colleges are very accustomed to accommodating learning and physical disabilities, but they don’t understand simple ways of accommodating mental health disabilities”

Climate change is happening, now, and could lead to global conflict
“Delay is dangerous. Inaction could be justified only if we could have great confidence that the risks posed by climate change are small. But that is not what 200 years of climate science is telling us. The risks are huge.”

Good Samaritan backfires
Arrested and detained naked in a solitary psych cell after calling an ambulance to help injured cyclists.

The rise of the Facebook truthers
“Something about Facebook makes journalists lose their minds. How else to explain the seemingly unending procession of stories based on wild speculation and implausible conspiracy theories?”

Unnecessary surgeries to correct male babies
“In contemporary American culture, much is still demanded of “real men”: To be commanding and composed. To be courageous and chivalrous. To be rugged, strong, and low-voiced. And to be able to pee standing up.”

Listen to the purring, electromagnetic weirdness of mushrooms

Our Flappy Dystopia
“We, as global, national, and artistic communities, justify a lot of shitty things on the premise of making money. This industry justifies sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression because of some unwritten right to make money. Why can’t we have equal representation of minorities in our media? Because someone wants to make money.”

Tumblr of the week: Flappy Bird Think Pieces

Free games of the week, Flappy Bird edition: Flappybalt; Maverick Bird; 171 other Flappy Jam games

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Pocket Lint #5: snowsight

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The Empathy Exams: deep, long read from a medical actor. Anything I say here will under-sell it.
“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response.”

What snow tells us about creating better public spaces

Poverty in academia (and other places)
“If we are a collection of our experiences, can you imagine how difficult it can be then to sit in polite conversation and try and engage about childhood holidays, where you learned so ski, and how to fit orchestra practice in around your job?”

The power of Flappy Bird
“Finally, and most importantly, we should learn once and for all that we will never really know what ‘the people’ want. The screenwriter and novelist William Goldman famously suggested that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything.” The success of Flappy Bird is above all a reminder that this maxim is as true in game development as it is in movie making.”

In defense of Twitter feminism
“In a world where the voices of white middle-class heterosexual men and women are privileged, it is striking that Twitter, one of the few spaces that allows for counternarratives and resistance, is now facing a barrage of criticism.”

A linguistic analysis of the language of doge.

Game openings are important
What’s wrong with the first 300 seconds of Bioshock Infinite

FLUSHED!, a zine exploring the intersection of gaming and toilets, is out now. Go get it.

A newsgames hackathon is happening in May. If you’re like me you might want to apply.

Tumblr of the week: Deep Dark Fears

Free game of the week: Candy Match Forever

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Dungeon Keeper may be a bad game, but it’s still a game

Reading this review of the new, free to play Dungeon Keeper mobile game in the Metro, I was struck by this quote:

We were going to refer to Dungeon Keeper as a non-game, but that’s not really accurate. It’s an anti-game. It is purposefully designed not to require thought, skill, or experimentation. Instead it rewards only money and, begrudgingly, patience.

And later, this:

But it doesn’t really matter what you play. Whether it’s the violent anarchy of GTA V, the dramatic splendour of The Last Of Us, or the joyful invention of Super Mario 3D World. Just play a video game, a real video game, and help stop these hateful anti-games from spreading their poison any further.

Specifically, I’m struck by the similarity in rhetoric used to attack Dungeon Keeper, and that used to attack other games – particularly Twine games, Gone Home, interactive fiction-ish games – based on their differences from “real video games”. The Metro’s far from the only place where this type of language crops up: just from a quick search, it’s in the comments on Pocket Gamer and Kotaku, and it comes up in Eurogamer’s review:

It’s always tempting to write this sort of free-to-play title off by saying it’s not really a game, and in a lot of ways it isn’t. But it’s Dungeon Keeper, and every now and then you see enough of that game to feel nostalgic, before it vanishes again behind a 24-hour cool down timer.

And there’s this from the Escapist:

I’m a big defender of most games – even ones I hate – when somebody says they’re “not a game.” The accusation of something not being a game is a blinkered and often weak form of noncommittal criticism. In the case of Dungeon Keeper, however, I can find no defense. It isn’t a game. It’s a cynically fabricated cash delivery system.

Exploitative game mechanics are still part of games. Games that cynically monetise the pants off their players are still games. We can’t No True Scotsman our way out of this one any more than we can those other games that most of the games community doesn’t like. “Not a game” is not a criticism, unless you think games can only be good.

Yes, Dungeon Keeper is a game. It’s OK to say it’s a bad game. It’s OK to say you don’t like time-gating and artificially preventing play and £69.99 consumable IAPs, it’s OK to say you don’t want to – or shouldn’t – pay for this kind of thing, it’s even OK to say it’s exploitative and unpleasant and that games like this are bad for their players and for the industry. It’s OK to be critical of a game while still acknowledging that it’s a game that can be, that is, played; it’s OK to say that games, this medium you love, are not always perfect and contain bad things and even do bad things, without needing to push those things outside the medium entirely. It’s astonishing how hard that seems to be for some mainstream games writers to do.

Pocket Lint #4: edgewise

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email you can sign up here or using the form below. I promise not to spam you. Sometimes there are special bonuses for people who get the email. Today it’s excellent cookie recipes, which I can’t currently eat.

When mainstream media is the lunatic fringe
“Mainstream media cruelty is actually more dangerous, for it sanctions behavior that, were it blogged by an unknown, would likely be written off as the irrelevant ramblings of a sociopath. Instead, the prestige of old media gives bigoted ranting respectability. Even in the digital age, old media defines and shapes the culture, repositioning the lunatic fringe as the voice of reason.”

Davos to Detention: Why I hate coming home to America
“The last four times I’ve traveled abroad (to Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and Switzerland), Homeland Security has detained me upon arrival.  It’s as frustrating as it is ironic, because although in Arabic my name, Ahmed, means, “blessed,” each time I land at JFK airport, I can’t help but feel somewhat cursed.”

It is expensive to be poor
“If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.”

How long have I got left?
Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.

Readme files in game mods: a feminist perspective

Unfinishable games
Let’s stop pretending that “done” is an aspirational state.

List of animals with fraudulent diplomas. Related: Sir Nils Olav, via @mildlydiverting

The Bloodbath of B-R5RB
The tale of the largest and most destructive battle in gaming history.

Downworthy, a browser plugin to moderate hyperbolic headlines

Tumblr of the week: Dimly-lit Meals For One

Free game of the week: Chancery Lane – analogue board-game Mornington Crescent

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Making Horde, and stalling

Last November, I started telling a few people about a new game I’m making. It’s called Horde, and it’s very much an experiment. It started out as a proof-of-technology for a different project, which I want to work in a very specific way; I wanted to see if I could get Twine to do certain things with loops and time-based variables, and to use a different project to learn. Something that would give me a tangible thing to play and to work on, while also learning new skills.

But as it grew and got more ambitious, Horde started to make sense in its own right. It’s an incremental game, a sort of text-based Cookie Clicker, in which you build a horde of barbarians and send them out on increasingly peculiar errands. It’s a tricky thing to build, mechanically, especially if you’ve got no experience of coding, but macros and new features in Twine make it possible to build this sort of thing on the shoulders of work done by other excellent people who know what they’re doing.

So I put it up as an alpha build. And suddenly people were playing it and telling me about it – giving me incredibly useful bug reports that helped me sort out some tricky problems, but also suggesting new avenues for development, giving me ideas, being excited about what was coming next.

That’s an incredible feeling, by the way. It’s a gift, when people play your unfinished work and give you thoughtful responses. Not all the feedback is always useful but the fact that anyone cares enough to offer it is a sign of support for what you’re doing, and that was enough to tell me that Horde is worth carrying on with, worth trying to turn into something finished, or at least vaguely feature-complete. (Whatever that means.)

I started putting up a new build every week, or trying to. I started making sure that I gave it a little time, a couple of hours at the weekend or an evening, and that time started to expand. I put up little incremental tweaks, and then a few bigger updates, and then found myself rewriting it to make the coding less weird and icky now that I understood more about what I was doing. Then, in the middle of an attempt to make a particularly sticky system, in a problem to which there’s no right answer that will make it work perfectly how I want it to, I hit a wall.

I stalled. I’m still stalled, a month later. I hit a page full of red errors, and instead of trying to fix it, I walked away. I’m not massively proud of that reaction. All that work is still there – all those hours I’ve poured into it have made a solid base to build on – but I hit a problem that felt insurmountable and as yet I’ve not managed to pull it apart into small enough chunks to work on.

Learning to code is hard, especially when you have no directed support; learning anything around the edges of a more-than-full-time, stressful and pressured job is even more difficult. Creating things when you spend a substantial part of your work day creating is tricky, too. Tiredness creeps in. Things distract you. Often, and perfectly legitimately, it’s quite nice to stop working, even when that work is self-chosen and self-directed.

But I can find time, or I can make time, if it’s what I really care about. That’s always been true. Horde is something I care about making, even though it’s a very silly game and a draftwork, because enough other people thought it was worth playing and talking about. Hopefully by this time next week it’ll be at least a couple more hours closer to completion. Even if that’s all, that’s a start.

Defending the indefensible

Today it became clear that in the course of a work-related Facebook conversion IndieStatik founder Josh Mattingly decided to ask a female game developer if he could kiss her vagina. And some other things that she decided she didn’t feel comfortable sharing.

Mattingly has apologised, which is a good call, to say the least. He says he’s going to get started on AA and therapy, which is great. It’s awful that his mental health issues have contributed to him harassing someone, and it’s entirely excellent that he’s taking responsibility for it and using it as a wake-up call to get help.

But away from his personal response, there’s been an unhappy sideline on Twitter today, with David Jaffe as its poster boy, in questioning the developer’s behaviour, and asking why she didn’t ‘shut him down’ or tell him, confrontationally, to stop before he escalated. Why she ‘let’ him make more than one crude sexual comment. Implying that it’s somehow her fault for not stopping him, rather than his fault for continuing; implying that silence is consent.

This is bullshit.

I wrote last week about how online harassment is a professional issue – how when people abuse minorities online they are often doing so in a professional context, not merely a personal one. McWilliams was in a professional space here, talking to a professional contact; the idea that she could confront him with absolutely no repercussions for herself is a cosy and pleasant one, but not necessarily a realistic one.

Even if it were, the idea that there’s a ‘right way’ to respond to abuse like this is completely wrong-headed. A lot of interactions with harassers turn unbelievably ugly when they’re called on their harassment. Ignoring it and maintaining a calm front can be the best way of de-escalating. Not everyone is happy or comfortable with showing that they’re upset to someone who’s potentially trying to upset them in order to get a thrill. Blocking is not always an option, especially in a professional context. And – let’s be clear – the point at which anyone would have to resort to blocking or shutting down is the point at which the harasser has already crossed the line. No response of any kind is going to negate that.

Mental health issues don’t excuse you from behaving well towards other people. A lot of people live with depression without sending people unpleasant messages (hi!). Depression doesn’t absolve you from responsibility, and it certainly doesn’t turn this situation around to put McWilliams in the wrong. Mattingly seems to be trying to own his actions and apologise. The people who’ve tried to defend him by attacking his victim’s responses should probably follow his lead.

Pocket Lint #2

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The problem with “do what you love”
“According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

The Names They Gave Me
“Thank you for my name, mama.”

Drowning in money
“Instead of a steady flow sustained around the year by trees in the hills, by sensitive farming methods, by rivers allowed to find their own course and their own level, to filter and hold back their waters through bends and braiding and obstructions, we get a cycle of flood and drought. We get filthy water and empty aquifers and huge insurance premiums and ruined carpets. And all of it at public expense.”

Before and after
The slow and gradual process of gender transition, and how different that reality is from the crisp, sharply delineated “before and after” photos that are the common image.

The Naked Twine Game Jam
46 Twine games made over a weekend without using CSS modifications or Javascript.

Gun Home: the ultimate Gone Home DLC

Turning normal experiences of motherhood into depression
“Dr Spock told a generation of women that they didn’t need to learn how to look after their babies, that it was instinctive and that they knew more than they thought they did. He was completely wrong. ”

What Google knows about you
“We know Google collects the data. But what they do with the data we don’t exactly know. They might be using it for the best or the worst. Pessimists will think the latter, optimists will think Google will use it to build new great stuff for us which will make our lives better. Probably both are right.”

25 things a great character needs
Helpful advice for writers, especially number 17

Tumblr of the week: Cute animals, bad dates

Free game of the week: Catlateral Damage, a first person cat simulator

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Play requires consent

For any game to be a game, to work as play, it requires consent. Everyone has to agree to play, as individuals, and then collectively (or individually) agree the rules by which you’ll play, and the boundaries on the experience – the things that aren’t in the game, as well as the things that are.

You learn this, running live games or even tabletop ones. Playing with other people requires consent from all the participants, in the same way that sex does, and if it’s withdrawn then play with that person has to end. At live events we even set up safe words, ways to stop the fantasy and reassert the real world – we’ve always used “STOP THE GAME” shouted as loud as you can, for the avoidance of doubt – and that’s not just a safety call for injuries. It’s also a “get me out of here”, an “I’m not OK with this”, a withdrawal of consent.

In tabletop games, or at least ones with a good group that might touch on dark themes, it’s pretty common to have a quick discussion of hard limits up front. Some people are fine with body horror in their tabletop play, other people just don’t want to go there during pretendy fun time. Some people are terrified of spiders. Some people don’t want in-character relationships. It’s all fine, as long as you negotiate your boundaries up front and don’t make assumptions. (Sometimes you only find out where your boundaries are in the middle of a game, and that’s OK too. That’s when you step out.)

A fair few videogames forget that consent can be withdrawn, or assume that the act of picking up a controller is consent to anything that happens while playing. They forget to set out their boundaries in advance; they don’t signal strongly enough that this or that theme will come up in play and if that’s a problem you might not want to play on. I’ve yet to see a non-text-based videogame that acknowledges scenes players might not want to participate in, warns them ahead of time and lets them skip those scenes specifically without having to just stop playing altogether.

There’s interesting variations on the rule-setting elements of consent in things like permadeath playthroughs, speed runs, cheats and exploits. Some are players adding extra levels of rules for themselves, defining the experience more tightly than the game does; others are players implicitly trying to break the game’s own defined experience – effectively trying to do things the game itself doesn’t consent to. (Except that by virtue of not being sentient, games can’t consent.)

And there are interesting game spaces springing up in which consent is a serious issue. DayZ and Rust are games in which you can not just die but be taken prisoner, have your avatar’s actions dictated by players, and be put in situations to which you have not consented. The tale of a player imprisoned in Rust is funny, sure, but it’s also something they haven’t consented to. It’s only fun as long as you’re happy to go along with it, within the experience you want to have. It stops being fun, it stops being play, the minute you as a human being want out.

A few videogames that are played in group settings or party spaces sometimes run into problems; I’ve been witness to sessions of Johann Sebastian Joust, for example, in which people not playing were used as obstacles, or otherwise drawn into the game. That leads to issues, sometimes. The boundaries between player and not-player aren’t always as clear as who’s holding the controller, and one player assuming consent to play from a not-player who doesn’t want to can get tricky. It’s irritating at best.

But the worst culprits for failing to understand that play requires consent are not really game creators at all. Gamification in the workplace, which is still around and still annoying me, takes the idea of playful activity and participation and makes it compulsory. By removing the ability to refuse your consent you remove a player’s ability to play. Meta-game mechanics (note: none of these are actual game mechanics) like points, scoreboards, achievements and so on rely on a playable game to function in the game world. Without play, an achievement is not anything like a game, in the same way that an exam certificate is not anything like a game. It’s all just work, which you must now do while you’re smiling.

Pocket Lint: interesting links, by email if you’d like

Pocket Lint is an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, inspired by Roo’s Letter and the weekly ritual of going through all my saved links in Pocket and clearing them out on a Friday. And by the fact that lots of the links I’d normally tweet during UK hours are now happening during Australian ones, and some folks I used to provide that service for might like it if it came back in some form. So this will be a hopefully-weekly pick of the best of my saved links, featuring interesting things on the loose themes of journalism, games, social justice, news and internet culture. As an experiment, I’m also turning it into a regular email: you can sign up here or using the form below if you’re interested. I promise not to spam you.

Why we should give free money to everyone
“Studies from all over the world drive home the exact same point: free money helps. Proven correlations exist between free money and a decrease in crime, lower inequality, less malnutrition, lower infant mortality and teenage pregnancy rates, less truancy, better school completion rates, higher economic growth and emancipation rates.”

A tale of two trolls
Two people were convicted of sending threatening tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez this week; Helen Lewis looks at what their different stories and circumstances say about online abuse more broadly.

How Buzzfeed mastered social sharing
Long Wired feature on the rise of Buzzfeed and its analytical approach to making things go viral

Headlines Against Humanity
Spot the fake clickbait headlines. Harder than you’d think.

The myth of the free market in American healthcare
“If everyone in the U.S. was on Medicare, the savings would move the federal budget from deficit to surplus.”

Reading and hypothesis
On story, backstory, narrators (reliable or otherwise) and interactive fiction, and how they relate to Gone Home. Spoilers ahoy.

Kids Won’t Listen
Why teenage girls are sick of articles about teenage girls written by grown-up men.

Not-games of the year
“There have been plenty of great Game of the Year lists over the last month or so, and I don’t feel like I need to add to them, a week into the new year. Instead I’m going to write about things that weren’t games, but which felt like they could inspire them; the experiences I had and things I saw that I want to think hard about this year.”

“I want all games to have more needless buttons.”

Despite the castration, it’s been a good year A 2004 look at Christmas circulars from sketch writer and journalist Simon Hoggart, who died this week.

Room of 1000 Snakes (Requires Unity web player.)

Tumblr of the week: Movie Code Free game of the week: Looming (because I’ve been playing it this week, not because it’s new)

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You can now pay money for Detritus. This is why

Detritus screenshot showing text, a link and the Westfield tower in SydneyI’ve put Detritus up on itch.io, a service that lets you distribute digital games and ask for payment. It also lets you set a zero minimum payment, so you can pay what you want but also access it for free.

I thought about this one for a while. Detritus isn’t a hugely popular game, but it’s been played by a few hundred people now. I made it as a way to learn, and it turned out far better than I expected. I spent many hours writing it, coding it, making it work.

A lot of other people do the same things with their games, but they’re not in the fortunate position I am. I can afford not to care whether I get paid for my digital games right now. But most people can’t.

I want to contribute to a community where people don’t feel pressured to give away their work for free. I don’t write for free for anyone but myself, even though I’m not in need of freelance income, because I refuse to undercut freelancers who do need the work. I certainly wouldn’t do strategy, production, SEO or social work for free. I have a tiny, miniscule amount of power to take a stance that says: it is OK to charge for your work, your art, your time, your skills, your expertise.

So Detritus is on itch.io. You don’t have to pay for it, because I don’t need the money. But it should be possible to pay for it, it should be understood that this is a thing that is worth money, because small games by small creators are worth money and worth paying for. If you’d like to donate what you think it’s worth, or share it with your friends, the link is here.