Monday, April 22, 2013

Thoughts for Sale

Today I am releasing an ebook/pdf titled 'Thoughts from the Peasant Muse'.  It contains 23 essays, most of which originally appeared here on my blog.  I've decided to sell it through Gumroad, and for the price of $3 (or more if you feel generous) you will receive epub, pdf, and Amazon compatible versions of the ebook.  It contains 55,000+ words spread over 140 pages, and each essay has an explanatory preface that provides background information on what motivated me to write the piece.  The topics covered span book reviews, Russian history, digital culture, games, and even a episode review of Boardwalk Empire.  In short, there's something for everybody.

Why am I selling essays I've made available for free on my blog?  In part, I wanted to gather a compilation of my best pieces as something to hand my committee when I submit my portfolio.  I also wanted to see how difficult it would be to create my own ebook- and it turns out it wasn't that hard.  But the main reason I wanted to gather my thoughts, place them in a nice format, and sell them is that there are people who enjoy my work- giving them the option to purchase an ebook provides a way for them to directly support me.  I will never place ads on my blog, nor will I change the Creative Commons license from its current CC-BY form.  I highly encourage anyone to take my work, remix it, change it, do whatever, because I am a firm believer that making one's work freely available for others to use in their own pursuits is one of the greatest contributions that can be made to maintain and grow the cultural commons.

Yet it is an inescapable fact that writing for my blog does cost me time and money.  I, generally, enjoy eating and paying my rent.  My dogs enjoy eating as well.  So I'm offering the one meaningful thing I have to offer- my thoughts.

Now to be clear- every essay contained in this compilation can be freely accessed, here, at Peasant Muse.  My other essays that have been published at the likes of Play the Past, The New Inquiry, and The Media Res are also freely available.  Nothing is stopping you from gathering these posts and making your own compilation of my work.  But I would ask that if you enjoy reading what I write, please consider purchasing a copy of 'Thoughts from the Peasant Muse'.  It would mean a lot to me, and it would also help me pay my bills.  And eat.  And let my dogs eat.  My car also needs some work.  You get the idea.

So now that you know why I've put an ebook together, I thought it would be a good idea to explain *how* I put my ebook together.  (For all the images below, click to enlarge)

I used two programs, Pages '09 and Calibre, to construct the layout of the ebook/pdf and convert it into various formats.  Using this template provided by Apple for making ebooks in Pages, I was able to easily make chapters and have a table of contents automatically update as I added more material.  There were some issues with using Pages, however.  For one thing, the images I used as headers would shift to the left margin, even if I centered the image, when I converted the document into an epub file.  After much searching through the forums, I discovered a workaround.  After placing the image, (which as to be 'inline' and not 'floating', as epub doesn't support floating images) you have to create a center-justified 'chapter subheading' just under the picture for it to remain in place after conversion.

Other than that, the process of importing text and then setting up block quotes or hyperlinks was incredibly easy.  While the template provides an 'index' and other pages, I just made my index section another 'chapter'- and did the same thing for the 'About the Author' page.  After I had the layout set up as I liked, I used Pages to convert it into an epub file.

One thing about the cover- using Pages, your cover will not stretch to fill the page.  It will instead create a smaller image (because it has to be 'inline' and not 'floating') that makes your cover look small on the various reading devices.  Solving this problem is easy though- it involves using Calibre, which was the other piece of software I utilized in making my ebook.

Calibre is a wonderful piece of open source software.  It can act as a library for all your various ebooks, and it also syncs with reading devices that are plugged in to your computer.  Once I had my Pages-to-epub conversion complete, I would import the epub file into Calibre.  One of the better features of Calibre is the ability to convert one type of file into another- although the results will vary if you're using a file type (like pdf) that isn't easily adjustable.  Taking my original epub file, I would have Calibre convert it into another epub file.  This sounds counterintuitive, but by doing this I could select my own cover image which allowed me to escape the 'small' cover image utilized by Pages.

Calibre also has the ability to convert epub files into Amazon friendly files, which includes the latest AWZ3 file-type along with the older MOBI standard.  You can also use Calibre as an ebook reader, and I would often send my working files over to Calibre to be converted and proofed for formatting errors.

For pdf conversions, I just used the default export tool found in Pages.  Since pdf files are really just images, you can put in much nicer formatting items like page numbers or lines across the page to separate sections of text.  (Epub/Amazon need to be able to adjust the text based on a users desired font size, hence the inability to incorporate nicer formatting styles)  You are also given more liberty to play with pictures and their placement into the text with a pdf file, but since I wanted some degree of continuity between the versions I decided to include only minor changes to the pdf version of my ebook.

Now some of you might not have Pages- in that case, I suggest using Sigil.  Sigil is another open source software tool used for creating ebooks.  It's a little more stripped down UI-wise, but if you are adept in HTML and/or CSS you can pull off much more interesting tricks with your ebook formatting using Sigil.

I should mention one other minor issue using Pages presented; my converted epub file, when displayed on iBook devices, contained hyphenated words.  The Amazon file did not, and the pdf didn't as well, but the epub file viewed on iBooks would create hyphenations when the word line exceeded the space provided on the screen.  From my own limited knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes, it would appear that Pages epub conversion tool inserts 'soft-hyphens' into the very code of the epub file.  I wasn't able to find a way to strip these 'soft-hyphens' out of the file through Calibre, so those who view my ebook on their iPhone or iPad will have to deal with hyphenated words.  It doesn't look elegant, but if it bothers people they can just load up the pdf version of the ebook and see nice, clean formatting.

I am almost certain that had I used Sigil to create the ebook text, the hyphenation issue wouldn't be a problem.  Live and learn, I guess.

Going through this process only affirmed to me how easy it is to make one's own ebook for all sorts of uses.  I know that when I get back to teaching students, I will give them the essays/handouts in this form because 1) it's easy and 2) giving students essential files in formats that they are more likely to use increases the chance that they will actually use them.

So that's about it.  If you have questions over anything I've gone over, drop me a line in the comments or through my email (jantley AT gmail DOT com).

Monday, April 15, 2013

Board Stiff with Formalism

Photo via Henrik Berger Jørgensen

There's nothing like being fashionably late to a party, or a debate about formalism and games.  Oh, wait- I mean, a debate about formalism and digital games.  Because if you've read all the posts and back-and-forth's, you probably noticed one thing; it almost entirely centers on the medium of digital games.  Which is not a bad thing, really.  It just happens to be a shame, because the topic is larger than the digital and should, rightfully, include the medium of board games.

First off, I want to be clear that I'm not going to discuss the grand old question 'are games art?'  Personally, I find that question to be inane and a complete waste of energy.  Others agree.  I'm totally certain that others disagree vehemently, but that's my stance and you won't convince me otherwise.

What I want to investigate here is an altogether deeper issue.  Why, in all this debate on the question of formalism, have board games been mostly ignored?  Because it seems to me that the board-based brethren get short shrift when it comes to the debates circulating around the larger topic of 'games'.  Raph Koster, who let loose a salvo in the formalist fracas with his 'A Letter to Leigh', does mention board games, but he also cloaks their presence, and by extension the absence of other 'non-games', under larger issues of player agency and 'gameness'.  While I don't agree with Koster's overall assessment, which I detail below, I do want to make clear that by bringing board games into the conversation Koster has done the debate a huge service.

Zack Morris time out: Pop quiz- what makes a game a game?  Would you be amazed to know I'm playing a game right now?  It's called, 'Write a Blog Post' and I'm currently kicking the ass out of it.  I'm winning in every way, despite having no defined objectives (if I finish, did I really complete the game?  If I quit writing my blog post, have I not achieved some sort of win state?  Does it go on, ad infinitum?), and the only person playing is myself.  I just earned bonus points for writing this.  End Zack Morris time out.

Specifically, let me address one particular board game Koster brings up in his post- Brenda Romero's Train.  Koster categorizes this 'game' as one that "uses the fact of engaging with it at all to accomplish its effect," before asking if this type of 'game' is really just embracing 'narrative moves' over "game-like moves."  He questions the aesthetic, implying that it is "something that should probably only be done once, marveled at, and then moved past."  By suggesting that Train is a game where "the only moral move is not to play," Koster questions, at a very fundamental level, if the aesthetic of play in this type of game is not merely a twist, a sort of trick of narrative, thus making it not a game at all.

But is the only moral move not to play?  To me, this is very indicative of a 'formalist' critique.  This is something board games have to constantly deal with, probably more so than digital games, because many players categorize the board games they play according to very formalist schemas.  Caylus is a worker placement game, Twilight Struggle is an area control game, Agricola is part of the larger family of Euro games, and so forth.  It's easy to think of board games this way.  But that's not the whole story.  If you take a look at many reviews of games, they focus on more than mechanics- they ask deeper questions of story, of theme, of how the game actually plays.  These reviews, without explicitly stating it, ask, "How does this game give me a narrative to interact with?" - which, in my mind, is something deeper than a formalist critique.  It's a humanist critique.  How does this game make me react as a human?  Formalism is a product of the rational.  Humanism is a product of the metaphysical.

Returning to the question, "Is the only moral move (of Train) not to play?", my answer is: no.  It's not just no, it's a hell no.  Why?  Train is about providing the player a sense, terrible as it is, of the sort of grotesque, normalizing effects that focusing on transporting Jews to concentration camps presents to those attempting to maximize and make efficient such transportation.  Playing Train isn't supposed to be pretty, or even fun.  It's meant to be torturous, it's meant to make you ask and question the source of your own humanity. 

Did you take glee, ignorantly, of moving the most amount of people to the end of the line?  Probably.  And when you discovered the true purpose of the game- moving representative figures to their representative death- did you recoil and become sick at the idea?  The ethical answer is yes.  But would you have encountered this full range of quandary, of questioning your own humanity, if you simply refused to play the game out of moral concerns?  To be honest, the moral question brought up by Koster assumes you know what the game is about before you play it.  But that posits perfect knowledge, which *any* game must assume you don't possess at the first go-around.  So my answer is that if you want to know what this game is about, you absolutely have to play it.  And in doing so, in playing the game of Train as it was meant to be played, perhaps you can affirm a part of your soul and it's place among the larger population of humanity.  Does this deny player agency?  Does Train embody the qualities of gameness?  Is this just a trick of narrative?

Asking these sort of questions, to me, is sort of like the old adage: If you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it.  If you have to ask do these qualities make Train a game, you probably shouldn't play it.  I say this in no affront to Koster, but I do think asking these sort of questions is indicative of the formalist trap of evaluation.  Which is, to say, I think this falls along the same issues as asking if 'games are art'.  Should you only play Train once?  Perhaps.  Does that mean you can't watch others play it, see their reactions, and take that experience in conjunction with your own?  Brenda Romero designed the game, has seen it played many times- and I'm pretty sure her answer would be 'no'.  Because, in a metaphysical sense, watching others play Train can be just as powerful as playing it yourself, even if that game lessens its 'gameplay' effect after one session.

Now I'm fully aware that opening your argument with a game like Train is a bit like dropping a hydrogen bomb to solve an ant problem in your house.  It's a bit of overkill.  But I make this example as a way to demonstrate that similar metaphysical games, like so many Twine examples, can easily be sunk in this same formalist quicksand without considering, truly, their full effect on the player, or even those not playing but merely observing a Twine game being played.  If your evaluative criteria is that "You can't do better at Train", then you have blatantly favored the rational over the metaphysical.  Which is fine, to a point.  But it certainly isn't applicable to the nebulous category that we call 'games'.  Games are, by their very nature, a blending of the rational and the metaphysical.  Board games tend to draw this blending out in a way that video games do not, so easily, reveal.  Because with board games, you have to address the form they present at a basic level. But you absolutely have to go past that for any real critique.  You have to go past mechanics to consider the humanist perspective.

Koster says 'art games' and AAA are about control, that "they are…more about the author than the player."  But I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss player agency the way Koster is comfortable doing, especially with regard to deeply personal games- like Dys4ia.  As a player of these of games, am I not affirming my place in the broader perspective of humanity when I play a deeply personal game?  Why is the narrative effect a hindrance in Twine games, but for other games- like Andean Abyss or Twilight Struggle- the narrative effect adds to their luster and allure?  When you step out of the strictly rational bounds of critique, when you go beyond the form of the game, you enter into a territory much less defined by exclusives or schematizations.  You enter into the being of the player themselves, their ability to take what is presented and draw their own lessons from the act of play.  I can think of no greater surrendering of control than to let someone bring his or her own interpretation to the fore.

Koster calls this process out "as rhetoric and not…dialectic," with the consequence being that Twine games (or really any deeply personal games) "move against the fundamental current of gameness."  But I think this makes the mistake of placing the game on a central pillar and reducing the role, the agency, of the player who approaches this pillar.  Koster says, "the unique power of games, to me, lies in the conversation between player and designer."  But I disagree- the unique power of games lies in the conversation between the player and themselves while interacting with a designers interpretation.  If we place the game on the pillar, as is the tendency of the formalist critique, then we are accepting the supremacy of the rational over the metaphysical.  If we place the player on the pillar, then we reaffirm the humanity in the game and accept the presence of the metaphysical in conjunction with the rational.  In the end, the pillar disappears under this ideal and we no longer are bound by rhetoric.  We become the dialectical.

Play is not something that begins when the game starts and ends when it is put away.  Play is the process of using a rhetorical device to engage in a dialectic with ourselves.  That's why I can't agree with Koster when he says, "games have had nothing to say for so long."  They have so much to say that it's easy to just link this outpouring strictly to mechanics and then reject what the game has to say by rejecting the mechanics linked to its outpouring.  When you imply that Twine games impose a narrative rather than have the player construct a narrative, that critique is easy to accept or recognize because the mechanics of Twine are rather straightforward.  But to look only at mechanics and not ask the deeper, metaphysical questions of what play in this medium produces as far as conversation between the player and themselves is to miss a very large part of why games exist at all.

Or, to put it another way, to frame a game experience as between a player and designer is to favor, exclusively, the mechanical over anything else.  But if we frame a game experience as between a player and themselves, we can elude the trap of formalism and go straight to the dialectical process play intrinsically produces.

But I've digressed far too much from my main question- why have board games been largely left out of this formalist debate?  Why are digital games entering this phase now?  I think, in part, digital games are coming to terms with the *way* in which they are played.  When people begin to critique the effectiveness of Bioshock as a first person shooter, what they are really critiquing is the necessity of using a standard game controller to interact with the digital medium.  Digital games have long been experiences mediated through various controllers, and this recent 'piercing of the veil' with regards to Bioshock should be seen as a turn away from the formalist obsession with mechanics, and the controllers that facilitate them, towards a bigger question of how does this formalist 'roadblock' hinder or not hinder the conversation the player is having with themselves while playing the game.

That's why board games can, and should, provide the digital game critiques with an exemplar of how to negotiate around various formalist roadblocks.  So many players of board games ask these sort of questions every time they play.  While many do, admittedly, frame this inquiry around a mechanical theme- does the card driven mechanic of Twilight Struggle enhance the gameplay experience?- the larger questions asked go to the heart of what it means to interpret the game experience as a player.  The various 'controllers' utilized in board games are hardly fixed in place, and the numerous mods or house rules scrawled on box tops are a testament to the wide degree of flexibility board games enjoy over their more rigid digital cousins.  Now I would be the first to admit the board game/digital game relationship is not a 1:1 experience, and there is only so far comparative analyses can go in these sort of endeavors.  But the links are there, waiting to be explored.

So while I find myself almost totally at odds with what Koster presented in his 'Open Letter', I nevertheless admire his insistence on bringing the question of board games back into this larger debate.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Elsevier is an honorable company...

Woodcut on the Death of Julius Caesar
Sometimes you need a play to understand the times we live in.  So, I present to you an excerpt from The Death of Open Access:


Friends, Scholars, Countrymen, lend me your browser's window!
I have come to bury Open Access, not to praise it.
The evil that ideas do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their dismissal;
So let it be with Open Access.  The noble Elsevier
Hath told you Open Access was ambitious;
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Open Access answer'd it.
Here, under the leave of Elsevier and the rest-
For Elsevier is an honorable company;
So are they all, all honorable companies-
Come I to speak in Open Access' funeral.
It was my friend, faithful and just to me;
But Elsevier says it was ambitious,
And Elsevier is an honorable company.
It hath brought many articles home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general idea-coffers fill.
Did this in Open Access seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Open Access hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Elsevier says it was ambitious,
And Elsevier is an honorable company.
You all did see that on the Internet
I thrice presented it with kingly paywall access,
Which it did thrice refuse.  Was this ambition?
Yet Elsevier says it was ambitious,
And Elsevier is an honorable company.
I do not speak to disprove what Elsevier spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love it once, not without cause;
What cause withholds you then to mourn for it?
O judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.  Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Open Access,
And I must pause till it come back to me.