I just got back from Foundations of Digital Games 2018. It was pretty close to my ideal conference experience, by which I mean that there was way too much interesting stuff going on for any human person to possibly experience all of it directly. Nevertheless, I had a bunch of great conversations, met a bunch of cool people, and took a ton of notes, some of which (focusing particularly on the highlights or else I’d never be able to get this post out the door) I’ve attempted to summarize below.
The Workshop on Procedural Content Generation, better known as the PCG Workshop, was – for me, at least – one of the main highlights of the conference.
The workshop started out with a presentation about the Generative Design in Minecraft Competition, which challenged participants to make a generator that could be given an arbitrary predefined area within a Minecraft world and somehow construct a fitting settlement within that area. This competition is especially exciting to me as a way to push forward the state of the art in procedural adaptation – not generating a new thing totally from scratch in a way that wipes out whatever was there before, but somehow accomodating what already exists and generating something new that fits alongside it. This capability is essential for successful mixed-initiative creative tools, which have to be able to accept meaningful creative input from a human user rather than just overriding everything the user suggests with more computer-generated ideas, so I’m excited to see a PCG competition that awards points partly based on respect for what was already there prior to running the generator.
Anne Sullivan presented a neat paper on tarot-based narrative generation that makes interesting use of narratological theory (specifically Christopher Booker’s five-part definition of tragedy) in conjunction with the fact that tarot cards can be presented in either an upright or reversed position to set the emotional valence of their meaning. Essentially, each tarot card has a fixed symbolic meaning, but can be interpreted either positively or negatively depending on its position; cards are thus drawn at random to fill certain slots in the overall story arc, and presented either upright or reversed depending on whether that part of the arc is positively or negatively flavored. My favorite thing about this project is the fact that you can choose to redraw individual cards if you like the story as a whole but would prefer to change one bit of it – this brings it closer to being a mixed-initiative story generation tool without requiring the user to actually write any text of their own.
And I presented my position paper on what we as PCG researchers stand to gain by recognizing things like Animal Crossing as a distinct category of generative games: gardening games, which revolve around dynamics of cultivation and caretaking in collaboration with ongoing slow generative processes. These games stand in opposition to mining games like Minecraft, in which gameplay is essentially extractive or consumptive and procedural content generation is used to generate tons of individually disposable artifacts for the player to consume. (My slides, including speaker notes, are also available, and those who’ve been following me for a while might remember my earlier zine on the same topic.)
Games Crafters Play
Probably my favorite talk of the whole conference was Anne Sullivan’s presentation on her work (in collaboration with Anastasia Salter and Gillian Smith) on the folk games played in fiber and textile crafting communities – i.e., communities of people who recreationally make physical stuff with their hands using fiber or textiles. There’s a ton of interesting angles from which to look at this paper, but two stand out as especially interesting to me.
First and foremost, I’m super excited about games in which the process of play naturally results in the player having created something by the end of the game, and these crafting games all fall into that category. I’ve talked about sewing-machine territory-control game Threadsteading (which Gillian also worked on) and Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive as examples of this sort of thing before, and this is also the main reason I will never stop yelling excitedly about Spore. From this perspective, the games that crafters play are full of game design patterns meant to encourage creativity, and – as such – could serve as a rich vein of inspiration for anyone who wants to develop more games of this kind.
But also, these crafting games represent an especially clear example of how games not only embody but also reinforce and propagate values – in this case, the values (including creative expression, education, and community support) of the crafting communities who play them. Since a lot of people first get into crafting communities by responding to open calls to participate in these kinds of games, the games might actually serve as a means of enculturation, or a way of introducing new community members to these values for the first time.
This has some obvious connections to the idea of games as rituals, and makes me wonder if maybe the social functions of folk games are inherently closer to the surface than they are in games designed by individuals or smaller teams. Maybe, through many repeated cycles of deliberate incremental modification and imperfect retransmission by the people that play them, folk games are naturally worn down (like river rocks worn smooth by centuries of erosion) to something close to their essential social function. Either way, it’s a neat mental image.
To the best of my knowledge, this event was the first of its kind: a dedicated workshop for researchers who’re doing stuff with gameplay streaming platforms like Twitch to meet up and compare notes. Papers came from people with a wide range of academic backgrounds; some (like Charlie Ringer) were using machine learning to identify highlight moments in streams, some (like Mark R Johnson) were studying the demographics of streamers and the economics of being one, and some were trying to do things like more deeply understand the phenomenon of toxicity in chat.
Neither Raquel Robinson (the workshop’s main organizer) nor I had papers in the workshop, but we also both got a chance to briefly talk about our own relevant work. Raquel discussed her project All the Feels, an exploration into the design space of what you can do by making a streamer’s biometric data visible to their audience during play. I acted as a sort of unofficial representative of Scholars Play, a Twitch channel run by an ever-evolving group of UCSC game scholars (myself included) where we stream ourselves playing games and academically critiquing them in real time.
Toward the end of the workshop we discussed some possible next steps for further organizing and growing the community of researchers interested in game streaming. I’m excited to see what’s next for this nascent subfield of games research; streaming already plays a major role in the culture surrounding games, represents a kind of asymmetric performative play that confounds a lot of traditional ideas about the boundary between the player and the spectator, and should be taken into account as part of the game design process a lot more frequently than it currently is, but it seems to be relatively understudied nevertheless. Hopefully that’ll start to change soon!
Judith van Stegeren is working on natural language generation for text-based games, and was presenting a poster on a text-based game that uses super-compressed shorthand messages from some sort of public emergency broadcast system as an open data source. This is especially interesting to me because a number of text-based games I’ve worked on (including Epitaph, the current prototype build of Starfreighter, and a few forthcoming ones) also make unusually extensive use of procedural text, and the intersection between “text-based game design” and “deeply procedural text” is small enough that it’s basically always refreshing to talk to someone else who’s working on similar stuff.
Curiosity in Games Workshop
This was another all-around impressive bunch of talks. Unfortunately this workshop was held on the final day of the conference, and by that point I didn’t really have it left in me to stick around for the whole thing, but I did see the entire first block of presentations, a couple of which I found especially intriguing.
The first of these was Mark Nelson’s paper on Curious Users of Casual Creators, which focused on a phenomenon that the authors observed when testing a casual creator (essentially a lightweight creative tool that trades power for ease or enjoyability of use) for mobile games: namely, that some users seemed to gravitate toward exploring the boundaries of what the tool could do rather than actually making anything in particular. This reminded me of Scott McCloud’s four types of artists, particularly the category of “formalists”: artists who are “interested in examining the boundaries of an art form, stretching them, exploring what the form is capable of.” I’d half-forgotten about McCloud’s typology until I saw this talk, but maybe it (or something like it) has useful implications for designers of creative tools!
And then there was Mikhail Jacob’s paper on collaborative AI/human improv. Not only do I think AI/human improv is an inherently interesting idea (for many of the same reasons that I’m interested in teaching robots to dance), I’m also super intrigued by part of the methodology used here. The authors noticed that artists in a lot of fields make use of “arcs” of some sort (from narrative arcs in storytelling to visual movement arcs in visual art to tension/release arcs in music), and tried to generalize this pattern to a sort of unified theory of creative arcs. To do this, they drew on Margaret Boden’s theory of creativity as existing within a three-dimensional space where the dimensions are novelty, surprise and value, and framed their creative arcs as curves within this space. An AI agent could then try to figure out what kind of curve through creativity-space it was currently on and use this knowledge to decide what action it should perform next during creative collaboration (e.g. improv).
…yeah. A lot to take in at once, especially on the last day of a week-long conference, but it seems like the authors are on to something fundamentally interesting here, and I’m super curious to see how further development of the underlying theory might play out. This talk also convinced me to bump Boden’s book up to the top of my reading list. (In fact, I started reading it on the flight back from Europe.)
I wasn’t actually able to make it to this talk in person due to a time conflict, but I did get to have a brief conversation with the speaker (Raphael Kim) a bit beforehand. He was presenting a paper about his game Mould Rush, a kind of strange hybrid physical/digital multiplayer territory control game in which you strategically mess with the real-time growth of actual, living fungi and other microbes in order to win.
This game does a startlingly good job of tying together several of the threads that I mentioned in my discussions of the other highlights. As its creator pointed out to me, if you interpret biology as a generative method, it fits the definition of “gardening game” that I used in my own talk pretty well, albeit a bit more literally than most. The process of play seems to inherently generate these neat-looking boards that you can then take pictures of and share as co-created artifacts. And at present, if you want to play the game at all, you have to play it via Twitch chat.
Perhaps most interesting, looking at Mould Rush through the gardening games lens, is the game’s inherent (and deliberately designed) slowness. The microbes take time to grow and propagate, forcing the player to think on an unusual timescale and thereby calling their attention to the process of growth itself. Moreover, the exact behavior of the microbes (i.e., the generative processes) is largely outside the player’s control. This seems to force the player into a position of compromise with the game, and thereby with the other living organisms that are participating in it – deemphasizing the player’s role in exactly the way that gardening games are meant to.
Alright, I think that’s about it for now. There were actually a few other talks and conversations that I’d like to discuss further, but in each case my thoughts on the subject are either (a) too complicated for a super-short writeup like the ones I’ve been doing here or (b) not yet developed enough that I’m actually sure what I want to say. It also doesn’t help much that the conference was deeply inspiring to me, in such a way that I want to jump right back into making stuff as soon as possible. So I’ll leave it at that – poke me on Twitter if you want to chat about anything I mentioned here!