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Tuesday, July 12, 2016


I really enjoyed this dicsussion of games. We began by talking about place where games appear in fiction. My first thought was Split Infinity by Piers Anthony. It begins with a character who is a competitor in this massive multi-game scenario - a dystopia where the status of the higher-ups depends on how good their stable of gamers is, and the gamers themselves are like serfs. This includes a wide variety of games, some very familiar and others less so.

We also had Kimberly Unger present as a guest, and she is a game developer. That's a very different kind of game, and in fact it's drastically different designing games for a fictional world than designing them for our own.

One of our discussants mentioned that the game tack from Pat Rothfuss' work has been turned into a game that is playable in real life.

Games in fiction do some very interesting symbolic things. They can represent relationships between people, or they can be a way to carry out negotiations between larger groups.

In my Varin world, I created a game called keyzel marbles. Because the actual moves of the game are not relevant to the story, I don't know the precise rules for moving the marbles. What I do know is that it's played on a round obsidian board with cradles drilled for blue and green marbles, and that the object of the game is to outmaneuver your opponent and cross the board.

There are several places in the book where keyzel marbles comes up. The first one is in a scene where an eleven-year-old noble boy named Pyaras starts playing it with a twenty-five-year-old soldier bodyguard named Veriga, and this is perceived as a totally inappropriate form of fraternization by one of the other characters. However, it indicates the beginning of a friendship between Pyaras and Veriga.

I also have the game representing the way that the past can't be recaptured. Another character walks to the gameboard later in the story and starts putting the marbles back to their starting positions while musing on how he wishes he could go back and start over. This then intersects with the Pyaras/Veriga part, because Pyaras objects to the other character wrecking his game-in-progress with Veriga. Veriga has since been hospitalized due to the hazards of his job and Pyaras is concerned that their relationship will vanish with the configuration of the marbles.

The last place I mentioned the game playing a role is in a scene where Lady Tamelera wants to reveal something very important to her servant Aloran but doesn't know how. She invites him out to play keyzel marbles with her, to fill awkward time, but also to try to open up a different sort of relationship with him. The problem is that he doesn't feel comfortable playing a game against his mistress, because it represents a power struggle that he feels is inappropriate to engage in.

Power struggle is one of the big things that games can symbolize. Chess has sometimes been used in science fiction as a form of communication between races. It can reflect or change a power dynamic.

Games are also powerful in folk tales, such as when you play a game with the devil, the fae, or Death.

Games can be critical as a symbolic representation of a larger conflict. If you can engage in single combat instead having whole armies clash, why not do it? If you can play a game and agree on the stakes, might you save many lives?

Games and the ways in which they are played reflect the world around them. If you are playing a game with plastic dice, it's not the same as playing a game with pig knucklebones. Where do the knucklebones come from? Knucklebones, the word itself, makes the game of dice sound exotic and like it comes from a particular period. There are many games of chance or rune-reading. We noted that people have found real twenty-sided stone dice from the Roman period.

Another game from my Varin world, called dareli, is a card game based on the concept of families. It's not played as often as keyzel marbles, but it's meant to reveal things about the world of the nobility and their myopic focus on their own inter-family struggles.

There are a ton of ways to play cards, and more are being invented all the time. There are even a ton of ways to play solitaire.

We spoke a bit about cooperative games. How are children taught via games? What values come out of the game? These are good things to think about when you are creating games for a fictional world. How much is skill? How much is chance? Are people rewarded for defeating others or for creating something?

There are cases where dueling is used in fiction as a test for the children of a person in power, to see how willing one child is to kill the other, to show their ruthlessness for future rule.

I told the story of the red hand of Ulster. The men who were competing for the title of king went out in boats and raced for the shore, having accepted the rule that the first one whose hand touched the shore would become king. One of the men, seeing he was going to lose by a hair, cut off his own hand and threw it ahead onto the shore. He ended up becoming king!

The topic of the film Gattaca came up. In a world where genetic manipulation is common, there is a swimming competition between the genetically perfect child and the natural child. When the natural child won against all expectation, it changed both children's lives because it changed their attitudes about perfection and what was possible, and set up the conflict for the movie.

We also talked about games in Jane Austen, such as games played at a picnic, or charades, or riddle games. Games can become a way of making fun of someone in public, so their stakes can be quite high.

In Monopoly, there is some building, but all opponents are enemies who need to be bankrupted.
In Settlers of Catan, everyone gets points for building.

Kimberly mentioned that this is why there are often specific areas of games set aside for Player-vs.-Player competition.

In Minecraft, the focus is on building.

In massive multiplayer online games, there are many people who only want to fight the AI or non-player characters. This is the largest group. The people who play PVP have a very different focus. Some games will have servers specifically for roleplay, and others specifically for PVP.

Some people are really into customizing characters and costumes, and focus mostly on the customization rewards. In games like Sims or Tomogachi life, the first character people create is most often themselves, and they branch out after that.

When people are playing a game, it evolves its own culture, and that is not always predictable.

We talked about the movie War Games, and the way the videogame Thermonuclear War stood in for the actual conflict, as its outcome reflected a real life potential outcome outside the world of the movie. In this case, the idea of conflict as a game is problematic, because it estranges us fromt he fact that anyone actually playing gets a bad outcome. In this movie, the innocence of the computer was a metaphor for the attitudes of the younger generation.

In the Spy Kids movies, there are several instances of games that suck people in or otherwise come to life. This has become a common trope.

The metaphors and world concepts of games can influence our real-life metaphors and world concepts. This was noted and explained by Anita Sarkeesian in her series of videos.

Generation by generation, people are improving games and increasing representation in them. This is also true of books. Equality gets layered gradually into the cultural canon (there is much more work to do).

Games like Overwatch and Destiny can take on a culture that was not intended by the developers. Kimberly says, "no game survives contact with the audience." She mentioned Riot Games as an example of a developer group with a lot of control over their culture. They have an entire judiciary system with tribunals.

"House rules" are game rules that are idiosyncratic to the place where you are playing them. Not knowing house rules is a problem. It feeds into the idea of games as representative of power.

This week's hangout has been rescheduled due to some thorny logistical problems. We will meet with author Eva Elasigue on Thursday, 7/14/16 at 5pm Pacific. I hope you can make it!


Monday, July 11, 2016

Bo Bolander and "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead"

I was thrilled to have Bo Bolander join us on the show to talk about her award-nominated story. I began by asking how "Trail of Dead" came to be, and she told me it was a pastiche of pulp, noir, anime, and Tarantino with lots of sweary shooty. (You can watch the video for the precise quote!).

She was asked to write a flash piece for a literary zine, but "it didn't want to be a flash piece," and "it took off. Bo said she didn't know how it would be received, and that she was taking a risk stylistically, but she woke up at four in the morning one night and started writing the rest of it. It took her two years to finish. I asked if she planned how long it would be, but she said of her stories, "I write until they're done."

She said that the voice really drove the story forward, but there were points as it got more complicated where she wanted to take a white board and organize some things because she wasn't sure how to get some points, some beats she wanted to hit.

Rhye, she says, is basically a replicant in the Bladerunner sense. The story is something of an homage to Bladerunner and to Ghost in the Shell. Rhye doesn't have good self esteem (understatement) and "she kinda needs a hand up." The character of Rack was complementary to her, and Bo only worked with his point of view much later. The two viewpoints are very entangled, and we get to see her view of him, and also how he sees her during the course of the story. (Spoilers!) One revelation about his view of her comes when she sees a version of herself that he has created as a security program. It's interesting to see her considering that.

Bo is working on a sequel to the story and having fun with it, exploring where the characters are going. She says she likes stories that don't spell everything out for you. "You have to do some worldbuilding," she says. She focuses on the character's voice and point of view. History, nuance and detail are not necessarily interesting or relevant to a story.

She says she does worldbuilding a little with what Rhye is thinking, because the world influences that. But it's not always a weakness not to map out the entire world. She focuses in on how the world has made Rhye what she is, beating her down.

I asked about Bo's use of metaphor and simile, which I think is one of the outstanding strengths of the piece. She said that Rhye is broken and mean, but in some ways a lot like her internal voice, so she was easy to write. Sometimes you have to stop and think about how Rhye would see things, because she's going to use what she knows. In a sense, any character is going to use metaphors and similes that reveal things about what they know to compare things against.

Bo says there are stories out there ostensibly using the point of view of (for example) someone from backwoods Florida, but the voice comes out as that of a postgraduate literary person. "If the voice is not there," she says, "I can't get behind it."

Rhye's past helps to construct her narrative, and that is coming into play in the sequel, with some experiences Rhye had between the last story and this one. She has changed. There are changes in story #1, but also more between 1 and 2. Bo gets into her backstory a bit more deeply.

The sequel is apparently a novel. Bo says, "I'm trying to expand everything."

She's also working on a fantasy piece right now, because she says, "I can't do the same thing twice. I get bored really easily." She expressed her admiration for patois and dialect use in the film Fury Road. She says most people don't mess with language much. She says the fantasy work is nice because it gives her a break from Rhye occasionally.

She has posted a snippet of the sequel on her blog.

I asked her about the submission history of the story, and she said one market thought "Trail of Dead" should be a novel instead. Some people objected to all the swearing, saying "Why does she talk like that? What made her like that?" Bo says that after two years of writing and reviews from people she trusted, she went with it despite uncertainty, and then took a breath, and then suddenly got nominated for awards.

Bo expressed her high regard for Lightspeed and Nightmare Magazines, and for the art of Galen Dara.

When I asked whether she had done any research for the story, she said that there had been no research component except that she used to go to the firing range a whole lot, and that helped her with the portrayal of firearm use, which she described as "a zen thing. You have to get out of your head." She had some experience with that having grown up around firearms.

She says it's interesting how much of yourself ends up in your story. "You put so much in, but you don't even notice."

Bo described her writing process as "I get it out in one draft, but editing the entire time." This story ended up with a few line edits at the start but none toward the end. You can't do that with a novel, though, she says, because you have to keep moving. "A novel is such a different beast. You can't make it perfect on the first go."

Bo also spoke to us about her experience with ADD. Never downplay the influence of prescription drugs on the ADD brain, she told us. Sometimes, she has found just sitting down and concentrating to be impossible. "Sit down and write," people always say, but sometimes it can't be done. "You're not lazy." It's not that you're unfocused, or that you don't care. You're not alone. Sometimes your brain needs help. ADD is underdiagnosed especially in women. She took particular issue with the term "airhead" and speculated it might be linked to ADD.

Bo described the feeling of productivity as "amazing" and was happy not to be "frozen in my own indecision." She says she hates portrayals of medication as turning you into a zombie, because that has been so far from her experience.

She says that she has lots of ideas, but not all of them are worth stretching out. "It has to be more than a cute hook. There's got to be something deeper going on." "What's the through line?" she asks. "What is the emotional underpinning?" It's possible to find the point of a story while you're writing it, but it's useful to have some hint of it beforehand.

Bo, thank you for joining us! Readers, if you want more detail, the video is below.

This week's hangout will be on Wednesday, July 13th at 10:00am with guest author Eva Elasigue. I hope you can join us!