The Anxiety of Reconnection

Water on Sand An uncomfortable collision awaits me. I have just returned from a week on the Isle of Wight, visiting my family and enjoying the rural and coastal charms of the place where I grew up. Away, I achieved an unprecedented degree of relaxation – so much more than I ever managed when I was running the consultancy full time. I was able to literally set aside all the many strands of my work and never let them enter my mind. No email, no twitter, no social media of any kind. I used the internet solely to check the weather and the tide tables. I wrote nothing but my diary. I read nothing but fiction – a rarity for me these days.

Now, I am back at my desk. Although still putatively on holiday for the next two weeks, I nonetheless cannot avoid reconnecting (hopefully only briefly) to the outside world. This brings an oppressive trepidation to bear upon me. My email – or rather, my imagined experience of re-encountering my email – is a tangled knot of pre-existing obligations and fresh demands, an unpleasant confrontation with the remorseless logistics of my daily life that I have managed to escape for ten scant days. This box stands in front of me – and even though I do not wish to open it, I know that I shall.

This angst is so trivial in any grand scheme you might care to suggest that it seems an indulgence to experience it, much less remark upon it. Is this discomfort merely rooted in the yearning to remain within the bubble of my holiday, or can it be that my work – which I enjoy – is a greater burden than I recognise? From inside, the pleasures of even the small achievements offset the remorseless labour, but from outside it is solely the latter that seems in focus. What is it about reconnecting that troubles me so disproportionately?

Bloot Me If You Need Me

Doghouse Diaries In ancient times, when there was something that a tribe or village needed to discuss they called a folk moot, in which all the free members of the community would come together to discuss the matter at hand and decide what should be done. It is from this practice that we get the contemporary phrase “a moot point” which originally meant not that the subject was beyond discussion but that it was not yet decided and thus it could only be discussed at a moot, in the presence of everyone.

It is in this tradition that I coined the term bloot last week, for a blog moot, an opportunity to have the kind of cross-blog discussions that used to be the lifeblood of the blogging community. And indeed, we have now had a bloot – not the first of its kind, by any means, but perhaps the first to be recognised as such. It is with considerable gratitude that I thank everyone who got involved with this.

The first to speak up was Oscar Strik at Sub Specie, a new part of my blog existence but an increasingly important part of my life as a writer and lunatic. A late comer to the experience of blogging, Oscar nonetheless recognised the problem I was talking about in The Extinction of Blogs. He suggested that we might need to “jury-rig solutions” to the problems inherent in the currently overcrowded space of social media. His concluding remarks are worth quoting:

Twitter and Facebook are the virtual pub, if you will. They can lead to some wonderful acquaintances, and these have the potential to develop into deeper friendships. But again, if we want to maintain more in-depth conversations with some people, we will have to make a conscious effort, and allocate our time and attention accordingly. New technologies haven’t changed that basic principle.

This point reappears in the contribution Chris Lepine at The Artful Gamer made the following week, responding to Prototypes for Blog Revival. Chris, oddly, seemed to think part of the problem was an obsession with listening to ‘celebrity’ voices over personal interconnection. Oscar and I have been sceptical of this point, but I think perhaps only because the problem Chris points out is the wider one – that celebrity interest is more widespread than the desire to have a worthwhile discussion about serious matters. He concludes:

The disappearance of the game blog meant that independent voices were choked out by behemoth institutions that themselves have no special insight into gaming. What we lost was the ability to choose which topics mattered to us, and then start the conversation there… Imagine something like an 18th century Salon, without all the pretension and pseudointellectualism – just some serious chat with nice folks.

This ideal, that of the ‘salon’, is one that I share – and I’m not so worried about the pretension or pseudointellectualism as long as we get the conversation. But if this bloot has shown me anything, it’s that we’re not going to get this with our current technology, a point brought out nicely by Joe Tortuga at Cult of the Turtle:

Whatever software gets created will have to… incorporate the ease, identity and networks of the social sites. I suspect it’s going to be some technology that makes it easier to be who you are online, to carry your identity around, and participate in your networks and blogs at the same time.  That’s going to take a third party who is willing to merge these networks together into some new identity, and that’s going to be hard from a political/business standpoint, probably more than engineering of it.

But then there was the tolling of the bell of doom from the longest standing member of my blog cluster, Corvus Elrod of Zakelro! Because Corvus, in sharp contrast to the rest of us, isn’t looking for the revival at all:

So the question becomes - do blogs need reviving? Are they critical, as Lepine suggests, to the growth and development of conversation around videogames? Are they the best outlet, as Bateman suggests, for more formal discussion around certain topics? I don't know. I know that the blogs I continue to read are highly personal explorations of important cultural and social issues around videogaming. I know that any continued blogging I do will be less about being socially networked and more about exploring my own issues in a semi-public forum. If that leads to interaction, that's terrific, but I'm not going to rely on interaction as my motivation for posting. After all, if I were doing it just for the interaction, I'd be on a social network posting this in smaller chunks right now. Speaking of which, I wonder what's happening on Twitter.

And this is the nub of the issue… because not all blogging is about community. My problem, and presumably Chris Lepine’s as well, is that right now none of the blogging is about community, which is a serious step down from where we were not that many years ago. So the situation going forward needs to be to leave the door open for community, when it is appropriate. For this, the informal bloot – an invitation to community on a specific topic – would seem to be a barely adequate solution, and yet the best we may be able to manage.

Fortunately, it was not all doom and gloom, as I discovered when a post appeared at Psychochild’s Blog and produced over a dozen comments within twelve hours! What was Brian’s secret? The answer seems to be twofold. Firstly, his blog cluster is part of the MMO community, which was always much livelier than neighbouring clusters, and although he  complains that “there are less MMO bloggers these days” it seems there is still life in this corner of the internet. Secondly, he specifically courted a community geared towards commenting – something that I probably failed to do as my interests veered ever more towards philosophy and away from games as such. Brian concludes:

I think blogs have some serious benefits over social media. Not that I think anyone is going to forsake Twitter or Google+ to go back to just reading blogs, but I think we can do so much more. It might be time to really look at how we present blogs.

I agree. And I agree that we have a technology problem, too. But while we wait for the technical landscape to change, we should take heart from what this bloot has revealed – that bloggers are still out there, that some have maintained community and comments, and that all is far from lost.

Although I welcome further discussion on these topics, this bloot is now at its logical end. But I would like to use this final post to invite everyone involved to accept this imaginary Klieg searchlight with a stylized symbol of a blog on it, and to use the Bloot-signal whenever you feel the need to throw the discussion out to your wider cluster, a cluster of which I am a part. Not every topic demands this kind of discussion, but I for one am heartened to know that it is possible, however difficult, for debates like these to still take place out in the wilds of the internet.

You know where to find me. And you can always bloot me if you need me.

With infinite thanks to everyone who joined the discussions!

The opening image is a Doghouse Diaries cartoon which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Prototypes for Blog Revival

Blueprint Can blog communities avoid extinction by reinventing their methods? Following on from last week's discussion of The Extinction of Blogs, this week focuses on possible ways to mount a rescue operation. We can start by asking: what kinds of systems would allow for community akin to that of the blogging heyday...


In or out of social media?

The first challenge is to accept that the technical landscape has indeed changed because of social media. So there is an immediate choice between retreat and engagement. The best options would be those that are ambivalent to social media, since this leaves it up to individuals to determine their presence in or out of social networks. But an immediate consequence of this is that no solution can rely upon such forms of communication for their operation. This suggests what ever might work should be agnostic about its relations with other social media.

The counter argument is that the momentum of the social networks can and must be subverted by any blog revival that hopes to succeed. On this logic, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter would form part of the funnel bringing bloggers into the community by design. Part of the success of Corvus Elrod's Blogs of the Round Table (BoRT) was that bloggers were pulled into it by reading other blogs who participated – this funnel worked beautifully while bloggers were primarily reading each other’s blogs. To replicate this effect might require an uneasy alliance with the social networks.


Regular or Intermittent?

Two kinds of community exchange happened inside the blog clusters: random exchanges sparked by a blog post of interest (almost always a polemic), and regular exchanges such as BoRT (which occurred once a month). The issue here is exceptionally troublesome. Human community (and sanity!) is stabilised by habit, which suggests regularity would be key. But the unceasing pace of BoRT made it easy for many bloggers (myself included) to drop out when Corvus stepped down.

A look at the numbers can be revealing. In the blogging heyday, I posted about 4 times a week, roughly 200 posts a year. BoRTs monthly schedule invited 12 posts, I usually submitted about 10. BoRT was thus about 5 % of my output. But now I blog weekly, about 50 posts a year. To be part of BoRT now at the same pace would be 20% of my output. That’s a vastly greater commitment! This may suggest a quarterly schedule, like an academic journal, would work better than a monthly schedule. The alternative, actively trying to foster intermittent exchanges, might require some kind of support logistics to prevent it from fizzling.


Closed or Open?

Terra Nova was (and is) a closed community of online world academics, constructed primarily from invitation. During the golden age of blogs, this worked to keep all the air in one balloon and discussions at that website were always brisk. Conversely, BoRT was entirely open – if you had a blog, you could take part. The two approaches have different strengths and weaknesses.

Closed benefits from the institutional effects of membership. Terra Nova's sole requirement (if I remember correctly) was that members would post once a month. This again served to keep the balloon inflated, at least until social networks dissipated its community momentum. The cost is that if you’re on the outside you can only comment and can never lead the conversation. But on such a specific topic as the academic study of online worlds, this was a small price to pay.

Open community benefits from greater flexibility but at the cost of institution and hence habit. While anyone could participate with BoRT the majority of contributors were regular – it was a crypto-members club without any doors or walls. But the open format leverages the greatest advantage of blogs – the complete freedom they provide the individual. In particular, a new blogger could join in at any time without having to feel in any way obligated. There is much about this approach to admire.


Static or Dynamic?

Both Terra Nova and BoRT were static in their underlying architecture. Their internal systems belonged to their owners. This gave a clear sense of ownership and responsibility, but may also have contributed to their downfall: when Corvus stepped down, many bloggers (myself included) took the opportunity to bow out. Of course, the writing may have been on the wall already, it’s hard to be sure. But it is worth considering whether a dynamic solution would work better. One example of this is The Philosopher’s Carnival, which changes host blog each month. But as the blog clusters dry up, the availability of hosts has dwindled and this blog community is now beginning to stumble.

It might be possible to mount something dynamically without it being entirely as hoc. The drop down box for BoRT could, in principle, have been operated and set up by anyone (with some brief instruction).  This system was particularly effective because the drop-down was available from every post in each round table entry. This meant a wider funnel, and an elegant means of navigating and revisiting the discussions. Although originally an owner’s feature, it points at how a dynamic blog community might organize itself.


Possible Prototypes

What follows are three potential directions that could be explored. They are provided as little balsa wood mock ups as the beginning of a wider discussion, that hopefully can be picked up on other blogs. And of course, get your own glue and cardboard out and build your own prototypes for discussion!


Prototype 1: Chain Blogging (Chogging)

This concept takes as its template that most irritating of time wasters, the chain letter. The basis of these was that each recipient was invited (or metaphysically threatened!) to send a copy to (say) ten of their friends. Of course, the chain letter was entirely free of content – it was just a format. But imagine a blog chain letter that began with an idea and then invited ten bloggers to respond. This is the basis of what I’m calling chogging.

This would be intermittent, dynamic and somewhere between closed and open (in that each chogger would get to choose who to throw into the next link of the chain). Each time you chog, you would link the post you are responding to at the start of your chog-post, and ideally also link in any blogs that respond to you at the end of your chog-post, so that interested parties can follow the conversation(s) by clicking through from the links at the end of the source chog.

But this shows up a difficulty in how chogging would operate in practice. How would the chain propagate? Would it be necessary to email other bloggers? This doesn’t seem to take great advantage of the form. Social networks could be used for propagation instead, and the communities sustained in these could thus be leveraged (Twitter seems ideal for this purpose). This might put chogging into an uncomfortable middle ground, but it is only the awkward position that blogging itself is now in.

An additional issue is how many people must be chogged in each link of the chain in order for conversation to function. Chog too few, and you get no replies. Chog too many and the chain dries up too quickly – unless of course you can be re-chogged at several points in the discussion. It might work better if there was a central source of information on choggers – a directory of bloggers who chog, and on what topics. But then storing contact information centrally is asking for spambot attacks.

Overall, something like this method could be used, but the overheads in terms of administration (flagging the next set of choggers) might be high, and the risk of potential parallel trains of discussion might fail to operate as a successful funnel. It can be assumed that whatever blog revival technique might work, it should benefit from the effect of funneling participants into the same digital spaces, rather than creating arcane chains of conversation.


Prototype 2: The Round Table Revisited (BoRT2)

Another option is to tweak the existing Blogs of the Round Table format and attempt to resurrect this as “BoRT2” (or “Daughter of BoRT” or maybe “Another BoRT” so it can abbreviate to “ABoRT”). In the context of videogames, there is already such a thing over at Critical Distance,  but I confess to not really being able to follow it. For instance, for a BoRT call that went out on 12th May, where are the posts? Have they not been collated yet? Again, this returns to the importance of the drop down box for the original BoRT, which enabled the community to operate without a central hub once the relevant code was established.

I have to think that a BoRT2 would need to find a way to restore the drop down box or find something similar – there seems to be something like that going on at Critical Distance with the BoRT Linkomatic 5000, but I couldn’t get it to work for me. It either produced no effect, or brought me to an error page over at Darius’ Tiny Subversions. Really not sure what to make of this.

On the whole, I don’t favour BoRT2 as a strategy because by its very nature it must be constrained by topic. I love that BoRT is still running, and thank everyone at Critical Distance for their efforts in doing so, but if the goal is to preserve the blog clusters I’m not sure that subject-based methods are the way to go. On the other hand, they might be all we have left right now…


Prototype 3: The Bloot (Blog Moot)

One final suggestion is the Blog Moot or “Bloot”. This would be something of the bastard child of BoRT and chogging, intended to be intermittent, open and dynamic. The premise is straightforward: one blogger posts a question or a firestarter or some other post intended to be the focus of a discussion. The invitation is then open to all other bloggers to respond. Then a mechanism such as the BoRT drop down is used to tie together all the discussions into one common thread so that anyone can follow it and join in using a unique keyword identity that can be easily edited in the code.

It can immediately be noted that this post here is a bloot since it is a topic-driven post intended to foster blog responses. But as it happens, I’m doubtful that it will, and not just because there is no convenient code widget to allow for the cross-blog intersections to be collated automatically. The problem is, only a small number of bloggers who read this post will respond after reading, and after a few days this post will be entirely lost in the shuffle of content that is being vomited out of the endless supply of channels out on the internet.

Perhaps the bloot could avoid this by inviting a number of bloggers to participate in a bloot at the outset (not unlike chogging, but without the continuing ‘chain’), making it essentially a closed format. But then, how much work is involved in such a process of negotiated invitation? To require a pre-prepared blog posse for each bloot pushes away from the core strength of the blog as a medium, which is precisely its freedom of expression, its open and dynamic ability to produce content without restriction.


Conclusion – in More Than One Sense…

So I am left without any confidence in the prototypes I am suggesting, and even less confidence that this bloot will establish any significant discussion of our predicament or our options going forward. Perhaps the internet has already lost its capacity to be a locus of meaningful discussions, because commercially-operated sites have managed to be more entertaining, diverting, and addicting than more substantial forms of community engagement. Perhaps, as I lamented last week, the blog clusters are already destined for extinction. It would be nice, at the very least, if we could go down fighting…


Bloggers respond:


What are your thoughts on these prototype blog revival formats? Would you be willing to engage? How could these ideas be improved? Your thoughts are welcome in the comments, and I would especially appreciate blog posts responding to this bloot – leave your link in the comments and I will add them to the list above.

The Extinction of Blogs

Fossi Nintendo Is the community of bloggers destined for extinction? Or is there some small hope of a revival?

Sometimes you have no idea why you’re doing something. That’s how it was with me and blogging. I did it because a good and trusted friend advised me that I should be doing it – but I had no idea what I was doing or why. But it rapidly became apparent that I was taking part in something both old and new, something very like the exchange of letters in previous centuries, but out in the open where anyone could – and frequently would – participate.

It was apparent from the outset that even though I didn’t know who I was talking to, I wasn’t just shouting at a wall. Indeed, in my golden age of blogging it was clear I was part of a very distinct community – what I called my blog cluster – and I read their blogs just as the read mine. This exchange of ideas was what kept blogging vibrant, and was epitomised by Corvus Elrod’s Blogs of the Round Table (a descendent of which still lives on at Critical Distance). This monthly game-themed event declared a topic and linked together everyone willing to discuss it. A smashing success for many years, it began to be held up by the increasing demands of employment or parenthood for everyone in Corvus’ cluster of bloggers.

In principle, that we were getting too old to blog like we used to shouldn't have mattered, as a new generation of bloggers would have picked up the torch. But what we didn’t know was that there was only going to be one generation of blog clusters, even though blogs still exist and new bloggers constantly appear. What changed was the mechanism of social connectivity. It ceased to be the wildly chaotic community we were used to and became formalised, institutionalised. Facebook moved in the direction the wind was blowing but it was only with Google+ that every blogger could see the writing on the wall. The blog cluster as we had known it was toast.

Why was Google+ toxic to the blog clusters? After all, it made it easier to share blog posts, and simpler to manage comments from random passers by. True enough. But it also sank the concept of engagement with another person’s ideas by transferring the locus of community from the blog to the social network. Bloggers do all the work for Google in posting ideas or sharing links, but Google sells the tickets to this three-ring circus, monetizing the data and the social connectivity. With my cluster, I could blog at any moment and the other bloggers I was in a community with would read soon enough, using Reader or visiting the blog directly. But with Google+, posts linked at the wrong time are all too easily lost in the shuffle, weakening asynchronous communication and decreasing the signal to noise ratio. No wonder Google had to kill off poor Reader – it was keeping alive a form of life that was drawing away from Google’s core business model for social networking.

Part of the problem is wider than just the death of blog clusters, though – it is the terrific information overload the internet drops at everyone’s doorstep. After all, why settle for listening to just a few people when you can let Google, Facebook, and every other network propagate the stories with lowest common denominator appeal right to your thirsty brain? Why talk to just a few people when you could have shallower conversations with so many more people? Google+ leverages our craving for attention, and obfuscates the cost of turning virtual community into managed water coolers. Some see this as progress – and understandably, since this watchword of the previous century has turned local communities into strangers outside the internet as well.

So now we few bloggers who have kept the faith are left with a demonic bargain: stay with Google+ to earn better search engine ratings but eviscerate everything that made blogging virtuous – or go it alone and find ourselves shouting vainly at an empty room. Most have chosen the former – better to be a well-stroked pet than a lunatic alone. But we are not mad, certainly not for craving meaningful discourse, and we should not let the potential for profit steal away everything we worked to establish. If this battle is worth fighting, our valiant battlecry could be: ‘Bloggers of the world re-unite! We have nothing to lose but our revenue chains!’

Or perhaps I am wrong – perhaps Google+, or whichever social network you choose to blame, is actually a massive improvement over the old system. They have certainly acquired all the traffic. But I am slow to jump from the premise ‘the social networks have everyone’ to the conclusion ‘the social networks must be better’. For me, if for no-one else, they are a huge step down from what the best of the old blogging communities achieved – what Terra Nova and BoRT could do for games, for instance – and I am keen to find ways to resist losing this space entirely. Asking Richard Bartle about the slow decline of Terra Nova, he expressed his view that the conversation always moves and his confidence that it would reappear somewhere else. He may be right – but wouldn’t we have a better chance of that happening if we took charge of this problem ourselves?  If a revival is possible, if we can find ways to preserve everything that was good about the pioneering blog communities, we owe it to ourselves to make the attempt before it is too late.

Next week: Prototypes for Blog Revival


Bloggers respond:


Agree? Disagree? Your comments are welcome in the comments, and I especially welcome blog posts responding to this post – leave your link in the comments and I will add them to the list above.

The opening image “Dominaludus Sexagentaquad, 2009” by Christopher Locke is taken from the blog post Modern Fossils over at Genetologic Research. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Mental Inertia

Highland Steam Train It troubles me how often I am derailed by my mental inertia. As long as my mind is building up steam on a single track, I can develop an endless capacity to apply myself to charging down that route. But ask me to change track, and suddenly all my head of steam is squandered and my figurative engine soon grinds to a halt. To put this same idea in less metaphorical terms: give me one task, no matter how vast or impossible, and I will sink myself joyfully into its resolution. But as soon as I am given many tasks, my momentum begins to sag. It is not that I cannot multi-task so much as it is that my mental constitution seems to lend itself to the obsessive rather than the manifold.

I can picture how this might come about in the depths of my biology, for what it is worth. The neurobiology of reward involves a capacity to be swayed by imagined future state, as when the gambler persists with the slot machine because they feel it is about to pay out. I wonder if this coupling of imagination and reward is the substrate of my obsessiveness – I can hold one image and pursue it to the hilt, but trying to imagine many things at once is unbridled anarchy. Perhaps those more suited to a massive parallelism in tasks imagine the situation differently – abstracting away from the incompatibility of the individual tasks to some other way of perceiving the situation. Perhaps it is simply a case of different habits  manifesting in different situations.

This principle of mental inertia seems to apply to all manner of aspects of my life, both in work and in play. I would far rather be playing one game than many, at least in the case of videogames as I seem to be more flexible with board games. It is particularly true of my work – the problems it causes me when in the midst of a book manuscript I have to apply myself to other things! So it is this week when, after three weeks of concentrating on Chaos Ethics I have to return to teaching and marking. What a savage change of focus! Once I have mastered the transition, everything will get done, but for a while I will be caught between the two and it will seem correspondingly harder to get anything done. Thus it is that I delay the bulk of the marking by applying myself to other tasks that seem less daunting. Only once my mental train is on the track of marking will I steam through it to the end. It is just the transitioning that I find hard.

I used to meditate to help silence the voices that would draw me into obsessiveness, now I simply don’t have the time to do anything but push through the endless successions of situations that hurl themselves at me like waves crashing upon the cliffs. I miss the stillness of mind that meditation would afford me, but it is far from clear how I could recover it into my bustling routine. Yet having meditated in the past, I feel calmer and more able to handle the carnage of the present. If I lost the habit of taking time to meditate, it seems I did not entirely lose the benefits of having meditated. To bring all things to a halt, to let the mental inertia hold me still instead of propel me forward – these are rare treasures indeed. Sometimes it is important to let the locomotive stand and softly hiss as all its power of steam dissipates quietly into the air, and vanishes.

Always Feed the Fans

Cupcake A wise internet adage suggests you should “Never feed the trolls” – but I should like to suggest that the contrary of this is also advisable: “Always feed the fans.”

This concept is extremely well known among writers of fiction, who recognise more than others their dependency upon their fanbase. While I was working on Discworld Noir, Terry Pratchett mentioned how moved he had been as a boy by the letter he received back from J.R.R. Tolkien when he wrote as a fan, and committed then to always look after his fanbase, which to his infinite credit he has always done. I have great respect for authors who are able to make this kind of commitment to their readership, and all the more so when the numbers of fans becomes so large that doing so becomes a major undertaking.

But this general policy – “always feed the fans” – is advice that applies to everyone, whatever their skills and vocation. To be sure, it is most important when you work in an entertainment job, like writing, or games, or film, because in such contexts your fanbase is the foundation of your livelihood. But whomever you are and whatever you do, you have ‘fans’ of some kind, whether they are just a local circle of appreciators or a wider catchment of associates. If someone likes what you do, you should accept that graciously and support their support of you – it’s good for both your respective mental healths, and it is a simple community virtue that helps dissipate tension and isolation. In short, it is good for everyone when we express our gratitude and admiration.

I have consistently come into contact with people I admire, as with the time while working for Perfect Entertainment I got to work with Graftgold during their last days and thus met Andrew Braybrook, who created one of my all-time favourite games Paradroid. But after a friendly chat with Nicole Lazzaro at GDC one year, I changed my attitude about this from simply happening upon such people by chance, to actively seeking out contact with them. I began, for the first time, to write to people who were ‘big names’ to me and initiate conversations. They don’t always respond, but so what? Some do – and via this blog, I had the opportunity to offer mutual benefit to us both, through interviews and other promotional activities. Again, feeding the fan (me) was good for everyone – especially other fans.

Unfortunately, I get a little sensitive about some of the communications that terminate. Sometimes I will write effusive praise to someone whose work I admire and commence a conversation with them over email, only to find that a few emails later they have ceased to respond. Usually, I assume, it is simply that I write too much too often, and lacking time to respond they simply decline to continue the discussion. I appreciate the practicalities of life may require this. Yet, I wonder if there is not some better way to deal with this situation – is there no way to send a short missive that says, in effect, ‘I appreciate all you’ve written, but I don’t have time to respond?’. Although I can take it on the chin, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some other way of handling the need to pull back from this rather than the sudden invocation of radio silence.

I encourage everyone reading this to be good to their ‘fans’, in whatever context they emerge, and in turn to be an encouraging fan – write to those people whose work you appreciate and tell them how you feel. This is perhaps less important for those ‘big names’ that are inundated with email, but it can mean the world to some newcomer struggling to make a name for themselves to know that out their in the world are people who truly appreciate what they are doing. What’s more, it’s easy to misjudge this – to think that someone has a big fanbase and is bored of being praised. Actually, unless someone is on the cover of People magazine every year it’s a safe bet they don’t get praised very often, and will appreciate whatever compliments come that way. This is especially true of indie game makers, classic and current, who almost always struggle and almost always appreciate hearing that their work has been appreciated.

“Always feed the fans”, and as a fan try to “always praise the talent” – especially the emerging talent. It’s a big world, and a few ‘big names’ tend to absorb all the praise, which is why I hate award ceremonies, the sycophantic rewarding of the already rewarded. (What a waste of time and effort, to give the already-successful a cherry on their gigantic stack of pancakes instead of offering fresh cupcakes to unsung heroes and newly emerging talents.) Find new voices and help them both to be heard, and to know they are being heard. It is sometimes the simplest things that make all the difference.

Platform Blues

Blue Platform Recently, I’ve got into something of a funk about the issue of platform. This term, in case you haven’t heard of it, is something the media uses to assess someone’s relevance to a specific topic – so for instance a Professor of Middle Eastern Studies might get asked to comment on the BBC after something horrible happens in that part of the world. The Professor has a platform from which to speak about the Middle East. You can see that ‘platform’ here has a metaphorical meaning – it’s the thing you stand on so you can speak on a given topic. In general, if you don’t have a platform, you don’t get to speak to the media unless you are unlucky enough to be caught in a disaster or if you are caught by a vox-pop interviewer in the street.

I have been lucky enough to have a platform, and indeed occasionally get to speak on the BBC local radio, or get interviewed for magazines and the occasional magazine-style show. But my platform is in games and game studies. It’s not really surprising since I’ve made over forty games now, and I’ve published extensively about making them, understanding how and why we play them, and most recently in game aesthetics. Indeed, I am currently waiting for the bureaucracy to crank through my “back door” PhD in Theoretical and Empirical Game Aesthetics, which might give me the first doctorate in game aesthetics! You’d think I’d be happy about this, and certainly I’m grateful to have had the chance to build a platform, and that there are people who want to listen to me.

But for as long as I have been writing publically, which is just a little longer than I’ve been writing Only a Game (seven years), I’ve been enjoying writing about philosophy so much more than I enjoy talking about games. The work I’ve done on what you might call philosophy of imagination has been extremely well received by academics in philosophical fields, and there has been little I’ve done in my life that I’ve enjoyed more than writing my philosophy trilogy for Zero Books (the last part of which, Chaos Ethics, I’m working on now). Yet I do not really have a platform in philosophy, and neither am I likely to get one – and of course, irony of ironies, if I did have a platform in philosophy I’d be less likely to get to use it than I am my platform in games because games are a ‘fun’ topic and the news is more interested in this than intellectual graces.

Hence my platform blues… I have a platform to speak on a topic area that I know well and have things to say, but I cannot bring myself to apply myself to building up that platform because I would like a platform in philosophy so much more. The more I look at this, the more I realise that to get that platform I would have to switch to talking about politics (almost all philosophers who manage to get a platform do so), but my moral philosophy is anti-political in the sense that I see contemporary politics as a futile battleground of entrenched ideology that we must step back from if we are to fix it. This isn’t the sort of the thing that the media wants to hear – they want snappy, interesting, exciting stories, and any old nonsense will do.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m depressed about this, because it’s no where near that bad, but there’s a sense of being trapped that I don’t like, and worse there’s a sense that if I was just focussed on my own self-interest I’d just continue to build my platform in games and forget the philosophy. But I must, as Joseph Campbell’s interpretation of Hindu philosophy advises, ‘follow my bliss’, and that would be to continue as a philosopher. I often say that “I’m a game designer by profession but a philosopher by vocation”, and that is as true now as it ever was. All I would like is some way to make peace with my inability to turn my philosophy into a platform, or to not feel bad about not utilizing the platform I have in games more.

Is this just me merely second-guessing myself? The most pathetic mid-life crisis imaginable? Well, all I know is this has been on my mind for the past few months, and it never quite goes away. Considering how much depression disabled me in my youth, I am overjoyed that I now have so much stronger mental health that I can let myself think about something like this without it being the start of a snowball of self-debilitation. Those days, I’m proud to report, are far behind me. We all have little things that tug at the loose threads in the tapestry of our lives, and I suppose this is mine. What’s more, when I look out into the world around me, I consider myself blessed that it is something this trivial that troubles me from within my own life.

A Truce

Peace Let’s call a truce so we can talk. A truce between we who know we are right (whomever we might be), and those who are so obviously wrong.

A truce for those whose ideal is equality and who therefore do not need to give equal weight to the views of anyone whose perspective differs; those who hold fast to tradition and so avoid revising any of their standards; and those who only care about themselves and expect to get what they want.

A truce for those who judge marriage by the shape of genitalia and not the content of hearts; those who will never marry but insist on determining who can; and those that believe marriage is an outdated institution but still try to catch the bouquet.

A truce for those that value sexual freedom so highly that future children are expendable; those who value human life so highly that they are willing to traumatise distressed girls to protect it; and those who reduce ethics to calculation and thus deem killing reasonable as long as the net benefits are positive.

A truce for those who find the greatest injustice in the fractional disparity between gender incomes among the wealthiest people on the planet; those who think headscarves are proof of oppression without the need to talk to those who wear them; and those who think gender issues are so old fashioned they no longer matter.

A truce for those that value animals so highly that they will persecute human animals to prove it; those that value vanity so highly that animals can be tortured to serve it; and those that think only human animals matter, but implicitly endorse the murder and torture of humans as long as someone has declared a ‘War on Something’.

A truce for those who cannot imagine God and therefore know that those who do are always misguided; those who know God’s mind so well that they can ignore whatever inconvenient advice He might have given them; and those who bite their tongue when God is mentioned because they can’t understand what all the fuss – on either side – is about.

A truce for those who declare the sky is falling and who twist the evidence in favour of panic; those that refuse to believe our glutinous guzzling of resources has a deleterious effect on the planet around us; and those that support the environment as long as they don’t have to give up their cars, planes and computers.

We are all fools in the eyes of our opponents, but we dismiss their judgement on the certainty that whomever doubts our perspicacity must be fools whose viewpoint doesn’t count. No wonder contemporary democracies cannot work! To be a faithful representative is to treat disagreement as evidence of idiocy. All politics is betrayal, at least while the electorate speaks in a baffling array of different tongues – even (especially!) when they speak the same language.

Instead, let us propose a truce. Let us return to the table and begin the jigsaw puzzle afresh on the belief – however fantastical – that there is a way to fit it all together, once the pieces have been properly sorted. The difficulty is no longer that we are surrounded by fools, but rather that we need to be positioned between similar fools if we ever hope to communicate. It was only when we tried to force pieces that could never fit to sit together that our problems seemed insurmountable. There is still hope – and, once again, it begins with a truce.

The opening image is Peace by Celeste Bergin, which I found on her website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Picking the Bones of a Library

Old Books Shelves of books, lying in temporary storage, waiting their inevitable demise… Someone’s life’s work, perhaps, this small part of a once, great library collection, now no longer needed – changes in course content, changes in university policy, changes in public attitudes, all contribute to consigning vast racks of paperbacks and hardbacks to uncertain limbo and beyond to some ultimate dissolution. Should I waste my empathy on this library carcass? I have no choice but to quell a futile urge to weep that comes over me in the face of this utterly trivial tragedy. I cannot ask that anyone else cares, but as for myself I have no choice in the matter.

The other week, two postgraduate philosophers appeared in my office – a rare sight in this campus, since there are no philosophy courses on offer. I had met them both at a conference the university had held the other month with the barely concealed purpose of forcing the faculty to mingle with itself. They had come from a dilapidated building on the other side of the university’s plot of land, an old mill that has seen better days. They told me of a room with shelves of books that had been culled from the library proper, and which were effectively free to a good home – and that the collection included an array of philosophy books.

One of the librarians took me there, and talked me through the situation. In essence, I was free to take whatever I wished from the storage shelves, but I had to leave them on the floor first so that they could catalogue what had been taken. It seemed like a simple enough task. So I began to make my way through the philosophy collection… Upon the floor, stacks of books began to rise, my picking of the flesh from the dead bones of this library. Books of ethics, famous and obscure; old dog-eared hardbacks of classic Nietzsche and Kierkegaard; fresh, glistening paperback tomes bursting at the spine with essays – all rescued from their internment like pets from death row.

I love libraries and second-hand book stores, all the places where musty pages congregate, but this rescue of unloved volumes saddened me. I couldn’t help but see in these shelves the work of someone who compiled a great collection of philosophy books – hitting all the obvious touchstones, while seasoning with rarities and oddities. With each book, the same harsh question? Can I use it? Such a cold way of dealing with things, but there was no other way to make the problem tractable. In the end, my ragtag caravan of refugee texts were just a tiny proportion of the books being held there – and I didn’t even look in disciplines outside of philosophy.

Why did taking these books feel so empty and distant? Titles I would have been thrilled to find in a shady used bookstore and purchase for a few coins depressed me when acquiring them for free. And with it all, the nagging sense that there was no possibility whatsoever of reading them all, that these books were so much baggage I was bringing into my life. Perhaps I will feel differently when they are in the book shelves of my office, which frankly have needed populating since I only filled one or two of them when I first arrived here.

Libraries are more than storehouses, they have their own personalities – they violate their well-known imperative to silence by shouting their ideas and opinions to anyone whose eyes will dare to listen. Within every shelf, a view of the world. Their death, their putrescence, is the abandoning of chaotic character for the diverse homogeneity of the internet, where you can find myriad interjections about anything at all, as long as it’s popular and inconsequential. Bless you, oh librarians, for the honour you have bestowed the humble book over this millennium of paper words. Your collections may fade to dust, but your service is eternal.

Strange Horizons

Boats at the Horizon What is the simple and enigmatic power of this thin line dividing the sky above from the world below? How do we understand the boundaries of our perception? And what strange horizons split us away from each other, ourselves, and our futures?

I grew up on the Isle of Wight, a thirty mile wide rock just off the south coast of the British Isles. I'd spend every day either in – or at the very least beside – the sea. It had a profound influence on me, in ways quite beyond my ability to measure. How many days did I spend, sat upon the shore (or nestled upon an outcropping on the cliffs), staring out to the horizon?

Those who have not lived near the sea cannot quite appreciate the relationship with the horizon I have. My wife, raised in foothills and mountains, sees nothing of interest in this dark blue line, which splits the sky from the sea below. To me, it is a symbol of the mysteries of life and existence, for I cannot under any circumstances see beyond it. What is across the offing I know only because I imagine it, a mental image constructed from my acquired beliefs about the world.

When a ship sets sail for France, it can be viewed from the southern coast of the Island as if it travels from left to right, getting smaller and smaller as it does. Any sense of further is in my mind, for all I see is shrinking, not receding. Similarly, distant clouds hanging low in the firmament do not convey their distances as effectively as they can their scale. Everything is distorted from linear relations, yet in my mental reconstruction of what I am seeing I reassign notions of distance since I know this is ‘what I am seeing’.

Knowing of the curvature of the Earth, I found myself as a child trying to reconstruct that minuscule recession from the ideal plane in my imagined perspectives. Yet this is not easy, perhaps not even possible, precisely because of the distorting effect of the offing, that band of ever-more distant sea that ultimately becomes infinite (or infinitesimal) at the horizon itself. The curvature is so scant, it cannot be seen and must instead be projected from mind into world.

Similarly, attempts to imagine how the horizon would appear had our planet been flat, as some of the more ancient cultures believed, fail me. It is the distance not the curvature that gives the horizon its illusory properties – clearly even a flat plane would have stretched out to a vanishing point, as every dabbler in artistic perspective can vouch. The horizon cannot, then, provide much evidence for the spheroid shape of our world when taken on its own. We must already be thinking of curvature before it can have any meaningful connection with the horizon as actually seen.

Then there are the times when the horizon is invisible for other, more visceral reasons – when the surf pounds upon the shoreline with awesome and relentless force. The horizon is still out there, but it is lost against the spectacular power on display in front of me, which could, and in several instances almost did, end my life without hesitation or awareness. This is Kant’s sublime in all it’s fearsome beauty! I can never underestimate what the waves mean to me, in their terrible and relentless roil. I play at being brave, edging closer to their fury. But like the horizon itself, I cannot get any closer than peering from the edge.

There are those for whom the world is viewed as known, every detail in place. Oddly, the perpetual revising of knowledge reinforces, rather than undermines, this sense of completeness for many who hold such a perspective. For me, whatever I know is always limited by horizons of mind as well as sight. These can be found not just at the edge of the physical world, but at the boundaries of our experience. Each Other we face lies beyond a horizon of understanding – we project our beliefs of what we know of someone, something, into that nebulous gulf that separates us from them. We do not, except perhaps for one scant moment, sense the horizon that separates us from all that we are or might be.

Our world appears complete, the horizon a mark of distance. Yet that distance is there in every encounter, every moment of being. It is a mystery of the most wondrous kind, and I have no desire to void it with comfortably square-edged beliefs about what is and is not, what is really the case versus what we merely believe. Our beliefs are never merely beliefs, they are our world and they change every aspect of our experience within it. When I look at the horizon, what I see and what I imagine come apart completely, since I could not ever hope to see the horizon as it ‘really is’. So it is with life. Some may despair of mystery. For me, mystery is what gives life its most marvellous potential, for time like space is sheared off at a horizon beyond which lies every wondrous possibility yet to come.