Monthly Archives: March 2011

Needs more yarn

Pretty much everyone who reads this blog knows that in the past year I’ve become rather crazy about crochet. It has pretty well consumed my free time. And I mean it when I say “consumed.” If I’m sitting, I have a hook, yarn, pattern or all three in my hands. My current tally in my projects list is 108. That number is actually a bit low because I made a lots of hats for charity before Thanksgiving last year. So in reality my completed projects number is closer to 200.

And charity is the reason for this post. So far, I’ve made hats for Arkansas Children’s Hospital, toys for foster children, bears for Mother Bear Project, booties for pregnancy support services, hats for the homeless, and a few adult hats for a friend of a friend who is headed for brain surgery sometime soon. I have loved every minute of it but all of this takes yarn, lots and lots of yarn.

This is where you come in! I need yarn. So I’m asking if you are a crafter, to clean out your stash. Ask your friends and relatives if they want to clean out their yarn closets. If you already watch Freecycle in your area, keep your eye out for yarn and snag it if it comes available.

New yarn is best for donating to hospital situations and worsted weight works best for the kinds of project I do. But if you have older yarn or different weights, I’ll take those as well and make it work. I got an excellent windfall last year from Freecycle via Danielle of baby weight yarn and that’s what at least half of the hospital hats were made from.

My goal is to continue to turn out hats, scarves, shawls and toys for disadvantaged folks. If I can use up some yarn that needs a home, even better! Email me if you have yarn or other thoughts and ideas.

Addendum: I should have given a shout out to my yarn store of choice: Knit Unto Others in Arkadelphia, AR. Stephen’s mom spends most of her days there with the owner, Claire. The shop is fantastic! Full of lovely yarn and lovelier people and as the name claims, they are all about keeping people warm and snugly.

This is the Closest I’ll Come to a PAX East 2011 Post

All right, it’s been two weeks since PAX East and I might as well accept that I’m not going to do a proper post. Instead, I’ll summarize by saying that I had a great time and that it was wonderful to see a lot of the people in the interactive fiction community and have a chance to talk about IF for large chunks of my day. I got to re-connect with old friends and make new ones. I also played “Small World”, which is an excellent board game, so there’s that.

The highlight for me was undoubtedly the IF Demo Fair, which showed off various experiments with interactive fiction’s form, content, and demonstration. Of those, Aaron Reed’s “what if i’m the bad guy?” had the biggest impact on me. Like Emily, I found myself unable and unwilling to play through it in its entirety, in part because of it being in a public space and in part because of the content. “I gave up playing it” may not sound like high praise, but in this case it is.

I took part in a panel on Setting as Character, where we talked about how, in many games, the setting is part of the character. I was joined by Dean Tate, who was a designer on Bioshock and Bioshock 2 and thus had a lot of experience designing graphical worlds; Rob Wheeler, who, like me, has done a lot of work on setting in interactive fiction (see, for example, our two related but different takes on writing IF room descriptions in the IF Theory Reader); and Andrew Plotkin, who is all about cool settings.

There were other IF-related goings-on. There were panels like the Non-Gamers Gaming panel and Nick Montfort explaining Curveship, his IF design system that focuses on narration. There was the Speed-IF, in which participants wrote a short game in a matter of hours — see A Scurvy of Wonders for one such example. And then there was the point where a lot of us wandered into Chinatown in search of non-convention food.

To sum up: I had fun, there was a lot of IF stuff, A++++ would attend again.

Chain World Recapitulates Religious Schisms

It turns out that a game designed to have religious overtones has rapidly gone through a lifecycle that mimics several Western religions.

For the past several years the Game Design Challenge panel at the Games Developer Conference has asked a few game developers to spend the week before GDC creating a themed game. This year the theme was “Bigger than Jesus.” Jenova Chen, John Romero, and Jason Rohrer were to make a game that could become a religion.

Jason Rohrer knocked it out of the park. He created Chain World, which was a Minecraft world on a USB drive and some commandments. The commandments specified that one player at a time would play Chain World, changing the world, until the player died. At that point the player would save the game and pass the USB to another interested player.

Chain World is a chance to place your mark on a virtual world and pass it on to someone else who only knows you through what you’ve done to that world. It has nine or eleven commandments, depending on how you count.

Of course it mutated instantly.

The first recipient of the USB drive from Jason Rohrer, Jia Ji, decided to auction off the next slot on eBay for charity. Moreover, he specified that the recipient after that should be Jane McGonigal (a famous author and proponent of gamification), followed by the winner of another charity auction, and then Wil Wright. Jia Ji had set a precedence that you could have access to Chain World either by being famous or paying for that access, neither of which were expressly forbidden by Jason Rohrer’s nineish commandments.

As you might imagine, this caused some backlash. Some game designers criticized what Ji had done. Jane McGonigal responded to one of those critics by saying, “[Y]ou are seriously upset about raising money for sick kids?” Jason Rohrer chimed in, saying that the winner of the eBay auction shouldn’t mail the game to McGonigal.

So to recap: a game intended to be religious was changed by its first disciple so that access to the religion involved either money or being famous. Possible responses include subverting it within or declaring a reformation and forking the project. Sound familiar?

I’m fascinated that an artificial simulation designed to mimic religion has re-created religious schisms and arguments. I’m also fascinated that it exposes a fundamental disconnect between gamification adherents and some traditional game designers. Gamification as espoused by McGonigal and others is about using game mechanics as a means to a non-game end, which dovetails nicely with Ji’s desire to use Chain World as a means to raise money for charity. Many game designers view games themselves as an end rather than a means. For them, Chain World shouldn’t be used for other purposes. Its reason for existing is to be itself.

You want to know why I care about games? This is why. Chain World has spawned arguments about the greater meaning of games and how they reflect the wider world. Leave aside arguments about whether games are art or not. Games like Chain World have something to say about our lives.

What Pi Sounds Like

Happy Pi Day! I can think of no better way to celebrate 3.14 than Michael John Blake’s fun musical composition that takes the digits of pi (3.1415926535…) and turns them into something akin to a Schoenbergian twelve-tone row that never fully repeats.

Remembering Japan

I have spent all day grieving for Japan. We visited three years ago and I fell in love with the beauty of the place and the graciousness of the people. If it is possible to be homesick for a place that you’ve never lived, then that is what I am. My heart is so sad.

If you are interested in helping, please donate at the Red Cross.

Growing up Crafty

There are lots of things I love about Eli and Liza. They are kind and funny and smart and, best of all, interested in making things.

It’s a bit late in the season, but both of the kids wanted a scarf to wear. So yesterday Liza and I purchased yarn (she picked out both hers and Eli’s) to make scarves. Liza got right to work on hers…

Liza spent about 45 minutes yesterday afternoon “crocheting” her yarn. She kept asking me how to do it and so I showed her a chain stitch and how to do it with her fingers. I told her that it would be a lot easier for her when she got a bit older. She was happy with what she could do.

After she went to bed last night, I made her a scarf and had enough yarn left over to make a tiny hat. She proudly wore them to take Dad to the airport at 5:30 this morning.

Eli was less enthusiastic about his. I think the teen years are going to be made of eye rolls, long suffering sighs, and homemade robots.

Where to Find Me at PAX East 2011

I’ll be at PAX East in Boston this year, occasionally wandering the halls and perhaps seeing if anyone wants to try a game of Fiasco, but if you want to find me, the Interactive Fiction Hospitality Suite is a good place to start. The suite is in the Westin Waterfront Hotel, which means you don’t actually need a PAX East badge to come by! There’s also an IF Event Room in the Westin’s Alcott room that will be open on Saturday.

So, you ask, when will you be in either of those rooms? Luckily, I have answers!

Meet the IF Community! Friday from 7:30 to 9 PM I’ll be in the hospitality suite mixing and mingling.

Setting as a Character in Narrative Games. Saturday, 2 – 3 PM, Alcott room. I’m on a panel with Andrew Plotkin, Rob Wheeler and Dean Tate talking about settings tell stories and inform the player character’s actions.

IF Demo Fair. Saturday, 8 – 10 PM, Alcott room. People will be demonstrating all kinds of new user interfaces, modes of NPC interaction, and more. Want to see a typewriter on which you can play Zork? Stop by!

There’s lots more going on, and I’ll be in and out throughout the convention, but the three events listed above are when I can guarantee I’ll be there. So come say hi! I’m the bald guy with a goatee and a slightly manic look.

Friday Yummy: Chocolate Cake

I haven’t posted a recipe in a while and since my mom was asking for the chocolate cake recipe I made for Eli’s birthday, you guys get a new recipe.

I cut it out of the local paper several years ago and the writer claims it’s from the back of the Hershey’s Cocoa box. I don’t use Hershey’s. I use Penzey’s Dutch Process Cocoa and I’m pretty sure that if heaven doesn’t contain copious amounts of this cocoa, I don’t want in.

2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups AP flour
3/4 cup cocoa
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water

Heat oven to 350°. Grease and flour two 9-inch round pans or one 13×9-inch baking pan.

Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla. Beat at medium speed with electric mixer for 2 minutes. Stir in boiling water (batter will be very thin!). Pour batter into prepared pan(s).

Bake for 30-35 minutes for round pans, 35-40 minutes for rectangular pan or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely before icing.

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
6 TBS butter
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1/3 cup milk (I always need a bit more than 1/3 cup)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Beat butter in mixing bowl. Add powdered sugar and cocoa alternately with milk, beating to spreading consistency. Stir in vanilla. Makes enough to cover the round cakes generously.

As always with this much chocolate and vanilla, the cake will be super strong and sweet on the first day and perfectly mellow the next. So if you need to really impress someone with your baking skills, make it the day before.

The Interactive Fiction Theory Reader

The IF Theory Reader is out! It’s a collection of essays about interactive fiction that run the gamut from theoretical discussions of the form to nuts-and-bolts advice for describing rooms and designing puzzles. You can download the PDF for free or buy a physical copy of the book for $15.

The IF Theory Reader began its life as the IF Theory Book some nine years ago. While the articles were written for the book back then, many have been updated and re-worked. Nick Montfort re-wrote his article “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction”; indeed, the first page of the article is now a footnote describing some of its history. Emily Short’s article on IF geography has been similarly overhauled, and I expanded my article on the history of short works of interactive fiction to encompass changes since its first draft in 2002.

The book begins with the classic article “Sins Against Mimesis”. When Roger Giner-Sorolla first posted it to one of the IF Usenet newsgroups, it sparked wide-ranging conversations about interactive fiction theory. Many of the articles in the book owe their existence, at least in part, to that post and the theoretical debates it touched off. If you’re interested in theory about IF and seeing how it’s been evolving since the late 1990s, The IF Theory Reader is a great compendium.