Creative types: read this, avoid death.

A witty and profound meditation on why mental illness and death stalk the modern artist, and how to protect oneself while courting one’s genius.

Even the ones who didn’t literally commit suicide seem to be really undone by their gifts, you know. Norman Mailer, just before he died, last interview, he said “Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” An extraordinary statement to make about your life’s work, you know. But we don’t even blink when we hear somebody say this because we’ve heard that kind of stuff for so long and somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.


And the question that I want to ask everybody here today is are you guys all cool with that idea?  I’m not at all comfortable with that assumption.  I think it’s odious.

Highly recommended!

E. M. Forster: The Machine Stops

Dystopian techno-futurism from 1909!  Eerie and vivid.  Enjoy.

“Beware of first- hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. “First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by life and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element – direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine – the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought LafcadioHearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution. Through the medium of these ten great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives. But be sure that the intermediates are many and varied, for in history one authority exists to counteract another. Urizen must counteract the scepticism of Ho-Yung and Enicharmon, I must myself counteract the impetuosity of Gutch. You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time” – his voice rose – “there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation seraphically free from taint of personality, which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.”

Social Surplus

Is television a waste of time?  Yes… but, perhaps, a waste badly needed during the years it has taken for society to reinvent itself.  A steam-valve for the volcanic birth of the Information Age.

In this insightful essay on social surplus, Clay Shirky argues that our the hours liberated by the microwave and the washing machine may yet fuel a radical transformation.  If so, television has been the cocoon, a blanketing layer of wool that has insulated us through a period of vulnerable non-viability.

The Best Software Writing…

…is poignant and involves cartoon foxes.

If you’re interested in software (even abstractly) and you want to read something entertaining, I highly recommend the inexplicably delicious why’s (poignant) guide to ruby.  It reads like the bastard love child of a foxy graphic novel and a humorous hipster magazine.

Besides, you’ll get to learn about Ruby, which all the cool kids have only recently started decrying as crassly mainstream and had-so-much-potential.

Games as Stories (via Tale of Tales)

We who love interactive fiction, story games, role-playing games, video games, and their myriad synonyms still have a lot of thinking – and, more to the point, talking; or, even better, creating – to do before we know what they’re about.

The thought that games can also be stories, or should have anything to do with stories, is quite recent and rather strange. Usually what you would see was a game, such as The Great Dalmuti, with a sparse narrative premise; or hard-coded stories, such as Choose Your Own Adventure books, with some non-linearity built in and good or bad endings. Even the early role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons were less like stories than tactical simulations.

Yet so many modern games are powerfully affecting, often on a narrative level. Shadow of the Colossus would be excellent only for its gameplay, but the religious mystery throbbing at its heart makes it captivating, and the beauty and vastness of its world brings it even further – I found it transformative in a way that no movie could be. Because I played the game, I performed the actions that caused such sorrow; I felt responsible for them, wrapped up in their consequences in a way that no book or movie could evoke.

So: the form has potential, however under-utilized it may be. Why then are these successes so rare? Tale of Tales proposes in The Meanings of Games that game designers – being, most often, left-brained engineers – are failing to realize that ever-more of their movie-watching audience is expecting a story.

When most people play games for their content and not for their mechanics, it is of vital importance that this content is carefully considered. We cannot simply assume that the player will understand that the muscular hero and the armored vehicles and the neverending bloodshed is just a metaphor for an intricately elegant system underneath. We need to realize that the audience interprets these things as stories, and not just as dressing.

The games that are being produced today have an intense expressive power. But nobody seems to be controlling what these games are saying. The stories and characters flow out of the game design naturally. But that game design is riddled with morally problematic concepts. Mathematics is not ethical. It doesn’t need to be. But we know very well what happens when humans start thinking in abstract systems and lose sight of the practical realities of life…

The designers expect what art is needed to arise dynamically, almost magically, from the gameplay; or at best they design evocative gameplay and call it art.

We don’t know how to tell truly non-linear stories, yet, so instead we create linear stories and hand-wave in the illusion of choice. Shadow of the Colossus is interesting because it instead welcomes its linear storyline, which is told well and portrayed beautifully, shunting interactivity to world exploration and puzzle-combat. This works for SotC, but would it work for other games too? How to isolate the elements of success, when it seems that every masterpiece is utterly unique?

Tale of Tales to the rescue again: in Of Cogs and Machines, it suggests that you should know what you’re setting out to do. Are you creating a game-as-system or a game-as-story? What if these goals are incompatible, or at least orthogonal?

Games-as-systems push you to become as good as a computer would be. They require your submission to their rules and don’t allow you to add to them. They are perfect. And that is their limitation. And why they are not art. Perfection is a level cap. It implies an upper limit to the possibility space. It ultimately confines the experience of the user.

Which is not to say that games-as-systems can not be enjoyable. They most certainly are, especially as they continue to challenge you to become perfect. Systems can also bebeautiful. Systems create patterns. Patterns bring pleasure to the human brain. Or think of the beauty of mechanical clocks and ship engines. Marvelous spectacles to behold!

Compared to those, the game-as-story is small and modest. It does not offer much. It requires your attention, your devotion, your willingness, your creative input. It cannot mean anything without you. But with you, its potential for meaning is limitless.

This implication challenges many of the assumptions that underlie game design, but it does explain why so many games’ stories are not merely poorly-written, but actively offensive to any thinking person’s intellect, morality, and sensibilities. It’s because the story doesn’t know it’s not a story, but rather a premise for the gameplay. It’s The Great Dalmuti all over again!

Even if we write off the majority of video games as games-as-systems that have no true narrative intentions, that nonetheless leaves open the question of games-as-stories. What are they? How do they work? Why have we seen so few – or do we simply not recognize them, yet, for what they are?

Ken Wilber on Science & Spirituality

I got tipped off to a concise, clever, and thought-provoking video by Ken Wilber, a scholar of “spiritual phenomena” (which, as he points out, is a loaded term). In this eight-minute segment, he explores the question of whether scientific methodology can be applied to non-physical experiences.

Spirituality and the Three Strands of Deep Science

I think this should be required viewing for American students, if only for the grounding in basic epistemology that it provides.

Stop Being Creative

Did that headline get your attention? In our culture “creative” is very frequently a synonym for “good”. Okay, you probably don’t want the driver of the car beside yours driving creatively, and you’d likely acknowledge that burgeoning creativity wouldn’t be advisable for the structural engineer behind the Hoover Dam, or the accountants at Enron. But if these people don’t have some creative hobby, you still might look at them askance.

In his article How Creativity is Killing the Culture, Michael Fallon argues that our unexamined ideal of creativity amounts to a cultural sickness. If everyone is taught in school that creative expression is the highest measure of virtue, only rebels and failures would choose to pursue more technical-seeming disciplines such as mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. Why, we might even have to start importing these people from other countries!

This is not to say that creative expression is the same thing as creativity. Good creative expression requires not merely creativity, but also technical talent and discipline. Conversely, the most gifted physicists and mathematicians absolutely require lateral thinking and intuitive leaps. In other words, any work that is purely, actually left-brained or right-brained cannot achieve genius.

But we do this idea one better. Fallon says our emphasis is not on creativity per se, but rather creative expression. What you get when you push everyone to express themselves creatively, even those with no particular inclination or talent, is a lot of bad art and a lot of frustrated people who feel as though they need to spend more time finding themselves. Story of my generation?

Okay, that is a cynic’s view of the situation. I’m going to step back for a second and admit that I don’t completely buy Fallon’s argument. While it is bad that our could-be-Einsteins are drifting through art school instead, I think it’s every bit as tragic for someone who could have become a brilliant artist to become trapped in an accounting job. Each person has an obligation to follow her gift, and everybody needs a hobby.

We were taught to express ourselves. Some of us ignored our teachers; some of us sought an expressive hobby, or post to YouTube on occasion; some of us are struggling to make a living in an over-saturated world of professional artists and craftsmen; many of us graduated with a liberal arts degree and have no idea what to do with ourselves now. It’s hard to have a lot of sympathy for a dis-ease that’s rooted in privilege, but if the end result is (in Fallon’s words) “a nation of navel-gazing dreamy-eyed so-called creatives who no longer consider it worthwhile to roll up their sleeves and get down to hard work to get a job done”, then it’s everybody’s problem.

But wait a second, isn’t that almost verbatim my grandparents’ complaint about the hippie generation? Is it so bad if we’re becoming a nation of artists? In fact, this is exactly what John Adams hoped for the generations that succeeded him:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

The certainties of the past were born of necessity. If we’re spending a lot of time finding ourselves, well, perhaps that’s a suitable way to enjoy of the freedoms that our parents, and their parents, have purchased us. If quantity of art, or the number of art-producers, is the benchmark of a culture, then we are certainly surpassing any that has come before us.

We do need brilliant engineers, though, and architects and computer scientists and natural scientists. I hope that we can afford these sexy professions the wreath of creative mastery that they so desperately deserve.

A Passing Sunshine

Alarming, fascinating news concerning the persistence of memory: it doesn’t. Or rather, the mechanism appears to be different than we collectively assumed. This Ars Technica summary of the Science magazine article explains:

Although transient memories are largely the product of chemical processes in the neurons of the brain, it has been thought that the long-term consolidation of memories involves permanent changes.


Normally, the rats remember the taste and avoid anything with saccharine in it. Injections of a PKMζ inhibitor called ZIP into the brain’s cortex a few days after, while memory consolidation might still be in progress, blocked the formation of long-term memories.


But then the authors performed an experiment that I can only assume was expected to act as a control: they injected ZIP at one week and at 25 days. The surprising result was that these later injections worked just as well as the earlier one had.


It’s hard to tell what the limits of ZIP-mediated memory erasure are, given that the test subjects are rats. There were some things it did not affect, though. Rats are normally hesitant about unfamiliar tastes, a hesitancy that goes away with familiarity. Hitting the cortex with ZIP was unable to eliminate this sense of familiarity.

So in rats, within the few-weeks time period, there doesn’t appear to be a permanent storage of memory. Is it possible that the “formation of memory” process is effectively also the form in which memory is stored?

To use a computer science analogy (always risky when describing neurobiology), there are two ways to represent a stored piece of information such as an image: a semi-permanent representation of the image, or an algorithm that is capable of generating the image upon request. The latter approach, called Procedural Generation, is a hot topic in computer science at the moment, as it promises to reduce the cost of creating media content significantly.

So, to extend this idea beyond media content, what algorithmic approach could possibly be abstract enough to generate any human memory? In her book Passage, Connie Willis makes a strong (albeit laborious) case that metaphor is the fundamental building block of human memory – and, perhaps, human experience. Memory of events, then, is repeatedly telling oneself the narrative of one’s own past experiences – cease to tell yourself the story and you begin to forget. Memory of images is re-describing the visual experience, showing it again and again to your own inner eye…

All of this is a conceptual leap – all we know for certain about ZIP is that it erases memory of tastes in rats. Oh, and that it leaves behind a haunting sense of familiarity, as all forgetting does (“I knew the answer to that!”). This study shows just how far we have to go before we truly understand the functioning of the mind, and the dangers of assuming that our existing computational models (such as permanent data storage) apply to it.



The Gothamist describes a generation of “New Victorians” who are bringing long-lost habits of diligence, fidelity, and propriety to bear on their youths.  I wonder if they are also rediscovering Victorian sexual repression and colonialism.

Regardless, I think this is fantastic news.  I’ve long predicted that America is on a bring of a neo-Victorian cultural revolution.  We share many attitudes and circumstances with the twilight of the British Empire, from our political overextension to our fixation on technology.

The fiction that imagines this revisitation most vividly is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, wherein it is accompanied by other, stranger futurisms; but the genre of steampunk has already gained traction in our imaginations, and this aesthetic is sure to penetrate further into our collective psyche before the trend recedes.

Wunderkammer (curiosity cabinets) also seem to be enjoying a resurgence.  In Japan, where gothic lolitas have long been reinterpreting Victorian fashion, you can even find anatomical toys reminiscent of early medical models!

Writing for Fantasy Games

I recently attended a panel hosted by the International Game Developers Association on the topic of Writing for Fantasy Game Worlds.  It was an interesting event, with three very different perspectives on game writing:

  • Daniel Greenberg, who has served as Creative Director for Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online and whose Tolkein lore would best be described as encyclopedic.
  • Jeff Gomez, CEO of world-builders (and brand-builders-for-hire) Starlight Runner Entertainment, who invented Magic the Gathering’s Corondor setting.
  • Steve Balzac, founder of both the Society for Interactive Literature and the MIT Assassin’s Guild, LARP GM extraordinaire.

Amazingly, I had a chance to chat with Steve before the panel started about far-ranging and diverse topics.  Initially I had no idea that he was one of the panelists, but when I realized that I was face to face with the founder of the Assassin’s Guild, I suddenly couldn’t think of anything to say.  (Although I did start watching my back.)

Steve has an incredible long view about LARPing, especially insofar as video game writing is its bastard child.  Coming from a tabletop- and live-action-intensive gaming background  myself, it was fascinating to hear his ideas about how plot ideas that work well in LARPs have been adapted – often unwisely – in computer games for decades.

He argued that it’s bizarre that computer and console games often give such emphasis to system (hit points, for example) in the user interface, when the evolution of RPGs has increasingly elided these.  He said that total system transparency was the dream of many a game master, and games running on a computing machine can absolutely provide this.

However, where there’s story, someone has to author it.  In what is perhaps the ideal case, you can offload much of this creative burden to your players – for example, MMORPGs often have weddings and player-run shops even though there is no support for this in the game’s system.  Other games aim for a much more “one story fits all” approach – but as Steve said, in a multi-player computer game (as in a LARP) every player is prepared to believe that he is the protagonist.

How do you tell a story with a thousand, or a million protagonists?  Do you splinter your tale into a million instanced stories, losing overall cohesion, or do you convince your paying customers to play bit parts?

Do you hire a large team of, effectively, game masters to keep everyone entertained?  Or, and here maybe is the crux of it, do you try to create something whose storytelling operates on a fundamentally different spectrum?

Unlike Jesper Juul, I will not argue that “You can’t have narration and interactivity at the same time; there is no such thing as a continuously interactive story.”  I’ve played Shadow of the Colossus – I know that narratively poignant moments can be generated interactively.

That said, even in SotC, some of the most powerful moments are rendered non-interactively, in cutscenes.  We aren’t talking about a medium which tells you a story (although the game’s creator can, if you’re willing to sit through it without doing anything); we’re talking about a closed system which generates events, to which narrative signifiers have been attached.  The elegance of the system’s logic is the only thing that determines what kind of stories can emerge, beyond the canned narratives which the game’s author has embedded for you to stumble upon.

It’s a fool’s errand to try to create that kind of game, because it requires discovering the logic of human narrative and encoding it into a rule-based system.  People have tried to do this kind of thing with the much simpler subset of fairy tales, with limited results.  But maybe it’s time for the forward-thinking powers in this industry to play the fool instead of falling back on an expensive approach that is proven profitable.