4 min read

Some unexpected stories about gaming

An enjoyable rabbit hole to fall down
Some unexpected stories about gaming
A chaotic top down view map for a video game, 16-bit - Stable Diffusion

A little known fact

I built a game called Superherolympics for my grad school thesis. This is maybe not as weird as it sounds, given that I was in a design program where everyone built something for their thesis work. The game I built - along with my incredible partner in design, Mariana - was what we called “a massive tabletop game”; essentially, we took a bunch of tabletop dynamics and then applied them to a huge field so you could play with dozens of other people. It was grad school, so of course we were also connecting to a body of theoretical work - in our case, we were exploring how pro-social gaming could build a sense of shared identity and belonging in multicultural contexts. If you’ve been around these parts for long enough, then you might know how much I dislike the term gamification. Our number 1 principle for Superherolympics was that first and foremost, it had to be fun. None of that “putting chocolate on broccoli to trick the people into eating vegetables” action. And, you know what? It was fun. It was goofy and a bit unwieldy - but that was part of what we wanted from the project: we had an opportunity to create something that would probably never make sense as a “product,” and when else would we be allowed to do that? (We also had a classmate who turned her thesis into a company that she later sold for a princely sum, and seeing that come to life was also very cool) For some reason, I’ve left the website for it up for all these years…and if you really, really want to you can actually download a lo-fi version of it and play yourself.

This design? All Mariana. Watching her work her magic in Adobe CS was transfixing.

I had no idea at the time just how much the work around identity & belonging would be such a central focus of my work for (at least) the next decade. Nor did I expect that I’d spend so much of both my career and even my own leisure time in the world of games. I wasn’t a huge gamer as a kid; the last system I owned in my childhood was a Super Nintendo, and I’m not actually THAT old. I just missed a few generations of consoles because I am old enough that the only way to do multiplayer was to be in the same room together, and I didn’t have much interest in single player games, so I was fine to game when I was together with friends. Maybe it isn’t all that surprising, then, that I gravitated toward the social aspects of gaming.

With that in mind, how about a few links on some stories of unexpected and even subversive approaches to social gaming…

  • I was captivated by this story about the Dungeons & Dragons scene in the carcerial state. It gets into so much of what makes games a compelling context for building substantial relationships and lives of meaning, even within a context that lends itself more easily to resignation and despair.
  • Yes, yes, it’s a half hour video about Fortnite, but it’s also an excellent reflection on how we conceive of human nature. Here’s the quick setup: Pop Culture Detective spends a lot of time in Fortnite first just playing as a pacifist, and then actively trying to befriend other players in the zero sum game that is Battle Royale. Seriously, I swear it’s worth your time.
  • And this one is just pure fun: Common Proverbs as Video Game Tutorials. My favorite: “Your heart doesn’t have enough Fondness to complete this action. Try leaving the area for a while and coming back later.”

Over the summer, I tore through Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. Anyone who has worked on an ambitious creative project will recognize quite a few of the character archetypes and dynamics present in this story about a creative partnership between 2 video game creators. Nerdie indie gamers will also recognize a lot of the specific game references, though I was also disheartened reading about some of the real world creators who felt kind of taken advantage of. Nonetheless, a thoroughly enjoyable book.

What I’m Playing These Days

Aside from Pokemon, of course. I have 2 “go to” games these days, both of which I haven’t regretted a minute of the time I’ve spent playing:

Slay the Spire | Nintendo Switch download software | Games | Nintendo

Slay The Spire - a total genre classic. A combo of a deck-building game and a dungeon crawler battle game. I know I said just a few paragraphs ago that I’m not much of a single player game, but Slay The Spire is the exception that proves the rule. Many a night I have finished a run and realized that 2 or 3 hours had passed without me noticing. It’s been on Steam for a long time, but it recently came to Apple Arcade and I find I enjoy the tactile experience of dragging cards into play. Writing this paragraph got me tempted to start a new run, temptation - alas - that I will resist this time.

Lykke Studios | Bangkok

Stitch - just cute as heck, but also works well as both a brain teaser and a more meditative calming exercise. It’s particularly pleasant on an iPad screen, both because it looks so good and because you can get a couple people around the screen working on a stitch together.

Are there social games that you particularly enjoy? Drop em in the comments or hit reply if you got this as a newsletter!