Monopoly

As someone who advocates for tabletop games in libraries, I often have to talk about Monopoly. It’s one of the best-known and best-selling board games in the world, but (while I can get it at a discount for libraries if they want it) I don’t include it in my bundle of games, and I don’t recommend libraries spend their limited games budgets on it, except if they are planning on pursuing more advanced active games criticism activities. Why is this?

The answer is bound up in some really interesting broader questions about games and libraries, and also some of the more fascinating aspects of the history of Monopoly and of board games more generally.

 

Libraries – just for books?

Libraries exist to make the world of human thought, culture and information accessible and discoverable to our communities. This is why most libraries now include not only books but music, television, movies and videogames in their collections, and why we increasingly offer access to creative technologies as well.

In pursuing this mission, there is often a tension between quality and popularity: between giving our community what they know they want, and ensuring that they have access to the kind of high-quality material that our professional experience and judgment indicates they are likely to need as they develop their knowledge of and engagement with the wider world. In other words, to give them the intellectual room and resources to stretch their developing tastes and capacities.

To some librarians, those other collections – movies, music, and so on – are only bought at all because they fall under that “popular” rubric. However, most librarians now acknowledge that a picture of our culture that ignored media other than books would be woefully incomplete; while books are still a major focus, we do try to offer some sort of collection of other media according to the same mix of popularity and quality. So movie collections will include Casablanca, Citizen Kane and maybe some Kurosawa; popular music collections will include the Beatles; and so on.

When it comes to tabletop games, though, we generally just throw some dollars at a staff member and send them off to a nearby department store to buy with an eye to value. This has the same results for quality that would result for our book collections if that was how we did book-buying. We wouldn’t consider a small bundle of mass-market paperbacks of mixed age, some reprinted multiple times, an adequate collection – but that’s what we usually end up with in the tabletop game department. (One library service I know of recently opened an incredible new central library with the latest consoles and maker tech, and all the most up-to-date equipment you could want. Its board game collection? Scrabble, Twister – which seems to have been swiftly removed from public display – Monopoly… and Avengers Monopoly.)

The irony is that if there’s any single medium that most benefits from the kind of showcasing of excellence that libraries do, it’s games.

 

Games and the network effect

All creative works are subject to some sort of network effect – the more other people know about a work, the more likely it is that any given individual will hear about it and decide to take a look. But with tabletop games, this effect is magnified by two key facts: (a) that games are more easily learned in play than self-taught from instructions, making it more daunting to pick up a game cold than a book; and (b) they need other people to play with – so popularity affects not only recommendations and retail availability, but ability to engage with the work at all.

This means that the normal bias towards novelty is counterbalanced by conservative pressures that keep people playing games that are already widely known. In this context, libraries’ roles as discoverers and curators of excellence becomes even more important.

But surely this only matters if the most widely-known games are also not good games?

Yes. Well. Let me ask you: do you seriously believe that in the past 100 years, there have been no advances in the art of game design? That nothing has been learned about human nature and psychology, or the nature of fun? (And fun, again, is not trivial but the active aspect of joy.)

In fact, all these things have been rich veins of discovery, and games have been the single greatest area of cultural innovation in the 20th and 21st Centuries. This is true even setting aside the obvious originality of videogames, possible at all only thanks to recent technological advances. In the past 70-50 years, tabletop games alone have given us several major new subdisciplines, some of which were spawned during the modelling of existential threats such as nuclear war and ecological catastrophe, and others of which (roleplaying games, story games) are closely linked to libraries’ undisputed interests: narrative and literacy.

So obviously games will have improved in the past 100 years. But aren’t the classics classics for a reason? Mightn’t some old games be worth having too?

Some, yes. Chess unquestionably belongs in a library, for instance. But looking at Monopoly from any angle other than popularity or historical interest isn’t especially favourable.

 

A note to the reader: no disrespect intended

Before I continue, let me be 100% clear about one thing: I’m not saying that it can’t be fun to play Monopoly, or that those who find it enjoyable are wrong or bad people. If you enjoy it, good for you! I’m saying that what fun there is comes from the players themselves rather than the design of the game; it reflects well on your playgroup that you can enjoy it. And perhaps, if you were to try games that are actually better designed to produce fun, you might enjoy yourselves even more.

Certainly the evidence is that this is the case; international board games website boardgamegeek.com allows users (a diverse global crowd whose primary shared characteristic is to have played a wide range of games; BGG is the tabletop games equivalent of goodreads) to rank games on a few different scales. On its overall ranking, which at the time I checked (6 June 2016) contained 12,288 games with enough ratings to be able to sort them into a ranked order, Monopoly was #12,280 – the 9th-worst game of all of them. This isn’t just hobbyist snobbery; in its family game ranking, which contained 1481 family games, Monopoly was #1480. Clearly, people who have played with any kind of “breadth” (in the same way one might “read broadly”) think poorly of Monopoly.

 

Monopoly is bad, and that’s for a reason

Monopoly is widely known, but it’s as legendary for spawning bitter family fights and for dragging on interminably even though it’s obvious who’s going to win as it is for being widely played.

It’s also notorious among tabletop enthusiasts for making some people loathe the entire medium of board games; pretty much any tabletop game aficionado has at some time had to convince a potential player that actually, most board games are nothing like Monopoly in order to get them to even consider playing a board game.

The structure of the game is such that players lucky enough – and it is hugely dependent on luck – to secure an early advantage almost invariably find that it snowballs into more of the same. The only thing that offsets that early luck, other than extreme good luck later in the game, is the ability to persuade, manipulate or bully others into making the deals you want.

And this isn’t a coincidence.

The myth of Monopoly is that it was created during the Depression by an out-of-work salesman named Clarence Darrow. The truth is that the game Darrow sold Parker Brothers was stolen: it was invented in 1904 as The Landlord’s Game by a feminist and social campaigner named Lizzie Magie, as an educational tool to demonstrate why capitalism’s concentration of wealth is a bad idea. Her original game had an additional set of rules that produced a more balanced, sustainable outcome, modelled on her Georgist economic principles, designed to be played in contrast to the capitalistic rules of the game we all know, and to produce a steady increase in wealth for all players.[1]

Take a moment to absorb two points. First, far from being trivial, games were being used to deliver serious (though not necessarily correct) systemic arguments on pressing social questions over 100 years ago. Second, the game we’ve all played was actually designed to be tedious and divisive, to be increasingly unfun for most of its players, and to reward blind luck, bullying and conniving.[2] Magie clearly underestimated the appeal of schadenfreude[3] and of playing the role of being one of the lucky few at the top of the pile.[4]

 

If Monopoly was a book: literary equivalence

To translate this into literary terms, I’d hark back to the kind of sentimental pulp novels about poor but virtuous orphans exploited by rich and powerful people but saved at the last minute by marrying one of those self-same exploiters whose hearts they have suddenly melted through their patient, noble, non-resistant and above all steadfastly apolitical suffering (and never mind all the other employees who are still being exploited, maybe with a slight raise).

These schmaltzy novels were rip-offs of the kind of trenchant social critique offered by Dickens and similar authors, recognising the power of tugging on the heartstrings but doing so simply to sell copies without offering solutions to, or motivating change in, any of the broader structural social ills that occasioned the very real suffering they depicted.[5]

Now, these trashy poor-orphan-married-into-wealth novels were immensely popular in their time (Wodehouse readers may recall him sending up the type repeatedly), but were recognised as junk even then. Literature as an artform was taken seriously enough that, despite their popularity, the obvious unoriginality and implausibility of the novels meant they were (rightly) denied serious attention. They made their money and then they faded away. (Though it is worth noting that they are immediate ancestors of the Mills & Boon school of formulaic button-pushing.)

Imagine if one of those novels had spawned a vast fortune, and the possessors of that vast fortune had dedicated it to ensuring that that particular novel was regarded as The Novel, emblematic of the entire medium. They spent fortunes promoting it, made sure that everyone had read it, and that such reading was bound up with memories of family spending time together.

This wouldn’t actually work with fiction, of course. Novel-reading is solitary, so it’s less easily associated with family rivalries or fond family time together. Moreover, our hunger for novelty – pardon the semi-pun – militates against such endless repetition of a single work. But in board games, the network effects discussed earlier push us towards known works to a greater degree than in literature, and the injection of play from the audience means that outdatedness is less immediately obvious and repetitiveness is reduced. And the fact that games are not taken as seriously as literature has meant that the obvious flaws in the game have not been as widely noticed or critiqued, until now – though among aficionados of games they have been widely known for some time.

 

Why it matters that Monopoly is bad

To be clear once again, the problem is not that the game exists, nor that people enjoy it – indeed, more power to them!

Rather, the problem is that it’s considered emblematic of the medium. Again, this is a game which – by design – causes fights, is tedious, plays on negative emotions, and does little to exercise the brain (when engaged with as intended by its current publishers; clearly it’s fascinating as an object of critical study). It is such a bad example of its kind that it is known to frequently deter people from the entire medium of tabletop games.

Given a limited budget for books (or music or movies…), no sane librarian would spend it on a novel that was so antagonistic and tiresome that it caused a fair number of people who read it to give up on fiction altogether.

Of course, we might buy such a novel if it was requested enough, or if it was going to be used to study the medium. But given the kind of really limited budget for books that is typically on offer for board games, would we waste it in this way instead of buying something better? I submit that we would politely explain that our priority was to help people access the good stuff, and put a little effort into helping people find that. (My tabletop games bundle is designed as a decent start.)

And I further politely submit that, until such time as our board games budgets are more than the crumbs from our programs and collections budgets, we should do the same with Monopoly.

 

Endnotes

[1] This paragraph is a potted summary of an excellent book on the subject, Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists. I recommend it as a fascinating, well-researched piece of the best sort of cultural history, one that goes deep into its particular subject but maintains an eye for the wider connections and import of its topic.

[2] And one can’t help but feel that Magie would take it as further proof of her views about the worst of corporate capitalism, as an act of intellectual theft covered by brute-force legal and PR shenanigans, and a co-opting of a radically critical voice to make profit.

[3] Safely contained within the magic circle of play, of course; idealists don’t always anticipate how that can transform the subject matter they’re so earnest about.

[4] To be fair, the appeal of such roleplaying would have been even greater during the Great Depression, when Monopoly became such a massive hit, than it was during the age of robber barons that came before it.

[5] Note the parallel to the co-option of Monopoly from its intended purpose.

Talking Points reprise: Play, courage, and hope

Watch this:

(For some reason the embedding isn’t allowing me to bookmark the starting time, so skip to 1:20 – though the introduction is pretty interesting. And so is the bit just afterwards, where Dr Brown talks about his work with a serial killer. Or, you know what, just watch the whole thing. It’s ALL pretty interesting.)

I’ve mentioned before that mammals deprived of play die. As Brown goes on to discuss in the above video (at 11:41), one specific story of how that happens comes from experiments with rats. Rats deprived of play as pups, and a group of normal/playful control rats, were both exposed to stimuli suggesting a hungry cat was nearby. Naturally, both kinds of rats hid from the mortal threat. But where the normal rats would eventually, cautiously, poke their noses out to see if the cat was gone, the play-deprived rats never did. They literally wasted away because they refused to risk coming back out. When Brian Sutton-Smith said that the opposite of play is not seriousness or work, but depression, he had in mind the full, potentially catastrophic disorder.

Contrast that fearfulness to the husky in this video clip, who is confronted by a clear threat she is unable to avoid (note her chain). Instead she shows incredible courage and a kind of transformative engagement with the situation. She doesn’t seek to ignore, deny or escape the polar bear: she engages in what improv theatre (a fascinating form of play that you could describe as “stage play without a stageplay”) calls “yes, and”, acknowledging and accepting the other while bringing herself… to bear? into play? There are too many puns here… while asserting herself onto the situation.

Obviously risk-taking is a double-edged sword, and recklessness can be as dangerous as fearfulness. Sometimes a cat is still there. But in play, young animals – including humans – test and learn their own limits, making their risk-taking not reckless (in the sense of lacking reckoning against reality) but informed. The playful rats weren’t gung-ho, they just were prepared to act on the basis that things sometimes change for the better.

The links here to innovation are obvious, and those to freedom, but surely so are the links to mental health. Courageous acceptance-and-optimism is necessary not only in engaging with the outer world but in confronting one’s own demons and resisting the emotional pressures of a misfiring brain.

Play helps us foster that kind of realistic courage, the willingness to face up to the scary and unpleasant and the hopeful determination to do what we can to make things better, even if we’re not sure of the outcome of those efforts. And that’s something we need more of.

France’s Inspection générale des bibliothèques issues 122-page report on games in libraries

Hey folks! Sorry it’s taken a couple of months for me to get to this – I’m not a native French speaker, for starters!

Anyway, in February, the Inspection générale des bibliothèques (the General Inspectorate of Libraries, the French government body overseeing libraries) published a report to their Culture Minister titled “Game and library: for a fruitful union”. Clocking in at 122 pages, I haven’t yet read it all – my French is kinda rusty – but the final paragraph of the Synthesis (the Executive Summary) reads:

The game has a rightful place in the library, among the resources and the actions that constitute [the library], in line with the establishment’s project, in engagement with its territory and the practices of its publics. The game thus becomes an element of the library’s identity, identity the library must preserve in all its complexity and richness.

(Le jeu a toute sa place dans la bibliothèque, parmi les ressources et les actions qu’elle construit, en cohérence avec le projet de l’établissement, en prise avec son territoire et les pratiques de ses publics. Le jeu devient ainsi un élément de l’identité de la bibliothèque, identité qu’elle doit préserver dans toute sa complexité et toute sa richesse.)

Now, I don’t know about you, but I happen to think the French know a thing or two about culture. So I’ll admit to feeling a little chirpy to be reading a report to their Culture Minister from the official body that oversees their libraries that reads like something I could have written for my Talking Points series.

I’m going to keep reading the report, as I get time, and will quite possibly post some more excerpts here. Meanwhile, if you feel as though you’d like to know more about why this is happening, I do offer training

Crowdsourcing services to libraries

Following on from my previous post about libraries engaging with new models for the production of culture, particularly crowdsourcing platforms, I wanted to highlight a parallel opportunity for libraries to efficiently get the support they need.

It’s a universal complaint that libraries have very poor budgets for training and advice – especially in relation to exactly the areas where training and advice are most needed, those where public demand is high but libraries’ metrics are not yet well-formed and their staff (including management) are not yet well-informed. Yes, library staff are skilled at research and self-directed study – but sometimes the most efficient way to learn is from someone who has already done all that work and can save you time.

This is especially true for the kind of training that is hardest to arrange affordably – specialised training for only a small number of staff. The time of specialist staff is inherently less flexible and more in-demand, because there are fewer people who can step in for them; and because training sessions tend to be smaller, costs are split between fewer participants and therefore higher per head.

Enter crowdsourcing.

The same basic principles that let the general public aggregate their demand – and money – in support of created works can serve libraries just as well. We just need to commit to doing so.

So what I propose is that libraries – and their umbrella bodies – start talking about formal systems that they can use to pool both funds and lists of topics on which they are seeking advice and/or training. Bodies like ALIA, the PLVN – and equivalents elsewhere – or National/State Libraries could set up a register of topics or activities of interest, and there are a couple of ways in which the aggregation of funding could be handled.

Speaking as someone who became a consultant precisely to give libraries access to this sort of specialised advice, I can affirm that this would be something I personally would be happy to support. While it’s in my financial interests to get as many different payments as possible for the same thing, that’s not my primary objective. So I am entirely happy to hear from libraries who would be interested in sharing the cost of training I run in order that I can help you find people to split the costs.

I would also be happy to help umbrella bodies develop the systems they require to support their members in this way. (And, in keeping with the spirit of this idea, to share the results with other such bodies so that they can benefit too.)

Innovation isn’t just for our patrons, after all!

Follow-up to Libraries and the future of the audience contract

Hey folks! I just added an additional heading, Embedding portals to creators in library catalogues/metadata, to the possible practical solutions part of my previous post on libraries and their role as mediators between creators and audiences.

I contemplated posting it separately, but it was always part of the idea, just one I originally took out because I wanted to think about it some more. But I’ve decided I like it, so it’s back in. If you’ve already read the original version of the post, click the link above to skip straight to the new stuff. If you haven’t, just read the whole thing 🙂

Libraries and the future of the audience contract

The problem

Corporations who claim they speak for the creators we love are major driving forces in turning the internet into the largest mass-surveillance tool in human history.

The crux of the issue is the one-sided defense of copyright by powerful vested interests. (And, per Doctorow, the lack of countervailing powerful vested interests in the citizenry remaining free and unsurveilled.)

The one-sidedness of the policy conversation in this area is leading governments to act in ways that are inimical to freedom and the human rights of everyday citizens, through the imposition of excessive and disproportionate penalties for noncommercial copyright infringement and the enabling of a vast katascopocracy[1] to detect such infringements. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been making this argument for years, far more effectively than I could, so I’ll just link you to them. (The folks at Defective by Design and Chilling Effects also have some points to make about the problems of DRM and a heavily-surveilled internet.)

But the “content” industries have one incontestable point in their favour: we do love creative works.

Not only do the folks who create them inherently deserve some prospect of reward for doing so, but if creators aren’t rewarded for making them, they will be able to make far fewer. This is the crux of the audience contract: in exchange for people taking the time and effort to create something, and potentially making themselves vulnerable and the centre of attention by sharing it, the community will ensure that there is at least a hope that they will end up no worse off – or even better off. Without some expectation of a return on creative work from the audience of that work, dedicated creation becomes much less viable, and creation has to happen in time carved out of a life supported some other way. That makes certain creative forms and professions (those requiring large budgets, long periods of dedicated work, and/or large groups of collaborators) near-impossible without the patronage of the hugely wealthy, granting them a destructively disproportionate, quasi-feudal voice in the culture.[2]

The solution (in principle)

So how do we combine easy, effectively unlimited, and unmonitored copying of creative works with rewarding creators?

We shift the focus away from the creative work, and onto the act of creation and the creator(s) themselves. Rather than just an industrial, widget-based economy where a work is rewarded based on the number of reproductions sold, we move to an artistic, networked economy where audiences can express appreciation for a specific work or for its creator with equal facility in a wide range of ways – and sharing copies of a creator’s work, rather than robbing the creator, is actually helping spread their work and their reputation.

Purchases of artefacts will continue to be one major way to do this. Artefacts may of course be hard-copy reproductions of the work, whether generic reproductions such as mass-market books, or prestigious limited editions with fancy covers etc. They may also, as webcomics creators have found, be associated artefacts that declare an affiliation to or appreciation for the work or the creator, such as T-shirts or various tchotchkes. They may be entirely unrelated; some online creators derive significant income from goods that, aside from a common creator/publisher, bear no relation whatever to the works for which the creator is best known. Regardless, whatever the nature of the artefact, commercial production and distribution of those artefacts should of course require that the creator of the work(s) be rewarded for the use of their work.

Active recommendation/sharing of the creator’s work is another – after all, an audience is a potentially valuable thing for anyone, especially a creator. The creator can also derive income from the other side of this process: using affiliate links in online marketplaces, and similar technology, to capture a fraction of any sale triggered by their recommendations is much more lucrative if those recommendations have a substantial audience. And other as-yet uninvented modes of endorsement and support are still on the way.

However, direct payment from audience to creator will become – is already becoming – another substantial avenue of support for creators. The tools to support aggregation of mass support both for specific projects and directly for creators themselves – crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, Pozible, Flattr, and Patreon – are already in place and growing in popularity. (Note that these are not inherently hostile to existing production and distribution models – numerous successful crowdfunding beneficiaries have gone on to use existing channels for publishing completed works to a wider audience.)

By enabling popular/mass patronage to compete with that of a single wealthy entity, platforms like these substantially, though not entirely, mitigate the feudal tendencies alluded to above of historical models of patronage. In some respects they even go further towards democratizing culture, enabling niche audiences and creators to find each other who otherwise might be missed by publishing bureaucracies focusing on larger returns from larger market segments. After all, the additional costs imposed by such corporate apparatus means that an income which can viably sustain a creator is often not sufficient to sustain them plus the industry that supposedly supports them – making the bureaucracies that supposedly exist to help creators find sustainable livings, even if entirely honest and efficient, sometimes a barrier to that same sustainability.

Certainly in the games industry, the use of these services by independent creators and critics to fund work that otherwise would have gone unfunded has had a huge impact. Whether the colossal success of the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter in 2012 resulting in games propelling that service into the mainstream and becoming its #1 category ($300m of its $1.5b to date), or the breakout success of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency Kickstarter revealing the scope of both the audience for basic feminist critique of popular culture and the vitriol of the anti-feminist backlash, it is fair to say that crowdfunding has been central to the last few years of games culture. (Which is, of course, a large and growing part of mainstream culture.) But while games creators have been particularly quick to jump on the opportunities offered by these new models (gamers being trained to spot opportunity and advantage, and highly sensitive to network effects), no medium is ignoring them – or can afford to.

The library, however – the place that above all others has been about enabling the public’s right to access to culture and information in a systemic, sustainable way; that above all others is about connecting the public with what they love regardless of commercial considerations – has been sitting this transformation out.

I believe that this is a mistake: we have a key role to play in this. Further, I believe that if libraries take a more active interest in helping creators and their audiences find each other efficiently and make a living, the supposedly irreconcilable tensions between free (meaning unsurveilled as well as unrestricted) sharing of culture and the needs of creators start to look a lot less intractable. Finally, I believe that remaining blind to the tremendous ferment of creativity enabled by these new funding and publication channels is a great way to make ourselves irrelevant. If we are increasingly seen as supplying a representative sample only of corporate-approved materials rather than of the full range of contemporary culture, we both abandon our popular mandate and play into the idea that all we do is compete with retailers of commercial creative works.

Below are just a few suggestions for how we might make that shift. But before I close this theoretical section, let me address one key argument against free culture: the economic-rationalist view that once someone has something for free they will never pay for it. To me, this says more about the mean-mindedness of the theorists than it does about reality. The actual facts of piracy contradict this, with shows and movies that have been shared unauthorised still being heavily watched and purchased, and even some producers of such projects (the hugely successful Game of Thrones comes to mind) acknowledging the role that “piracy” (actually peer-to-peer sharing rather than industrial-scale commercial reproduction) has played in making their shows more popular and more successful. But more importantly, it also ignores the tremendous willingness people have to invest time, energy and money into supporting and celebrating the things they love. Fan culture, which has been on the rise alongside peer-to-peer sharing and, not coincidentally, has always been one of the major places such unauthorised copying occurs, is merely the most overt example. The correlation between library usage and book purchasing is another, less obvious demonstration of the fact that free access to culture – far from reducing interest and investment in it – only increases the time, energy and money people are willing to spend on the things they appreciate.

Some solutions (in practice)

Let me note at the outset that, while some of these suggestions may result in substantial changes to library practice and relationships, I don’t consider any of them to be particularly significant changes to the basic job of a library. My point is that for libraries to continue doing what they’ve always done – sampling and making available a wide variety of content to suit their particular patrons’ interests – they need to start considering these sorts of possibilities, because the old models for publishing and distributing creative works are being forced to make room for new ones.

 

Expanding the pool of publishing/distribution channels from which we buy

For various reasons, libraries have outsourced more and more of their collections and processing to companies who use economies of scale to lower per-unit costs.

Aside from any other effects of this trend, it locks libraries into materials that are available to be distributed (and processed) at those kinds of scales. And it does this precisely at the historical moment when original voices are less likely to make it through those filters (owing to the consolidation and resulting homogenisation of editorial voice into publishing megacorporations), and more likely to publish through the newer channels we are neglecting.

As these more direct creator-audience publishing models become more prevalent, there will be less reason for creators to have industrial-scale volumes of stock created and hanging around to be sold. Such creators will already know the size of their audience, and in some cases will have printed directly for their previously-measured demand. (For instance, a Kickstarted project might print only the number of copies of a work needed to fulfil the project’s obligations, plus a small percentage of spares in case of damage, shipping error, and so on.)

For this reason, libraries that rely on traditional print-then-sell publishers may miss out entirely on opportunities to acquire particular works which may be hugely influential. While such works are likely to find a reprint, past experience has shown that this can take some time, during which period the library is failing to supply the work to its patrons. And again, this assumes that the work finds a home with existing publishers – which many critical viewpoints may not.

Therefore, libraries need to consider allocating some budget to buying works from new crowdfunding platforms, and to as-yet-unknown publishing models, not just the 20th-century publishing models we’re used to.

Naturally, some of this purchasing will need to be done at patron request – just like regular collections. In fact, I’d suggest that in the interests of discovering the widest possible range of such works, you might want to actively cultivate patron suggestions in this area. The trend towards targeted promotion includes creators looking for their audience; you are unlikely to see interesting new authors advertising in the mainstream press or publishing trade journals.

In this connection, it’s worth noting that academic libraries are moving towards models where their catalogues will find items to which the library does not yet have lending rights, and acquiring those rights in response to demand from the academic populace they serve. Of course, this is partly a response to the outrageous prices and conditions being imposed by academic publishers, who are making sharing of research (research that is of course founded upon the intellectual commons) harder and more expensive at precisely the historical moment when doing so is actually getting easier and cheaper. Even so, the models exist, and may well have lessons for how to find the best purchases for a given library’s collection.

 

Engaging better with free content – including rewarding creators who contribute to the library’s collections and resources after the fact

As discussed above, part of the present shift in cultural production is moving away from the make-a-widget-sell-a-widget industrial model. If creators choose to make their content available in that way, we should by all means continue to use existing systems to pay for their work. But as more and more creators explore open culture publishing models, and rely on support from those who use their creations, I believe that libraries need to start considering their relationship to such creators and their work.

I’m only too well aware that library budgets are often a pittance compared to demonstrable need, and that it might be hard to justify paying for “free” resources. I’m also well aware that simply by having an item in the library’s collection, we are helping its creator find their audience – and therefore, in crude commercial terms, their market.

However, I believe that libraries need to not only take seriously the material that’s published free online and do more to explore it for our patrons, but to acknowledge the debt we have to the free online resources we use.

And, as a logical and moral extension of that point, to consider chipping in financially and practically accordingly – both as a matter of principle, and as a matter of modelling the appropriate relationship to creative and other original work to our patrons.

This is a complex and nuanced discussion – for instance, by having the library contribute to the costs of a creator, does that make our patrons feel they are absolved from doing likewise, causing them to donate less? It probably deserves a post of its own, really. But in the age of Creative Commons, copyleft, and the Free Culture movement, too few libraries are even considering these questions.

[But for the sake of clarity: yes, this does mean I am saying that libraries should consider both donating to Wikipedia and allocating some staff time to be made available to edit it. (Aside from any other considerations, this might go a long way to redressing the gender imbalance among Wikipedia editors.)]

One fact I feel needs to be central to these considerations is that as an institution with a considerable – though usually inadequate – budget, libraries are often better off than either individual creators or the project teams to which they are donating their time and effort. While I fully understand and even applaud libraries wanting to conserve budgets, the fact remains that however resource-poor we are, chances are that creators of free resources are also not well off – and unlike libraries, they actually feel hunger. It would once have gone without saying that we need to be willing to contribute to the costs of resources we include. This applies equally to resources for which we pay via non-conventional means as to those purchased under long-established models. To do otherwise is to discriminate against creators who are attempting to make it easier to share their work – in other words, people who share our values.

I’m not proposing carte blanche for anyone who publishes free stuff online. Given that these resources are free, it is not unreasonable to add them to the collection and see how they fare. However, I submit that we must be willing to consider paying creators at the point we are certain we want their work in the collection, whether that decision comes before they are added or after assessing our patrons’ response to the works.

I’m fully conscious that – budgets being directly affected by this idea – there are some key stakeholders who will resist it: organisational managers who will ask some pretty hard questions about why libraries should pay for something they already got for free. Those are valid, but answerable, questions – we should be able to demonstrate the value of the items to the collection, and therefore the need to sustain and reward creators. And answering them properly will also incidentally reduce the gameability of such systems (whereby library staff might corruptly dispose of library funds to the benefit of themselves or those close to them).

But let’s be clear: this will also inevitably involve a certain amount of managing up. We shouldn’t shy from that. Organisational managers are excellent at managing generic “resources”, but librarians are the experts in the collection and sharing of culture. It is right that managers ask questions about how resources are expended, but they are not qualified to offer leadership in making those decisions. Again, for library folks not to be in the forefront of engaging with a cultural shift of this magnitude is to voluntarily edge ourselves and our beloved libraries towards redundancy.

[Also: It’s not directly relevant to this paper, but crowdsourcing can help libraries too!]

 

Libraries cultivating support for creators as a moral and practical imperative if people like content

Libraries could do more to get people supporting the creators they love, and even those they don’t love, but benefit from, or think are interesting or important. This needn’t be restricted to newer crowdfunding-type channels; buying a book or a DVD is just as much an option for supporting creators as pledging to their next project (or a past one). That said, it is worth us helping our communities explore what share of the money spent on each option actually ends up with the people who created the work – and how clearly that support sends the signal people want it to send.

Most people, including most creators, certainly make the common-sense assumption that libraries already foster this kind of active appreciation and support of culture to a considerable degree. (And they are right to do so: both logic and evidence very much point this way!)

But we could do more both to celebrate what we already do and to find new ways to advance the principle of supporting creativity. (It helps that both these things would also give us further leverage in negotiations with recalcitrant publishers over price and terms of newer forms of published works, e.g. ebooks.)

For instance, we could (and should) act in an educational capacity – telling the story of what these new funding models enable. Not everyone will be interested, but just as we help people explore the world of books and then translate their tastes into purchases at the bookshop, there are genuine opportunities for us to support our communities in exploring these new channels – both as audiences engaging with original work, and as potential creators themselves.

We could also spell out the connection made at the start of this paper, between the need to protect privacy and the need to provide an alternative to the widget-sales model of cultural economics.

We could also do more to foster yet other ways for creators to engage their audiences, and for audiences to enable their creators to make a living, as some of the following suggestions outline. To this point I have largely focused on ways libraries can work in with existing or emerging systems that are independent of them. In the suggestions that follow, I will begin exploring ways in which our unique attributes and position enable us to offer opportunities unavailable elsewhere.

 

Libraries cultivating their own audience’s creative aspirations as a way to instil respect for other creators

As I’ve discussed previously, libraries are increasingly moving towards becoming libraries of their community as well as for their community, with a growing focus on supporting creativity among their patrons rather than simply gathering the best of what’s happening elsewhere.

There has always been an element of seeking to support local creators in libraries’ work; at the very least we are inclined to purchase their work, if not actively promote it to their community. After all, a work is more likely to be of interest to patrons if they have met its creator, and more likely to be relevant given the greater odds of a similar background.

Likewise, we have sought to foster new creators through programs like writers’ workshops, especially for young people. Similarly, as the internet has grown to greater social and economic prominence in people’s lives, we have sought to help our patrons learn how to navigate it.

I believe that we can fruitfully combine these two things and help new creators learn to navigate these systems to find support. Having done so, we can help our communities discover their local creators just as those creators are seeking their audience. And we can help those local creators to build on that audience and leverage it into wider success, and to network and support each other in making their way out to the wider world.

How does this translate into supporting creators? One necessary corollary of helping people create is that patrons who have attempted their own creative work, and to a lesser extent those who aspire to do so, will better appreciate the work involved, and the need for creators to have a sufficient income to continue to create. This is not entirely dissimilar to simply respecting those who make things we like, as in the previous point, but the respect is likely to be more nuanced and to include those who make things we don’t like but who make them exceptionally well.

Again, rather than leaving this as an implicit point of learning, libraries could make an effort to explicitly leverage these teachable moments to make this point. (As always, heavy-handedness can backfire, but the basic point is incontestible.)

 

Libraries as channels to contact creators/agents if their patrons are interested in work

If the library is to become a vector for the audience-creator relationship, clearly our greatest strength is on the audience side of that equation; it’s our relationship to creators that we will need to develop.

One possibility here might be to develop tools and protocols that enable our circulation and activity data – thoroughly anonymised, of course! – to become a resource for creators and their representatives.

One such option might be a standardised, automated interface for flagging that the library staff, on behalf of their patrons, are interested in the creator’s work, along with some capacity to suggest particular activities that might be of most interest, or to outline activities that are happening anyway that might offer opportunities for the creator to piggyback their own event onto. For instance, a library might report that their members would love a presentation from a particular creator, or might report that a book club are holding a cosplay event themed around a creator’s work.

There would be no expectation of a response – that would need to be up to the creator, who would have the information to dip into as their own interests suggest – but creators would have a potential insight into where their work was being appreciated… and where they might profitably be able to visit and engage their audience in whatever further ways they desire.

The obvious use of this is in finding hotspots for things like book tours, but creators who want to run things like workshops, or to engage with audiences in other ways (perhaps to gain audience input into new, more collaborative creative forms), could also use information from such an interface to target those efforts as well. In the book club cosplay event example above, the creator might get in touch with the library and offer to judge, plus hold a signing or a Q&A about the characters.

Such engagement need not take place within the library, though it is a logical venue for such things as creator talks, creative workshops, and so on. Local retailers (bookshops, music shops, etc) or other businesses might come on board to help organise, promote, and host the event. The creator might see sufficient demand in a region that they might hire out a larger public venue. The event might be a specialised activity requiring particular tech, furniture and/or spatial configurations, such as LAN gaming, a theatrical production, or an artistic installation.

In any case, the library could become both a channel for the creator to notice that demand exists, and a potential partner in letting the audience know about it. And it would provide a level of granularity in the detail as to where demand exists that is currently not possible – or at least not without invasive data mining. (I hope no library worker needs an explanation as to why supporting alternatives to mass snooping on the public is a good thing!)

Another (and related) option would be to have the library be the place where people learn how to reach out to the creators whose works they admire. A workshop on writing to creators and other public figures, where attendees can nominate who they want to contact, and which covers basic etiquette, reasonable expectations, understanding of the demands on public figures’ time, and maybe a little research into the specific creators’ preferred channels of communication and/or modes of relating to their audience, could potentially be a relatively easy way for individual libraries to start moving into this space. (I’m also quite sure it would be a remarkably popular program! Contact me if you’re interested in pursuing this further.)

Admittedly, the existence of celebrity stalkers means this could be somewhat fraught! But as with most situations, the conspicuously unbalanced individuals who make trouble for everyone are a tiny minority. In fact, by planting the seeds of reason at the beginning of someone’s engagement, libraries could do a great deal to avert the obsessive spirals such people fall into.

 

Enabling creators to routinely see stats on loans/access to their works through libraries

The basic idea here is that thoroughly anonymized loan stats are fed into a centralized system and then made available to creators (or their deputized agents), so they can see a global heat map of the public’s engagement with their works in libraries.

Not only does this potentially feed into marketing for their next creative work, it also allows them to plan book tours, and even potentially help fund a holiday by picking up a little public speaking work in the destination country. And for creators who are more interested in direct relationships with their audience, this sort of information could be invaluable.

To be genuinely useful, this would need to distinguish number of loans and number of borrowers so that creators can tell when a library has a single obsessive re-reader or when they have a genuinely wide audience there.

Given that libraries in many countries already track some such usage statistics as part of public lending right schemes, and therefore some such central reporting already takes place through national libraries, in some ways this is not that much of a stretch from current systems – especially if the trend towards centralising and amalgamating library services continues, and given that library loan records are all electronic anyway.

In other respects I can see it being a political nightmare, on the one hand used by creators (and the megacorporations who benefit disproportionately from managing their rights) to lobby for higher lending payments or more restrictions on libraries, and on the other hand pushing for greater violations of privacy in the form of more detailed access to more-poorly-anonymized lending information. Certainly libraries would need to value this information appropriately as the tremendous resource it is, rather than simply giving such information away without a substantial tradeoff.

Just as crucially, libraries would need to recognise that such data is held in trust from the public, both as individuals and collectively. It is not an asset libraries own and are free to dispose of in their own interests, without regard to the interests of those from whom it is derived.

Lastly, this need not be limited to loans or other access data. As above, it could include information about activities (including those outlined below) taking place in the library relevant to a particular creator. Given that we also report on this sort of thing already to some degree, once again it’s just a case of making sure that the information is sufficiently detailed (specifically, that we are reporting on the subject of activities, rather than just aggregating headcounts under general headings like “story times” etc) and goes where it can be used.

 

Embedding portals to creators in library catalogues/metadata

[For those who read the post early and are just wanting to find the new stuff, this is the section that was added after publication.]

Given that we already have independent authority records for creators, and even have value-added subscription services such as Syndetics and OCLC providing expanded content for our records, to simply add a link from a work or a creator’s authority record to a URL they nominate seems pretty simple. All we need is some sort of central authority to track authors’ official “home pages” – something that could largely be automated and built into library deposit or public lending right schemes – and we’re already helping people connect with creators.

But this is only the least of the possibilities. We might for instance allow similar creator-controlled fields within bibliographic records, to take people to the official URL for a particular creative work, rather than just a standard link for the creator. The tools to manage this would be slightly more complex technically, and more work to manage, but would still be well within the realms of possibility.

Taking this even further, I can imagine a third-party service that provides (moderated!) embedded content to library catalogues directly from creators. As an example, when the publication date of the next installment of a beloved series is revealed, one of the channels for that announcement might be the catalogue pages of the previous installments. Obviously this sort of thing would need moderation – nobody should have unrestricted anytime access to the pages of the library catalogue – but a trusted third party working within agreed frameworks and standards could very easily make something like this a valuable tool for audiences, libraries, and creators.

We could even allow creators to post links to purchase copies of their work in ways that the creator feels best supports them. This might be referral links to online stores like Amazon, or it might be a service that lists local booksellers that stock particular works, or it might be a print-on-demand service. Simply putting this decision in the hands of creators would give them additional leverage in the creative economy – leverage that at present is very much with publishers and distributors – without the library being seen to misuse its position to favour one particular local (or other) business.

And naturally such things need not be limited to widget purchases. We might also – especially for works that we have included in the collection unpaid – allow crowdfunding links, such as those from services like Flattr or Patreon. These might be general “fund the creator” links, or they might be more specific “reward this particular work” links. Either way people who have found the work worthwhile can support the creator – and everyone is completely clear that the sharing of the work was beneficial to the creator.

In the interests of privacy, we might even consider becoming an anonymous channel for such support. One downside of direct patronage for some members of the public will be that such systems involve putting their support or appreciation for particular ideas or works on the record in ways that are not visible or accountable to them. Just as we are channels for anonymous reading, we could become channels for anonymous patronage. It would be a politically fraught process, with only the imperfect anonymity our readers enjoy; and it would be tremendously open to corruption (anonymity and money are never a good combination!), but it’s certainly a conceivable role for libraries to play.

 

Libraries as places to build community – and for communities to build themselves

We like to talk about libraries as the new village square, but it’s remarkable to me how little we do to enable public-driven usage of the space. I understand why: there are custodial obligations to our collections, spaces, and patrons that rule out or at least complicate a number of public activities. But in a true village square, activity is not predominantly programmed by public employees but often emerges organically from the interests of the people in the space at any given time.

Given those custodial obligations, which are real and too important to abandon, we can’t aspire to that level of unsupervised, unstructured public usage. But as I’ve touched on earlier in my two-way libraries paper, we could be doing a lot more to provide a degree of structure and mutual accountability that would allow more of this self-directed usage.

One such usage could be to encourage people to think of the library as a safe neutral (and somewhat anonymous) venue for shared cultural interests. We do this somewhat with book clubs, but rather than organising them ourselves and fixing the topic and activity, we could quite easily create tools based on pledgebanking systems that would allow the public to propose their own (suitably moderated) shared uses for our public meeting spaces and discover if there were interest for their ideas.

I think it’s quite likely that some such uses would include fan clubs for the various media we enable people to access – and this would be very much to the benefit of creators, especially in combination with the above reporting.

It is not a coincidence that the media that most require this sort of co-ordinated physical copresence, in this case to experience it at all not only to share appreciation, are the various forms of interpersonal play, especially social and tabletop games.

 

Libraries to host networked meeting/lecture spaces to connect communities all over the world

Technologies to connect multiple groups in different locations into a single larger group have largely been the domain of corporate meetings. But they do already exist, and could provide some remarkable opportunities for libraries to connect their communities not only indirectly through the shared world of learning and culture that we enable our patrons to access, but by directly allowing them to share experiences.

This could – and should – include homegrown experiences such as local history events, talks by local creators, and so on. (“Sister City” arrangements could particularly benefit and be strengthened.) There is a lot to be said for horizontal grassroots sharing of this sort, though that’s another post.[3]

But it could also allow numerous libraries with smaller budgets to pool funds to pay for creator talks by famous creators, or other more-expensive-but-relatively-simple events, that would then be shared live throughout all contributing libraries. (In my view, any library worth its salt would talk to the creator about then posting such talks on the internet under some sort of free culture license, but having the chance to be in the live audience – and potentially interact with the public figures in question – would be the preserve of the participants in the actual libraries at the time.)

It would even make such events cheaper, since travel costs would be reduced to the distance to the nearest participating library – or the nearest other facilities capable of streaming such events.

And of course, combined with the above patron-driven approach to the use of spaces and facilities, new uses for this sort of capacity would be quick to emerge.

(Once again, I confess a non-personal vested interest, this time in the possibilities for International Games Day @ your library and especially my own volunteer project, the Global Gossip Game.)

 

Libraries supporting lobbying for more creative funding

Finally, I fully realise that libraries have plenty of lobbying to do for our own budgets. But if we’re going to be helping audiences and creators engage more anyway, we’re going to be de facto supporting one common cause that is likely to draw broad support from the creative sectors: improving funding for the creative sectors.

While limited public funds mean that ultimately there is a degree of rivalry or tension between funding creation and funding libraries, both are clearly essential, and proponents of both should be vigorously supporting each other. And it would certainly cement the library as a key ally to the creator.

This is a point worth stressing. The reason that the corporations of the “content industry” have so successfully imposed their clearly disproportionate demands on the internet is because they have portrayed themselves as the champions of the creators who make the cultural and intellectual works that we love and need. And, to be fair, they have enabled some truly astonishing work.

But publishing corporations are not the only ally to creators. (Indeed, in some cases, the relationship has not been an alliance but rather profoundly exploitative.) And the corporations (and the lobbying groups that represent them) have clearly abandoned any respect for the interests – let alone the rights – of the public, except insofar as those rights are the right to purchase their product.

As the institution that has always been about the public freely engaging with culture, the library can and should step up. We are here for our patrons, and because our patrons (and we) love culture, we are here for the people who create it as well. Perhaps we can even help publishers let go of the obsessive need to monitor and monetise every possible engagement with a creative work, and go back to their core job: finding and supporting original, amazing creators. There are wider social forces at work here, of course, but most publishers are already keenly aware of how despotic and bureaucratic they look at times (and how much money is wasted on their attempts to assert oligopolistic control over the Internet). They need only a sense that there is another way to make a living, that they are not abandoning their responsibilities to shareholders and creators, and it suddenly makes sense to simply walk away from the worst excesses of the widget-selling model of culture.

But they won’t do this without creators taking a lead, and creators too need to know that they can find a living elsewhere. That sense of tension, of competition for limited funds, evaporates when you look at the bigger picture of what the point of libraries and of creating original works actually is. This is why it’s important for libraries to advocate for funding not only for themselves and the audiences they serve, but for the creators they serve as well.

In this regard, it doesn’t hurt that – if the suggestions above and in that two-way library piece linked earlier gain traction – libraries will be directly supporting creation to a greater degree, such that funding one is funding the other!

 

Conclusion

We in the library business are deeply committed to creators, and always have been. Our whole reason for being is to help the communities we serve find the created works (whether artistic or referential) that most meet their requirements – a function that, while public-facing, also serves creators. Far more than a mere recommendation engine or discovery interface, we enable our patrons to explore and develop their own tastes rather than merely throwing back at them endless iterations on themes they already like. In doing so, we serve creators of both excellence and originality – and most of all those creators who offer both at once. In other words, we both broaden and deepen the market for culture.

But because we are public-facing, we are also custodians of the bigger picture of culture: that created works exist to serve a greater good. That’s the reason that copyright and similar elaborate legal mechanisms have been created and operate at such vast expense to the public – original work is important enough that we recognise the imperative to reward it.

However, creative/original thinking isn’t the only public good, and material incentives aren’t the only way to encourage it.[4] The right to access culture and information unmonitored, and the right to freedom of expression, are both central pillars of the kind of intellectual freedom fosters genuinely original thinking. And both are threatened by measures actively proposed by the corporate industrial interests supposedly speaking on behalf of creators.

Privacy is under assault by corporate forces that seek to prevent unauthorised copying by spying on everyone to make sure that only authorised – which is to say, remunerated – consumption of culture occurs. (To be fair, they are strongly supported in this by others who seek to spy on us for other reasons.) It is not possible technically to prevent copying the “wrong” data, but it is possible to combine the threat of ridiculously disproportionate penalties (tens of thousands of dollars and a criminal record for watching a TV episode without paying?) with highly visible, seemingly state-endorsed (and increasingly state-run) surveillance schemes to scare people into compliance. The fact that these systems can be – and are – abused to breach privacy is bad both for humanity generally and for creators specifically. Without privacy, creators are discouraged from exploring experimental, challenging, and/or personal works; these render creators vulnerable in different ways, but the hope of privacy can mitigate some of that disincentive. And of course in the bigger picture, lack of privacy fosters a climate of self-censorship and self-moderation which puts a system-wide brake on effective peaceful dissent against those in charge of these systems.

Freedom of expression is, of course, inherently inhibited by copyright laws around use of fictional characters and settings – that’s more or less its point, to prevent people other than the creator of a work from making free with it! And that’s fine – I’ll be the first to admit the undeniable benefits, both economic and intellectual, to allowing the originator of an idea or work to maintain a voice and a financial stake in how it is published, and further developed and explored. But the system we have in place now stifles genuinely original reworkings of past culture under mountains of licensing and permissions red tape (making the use of, for instance, music samples prohibitive to most people not already signed up to one of the labels with the legal departments who run the show).

It makes it impossible for scholars and archivists to preserve our legacy, by criminalising digital preservation of works without clear permission from a creator who may be untraceable – or entirely unknown. (And even if you throw principle aside and argue that a work being abandoned in this way makes it a safe bet that you can get away with unauthorised copying, there are people who would consider it just as safe a bet that they can falsely claim to own the copyright and sue.) I’ve read a number of statistics about the percentage of works from the early days of the current copyright period – which is to say, the earlier part of the 20th Century – being lost to posterity because of this. They vary, but all are shockingly high.

And it has created a remarkable new tool for censorship: simply allege copyright infringement through an automated online tool and you can get even private companies to take down material they host, pending a counter-complaint by the original poster. This has already begun to be used as a tool for removing – even if only temporarily – material that is unwelcome to some unaccountable soul at some particular moment. Governments and corporations have attempted to claim copyright in the material their critics are using to criticise them. Antagonists in various culture wars have targeted each other with false copyright claims. Far from encouraging reasoned discourse or promoting the development of cultural works, copyright has become a tool to suppress unwanted views.

Controlling the reproduction of created works in these ways is only justified if this is our mechanism for rewarding creators. If we can achieve that goal of offering incentives to creators to create in some other way, what is now seen as theft (enabling others to access a creator’s work) becomes a supportive act, an act of endorsement – which is how many people actually experience the act of sharing the works they love.

By reaffirming our commitment to supporting creators (and taking the lead in exploring new ways to do so), libraries can help break the industrial-age connection between reproduction and remuneration, helping creators to continue to prosper from their work without having to endorse – and divert ridiculous amounts of resources into – these oppressive, wasteful, and anti-creative systems.

And of course, it frees up the infosphere for us and our patrons too.

 

 

— Footnotes ——-

 

[1] ‘Rule by spies’. Technically, there is no effective way to encrypt something that ultimately has to be human-readable. So the only way to prevent unauthorised copying of content is to scare people into not doing it – and that can only happen if they have a reasonable expectation of their private activity being watched and recorded while online, or even by their own personal property.

[2] One could quite plausibly argue that this is already somewhat the case (*cough*Murdoch*cough*Walden Media*cough*), but at least under the current system there is some mechanism for finding support from a mass audience – even if that support is typically funnelled through (and heavily taxed by) a large number of institutional middlemen who contribute nothing to the actual creative work.

[3] Briefly: by encouraging people to pay attention not to the centralised culture industry with its necessarily skewed perceptions and priorities but to other everyday folks, we get a counterbalance for the mass-produced monoculture that distorts our sense of ourselves and our place in the world… though of course until EVERYONE has access to the networks this would create, distortions will still be built into the system.

[4] In fact I would argue that there is an inherent human drive to create, one which (history shows) finds expression regardless of such incentives. Further, the massive external incentives we’ve created for the creation of culture have – as external incentives typically do – distorted the activity they’re supposedly incentivising. Rather than becoming a tool to remove daily survival pressures and free people to express the burning truth or beauty inside them, it’s become a prize to be won by creating experiences that compel attention – regardless of whether it’s worth creating for its own sake, or whether that experience (or the compulsion) is healthy. Of course, it has also enabled a great deal of extraordinary work, and even more research into why people like what they like – I’m not saying it’s all bad. Just something to consider.

Games and real life: economics edition

I’ve spoken elsewhere about how games companies are now not only creating virtual economies but are hiring actual economists to help manage them. Valve, one of the first to do this, has just had economist-in-residence Yaris Vafoukaris headhunted – to serve as finance minister of Greece.

Let’s be clear – Vafoukaris already had solid credentials, which is why he got the Valve gig. It’s also true that Greece is a small country and that Syriza’s left-wing politics make their economic ideas unconventional. But it’s also clearly true that his time working in the virtual economies of Valve’s games and Steam client, and their conversion to and from real-world economics (which some would say are themselves increasingly virtualised), hasn’t been seen as hurting his ability to manage one of the more troubled economies in the Eurozone.

Once again: games=fun, right; fun=trivial? not so much.

Up for air! (Briefly)

Hey folks! Just a quick post to say that International Games Day 2014 is over and was a huge success – so that’s off my plate – but thanks to increasing family responsibilities I will continue to be sporadic in updating this blog.

I’m updating the site a bit more frequently as I add more details on services that I offer (and sometimes new services!) but those are largely incremental updates. The big things that I’ve added and will be working on in 2015:

  • I’m selling a bundle of tabletop games for libraries that also comes with a substantial discount on training – and the discounts are stackable across library services, meaning if you buy enough bundles the training is potentially free!
  • I’m offering Australian libraries access to a service called OnePlay which enables ebook-style e-lending of PC and Android games. It’s a promising start on lending for media we struggle to enable our users to access!

Contact me if either of these, or any of my services, interest you. And to be updated when I do get a chance to post more substantive articles – which are coming – please follow me (using the button at the bottom right of your browser window, or by signing up to the RSS feed).

Otherwise, all the best for the end of this year and all of next!

The Game of Life

Sometimes it’s just SO interesting you can’t tear yourself away!

(And sometimes the grind just won’t let up…)

Aside from International Games Day @ your library, which I’m helping run again this year (and yes, the Global Gossip Game is part of it again), I’ve also been working on a semi-original design, attempting to put… something… together to give games a boost here in Oz, helping out a little with James Portnow’s Games for Good, and having an attack of Real Life (entirely too Real in some cases) on a few different fronts.

More substantive (and hopefully exciting!) posts soon, I think. But meanwhile, if you’re interested in helping to share games and play with your local community, IGD@yl has pages for librarian and non-librarian gamers who might want to get their local library participating. I encourage you to support your libraries’ forays into games and play!

Other things we play: comparing games and music

I’m being kept busy with work; to fill the void, another slight reworking of a post on an earlier blog, this one selected as a featured post on game developer site Gamasutra.

This was written in response to another entry in the “are games art” discussion of a few years ago. Jason VandenBerghe set aside the debate about games as art, and made a good point that the art of games is present in the gameplay. The problem was that in that post he suggested that it’s ONLY in the gameplay, and not in the creation of the thing played. This was my response.

What about music?

The performance is art.

The instrument is art.

The composition (the music-as-written) is art.

Even the sheet music might be art, especially if it’s handwritten and illuminated.

I agree with [VandenBerghe] that gameplay, especially where exceptional skill and or insight are freely at work, can be art. (And thank you for reinstating it as also expressive; it’s a hugely important, and neglected, point.) But that doesn’t mean nothing else in the equation is.

We don’t have the language to describe the poetry of system yet, and we’re not conscious enough of it as a form of poetry. [Poetry here is used in the way justice can be “poetic”; it comes from from the Ancient Greek for “making” and means anything artfully, mindfully made.] It’s a chicken-and-egg situation; until we start talking about it in these terms (to see what makes sense as much as anything else) we can’t think about it in these terms, and vice versa.

But let’s be clear. If a movie is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful images and sounds (and optionally but usually plot, character, narrative) – a game is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful judgments and decisions and tests-of-skill and random inputs and consequences of all the above, possibly with one person playing it, and possibly as a meeting ground for more than one.

The point is:

although the elements being arranged are different, experienced differently, and appreciated fully only over a longer timescale and possibly in the context of multiple plays of the game,

the basic act is the creative act of arranging meaningful elements to produce an experience or sensation, and/or to express an emotion or idea,

and the basic act is therefore is fundamentally the same in designing and playing games as it is in composing or playing music, or any other artform.

Gameplay can be artful, and whether intended that way can certainly always be judged on that spectrum. Game design – or should we call it game composition? – is always artful. It may be crass art that deals with its subject matter only in the most superficial terms, and I would argue a great many games are; but so is a lot of music and a lot of cinema, and that doesn’t disqualify them from being art. They’re not great art, or what Moriarty [in the piece referred to in my earlier repost] calls capital-A “Art”; but they’re still art in exactly the same way movies are, and Ebert’s lack of systems literacy (while hardly blameworthy given the wider cultural context) doesn’t change that at all.

And therefore I’m with Moriarty:

games are art, but really, pretty much anything can be, so who cares about this?;

and games CAN be Art, and not enough are;

and (my corollary) we need to get better at talking about the unique forms of poetry offered by our medium as such, so we can get to the games that are truly, life-changingly great – and maybe even some that tell truths only games can.

Talking Points: Play, inclusion, and community-building

I’ve already covered this topic to some degree in the post on games, sharing culture, and connecting people: games, by providing a framework for interaction, enable a connection between people that requires no other common experience – there’s no need to share an age, class, culture, occupation, or anything else; even a common language can be optional.

What I didn’t do in that post was call out the fact that this means games and play can not only strengthen bonds that are already there, but work to break down the barriers that artificially divide us – or, if you prefer, to regrow the bonds of our common humanity that have been artificially severed.

They can do this in two ways, which we might label the “active” and “passive” modes.

The active mode is by using the stakes-free experimentation of play and the many tools at games’ disposal to explore and undermine the false rationales that justify the mistreatment and exclusion of individuals for things other than the actual consequences of their behaviour.

For instance, games can abstract the systems and dynamics that foster bigotry and division from the specifics of their circumstances. Done well, this can not only give us a certain critical distance and a chance to see them from outside, just as well-written fiction can do, but even to inhabit other positions in those pecking orders. Jane Elliot’s “Blue Eyed” sessions can be taken as a relatively extreme, intentionally highly emotional, and not entirely unproblematic example of this.[1]

(Two notes: First, to the extent that calling Elliot’s necessarily unfun sessions of behaviour-according-to-arbitrary-rules “games” is a fair description – and before accusing me of trivialising them, bear in mind that I do not consider games any more inherently trivial, or slaves to entertainment, than books are – I would point out that they constitute another example of games tackling vital subjects in ways other media simply cannot.

Second, just as with fiction and other poetic ways to instil empathy or vicarious experience, there are limits on how much insight can be offered. After all, even if for the duration of the work the experience of persecution is simulated perfectly, the simple fact of knowing that it will end – and that you probably have control of when it will end – utterly transforms the experience. It’s similar with any draining experience. Being a carer for an abusive invalid, having water drip on your forehead at irregular intervals, even the mild tedium of involuntary social isolation can drive you insane if you don’t know when it will end. One of the strengths of Elliot’s approach is that just as her blue-eyed audience are starting to refuse to take it any more, she takes that point – that they want to opt out of this arbitrary BS, but you don’t get to do that with real-world oppression – and drills it home, by inviting people who have experienced ongoing racism to tell those stories at a time when their audience are primed to be receptive.)

Other games exist that seek to consciously explore these issues: Steal Away Jordan, dys4ia, Dog Eat Dog, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, and many more.[2] While all these work in different and fascinating ways, and are worth your time and attention, I’d actually argue that besides the value of addressing these divisions consciously and intellectually, play and games do a great job of overcoming them experientially.

This is what I mean by the “passive” mode. Whether or not a game sets out to make us think about these issues, simply by giving us a chance to spend time in the company of those different from us on a somewhat more equal footing – because a game doesn’t care who’s playing it – we start to break down those barriers. Having to rely on ideas and stereotypes for our understanding of whole groups of people inevitably results in us thinking of them, and relating to them, in those terms. Having experience of a range of specific individuals from those groups means we can relate to them as people, and start to see what they have in common with other people in our life, lessening the power of the group identifier in our reflexive, emotional thinking, and bringing individual humans back into focus.

Again, I’m not asserting that just having a good time together is a substitute for actually reflecting on and consciously attempting to dismantle the systems, symbols and generalisations that shape our lives. The bigot who sincerely thinks that <almost all X are terrible people, just not the X he happens to know, who are actually really lovely (for X), which proves he’s not a bigot> is a genuine phenomenon, as well as a joke.

But that experience of the humanity of others is an indispensible complement to that more analytic approach: we are emotional, instinctive creatures as well as intellectual ones, and moment-to-moment most of us live in (and react from) our emotions at least as much as we do our intellects. Just as much of a joke (and just as tragic a joke) as the bigot-despite-his-own-experience is the idealist who understands intellectually that we’re all equal and decries discrimination in principle, but who somehow still can’t quite get comfortable with Those People – or help them feel comfortable around her.

It’s possible to change ourselves at those primitive levels by sheer force of reason, but it’s extraordinarily hard and almost never produces any kind of social ease. The best and fastest way to shift those basic, primal levels of our thought is by direct experience: by simply spending time enjoying ourselves in the company of people who are in some way unlike us. And games and play give us a framework for doing exactly that: somewhere to bond together over shared effort and experience, where nothing is really at stake to prime our fear and anxiety responses.

It’s possible that these sorts of positive shared experiences could be provided ancillary to other media (book clubs, art appreciation societies, or what have you), and that’s certainly not to be discouraged, but only in games and similar playful experiences are they innate – and indeed beneficial, because arbitrary social barriers restrict the pool of possible fellow-players – to the form. Games and play give us an inherent incentive to open up to others as they really are, not as we think of them. That’s pretty amazing stuff.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play, courage, and resilience.)

Talking Points: Play, analysis, and action

If you’ve read my bio, or simply paid attention to the way I’ve espoused the virtues of games, you’ll have gathered that I have a fairly cerebral approach to things. Playing helps us learn better, think more creatively, be mindful of others, make better decisions… you might be forgiven for thinking that thinking’s all I’m concerned about!

In fact, this is a long way from the truth; I’m interested in thinking because it informs what we actually do. Getting your thinking right means you’re infinitely more likely to get your doing right. But in the process of dwelling on those aspects of learning, I’ve neglected to point out that games are also the most active of artforms. So it’s time to make this point properly.

I’ve touched on the fact that play and games actively improve skills, not just knowledge and intelligence, but I haven’t really dwelt on it, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure it’s saved my life at least once.

(Short version: driving in rural Australia, sharpened reflexes and improved threat anticipation allowed me to avoid being sideswiped by a truck that had to brake and swerve into my lane.)

But in fact this is another core value of play, and games especially (since it’s possible to play without firm goals): they teach us that to achieve our goals, understanding of one’s decisions and the context in which one makes them are vitally important – but so is actually turning understanding into decisions and decisions into actions.

It’s inherent to the nature of games: while they can incorporate other artforms (language, static and moving visual forms, music and audio elements, tactile elements…), the distinctive markers of this medium (or rather, these media: games are incredibly varied) are that they include the poetic arrangement of decisions, actions, and tests of skill. In other words, if you’re not actively doing something, it’s not much of a game. You have to be playing it: “you” being the subject of that sentence means the action is coming from you.

What this means is that while games encourage and improve our capacity for analysis and reflection, they do so within a context of that thought having to inform action. That action can include decisive inaction, i.e. not doing something because that is the most intelligent option; but there is a world of difference between that and defaulting to inactivity. (As an example of this, read the section headed “Identify What Matters Most” in Live Like a Gamer, an article by Mark Rosewater, the Head Designer of one of the world’s most popular tabletop games, Magic: the Gathering. The whole article is worth a read, in fact, since its whole point is to catalogue some of the often non-obvious ways in which games teach important life-skills.)

This has two major positive effects.

First, it creates what you might call an “implementation bias”. It’s one thing to come to a good judgment; it’s another entirely to enact one. But games drive home the fact that even the most perfect understanding means nothing without action. What’s more, having the inbuilt assumption that any conclusions you come to will have to be implemented gives you a stronger incentive to make decisions which are actually good (this is probably a post for another day, but briefly: while there are broadly or even universally applicable principles which you can and should apply in making your call, actual enacted good is always localised, because in any situation the best thing to do – and best manner in which to do it – is always dependent on the specific circumstances), because they give you a much stronger incentive to be engaged with reality than decisions where you are (unconsciously or otherwise) letting yourself off the hook of having to make them work in the real world.

Second, linking analysis to enactment works both ways, building an iterative, error-checking propensity into our actions. Nobody ever has perfect information; while you can be more or less confident, you can’t know when you formulate a plan how it will turn out. A good game trains us for this, because it creates plenty of room for surprises, whether from random elements or from competing players. Not only do you learn to try to anticipate what might be coming, but you learn to expect that you will have to deal with things you failed to anticipate, that you may need to revise your specific tactics to achieve your strategic objectives, that strategies may need to be revised or discarded in order to achieve your goal, and even that goals may be conflicting and you may need to prioritise or choose between them. The only way you can know that you have reached this point is if you are continuing to pay attention to your environment as you roll out your plan, and constantly thinking about what you are learning.

I call this capacity to maintain mindfulness while in the thick of things “reflection-in-action”. Closely related to Csiksentmihalyi’s “flow”, it layers on top of that close engagement with immediate circumstances the detached analysis of the planning stage, allowing the mind to draw insight from both bigger-picture, abstract or systemic understandings and the minutiae of the actual unfolding of events. At its most extreme, it feels like a literally mind-expanding experience (yes, I know it’s hard to be literal about the intangible, but that’s the subjective sensation): as you watch developments with which you are this closely engaged, you feel as though your mind is extending itself both outside the boundaries of your ego-self into the abstract and conceptual truths that reflect reality, and also out of your skull into that actual reality.

This isn’t isolated to play – the act of creation can also induce this experience, which to me highlights the connection between play and creation. But given that elsewhere it’s a hallmark of humanity’s most exceptional achievements, and it’s a useful capacity either way, it’s yet another reason to reconsider our false assumptions – and realise that just because the overt outcomes of play are typically of little value outside the context of the game, play itself is far from trivial.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play, inclusion, and community-building.)

Talking Points: The powers of play

After reposting my Talking Points series about games (with a bit of an “in libraries” focus) from the International Games Day @ your library blog, I seem to have created a second series looking at play. Here’s an introduction and overview, similar to the one I wrote at the start of the games series.

Play is to games what reading is to books: the underlying verb that enables the noun, but is applicable well beyond it. Reading, as a peculiar eye-, finger-, and even increasingly back-to-being-ear-based subset of listening, is used for signage, notes, instructions, lists, and a ton of other chunks of information and culture besides books. Likewise, play is used for many things beyond formal games: teasing, joking, various informal contests and challenges, notional tinkering, creation, and many more. As such, it’s worth pointing out the many important aspects of life empowered by play.

The current list, and I reserve the right to add to these (I already have twice), is:

  • Innovation – There is tremendous value in a systematic grinding-through of possibility spaces, but the fact remains that play is a phenomenal way to apply the power of the brain to exploring new ideas. It’s telling that computers, which excel in the first kind of problem-solving, are still taking longer than human brains (at least those with an aptitude for this sort of thing) to solve questions of protein-folding, RNA-shaping and similar activities. Regardless, in an economy increasingly driven by innovation, play is only becoming more important as a life skill. [Full post here.]
  • Freedom – The essence of play is a pocket of possibility-space which may be shaped and limited by external constraints, but produces a place and time in which unconstrained action according to one’s nature is possible. (Even a formal game may have rules, but if there’s no room for individual decisions and/or skill, i.e. for a player to actually play it, it’s not much of a game!) In political-economic contexts, this quality reads an awful lot like “freedom”. This isn’t a coincidence. [Full post here.]
  • Health (including happiness) – Just on first principles, it should be obvious that play – activity that expresses and exercises one’s nature, determined by internal impulses rather than external ones – will tend to be conducive to health and general wellbeing. And there’s a ton of research to support this. At the most obvious level, physical play (fun exercise) tends to be good for physical health. Mental play sharpens memory, focus, perception, comprehension, and decision-making, hence the profusion of “brain-training games” (and see again the talk linked earlier, Your Brain on Video Games). Setting meaningful challenges for ourselves, whether through a formal game/program like Superbetter or informally, not only helps us overcome particular obstacles but trains us to expect that obstacles in general can and will be overcome. Social play (such as Werewolf) uses and expands on our connection to others. [Full post here.]
  • Learning – This is obvious from the links to innovation – which could partly be defined as “learning things nobody else yet knows”! – but if anything this is the primary purpose of play (and the fact that it’s good for our health is because learning things is healthy, is what our organism is naturally disposed to do). This is so much the case that (as I mention in the post on innovation) the quote I used for the Global Gossip Game in 2013, “play is training for the unexpected”, was not from educational theorists but from mammalian biologists Špinka, Newberry and Bekoff. Clearly the drive to learn and experiment is ingrained in us at a bodily level… hence, again, the links to health! [Full post here.]
  • Promoting activity – I’m talking here not just about physical activity, but the assumption that thought and analysis will lead to concrete action: play isn’t just about comprehending the systems with which the game’s creator has presented you, it’s about you doing something with them. That leads to better thinking and better acting, as well as more productive uses of both. [Full post here.]
  • Inclusion and community-building – Play is a way for people to explore difficult issues such as discriminatory beliefs and the ways that they shape behaviour (which in turn feeds back into beliefs), and also to spend time with other folks and learn about them as actual individuals rather than instances of a stereotype. [Full post here.]
  • Courage and resilience – By helping us explore our limits, play helps us know them and feel secure with them – but also to take sensible, calculated risks. In so doing, it teaches us that life can get better. [Full post here.]

Any one of these associations would qualify play as pretty important, even by the narrow, numerical criteria which govern so much of our key decisionmaking (except perhaps freedom, because it’s too hard to quantify). More holistic, humanistic values can only increase the value placed on play as something deeply rooted in the best of the human experience.

To be clear, I am not saying that frivolity should reign supreme and that work doesn’t matter. I’m trying to break the false opposition of play and work (they may be very much in tension in some respects, but play is ultimately a form of self-imposed, more-or-less self-directed work; the best work feels like playing; and the best workers are those who work in that playful, motivated, engaged way), the false association of play and frivolity (one can play seriously, and grimly grind away at something completely frivolous, and these are not the same thing), and the false assumption that frivolity is inherently unworthy. (See this post on fun.)

Play is central to our humanity. It has produced many of the best parts of our collective and individual experiences, and enabled us to find solutions to (and escapes from) many of the worst. For us to continue to treat it as an inferior part of culture, when it is in varying forms and ways a central part of all culture, is a mistake we should not continue to make.

(Click here to start reading the first post in the series: Play and innovation.)

Talking Points: Play and learning

This point is already part-argued: play’s close links to innovation – and the fact that, as quoted in that post, the drive to play arises from its nature as “training for the unexpected” – make its equally close links to learning obvious. (I’m making this point briefly, but it’s a crucially important one.)

Then there’s the clear implications of the well-known “10,000 hours theory” – the idea that excellence in any field is achieved in large part by spending 10,000 hours doing it with constant feedback. Play implies a degree of interaction with and varying response to the outcomes of the various objects of play and actions being tried; it isn’t play if it’s monotonous repetition! It also motivates this kind of persistence in a task.

But, again, common sense tells us that play is a powerful tool for learning. The old adage “show, don’t tell” is true as far as it goes, and not all lessons can be learned hands-on (at least without a degree of preparation… and in some cases, warning!), but for learning how to actually do something, for any actual application of  information to real-world conduct, and even in many cases for a better understanding of abstract properties, “play with” will always trump “look at”.

This is why young children are such sensovores: they are trying to learn all the different qualities of things (including, of course, their own bodies and senses). They play with things by looking, listening, feeling, smelling and tasting – and shaking, throwing, hitting and otherwise manipulating with all the precision they can muster while they are still just starting to learn precision. Given that very few people have conscious memories of life at this age, and even if they did these memories would almost certainly be sense-memories not informed by conscious strategic/analytic thought, it’s harder for us now as socialised and enculturated beings to recall the pressing experimental drive that underpins this profound encounter with reality on its own terms, but given what we know of brain development at the ages where play is most prevalent (I could say “unadulterated”) it seems safe to say that the smartest period of our lives – not the most knowledgeable, but the smartest, the time when we work the most stuff out the fastest – is the most playful.

There are also the fascinating parallels between the psychological state of “flow” – discussed in this post; what Csiksentmihalyi calls “optimal experience”, but is often (though not always) experienced as transcendent fun – and the needs of learning. Indeed, if you look at the way that flow is defined – roughly, staying in a zone where you are challenged but not overwhelmed as you improve your skill in the action you are undertaking – and compare that to educational theories around presenting students with material that will keep them stretching to learn (I’m thinking here of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” and the notion of “scaffolding”) the links between play and learning become even more apparent.

Even setting aside these considerations, the most rote and informational of learning (which on first glance would seem not to lend itself to play) benefits from external incentives – and not just gamification-style motivational incentives, though those can certainly work, but concrete external links onto which to scaffold the learning and ground it into the real. The basics of logic or mathematics or system dynamics or the laws of physics make far more sense to those still learning them if manifested in a form that students can manipulate to experience the interactions for themselves. Yes, at some point they need to stop playing with the props and start playing in their imaginations if they are going to develop new understandings of their material, especially the more complex or counterintuitive parts. But it’s impossible to deny that play is a highly effective hack for uploading those abstract principles (at escalating levels of abstraction) into a brain designed first and foremost to engage with the concrete physical world… and playfulness doesn’t stop being a useful tool once those less-evident truths have been so uploaded.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play, analysis and action.)

Talking Points: Play, happiness, and health

You wouldn’t know it to look at our arts or health or archival policies – or even, to a lesser extent, education – but a tremendous amount of research has been undertaken on play and health in numerous dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, social. There are numerous practitioners in each of these disciplines battling away to get better recognition of play and games, but the policy framework – and particularly the funding framework – for the playful arts is still negligible. (There’s an interesting post on why this is to be had… another time!) Changing this and enabling the community to better tap into and explore the world of play is one of my key objectives in writing this blog, and indeed in the work that I do generally.

I could cite numerous papers on the health effects of play for body (strength, health, flexibility, dexterity, speed, senses, reflexes), mind (memory, perception, comprehension, analysis, intuition), soul (motivation, happiness/pleasure/joy, creativity, assumptions that problems can be solved, capacity for reflection-in-action, drive to learn, ability to centre oneself), and what you might call intersoul – the part of us that inhabits and thrives in our connection to others – and at some point I’ll do that. But this is just a Talking Point and I’m short of time, so I’m going to argue from first principles instead and leave you to seek out the evidence yourself.

It follows logically from the previous discussion about the nature of play as a concept (that it is fundamentally about acting according to one’s nature) that play promotes activity. Given that we know that all of our faculties grow in response to moderate, unforced exercise – and dwindle with neglect – it makes sense that play in and of itself tends to be (though as always, subject to the complex interaction of specific activities and circumstances) a force for health in whichever elements of ourselves we allow to play.

The obverse is also true. Where people – and indeed mammals – are actively restricted from play, there are immediate effects on their health in all the above dimensions. Indeed, and this is one of the studies I’d link to if I had time, some experimental animals completely deprived of play became terminally miserable and died.

(The parallels to the links between freedom and health should, of course, be obvious.)

These findings have been behind the efforts of numerous educators to see play reinstated as central to education, but just as I believe that learning needs to be lifelong, I think play needs to be as well. An adult life deprived of play – whether actively or through passive exclusion – leads to that adult being less happy and healthy, and therefore – counterintuitively, if you’re a beancounter who insists that only the readily quantifiable should inform decisionmaking – more of a burden both to themselves and to others. This has ramifications that go beyond the cultural and medical, and include the political, economic, and industrial.

Still think play is fundamentally trivial?

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play and learning.)

The art of games and play

This is a slight reworking of a post from an earlier blog, made here because it seems like a useful addition to the discussion of games in the wider cultural context.

I would propose the following tests for the status of art, good art, and great (or capital-A) Art:

Art is whatever is held to be such. It must involve some act of creation, but the simple act of bringing a natural phenomenon to someone’s attention is enough to qualify as creation for these purposes (allowing nature photography, or even running a hiking tour, to comprise art in and of themselves): directing your audience’s attention is after all a key component of any artform.

Good (or effective) art is art which elicits a reaction from a substantial portion, preferably a majority, of its audience – whatever the size of that audience.

Exceptional art elicits a strong reaction from its audience and can potentially change minds or even lives. It may never be seen outside a small group – ephemeral art left unrecorded in a natural setting, a transformative roleplaying session, an unrepeatably expressive performance of Chekhov or Mozart – but for those who experience it, it is unforgettable, a sublime encounter with truth or beauty. Obviously, as an audience increases in size (and therefore, inevitably, in diversity), the range of possible reactions increases, perhaps exponentially. What is good or even exceptional art to a given, small audience may have no effect whatever on the wider audience.

So great Art is art which can consistently evoke strong reactions across a wide audience, or art that a wide audience agrees across all its internal divisions to be good or even exceptional. (By some definitions, these reactions must be not simply reaffirmations of known emotional cliches, but something more complex; whether or not we agree with this addendum, my general point can stand, I think. It treats the idea of “greatness” as essentially one of scale, not effect – as with great wars, fires, events in history, etc.)

(Side point: does this mean that a single work of art which is only experienced by one person, but which has such a profound effect on them that it inspires them to affect the lives of millions, could also be described as “great Art”? On first consideration, I’d say yes. And I like this because it allows art to be “great” purely by dint of its effect without reference to popularity… But I’m interested in others’ thoughts.)

The problem is that this necessarily tends to favour certain attributes:

  • for breadth of dissemination and scope of potential audience: reproducible forms, then static forms, then scripted live performance forms, and least of all ephemeral forms;
  • for consistency of experience: “declarative”, artist-to-audience media forms over interactive forms;
  • for longevity (i.e. time in which to reach an audience): media which are self-contained rather than dependent on technological or linguistic platforms which may become obsolete;
  • for ability to connect (and maintain a connection) with a wide range of people: obvious or unchallenging themes and content.

(This of course ignores the culture within which the work is attempting to achieve recognition, which can shift these weightings.)

So how do games fit into this model?

Electronic games suffer on the second and third points – and I’d argue don’t make enough effort to escape from the trap of the fourth. As the technological platforms on which they are played become obsolete, they also suffer on the first, though this is changing as gamers begin to take seriously the value of archiving their medium.

Non-electronic games suffer on the second point, and often the first (as they are not always easily reproduced).

This in turn tends to instil certain fallacious presuppositions (simply by dint of long association) about what can and can’t be “art”, let alone “Art”.

The logic used by some critics who argue that games can’t be Art, namely that player interaction with the game – control of pacing and even sequence – nullifies the possibility of the experience constituting art, is one such fallacy.

Consider sculpture and architecture; Michelangelo’s David cannot truly be appreciated from a single angle, and nor can the Taj Mahal, and while the creators have some influence on the flow of their audience’s experience of their work, it is far from absolute.

Similarly, the rules of a game can constitute what I call “the poetry of system” – the choices that you make as you play giving you a personal, even emotional experience of the assumptions, assertions and underlying logic of the game. Nobody who has played Z-Man Games’s board game Pandemic could argue that it’s in any way a realistic simulation of combating contagious disease, but as an evocation of the deeper tensions between spending resources on dealing with immediate threats or on working towards the longer-term endgame it’s both a compelling experience and genuinely expressive of a real truth.

Playing gives you one or more experiences of the possible outcomes, but it’s the underlying balances and systems which are revealed through play that are where the art most strongly lies.

In other words: a given playthrough may vary, but it’s the systems that generate that experience which constitute the art, and possibly Art, of games – in exactly the same way that a play (coincidence?) may be performed or adapted ad infinitum from a fixed script, and the sheet music of a sonata may be played (also coincidence?) by a beginner or a maestro, but the quality of art (and possibly Art) still inheres in the script and the music themselves, regardless of the experience of the audience at any given realisation of the same.

I’d also allow – in fact argue strongly for – the particular “cosmetic” choices in which the game creator chooses to dress their system as being a crucial part of this, even though they are not part of the “system” per se – Pandemic‘s “flavouring”, or central metaphor, being the work of the CDC is clearly relevant, and Brenda Romero’s work is exploring this boundary extremely fruitfully, and along the way making some deeply important statements about choices, the context in which they are made, those choosing, and the complex interrelations of the three.

One final point. The very fact that games allow for a multiplicity of endings – or, perhaps, conclusions – by its nature allows them to make more ambiguous points about their subject matter than traditional media can. At the same time, it allows for very definite statements about the causes of certain outcomes to be made, as multiple playthroughs reveal the different contributions made by each decision to the various conclusions. To me, that hardly argues that they cannot make sublime statements. It just means you need to grok the intricacies of a system (and its fictional and/or real context) of decisions and consequences, rather than a system of other, more traditionally-understood symbols.

Making that step not only allows us to expand the definition of art, but fosters both theory of mind and “systems literacy” – the ability to think through decisions-in-contexts (with part of those context being the interests, goals and decisions of others) to likely outcomes, both intermediate and final.

These are things we need badly to foster at this moment in history, and if games can engender them, I say: Let’s Play.

This is not a particularly high-traffic blog, but should anyone be inspired to comment, I’m particularly interested in suggestions of other games whose systems allow for expressive, even emergent moments.

Talking Points: Play and freedom

In the context of a culture that trivialises fun, games and play, it’s easy to forget that play has some important foundations. We’ve already touched on what Huizinga calls the “play element in culture”, the way play is woven through even very serious and solemn institutions and aspects of social life. But essential to the notion of play is the core value of freedom.

As a confirmed word-nerd, I arrived at this conclusion by considering the many uses of the word “play” – and the underlying unity of them all.

There’s the obvious playing as both an intransitive verb (what are the kids doing? They’re playing) and a transitive one – playing a game or a sport. (You can also “play an opponent” or play against someone, but these are clear derivatives of these senses – though it’s interesting that in some sense the opponent becomes the game.)

There’s play as creative expression: playing a theatrical part, a musical instrument, or a musical composition.

Playing a particular position in a game or sport combines the two – you’re fulfilling a function (like playing a scripted role or composed work) but also playing the game in which the position arises.

There’s playing with people or things – in a positive, mutual sense, playing in ways that explores and expresses both your nature and theirs, and the interaction of the two; in the less-positive, predatory sense, treating them like toys, i.e. using them purely according to one’s own nature and with no respect for theirs.

There’s playing at something – pretending, mimicking, mocking or simply behaving with inappropriate levity. This is similar to the sense above, except that the toy is the function you’re inhabiting, and therefore you’re not manipulating an external thing (more appropriate for the preposition “with”).

There’s letting things play out – allowing them to develop or unfold according to their nature.

And there’s liquids, light, objects or abstractions playing over a surface or object – again, behaving according to their nature without outside interference or obstruction.

There are numerous other uses of the word “play” (playing on things/words, being at play, being in play…) but I think the common element has been sufficiently outlined here.

In all cases, the implication is one of acting and interacting freely according to the agent’s nature. Sometimes that freedom is one-sided – a wilful ignorance of consequences, especially consequences for others – and other times it’s mutual. But the common element in all these meanings is the people or objects playing are acting unconstrained, as prompted by their nature in that moment.

When looked at in this light, the connection between the concepts of play and freedom is inescapable. But there are practical connections to political freedom too. Time unconstrained by the needs of survival – time to play – is “free time”. Unsupervised, unstructured activity is a primary opportunity for people to discuss the circumstances of their lives and how they might wish to improve them. As we saw in the previous post, the free imagination of play is the best way to explore new ideas in search of an optimal solution – system definitely has its place in ensuring those explorations are thorough, but the bold leap of intuition or inspiration is as important in discovering the new territory to explore in the first place.

None of which to say that play is the only – or even the most meaningful – freedom. But even people who profoundly disagree with Emma Goldman’s anarchism – or aren’t much for getting their groove on – can recognise the point she was making when she refused any revolution in which she couldn’t dance. Any system so totalitarian as to reserve to itself the right to determine whether people should dance, or otherwise express themselves in playful ways, is clearly unlikely to respect other, more immediately political freedoms.

There’s an important distinction here: fascists (and other political bullies) could, and by all reports often did, have fun – at the expense of others. Fun that derives from – or is indifferent to – some participants not having fun is the harmful kind of play alluded to above, and comes from the same basic toxic political relationship: that one person or group’s priorities completely eclipse another’s. But genuine, hurts-nobody, upwelling-of-joy fun is only threatening to those to whom the human spirit is fundamentally something to be squeezed, bruised and broken into some predetermined pattern. (This is not to say that some behaviours which deny or impinge upon others’ freedom don’t need to be moderated or regulated; but any system that has a problem with harmless expressions of happiness clearly needs close scrutiny.)

Given that, the existence of room for the human spirit to grow unconstrained, according to its own nature, without external influences pushing or pulling it too hard in any particular direction, seems to me to be an essential indicator of a political system that is worth inhabiting. That is to say – to the extent we can play freely, it seems more likely that we’re free in other important ways; and to the extent that we’re not, play gives us somewhere to start.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play, happiness and health.)

P.S. – Bonus TED videos, added 11 May 2016:

 

Talking Points: Play and innovation

The points covered in the past 6 reposts (starting here), while valid and important points, are far from being all there is to say about the importance of play. Perhaps one of the most important points is the strong linkages between imaginative play and concrete innovation, technological and otherwise.

It’s a matter of simple logic that play generates solutions that more rigorous forms of work do not. Play is by its nature both engaged and unconstrained – or more precisely, the constraints arise only from the current (and evolving) facts of the situation. It is the ideal tool for exploring the full range of possibilities in any situation, and discovering interesting properties and interactions which might be generalised to other situations. The quote I selected to launch the 2013 Global Gossip Game – “Play is training for the unexpected” – reflects this; and notably, its source was not an educational theorist (though many such would agree) but a paper by mammalian biologists.

In support of this idea, that play is fundamental to developing strategies to deal with the new and unexpected, I can point to things like the ways in which advanced mathematics/logic has developed a branch (which ventures into psychology and economics) called “game theory”; the way in which advanced computing technology spontaneously generated games in a variety of formats; even (stretching it quite a lot) The Game of Life (playable here) as an example of the way in which the most simplistic iterative processes can develop lifelike properties that can start taking on decidedly playful characteristics.

But this truism is evident at an even more obvious level. For the last few millennia, the major driving forces behind technological advancement have been military and industrial. In the last few decades, one of the major driving economic forces behind innovations in input and output devices has been the games industry – to the extent that many cutting-edge military technologies use games controllers as inputs. (And as the games industry continues to advance its outputs – VR, haptics, etc – the military will likely start using those more too.)

Let’s emphasise this. Play-driven innovations are keeping pace with – and even outpacing – the life-and-death research of the military. Of course, they are building on each other’s achievements, and the point I’m making here is a generalisation. Even so, you know there’s a powerful motivating force at work – and one that is more likely to produce innovations that actively improve the quality of everyday life, as opposed to (in principle, hopefully) making it harder for outside forces to disrupt them.

In a world increasingly driven by innovation, this is clearly not something we can afford to ignore.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play and freedom.)

Talking points: Games, systems, and systems literacy

[First posted on the IGD blog on October 14, 2013]

Welcome to the fifth and final entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned! (Click here to start from the beginning.) I hope you’ve found them interesting and informative – or at least useful in making the case for games as having a place among the many modes of culture the library supports. I would be very interested to hear feedback in the comments! Anyway, here’s the summary of this final Talking Point from the original post:

Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words.

As we’ve discussed, games are culture that creates connections between people; they force us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness; and they are as capable of seriousness and at least as capable of fun as any other medium. But we have not yet talked about perhaps the single most important aspect of games: their existence as systems of rules. (And in some cases nothing more – no physical components at all!)

The world we live in is full of systems. Many of these are natural systems, such as the immensely complex system of air and water circulation that moves heat around the planet and (for instance) allows the west coast of Ireland to be far warmer than it has any right to be out there in the Atlantic with nothing between it and the Arctic. Or the migration patterns of birds and insects, or the dance of subatomic particles within every atom of matter, or the myriad physiological systems (nervous, digestive, circulatory, immune, endocrine…) whose interactions enable the individual existences of every complex living organism on the planet – including us.

Then there are the hybrid natural-human systems on which we depend, such as agriculture, water storage and distribution, various forms of power generation and resource gathering, shipping, fermentation, various medical interventions, and many more.

And lastly, of course, there are the entirely anthropogenic systems – languages (and for that matter language as a whole); the high technology of the internet and its billions of electronic components (including the computer on which I write this and the device on which you read it) which of course are themselves systems; government, the military, cities and towns; economies, corporations, production systems, workplaces; architecture, narratives, music, culture… We have always been surrounded and pervaded by systems of tremendous complexity, but increasingly and for an increasing number of us, the systems with which we interact are either heavily influenced by human intervention, or human-created.

(And we ignore to our peril the inescapable reality that all these systems which can so easily engross and consume our attention are themselves embedded in and emergent from the larger natural systems which surround us, supplying their raw materials, enabling and/or constraining their processes, and being affected by their outputs.)

One of the many extraordinary things about humanity is its capacity to perceive not just the moment-to-moment flow of phenomena, but – indirectly – the systems which underlie the endless tumble of events. It’s like trying to work out the inner workings of a tremendous factory by peering through the windows – only the factory is the size of the universe, some of its machines are smaller than atoms, and each of us only gets one window a few centimetres across.

It is my firm belief – and I am far from alone in this; Plato, Einstein, and many other great minds agree – that this capacity is intimately linked to our capacity for play. Play is about consequence and experimentation, about if-this-then-that and what-if-this-happens? It is hard to imagine a behaviour better adapted to learning and responding to the parameters of a system.

Games, as codified play, are themselves systems. Some are incredibly simple systems – Tic-Tac-Toe or Snap – while some are tremendously complex systems which attempt to approximate reality (or some imaginary version thereof) – particularly the “crunchier” or more rules-heavy end of the tabletop roleplaying genre and the wargames from which it evolved, which have their roots in genuine military attempts to simulate various actual battle – and economic and ecological – conditions, and which typically by their nature need to be able to respond to player actions outside a rigorously predefined set of possibilities.

I am not an especially good Chess player, and barely know Go, but in both cases I know enough to see that one of the keys to successful play is the ability to successfully visualise the myriad interactions of a single move both on the board at the time and in the branching possibilities that arise from the new game state – the way it shifts the interfering patterns of support and protection. If I move my rook here, it protects my king, but leaves my bishop vulnerable, and if that goes my queen has nothing to protect it either. Of course, this is just one aspect of play; the ability to use the shift of pieces to manipulate your opponent into making key mistakes is another (and according to some, though I personally disagree, even more important) dimension – playing on your opponent through your play on the board.

Clearly these are skills which are worth cultivating – as our ancestors have known for millennia, as evidenced by the prestige rightly accorded excellence at Go, Chess, and similar games by cultures all around the world. This same ability to visualise and anticipate multiple interlocking influences and consequences is vital to biology, medicine, climate science, economics, physics, engineering, advanced manufacturing and informational workflows – pretty much any advanced discipline, and especially cross-disciplinary work and even advanced generalisation. (If you’re interested in further reading, the pioneering work in systems thinking – the art of understanding system dynamics – done by Donella Meadows and others is an excellent place to start developing the general skill of analysing systems.)

So that’s one aspect of this topic: the inherent merits of games as practice for life in the same way that fiction is – as a playful practice of necessary analytical skills with very real applications. But as we discussed last month, games aren’t just systems, they’re poetic systems – systems which are designed to express and/or induce particular emotions, ideas, or other responses.

And this is for me perhaps the most valuable aspect of games as culture: they teach us that systems are not neutral, that they can and do embody particular values and weight themselves towards particular outcomes, and that these outcomes are expressive of the way the system is designed at least as much as they are of the qualities of particular participants in or elements of the system. Given that many of the systems which are most negatively impacting most of us at this point in time are human-created, and many of the natural systems affecting us negatively are human-influenced, this is an essential lesson for us to learn – and apply.

This concludes our Talking Points series! I hope it has helped to persuade those who need persuading that there is substantial value to be found in games, and that they have the capacity to be the active, dynamic complement to the pensive, contemplative cultural mode that books foster. We need both reflection and decision in our lives; I would argue that we need both games and books as ways to keep those parts of our psyches in good health without being overloaded in reality.

There is a great deal more to say about games – the lessons they teach us (through game theory) about mutual support, competition, community, and more; the mental health benefits; the extraordinary range of social and technological innovations they have driven; the fact that gaming culture, although (somewhat deservedly) having a reputation for being riddled with nasty online behaviour, is in many ways ahead of the mainstream in identifying and constructively attempting to address bigotry and discrimination. But those posts are for later.

[EDIT: Follow this link to read those later posts.]

Talking points: Games, seriousness, poetry, and fun

[First posted on the IGD blog on September 10, 2013]

Welcome to the fourth, and penultimate, entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from the original post:

Games can be serious, poetic and expressive – or trivial, silly and fun – and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse’s work is, it’s completely brilliant fluff?)

We’ve seen that games are culture that creates connections between people, and forces us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness. All of these points were made to show that the assumption that games are mere bits of fun not worth being taken seriously by libraries is an ill-considered kneejerk reaction, and hopefully that point has been made.

So now I want to take a step back and reflect on that notion of “mere fun” – the idea that something fun inherently has less value or meaning, and should be treated dismissively – especially in reference to games.

Contrary to that common assumption, the fact that games are fun is not, in fact, a mark of triviality. On the contrary, it is a sign that they speak to something deeply embedded in what it is to be human. When music evokes strong emotional reactions, that is understood to be a mark of its quality; visual arts likewise. Prose or poetry that move us are recognised as being important for that reason. That games typically evoke different emotions, emotions more suited to active engagement rather than reflection, does not mean that we are less obliged to attempt to understand why and how they do so, or that we will be less rewarded by the attempt.

Part of the problem seems to come from the assumption that fun and seriousness are somehow opposites. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Fun”, the spirit of play, is a distinguishing characteristic of humanity at its most fully engaged, as pioneering psychological thinker Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi explores in his seminal work Flow. The flow-state he describes in this book is attained by finding a sweet spot where the mind is focused and highly but not overwhelmingly challenged, much like the best physical exercise. Flow, unsurprisingly, is highly conducive to happiness and mental health. Notably for libraries, Csiksentmihalyi’s work on flow is also deeply concerned with its relationship to learning.

It is no coincidence that one of the communities where his work is most widely known is in the game design community, with pioneering indie game development company thatgamecompany actually naming one of their earlier games (or possibly two) after it. Fun and seriousness can be inextricably intertwined – if you’ve ever fallen in (requited) love, or played with a child to whom you have a close bond, odds are that you’ve experienced this firsthand.

Even in less intensely intimate interactions, people engrossed in play may be laughing their heads off, but still be taking the experience very seriously; conversely, players maybe concentrating intently, and even to outward appearances grimly, and inwardly having an exhilarating, even transcendentally joyous experience.

Outside the context of formal play, encountering truly poetic works in any medium (“poetic” here used in the broader sense of “beautifully made for its moment”, as in “poetic justice”) also inspires this same mixture of an upwelling of joy and exhilaration with a state of profound awareness and reflection. That games more often approach this intersection from the side of fun rather than seriousness does not mean they cannot reach it. And given that they can, surely we should be cultivating the medium – as we do others – to assist them to do so as often as possible.

Even if “fun” and “serious” were opposites, there is nothing saying that they are synonymous with “insignificant” and “important” respectively. We all know people who are both deadly serious and deathly dull, and conversely people who are alight not only with fun but with intelligence, wisdom and wit as well. In fact, I would say that being serious without a sense of fun is more likely to be a dangerous quality than having a sense of fun untempered by seriousness, and that combining both fun and seriousness is significantly preferable to either alone.

This has been recognised by thinkers throughout history. James P. Carse wrote a book called Finite and Infinite Games which is well worth reading (and not only in this connection). And it’s no coincidence that the quote chosen to start off the world’s first Global Gossip Game was from no less a figure than Playto: “Life must be lived as play.” (Technically this is a translated paraphrase, but it’s widely quoted in this form. I mention this point because it’s important to be accurate, lest distortions creep into our communication and we end up with “He bites snails.”)

Now, none of this is to say that anything that gives someone a giggle or whiles away an hour is noble and enduring and should be in our collections. LOLCats.com isn’t A Comedy of Errors. (Ah, the power of italicization.) But we stock Mills & Boon novels, and I’m pretty sure not all of those are classics to be preserved for the ages, and I’m also pretty sure that the people reading them are already about as literate as they’re going to get from reading Mills & Boon. None of this is to say that we should stop stocking those books; I’m just pointing out that this does suggest that we recognise the value of sharing culture purely for the sake of the pleasure it affords. So even if we decide that games by their nature cannot be serious or improving, that still would not be a sufficient basis on which to ignore them. And we cannot in good faith decide any such thing when examples and evidence to the contrary abound.

Given that, as we’ve previously discussed, games can be powerful cultural experiences, that they exercise the brain, that they improve our capacity to analyse systems and to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, that they are well-suited to the library, and that the library is well-suited to them – and that on top of all that, they’re fun – surely it’s time we started engaging with them more rigorously, bringing the best of the intelligent, widely cultured library perspective to games, and bringing the best of games to the library experience.

(Click here for our last Talking Points post – “Games, systems, and systems literacy”.)