Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Getting what you wish for

Back in early July I wrote this post, basically bemoaning the fact that video games aren't 'taken seriously' by our culture. Since then some very serious things have happened in gaming (i.e. gamergate), and so one negative element of gaming has come to be taken a little more seriously, but that's not what I'm going to talk about today. I refrain from talking about gamergate primarily because I've yet to think of anything I have to add to the discussion that hasn't already been said - I do, of course, wholeheartedly condemn gamergate itself.

Today, I have something rather more optimistic to offer. I'm now part of the planning process for a university-level 'gaming and interactive media' course (title not final) within the University of Liverpool's School of the Arts (backstory: UoL is my alma mater and now my primary employer; I lecture and teach in the Department of Philosophy, part of the SotA). We had our first departmental discussion of possible modules/topics this morning, and I got clearance to engage in some informal public consultation.

This is exactly the kind of thing I was yearning for when I wrote that post back in July. It's not a technical course - we're not expecting to cover programming, hardware design etc. though we may build links to courses that will - but a cultural/humanities one. The process will put gaming closer to film, television, theatre, literature and so on in terms of serious cultural consideration.

But this is a very new field, and if we're clear about one thing so far it's that we're not clear about much. I'm looking for suggestions of issues that a course like this - a humanities course, one approaching games as cultural artefacts - could or should address. If you're a gamer (either in the sense of 'someone who plays games' or of 'someone who identifies primarily as a gamer') what would you like to see discussed?

Some issues are obvious; for example, there's no clear definition of 'a game' or 'a video game', and phenomena such as augmented reality gaming and the gamification of education make the definitional question profoundly interesting. There are complex issues relating to authorship within videogames, too; who is the author of a narrative which is directed as much by the player (the audience) of a game as its developers? And, given everything that has come to the surface over the last three months, it would be negligent not to discuss feminist critiques of games (along with other dimensions of privilege - race, sexuality, ability etc.).

Not everything need come under the banner of philosophy. Our School of the Arts includes Music, English, Architecture and Communications/Media Studies, and there's a joint meeting in three weeks' time where we'll all be putting things forward. Any suggestions you can offer for what we should cover will be most welcome.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Go watch this. It's not necessarily a perfect sociopolitical model (after all, it's only an 8-minute video), but it's an interesting idea. The claim is basically that automation means that very soon - in the next 20 years or so - no-one will need to work longer than 12-15 hours in a week (note: we're talking about a quite complex notion of 'need' and a conservative estimate of the effects of automation in that sentence - but there's nothing in that to render the claim implausible).

And once you've watched the video - probably well before the end, in fact - you'll immediately be able to hear in the back of your mind the voice of your current political leadership (at least in Britain and America) raising the following complaint:

'Without the incentive to work more and work harder, everyone will just sit around all day doing nothing!'

Now, anecdotes are not data, but I believe I can provide at least one counterexample to that objection. For the last two-and-a-half years (longer, depending on how you account it), I have been in the fortunate position of working an average of less than 15 hours a week, and having living costs small enough and a wage rate good enough to make ends meet.

In that time, I've completed a PhD (including all the thesis-writing and most of the specific research), written well over 300,000 words of original fiction (seasons 2 and 3 of The Second Realm, two NaNoWriMo projects and a handful of short stories/novellas), written and recorded an EP of original music (which you shouldn't listen to because it's terrible but no-one can say I didn't put effort into it), decorated half a house, and studied a huge amount of stuff about the world, from feminist discourse to critical history to the publishing industry.

Perhaps none of that sounds very worthwhile (because it didn't make me any money, perhaps? But then what did I need the money for, if my living expenses were met?), but even the most cynical person could not accuse me of inactivity. And, since all these activities are things I value, no-one could accuse me of not trying to better myself (whether or not you think I'm barking up the wrong tree in terms of what I value).

The other objection to my example would be to suggest that I'm in some way exceptional - that most people in my (again, extremely fortunate) position would not behave the same way. There are two possible responses to that. The first is to take the objection as claiming that I possess some rare intrinsic virtue of productivity - and anyone who's seen me on an off day can tell you immediately that this is a particularly stupid idea. I am possessed of no exceptional will or drive at all, only a rare freedom to express a very ordinary human will.

The second response is to take the objection as making a purely statistical claim, that there is a body of data from which I am the exception. The problem with this is that no such body of data exists - my circumstances are simply too rare. There are very few jobs on which you can make even as much as I do from as few hours as I work, and I have exceptionally low costs of living.

In fact, the only people who work less than I do for more money are the very heirs and old-money institutions most likely to be found making this argument in the first place. So if I am the exception, it suggests that they are, in fact, a bunch of lazy tossers. News to no-one, perhaps, but nice to have it confirmed in their own arguments...

Thursday, 6 November 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

(Disclaimer: contains shameless self-congratulation and bragging. You are under no obligation to read any further).

When I finished NaNoWriMo 2010 in a little under 8 days, I knew I could do better. I proved that in 2011, by bringing my personal best down to under 7 days. At that point, I foolishly opined that I could complete the 50k in five days, if I had them completely free. That would require me to be able to take time off work, though, which has not really been possible for financial reasons in the intervening time.

I improved my personal best again in 2012, to six days and fourteen hours, despite still having various professional commitments. Last year I was on track to better even that, but my chosen project ran into a thick tangle of character and theme issues which weren't fixable within a NaNoWriMo mindset (it would be fair to say, too, that I neither prepared well nor was quite as committed to it as my ambition required). Having thought at one point that I would break 6 days, I ended up finishing the 50k on the last day of the month, and then only by switching to another project altogether for the last 10-15k.

That actually gave my writing confidence quite a hit, and this year I've been going back and forth over whether to do NaNo. The biggest question was what project I was going to write; with the Second Realm over, I was having all kinds of trouble deciding what to work on next anyway, and choosing a project suited to the intensive, relatively research-and-planning-light NaNo process just made that question more difficult.

I settled on a plan whereby I'd only do NaNo if I could finish last year's project before November, so that I could get on with its sequel this year (that series remains almost uniquely suited to NaNo, as far as my ideas go). I failed utterly to get last year's project finished on time, though I did at least make some progress.

So I thought I wouldn't write something new for NaNo. I figured I could get on with one of the many bits of editing I need to do. Then I discovered that reading week for the courses I teach on falls this year on this week, the first week of NaNo. Since this entails not having to do anything this week for what this year is the much more significant of my jobs, I was gutted that I didn't have a proper NaNo project. I started to think about some way to make the 'edit things' plan more concrete.

Then life dropped another heavy hint. My current client for my other job turned out to be on a field trip from last Friday through this Wednesday (i.e. yesterday). Since that meant not seeing him until Friday of this week, the first week of November was now completely free. I gritted my teeth and tried to pretend I'd never bragged to myself that I could do it in five days if I had them completely free. I told myself I'd get through an entire editing pass on the season 1 collection of The Second Realm instead (no mean feat given that's currently around 125,000 words). I prepared accordingly.

And then the powers that be got sick of dropping hints altogether. I woke up on Thursday morning from a dream about the tail end of a horror movie scenario, the heroine finally escaping and burning down the haunted house, to realise that I had been given the seed of a new idea, well-tuned to address a theme I've been keen to address for some time.

Even then, I prevaricated somewhat, hemming and hawing over whether I had a setting I could write in, an ending I could write towards, a selection of characters which befitted this commitment. The muse, or whatever other vengeful god it is that sees to it we are required to make good on our outrageous boasting, obligingly answered my every question.

I wouldn't speak in such mystic terms, but seriously, it is sometimes pretty hard not to be superstitious. An entire novel plan fell into my lap in the space of about thirty hours right on the cusp of the best writing opportunity I've had in about three years.

So I wrote the damn thing. Well, in honesty, I wrote about half of it, padding frantically and egregiously. It's NaNo, there isn't time to stop and think about whether what you're writing really serves your final goals. The last day's progress included some pretty big I'm-definitely-editing-this-out-later moments; the main character's mother turned into an appauling comedic stereotype in the midst of an otherwise serious narrative about haunting and harassment, and I took a couple of thousand words to just tell a random unrelated ghost story mid-scene, for example.

But as of about 11:30 last night, I'd written my 50,000 words, in five days flat. Strangely, it's been physiologically the least debilitating NaNoWriMo I've ever done. I planned better, was careful to always get enough sleep, to take regular breaks, to make sure at least some of my snacks were healthy (cherry tomatoes are god's gift to the compulsive snacker). Today, apart from a slightly sore wrist, I feel great.

Whether that feeling will persist once I go back and look at what I've written remains to be seen. I do intend to finish a first draft this month, though I'm taking a couple of days off first. If you want to see me actually writing in real time, you can follow me on, where I've been live-streaming most of my writing for the past few days (disclaimer: at the moment, it's just my Word doc, no webcam or anything, and I've no idea whether it's interesting to watch).

In the meantime, I'm off to look up the definition of 'month'.