August 6, 2006

How ACM Sandbox Shaped Up

by Nick Montfort · , 3:38 pm

Jeffrey Howard (whose dissertation on contemporary American fiction, with a chapter on IF, has been discussed on here) sends a report from the ACM Sandbox Symposium, which featured contrasting keynotes by Manifesto Games’s Greg Costikayan and EA’s Ian Shaw; Steve Meretzky’s less than cheerful take on gaming today; and the relevance of the gameplay mechanics of rock, paper, scissors to computer games:

I’ve been at the ACM Sandbox Symposium on Digital Games in Boston last weekend, listening to papers and panels as well as presenting my own paper (“Designing Interpretative Quests in the Literature Classroom.”)

Sandbox was a fun and interesting conference overall, consisting of a mixture of game designers and academicians (about 2/3 of developers to 1/3 academicians)

The two keynotes were by Greg Costikayan of Manifesto Games and Ian Shaw (Chief Technology Officer of Electronic Arts). They took opposing stances toward the future of games in the console transition, with Costikayan arguing for greater emphasis on the algorithms that produce interactivity rather than more polished media assets. Shaw argued that the new consoles have much to offer on both the data and the interactivity sides, but he took a more positive attitude toward the mainstream game industry’s focus on high production values and their adaptation of existing licensed franchises. I went to most of the other panels and individual papers, which would take too long to summarize, but here are a few highlights:

Jason Della Rocca of IGDA asked five major game developers to list 3 positive movements they saw in gaming. Steve Meretzky (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy interactive fiction fame) said that he had a very hard time thinking of 3 good things. He said he was bothered by gaming magazines with scantly clad women and heavily armed soldiers. (He was contrasting what he sees as poor-quality mainstream game journalism with “The Escapist,” an online journal that was among the 3 positive things that he did have to say about the game industry.) This contrast did seem slightly odd coming from the man who made Leather Goddesses of Phobos.

Leather was also a theme in Shaowen Bardzell’s memorable “The Semiotics of Visuality in Virtual BDSM Fantasy Play,” which was a good, thoughtful paper but mostly succeeded in making Second Life a more painful experience for me than it already was. My favorite panelist was Geoffrey Long on “transmedia storytelling” (deliberately exploiting the negative capability associated with plot holes to produce stories that are planned from the beginning to arc across several media, especially interactive ones). Yotam Gingold’s prize-winning paper “From Rock, Paper, Scissors to Street Fighter II: Proof by Construction” deftly demonstrated how the basic gameplay mechanics of rock, paper, scissors could be transformed into those of Street Fighter II through a series of variants that keep the core rules intact.

I also gave a paper on teaching literature by having students write game design documents and produce small game prototypes related to the Espen Aarseth’s idea of the quest. I hope to use quests in a way that builds bridges between games and narratives, action and meaning, and some aspects of technology and mythology.