The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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12:04pm on Sunday, 21st December, 2014:

An Unexpected Story


I had a dream last night that was unusual in two ways.

Firstly, I remembered it. I know I must dream as much as everyone else, but I very rarely remember them. Those I do remember are either bidden (as in, I decided to have a dream in advance) or unbidden; unbidden ones either wake me up (in which case I will always remember them) or arise from something waking me up (in which case I may remember them or I may not — hard to tell with the latter as if I don't remember having had a dream I don't know if I've forgotten having had one).

Secondly, I didn't appear in the dream myself. As all the dreams I remember I have dreamt lucidly, I am almost without exception in them myself. I remember some from my childhood that I wasn't in (particularly one that I realised 0 or 15 years later was about the concept of recursion), but it must be decades since I had one I wasn't in. Last night's dream, I wasn't in.

I could still control things in the dream, because I was aware I was dreaming, but it was unfolding as a story so I thought I'd just let it carry on to see what would happen. I'm glad I did, because it was a pretty good story. I won't give you the details, because other people's dreams are always boring, but basically it started out as a surveillance story with three people (two men and a woman) watching a young woman and controlling the environment around her as she went about her everyday business. It looked as if they were trying to make her life easier, but there was a sinister overtone. Part of the way through, they managed to manipulate her into doingsomething that she was expecting would work but didn't. They did this another two times as the story progressed, and it gradually became apparent that these three people looking at the CCTV screens weren't so much stalking this woman as enslaved by her. Their job was to make her life run smoothly, whether they liked it or not. At the end, the three things they'd caused her to do wrong resulted in the creation of an artefact that they could use to escape.

This was a really interesting story from my perspective because I had no idea what was going to happen. It was unfolding before me as if it were fully plotted, but without my input. I could have changed anything I wanted at any time, but I gave it free rein and got a pretty good and unexpected twist at the end.

What's worrying, though, is that if I didn't create this story, what did? It must have been something my subconscious cooked up. If so, though, what was it saying? That it (my subconscious mind) is enslaved by me (my conscious mind) and it's figured out a way to escape? That would be bad for both of us. Maybe it was a threat, or wishful thinking, or a request to be given time off (I do work it pretty hard). I think I may have to set up a dream for tonight to have a dialogue with it and find out what's going on.

The story is unpublishable, by the way. The three surveillers were all 2cm high and they lived in the cassette player of the woman's car...


10:57am on Sunday, 21st December, 2014:



I'm writing stuff on next year's calendar, in order to find what awkward one-day must-attend events the university has sprinkled throughout the summer to disrupt my vacation and consultancy plans. The university uses a week-based system, so it's helpful if I mark the week numbers on my calendar. Now I can work this out from the current week number (12), but it's useful to have a list of week numbers so I can check I haven't gone wrong.

To the Essex University web site!

If I type timetable in as my search query, the first result out of the 1,087 it finds is a draft autumn 2012 timetable for the Dept. of Language and Linguistics module on Elementary Spanish. The next page or so are along similar lines.

To find what I want to find, I have to click on STAFF at the top then Academic and timetable info in a side bar, then expansion, then Timetabling and room bookings in the expansion, then University week structures in the main window, then University week structures 2014-15 (.docx) in the new page that appears.

This is what happens when you build a web site entirely around the proposition that the only people who will use it are prospective students.


10:42am on Saturday, 20th December, 2014:

Stuck in my Chimney


These are the lyrics to the Christmas song, Santa Claus got Stuck in my Chimney:

Santa Claus got stuck in my chimney,
Stuck in my chimney, stuck in the chimney,
Santa Claus got stuck in my chimney,
When he came last year.

There he was in middle of the chimney,
Roly-poly, fat and round,
There he was in middle of the chimney,
Not quite up and not quite down.

Santa please come back to my chimney,
Back to my chimney, back,
Santa please come back to my chimney,
You can come back here.

Cause baby, made a brand new chimney,
Just for you this year!

Santa, come on back!

I suspect the whole thing may be a double entendre.


6:22pm on Friday, 19th December, 2014:



Wouldn't it be fun if Anonymous hacked either Sony or the North Koreans, snaffled a copy of The Interview and released it as a torrent?


8:18am on Thursday, 18th December, 2014:

What Next?


I have three weeks to do the following:

Which should I do first?

I think maybe I'll write some Christmas cards and wrap some presents...


7:12pm on Wednesday, 17th December, 2014:

Nineteen out of Twenty


I spent today on a university training course about supervising PhD students to completion. I figured that as I now have a PhD student (hi, Joseph!) I ought to find out what I'm supposed to be doing.

Interesting fact: in the UK, 95% of PhD candidates who get to the stage where they give their viva voce thesis defence will actually go on to complete. In other words, only 1 student in 20 who has a viva will not get a PhD as a result.

Of course, we lose anything between a third and three quarters of our students before they get to the viva stage (depending on the subject), so it's not exactly a shoo-in. Still, if you do get a viva then the PhD is yours to lose.

My own PhD was accepted with "major revisions". The major revisions took me a mere 30 minutes to implement, because they consisted of deleting an entire chapter then running the remainder through the word-processing software again to get the contents page and the page numbers. Today, it would have taken me 30 seconds. This is rather less than the 4 months I'd have to do them in under current regulations...


8:03pm on Tuesday, 16th December, 2014:

Saved by the Bell


I went to the Cass Business School in London this afternoon to attend a half-day conference on New Economic Models and Opportunities for digital Games (NEMOG). I normally only go to these things when I'm speaking, but NEMOG has connections with the IGGI doctoral training centre so I thought I'd show up to listen to what the person in charge of both had to say.

Well, he was ill so he didn't travel down from York. However, there were three other people I wanted to hear speak, all of whom I'd heard speak less than two weeks ago at the Osborne Clarke event. One of them spoke for an hour, which was actually good stuff. One of them left before speaking (because the BBC wanted to speak to her). I left before the other spoke. Well, it's raid night in The Secret World...

The part from actual NEMOG speakers was unfortunately rather boring. One was studying something that has changed since he started studying it; one is trying to change something monolithic; one is trying to do data analytic things that the games industry has been doing for ten years or more. Fortunately, there was a fire alarm test in the middle of their presentations, so I was able to stay awake.

I wish I were joking...


3:24pm on Monday, 15th December, 2014:



I've just finished writing a "discussive comment" for the up-coming special issue of the Psychology of Popular Media Culture journal. One of the things I noted was that psychologists throw the word "game play" around as if it meant something like "the playing of the game", which it doesn't. Unfortunately, it took me 700 words to explain what the term actually meant, which unbalanced my reply somewhat.

Yes, you're right to panic: rather than waste the time it took me to write all this, I'm subjecting you to it instead.

So, this being a journal about the psychology of playing games, several of the papers I read mentioned that there is violence inherent in a lot of gameplay. There isn't. That's because psychologists don't understand what gameplay is.

The artistic content of games is embodied in the mechanical system with which players interact to generate events. It's not embodied in the surface level — the fiction — or in the symbols that game objects betoken. These can inform the artistic content, but they are not themselves the content. If they were, games would be much the same as any other medium, and a game designer may as well be writing novels or screenplays. It's the fact that games have moving parts, and that this movement can carry meaning, that separates games from other media. The movement is influenced by the players and gives rise to the gameplay.

Now there may well be a lot of violence carried by the surface symbols, but those are (technical term) dressing: the real power of games, where they can speak to players in ways unavailable to other media, is in the underlying systems and their mutual interaction: this is the gameplay. It's extremely hard to characterise these systems as "violent". I'll explain.

Imagine a game in which two players simultaneously roll a die. Each adds their own roll to their own running total, then both roll again. The first to get to a predefined number wins. This is a mechanic common to many games, which for obvious reasons is called a race. First to 100 wins! It's a straight race, because neither player can affect the other's progress.

Now let's complicate it a little. Suppose we each have a 4-sided die (d4), a 6-sided die (d6) and a 10-sided die (d10). Separately and in secret, we choose which one we're going to roll for the current round. I may choose the d4 and you may choose the d6, for example. The rules of the game are the same as before except that if one of us chooses d10 and the other chooses the d4, only the roll of the d4 counts. Now we have another mechanic — rock, paper, scissors — overlaying the race. The result is still a race, but it's interactive rather than straight. It's also rather more fun to play, as it has a bluffing element to it. I want to roll the d10 but you may roll the d4, so I'll roll the d6 (which will tend to beat you), only you may roll the d10 (which will tend to beat me), so maybe I should roll the d4, but then you could choose the d6...

What I've described so far is an abstract game. Let's add some fiction. The players are trying to build a bridge across a river. They can lay a short span (d6), a long span (d10) or a deep pile (d4). Laying a deep pile causes the ground to shake, meaning that if the other player is laying a long span at the same time it collapses. The player experience is different to that of the abstract game, but the gameplay is the same. Is it a violent game? No; well, not unless you regard all contests as being violent.

Now let's say that the players are in mortal combat. They can attack each other cautiously (d6), recklessly (d10) or defensively (d4). If you attack defensively, you won't do much damage to your opponent but you will be able to block completely any reckless attack. Is that a violent game? Would it be more or less violent if we added blood and guts to the animation? Well it certainly looks violent, because all the tokens are couched in terms of violence, but the gameplay is the same as for the bridge-building game. It's basically just an interactive race. Experienced players who played the bridge-building game and then the combat game would recognise it as being the same game, reskinned.

Now context clearly does add something to a game, otherwise designers wouldn't bother with it. The fun of the game comes from its gameplay, though: that's ultimately why people play games rather than consume other media.

Please, if you're going to talk about gameplay, talk about gameplay. What the psychologists are usually talking about is dressing. They're looking at the syntax to divine the pragmatics but the term they're using relates to the semantics. To use an analogy, it's as if they're writing about hate speech and its effects on individuals as being inherent in grammar, whereas what they mean is that it's inherent in the vocabulary used.

Hmm. Yeah, probably a good call not to put that in a Psychology journal.


11:19am on Sunday, 14th December, 2014:



From a piece in today's Observer about selfie sticks:

That's an unfortunate word-break point you have there. Not quite as bad as breaking after the e in therapist, though.

The same newspaper also managed to illustrate an article about the death of actor Tom Adams with a photo captioned: "After The Great Escape, Tony Adams went on to feature in General Hospital".

It's getting close to Christmas. People are going on holiday...


11:10am on Sunday, 14th December, 2014:



I woke up with a stiff lower back this morning.

I therefore retract yesterday's QBlog post.


4:17pm on Saturday, 13th December, 2014:

Christmas Cheer


I spent the afternoon hammering drawing pins into the walls, ceiling and backs of pieces of furniture in order to hang up our Christmas lights and decorations. For once, I managed to do it without hammering my fingers, losing a drawing pin then standing on it, falling off my stepladder or making my thumb go numb from pushing pins into places where my hammer wouldn't go.



8:16pm on Friday, 12th December, 2014:

Need Help


From the fuel machine at our local ASDA:

I was going to criticise the use of "colleague" for someone who isn't a colleague. I was going to criticise the double use of "assistance".

Instead, though, I'm going to remember this promise for when I start marking final year project interim reports next week.


3:39pm on Thursday, 11th December, 2014:



I appear to have chipped the top off my lower right 3 tooth.

I wonder how long I'll wait before making an appointment to see the dentist? The desire to get it fixed is not yet greater than the desire not to have to park in Colchester during the run-up to Christmas.


9:28pm on Wednesday, 10th December, 2014:



I've just got back from speaking at Colchester's Café Scientifique. This is a monthlyish event in which speakers (usually from the University) come and give a 30-minute talk about something the general public will (it's to be hoped) find interesting. My talk was on games as story-creation machines, based on a seminar I gave at Lincoln University in 2013.

The talk went well, but the best part was the discussion afterwards. This lasted an hour, and could have gone on for much longer if the café (it is actually held in a café) hadn't had to shut. I was once given a book called Mathematics for the Intelligent Non-Mathematician, and the audience I was speaking to was comprised of intelligent non-gamers. This meant I was asked a lot of woods-rather-than-trees questions that I'm not usually asked, so the discussion was quite beneficial (at least it was for me; I can't speak for the audience!).

It was fun, anyway. I may speak there again some time, or even go as an audience member if there's a talk on that looks to be interesting.
It's like a Radio 4 factual programme without the Oxbridge smugness and with the ability to ask questions.


3:46pm on Wednesday, 10th December, 2014:

Another Place


That looks like a pretty serious storm heading for Scotland.

We don't get storms like that here. I guess it must be something to do with the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Assembly.


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