The prodigal blogger returns

Good gravy, what say we surpass this stagnant state of non-blogging, eh? A new year, a good quarter done, much to catch up on, much to do. So: let’s.

Digits? Commence list exposition!

  • I’m still enjoying work at the NLA, a good six months in. It seems I’m finally getting the hang of the whole work/life-outside-work balancing act, with the inevitable occasional wobbles and hiccups.
  • I am against the word that is spelled ‘hiccough’.
  • When something is too spicy for me, I get hiccups.
  • I like to insert irrelevant items into lists.
  • I can’t decide whether lists are inane or wonderful. Or maybe both.
  • Scissors Paper Pen continues apace — onward and upward, even! We’ve put on events all around central Canberra: at the Phoenix Pub, Lonsdale Street Roasters, the National Library, and, during the You Are Here Festival, several other places (and all this YAH business will be expanded upon at a latter dot, but for now I sing praises to Rosie Stevens for ably organising so much SPP/YAH-related stuff while I was off gallivanting in places like NYC [again, latter dot] and she did and does a whole stack of good stuff so go read her blog already).  O, and SPP won an Express Media award! As for the future, we at SPP have further plans of great excitement, online and off. Rest yourselves assuredly. For now, we do hope for your involvement in future SPP happenings, dear blog reader, and offer you some of the podcasts we’ve got so far, with a promise of much more SPP goodness a-comin’.
  • Did somebody say podcasts? I have been going certifiably insane for the things in the past few months. JoMad: I Heard You Like Books?Radiolab, The Rereaders, This American Life, Paper Radio and all sorts from the ABC. You have suggestions for more? Fire away!
  • Speaking of electronic wonderment, I got me a Kobo Touch for Christmas! It’s pretty great. Once I got past the novelty factor, the accidental dropping of my keys on the screen (tiny spiderweb crack attack!) and other miscellaneous gadget glitches that keep such devices devoid of some elusive holistic rightness and romantic charm, I have found it most excellent for a variety of reading materials! In fact, it’s really good for travelling, which is handy because…
  • In February/March, my first ladyfriend and I did travel overseas for a fortnight! For me, it was my first time stepping outside the bits on the map marked ‘Australia’, so it was definitely a Big Thing. We went to New York, we went to Montreal, we passed through Schenectady on an Amtrak train, we sat on planes for days, the whole bit. I may just dedicate a future post solely to such travel stories. Oddly enough, I haven’t written anything substantial about it since I returned ashore. However, we did keep a daily travel diary and I did send a dozen postcards while international. But in summary:

It was excellent. USA! NUMBER ONE! YEAHHHHH.

  • And then we returned to the calm clamour of Canberra, amidst the second annual You Are Here Festival. It’d been going for a few days when I arrived, but my festival began when I, mildly jetlagged, popped into that long-abandoned newsagency, redubbed The Newsroom. I saw The Cashews playing to a room full of all sorts and it was golden gorgeous and I was Home. Over the next few days, I witnessed multitudes of poetry, the best debate ever, a wondrous harp + laptop duo, got pub quizzed at, experienced comedy as religious-educational experience and hunted for miniscule artworks around the CBD. Even in my, still limited, experience, it was awesome and I can’t wait for next year. In the meantime, I’ll be extracting some of the goodness from the YAH blog and its associated multimedia webtunnels.
  • Speaking of what has been but remains rad: making and sharing mix CDs and sending postcards, letters and other postal delights! Been doing it since Christmastime and it’s a weirdly great thing and if you are still reading this I will send you a postcard or a letter or something if you give me yr address or hey also look at this PO Box 251 Campbell LPO 2612 get on that like a total hipster before it’s too cool.
  • But seriously what even is a hipster? I think it is an excuse to just dismiss something and it’s a lazy term mostly.
  • Lazy? I rode a friggin’ segway on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.
  • And I kinda finally learned how to iron. It took 25 years. No segue.
  • Even though I’d not been blogging for months ’til this outburst, I have been writing. I have words forthcoming in Burley. And you remember that You Are Here thing I mentioned? Well one Julian Fleetwood launched another thing during it called Mall Stories and I have a story in it about this one time I worked at a bookshop, and a voice actor reads it out to you during a self-guided walking tour and everything. I’m planning to actually finally do the tour this coming weekend! You can too! Preferably in the Canberra Centre, but in any case you should download it and go walking around a mall, or anywhere. Just listen. I know it’ll be good. But anyway, beyond those writings, I’ve had a few rejections which are always good for both reflection and a short-back-‘n’-sides on the ol’ ego, plus I have a number of writings pending and hey, I wrote this blog post list and it has like a dozen dot points already, what else do you want from me?
  • Huh?
  • Geez.
  • You’ll see!
  • Okay, I’ll stop the dots.

And there you have it: blog post! I hear there’s more where it came from, just quietly. So commence overlapping of your digits in anticipation and I’ll dedicate mine to punching more characters.

(postscript/edit: it was only after posting this that I thought to check the definition of ‘prodigal’. Apparently it actually means ‘wastefully extravagent’. Did everybody else know this? I clearly did not pay enough attention during Sunday school, but hey, now I know and I guess I am rather prodigal with my words/dots?)

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Freeplay 2010

Aw snap, before I get down to Melbourne Writers Festival blogging, I almost forgot I was gonna write about another recent date in Melbourne’s chock-a-block festival calendar: The Freeplay Independent Games Festival! Okay then. Quicksmart!

Righto, so the other weekend there was the 2010 Freeplay festival. This was my first time going along, and although I didn’t get a full ticket to the festival, there was still plenty of free stuff open to the public, within the State Library of Victoria’s Experimedia section. I WAS going to buy a ticket, but the main festival had already sold out (score for Freeplay!). In retrospect, it’s probably just as well I didn’t pay for a ticket, as pretty much everything I wanted to see was within the free public exhibition. A lot of the stuff in the paid festival was more for people deeply involved with all that tricky coding/programming/design/3D modelling stuff. You know, for people who actually make games.

Not me though. Well, there was Klik n Play. And I did make a Frogger-like game (called Froggo) for my Software Design and Development class in Year 12, and it was a goddamn marvel that took me weeks to get working. But I still haven’t worked out how to get the VisualBasic program working on my newer computer so I can show it off. BUT, while it was satisfying to make in the end, the arduous process of writing the code and fixing the bugs and remembering the jargon and getting the darn thing working assured me that building games from scratch was not my idea of an ideal career path. My talents lay elsewhere.

So yes, anyway, I figured a while ago that I’m not a Maker of Games, and although it would be awesome to write dialogue or the story for games, until I become a Renowned Writer, I will remain content with playing them. I don’t spend days upon days playing video games, like I did back in the day, though events like Freeplay always inspire a reminder of what I love about games, and thus inspire a brief return to the gaming frenzy. Still, my newest console is a Playstation 2, and I’m mostly still playing games of roughly that era or earlier, every now and then. I do keep up with what’s happening in gaming, but with a few exceptions, I’m pretty much a decade behind in games, which is okay by me. Maybe I only pay attention to those that have truly stood the test of time. That’s what I like to think.

In any case, games are awesome. Computer games. Video games. Board games. Card games. Or just good old fashioned, unmediated, unstructured play, like a kid with nothing but the world around them and their imagination.  And thus, the theme of the festival: Play is Everywhere.

And there was definitely a lot of play to be had within Experimedia.

Among the games on display, the first to catch my eye was Jolly Rover. If you’ve ever played any of the classic Monkey Island adventures, then think that, but with pirate dogs instead of pirate people. This one is now on my buy + play list. Check it out:

Two others of note: Mine Quest, which will soon be on Facebook to challenge Farmville’s time-sucking powers, and Hazard, which is just downright trippy.

Later I found out that some of these, and plenty of others, were featured in the Freeplay Awards Winners list and the shortlist. Yarr, thar be some super fun and super interesting games in them thar lists.

Beyond the games, I also caught a few panels.  The first: Everything Old is New Again. Being one of the first panels of the fest, there were a few teething problems with sound and presentation, but they soon started enthusiastically chowing down on things like retro revival, abandonware, the role of memory and nostalgia in a generation that has grown up with video games, and how things come in different cycles, refreshed for each new generation that doesn’t share the direct experiences of the last. They also touched on how games can (and should?) be deep, difficult, complex and original, but this kind of game often doesn’t find as much of an immediate market because it’s not easily compressed into a tweet, a marketing slogan, a recognisable genre or an existing franchise.

The next panel I saw was Getting Started. This was about all sorts of 3D modelling programs and industry tips for those just starting. Judging by my notes, I spent the whole talk contemplating the differences between games and other mediums, like movies, songs and novels. I pondered interactivity, narrative, the imagination, and the roles they play in different mediums in different ways. And I just mulled over the originality and experimentation in independent creative works.  I’m sure the talk was great for others, but I guess my mind wandered because I wasn’t too interested in learning all that technical jibbajabba. See? Writer, thinkerer, not a Game Maker.

Then there was the Play is Everywhere panel, taking its title from the theme of the festival. Appropriately, the panellists explored the topography of the topic far and wide. They questioned the value of play, intrinsically and otherwise. What can play offer us, besides pleasure and relaxation? What can play teach us? Can play be political? Can it make us more virtuous? It’s been shown that surgeons who play games can be better at doing their job. And games bring diverse people together, both online and off, to play. Children are teaching adults. Kids aren’t babysat by games, unlike with TV. It’s a less passive medium, in a sense. People are learning complex systems through interaction and experimentation. Play = risk = experimentation = learning = reward = life. One speaker made the note that play has always been everywhere, that’s nothing new. It’s games that are now widespread, often literally via mobile devices. Games are a unique fusion of art, science and technology.

I particularly liked what one panellist, Morgan Jaffit, said: that games should be more dangerous. Truly rebellious. Exploring scary stuff and controversial ideas (Escape from Woomera was given as one of the few examples out there). Not just mindless shoot-em-up violence and gore, which has actually become fairly safe. Games need to step beyond their association with kids, and get into complex, adult territory, like some of the best films and novels have. And this is partly why video games need to be able to have 18+ classification, rather than being refused classification. So yes, like play, this panel went everywhere and it was super interesting.

Finally, there was the Sleep is Death panel. If you want to know what Sleep Is Death is about, then just go watch the explanatory slideshow at their website. But basically, it’s a two-player collaborative storytelling game and it was something of a revelation to see it in action. It’s simple, yet it has essentially endless possibilities. It can be used to create interactive narratives of madcap surrealism, or elegant wonder, or who knows what else. It’s up to the two collaborative storytellers. In the demonstration we had, a member from the audience played as a judge who reluctantly slayed a wolf that was terrorising the community. But the game essentially has no limits, as far as the stories you can tell and play around with.

From the slideshow on sleepisdeath.net

Yup.

It’s utterly responsive and unpredictable, and I just found it hugely inspiring. Even better, you can watch back past games (yours or others) like a slideshow. I’m keen to buy this, but I’m holding off, just because when I do get it, I know I’m gonna be hooked. But you can bet you’ll hear more about it from me eventually.

So. Sleep Is Death. Storytelling meets play. This is another thing I’m super interested in. I’ve always been interested in games where the story is integral. And I guess in a sense storytelling is in itself a kind of play. But then hang on, I’ve realised that with Sleep Is Death, I kind of can make games, in the sense that I can create an interactive narrative. Now I really want to download it. Who knows where that will lead? Maybe I’ll even play around with VisualBasic and get Froggo working again. And where will my tinkering take me from there?

I guess one overall lesson I took from Freeplay 2010 is that play is important. Sometimes it gets a bad rap. Some call it childish. But I also learnt a new word — neoteny: the retention of juvenile characteristics in adult life. Sure, it’s a biological term, but it can be useful when you look at it more broadly. Really, whether you’re a child, an adult, or somewhere in-between, play is vital and enriching, and it’s good to have it as a balanced and integrated part of your daily life.

Finally, for some further, detailed, Freeplay-related reading, check out some great stuff I found, trawling via the #freeplay10 hashtag and various related links: Grassisleena’s report, an exhaustive wrap-up from Critical Damage, some deep thoughts from festival director Paul Callaghan’s blog and a great piece on Sleep is Death. There. That’ll do ya. Nearly as edifying as attending the festival yourself, no?

To tweet or not to tweet?

So it seems like Twitter is well and truly established in the interwebbertubertrons, at least for the time being, and I’ve actually started reading a few people’s feeds on a somewhat regular basis. The only problem is, at the moment I don’t even have an account. Yup, I’m pretty much a Twitter lurker, reading but not really interacting.

I think I will finally join up in a few weeks, after I’ve finished all of my Uni assignments and taken a bit of a holiday. It’s just that until then, I don’t really need another distraction. I know if I have a Twitter feed to check compulsively every 5 minutes, it’ll be like having seven Facebook accounts. Nothing will get done, at least not until I get past the novelty stage and I don’t know when or if that would end. So I’m not opening that Pandora’s Box just yet.

 

(Image:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/carrotcreative/ / CC BY 2.0)

I know it’s the whole Google Reader situation all over again for me. Before getting with the times and being introduced to Google Reader in class, I had a bookmarked list of blogs that I would check several times daily on lazy days and a mental list that I would check occasionally too. Now that I use Google Reader, I can go to one page and see exactly where my distraction lies, nicely summarised to show exactly how many posts  I can read when I choose to (621? Oh, that’s nice). Likewise, if I actually signed up to Twitter, I could just go to one website containing my feed, rather than remembering which separate pages I may want to check at any given time, whether or not they’ve been updated. But still, either way, I think I need to hold off on joining the tweeting hordes for now.

On a side note, it’s interesting how in several recent articles, on both The Age‘s website and various  culture/entertainment websites, Twitter posts are a way of both gathering and communicating a quick cross-section of community opinion. This seems to be applied to any topic, from TV shows to complex political issues, and not just the Iranian elections.

So of course, it’s not all distraction. As with all things online, I check out stuff from people who write entertaining things, who find really interesting articles, share mind-expanding stories or forward amazing videos. Twitter will help me do that too, and share back in return. It’s all part of the conversation. And there will, of course, be a few lolcats and inane posts about how delicious my sandwich was. That’s life. It’s just another part of a diverse multimedia-infused world that is constantly evolving, and involving everything: conversations, phonecalls, letters,  novels, poetry, websites, music videos, video games, a friendly wave and a smile, SMS, comics, and now tweets.

Having said all that, any recent converts, or maybe people who are Twitter Qwitters? Anyone who can convincingly sway me either way? Don’t worry, it’s a few weeks at least before I finally pick sides. And no matter which side you’re on, we’ll always have terrible Twitter puns to unite us. Because in the end, websites like Twitter are what you make of them. They can be fun, useful and edifying, depending on who you connect with, but always remember moderation, and most of all, remember: all that Twitters is not gold. BAM!