A ‘metaclass’.

Kanji metaclass posterEspañol

I was invited by the center I formerly studied Japanese at (Ceija, here in Santiago) to give a short workshop. It was an open invitation, as I could suggest what the theme for it would be. I decided long ago that I’m no good as a teacher, so I almost rejected the request, but finally decided to propose a non-traditional program in which I would not be a teacher but just someone who’s been studying longer (a senpai, as a Japanese person would put it,) and turn the classroom into a more level place for discussion and discovery. The themes to discuss would be the Japanese kanji writing system, and self-study. I called it kanji metaclass, loosely using the ‘meta’ prefix the same way it’s used in the word ‘metadata’: that is, to suggest recursiveness, learning about learning.

Although I haven’t found the teacher in me, I do think about education a great deal. I’ve been teaching myself lots of things since I can remember. I am largely frustrated by the way in which education has been institutionalized. And I work developing ludo-educational software.

I strongly believe in intrinsic motivation as key to learning. Extrinsic motivation would be grades, rewards and punishments; that is, how most schools nowadays work. Intrinsic motivation would be doing something because it is its own reward, or because it leads naturally to our reward. Put another way, I think that mainstream education teaches us to hate study and learning, by making those the hurdles we need to hop over to get to the carrot they put in front of us instead (or to get away from the whip behind.) But, of course, there’s no better stimulus to learning than just wanting to know.

So this class I’m about to finish offering this week reflects my views on education at large, and experimental as the format is (for someone inexperienced like me,) it’s been, from my point of view, a great success. My main priority was to make everyone curious, invested, and in charge of their own learning. I got everyone enjoyably (even excitedly) discussing varied subtopics, once they got comfortable enough with me and one another (that is, by the second session.) The flow of each session is almost entirely freeform, it leading wherever the discussion takes us. I prepared beforehand a long document full of little packets of (largely personal, even anecdotal) information, though, which I use as a resource to plant new ideas and questions. It still remains to see how this influence impacts their learning, but first I just felt the need to impact their mentality.

So that is one of the things I’ve been up to. And to end this post, here’s a little bullet-point manifesto I wrote for myself, to keep me focused on my goals for this workshop:

  1. The classroom is a place for active discussion, exploration, and exchange of knowledge and ideas by and for all.
  2. Our themes are Japanese kanji, self-study, and the intersection of the two.
  3. When leaving the classroom, study has just begun.
  4. A student questions, asks, errs, researches, teaches themselves, shares their knowledge.
  5. The teacher is but a guide.
  6. If one must teach, teach that which is elementary and general.
  7. Better than teaching is suggesting.
  8. Better than suggesting is asking.
  9. Better than asking is listening.
  10. Anything can be debated.

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What (video) games are.

When I posted my entry for the Ludum Dare competition, Heart, I received mostly positive comments, though many of them were appended with something close to this sentence: “But it is not a game.” I was not too surprised. Indeed, when I talk to people about games, they normally think of them in terms of gameplay, interaction, challenge, fun, goals. Which is not wrong, as most video games can be accurately described with these words, but it is unnecessarily restrictive to categorize the whole art within these boundaries—doing so is an exercise in exclusivity. This ties directly with my previous post about expanding the scope of video games. Do we really need to keep a short leash on what video games are or can be?

I came across a definition for game today, by Corvus Elrod. It is the most elegant and explicit that I’ve found so far. Here it is:

Game is a set of rules and/or conditions, established by a community, which serve as a bounded space for play.

Where play stands for “the self-guided exploration of possibility within a bounded space”, which is a definition I feel to be accurate. I believe that Corvus is forcefully nudging the ‘community’ element into the definition, though (where is the community if one person creates a game for himself alone to play?), so I would actually simplify it into this:

Game is a set of rules and/or conditions which serve as a bounded space for play.

I can’t think of a single game that this definition does not embrace, including board games, sports, playground games, and, yes, video games. It also suggests that games can be entertaining or not, challenging or not, involve goals or not. By this definition, exquisite corpse is a game, which rings true to me.

The definition speaks nothing of the amount of interactivity that is to be expected of a game, but the mention of rules and conditions implies that choice needs to be present. In Heart, the player is required to explore, as the game does nothing without their input. They would discover that the right arrow key makes the character move in that direction. And the opposite key? It triggers a response in the avatar: he cannot go back. It is part of the process of discovery. In Heart, the player is the force that drives the character forward, for without their input, he would stay in place forever. Nothing would happen, the game would not be played, the character would not confront his fate. Is it not a meaningful choice that the player is making, then?

I didn’t mean this post to be in defense of my game, though it looks like it turned out that way. This subject is something that I consider to be relevant, as I don’t see enough game makers thinking about where to lead video games, so I feel the need to touch upon it. I hope to spark debate in some circles, frankly!

Games for a reason.

After seeing videos and reports of some of the talks at this year’s Independent Games Festival, I’m saddened. Sure, all those indie game developers are having the time of their lives out there, and the scene seems to be growing and doing very well for itself. The problem is, it’s just all a bit empty. There’s a lot of whizbang, but very little substance. Most of these game developers make games for the sake of making games, which is a good thing to do for themselves, but ultimately doesn’t result in a product that will be relevant for the end user, and to society as a whole. So many game developers, from the mainstream industry and the indies, repeat that they want to make fun games, and ‘fun’ is that end goal that every game needs to accomplish. And if you look around, you will see that most games are indeed catering to our senses, because what else is fun if not pleasure? I mean, addictiveness is a desireable quality in a game, according to most game reviewers out there—but do gamers really wanna be playing packs of cigarettes all the time? Don’t they wanna get something positive out of the experience, be stimulated every now and then? Don’t their minds (as opposed to their brains) wanna be challenged, or nurtured?

I, at least, want more communicative games, games with ideals, games that have some new things for me to think about. I want more utilitarian games that explain a process to me, or ease me into a concept, or teach me something. There’s nothing wrong with the videogames being made nowadays; there’s just not enough of them that go beyond being fun. I’m not the only one who thinks like this, either; here are a few individuals and teams who also have things to say on this matter: Chris Crawford, Raph Koster, Jason Rohrer, Values at Play, Serious Games Initiative.

The good news is that there are such games out there—they’re just not exactly the norm. Since I got involved in the indie game making scene, I’ve seen some of them; just a tiny portion of the spectrum, but they still remain largely outnumbered by all of the just fun games. I’m talking about subtle communicative experiments like Coil. About attempts at creating interactive storytelling, like Storyteller. Strong aesthetic games like flOw. Ideological games like The free culture game. Also, a couple of the games that won awards at the IGF went deeper than the standard indeed, like Blueberry garden, and Between. The games that I just linked are brief, and free to play directly from your web browser, so give them a try if you haven’t.

I want more of these games, and games that go beyond. I want games that have a good reason to exist. I hope to make such games!

Glory to the filmmaker!

Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano is my favorite director in Japan right now. The first film of his that I watched was Dolls; at the time, it had been recently premiered (2002 or 3.) Someone from the Internet community I used to frequent was praising the film, so, fan of everything Japanese as I was back then, I went looking for it. Now, my memory gets fuzzy at this point, but of one thing I’m sure: I ended up not only watching Dolls, but Hana-bi too, and while the former was a good movie with interesting cinematography, it’s the latter which really caught my interest and made me the fan that I’m now. The film was so very contrasted; it was violent but it was not raw as life, it was preternatural, it sublimated the awful and the quietly beautiful and confronted them, just as black and white struggle in the chiaroscuro of a romanticist painting. The stillness and the orthogonal perspective and framing of the camera captivated me.

The perhaps strange thing do consider is that, in his early years of fame, Kitano performed as ‘Beat Takeshi’ in manzai comedy duo Two Beat. Last night I watched Glory to the Filmmaker! (Kantoku, Banzai!,) a comedy that seems to harken back to those days. It’s worth mentioning that this is not his first comedy, but it does seem to be his silliest. It could easily be divided into parts and made into a TV show; even better if it’s live, with the audience laughing and interacting. Office Kitano’s troupe would do great in television, if this movie is any indication, as I constantly felt the actors about to come out of the screen, almost talking directly to me; breaking the fourth wall is not a new thing for Kitano, but it seemed like the whole point this time around. For starters, the movie is about Kitano himself (again, nothing new,) or, rather —in a way that reminded me of Adaptation,— about his troubles trying to make a film. But the script is fanciful, so while that is the point of the movie for the first half hour or so, it promptly forgets about all that and decides to just incoherently throw situation after situation, loosely tied by the characters and a certain chronological continuity—and this is what I meant by it being perfect for television. I spent most of the movie staring at the screen and going ‘what the F?,’ too offput to even laugh, as I had a hard time even deciding when it would be appropriate. Yes, it’s a weird, stream-of-consciousness, post-modern comedy; and if that sounds appealing, then it won’t disappoint you. Me, I actually liked the film immediately preceding it in Kitano’s filmography better: Takeshis’.

Maybe this fact is true of Glory… as well, but probably more so for this film: You should watch it only after you have amassed a decent number of Kitano’s movies under your belt; otherwise, most of the irony will be lost on you. It’s an absurd comedy as well, but in it, the character of Kitano himself, as a director, is at the center of the attention the whole time. Here, Kitano is not only himself, but also a regular, quiet store clerk that happens to be a fan of Kitano’s. After he meets him and is ridiculed by his idol, the story drifts into the surreal; every character has a more sordid double in town, and the store clerk-Kitano turns into a parody of the yakuza characters that Kitano himself has impersonated in his gangster films. This time the script loses coherence but not focus, as it is delivered at a tight and ridiculous pace. It feels like a film the whole time through, too.

If the abovementioned films are meant for a knowledgeable fan, then the complete opposite must be Zatoichi, apparently his most commercially successful film to date. The good thing about it is that he does not compromise; yes, it’s part of a franchise (not unlike England’s James Bond,) but the movie still exhudes Kitano. It’s an action/comedy flick of a blind swordsman, which sounds (and is) a clichéd concept, but the Kitano flavor takes precedence: you’ll be amazed when the tap dance group The Stripes intervenes in the background; it gave me goosebumps, at least. If you’re new to the glorious filmmaker, then give this film a watch.

On a budding expressive medium.

I’m in my senior year, studying graphic design and doing my final year project, which will be due in January 2009. I’m a big gamer; played videogames since I was little and got my NES (which I still keep,) and have kept going at it since then, more or less uninterrupted. So I guess it’s no surprise that I decided to make, for my project, a game; the first videogame I’ve ever made. Nevertheless, this post is not about my project, but, rather, about my opinion on videogames, which I hope will serve to justify my choice. Though I consider myself a critical individual, I’ve cut videogames a lot of slack in the past; I’ve become a lot more critical of the medium lately, though, and done a lot of reading on the subject because of my project. Thus, a collection of some posts I’ve made elsewhere, on the subject of videogames: […]