Running an IF Meetup

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The Oxford-London IF Meetup has now been running for a little over two years, and I thought I’d stop and talk a bit about what we’ve experimented with doing and how it’s worked, and what I think could be better.

First of all, I should say that the meet has been more successful than I had imagined at the beginning, and I’m very grateful to everyone who’s come and contributed their ideas and input. I’m especially grateful to Failbetter for supplying a venue; without access to their space in London, we would have had to find (probably expensive) meeting rooms in central London, which would add quite a lot to the overhead of running the group. Having a supplied venue means that we can continue to offer the meetup without charge to members.

From an organizational perspective, though, it’s also been more challenging to run precisely because of the interest level. What I expected to have happen was that I’d announce a meetup, I’d get six or eight diehard IF community enthusiasts showing up, and we’d grow outward starting with a small set of committed volunteers who could help me figure out how to scale and who wanted to pitch in for what. In practice, we routinely have 30ish signups for London meetings, and people are coming from a range of backgrounds. So I’ve had to improvise a bit from the outset.

But I did have a set of specific goals in mind, which were

  • create social connections between people interested in IF (basic networking)
  • build a peer group to support people working on games and tools — which in an ideal world would mean everything from mentoring/encouragement for new authors to expert feedback for advanced tool-builders
  • educate myself and other people about the range of work currently being done

and — informally but importantly —

  • have enough fun that people come back

Here are some thoughts about what has worked and hasn’t:

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Passion

Thanks to a cruel editorial by Alex St. John and a rebuttal by Rami Ismail, the conversation about crunch is making the rounds again.

St. John’s editorial gains extra overtones if you also look at his amazing guidance about hiring, which is all about how to leverage people’s personalities, relationships, and neuro-atypical conditions in order to maximize profit. If you’re prone to making obscene gestures at the screen when you read something bogglingly sexist, you might want to limber up your fingers before you click through to those slides.

I was already thinking about this topic because of my own recent attempt to evaluate time use, and because one of the comments about that basically said “hey, you’re incredibly lucky that get to do what you care about!” with an implication that I shouldn’t be looking into how I’m doing it, or whether I’m doing it in the most efficient possible way, because that would be questioning this god-sent gift.

I am incredibly lucky that I get to do things I care about. I said so in that post and I’m happy to say so again. But that’s not the only thing to consider.

So let’s talk about time commitment and “passion.”

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Imaginary Game Jam

Imaginary Game Jam is an IF community project, run by Jason Dyer, in which participants first contributed reviews of imaginary, perhaps unwrite-able games — in some cases games that plainly require technology we don’t have, or belong to a universe we don’t live in. These reviews were swapped, and then people wrote… something… to correspond with an imaginary game review they’d received.

Structurally this is a bit like ShuffleComps 1 and 2, in which authors wrote games around tracks of music selected by other participants — only way weirder. Sam Ashwell’s game reviews from Tlön were an inspiration here — indeed, one of those reviews (Fire Next Time) was submitted and used in this jam. (See also Speed-IF Jacket for a shorter, less serious take on this idea; for the reason why these posts refer to “Tlön”, see Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.)

The games created for the Imaginary Game Jam have now been released, along with the reviews that inspired them. They are fairly extraordinary. Continue reading

June Link Assortment

stickerphotoMy casual storygame San Tilapian Studies is running at a free exhibition of play at The Wellcome Collection in London the evening of July 3. Many other terrific things will be there too. I can’t be there myself, but I am really excited to have the game played in such a cool space.

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The next Oxford IF meetup will be Sunday, July 12. Oxford meetups tend to be cozier than the meetups in London, making them a great place to bring works in progress or concept ideas to throw around with the group.

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Competitions are opening shortly: IF Comp starts accepting intents to enter on July 1 (tomorrow!). Meanwhile, the Windhammer Gamebook Prize starts accepting submissions August 1.

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When I wrote up Feral Vector, I couldn’t find a good online source talking about the game poems Harry Giles had introduced. Now there is one! Harry wrote up a primer on the form with some examples; it also discusses Twine poetry, art in text adventure form, and a number of other interesting topics.

Somewhat related: this page of 200-word indie RPG rulesets. They’re trying perhaps a little harder (sometimes) to describe something you could practically play, but again have an intriguing focus on getting across a core gameplay concept distilled to its essence.

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Favorite moments from Feral Vector

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 5.39.44 PM Feral Vector is “a festival about making games and gamelike things” that ran this Friday and Saturday in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. It was staged in a wonderful building with pew-like benches for watching the talks, and a big open space that was often taken up with beanbags and players of JS Joust.

Some favorite talks:

People cheat. Really really really a lot. — Holly Gramazio

Holly Gramazio spoke on cheating. Holly’s talk took us through a hugely entertaining historical overview of ways that people have cheated, past and present, ranging from bodybuilders who get spray tans that enhance the appearance of musculature to a 19th century Go player who was said to have had his best moves whispered to him by ghosts. The talk also went into why people cheat — yeah, sometimes it’s because they want to win or they have money riding on the outcome, but sometimes there are other reasons, like enlivening a game that’s otherwise a bit dull (Monopoly, anyone?) or getting to see outcomes or strategies that they really wanted to experience in the game (the main reason I go to walkthroughs when playing narrative games). She concluded by observing that the stress people feel about being caught cheating, or catching others cheating, is a bigger problem than the cheating itself, and raised the question of whether it’s possible to smooth over such issues through clever rules or social management. “Someone caring enough about your game to cheat at it is kind of a compliment.”

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There’s this incredibly complex framework of bullshit… that allows you as an artist to make an object that means more than a big box in a room should be able to mean. — Dick Hogg

Dick Hogg talked about making games, making art, making art that becomes the core of a game, and playful approaches to appreciating and understanding “high” art, via cynical affection. It was not an easy talk to summarize, but part of the point was that even though “high” art is a trendy scene, involving rich people and weird modes of writing and creation, and even though a lot of high art pieces fall flat and fail to contribute anything of value, nonetheless the accretion of cultural power allows for some very awesome things to happen when a piece does succeed. As one of his closing recommendations, he suggested Pippin Barr’s Art Game, which is always a good idea.

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Harry Giles (Raik, et al) talked about game poems, poetry that takes the form of short game instructions. These were marvelous, and it’s irritatingly harder than I’d like to find samples by googling “game poem”, since all sorts of other things come up. But the idea of expressing some pithy moment of (say) social observation through the construction of dysfunctional game rules works really well. Besides, I’ve enjoyed Harry’s work for a while now, so it was cool to see him in person.

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Tom Betts talked about the mathematically sublime: the edges where Minecraft can’t calculate any further geography, the glitches and flaws of procedural generation; suggested that we should be willing to accept some disappointing output from procedural generation in order to experience its high points; and in general spoke against too much separation between formalism and romanticism. There were also some lovely pictures, which sadly I cannot reproduce here.

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Marie Foulston is the video game curator at the Victoria & Albert museum, which is rather marvelous, and spent her talk about what it means for institutions like the V&A to be engaged in game curation, what good video game curation might look like and involve (note: not necessarily the same thing as archiving), and the challenges of communicating why a video game matters to people who might not know what to do with the controller.