Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Back in the day record labels were one of the more significant units-of-importance in my musical world. I dealt mostly in relatively obscure electronic music, and in many cases I picked up music based on the name of the label as much as anything. Warp. Merck. Morr Music. Ghostly International. Sonig. Rephlex. Etc. And friends’ local labels like Notenuf Records and Artificial Music Machine. And when I booked musicians for my own events (my “Oscillate Nights”) it often happened through the labels. Meaning, if I knew the particular artist planning a tour, I’d often coordinate with their label and then sometimes also get an opener or two I hadn’t heard of who shared the same label. In the particular electronic music universe I lived in between 1998-ish and 2005-ish, labels weren’t just business entities — the good ones were also curators who promoted a certain style, sound, or similar sort of estoteric creative approach, for lack of a better term. I guess more traditional art galleries work this way, although that’s never really been a scene I’ve had much to do with directly.
These days my musical exposure is a little more catch-as-catch-can. I buy stuff off of Bleep and iTunes and recently started using Spotify — all of which have been great, but all of which kind of suffer from a similar sort of overwhelming wave of options. Having access to all music from forever is kind of a mess if you don’t know what you want to listen to. Bleep’s recommended lists are somewhat useful, but iTunes’ and Spotify’s are absolutely not. (The iTunes front page currently most prominently advertises music by Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, for example — music literally no one wants to listen to. Spotify’s main page advertises John Meyer and then goes on to suggest I might enjoy some artist no one’s ever heard of named “Beck” — then recommends that maybe I’d like to revisit Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” since it was released at some point during my youth and because I have never once in my life wanted to listen to Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up.”) Social recommendations are somewhat helpful. iTunes’ now defunct Ping proved a useful simply for the fact that the three or four people I knew whose musical opinions mean the most to me happened to use it. And at least on Spotfiy I can go find friends with fairly good taste and see what they’re listening to. But it’s still all kind of decontextualized and just kind of feels random. When looking for new stuff I sometimes also hit up sites like Pitchfork that I’ve respected in the past, but again: I don’t read these regularly and the whole experience still feels kind of arbitrary. (For new music, that is. If I just want to reminisce about high school with some Smashing Pumpkins or Toad the Wet Sprocket, well, Spotify’s great.)
Anyway, one exception to this is Soma FM. They’ve been around since around 2000 — at least, that’s when I remember first discovering their site. (They still feature that hazy photo of a solitary DJ spinning in front of a wall of night-lit windows, and it still kind of takes me back to the House of Commons days when I first listened to it regularly. It’s a great picture.) I still listen regularly today because it’s well-curated by someone with good taste. And because they’re reliable about finding good music that I’m not familiar with. And not in some “an algorithm did this” sort of way: A real person’s on the other side of that site, picking music and putting it together in a certain order. It’s great.
See, there’s an art to curation. And I feel like this is being ignored in the aggregated and auto-recommended world in which we live. Obviously Pandora and Spotify Radio and whatever this new iTunes Radio thing is — those are all examples. But even “recommendation engines” that try to figure out what you’ll like based on what you’ve already listened to or what your friends like. And (to pick on Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus some more) I have to believe that pop music as it exist today is an example of some kind of exploit of this system. In a world in which there are no curators, all you have to do is build up the illusion of popularity and suddenly all the other algorithms (software-based and human-based) kick in. You’re on Clear Channel’s radio stations all over the nation every fifteen minutes, so of course MTV has to have you their awards show and American Idol has to have you as a guest and iTunes has to put you on their front page and people will think they have to listen to you because 1) they don’t know any better about how to find music and 2) most people really don’t seem to care about it, anyway, so who gives a shit — they’ll like Katy Perry as much as they’ll like anything else. Yes, this is my extremely snooty-about-music side.
And this aggregation actually creates another set of problems, in addition to just turning music curation into something mechanized and impersonal rather than something human and expressive. It appears to hurt the economics of music (unless you’re a Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus sort). The power of those who would champion good music has dwindled. And if there’s no point in championing good music, no one will (except a few die-hards or the rare handful who can make a living at it). Why waste the time? And so we fall into the hands of the algorithm. It’s weird: We live in a time when the tools of music creation and distribution have been put into the hands of pretty much any middle class person on planet Earth who wants them. Garageband comes for free with every Mac. And yet, I suspect that more great music than ever before gets created and literally never heard by anyone beyond the creator and a few of his or her (or their) friends. Strange, right? That there’s an unprecendented amount of creativity happening and the fact that we’re locked into algorithms that promote Beck and “I Wanna Sex You Up” (to me, at least) force it to remain unheard.
And so, Kickstarter.
It’s got all sorts of problems. I never felt particularly comfortable giving money to projects from people I don’t know, but I have used it to support friends. I also have never given money to help people on musical projects. My friends are more of the “I’m making a game” or “I’ve got a wacky idea” variety, so I just don’t have much opportunity. But, Kickstarter’s warts aside, I do understand and respect what they’re trying to do. (Or, at least, what they were trying to do before they seemed to become a semi-corrupt start-up launcher.) By putting the money ahead of the creative process, they force you as a consumer to face a choice: If this band or musician (or whatever — but I’m sticking to the musical theme, here), if they don’t get the money they need to make their album, then no album. So if you respect them and want to hear more from them, chip in! It turns the issue of piracy and the near-total devaluation of recorded music on its head and makes you feel like you’re working with the artist and pitching in, being a part of making this thing happen. And then once you’ve put money into the project, you’re invested. Literally. But also figuratively: You’ll listen. You’ll experience. You’ll think about it. “Man, I gave $10 and that album was awesome.” Or “I can’t believe they took my fucking $10 and released this garbage.” Emotional response. The Laptop Battles I used to take part in did something similar: They’d force the audience to judge and therefore emotionally invest. And once you’ve done that, you’ll listen. You’ll pay attention. You’ll care. And, of course, Kickstarter helps fix the economics by making music feel like something that needs financial support to exist, rather than something that just floats around out there and, y’know, doesn’t hurt anyone if I just pluck it out of the air for free.
I’ve signed up for another site called Drip.fm that I think aims to solve the musical curation problem in a different way. (Maybe other services do this, but it’s the first I’ve seen.) It works like so: They work with labels and make a subscription service where you pay a certain amount every month to a given label and you get, say, an album a week, every week. I subscribed to Morr Music’s channel, for example. It’s $9.99 per month. Each week I get an e-mail with an album for me to download. Now, I can’t go download stuff they’ve released in the past. Just whatever they release as long as I’m paying. And it’s not all new stuff. It’s a mix of older albums, compilations, and newer releases. But it feels curated in a good way. I like Morr Music — they’re a Berlin-based label that releases a lot of mellower electronica and electronic pop. And though I don’t know all of their artists (although I do know a bunch), I do trust them to find good stuff. And so far it’s worked: I’m a couple of months in and have found maybe four albums (out of seven or eight) that I really enjoy and hadn’t been exposed to before. (“Don’t Want to Sleep” by FM Belfast has been the soundtrack to several of my recent runs. And I’m listening to “Mister Pop” by The Clean right now — it’s good writing music.) And it doesn’t feel random or arbitrary — the music fits together in a sort of thematically oblique way and subscribing kind of makes you feel like you’re supporting the label and a part of a cool little album-of-the-week club. And, like Kickstarter, I think it has the potential to change the economics a bit. It’s almost like a rolling Kickstarter: Instead of supporting one project, I’m kind of giving ongoing support to something that’s already churning out good work.
Potential. Kickstarter works, I guess. Although it has opened up a whole new universe of exploitation channels. Drip.fm and whatever competitors it has — I don’t know if these will survive. Drip.fm seems very new. And simple. They offer a few dozen labels and the service is very simply designed. Which is fine. But it feels like they’ve got just a few people working on it and I can easily see the business model falling apart for them. (The last music service that I thought made a really interesting stab at a new way of listening to music — theSixtyOne — seemed to die soon after I decided I liked it.) They’re in that rough space where it’s probably unclear whether the experiment will work or not.
But I hope it does. I think more people should be aware of the importance of curators, and promoting well-run labels is a great way to do this. Algorithms can be great for some things, but I have found them frustrating when it comes to music. Maybe it just makes me sound like one of those cranky farts bemoaning the loss of the album in the age of iTunes, but I have to believe that people would enjoy music more and understand it more if it came to them through curators — advocates with opinions about good music and the resources to express themselves through musical selection. Any service that seems to promote this I will support. Honestly, I’d pay way more than $9.99 per month. Maybe other people would, to. I hope.
Sunday, March 24, 2013
Tuesday, August 21st, 2012. Started like a fairly average day. I had an iced coffee. Got some work done. Went for a long run (about three miles) around the neighborhood and picked up about a hundred feet of rope light for the terrace at a funny little Jewish lighting shop that seemed to specialize mostly in tacky chandeliers. Grabbed another iced coffee. Then a meeting with Bob Giraldi that afternoon to make plans for “The Interactive Idea,” the class we teach at SVA. And after seeing Bob, I started feeling a mite peckish (I hadn’t eaten much that day), so I decided to walk over to Hill Country Chicken at Madison Square Park to get one of those upscale Chik-Fil-A-style sandwiches I love. I had my headphones in and was listening to a podcast, as I often do whilst wandering the city. “Savage Lovecast” this time, I remember quite well.
Around 22nd street and Broadway I started feeling a little lightheaded. Probably just hungry. Let’s get to the restaurant. Then, as I hurried my walk I felt dizzy. Then my heart started fluttering and I quickly became very quickly dissociated. The audio in my ears sounded weird, so I pulled out the headphones. I walked quicker, just to get some food, I suppose, but also out of fear. Then tingling in my fingers, hands, legs. My vision tunneled. My heart went berserk. My mind fixated: A heart attack. I’m having a heart attack. I’m dying. I started dialing 911 on my phone and got as far as “9” and couldn’t get any further. So I stumbled to the first random stranger I saw walking towards me on the street, handed them my phone, and said in a strained voice, “I think there’s something wrong with my heart — can you dial 911 for me?” He was another guy about my age (Merlin, I think he said his name was), and I imagine his first reaction was a kind of confused annoyance — crazy people are not rare on the streets of Manhattan — but as soon as he realized what was up, he became immediately helpful. Called the ambulance and communicated between emergency dispatcher and me. Had me sit down. Kept an eye on me. Asked if there was anything I needed. I calmed down. My heart stopped feeling like it would explode. My limbs stopped tingling. The ambulance eventually arrived and a couple of EMTs helped me inside, stuck a bunch of plastic monitors all over my chest and arms, and gave me the once-over. I mentioned the heart thing. “Your heart seems fine — healthier than mine, in fact,” one of the EMTs informed me. I hadn’t eaten all day and had consumed three iced coffees. And had been running and walking around almost all day, apart from the meeting with Bob. Probably just a blood-sugar crash mixed with a little dehydration. No need for the hospital. Get something to eat. Go home. Relax. Maybe take it easy on the caffeine. I got a hot dog from the closest street vendor and took a seat at one of the tables set up on Broadway by Madison Square Park. (A very nice spot on a weekend afternoon, by the way.) I called my parents and Christin (who was in Florida) to let them know about it and see if they had any thoughts on the matter. I still felt weird — and very freaked about my heart — but I eventually caught a cab home and tried my best to relax. Going to sleep that night I still felt on the edge of something catastrophic. Like my heart might just go out on me at any moment and I’d fall over dead. Doom.
I didn’t die. In fact, the next day I felt better. Christin arrived at home. I laid low and didn’t really leave the apartment. Until Thursday. We decided to go walk and get some breakfast. I got about a half block before it came on, again. Light-headedness. Heart beginning to accelerate (although nothing as severe as the first episode). I immediately sat down. It got worse. Call a car, we’re going to hospital. Which we did. Good old Wycoff Heights Medical Center, the same place had my fingers fixed after those two episodes a few years ago. Emergency room. I sat there, still thinking that, once again, I was having some kind of minor heart attack. I say for almost two hours while those idiots apparently forgot about me. I was somewhat out of it, feeling like shit and like I might die, but if I remember correctly they basically forgot that I had been sitting there. My understanding is that they’re pretty much supposed to clear the way when someone thinks they’re having a heart attack, time is so much of the essence. Maybe I’m wrong. But either way: They took their sweet time. I finally made it into the ER, where I got probulated for about six hours. My blood pressure was through the roof. No one seemed to have any idea what was up, except to keep informing me that nothing appeared to be wrong. Except the blood pressure. Which as I calmed down also came down.
My regular doctor was unavailable, so I made an appointment with someone else at his clinic the next day and went in with Christin. “You had a panic attack” were basically the first five words out of his mouth.
Okay. So I finally had a firm diagnosis. I assume Manhattan physicians see panic attack patients about, oh, a dozen times a day. I don’t have any numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if New York were the panic attack capital of the United States or the world. Or the solar system. Probably not the galaxy — many of those new exoplanets they’re discovering look pretty stressful. I’m honestly surprised the EMTs didn’t suggest it — and I’m not reassured that the doctors at Wycoff Heights couldn’t figure it out after a day of running tests of me. Especially since, now that I’ve read a thing or two about panic attacks and general anxiety disorder, I realize just how common panic attacks are. Two good friends have had them and I didn’t find out until after I started talking to people about my experiences. Tony Soprano had them (and so did his son). I just today happened to watch a video interview with one guy from the web comic Penny Arcade about his history of panic attacks. People talk about panic attacks quite often in all sorts of media — and knowing about them makes some of the behavior of over-scrutinized celebrities make more sense because they can make you act really, really bizarre. I never thought twice about them, but now that I’m acutely aware of their existence, I see stuff about them everywhere. Weird.
So I had a couple of panic attacks. And not particularly major ones — I didn’t collapse or anything like that. And only the first one had any major symptoms like the racing heart and tingling in the limbs and the imminent threat of fainting (“syncopy,” as the cool kids (doctors) call it). But it triggered my awareness of something else in me which had been building for a while: general anxiety disorder. The term sounds silly, but it’s definitely a thing. Ever since that panic attack I’ve had problems doing things like going out and doing things in the city, I’ve had problems being in crowded spaces, sometimes the idea of walking a single city block seems unsurmountable, sometimes for no reason I’ll just feel Fear and have trouble holding my shit together — it feels like I’m literally about to die sometimes. Or, failing that, like I’m going insane. Like there’s something I can feel broken in my head. My understanding is that people with this condition often feel like they’re about to have a heart attack or like they’ve got a brain tumor. I understand why this is — that’s how I felt. That’s how I still feel sometimes, although now I know enough about what’s going on to be able to see through the shitty illusion my anxious brain is creating for me. I’m not dying. I don’t have heart problems. I don’t have a brain tumor. I am, as far as anyone can tell me, pretty healthy. Even my blood pressure is even just fine, despite the initial fear that there might have been some problem there.
I’m writing this because one thing that has helped settle me when I’m experiencing a rough patch is to get online and read other people’s experiences with panic attacks (PAs) and general anxiety disorder (GAD). I’ve never been one for using the internet to diagnose medical conditions, but PAs and GAD are mental issues and, as far as I’ve been told and experienced, the way to deal with them is to not get caught in their downward spiral. The slightest trigger can build into a spot of worry which can cascade until you’re having a full-blown attack. The trick is to understand when you’re experiencing a little trigger and to psychologically not allow yourself to go down the dark path. Reading about how other people have experienced something similar and helped themselves helps me.
My primary doctor, when I finally got to see him a few weeks after the event, likened it to being chased by a bear. Like: A bear jumped out at me from the clear blue and scared the living shit out of me. So for a while, anything that reminds me of that experience will cause me to clench up, fearing that once again the bear will leap out. Again: Sound a little goofy to write, but it’s relatively accurate. I guess it’s a very, very, very light form of PTSD.
I joked about this with Christin, but it’s sort of true: We watch Dexter, the show about the serial killer who also works for Miami Metro Homicide. He regularly blathers on about his “dark passenger.” That’s kind of what this feels like. I’m not going to murder anyone, of course, but I feel like there’s something wrapped around some of the nerves in my head, neck, shoulders, and back. Something that can take over and put me in this bad state if I don’t control it. That sounds cheeseball, but it’s honestly how I feel sometimes. The GAD can feel like a physical thing that I want excised from my body.
Okay. So this has been going on since August — about seven months or so. And I am getting better. It’s what I would call a controlled problem at the moment. I haven’t had a real panic attack episode since October (I was in Austin alone and also had the flu, which all combined into an obnoxious series of attacks). While I have had some issues going out in public and going to crowded restaurants or music shows, that seems to mostly be behind me. I don’t feel afraid to do basic things like I did for a while. I don’t feel unhealthy. (In fact, besides this I feel quite healthy, especially since all of the tests I’ve had as a part of this have come up clean. And my exercise levels are also back up, which is a good general barometer. And I’m very attuned to my physical health at the moment.) I’m getting better, so I wanted to briefly discuss what I’ve been doing and thinking to help fix the situation.
The main fix has been a combination of going to therapist and being my own therapist. The “anxiety” in “general anxiety disorder” comes from somewhere. Work, for me, has been consistently pretty stressful for about the past two or three years. This past summer isn’t the worst it’s been, but I had a lot of work stress and I think it had just compounded and compounded until I finally blew a gasket. And, let me make this clear: It’s not a particular client or project. I really like almost all of my projects and clients! Especially now that I’ve got the ability to be selective about who I work with. They’re smart, interesting people who like making things. I get along with my clients. The work stress more came from how I worked. I put a lot of weight on my own shoulders when I work. I can make things much harder on myself than they need to be. I guess I don’t want to get into too many specifics, but the past seven months I’ve been doing much more deep thinking about how I want to work and what my work-life balance should look like. I’m not a graduate student anymore: I can’t just blast through projects, spending 14 hours each day banging out ideas and code. It’s very stressful. And it’s been, I feel, a major contributor to my GAD. So I’m working on that.
My therapist has been good. Christin pushed me towards this option, though I was resistant at first. I’ve been seeing her for about four months, now, and she’s been good at giving me techniques for managing the disorder (like breathing and stretching exercises) and she’s been good at giving me perspective when I talk about how I’m trying to do things like reassess how I work to reduce stress. And I talk about my tricks. I come up with a new trick every now and then which actually prove quite helpful with stress. For example! I guess my natural mental image of the people I’m working for is that they’re somehow angry at me for not being good enough or fast enough or whatever. They’re totally not in real life (for the most part!), but even when things are going great, that’s an odd kind of pressure. And it’s probably rooted in something much deeper in my past — the details, there don’t even really matter. But there’s a part of my brain that drives pretty damned hard to always better, always improve, and it’s really hard for me to shut that part of me up. It’s got to be connected to that. So. Just consciously envisioning people I work with being happy with me can help out quite a bit when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Minor trick. Seems silly! But just thinking of them being happy with me appears to help. (This was made easier a couple of weeks ago: I launched a couple of apps for clients who I also hung out with in Austin and they were visibly happy. As an aside: It can be tough for a developer to gauge client satisfaction. Tell your developer when they’re doing a good job — otherwise, all they ever hear is BUG REPORT: YOU DONE BAD! I exaggerate a bit, but it can be tough to read whether people think I’m doing a good job or not.)
Like I said above, just reading other people’s experiences online has been important. One trick someone pointed out on some forum or other: If they felt an attack coming on, they’d tell themselves that it might happen, but in ten or fifteen minutes it’ll be over. Like it’s a bit of aircraft turbulence and shortly you’ll be back in smooth air. Which I’ve done. It just kind of breaks you out of the feeling of falling into the endless abyss to know that even if you do you start feeling strange, you’ll be out of it soon enough. Takes the pressure off. Another technique someone mentioned is to just decide to let the panic attack happen. My therapist even once suggested that it might not be bad for me to actually faint from a panic attack just so I would know what that felt like and that it wasn’t the end of the world. This trick is similar to that, but it actually kind of scary to do in practice. The idea, though, is that it’s stressful just trying to hold yourself together when an attack starts to come on and that if you’re just like “fuck it, I’m not going to die, let just get this over with” you neutralize the fear that causes the attack in the first place and you mitigate it. Another thing I’ve found myself doing lately is reacting to the feeling of an attack not by saying to myself, “oh, fuck fuck fuck fuck,” but instead saying to myself, “Christ, not this horseshit again.” Being dismissive of it seems to help. Anything that removes the feeling of fear.
Another thing I’ve been doing with myself: Aversion therapy. I think that’s what it’s called. But the basic idea is to dive straight into those things the GAD has made me irrationally afraid of. Driving. In October in Austin I could barely drive without causing myself to go into a state. I wasn’t unsafe, but just sitting in a car made me feel enormously and irrationally afraid. Sort of a random thing, but probably connected to the feeling of being trapped or out of control. So I had some issues driving after I got to Austin a few weeks ago for SXSW. I want to stress, here: I never felt like I was unsafe driving or I wouldn’t have done it. I just felt a big irrational fear. So I kept driving. Short drives in the neighborhood at first seemed daunting. But eventually I got myself up to driving thirty minutes out to the Salt Like and to the airport and by the time I left Austin last week I was quite enjoying driving again. I’ve always found it fun to drive around Austin, now I have that back. Aversion therapy.
Same with running and doing things in New York. When you’re constantly worried that your heart might explode, running and exercise gets kind of hard to do. It’s uncomfortable to try to run a few miles and have “I’m going to die any step now, I’m going to die any step now” racing through your brain. It’s irrational. But that’s how it works. But I’ve forced myself to keep running and playing soccer and am doing much better, now, as well. I’ve run more in March than I had in any month since July, when we were in Berlin and I was taking regular long-ass meandering runs all over the city.
Also, for Christmas Christin got me a book called When Panic Attacks by David D. Burns M.D. I’ve read about half of it, and it has some good advice and perspective. And, again, it’s been helpful just to understand what I’m feeling and what’s actually going on with me. But I tried to do some of the written exercises he recommended and, honestly, they didn’t do that much for me. I’m probably getting the same effect (but better) just doing my own thinking on the issues and talking with the therapist. The only thing it’s left me with so far is my new habit of asking myself “what’s the worst that can happen?” when I get anxious. Just answering that in a realistic way can kind of take the edge off of a stressful situation, even something like flying where the answer might be “die in a fireball” I can follow it up with, “and what are the chances of that happening?” To which: Well, basically zero.
One thing I haven’t done, yet: Medication. Well. I had a prescription for lorazepam that I was told to take to calm down if things got really bad. I took one every once in a while. And then had a super-stressful week working in New Orleans during which I popped a couple a day. But that’s it. SO my doctor recently suggested I get on a light Prozac prescription for a while. I’m resistant to that idea at the moment for a few reasons: 1) I feel like I’m getting better on my own and that maybe it’s more important to solve some of the underlying psychological issues through thought and therapy that it is to spackle over the problems with drugs. 2) While my GAD feels shitty, I’ve heard of people who’ve had much more debilitating forms. I think I’ve got a relatively light case. It’s still a huge piece of shit, though, so when I hear about people who faint regularly from PAs or who have essentially become shut-ins because they can’t bear even stepping outside — well, I can only imagine how completely crushing that might feel. But I feel like I’m managing mine — and I suspect that no one would even know I had an issue unless I mentioned it. My behavior hasn’t become weird. (Well, it hasn’t become any weirder, anyway.) 3) Related to the above, I just don’t want to take pills if I don’t need to. Simple as that.
I got a light prescription for Prozac, but I haven’t filled it for the above reasons. Next week I’ll see the doctor again and we’ll go over where I’m at. I’m 100% in favor of taking input and advice from all angles, even if I ultimately decide to not do something.
And I think that’s the biggest thing. I’ve found a lot of help just talking to people — friends, doctors, etc — about the situation. People I know who have gone through this have offered good advice and perspective. So much of controlling GAD and not getting panic attacks appears to simply be not letting yourself get wound up about it. (If only all disease were so easy to cure.) Hearing about other people who’ve gotten through the worst helps give perspective.
I’m sure I’m leaving out some major thoughts, here. This has been a topic I’ve thought about every day since my first panic attack back in August. It’s consistently with me. So I’ve got a ton of thoughts on the matter. And this is maybe odd to say, but I think that overall it’s been a strangely positive experience. The PAs and GAD suck, but I’m confident that I’ll get it under control and maybe even get rid of it entirely. But it’s shocked me into realizing my own mortality in a way that’s got me making changes for the better. I’m off caffeine, for example. And I’m exercising more, now. And much better at understanding and managing life’s stresses. So, y’know. Lemonade from lemons.
Monday, January 14, 2013
I’ve written a handful of posts, now, about the high school game design classes I’ve been co-teaching with Kristana Textor. The brief history, for those just joining in: In 2011, I got the opportunity to teach a summer class at the Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick. Though it was a mild mess, we ultimately found some degree of success and I got invited back to teach at AUP during the Spring 2012 semester, this time with Kristana. Last fall we switched venues to McKee High School in Staten Island. (Yeah, that’s a long commute — about ninety minutes each way — but it’s also an almost entirely water-based transit, which is actually kind of a nice bit of relaxation during the day. I usually take the East River Ferry from Williamsburg to Wall Street and then hop the Staten Island Ferry the rest of the way. But I digress.)
We missed a few weeks of class in the Fall due to Hurricane Sandy, so we’re still wrapping up the semester this January. Going out there twice a week has been kind of intense, but ultimately I very much enjoy it and I think I’m beginning to see a little bit of light as far as understanding teaching techniques and having a good strategy for getting a group of most high school freshman and sophomores to create a functional, playable game together. Which is what I want to talk about, here.
The class that Kristana and I teach is structured like so: The class schedule has two parts of about equal length, a “game appreciation” segment and a “game design” segment. Kristana teaches “game appreciation,” the first half. For the class we’re currently teaching, this lasted from September through about November. I don’t attend these classes, generally, because I’m usually just kind of overwhelmed with other work, but Kristana has the kids talk about games and prompts them to think a bit more deeply about their own experiences and opinions about games and game culture while also exposing them to how games function as art, as business, etc. I think of is as the “liberal arts” part of the class. The kids play games. They talk about games. They think about games. And hopefully reach some fresh insights and understanding.
My half of the class, which kicked off in October and will last until the end of January (due to Sandy), is about getting the kids to apply this new thinking about games and to get them to actually produce something real. One of my current students had a shocked moment earlier this semester when I started talking about the game they would be making: “Wait, what — we’re actually going to have to make a game?!” Yes you’re really going to have ot make a game. As far as these kids are concerned, video games are mystical creations forged from magic by wizards and elves in far-off lands. They haven’t quite made the connection that game designers and game builders are, in fact, humans — many rather young humans — and that their craft is anything but magical. The demystification of this process is important.
But also, through this process, we get to touch on a ton of different topics. We talk about storytelling. Graphic design. Computer programming. Ethics. Interactive design. And, of course, straight-up game design. Game design encompasses so many other disciplines — I consider teaching game design an amazing way to sneak in all sorts of other content. The last class I taught at AUP, for example, we had a student with some learning disabilities who completely glommed on to the storytelling aspect of game design. He had a tough time working with the software to make game graphics or design levels, but he seemed to love sitting down and writing out page after page of scripts for the cut scenes in the game. (Sadly, we ran out of time and couldn’t actually implement these — but he did get up in front of hundreds of people and read through his scripts, presenting his ideas.) And this is not to say that I think storytelling should be the focus, but it can certainly be a focus.
And part of this, as well, is that I’ve found that different students will have different things they’re interested in. Some like graphics. Some want to make levels. Some want to write stories. And the format of coming together to produce a single project works great in that it allows students to play to their aptitudes and get some exposure to new stuff.
General Organizational Strategies
I have a web-based game-building tool I’ve created called Gametron 7000 (GT7K). But I’ve decided that putting the kids in front of the software tools too soon create problems. For one thing, they have no sense of direction and no idea what they’re supposed to make, so they just kind of vaguely poke at it and then get distracted by YouTube or whatever. So my strategy right now is to spend several weeks simply brainstorming game ideas with the students and doing as much pen-on-paper design work as possible. Then during the last half of the class we actually get into GT7K and do the actual production.
Getting 15- and 16-year-olds to sit down, be quiet, please pay attention, please turn off the computer monitor and listen to me, turn off the monitor, please, right now, thank you, NO FOOD IN THE COMPUTER LAB, and you’re going to have to leave if you keep being disruptive — it’s a huge pain. Oh, lord. They’ll come into class hyperactive to begin with and then sometimes totally jacked on shit like Rockstar Energy Drink (no joke) and often on cookies or candy or whatever. And they’re kind of spazzy gamer kids to begin with, so they want to play with the computers and tend to bounce around with short attention spans.
So the first thing I try to do is get buy-in. I want them to feel invested in what we’re doing. We’re going to make a game. It will exist on the web for anyone to play — including your friends. So let’s put some thought into it.
I have all of the students work together on a single game, so we start with forming a “game studio.” I ask them to name some game studios they know (Valve seems to be the most well-known) and we talk in a basic way about how those companies are organized. I also introduce the concept of independent game studios, which they’re less familiar with. Then we pick a name. The kids throw out ideas and we vote. And then no one’s happy with the result, so I repeat the process the next class. We throw out names and vote. And wind up with a much better result since everyone’s kind of had a few days to ponder the issue.
I’ve found that just having this name gels the class to a certain degree. It’s an after-school class, so attendance varies. But my core game designer students seem to lock in to the process a bit after this step. I think it’s the same sort of feeling of making a club that makes high school kids want to form rock bands or other little creative groupings. And because they named it, I think they feel a sense of ownership. Which is good.
Because my role is facilitator. I do a lot to smooth out the whole process, but major decisions I want them to make and own. And, to be frank, these kids know games. So they will make good decisions if there’s a good process. A lot of it is simply having systems for surfacing ideas and letting them respond to one another, incorporating the good ideas and dropping the bad.
Once we have our game studio set up, I have the kids do several rounds of game idea brainstorming over the course of several days. I get a stack of paper and some pens and I instruct them to quietly draw out ideas for any kind of game they might be interested in making. What does it look like? Is there a story? What’s the main game mechanic? Is it top-down? Side-scrolling? Platformer? Something else entirely? (I explain that GT7K is fairly basic, allowing mostly for 2D early Nintendo Entertainment System-era types of games: think Zelda, Mario, Metroid, etc. Which is actually fine by them, since retro-ish stuff like Super Meat Boy and Minecraft seem to be quite the thing with the kids these days.)
They hate this. Sitting down with pens and paper. At least to start. Getting the kids to stop talking, focus and actually think is a pain-in-the-ass. Sucks, but true. This current group at McKee has some issues with focus, so the first half of any brainstorming session involves a fair amount of scolding. Which I’m getting quite good at. I’ll even yell at the little monsters, on occasion, which I suspect most people who know me will have trouble specifically envisioning. (Maybe not.) I’ve found that the surest way to command the room is to be the loudest thing in it, and thankfully I’m a big dude with a big voice when I feel like using it…
They will, though, eventually break down a bit, quiet themselves, and brainstorm. The bitching and whining about not having any ideas will give way to scribbling down one idea, and then the floodgates will open for some of the students. A few in this current class seem to willfully shut themselves off a bit, taking a sort of “I’m cooler/smarter than you, so this is kind of below me” attitude, and a few others just might be too shy or scared or whatever and can’t relax and think. But many of the kids will suddenly find themselves having a lot of fun thinking about game ideas and seem like they’ll do it all day and into the night if I didn’t eventually have to get home myself. Part of my challenge is shielding these students who are engaged from the ones who want to distract them.
After a few days of this, though, we do wind up with a stack of game ideas. Some bad. Many quite good. These kids have mostly played a ton of games, so they have fairly good intuition about these things.
I have each student explain each of their game ideas to the group. We talk about them. And then we vote. And then no one’s happy with the result, so I repeat the process the next class. We talk about their game ideas. And then we vote. And the two times I’ve done this process, we reach consensus pretty darn quickly. Both times all of the kids have eventually voted for and been most excited by one idea, so that’s what we’ve rolled with.
For the record, the current class settled on a top-down game of underground labyrinths. The player plays a character with a flaming head that’s the only light source in the game, leaving room for plenty of surprise moments and scary puzzles. The more health the player has, the brighter the flame and the more you can see. The less health, the less bright. So you play this flaming-head-guy character and have to navigate through a series of mysterious labyrinths. It’s a legitimately good idea!
Okay. So I’ve done more yelling at teenagers the past few months than ever before, like I said. It’s a brave, new world. An opening up of vistas. I hope to eventually move on to yelling at young children and old people. Then waiters who don’t bring out the water promptly enough and compound the problem by bringing tap water when I clearly asked for sparkling, and where is your manager, anyway? No tip. Etc.
So. Learning to communicate with these buggers — the students — is obviously very important. I have a bit of a leg-up, I think, because I’m not exactly a teacher in the same way their other teachers are, and (despite the scolding) I try not to present myself as an authority figure. “I do this kind of stuff in the real world. People pay me (fairly well) to do it. If you want, I would love to help you go through this process and learn a bit about how it works. If you’re not interested, I don’t care — but you’ve got the leave the room so the rest of us can work.” And I’m honest about that: They can leave. I will try to get shy kids involved, but I won’t force anyone to participate.
But these are mostly boys on the nerdier end of the spectrum and I do think they look up to me and see me as one of them. Christin hates my Valve video game t-shirts, but wearing them to class seems to help. We have normal conversations. We talk about what games we’ve been playing. Even when bitching at them, I try to always maintain the tone of “hey, we’re all working together, here — let’s keep it together so we have something cool to show.”
And it does seem to work. I think I have a good rapport with most of them. A couple come in and just kind of tune out and won’t do anything I ask — those I essentially ignore. Again, if they’re not interested in participating, then they get left out of the club. Sorry. (I do feel like I’m aware of distinguishing shyness from disinterest, and I will go out of my way to figure out how to get shy kids to open up.)
Anyway, I feel like this has been working. The kids seem excited to be there, for the most part, and I do feel like they’re fairly comfortable around me, for the most part.
Fleshing Out the Game
After we’ve got a game idea that we want (the flaming-head-guy-labyrinth game), we repeat the sit-down-with-pen-and-paper sketching process, but instead of drawing whole new game ideas, I have the kids draw screenshots from the game we’ve picked. I pose it like so: Imagine you’re reading reviews of this game after it’s been made. What do the screenshots they use from the game look like? The idea is to get them to visualize specifically what the game will be like to play, and in doing this brainstorm all of the various elements of the game. What might the labyrinthine mazes look like? What does the player look like? Are there bad guys? Obstacles? What are they? What do they look like? How to do they move? What do they do? We do this for a few class sessions and I try to create a list of all of the ideas for what might be in this game.
I also take this opportunity to talk about theme and story in the game. When pondering what kinds of bad guys might inhabit their game, for example, it could be helpful to think of what the story could be. Is the main character rescuing someone? Defeating someone or something? Collecting things? Why? To what end? Or: Are there any fun ways to play with the theme? On student in our class, for example, started pondering the guy with a flame for a head — and it dawned on him: Why not make all of the bad guys out of water? And suddenly there’s a sort of light-weight game story behind the mechanics of the game. Fire guy versus the water people. Or whatever.
This stuff is tough, but I think it’s really satisfying. These details are what turns some random idea into something that feels like it could be a real game. And, to be honest, we get to talk about the terrible blandness and repetition in many game stories and scenarios. Feeling like they’ve got an idea that might actually be better than many of the game ideas they’ve experienced is a big deal.
Production: Creating Assets
So now we have a game, a story/theme, some ideas for levels and a sense of what else might be in the game. Now we have to make it. This is where I’m currently at with my class. We’re making assets.
GT7K is nice because it makes it incredibly easy to reuse any assets already in the system, so I can start them out with a basic game framework and it’s very easy for me to have the kids make accounts and then show them how to make a level and test it out.
But I try to add some structure, because we’re on a timeline and we have to ship a game at the end of the class, so after they’re a bit familiar with the tools I sit them down again and try to break things down a bit.
Last week, we started with visual assets. What kind of art do we need? A player graphic. Some walls. Bad guys. Coins. Doors. Etc. We listed some things and then each student got to pick one and make it. (For the record, this Flash-based pixel art tool called Piq proved a huge hit — they really enjoyed using it, for the most part. Some kids also used the iPad, though the aesthetic is quite different.) So over the course of our couple of hours, they make their graphics. And this is tough — they’re not used to creating graphics that will fit into a game, so we have to talk about it. And they’ve been kind of tentative, for the most part. But I feel like simply getting them to do anything and then seeing that thing actually in a game moving around will be significant.
I’ve been trying to communicate my philosophy that the first time you do something creative, it will suck. You’ll be tempted to compare your first try with some profession game designer’s twentieth try — and that’s an unfair comparison. Your game isn’t going to be perfect. Your art is going to be kind of weird. Your levels might not be that fun. But, y’know what: Everyone’s first game sucks. But after you’re done, you’ll be better at making games. And maybe your second game will be awesome. Or your third. Keep trying and eventually it’ll start to click. That’s how art works.
So part of this process is simply getting them to produce anything that I can then take and glue together into a semi-cohesive game.
We’ll do this process with levels this coming week. It’ll be more of the same thing. They’ll be sort of confused and I’ll try to get them to push through and create something that I can stitch together for them.
Gluing it All Together
Finally, like I said, I will take everything they’ve created and bring together their game. There’s a lot of technical stuff which they can’t really do on their own, and I’ve decided that I’d rather them spend their time being creative than spend their time learning to do technical stuff.
My thinking: If they’re inspired to create games, they will eventually have to figure out how to use computers and progra on some level. So get them excited about designing games, they’ll have to pick up the computer skills somehow. And I think in many ways creative thinking skills trump technical skills. And I’m someone who codes most of the day — I love technical stuff. It’s obviously important. But I also know how it can affect creative thought in a negative way. It’s something I battle against almost daily.
So, we haven’t reached this point with my current class, but if all goes well I’ll glue together their game, built from all of their ideas, and we’ll do some play-testing and let other students take a look. We’ll make some tweaks, and then launch! I’ll put it up online for the world to see and for them to be proud of.
The Princess is in Another Castle
One more thing.
I’ve left this subject towards the end because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but — yes — my class at AUP was all guys and my class at McKee is mostly guys with one or two girls coming by occasionally. I don’t know what to do about this. I try my best to engage and include girls when they do show up, and I feel I’ve had some success, but it’s tough in the context of the class because they don’t attend regularly enough to really be up-to-speed with what we’re doing. There’s a group of four or five boys who really drive the class — which I think is great. They get excited and they want to participate, making it a little tougher for any students who doesn’t regularly appear. The lack of gender diversity, though — I am not yet ready to call it a problem, exactly, but it’s something I want to know more about. If girls aren’t interested in this particular game class and are happy doing something else, well, I’d rather not have a bunch of uninterested people lingering around, male or female. If girls want to be there but aren’t showing up because they’re feeling intimidated or out-of-place or like they don’t want to deal with noisy, stinky boys… That’s a bigger problem. But I still don’t know the solution. If anyone has better thoughts on this, please advise.
Another quick diversity observation: Almost all of my students in both classes have been minorities. I think we’ve had just one caucasian student attend semi-regularly in the current class. Just interesting to note.
So that’s my thinking at this point. Learning how to teach game design is an ongoing process for me, my techniques and opinions may change wildly each time I do this. But I figured it’d be useful to document my thinking right now. Hopefully it’ll be useful to someone else. And I do think it’ll be very interesting to look back on this and reflect upon how my attitudes have changed over time.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
(Originally written the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I just delayed editing and posting…)
We trimmed the tree this evening — Christin, the cat, and I. Which put a punctuation mark on the end of the Thanksgiving season 2012.
It’s the first Thanksgiving I’ve actually spent in New York since I moved here. Every other year I’ve always taken the bus out to my grandmother’s place in Northampton, PA to keep her company. We would usually hang out, chat about things (politics seems to be a favorite), and crash the neighbor’s Thanksgiving feast. A good time, but also a little isolating. Christin had her family and other folks over for Thanksgiving several years ago, but I felt obligated to be in Pennsylvania, so I had to miss the feast (although I did get to witness the aftermath, coming back that Friday).
We’ve got this new place, though, now. It’s a bit more comfortable. Has a bit more space. So Christin and I are, for the first time, actually fairly excited to stick around here for the holidays for the first time. (I also go out to Pennsylvania every year for Christmas.) The summer and fall have also just been a busy mess for us. On top of all of the effort we put into finding and moving into the new place, we also had the European travels, cat-health-related chaos, my weird little health scare — and then just the usual tough work schedules, teaching, etc. The idea of adding a bunch of travel into the mix kind of makes me want to pull my hair out at the moment. Or, at least, the idea of adding a bunch of travel on the same days everyone else in the country has travel plans. So. We’re sticking here.
But. I can’t leave Grandma to the wolves, so Christin and I took a trip out there last weekend. Now, my Grandmother is a sweet old woman. I’ve written about her before on the blog. She’s 95. Pennsylvanian German. Spent her career teaching kindergarten. And just comes out of a very different world than we’re used to today. She’s always lived in Northampton, a tiny town in the hills just outside of Allentown. But which also happens to be a stone’s throw from New York, Philly, and to a lesser extent Washington, DC. Both isolated and a little off-the-map, but also surprisingly well connected to the world. Isolated enough that it’s just a little tough finding time to make the two-hour bus trek out there, especially for Christin, who is just as busy as I am but doesn’t have quite the direct family connection. Unless. There’s a good reason.
So we’ve moved into this new apartment. It’s well larger than the old place. So we’re on a bit of a furniture quest. And we’re also feeling a little more financially together, so we’re getting less and less interested in cheap options like Ikea. We’d like stuff we can keep.
So. This fact collided quite conveniently with the fact that my Grandmother is constantly pushing me to take whatever I want from her home if I need it. Furniture, housewares, art, food, etc. I’m the only child of my Grandmother’s only child, so there’s no competition and no one to really ask except my Mom, who has already taken all she needs for both homes my folks live in (Austin, TX and Elliston, NL). The main issue: Grandma’s stuff doesn’t really match what we’re after as far as furniture. It’s kind of mostly from the 70s and 80s, stuff that you’d kind of typically think of older people during that tie owning. A little rustic. Oddly-colored. Weird patterns. Christin’s been kind of moving towards a mid-century modern aesthetic, over here, anyway. And it’s a little off-putting for *me* to think of dismantling anything in this home. For one thing, so much in my Grandmother’s house has just Always Been Like That as far as I’m concerned. Every corner of the place has memories packed into it from when I was five, thirteen, nineteen, twenty-three, thirty, etc. The idea of making any major changes is kind of shocking, like I might accidentally shatter the structure upon which these memories have been hung.
But. It turns out that Grandmother did finally have something of interest to Christin. My Grandfather and her had a kind of artists’ studio in their basement. Art runs deep in the family and my Grandfather taught high school art for many decades and both of my Grandparents ran a pottery business, as well, in the late 40s and 50s. (I don’t know the full story on this.) So there’s family art all over the place. And this basement area was the workshop. So unlike the rest of the house — very traditional, old-fashioned, etc — the basement kind of feels like some hip little zone from the 50s. Functionalist, mid-century modern furniture (including several homemade pieces). Easels. Desks. Art supplies and art books everywhere. Bright fluorescent lighting that seemed so stark and cool when I was younger. An old TV (at least, there always was back in the day — I think it’s gone, now). Just one of those places where paint has already kind of been lightly splattered on everything, so you feel comfortable being there, potentially making a mess of your own. Some of my very strong memories of being at the home with my Grandparents come from being down there — I used to love it as a kid exactly because of this kind of out-of-the-way clubhouse feel. I could go down and draw with my markers or paint or whatever and just do my thing. Again, I’m an only child, so that kind of semi-isolated play space where I can just explore alone is very important to my psyche. (Still is.) And that’s also where my Grandfather would on occasion give me art lessons. I remember vividly doing watercolors with him when I was quite young and in my early teens doing some sketching exercising and finally sort of “graduating” up to oil paints. (It still pains me a bit that I put up one oil painting I did down there — a kind of boxy, geometric, abstract face-thing that I remember quite liking — that I hung this painting on the wall at my undergrad co-op, the House of Commons, and just simply forgot to retrieve it during the tumult of graduating and moving out. Maybe someone grabbed it and it’s still hanging somewhere that know one knows where it came from. Maybe it wound up in the trash. But it’s one of those things where, wow, one time starts chugging along and people start passing along you just wish you still had. Can’t keep all things, though, and it’s the memory more than the object itself that’s important, I suppose.) Anyway: Lots of memories packed down there. The first computer I owned, a Colecovision ADAM, also wound up down there when I graduated up to a Mac Classic sometime during junior high school. I used to spend a considerable amount of time clickety-clacking away at the old thing until it finally gave up the ghost sometime after I entered undergad.
Anyway. Let’s rewind back to “mid-century modern furniture.” When Christin heard about this stuff from my mom, suddenly we had a very good reason to rent a U-Haul and go spend the weekend with Grandma. We love Grandma, but the fact of the matter is, killing two birds with one stone is always preferable to killing just one bird with one stone — especially if one of those birds is shaped like helping furnish the new apartment and the other bird has the turnkey-like shape of visiting Grandma around Thanksgiving. So, yes. U-Haul rented. Weekend with Grandma. And, in the end, two small 50s era couches are now sitting beside me as I type this (right around the Christmas tree that we installed yesterday and trimmed today). How to describe them? Angular. Two seats wide (love-seats, although I’m hesitant to call them that because they’re much more functional like they wouldn’t feel out of place in the offices of Stering Cooper). Thin frame, painted black. Thinnish square cushions that my Grandmother sewed simple red plaid fabric over sometime in the 70s (which Christin hates but other people, including myself, seem kind of like). Nice. A little flimsy — I’m staying off of them until we have a chance to secure them and make sure they’re strong — but basically in good shape. The cat loves them.
Christin doesn’t visit Pennsylvania with me very often, so Grandma also enjoys stocking her up on family lore and just Tales of the Pennsylvania Dutch while we’re out there. It’s kind of funny: I feel I’ve heard these stories so often that they’re background noise to me, almost. To the piont where I actually know the stories much less well than I *think* I do, simply because I kind of tune them out a little bit or we just don’t talk about them at all anymore, they’re such old news. So it’s nice to have Christin there to hear things for the first time.
This visit we got the art history of the family. Which, like I said, is something I’m kind of loosely aware of but the information’s kind of stale in my mind. Last Saturday evening Chrstin and I got tour of my Grandmother’s art archives. Lots of paintings in the basement. Many by my Grandfather (including a very large mosiac of a small town city block which, as I understand it, had been hanging at the local high school for decades with the agreement that upon my Grandfather’s death it would be returned to the family), but also quite a few nice oilpaintings of landscapes by my Grandmother than were very accomplished. It was a nice reminder that this woman, who has been Very Old for most of the time I’ve known her — and the entirety of the time I’ve known her while I’ve been an adult, that this woman was my age at one point. Had a career. A talent with art and a desire to use that talent. It’s interesting to be reminded of those echos in myself, especially from people who didn’t directly raise me (although I did see them an awful lot — see above: Only child of an only child). Christin were also struck by a couple of the reverse-paintings my Grandfather had done (most of their art dates from the 50s and 60s). I’m not exactly sure of the process, but as I understand it, one paints the “reverse” of a black-and-white image with wax or something and then paints over the entire canvas with black paint. Then, one peels away the wax and the black paint only remains where there hadn’t been any way. The result is kind of a woodcut print-like feel, but not quite as rough and angular — more flowing and organic like a painting. Anyway — we liked these and we asked if we could take these for the apartment and we did.
A quick aside about my Grandfather’s art style. And maybe this is an example of that part of Pennsylvania both feeling out-of-the-way and globally connected. Okay. So my information is wildly incomplete, but my understanding is that my Grandfather holds a BA and Master’s in art. First person in his family to attend college. But well-studied. In 2003 when I went to Berlin and stayed with Brenna, we wound up going to an exhibition about “Die Brücke,” an art movement in just-barely-pre-WWI Germany. And my first though was, Holy shit — this stuff looks like the style of art my Grandfather made. Bold colors. Impressionistic, but on the angular and abstract side of the spectrum. Especially the landscapes (I don’t think my Grandfather did that many paintings of people, if I recall). My Grandfather’s stuff wasn’t exactly like that movement. It tended to be much less visually shrill to my eyes and also, like I said, less interested in people. And, ultimately, he worked in all sorts of different styles.
Now, I have no idea if there’s an actual connection or what. But. He was born in 1913. So studied in college around the early-mid 30s. Just enough time for movements like that to have grown and left Germany and made their way to exibitions in the States (in nearby New York, for example). I don’t know if he had any awareness of that movement, but I think it’s the first time I’d considered his works — which always seemed old and distant to my child’s eyes — as something done related to an at-the-time contemporary movement, something new that he was seeing that he wanted to emulate. His works don’t resemble much at all the much more folksy PA Dutch works that my great-grandmother and *her* mother did that still exist in our various family homes. Those tend to be needlepoint scenes of farms and covered bridges and quilts. But they got informed from somewhere. And it’s interesting to think of him getting these signals from these contemporary art scenes in Europe and trying to participate in what he saw. A little hard for me to articulate, here, but that style of painting (or, more broadly, “visual communication”) was quite cutting-edge and boundary-busting at the time, I imagine. And it’s maybe a little hard for people of my generation to get particularly excited about paint on canvas when we live in a world of art and creativity that’s being violently pushed along by several related technological revolutions sort of happening at once. But that feeling of frission he felt might not’ve been dissimilar to how I felt getting into electronic music and experimental stuff in high school and college and feeling like it connected me to some bigger cultural movement that was afoot. Anyway, this is all hypothetical. Sadly, my Grandfather died about ten years ago — to early for me to have had these sorts of reflections.
Anyway. This is getting long.
My Grandmother also showed us her collection of pottery pieces from when she and her husband ran their pottery business (late 40s, 50s) — including a few plates with scribbly designs done by my four(-ish) year old mother. She also took Christin through some of the PA Dutch symbology on the plates. The PA Dutch make plates for births and marriages, and there are things like the three droplets (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), the wavy line (“life has its ups-and-downs”), and distelfink (a stylized finch representing happiness), etc. I like hearing about the Pennsylvania Dutch stuff, simply because I don’t otherwise feel particularly culturally interesting, so it’s kind of neat to have this connection to an odd little American sub-culture. (My Grandmother’s family has been living right in that area of Pennsylvania for something on the order of 400 years — the old family home is apparently on the National Register of Historic Places.) We took no pottery. I wanted to let my Mom take a look at everything first, and I felt too nervous about the chances of that stuff breaking.
Finally, quilts. I’ll be fast, here. Grandma took us through the quilt collection — all made by the family. Christin picked out a nice one made by my great-great-grandmother in what we’re ballparking to be the 1870s. It’s a traditional starburst pattern, done with small patterned pieces of cloth mostly of the pale yellow, orange, and blue colors. And, to my shock and amazement, the thing looks like it could be brand new. Very well-preserved.
I’m running out of steam, here. It’s been a long week and it’s about 1am. I could keep babbling on and on endlessly with various thoughts about this and that.
I have a pre-New Year’s resolution to blog weekly. We’ll see how that goes.
Friday, November 2, 2012
Christin and I took a walk across the Williamburg Bridge into a darkened Lower East Side last night. Just out of curiosity about what post-Sandy blackout Manhattan looked like. We didn’t spend too much time down there — turns out a powerless Lower East Side is actually kind of a dead Lower East Side. At least the day after Halloween. We wandered for a bit and then I had a beer at some candle-lit bar with the Pulp Fiction soundtrack playing on an old battery-power jambox. But! I got a few interesting pix with the old Canon DSLR. Turns out that antique still works.
The wavy lines in these are people walking with flashlights. I used 30 second exposures, for the most part, so anyone walking by got kind of lost — unless they had some kind of light. The light in the picture right above came from a guy jogging with a little penlight strapped to his head.
The sign still had a warning from during the hurricane, which I assumed just stuck once the power went out.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
So: Teaching is hard.
(If you are a teacher, this is where you make a face at the screen and say “no shit.”)
Quickly, before I begin: My high school students know how to use Google. And a few know the quiet art of Googling someone’s name to figure out more about them. So! Some of them are at least cursorily aware of this blog — some might even read this. In which case: Hello, there, young scholar. Mr. Knowles has a potty mouth. (They don’t call me “Mr. Knowles.” They also don’t really call me “Josh.” They prefer “Hey.”)
I do hope some students check this out, actually. One of the most eye-opening parts of teaching, so far, has simply been seeing the classroom from the other side of the desk. Being a student is kind of a freaky experience — you’re young, so your baseline is you sitting there stewing in fresh hormones. And then you’re dumped into the deep end of topics that you might not give a particular shit about — but if you don’t excel at them, well, then Your Future is in jeopardy. And you are judged. By teachers. By peers. By coaches. By parents. For me, at least, I had almost no headspace left over whatsoever to ponder what the teaching experience might be like. If I had, it probably would’ve relaxed me a bit. Which probably would’ve made me looser and more communicative in class. Less intimidated. Maybe one side-effect of this new communication culture in which we live is that current students can get a touch of insight into what’s going on in their teachers’ minds and outside lives. (At least those teachers who blog.) Which is humanizing. And good. (As long as the teacher isn’t into stuff like flashing people on the subway or dismembering squirrels.)
Some of that constricted headspace is necessary. School is about molding brains. So sometimes you just have to sit someone down and lay out the facts for them and make sure they remember what you said. But. High schools need significantly more Montessori-style and collaboration-focused teaching. Especially since if you get someone excited about the possibilities of a Thing, then they’ll naturally start asking questions about what that Thing is and how it works. And generating excitement is something that happens via play and exploration. And open conversation.
Which is kind of the over-arching goal of the game design class I’m co-teaching over at Bushwick High in Brooklyn. I’m trying to stoke their interest in making games (which isn’t terribly hard) and convert it into playful exploration with game making tools. And then use that to stoke their interest in other related topics.
I am not achieving that goal, currently. By the way. Currently things are a bit of a mess.
Which is why I say teaching is hard.
I have been given the chance to have an unusual perspective on teaching. Last year I taught, for the first time, a high school class, an undergraduate class, and a graduate course. It’s neat to be able to compare and contract students at these different levels. And there’s no question: High school is the most challenging.
Part of that difficulty is simply that it’s very, very hard to judge results — at least in a situation like mine where I’m trying to facilitate creativity (I can’t just give ‘em exams at the end). I try to communicate and, more importantly, I try to impart bigger perspectives and simply get them excited about something. And the students will superficially let you know what they think — they will, for example, drift off to YouTube the moment they get the littlest bit bored. But it’s tough to know what’s working at what’s not: What sticks in their head in such a way that they ponder it on their walk home after school? That’s extremely difficult for me to see. And, to put it in programmer terms, it makes it very difficult to optimize and debug my teaching.
Then there’s this second issue. The easy part of teaching game design is getting kids interested. Computer games (anything played using a device with a microchip) have such a tight grip on a certain demographic. It’s possibly the only subject these kids will have in high school where other teachers and parents will be concerned that they’re spending too much time with the material outside of class. And, possibly, one of the few cases where a strong argument could be made that the students have a deeper relationship with the material than the teacher does. (At least when it comes to certain games.)
The hard part is kind of everything else that comes after that.
For example. Let me start with a question:
What can you use game design to teach? What disciplines are contained within or overlap game design?
If you’re into games, none of this is new. (And I’m leaving out “game design” because, well, no shit.) But it creates a meta-design issue.
I’m trying to teach them how to make games themselves. Computer games. And when I taught this class last Summer I went through several tools before settling on YoYoGames’ GameMaker software. Which was pretty good. Except that all of our time was spent on the first element above: Computer programming. It took an entire two hour class to just get a sprite on the screen that they could move with the arrow keys. For a short class, that’s just way too long. Especially when they’re making 2D sprite-based games. They all just wound up making erratic variations of bullet hell shooters: Top-down games where you use the arrow keys to move a sprite around and fire a blazing torrent of bullets every which way in order to kill some baddies.
We had zero opportunity to even begin to explore any of these other topics. And — speaking as someone who codes all day and loves it — I think the computer programming part is the necessary but otherwise least important piece of the game design puzzle. Storytelling. Visual design. Hell, just the general ability to have a vision of a feeling or effect you want to have on your players. “I want to scare them.” “I want them to be so happy they can’t contain themselves.” “I want them to learn about how viruses mutate.” “I want a two-player game that causes people to fall in love.” That’s the meat of any creative art. “I want several thousand lines of Objective C code sitting on my hard drive” — ugh, no.
And we were additionally hamstrung by the fact that GameMaker lives on the computer hard drives, along with all their files. So they couldn’t work from home. And if they used a different machine the next week, they had to start over. And — critically — they had no way to be proud of the game at the end. No way to share. No way to see other people play it (beyond the few of us in class).
So I decided to be a hubristic coder and just develop my own game-making platform. Which — I don’t know. I’ve been bothering everybody about this thing, so I feel weird getting into it, here. But let’s go for it so I can do some thinking about what it is and where it needs to go. Because, as currently conceived, it is broken. But there is a spark of a core idea inside of it which is solid. It’s heart is in the right place. I think.
Oh: GT7K. Gametron 7000. That’s the name. Background: I made a simple level-editor tool as a project while at ITP. It let you make levels on the web and then play them on your mobile phone. (J2ME, bitches. 2006.) There’s very little overlap, otherwise, between these projects. But I kind of like the name, so I reused it.
(And you’re welcomed to sign up for a GT7K invite, but I’m not opening up the actual tool to everyone. It’s very undercooked at the moment.)
The whole idea behind GT7K is that I want to get the students from zero to simple game in five minutes. You sign in. I explain how it works. Click, click, click. Simple game. What took four weeks using GameMaker I want to compress into five minutes. Impossible, you say. But, no! Everything in GT7K is social. So if you want a space invaders game, you go find one that’s already been made that’s close to what you want. Copy it. Customize. Bam. You have a game.
And the thinking, here, isn’t that I want the students to make 400 shitty space invader clones per hour. The thinking is that I want to compress the computer programming part of the equation down so that after that five minutes they’re thinking of character design, level design, storytelling, etc. The other stuff. If they enjoy what they’re doing, they’ll dig into the coding side of things on their own. That’s how it works, right? Isn’t that how half of us (at least) learned to code in the first place? “That’s really cool! How do I do that? How do I change that? How do I do more than that?” If I can get the code out of the way so they can explore the other creative elements in game design, maybe they’ll unlock a deeper interest and appreciation and then they can go back and get excited by how the code works. (Or discover they love making graphics. Or playing with sound. Or writing stories. Coding is not the only thing people who make games do.)
One student exemplified this. Second class, I think. This semester (maybe a month ago). My approach to introducing my high school students to GT7K was simply to explain the overall philosophy of the app — what the different sorts of “objects” in the game were, how to edit them, etc — and then just let them explore. I’d answer any questions as they came up. By the second class, one student had already copied a simple platformer I made and had altered it to create a simple story. My platformer was mostly just a game engine test — making sure the sprites moved properly and that collisions worked and such. Not even a game. But he took it and took the random graphics I’d tossed into it (a girl character, a spaceship, some space invaders-like creatures), and created a story: You’re the girl. You’re on a planet. You have to fight through the aliens (jumping and shooting) to get to your spaceship so you can leave and get home. (Touching the spaceship ended the game with a “you win” message.)
This was very, very simple, obviously. Certainly the student who created it didn’t melt any brain cells doing it. But. It was exactly what I was hoping to see. He shortcut past most of the programming stuff and got straight to the point where he could think about telling a story.
And GT7K is all online, so that game is accessible on any computer on the planet without having to upload it or publish it or anything. (Again, I’m not going to link to it right now because all of GT7K is under wraps until I’m comfortable opening it up.) And he could work on it from home. Etc.
And! If another student finds it inspiring, they can make a copy for themselves and change it up however they want. Click, click, click. New game. New ideas.
Hopefully I am — in my babbling way — communicating my overall goals with GT7K. (I’ve had a few beers — can you tell?)
Now the bad news:
This is a huge design challenge. Oh, lord. Currently, like I said, GT7K has a glimmer of something good flickering at its core, but creating tools that feel engaging, inviting, fun, understandable, satisfying… Holy shit. It’s not really any of those things at the moment. At least not as much I want it to be. And finding that point of balance between flexibility and ease-of-use is very hard. These kids with no programming skills need to be able to get their hands dirty with it and have success. But how do I balance between “understandable but restrictive” and “complicated but flexible?” I don’t know where that point it. It’s quite possible I’m in completely over my head.
(And, although my current audience is high school kids — how do I build this thing with an eye on the general population? I could see it being of interest to all sorts of people.)
This is where it gets all confusing and murky to me. Firstly, I’m not some epic game designer myself. The universe of game design is so rich and dynamic at the moment, every time I look there’s some fascinating new game or some interesting new tool for game making. Just last week, for example, Valve released their Portal 2 level editor called “Perpetual Testing Initiative.” I haven’t played with it yet, but wow. It looks amazing. And, of course, projects like GameStar Mechanic. Which, when it comes to thinking about the educational use of game-making platforms, I’ve put about 1/10th of 1% of the thought and creativity into it that those folks have. So I’m trying to navigate this narrow space where I’m allowing myself to build something inferior to other products in many ways just so I can learn and potentially have a revelation or two that will let it evolve in a new and distinctive direction.
Six months in, I’m just getting the first tastes of what those things might be. Though, the ideas aren’t well-formed enough to really write about here, except to say that restrictive tools can actually lead to creative power — that’s nothing new — so I’m beginning to hone in on how to turn the necessarily restrictive nature of a project like this into a feature, not a bug.
Well, and there’s a vary obvious differentiator, which has been a part of the idea from the start: All objects within GT7K are completely open and shareable between users. See something you like? Copy it and use it. As far as I know, I haven’t seen anything quite as molecularly shareable like this. It’s funny. That part of GT7K has been so baked in from day one that I kind of lose sight of it.
Anyway. That’s a couple thousand words, so let’s wrap up. Hopefully I’ve given a little insight into my thinking on teaching and game design. Both teaching and the attempt at creating this game design tool have been mind-expanding. (Hopefully for the students, as well!)
If you are interested in GT7K, please sign up so I have your e-mail address. The opening-up process will be slow, but I would love to get feedback from everyone I can. I’m not a spammer and I won’t do anything weird. I’ll probably just get a little over-excited if I think I’m stumbled upon something compelling.
Thanks for reading!
Sunday, November 27, 2011
So here’s something interesting.
I spend my Thanksgivings out in Pennsylvania with my 94-year-old grandmother (my mom’s mom, the PA Dutch former kindergarten teacher). For various reasons, including that I have a tiny extended family none of whom live particularly close to one another, it’s usually just her and I for this particular holiday. My parents stick in Texas. We usually do the obligatory “Happy Thanksgiving” call with them, which is fine.
This year I decided to try something a bit different. I had my laptop handy (natch), and since my parents had recently discovered the brave new world of video calling with Skype, I figured I’d see what happened when I cranked up Skype and stuck my grandmother in front of it to talk with the family.
My grandmother is, I should note, mostly deaf. And blind to a certain degree. Speaking with her is a relatively slow and deliberate process of picking simple sentences and enunciating them clearly a couple times until she gets what you’re saying. The blindness I’m not as clear about, but she claims that faces are mostly blurry — although she apparently reads lips to a certain degree to help with the hearing issue. And she’s hit and miss being able to see what’s happening when she watches TV. (Hits: Horse racing and sports when the teams are wearing distinctive enough colors. Misses: Anything with text on the screen or that changes too quickly, as far as I can tell — although she has a standard-def TV set which can’t possibly be helping.)
Anyway: Skype was a hit. She claimed to be able to see my parents quite clearly on my 15” MacBook Pro screen and I could tell she had a very easy time hearing them — a definite surprise considering the relatively weak quality of the laptop’s speakers. But they held their conversation and then did the sort of usual first time Skype user tricks of aiming the laptop camera at different things and showing off the cat.
Now. For me — and for you — this is nothing new. In fact, it’s easy to slip into a weird sort of elitist “oh, crap — the family found Skype” thing, as if (as with e-mail and online chat) this going to lead to some increased level of annoyance as the noobs start using these things all wrong. And Skype itself as both a (former) company and as a software service has all this baggage attached to it, and blah blah blah.
But grandmother’s mind was blown.
Which expressed itself in a couple of ways:
1) The degree of connection it gave her with my parents amazed her. She was right there. They were right here. She could see their house. My mom could comment on her turkey sweater. Grandma even said at one point, “You could just put a bunch of these around the table to have everyone over for dinner.” This sounds simplistic, but grandma does not do much brainstorming about technological innovations in her day-to-day. And she had a little melancholic emotional moment when we shut down the chat, like she had been dropped back into the real world where the family was actually a couple thousand miles away in Texas and not just sitting across the table.
2) After the Skype call she asked me all about what just happened. Again: Grandma decided a while back that she Just Doesn’t Understand Computers, so this was a rather rare occurrence, having to get into explaining how, exactly, we just did this rather futuristic thing on her dining room table. I did my best, but we’re talking about someone with an extremely low level of technological literacy.
She clearly wanted something like this, so one question was: “How much does a device like this cost?” “Well, it’s a piece of software that runs on my computer. This is the same computer I use for work and other stuff.” Confusion. She doesn’t seem to understand the distinction between a computer as a piece of hardware and application software that runs on the computer. She thinks in terms of unified devices. Like the telephone, TV set, or dishwasher. “So the software and that call were free,” I continued. Again, confusion. “And do the neighbors use something like this?” “Yeah, probably.” Anyway: This sort of conversation continued.
It’s nice to occasionally be reminded that we’re living in a bizarre future, and that it’s pretty cool. I do things regularly that feel so pedestrian — and yet would shock someone just ten or twenty years ago. Remember those AT&T “You Will” ads from the mid-90s? Go back and watch them. Video calls? On-demand movies? Checking e-mail on the beach? Sci-fi concepts. Now imagine you were born before radio became a thing.
(As a quick aside: I have a feeling that text messages seem like some kind of psychic connection from my grandmother’s vantage. Like, we’re taking a walk and I blurt out, “Oh, Christin’s having burgers with her dad in Florida.” But she didn’t see me check my phone or anything (remember, hard of sight). I don’t know exactly how she envisions I got that transmitted nugget of info, but (to wear out a term) let’s go with “magic.”)
(Another quick aside: I suspect my mom will get around to reading this post to her. It’s happened before. Surely grandma has no concept of a “blog,” as she doesn’t use the web. So he may not realize that damned near anyone on this planet can read what I write here instantly, just a second after I publish it. Obvious to you and I. But not necessarily to her. And quite amazing, again, once you kind of step back and appreciate the technology. Even though Twitter was totally down for, like, fifteen minutes the other day and it totally sucked why can’t they get their act together the internet is so fucking stupid.)
So, yeah. Not sure how much grandma actually understood about how the tech worked. But clearly the call was a huge success, so I started considering how to get grandma access to Skype more regularly. My thought: Get grandma an iMac with Apple Remote Desktop. Set it up. She literally never has to touch the thing — I just get into her computer remotely and bring up Skype. We may instead use an old laptop, which she’d have to at least touch to open the lid, but would otherwise work the same. We’re considering getting her a new flat-screen TV, and some of those have apps (including Skype). But I just don’t trust the user experience and there’s almost no way (I think) the grandma would be able to navigate any kind of menus or whatever to make it work. But. After a couple years of trying to get her to agree to let us buy her a new, nice flat-screen TV — I think she finally acquiesced. And my theory is that she saw things well on my laptop screen and the whole experience of “living in the future” kid of jostled her a bit. Maybe the new things do work a bit nicer than the older things.
And so on.
PS. And only very obliquely related: I eventually have to write up at least a little something about my other teaching experiences this autumn. I’ve been teaching a web programming class at ITP (NYU) and co-teaching with Bob Giraldi a more conceptual class over at SVA called “The Interactive Idea.” And they’re not exactly the same as the above, obviously, but I have sort of similarly been forced to retrace my own steps a bit and break down what I know about technology into digestible chunks for my students and it’s a pretty revealing experience, for sure.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Our friends Nick and Nancy had their wedding down in Hilton Head, South Carolina on Saturday. (Congratulations!) I’ve never spent any time in that part of the country, so Christin and spent a few days in Charleston, as well. We went out last Wednesday and were supposed to come back Monday night, but crappy weather in the Northeast caused our flight to be cancelled and we wound up getting home yesterday, Tuesday. Apart from that flub, we had an awesome time. Charleston is very charming. Hilton Head doesn’t have quite the urban charm, but the beach is gorgeous and we got some solid R&R time on the beach and by the pool.
Anyway, I’m not going to get too much into the gritty details, here — but I thought I’d post some photos for everyone. Not a full account of everything we did. Just some… stuff.
First: Some photos from our first day walking around Charleston:
In Charleston, we stayed at Two Meeting Street Inn (in the Music Room) — possibly my best hotel/lodging experience ever. The building had previously been an old home and they left it furnished as such. And the staff were the utmost of southern hospitality. And the porch was perfect for hanging out on while drinking iced tea and eating whatever little sweets they happened to have out.
That first night we ate at Husk, which we enjoyed.
And Thursday we took the ferry out to Fort Sumter. By the way: The weather through our entire trip was hot and sticky. Especially at Fort Sumter, but all over Charleston and Hilton Head. Whew.
And, of course, the wedding — our reason for being out there in the first place. Nick’s family had a home on the beach, so they held the ceremony right there. Gorgeous spot! We even had a few spectators…
And the reception… Some teenage rock band played covers for the first few hours down kind of in some park. Pretty good, especially considering that they looked to be around 15. “Barracuda” was a hit, of course. Otherwise: More drinks, some food, toasts, dancing, and such!
We had a rental car for the drive back to the airport at Charleston, so we took some time after lunch to visit an Boone Hall Plantation. The house itself had been rebuilt in the 1920s, but there were original slave homes and other buildings scattered about. Interesting stuff (and the home itself — currently someone’s real home, by the way — was pretty cool).
And so that’s that! We’re back home in Brooklyn, now. Back to work…
I'm Josh Knowles, a technology developer/consultant on a variety of mobile, social media, and gaming projects. I founded and lead Frescher-Southern, Ltd. I grew up in Austin, Texas and currently live in New York City.
E-mail me: email@example.com
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