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Winter Festivities

Winter Sun

To all players of Only a Game, wishing you a happy Winter Festival of your choice! Tonight I shall be driving south three hundred miles in a vicious storm in order to visit my family – hopefully the ferry to the Isle of Wight will still be sailing when we get to Portsmouth!

May your absurd festive activities bring you what you wish and we’ll speak again in the Gregorian New Year. Wishing you all (delete as applicable) a Happy Milad-un-Nabi, Serene Buddhist New Year, Happy Hannukah, Merry Yalda, Auspicious Makara Sankranti, Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Solstice, not to mention blessings upon the followers of Bahá'u'lláh, and felicitations on the birth of the tenth Nanak. If you’re not celebrating any of these, then Happy Swik!

The Game will resume in January.

First Journal Article: Imagination and Tolkien

The Hobbit After two years of half a dozen papers waiting for the interminably slow review process to crank, the International Journal of Play has got me through the entire process in just five months – giving me my first acceptance of a peer-reviewed journal paper (that didn’t start as a conference paper).

The paper is entitled “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role play and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium” and will appear in the journal sometime early next year. My thanks to Pat Broadhead, whom I met at the fantastic Philosophy at Play conference, for inviting me to submit and for all her assistance throughout the always-gruelling review process.

Here is the Author Original Manuscript that was submitted to the journal; I will be able to share the Author Accepted Manuscript 18 months after publication:

Virtuous Discourse

This is an open letter to Oscar Strik, but I’m happy to accept replies from anyone who is interested.

Letter Dear Oscar,

What can be done about the state of interpersonal discourse in an age when all the deep forms of communication are being replaced with shallow forms? If the choice is between the empty gesturing of social media and the pedantic nitpickery of academic journals, what options are actually left to foster virtuous discourse between peers? And without this, what hope do we have of solving any of our problems, no matter how trivial?

As you know, I’ve been wondering for some time now if it is possible to get back to the earlier state within the blog clusters, when dialogue between blogs occurred on a regular basis. I’ve finally decided to see if I can push matters in this direction by simply writing a blog post addressed to another blogger. Perhaps the problem isn’t that the blogs no longer communicate, but that we no longer have the critical mass for these exchanges to occur spontaneously.

Social Media. The problem I see with all our social media channels is the inescapable shallowness of the discourse. Although I enjoy Twitter, it has the character of a idle ramble at a crowded party, or (better) a MUD chat room – which is precisely what it descends from. This is a fun way to stay in contact with distant people, but nothing substantial can happen under the constraint of 140 characters. Google+ (and I assume Facebook, although it still terrifies me) is hopeless. Not only is the attention a post receives directly proportional to the time of posting, with the US inevitably favoured above every other location, but G+ is basically an aggregator of vaguely interesting or entertaining things. What floats to the top is the bubblegum content, and there is no mechanism for deep engagement on a topic. If the Communities are supposed to achieve this, they fail because they are really just usenet-style bulletin boards with all the political and emotional problems these inevitably develop. I don’t have a problem with social media being there, but we can’t look to it for virtuous discourse.

Journals. In principle, academic discourse would seem to be the place to go for deep engagement with an issue – which only makes the actual state of journals all the more depressing. Although it is not really anyone’s fault (being more a problem with the double blind peer review format), journals arrange for strangers to take forever to pick holes in each others work without any productive discussion to establish a context, or ongoing discussions afterwards. I find I detest the form, especially in the humanities where the attempt to appeal to the values of the sciences in terms of a fantasy of ‘objectivity’ becomes openly ludicrous, instead of merely quietly insane. Furthermore, each academic is armed with a quiver full of different points of reference, and discourse devolves into warfare as Foucault and Deridda are fired vainly at positivists, who shoot back Plato’s rhetoric without even knowing what it is! Outside of the journals, the situation is little better – look at Chomsky and Zizek hunkering down for a spat over he-said-she-said hearsay. Oddly, academics at conferences have great discussions – so why can’t the same level of engagement be found in journals or elsewhere?

Blogging. When I came to blog, the most liberating aspect was how it solved the political problem of the discussion board format by eliminating the power struggle. Lock a dozen geeks in the same virtual room and they inevitably end up arguing vociferously – and the notice board format means there is no possibility of cool-down or diplomacy. Once war breaks out, cordial relations collapse until somebody quits in rage. On a blog, however, you are the master of your own space and everyone else simply stays away when they’re unhappy with what you’re saying. You can have better discussions because everyone is not trapped in the same space. They can go elsewhere, come back later, or simply let it lie. Of course, with the dilution of the blogosphere by other forms of social media, the same diffuseness ends up meaning no dialogue takes place. I’m intrigued to see whether writing blog posts for specific bloggers can counter this trend.

Virtuously Virtual. You’ve already read my next book, Chaos Ethics, so you know where I am coming from in ethics; my hope is that it is possible to produce virtual communities of ethical discourse, and by this I mean only that we will support each others conceptions of the good (whether as virtues, duties, or as consequences) and help one another strive towards better worlds without accidentally or intentionally forcing our own world onto other people. Blogs seem to me the best place to start this, but perhaps it is possible to take it into the social media as well – if we can overcome the vacuity of the ‘+1 = cute or curious’ syndrome. But aggregation is perhaps the enemy of virtuous discourse because it escalates sensation instead of substance. It may be necessary to ground substantial discussions in actual interpersonal exchanges to attain anything worthwhile, no matter how trivial.

Republic of Blogs. A long-standing player of Only a Game once suggested that their interest in blogging came from the parallels with the ‘Republic of Letters’ – the long-distance intellectual community of the 17th and 18th centuries. As I have become more enmeshed in other forms of social media, this ideal becomes more and more appealing to me – hence my concern about the extinction of blogs. I don’t see anywhere else that could serve this role other than the blogs; email is too private, social media is too superficial. Hence I’ve written you this blog post, my first ‘letter’. I hope to try writing more of these next year. Call it an ethical experiment!

I welcome a reply from you whenever you get a chance, but I also welcome a reply from anyone and everyone else – either in the comments here, or in your own blog. I cannot engage in virtuous discourse on my own.

Wishing you all the best for the Winter Festivals,


Oscar's reply:

Other replies:

First Chaos Ethics Endorsement

“An elegant yet passionate defence of ethics, the book carefully considers various conflicting accounts of what it means to live a good life before settling on imagination and narrative as chaotic and transient foundations of ethical thinking. Ethics for Bateman is both necessary and necessarily tumultuous; it is also a story which we should try and tell as best we can. Thought-provoking, engaging even if at times controversial, Chaos Ethics is a pleasure to read - and to agree and disagree with.”

Joanna Zylinska, Professor of New Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, author of Bioethics in the Age of New Media and The Ethics of Cultural Studies

Neuromythology for Game Design

Over on ihobo today, I expand my thoughts on the mythology of science into game design:

For quite a while now I've taken an interest in what neuroscientists can teach game designers. In the full knowledge that some of the things I convey will soon be invalidated, I have proceeded to dabble. But I am not a neurobiologist (or not yet, anyway) and many have advised me to leave it to those within the field. For me, this is the wrong way to relate to the sciences: experimental findings do not propagate by accurate description but by metaphors, what I have called (after Mary Midgley) 'myths'  – and neurobiologists are no more trained in practical mythology than game designers are in neuroscience.

Regular players of Only a Game are probably better equipped for this piece than most, and I thought about running it here, but it is ultimately about games so I put it on instead. You can read the entirety of Neuromythology for Game Design over there – check it out!

Over on ihobo today, a critique of Gone Home. Here's an extract:

I recently played The Fullbright Company's Gone Home, an interesting but rather expensive addition to the growing ranks of artgames. Frankly, I did not enjoy finishing it at all, and begged for it to be over as soon as possible. Once it was completed, however, I relaxed and played it again several more times, which I found rather more pleasant, although seeing how the game had been put together left me feeling it was less than it could have been. I began to query my experiences in order to disentangle the strange contradiction of a company making the kind of game that I dearly want to be made, but that I could not enjoy in its intended form. I wanted to know what made my first experience of it so unpleasant, and why it never quite worked for me as a narrative. This investigation turned out to shed light on some wider issues of interest.

Although this piece is about this particular artgame, it's also more about the what the concept of 'genre fiction' means when we import it into games. You can read the entirety of Gone Home and the Constraint of Genre over at