Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Fear of Not Flying

Thomas say:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

 T.S. Eliot,
"The Wasteland: I. Burial of the Dead"

The tagline of  this blog is "Creative flux for our heap of broken images." It's called TinkerX: "X" for my lost, forgotten, grungy, slacker generation that is caught too late for Woodstock, too early for Raves... and "Tinker" for the guy who takes (supposedly) worthless junk and turns it into tools, toys and trinkets.

This passage from "The Wasteland" is, I think, the most important piece of poetry to come out of post WWI Europe. The whole poem is hugely important, yes. But this one stanza is the best short, dense, beautiful description of what it's like to live in a "mashup," "remix" culture. This is postmodernism.

This post was inspired by one at Raph's site on his having seen "Happy Feet" and remarking on its connection to "March of the Penguins."

Yes, our children know nothing but The Mash. My son, seven, has never heard a fairytale told "true." They all have Shrek-like layers of hyper-referencing built in. The genie is Robin Williams. Or vice-versa. At best, the "classics" are the Disney versions. Irony? You're soaking in it.

This is not a bad thing. But it has to be *taught to* if it is to be a truly good thing. As Raph says, seeing "March of the Penguins" really helps with a viewing of "Happy Feet." I didn't know as much about Emperor Penguins until having seen that first film, and so my enjoyment of the second was increased tremendously.

On the other hand... in a mashup/post-modern culture, you also have to live with people mashing things up in ways that are clearly, er... disagreeable to you. From MIchael Medved's remarkably... insane... review of the film:

As in so many other recent films, there’s a subtext that appears to plead for endorsement of gay identity. Mumbles (the voice of Elijah Wood) displeases his parents and the leaders of his community because he’s born different, and makes an impassioned plea that he can’t possibly change – and they should accept him as he is.

Uh... Right. Because the only possible way to be "different" in society is to be gay. Despite the fact that Mumbles spends the entire movie trying to win the love of a totally hot female penguin, and hanging out with a gang of "Amigos" penguins that are constantly on the macho prowl, almost offensively so, for chicas. In the end, we see Mumbles with Gloria, his heart's true love... and their new baby. Clearly part of the homosexual agenda.

Damn it, Medved! I was different throughout school, and it had very little to do with sexual identity! I was a game-playing, D&D-loving, musical-performing, Latin-studying, church-going techno-dweeb with few friends who got along well with his parents. That made me a total tool in the eyes of the popular crowd. I received, at the hands of many of my peers, treatment almost identical to that lavished upon Mumbles -- disapproval for not "fitting in," and having talents different to theirs. They could sing, I could dance. Not literally, as I could sing, and they could... well.. play sports. But you get the picture.

So. My son has seen "Happy Feet" three times. And I deconstruct it as a lovely, musical journey through the ideas of creativity, self-discovery and young love. Medved sees it as a gay propaganda, an anti-religious, anti-human horror, and "the darkest, most disturbing feature length animated film ever offered by a major studio."

There is, for freakin' sure, shadow under this red rock. And I will show you fear in a feature length animated film.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

More social networking terms: features, functions, transactions and...

The social story thusfar...

This is the third in a series of posts about social networking/software, intended to put the current... er... enthusiasm... about making everything "social" into some kind of perspective, and to begin to assign some kinds of business and/or marketing terms and thoughts to the various processes and parts of social platforms.

The first two posts dealt with how we might measure the relative social value of various systems. It took me two posts to do it, since I use this space to think out loud, but with your kind patience, I came up with the following definitions:

Share of Participation: the relative value of participation in a particular type or brand of social activity by an individual or a group as measured by resource or influence

Social Share: how much of the total participation in social activities of a desired audience is aggregated to a particular brand or segment.

So "Share of Participation" might be seen as the social equivalent of "Share of Wallet," but measured in time, number of "units" of participation (entries, comments, etc.). And "Social Share" might then be an equivalent of "Mind Share" or "Market Share." The first measures how much of an individual or group's "social capital" is spent on a particular social network. The second measures how much of an entire, desired audience that network has captured. These are two very different numbers, their difference is incredibly important, and we'll get to that later in this post.

I've been commenting recently on Raph Koster's site on variousness related to his upcoming Areae... game? VW? Cyberverse? Who knows...  When I mentioned I was working on a blog post about the next issue in my series -- social functions vs. features -- Allen Sligar suggested that "social transaction" was a good synonym for "social feature." I like the term... but I think it's now a third thing I have to think about, rather than a synonym for one of the two I already had in my head. So here's where I am now:

1. Social Function = doing something for the purpose of "being social." IE, a dating site; the "MM" in "MMORPG." Communications technology per se. IM, email, etc. These have "social functions" at their core. You cannot "do" these things without "being social."

2. Social Feature = a benefit provided to users of the system that is only made possible through exposure to group-level actions. For example, Wikipedia and The Wikipedia is made possible by the efforts of many thousands of writers and editors. It enables "social creation" of the material, but does not require "social use" of it. A reader of a Wikipedia entry benefits from the social nature of how the entries are created, but is not involved in social interactions himself, per se. Similarly, all the tagging data that is entered into is part of a social system, but using it is not a social function.

3. Social Transaction (thanks, Allen, for the brain-spark) = I think, the exchange of social value, through a social feature of some kind. When I award you a Digg or, on eBay, a positive review... that's a "social transaction." I think that social transactions can modify and enable, improve and validate social features... but I'm not sure they're required for them. When I use a Wikipedia entry or browse through a couple hundred Flickr photos, I'm reaping the benefit of social features, but not engaging in a social transaction.

For a time, when I was thinking about these two (now three) things, I had it in my head that there was/were some "many-to-many" and "many-to-one" differences going on here; i.e., that "social functions" were primarily one-to-one and that social features enabled many-to-many interactions. But I'm not sure about that anymore. The social functions of many sites/services seem, now, to be many-to-many. There are poetry groups at MySpace numbering in the tens-of-thousands. They facilitate a social function. And the tagging features of, while entered in a many-to-many scale, can be realized on a one-to-one basis, for sure. So I don't think it's a numbers game.

What I do think, though, is that the difference between feature and function will end up relating back to the difference between share of participation vs. social share. I think that systems that have, at their hearts, some level of social function are more likely to aggregate a long-term, low-churn share of participation. While those that rely solely on social features may have a large social share... but it may not be particularly loyal.

What am I talking about. It's the difference between "audience" and "tribe," and it can be very, very tricky to figure out.

Let's take, for example, MySpace vs. World of Warcraft . Both have huge social share. Millions of people are doing "social things" on both. There's no arguing about that. But let's look at the differences in features vs. functions.

  • MySpace: Social features = blogging (page building), email, groups, forums, classifieds.

  • WoW: Social features = chat, IM, grouping, guild features

On the surface, it would seem that MySpace is "more social" than WoW. And, in fact, you can play WoW as a solo game, so it need not be social at all. But if you do play WoW in group or guild mode, or for the PvP experience, it has, at its heart, a "WoW specific social function," whereas MySpace does not.

I don't mean that each of the individual features of MySpace cannot fulfill social functions for individuals and groups... but those functions are ones that are easily portable. On WoW, however, that's not the case. If you and I are enjoying a game of WoW, but become irritated by some feature of it (say, the graphics) and want to "take our game elsewhere," we are basically hosed. You can't play WoW anywhere else. All the social features of the game are at the service of the social function: to play in a shared, fictional RPG experience.

On MySpace, on the other hand, almost all the experiences are transferable, and pretty dang easily. If a group of any size were to become disenchanted with any of its features, the functions would transfer. How long, for example, would it take to set up a blog, group, forum or classified for your MySpace group on another platform?

This is all leading to the last term I'm going to coin in this piece: social brand.

Just like there is brand in any part of marketing or advertising, I'm increasingly convinced that various social networking systems will have a social brand that presents to users a proposition based on the intersection of social features and functions. But where a traditional brand is something that is controlled by marketing departments and ad agencies, the social brand of a platform will be, to a degree, at the mercy of the users...

Except inasmuch as the developers of the system can understand the relationships of the features and functions (and transactions) they present to users, and the balance of how they are valued. Social functions are centralized and presented as definitional -- either by the creators or, over time, by the will of the users. Social features are used horizontally and are the ways in which aggregate value is accrued to the system.  Things to keep in mind, therefore, when developing a social networking system and trying to develop long-term social brand:

  • Are there ways to reinforce social functions in each feature/transaction?

  • If the use of a feature is easily replicable elsewhere, can I brand it somehow?

  • Are my users loyal to the aggregate, unique social function of my service, or to a set of features?

  • If I'm seeking to increase share of participation, should I be increasing services or looking to deepen my root social function?

  • If I'm seeking to increase social share, do I need parity with competitors in social features? Or a unique social function proposition?

  • Why haven't I hired one or more people to do nothing but manage these issues?

These are all very weird questions. We are talking about sites/services that rely on the interactions and content and data and information provided by users to create the value for the customers. Yeah, I know "user created content" is all over the place in the media and being discussed as such. Thing is, I don't see a whole lot of talk about how to manage these "users" more as employees or as products/services themselves.

Because... if the value your service is providing derives from work done  by users, you need to think of that work as an operational center. And you need to think of the people doing that work the same way you would a contractor, employee or  (insulting!) piece of equipment. It's not just "kinda neat" that they do stuff on your site that provides value. It's core to the biz.

We need to talk about this stuff more.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Posted: The Side Ways 2.1

Happy Friday before Christmas! Here's the latest section of the novel I'm working on, "The Side Ways." Chapter 2.1: Up and Out. It begins:

I should be afraid, Kendra thought. That was all she could think. That she should be afraid. But what she was, instead, was mad.

Mad at the old museum guy for dumping her in this room. Mad at the green man and the gargoyle dog for bringing her here. Mad at the sky woman for getting the blue junk on her. Mad at Mr. Tandy for giving her the job in the first place.

Mad at her mom and Dr. Morgan for either making her take her medicine in the first place or letting her get away with skipping it.

I don’t even know how much of this shit is real. Like, where am I now? At home in bed? In the topiary garden, lying on the grass? In a hospital somewhere?

Kendra turned a full circle, looking around the office. Everything still appeared to be fully formed, fully “real,” as if she could reach out and pull a book off the bookcase or touch the crow or stick her head into the fireplace or…

The fireplace. When she’d traversed the room before, feeling the “flatness” of the illusionary furniture and walls, the fireplace had still been there. She hadn’t noticed it because… well, because it had been normal. It’s hard to notice normal things when everything else is… not.

It was a pretty big fireplace, and so she didn’t have to crawl to get under the mantle, just duck down a bit. She went to grab the mantle with one hand for balance, only to be reminded that it, though, wasn’t real… just “painted on.” She held the wall instead, and peered up into the chimney.

See "The Side Ways" main page for details on the entire project, or if you'd like the password to read sections beyond "Chapter 1.1: Stray Girl."

Monday, December 18, 2006

"The Side Ways." Yep. I'm writing a novel.

And you're invited!

Back in around, oh... 2002... Maybe 2003, I forget... I had a couple of ideas for a storyline that I thought would make a cool basis for a series of graphic novels. I worked out some plot points and a couple of the main characters with an artist here in Columbus, and we did some storyboarding that took us about 1/3 of the way through what would have been the first book.

Then he left for a really sweet gig in NYC. Which was cool. And I put the idea on the back-brain-burner and let it simmer for awhile. But the main character -- Kendra White -- and the basic background of the story spoke to me in ways that some of my other, more fully-formed writing ideas haven't. So I kept jotting down notes or additional character studies or bits of scenes... blah blah blah. The usual writer crud.

Then I wrote most of a couple chapters. And it didn't work. So I scrapped it and decided it was bad. Bad, bad, bad. Andy can't write a novel. Bad, Andy. Go write blog posts and poetry and marketing essays and some short stories and stuff. My usual response to not liking a first draft.

Well, I'm tired of that response. And I really like some parts of what I think this story may be trying to tell me. Maybe it's just some fun fantasy stuff. Not "swords and sorcery" fantasy. Modern-day, weird-o fantasy. Maybe it's some deeply metaphoric stuff that I need to work out in my head; "writing as self-psychoanalysis." Either way, I want to finish it.

So I'd like your help. It's called, "The Side Ways." I'm going to post the chapter bits here as they come off the keyboard. I've finished the first chapter and am doing OK on the second. The whole first chapter is posted on the blog right now. You can read "Chapter 1.1: Stray Girl," without any let or hindrance. After that, though... you'll need a password. Why? Because I don't want the whole thing spidered and spammed, and I really only want folks who'd like to be involved in the draft reading, editing and commenting process involved. If you want to read it, I'd be absolutely thrilled. Tickled pink. But I would respectfully ask that you give me at least one comment (even something as lame as, "That was nice") for each section. Free fiction in exchange for mild critique.  Or not so mild. Your call.

So... if you read the first section, and would like to plow on after that, shoot me an email [awhavens aat sanestorm dott com] and I'll send you the horribly complex password for the rest of the thang. It'll be the same password for the whole novel, and I promise it's easy to remember.

Thanks in advance. My sincere hope is that by putting my junk (and my process) out in the wind for all to see, I'll have to hold myself to finishing the dang thing.

It starts like this:

When the greenman and the gargoyle brought the girl to me, I thought she was dead at first.

Now... don't that make you a little bit curious...

An open letter to Raph Koster

Raph Koster (web page) just announced that he's launched his new company, Areae. It / he is gonna do virtual world stuff. There's a Gamasutra article and interview.

"Open Letter" is so quaint and 19th century, doncha think? You know what I mean, though, right? It's a blog post with a track-back to Raph's post about the announcement. Which is as close as you can politely get on the cyberplane to simply up'n hollering:

"Hey, Raph! I got sumfin to say about yer new comp'ny!"

Open letter indeed. Ahem.

Beyond the congratulations and well wishes, which are explicit in the comments to his post and which I'll make here again -- congrats, Raph, and best wishes -- are the hopes of thousands if not millions of gamers in the English speaking world and, probably, a not-insignificant number of Chinese and Indian and Korean players, too. The game world, basically. I don't know if the Russians and the Belgians give a fat rat's ass about Raph, but it would be a tough argument to say that his reach doesn't extend to China.

There are lots of folks in the gaming industry with influence, ideas, money, power, big hair, cred, friends, intellectual property licenses, etc. Very few of them (if any), though, have something that Raph has that I think is insanely important:

An MFA in poetry.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

You say, "Manual." I say, "Treasure Map."

There's a post over at Terra Nova talking about "playing with a manual" vs. game experiences that are more "natural;" i.e., require very little explanation. Part of the issue is the idea of experienced game geeks not needing as much explanation, vs. noobs who don't know what HP, manna, skill-points, experience, levels, etc. are. Nate Combs asks:
I wonder how games and virtual worlds would look if their culture evolved with a less "seat of the pants" view towards knowledge acquisition?  What if players were brought along expecting to read  a manual, a really long one, before they could play?  I suspect there would be more freedom in what developers could design.
I have a confession to make: I've always enjoyed reading manuals, especially game manuals. Extra-especially big, fat, honkin' thick manuals with all the lists of spells, abilities, units, buildings, factions, etc. If I'm going to spend 50+ hours playing a game, it has always made sense in my wee haid that I RTFM for 30-60 minutes.

I'll tell you one thing that has always bugged me about most manuals for many complex and interesting games I've played, too: they are almost always insultingly apologetic to the non-manual-readers, with an included assumption that that is just about everyone. There's usually a line somewhere near the beginning of the manual that reads something like this:

We know that most of you hate to read these boring and long-winded manuals. We do, too! For those of you who want to jump right into the game, please read the "Quick Start Guide," and then play through the "Tutorial" scenario...

Nothing like the writers and publishers of a game you've just dropped $50 on to tell you that part of what you've just paid for is boring and long-winded and should probably be ignored. It always made me feel, well... betrayed to read that.

There's a fundamental flaw in that kind of thinking on the part of the game developers, I believe. And while I am intrigued by the heart of Nate's question, I think the separation of "manual" and "game" that exists in many Game Gods' heads is something that bears reexamining.

We are living in a much more technologically savvy time than even 5 or 10 years ago. And while there is still a steep separation between the true geek and the technophobe, we've moved well beyond the day when some people still said, with a kind of wry aplomb, "Oh, no. I don't own a computer. I've really got no use for one." Remember those days? The last time I heard that was around 1998. Now, saying, "I don't know how to work a computer," in that kind of smug, neo-Luddite way would be about the equivalent of saying, "I'm basically illiterate. I can read street signs... but beyond that, no. Can't read much at all. Never found it very useful."

Kids all have cell phones. Everyone has a computer. More and more of us have high-speed Internet access, etc. etc. My point being that it's no longer "normal" to be outside the computer circle. It's normal to be inside it. And so the idea of "writing for the non-geek" has to begin to mean something else. Because the circle of non-geeks, by the old definition, is much smaller. We all use software at work that is scads more complex than most computer games.

That being said, though... how much do we want our leisure activities to resemble having to program an Excel macro? Not so much, eh?

Here we get into the differences between:

  • complicated vs. complex

  • frustration vs. exploration

  • mastery of interface vs. mastery of game

  • technical help vs. game narrative

All those first things are not so good.

Complex vs. Complicated

Complicated means having to choose between many options with limited or incomplete data. Some games are, by nature, complicated. There is a joy to mastering a complicated game for many people. Most flight simulators (mentioned in the TN post) are complicated. Why? Because flying a plane is complicated. Some racing simulators are complicated. They are often differentiated from their less-complicated cousins by the term "arcade." If it's an arcade-style simulator, it means that there are fewer choices. For example, in a flight sim, you don't have to worry about fuel, ammo loads, guns heating up, weather, etc. All kinds of options that make the game more realistic, but also harder to learn to play well. In the time it takes to play a 25-cent (or, today, $1) arcade game, you can't expect a player to learn about 38 variables. Only 3 or 4.

Complex, on the other hand, refers to a choice among many like things. A "complex" (the noun, not the adjective) is a "conceptual whole made up of related parts." A shopping mall, for example, is a "complex." But most malls are not very complicated, once the concept of "mall" (not a very difficult one) is made clear. A mall can have one hundred shops and you can get to them all very easily. On the other hand, getting to a similar selection of shops in a non-mall geography -- let's say, a downtown area -- might be more complicated; it would require more steps, more intermediations, more options, more decisions. Do I need to drive? To take a cab? The subway? Etc. Etc.

Lots of choices is good. Understanding how to get to them quickly and for the appropriate reasons is good. Not knowing even how to get to the right information is bad. Being confused about the necessary data is bad.

Manuals are often thought of as necessary for clarifying complicated processes. Maps, tables, glossaries, indexes and lists are provided to help with complex choices.

Frustration vs. Exploration

We all know the good feeling we get when playing a neat game that tests our skills. That's fun! Right? Whether we're doing a challenging crossword or jigsaw puzzle or on a quest in an MMO. That's a feeling of exploration. Often, what we're exploring is the edge of our own competency. And hopping back and forth between exploration and frustration isn't unusual at all. Because getting a bit pissed off at ourselves or the game or the puzzle or the search is part of the challenge. If it was easy, or could be done the first time through... that's not much of a challenge.

But the exploration-edge-of-frustration should always come from within the game itself; inside the magic circle / 4th wall. You should not, for example, find a marble in your jigsaw puzzle box and have to wonder, "What the heck is this for?" Which brings us to...

Interface vs. Game

In real life, the interface often is the game. When you "play baseball," there is no difference between "how you hit the ball" and "how to hit the ball" and "hitting the ball." The bat is the interface is the tool is the game element. There is no intermediary. As WB Yeats said in, "Among School Children:"

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

We can't. We don't. Which is the point of much of real life. In some computer games, too, this is true. Tetris, Pong, PacMan, etc. and many other cursor or joystick-jerkers rely on reflexes and hand-eye coordination. What you do is what you do. On the other hand, most of the complex role-playing and strategy games rely on knowing "how to do a thing to make another thing happen." There may be an element of "move joystick left to move your character left." That much may be "the dance." But you may also need to know countless interface "rules" involving adding equipment to your inventory, equipping such for use, preparing spells, grouping units together, assigning actions to various keys, etc. etc. And those interface issues may require different actions for different games... to accomplish the same task.

Imagine if turning on a light switch had a different effect depending on what house you were in. That is... frustrating and complicated.

There are "interface traditions," of course. And Nate mentions that at TN: "Geekdom in a niche has at least one virtue: there is less to explain." For example, in most RTS (real time strategy) games, clicking and dragging around multiple units "group selects" them. In many role-playing games, health is measured on a red bar, and manna (magical energy) is measured on a blue one. There's probably a list of about 50 or so of these that die-hard gamers could go through for you.

None of them swing pine, though.

And, by that, I mean that none of them are, inherently, "game" related. There is no reason rooted in some universal game reality that RED = HEALTH, except it looks, I guess, like blood. But it might as well be green, because GREEN = GO for traffic lights, and GREEN = HEALTHY in nature, or white, because BLACK = DEAD.

Once in awhile, you get a game that tries to eschew the typical interface. Peter Molyneux's Black & White comes to mind, as do a few of Peter's earlier titles. In these, the interface was (more or less) embedded within the game. In B&W, you, as a god in the game, saw your own hand hovering in the game space, You cast spells and moved game elements (people, animals, trees, rocks) around by moving the hand. Deus ex cursor, writ large. It added a great deal to the sense of being "in the game," since the computer screen became more of a window on the experience than a dashboard. Which brings us, finally, to...

Technical Help vs. Game Narrative

In many computer/video games, there is a tutorial that leads you through the basics of navigating both the game world and the interface. The tutorial is almost always explicitly removed from the main "body" of the game. One of the neatest things about World of Warcraft is that the early, "tutorial" stages flow extremely smoothly into the next, "journeymen" phases of the game with nary a bump. But mostly, you get a stage (that you can skip) where a drill sergeant (or your butler, a helpful faerie or disembodied voice) prods you along a path full of obstacles where the buttons and menus are explained.

This is about as immersive a game experience as an ad for Miller Lite in a medieval setting. It has the benefit over a manual of letting you practice the interface in situ... but it is not, well... the dance. It's dance instruction.

None of this to say that it's a bad thing. It's just... not really "part of the game." It's technical help embedded within the interface itself, possibly with a bit of game narrative thrown on top to help the medicine go down.

The Challenge

Here's my challenge to the game industry: stop thinking about manuals and training and technical help as separate from the game experience. In fact, it's a challenge to anybody designing a user interface experience, which kinda makes it a challenge to me in my day gig, too.

Why shouldn't the "how" of getting to know a game be embedded in the game itself? Why should learning the interface elements of a game require a manual that is separate from the game? Why can't the map of the thing be the thing in many cases?

I'm not sure how to accomplish these things. I just know that I enjoy reading a good manual and finding out how to make a game do what it's supposed to do. That joy shouldn't have to be separated from the joy of playing the game itself. And if the discovery of how to play the game can be interwoven with the playing of the game itself... much cooler.

Why are we separating the gamer from the game? It seems to me to be much less beautiful when that happens.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The TinkerX UnGrinch 25

I was involved in retail marketing for ten years, but it seems like more. Retail gives you various blech around holiday time, and that increases the time-dilation-memory factor. And while I know lots of non-marketing/sales people who are bone-weary of the over-commercialization of this time of year, I promise that if you feel that way, you got nothing on folks who've lived the dream from the inside of the tinsel machine.

If you're one of the people, like me, that thinks, "Geez. Can't we at least wait until after Thanksgiving before thinking about Christmas?" Well, in marketing, you start thinking about Christmas around September 15. And if you hate watching all the stoopid ads, well... try planning them.

I say this as a way of introducing part of my self-imposed anti-humbug plan. In order to cure myself of an ever-increasing volume of Grinchy holiday sentiments, begun during my time in retail, I'd like to share with you a bunch of the least Grinchy things I've experienced or come up with about the holidays over the years. These all relate to creativity, craftiness and the general ethos of this blog. They are non-denominational for the most part. Though, as one of my favorite lines from "Northern Exposure" went, "Dave's an animist, and he has a Christmas tree."

I do not guarantee that any of these are original to me. I'm sure other, fine creative people have had these ideas, too. If you know any of them, show link love in the comments.

1. Make a family calendar. I used to do this every year. Our theme was the "Color-it-Yourself Halendar." Hal being a stuffed orangutan I bought for my wife back when we were very young. Each month featured an outline drawing of Hal doing something... odd... and then the days were filled in with all the important family dates; birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Some years, I'd also include a weird or interesting event for every day of the year from Chase's Annual Events, or some other funky calendar. You can make monthly calendars using MS Publisher, or, with a bit more work, do one in anything that can create a table, including the ever-free and wonderful Open Office. Good to have, good to give.

2. Create your own ornaments. Yeah, it's not the most out-of-the-box idea, but so few people I know still do it. My favorite, as a kid, was to take a styrofoam shape (bell, star, even a simple ball), and stick a bajillion sequins to it with pins. Pretty. Shiny. And it keeps kids busy for hours while you do other holiday nonsense. And if just making ornaments isn't creative enough for you, force yourself to make ornaments that are alliterative; you know, where everything on your tree starts with the letter "B." That'll get you thinking.

3. Rewrite "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Let's face it, hollering, "Fiiiiive gooolden riiings!" is way fun. Way, way fun. You can not resist, so don't hold back. But what's even more fun, is hollering your own family version that only you and the clan know. Because, really... doesn't singing about how your true love gave to you... "eight maids a milking" make you a bit... uncomfortable? I mean... dude gives people for Christmas? That ain't right. Bob and Doug McKenzie not withstanding, your own version will be more fun. My son, just this morning, was singing, "Fiiiiive gooolden delicious!" Hilarious.

4. Lego nativity scene. 'Nuff said.

5. Indoor snow-ball fights. We spent two years of my childhood in California, after having lived in Boston, and with parents who grew up in New York. Snow ball fights are a required element of winter joy. Indoor? Substitute  aluminum foil balls, rolled-up socks, styrofoam (messy), newspaper wads, etc. instead of snow. The point is to throw things. Banzai!

6. Mall caroling. It's hard to find places to carol. Outside can get very cold. And, with kids in tow... well, it's tough. Check with a couple local malls and arrange for a time to invite anyone who'd like to participate to meet, get song books, and walk around the mall singing. See if you can arrange for an accordion player. Seriously. It adds to the cheer. If you want to charge a couple bucks to participate and also collect donations from listeners and then give the money to a local toys-for-tots charity, that makes the whole deal more righteous, and more palatable to certain civic types.

7. Toys from tots. Speaking of toys-for-tots... There are many fine organizations that gather up toys for kids who don't have them. And that's fantastic. But kids also love to make and give stuff around the holiday season, and may not have the resources. Organize an effort to provide a crafty sort of event where all the necessary parts and instructions for making a neat holiday gift are available to a group of kids who otherwise wouldn't have access.

8. Grown-up PJ party. Notice I did not say "adult." This is not a chance to play spin-the-bottle. This is about getting back to childishness. Come in PJs, bathrobes, bunny-slippers, blankets, etc. Bring your favorite (hopefully holiday related) bed-time story to read aloud to the group. Drink cocoa w/ tiny marshmallows (yes, and some brandy or JD) and have candy canes and graham crackers for snacks. Sit on the floor around the fireplace. Watch all the old
Rankin-Bass claymation holiday specials on VHS. Sing a few carols. Play...

9. Insane White Elephant. Last year, John Moore from Brand Autopsy set up an excellent White Elephant Blog. It ain't up this year. Oh, well. The basic principles of a White Elephant gift exchange apply, but anyone who has their gift taken can keep stealing from anyone who hasn't yet had their gift stolen that turn. The more people playing, the more fun. No "deceased" gifts in this version, either. Until you've had a gift stolen on any given turn, it's in play.

10. Make a truly edible gingerbread house. Every blessed gingerbread house I've ever been exposed to has been hands (and more importantly, teeth) off. Either too nice or too nasty to eat. Feh. Where's the fun? C'mon! I don't care if you stick six graham crackers together with peanut butter and put one gum-drop on top for a chimney. Figure out some way to do it, and then let the kids get all Godzilla on it. I suggest filming the fun, too.


11. Make your own envelopes. A dear friend of mine (Hi, Susan!) once sent me letters every few months in hand-made envelopes. Hers were made from interesting magazine ads. How cool is that? If you want to get fancy, do a search on the Internet for "make envelopes" and such. But the easiest way is to get the envelopes that go with whatever cards you're mailing, carefully bust 'em apart, trace them on funky paper (magazine pictures, wallpaper, wrapping paper...) and then cut, fold and glue (or double-sticky clear tape) them together. People may expect hand-made cards. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Or hand-made envelopes. Festivisimus!

12. Photoshop your kid(s) into classic pics. I first saw this done to the Raphael's "The Sistine Madonna, Detail of the Angles" painting (as shown). Although a much better job than the one I've done here, which is of my niece and nephew (Hi, Nate! Hi, Sophie!) Click on it to see a much larger image. The point is to have fun and take a picture folks will recognize and include people they will recognize. It doesn't have to be a serious pic, either. I would think that your kid climbing the Empire State Building to put a star on top would be hysterical. Use this instead of a regular picture-of-your-kids card because... well... because it's goofy.

13. Gift cards for chores, favors, hugs, etc. These were a big item when I was growing up. Don't know if other people did them. The idea was to make gift-certificates or gift cards that "entitled the bearer to (1) one doing of the dishes upon presentation of this card." You can make these intimate for your honey (I won't get into those variations here, thank you), or appropriate for work. For example, I once gave my boss ten "Andy will now pipe down" certificates. Upon presentation, I was obligated to shut my pie hole. She only ever handed me two. I believe she traded the rest in for some magic beans. Or they may be floating around on eBay... Hmmm....

14. "Puzzle Party" cards. Take, buy or make a nice picture and turn it into a jigsaw, either yourself or at Kinkos. Mail one piece to each person you're inviting to the party. When they come, they add their piece. Depending on how corn-ball you are, you can hold forth on how we're all a part of the holiday panorama of joy, etc. etc. It also serves to increase the guilt factor that motivates people to come to your party, since if they don't... their piece will be missing. Ha!

15. "Family News" cards from the future. I love this one. Lots of families I know write a very nice update about what's been going on over the last year. It's nice to hear, but... mostly it ends up being, "Dad's still working and maybe going a bit more stir crazy. Same for mom. The kids are in school and are a year older." Yawn... I like the idea of fast-forwarding a bit and writing your "Holiday Family News from 2025." Keep it just as straight-faced and boring, but mention which dimension Mary got lost in on the way to work this time. Talk about how the Martian embassy lost your passport on your 2nd honeymoon cruise, etc. etc. Much more fun. Cloning humor goes over big in this one, too.

16. Surrogate shopping party. So many of us have someone or several someones on our lists that are impossible to shop for or that we just have a mental block on. Fine. Get together for dinner and share an equal number of those folks with each other, along with a few details and a dollar ceiling per gift. Then release yourselves into a mall with a time limit. Then get back together and share the swag. I guar-ohn-tee that your friends will find stuff for your hard-to-getters that you'd never have thought of. If it ain't right? Well, 'tis the season to return stuff.

17. Decorate others' stuff. Carefully. Tastefully. Always within the bounds of office rules/etiquette and the law. But how nice would it be to enter your office (cube...) and find a wee, unexpected holiday trinket? Totally anonymous. Or to come home and have a strange, lovely wreath hanging on your lamp-post? Put a small, stuffed penguin with a Santa hat on someone's dashboard today.

18. Start a bizarre, personal holiday tradition. I heard somewhere (can't find it online, sorry... it may be apocryphal) that Amy Grant's family explodes their Christmas tree after New Year's Day with fireworks. I'm neither hot nor cold on Ms. Grant, but... that's flippin' awesome!!! So many of our holiday traditions are either copped from cultures that really aren't our own anymore, or have been entirely kidnapped by the media/mercantile world. Why not invent a new ritual that's just for you and your family? Stuff a sock with toys by the fireplace? Why? I sure as heck don't know. How about, instead, everybody in your family writes one line of a nativity poem. Or fight some gingerbread man wars. Or make advent candles from last year's used crayons. At my house, we've now been playing street hockey the day after Christmas for several years with all the in-laws. Why? Bob wanted to one year. After three years... It's a tradition!

19. Overtip, ridiculously, at least once. Food service is tough work. And around the holidays, it's even worse. People are out-and-about, running like mad, full o' holiday spirit, and, often, not very nice to the wait staff. And because we're spending more than we should on various baubles, bangles and beads... we're often a bit penurious when it comes to the everyday stuff. Which hurts the folks whose livelihood depends on our largess. So. At least once, between Thanksgiving and New Year, when you get good service and a nice smile with your meal... leave a $20 tip on a $13 lunch meal. Or, what the heck... leave $50 to cover a $22 dinner. Or $100 for a cup o' joe. Seriously. Don't make a big deal out of it. Do it, as the scriptures say, "In the dark." But do it. You'll make somebody's whole season.

20. Tell your faith's holiday story with sock puppets. You never real own a story until you tell it. I know this, because I played King Nebuchannezzar in a 4th grade production of, "Cool in the Furnace." I now own that story. Be that as it may... You can hear the Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Solstice, etc. stories again and again. But until you write out a script, make your own sock puppets for the players, fashion a stage from a major appliance crate and put on a show for the grown-ups... do you really grok the holiday's true meaning? I think not.

21. Do something to commemorate the Jólasveinar Boys.  An Icelandic holiday tradition involving gremlins that steal and eat naughty children...  Wee snarkies with names like "Crevice Imp," "Pot Licker," "Sausage Snatcher," "Doorway Sniffer" and "Butter Greedy." Imps that, in later, more mellow years, would come to leave potatoes for bad children rather than eating them. The children, that is. I mean, the kids could eat the potatoes, I suppose. But the Jólasveinar used to eat the bad kids. You get the picture. Do a lil' sumfin sumfin for the Jólasveinar this year. Eat a child. Leave a potato.  Your call.

22. Start a yearly journal. Very few people keep a journal. I'm a professional writer, and I don't. I'm supposed to, but I write at work, and I blog, and I write poetry and fiction and, and, and... So I've never had a daily journal. But what I do have is a notebook that I take out about once a year. Often around the holidays. And, in my case, I write in it the names of people -- everyone I can remember -- that I've met during the last year or so. And, of course, I go back and read the earlier entries and reflect on how lucky I've been to have known so many wonderful people. The names are my "touchstones" to the past. The names are bookmarks in my memory, because people anchor the most important events in my life, I think. Anyway... that's what's in my "annual journal" for the most part. Yours, of course, can be anything you want.

23. Share a resolution. We don't keep our New Year's resolutions, for the most part, because we are not really accountable to ourselves. We cheat and look the other way. So share a resolution with a friend or family member; let them hold you accountable, and vice versa.

24. Share a resolution. No, this is not a repeat. In this case, I mean make a resolution that includes another person. For example, resolve to have a game-night once a week with your family, or to go for a walk 3 days a week with your spouse. Resolve to send an email back-and-forth at least twice a month with a friend you don't see much anymore. Resolve to cook healthy for me, and I'll cook healthy for you twice a week. Resolve to help your boss with his annoying habit of not taking minutes/notes at meetings, and he can help you with your attempts at better process management. So many things that we want to accomplish are impossible alone. Resolve to be better together.

25. Thought gifts. They say (well, they say, "They Say") "It's the thought that counts." OK. So, this year, only give thoughts for the holidays. Make this they year that you and yours agree to take whatever your budget for gifts was and either give it to a charity or stick it in a savings vehicle; your call, I'm not preaching here. But for yourselves... take the time to actually say the things you haven't said. Give "the thought" behind the gift. If you're a spiritual person, pray or meditate on the subject for a bit. Do it in a card if you like, or via email. Don't make the logistics as much of a pain as shopping/wrapping/etc. That's not the point. But all the major religions that are celebrating this time of year have gift-giving as a central notion not as a potlatch per se, but as a metaphor for love, friendship, community, etc.

26. BONUS IDEA. I can't end on a serious note. It's not in my nature. So the bonus idea is a straight-up pimp for the Jumbo Mystery Box from Archie McPhee. I get one of these every year (although this year I have been strongly advised that the ladies want something non-McPhee in their stockings... geez), and use the contents for stockings, Secret Santa, random giftings, prizes for students, etc. You never know, around holiday time, when a bunch of Hindu god finger puppets, glowing eyeballs or rampaging Hun toy soldiers will come in handy.

* * * * *

Have some happy holidays this year, eh? I hope this list has been fun to read, and maybe sparks an idea or two for how to be a bit less Grinchy and a bit more Jólasveinarish.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

PlayByWiki update: now available in Thai

A few months ago, as you may remember, I converted PlayByWiki over from the paid (but lovely) wiki-farm, EditMe, to my web host's server and the Tikiwiki engine. That way I could do the dang thing pretty much free, and not worry about it.

Since then, I have done almost nothing to promote it. I mentioned it here, put up a couple mentions on a couple RPG bulletin boards, that's about it. I'm glad to say that all that hard work has paid off


We now have six games going on the wiki. And here's the thing that really tickles; three of them ain't in English. "Island PBW" is being played in French; "Island of Quakes" is in Portugese (I guess islands are popular these days...); and the "Romance of Kouvoyore" is in Thai. Yep... Thai.

I didn't think, when I started PlayByWiki, about non-English text-based RPG games. Don't know why I didn't. But I didn't. It's a "World Wide" Web, after all. Serves me right for not paying attention...

The other update is that I've posted the entire "TaleWeaver as Lightweight RPG" chapter from TaleWeaver (2nd Edition) to PlayByWiki as another game system that folks could use for text-based adventuring. The idea for tweaking TaleWeaver into an RPG came from a comment/suggestion from this blog. So... hooray for transparency and open... er... stuff. And things. Etc.

My hope is that the TaleWeaver RPG is really lightweight enough to be fun in a text/wiki/web setting. Playing something as rules-heavy as GURPS or D&D in a non-live setting can get to be onerous.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Feedback and beauty

Over at Raph Koster's Website, he's got a post up about "The algorithm or art." Using feedback to determine the "worthiness," whether economic or artistic, of songs, movies and games.

Back when I was at Cornell and actively involved in the student poetry writing scene there, we had weekly open-mic and other similar events, gang editing fests, various clubs, readings, etc. Many were quite participative. At one of these, we did an exercise once called the "Crowd Pleaser." Before the evening's main readings, we asked the members of the audience to propose and vote on a topics for new poems that would be written that night, for their immediate enjoyment.

Several topics were shouted out, and then voted upon. After that, we asked everyone to write on scraps of paper all the words that they associated with that topic. Those words were written on a chalkboard with numbers after them indicating how many people had chosen them. There were about thirty words, some of which had received as many as 7 or 8 mentions.

During the course of the night, four of us wrote poems on the topic at hand. If I remember correctly -- I don't have the piece anymore -- the subject was "daydreaming". We tried to incorporate as many of the words suggested by the crowd as possible. The poems were read at the conclusion of the evening.

The four pieces were all quite different, but the audience responded very well to each. We invited comment and sat around and talked about the experience with some of them afterward, and they said that it had felt quite interesting (one girl I knew said "tingly") to listen to poem that had been created expressly "for them," and had incorporated words provided by them. Some of the words hadn't been really easy, obvious ones, either. So it made it even more... tingly, I suppose... to hear them reflected back from the poet.

Is art better when it reflects something of what the audience already knows? Or knows it wants? We weren't making any money, so there was no "conflict of interest" between dirty commerce (that's sarcasm, children... I'm in marketing, remember) and pure art.

It was fun for me, as a poet, to write something that incorporated bits of the audience's brain. It was different. And I was certainly also using my own mind, my creative jelly, my poetic spirit in the process. There was no copping out. No crutch. No pablum. And the other three writers came up with very different results, even though the topic was the same and some of the ingredients.

This is not one of those posts where I have a nice, compact idea at the end or a suggestion. This is one of those posts where I just say some stuff and make an observation or two that kind of connects some weird points and then leaves you hanging to make your own conclusions.