The Art Can of Worms

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In my Video Art class a couple of weeks ago, we got into a discussion (slightly off track for the topic of the day) about what is art and what isn’t art. That’s a big, hairy subject that has no real answer and that brings out ferocious opinions in a wide variety of people.

As it was a class about Video Art, the discussion was mostly about “Video Art” versus movies and TV–but it got broader than that at times. Toward the end of it, I wrote in my notebook:

Reflective emotional response vs. Reflected emotional response

What I was trying to capture is the difference in the responses that creators of media are trying to elicit. Commercial media (movies, TV, Web videos created by big companies) wants you to feel something. Usually what it wants you to feel is a gaping hole in your life where the sponsor’s product belongs. Or, in the case of movies, it wants to overwhelm your senses and activate primal brain functions that will make you tell your friends how utterly awesome watching it is.

Capital ‘A’ Art, on the other hand, wants you to feel something philosophical. Or, to satisfy my own definition of art, it makes you engage your brain and come to whatever emotional response naturally follows.

In my view, both kinds of media have about the same chance of really affecting you. Most commercial media is brainless and unengaging, and what real art slips in happens by the subversive power of the creator, not because the money wanted it there. Most Art is either bullshit or too obscure to mean anything to the majority of people.

Either way, as consumers, we should train ourselves to think critically about what we’re fed.  Think. Draw your own conclusions. Consume what engages you. Will it be “Art”? Who cares?

Snow Week, Slow Week

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Ridiculousness of the reactions of the locals to half a dozen inches of snowfall notwithstanding, it was a whole week of snow days for me. Snow days, whether deserved or not, are always days of unrealized potential for me. I had (and have) tons (TONS!) of homework to do. Not to mention the many things on my personal to-do list. But what do I do all week? A little homework, a little hanging around with Jen playing games and watching movies, and a lot of video games. Unmotivated.

The hard part about days more or less wasted is not letting that lack of motivation spiral out of control. Back to work, for school and for myself.

Happy to Lose

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I have an odd relationship to games. I’d like to say that I don’t care whether I win or lose, but that’s not quite true. I have the most fun when everyone playing is doing well and enjoying the game. I have found, however, that some games are more fun than others if you aren’t clearly winning.

Let’s take 7 Wonders for example. As I touched on previously, it has a lot going for it: it’s quick to play and the rules are simple once you grok them (to name just two). It is also a game that I am happy to lose. Which is to say that my enjoyment of the game is not derived from winning an individual game. More than that, it’s a game where I think anyone playing goes through uncertainty about how they’re doing relative to others during play. I remarked while playing last night that sometime in Age II everyone feels like they’re doomed.

I think uncertainty about how well I’m doing is a feature I like in games. I love Agricola, but I don’t think I’ve ever played a game of it where I wasn’t certain that I was doing poorly for much of the game. The difference between such games and others I enjoy less is that everyone’s in pretty much the same boat. Experience has taught me that, when playing Agricola, how I feel about my success during play isn’t a strong indicator of how it will actually turn out in the end. On the flip side, I have played many games, notably of Settlers of Catan, where I was able to identify that I (or another player) was pretty much doomed from the start. In the Catan instances, the early predictions almost always turn out to be true. So repeated plays of a game can teach you whether the feelings that the game elicits from you during play are indicative of the quality of your playing or are simply part of the experience.

Weekly Progress Report 1

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Perhaps more for myself than anyone else, I’m going to keep track of my progress on “front burner” projects here every week on Sunday night.

This week was a little abnormal, being the first week of this site and the first week of a new quarter at school. I did get in a couple of hours of shop time working on the pot rack. I didn’t have anyone around to help me take some pictures in progress, but I did get a couple of shots between things and will post them sometime soon.

Nothing new on Kroul other than some mental sorting. And nothing whatsoever on Flash.

I did spend some time tinkering with Photoshop in anticipation of my Image and Imagination class. Also, I went out to take some pictures for that class today after a couple of frustrating days trying to find the right mirrors. I’ll post about that project in the next couple of days.

Now I’m looking forward to a week of adjusting to the new school workload and getting time in on my own projects. I can’t say that Skyrim is really helping, but I’m trying not to play it too much and to get other things done before I start.

That’s it for this week. Back in seven with the next report.

Computers Suck at Things

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In setting up this site, I activated a plug-in in WordPress to improve spell-checking. The description told me how this magical tool would help me become a better writer, because it was a sophisticated set of artificially intelligent algorithms. Not that it really surprises me, but it’s crap. It does one things pretty well: it tells me when I have misspelled or mistyped words. It tries to “analyze” my writing to identify “complex statements” and other grammatical oddities, but so far it has not identified a single issue of this type that I found to be valid.

It’s no news that computers suck at some things. It just occasionally blindsides me when, with all the incredible things that computers are doing for me and for humanity, that doing anything remotely intelligent is still so far away. Last year people were ga ga over Watson and its ability to play Jeopardy. But Watson is still just doing what computers have always been good at: performing simple math-related tasks extremely quickly.

Also, in my ten years at Microsoft, I can’t tell you how many times the subject of whether editors were needed for documentation came up. The answer is simple. Yes. The world needs human editors who know things about language. We’re a long way away from computers being any good at it. People talk about the Turing test as the mark of the onset of real artificial intelligence, and then go on to assert that computers are already holding conversations with people as sales and service bots on the Web. These are just more smoke and mirrors for custom tailored situations. I put it to you that we needn’t worry about the AIs taking over the world until a machine can provide a high-quality substantive edit pass.

Exiting the First Week of School

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Yesterday was the last day of my first week of winter quarter. I ended up dropping my Saturday drama class, because 25 credits was starting to feel crazy and the middle of the afternoon on Saturday is a really inconvenient time to be tied to a class. I’m still set up to take regular 15 credit quarters spring and summer and have a few more credits than required to graduate.

All of my classes this go round are arts related. I feel the difference coming out of week one. I’m excited and interested in everything I’m taking, and a little scared about the amount of creative output required (not to mention the reading). Overall, I’m feeling optimistic and cheerful. I’m a little worried about “artsy-fartsy” factor–the part of arts classes where instructors and fellow students wax philosophical about high-minded artistic concepts that may or may not be present in the work at hand. I think I’m up for it though.

Keep an eye out for artwork in progress here on the site, and also for more updates about school generally.

The Skill/Chance Sweet Spot

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Most games have some measure of chance involved. For the moment I’m mostly talking about board and card games. Games also usually have an opportunity to bring tactical or strategic thinking to bear on them–you can be “good” at them.

When you play a game where the ratio of skill and chance is shifted to one end of the spectrum, you notice. If there’s more chance than skill, you are likely to feel that it doesn’t really matter what you do. If there’s more skill than chance, you might feel like you aren’t good at the game.

I won’t say that there’s a right or wrong composition, but some things will change depending on it. A game with no chance, for example, is likely to be one that takes a significant amount of effort to feel competent playing (think chess or go). A game with no skill isn’t likely to hold the attention of adult players for long (unless money is changing hands, but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish).

For most board and card games of the sort that nerds like me buy, there is a sweet spot where the randomness keeps things from grinding to a halt due to “analysis paralysis” while enabling the players to feel more or less in control of their game play. For an excellent example of this, I suggest 7 Wonders, which I got for Christmas. It’s a game where the potential for skill is palpable, but beginners can play without being totally dominated by their more experienced peers.

Kroul

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Kroul made my short-list of projects to make progress on, so here’s a little about it:

When I was, I don’t know, maybe 12, I started playing D&D. And by “playing” I mean telling exciting fantasy stories with my friends while we all pretended to know how to play the game even though we didn’t. I had a couple of modules stolen from or cast off by my older brother. I’d read the descriptive bits out loud, ask everyone what they were doing, meaningfully roll random dice behind a cardboard screen, and then say whatever made sense to me, given the situation. It was a potpourri of childish wonder and random fantasy elements that I loved.

Kroul attempts to capture some of that innocent, seat-of-the-pants excitement in a game that has rules that will actually help the proceedings. But that’s not all: it also emphasizes the ensemble nature of the adventuring party that D&D has always more or less required. Characters in Kroul meaningfully bring things to the table for the whole group, and play requires smart collaboration and group tactics.

Importantly, Kroul rejects metaplot and canonical setting. It provides the very roughly defined world of Kroul (which is pronounced to rhyme with bowl) which provides flavor and prompts for your own creativity without getting in your way. It’s got rules to empower player contribution to setting and plot, and resources to make it easy for the GM to come up with adventures on the fly (there is a strict no intricate pre-work policy).

In short, it takes everything that I think is cool about cheesy fantasy games and makes it functional and fun to play while eliminating all the crap I hate. I think it rocks. Now I need to do some hard work to make sure that it does.

In the event that curious people ever actually read this, I’d love to answer (at this point general) questions in the comments. You have to wait for moderation the first time, then Word Press should recognize you as a non spammer and let you comment without waiting for me.

 

The Front Burner

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The metaphorical stovetop of my creative world is infinitely large. I suspect this is true of most creative people. When I have a new idea, which is, let’s face it, much more seductive than actually implementing an existing idea, I think about it for a while and then toss it on the back burner. I’m not sure I can count how many back burners are running at the moment. It’s getting old.

If I’m ever going to accomplish anything, I have to follow through on things and see them to completion. Part of that is acknowledging that they will never be as awesome in reality as they were in my imagination–but the thing that exists is always better than the thing that doesn’t.

So here, for myself and others to see, is the current list of projects that are being put on the front burner. These get the attention until thay’re done (and they might get a countdown if I think that’ll help):

  1. Wendy’s Pot Rack – this has been sitting in my shop making glacial progress for a year and a half. It’s not going to be the most amazing thing in the universe. I will be able top tell the parts that I screwed up, but Wendy probably won’t.
  2. Kroul – I started working on this roleplaying game in 2009. It had major problems. I overcame those problems before I started going back to school in 2010. At this point it’s just about knuckling down and doing the work.
  3. Flash – I was going strong on my Flash game development education for a while. It’s time to push through and create my first full-on (if small) game.

Okay you three. You have been warned.