The Year of Focus

SummerOfRun7I think thematically.

As each year comes to a close, I spend December sitting with the work of my previous year. I sift through what I’ve created, I look at what I didn’t create, and conceptualize what I want my next year to become.

I’ve always been methodical and particular in my thinking, but I’ve become much more directed in that thinking in my sobriety and as I get older.

Just in the past few years, I’ve dedicated my time to:

Each of those represented a singular goal on which I could affix my gaze. No matter what happened during each of those time frames, I could always pull myself back to the center.

This year as I’ve been evaluating my life’s work this year, I’ve started asking myself a very serious question: “What’s next?” My answer, while still in flux, is coalescing around the idea that I have lost focus in my life. I’ve become too complacent, allowing myself to be pulled along by the tidal forces around me.

Read More

The Complexity of Understanding Appalachia Economics

There’s a great complexity to why Appalachia has ended up in its current economic and cultural states. Economic and political forces pushed against the region without any centralized plan for its development. Without arguing the merits of free markets, we can see the net results of development in Appalachia that happened without any real planning.

Before I’ve written a word about the region, I wanted to read as much history and social science as I could. I know just enough about the region to let the basic cultural representations cloud my view, and I’ve tried to stay away from those easy answers.

One of the areas I’ve tried to understand is poverty, and more specifically what happened in the region to cause such a concentration of poverty in the area. For instance, in Owsley County nearly 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. It’s easy to lay the blame solely upon the local population, but my assumption has been there are bigger factors that have made climbing out of the economic dire straits more challenging.

As I’ve continued researching, three basic themes that have emerged in both the historical and scientific research:

Outside speculators came to the area (some friends of the Crown, some companies), and these companies were not interested in developing local economics and sustainable environments. They came to make as much as they could from the natural resources, e.g. timber, salt, coal.

“Virginia also chartered another land company-the Loyal Land Company headed by Dr. Thomas Walker, who with Buchanan and Patton and other land prospectors found and named the Cumberland Gap leading toward Kentucky in 1750-to take up and sell land in the upper Tennessee watershed….

…At the same time, the colony chartered the Ohio Company to acquire and sell land around the Forks of the Ohio (the site of modern Pittsburgh) and the Greenbrier Company, whose territory was the valley of the New River’s largest tributary, draining the district adjacent to West Virginia’s present border with Virginia. Thus the movement of people into southwest Virginia represented not only a race between settlers and speculators, but also contests among the rival speculators to identify and secure the best land.” — John Alexander Williams. Appalachia: A History (Kindle Locations 141-146). Kindle Edition.

Those companies divvied up what would become the region without regard to resource and political boundaries, which has created county and state lines that have often created metropolis regions with resources and outlying areas without.

“Where in this huge territory is Appalachia? Political boundaries do not provide the answer. Geometric lines drawn in London in the seventeenth century to set off Carolina and Pennsylvania from the Chesapeake colonies were abstractions fixed on the Atlantic shore to demarcate the hinterlands of what were then widely separated thresholds of colonization. These lines were subsequently extended inland with little heed paid to the interior’s natural features.” — John Alexander Williams. Appalachia: A History (Kindle Locations 182-185). Kindle Edition.

Read More

Entry #8: Bic and the Bear

Two weeks ago, I announced that we would give away 5 copies of Dungeons & Dreamers (coming in March 2014) for the best stories about playing Dungeons & Dragons, or MMORPGS, or role-playing games, or computer games in general.

Today is the last day to participate, so get those stories to us.

The rules aren’t really important. Telling us a good story about playing games with friends is the key to winning. To enter, just send a link or your entry through the Contact Us form or leave it in a comment on one of the entries.

You can see the entries and demo stories here.

This entry comes from Nick Monitto, whom you can follow on Twitter.

* * *

Back in the 1980’s, I was in a long-running  AD&D (1E) campaign of 5 players and the DM. Since we were a group of good friends, there were often funny & interesting things happening through the games, but this one with my character is my favorite.

In the short games I played outside this group, I favored Half-Elf or Elven Rangers. Heroes of the forest, strong and swift with bow and blade,. But for this campaign we were assigned characters by the DM, and mine was quite different. A Fighter/Illusionist named Flick Rainbowsited, a Gnome who was rather small even for them (barely 3′ tall!) I was a bit bummed at first, but took him as a role-playing challenge to be mastered. His signature weapon was a clever DM creation: a switchblade version of dagger which was named Bic. Like as in, “Flick your Bic”; hey, it was the 80’s and we were easily-amused teenagers!

As the campaign went on, I felt like I needed to find a way to better contribute to the party’s success. I had spells, but few that were as good as the Magic-User or Cleric. I could dart around melees with little notice, but a dagger only goes so far. Plus, when you’re really short, it’s not easy to keep up with all these seeming-giants around you! As it happened, my solutions to both of these issues would converge.

I knew I couldn’t use every weapon in the Player’s Handbook, but being a Fighter I should have some alternatives. I looked for any limit on what a small Fighter could use. What I found amused me so much that I can remember the rule just about verbatim:

“Characters under 5 feet in height may not use the longbow, or any weapon over 12 feet in length.”

There was also a follow-up rule that a character under 200-lb in weight could not use a 2-Handed Sword, maybe another extremely heavy weapon. But that was it! Letter of the rules, I could have almost any sort of sword. Or a spear. Or a… halberd! Oh, I loved the look of that one (and its damage stats), I knew with one of those I could really contribute to a battle. Little guy, flailing about with it, but I could have it modified a little so the balance was better. But how could I carry around a weapon of that size?

I went to the DM with my idea, based on the notion that Bic gave us freedom for unusual weapon designs. My suggestion was a halberd with a collapsible handle; I don’t remember what I compared it to back then, but in a modern example, the premise was much like the “snap your wrist to extend” toy Lightsabers. Collapsed it was 1/4-size and could be used like a hand axe. But if Flick were to release the catch and snap his wrists, it would extend to full size and lock!

Around the same time, Flick had been working to solve his other problem. The Ranger had summoned an animal companion, a large bear. Flick spent plenty of in-game time with the Ranger, getting comfortable with the bear to the point that he would let Flick ride on him. That solved the problem of getting around, though it meant that the bear’s natural fighting ability was lost if we were surprised.

Or was it? I was allowed to design a new weapon, why not a solution for this too? The bear was already friendly and comfortable enough with Flick that we’d been able to fashion up a sort of saddle/seat to ride on. I reasoned that with a couple modified stirrups and a sort of “seat belt”, that would help keep Flick on the bear’s back. He could ride the bear into a fight, with the halberd like a sort of modified lance. And in close quarters, the bear could still rear up to claw & bite without throwing Flick off his back. More than a few enemies were vanquished before they could truly figure out the sight of this Gnome lancer on the back of a charging bear!

“Dysentery”

The Oregon Trail t-shirt“I’ve got something to send you,” said Jeremy, my old producer from Wired.com, while we were chatting on Facebook.

He asked for my address, but I forgot that he’d done that. We generally reminisce about the good, old days. We don’t spend much time buying each other gifts.

When the package showed up today, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I’d ordered. Christmas is over, and capitalism is taking a break in our house.

To quote Andy Griffith, “What is was, wasThe Oregon Trail video game.

“What’s Next?”

Lately I’ve been asking myself a simple question: “What’s next?”

I go through these moments of self reflection as I near the end of a large project. In this case, I’m in the final stages of rewriting Dungeons & Dreamers after several years of on-again/off-again work with my friend and co-author John Borland. The book is now with the copy editor, marketing plans are underway, and we’re just waiting for the last screws to be tightened.

Certainly my time has already been taken up with other activities: So Far Appalachia is underway, my teaching at Ball State continues, and a semi-secret project at the university continues.

But those are projects I’m doing. They aren’t the answer to “What’s next?”

As I’ve reflected on that question, I’ve skimmed an article penned by my former boss.Writing in MIT’s Technology Review, editor Jason Pontin argued “Why We Can’t Solve Problems” in today’s technological world. The premise: We once tried to land on the moon; we now try to make the best software app. We have stopped trying to solve big problems because they are hard.

He talked about this dilemma at the TED conference:

For the past few years, I’ve been aimlessly searching for the Big Problem that I want to work on. As it stands, I’m starting to get the sense of what the problem is. It’s been percolating in my head for a few years, but I’ve not moved forward on it in any meaningful way.

Read More

Entry #7: Their Adventure Continues to This Day

Two weeks ago, I announced that we would give away 5 copies of Dungeons & Dreamers (coming in March 2014) for the best stories about playing Dungeons & Dragons, or MMORPGS, or role-playing games, or computer games in general.

The rules aren’t really important. Telling us a good story about playing games with friends is the key to winning.

You can see the entries and demo stories here.

This was written by Brian Green, who runs the Psychochild blog.

* * *

They were playing Dungeons & Dragons in a room in the university.

He was a dwarven vindicator, a berzerker fighter/cleric given the gift of rage by his god. She was an elven thief, quiet and calculating as she sized up the group. The dwarf was suspicious of the new pointy-ear in the group and went to look through her stuff as they set up camp.

“What are you doing?” she asks. He ignored her, looking for evidence to show she’s not to be trusted. But, he doesn’t find anything.

The elf’s career is short, when she forgot her gloves and fails a saving throw against some deadly contact poison.

They were playing Dungeons & Dragons a year later.

Read More

Entry #6: The Halo Effect

Earlier this week, I announced that we would give away 5 copies of Dungeons & Dreamers (coming in March 2014) for the best stories about playing Dungeons & Dragons, or MMORPGS, or role-playing games, or computer games in general.

The rules aren’t really important. Telling us a good story about playing games with friends is the key to winning.

You can see the entries and demo stories here.

This story comes from Kyle, a former student now living in South Korea and writing The Explorer’s Manifesto.

* * *

When I was in high school, video games weren’t the pop culture sensation they are today. This was before grandma and grandpa were playing Wii Sports, before frat boys were playing Rock Band. This was when gaming was a bunch of guys sitting around on computers playing Counter Strike until 3 AM.

This was a way of life for me. I played through numerous games, both single and multiplayer but only had a few close friends to share my stories of victory and defeat with. Gaming wasn’t something you brought up with just anyone, but rather with your closest friends.

This all changed once Halo: Combat Evolved was released.

At the time, Halo was being lauded by gamers and critics alike for its PC style gameplay on a console and its robust multiplayer that allowed a significant increase in customization and play styles compared to previous console offerings. While it didn’t offer online multiplayer, it did offer LAN based multiplayer where 4 Xboxes and 4 TVs could all be hooked together for 16 player deathmatches.

Read More

Entry #5: The Last Game

Earlier this week, I announced that we would give away 5 copies of Dungeons & Dreamers (coming in March 2014) for the best stories about playing Dungeons & Dragons, or MMORPGS, or role-playing games, or computer games in general.

The rules aren’t really important. Telling us a good story about playing games with friends is the key to winning.

You can see the entries and demo stories here.

This story comes from Marcin, who (I believe) runs this site.

* * *

2012 was for me a year of roleplaying revival. Before that my tabletop gaming was on semi-hiatus for quite some time. I edited games, chatted about RPGs, attended conventions and played a bit of board games but that was all, mostly due to time concerns. However in 2012 I finally got back to roleplaying with gaming sessions taking place every week or even twice a week. I don’t think I had played RPGs twice a week even in high school, with the obvious exception of a summer break.

Read More

Entry #4: Everything I know, and everything I’ve learnt is thanks to D&D.

Earlier this week, I announced that we would give away 5 copies of Dungeons & Dreamers (coming in March 2014) for the best stories about playing Dungeons & Dragons, or MMORPGS, or role-playing games, or computer games in general.

The rules aren’t really important. Telling us a good story about playing games with friends is the key to winning.

You can see the entries and demo stories here.

This story comes from Nikola, who found the blog through Board Game Geek.

* * *

I was thinking for a quiet long time about what should I tell. I could tell a lot of funny things, but for me my whole adventure with D&D is the best story ever. Story full of pizza, jokes and wonderful hours spent on creating new worlds and heroes.

We were reading in the middle of the night rulebooks, drawing maps and reading generally everything in order to find inspirations.

Even Yeats’ poems were the great source of spellbinding images. There’s one particular story connected with him: the story of three adventures in one day. It was summer. I prepared some kind of mini-campaign consisting of three parts. My friends didn’t want to wait to next meeting, I had to finish one of the greatest stories I’ve ever made and I’m pretty sure that without D&D it couldn’t be possible.

Everything I know, and everything I’ve learnt is thanks to D&D. Now I’m writing about RPGs. I’d like to study games. Actually my future now is connected with RPGs and wargames, isn’t that cool? And everything has started from simple “Let’s start playing D&D.”

The Appalachian Archetype, or Why I Can’t Stand Cultural Critiques

While So Far Appalachia uses my family, the Bakers, as the backdrop for its narrative, the story is really about the larger issues that impact how we experience life in America: education, poverty, guns, and civic engagement.

The more I research the book and the more I write on the blog, the more focused that will become on the site.

However, the overarching themes related to stereotypes and class are really driving the book. I’ve written about each of those themes, most recently with the post On Appalachia and Reality TV and Writing, but every day my feed is filled up with images that associate Appalachia with a variety of well-worn stereotypes that have survived from the H.L. Mencken era.

The Importance of Being Working Class

One of the great failures of most contemporary criticism in this country is a complete failure to address class in a meaningful way. It’s oftentimes pushed beneath race and gender, the two dominant relational issues through which many cultural critics view the country.

When I first started writing this book, I found myself debating a feminist friend about the primary importance of class when discussing the region.

“Class may be important,” she argued,  “but the women in Appalachia most certainly are less well off than the men.”

In that particularist argument, she is most certainly correct (although I haven’t looked at the most recent data, which would reflect that more women now graduate college than men and thus are changing that dynamic). Regardless of the veracity of her particularistic argument, it’s her claim itself that reinforced the idea that the region must operate within its own walled-off bubble.

In other words: what’s primarily important in her argument isn’t that the region has been cut-off from the economic growth of the country, but instead its that the women in that region get a smaller portion of the shrinking Appalachian economic opportunity.

Read More

The Paradox of Choice: A story about games and storytelling

“Video games, however, can ask that we experience not only empathy but agency too. You don’t just feel with characters, you feel through them. You bind yourself to them and become temporarily responsible for their life onscreen. Whatever happens, you’re in it together.” — Tevis Thompson, Half-Lives: The Walking Dead: 400 Days, Sorcery!, and Depression Quest

The Paradox of ChoiceI find myself searching for ways to articulate the essential elements of storytelling within games and other interactive systems to my students, but it can be difficult.

Too often I find myself falling back on the mechanics of the game, e.g. the player must choose A or B before proceeding, instead of explaining the underlying process for telling a story or arguing why those processes matter for how you tell a story.

A few months ago, Tevis Thompson wrote this story on Grantland that did an excellent job explaining just why storytelling — and not mechanics — are what make great interactive stories.

This piece reminded me of a conversation we had with Richard Garriott as he was developing the original version of Tabula Rasa (before it was gutted and transformed into something nearly unrecognizable.)

His goal with massively-multiplayer worlds was two-fold: create a unique experience for individuals who wanted to experience an adventure and give players who wanted something else the ability to create their own experiences. While he clearly wanted players to have the ability to latter, Richard was most interested in the storytelling aspect of the former.

These dual ideas, creating a story-driven experience and allowing players do experience other adventures, is at the heart of the interactive game world. However, they aren’t actually inter-related. The storytelling of the individual experience has little to do with the “freedom” experience, and understanding that has helped me articulate what I find compelling about interactive stories.

Read More

Entry #3: Cats: They Burn Stuff

Earlier this week, I announced that we would give away 5 copies of Dungeons & Dreamers (coming in March 2014) for the best stories about playing Dungeons & Dragons, or MMORPGS, or role-playing games, or computer games in general.

The rules aren’t really important. Telling us a good story about playing games with friends is the key to winning.

You can see the entries and demo stories here.

This story about Cats comes from Lindsey, who also happens to be one of my former graduate students.

Page 10 of 48« First...89101112...203040...Last »