(Note: this post is full of opinion and assumption, please do not take offense at anything presented here, but rather help me to correct the errors. This post is meant to be more of an emotional, humanistic apprehension of my visit to Ekaterinburg and Salda in light of several conversations about the V2V project.)
Yekaterinburg is a wonderful city with an amazing connection to its industrial heritage and to the history of Russia. I had the distinct pleasure of spending almost a week there in March as part of the symposium for the intellectual platform for the 2nd Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art. I am a terrible tourist, but managed to visit the Uralmash (enormous factory complex just on the edge of the city), the State University, the Titanium Valley (proposed site) and the villages near the Salda River.
The proposal to make a special economic zone focused around the manufacturing of titanium materials is very exciting, billions of Rubles will be invested in the valley and consequently a lot of changes will be felt by the people of Salda. Not the least of these changes is the influx of a lot of foreigners, and potentially changes in the standard of living.
Salda is home to one of the oldest titanium manufacturing plants, which is expect dominates the local economy. From one visit there I saw clean streets, bucolic houses, and what came off as a pretty simple and straight forward way of life. The attitude in the city focuses more on the idea that these folks are poor, and there is a sense of the provincial whenever people talk about life outside the big city. This surprised me. Being from a smaller town in a more rural part of a post-industrial state growing up I never questioned our level of sophistication. And though I am severe when I talk about that place, it seems to be more of a reflection on things that have not changed rather than things that have, and much more about the people I knew than the level of sophistication (which actually seems to be on the rise).
That brings me back to one of my major impressions from Yekaterinburg, Visozky Tower. Visozky Tower is this enormous glass and steel construct that is visible from most of the city. Visozky Tower is out of place in the landscape and is reviled by the residents. Hated for its style, height, positioning, it becomes a central landmark about which people are passionate. What does it represent? The disconnect of the business world from that of the resident population? The challenge of aesthetics that are not in context and not democratically considered?
I can read it another way too, this is about the march of progress. Visozky Tower represents the future which does NOT connect directly to the past, it is a divergence and a disruption. The way the architecture brutalizes the entire city, visually, represents both the challenge and blazes a trail towards the future.
Either way I cannot emphasize the importance of this building. When I return to Yekaterinburg I want to visit it. For me it is a cultural anchor, and I think it is kind of humorous, but it also is a potent parable of things to come.
The trip is getting easier, I wasn’t prepared this time, but things went well nonetheless. I got a “bike computer” which is just a digital odometer and measured the ride today. Averaging 10mph up (fierce headwind) and 14 mph back, my whole trip was about 22.5 miles. I MAY take on the 27 mile trip on saturday when there will be less traffic on the roads. gMaps says it is 2:24 but I know for a fact I will get lost.
Tomorrow is first Friday and I need to leave the free beer party at TechShop in order to troll art and the street festival.
Here are some pics from my latest Alviso trip. Some of what I like about it comes across brilliantly.
I was surrounded by water on all sides:
um and I have a thing for trains:
Friday July 16 Sessions Overview:
I probably drank too much Thursday night, but it was fun being on top of Atlanta, and even though the cool kids did not invite us out to bar hop with them, the lack of sleep pressed me into an evening repose.
Keeping It Casual – Jim Babb, Simeon Poulin – there was a third panelist on this which I cannot remember as well. The premise behind this was taken in several interesting different directions. Poulin suggested that the games need to be self guided and picked up and dropped as necessary. His solution (his MFA thesis) was to create a flash based (?) and mobile game that let people explore at their own pace. His attitude was really that of a designer with a deadline and I have to say that I was put off by his comments about “trying community.” I have definite opinions about community, but my experience is that it is not something you can just plug into a system. Communities are fickle and ravenous, unpredictable and emergent. You can design with community in mind, or in as in the case of so many MMOs community will develop at a certain critical mass. However it doesn’t seem as though Poulin could create the mass with his iterative design, and he did not include it as a functional piece of the puzzle. Anyhow, I appreciated his process and thought it was good to see a designer approach ARG from a casual and possibly art angle. Socks Inc on the other hand brought in the idea of using an avatar to facilitate the ARG. The side effect of this is that it exploded as a family oriented event. Their theme is that of creating a sock puppet (a task within the game) and applying for employment at Socks Inc. The game is relatively new, but the playtest went exceedingly well (aside from the technical difficulties). They used video prompts and solicited tasked video evidence. An obvious difficulty here is that with kids playing all video responses will have to be screened, though I expect this is something that can be turned into a task for trusted players in the future. I am not sure what the payoff is or if this game ends, but the casual nature of it and the family orientation are as fresh to me as the non-marketed spin.
Follow the Rabbit Hole – Patrick Moller -Patrick is a smart guy with a great sense of PR and digital asset creation. He has been maintaining a list in Germany as a way for people to enroll in ARG’s and to follow them as spectators or to jump in late. His system is currently closed, and of course the marketers were all about “how do we use this?” It bordered on hostile at one point where the excellent too an community was seen as not exploitable.
TransGenre: City Gaming & Public Art – Peggy Weil, Ann Dennington, Carl DiSalvo, Sara Thacher, Jeff Watson – All right, this was the shining star of presentations, and not only because I know Peggy but from the sense of perspective and alternatives that it built up. Peggy gave us a history of the art world looking at experience and sold me on the fact that I actually know a bit about this from my studies in the fine arts. She mentioned Happenings, Situationists, Derive, Brody Condon, and others I cannot recall at the moment. Her coverage was broad but all too brief, and I wish we had had a full on presentation on the historical antecedents of the ARG in art.
After that the panel talked about projects, funding, engaging government and creating art in the space. One of the participants ustreamed much of it and it is worth looking at TransGenre: City Gaming & Public Art.
Transmedia Production – Behnam Karbassi (via Skype) – Benham is a total douchebag and a marketing tool without a bit of soul or real creativity in him. In other words he is a Hollywood producer. He constantly reminded us that what he does is “hard” and that he wants money, and made me totally sick of the phrase “transmedia storytelling.” I think he know that Jenkins coined the term but beyond that and the fact that he “loves him and his work” I don’t think he knows anything about what Jenkins has done or did. He certainly doesn’t understand convergence. So I get it, he is working on hundred thousand dollar or even million dollar ARGs that are professionally produced and paid for by big companies. But he dodged every question and could have covered his presentation in 5 minutes. Everyone in the room totally kissed his ass and he took pains to remind us that even the inquisitor was in his pocket.
It was pointed out to me that he is a character, and that he should be recorded as such. Though he left me emotionally exhausted, this perspective totally turned me around.
Small Group Block – ooh a game jam?!? We managed to pull another person into the mix. Greg Gomez jumped in and we ended up doing some good research into historic Atlanta.
Dotmocracy Wrap-Up – got skipped! All right, if you set a schedule and find it borked don’t skip a presentation. We were counting on the timing and missed out on the first half of Blair Witch.
Beyond Blair Witch – Mike Monello & Brian Clark – All right this was worth the price of admission. Mike told stories, and related experience as well as lessons learned. He spoke in specifics and encouraged entrepreneurialism. It was nice to see thought leaders who are successful after the mire of douche-bags.
Saturday July 17 – Games
No talent required – Studio Cypher – the prepared bags, notecards and simple rules made this interesting. It had the feel of a party game, and I am not sure of the ARG connection. Basically each player has a set of simple shapes, a challenge is issued “in a dramatic fashion” and the players agree on a subject to draw. Players use the same shapes (trading?) after use and then judge the winner. The winner gets to keep one of the losers pieces. The last round is a robot drawing challenge.
Socks, Inc New Employee Orientation – Socks, Inc – there was a sock puppet building workshop followed by a visual scavenger hunt. The system is pretty concise, and the public showing ended up being delayed due to unforseen technical issues.
FestJam Workshop Games – Various & TBA – as far as I can tell, this was us.
ARG Museum – Just off the registration area the organizers had set up a collection of swag and props from several different games. This was wonderful and inspiring.
ARGfest 2010 ended about a week ago and I am just starting to decompress. I have several serious criticisms about the way that the event was run and even about the content and commercialization of the space but I want to make sure I am clear that the staff of this years fest were fantastic. I think a lot of my issues came out of the raw deal that the organizers had to adapt to.
The hotel experience was swanky and high brow. Our first issue was that we didn’t know which hotel the conference would be in until after we had scheduled our rooms. Apparently another hotel had given the committee the run around until they could “book a bigger conference.” Anyhow, we got a good deal on rooms at the Regency which had fast, free WiFi and breakfast (mmm waffles).
Onsite at the W, the space was pleasant and even more-so the parties were fantastic.
Well the only downside was that they didn’t take into account us vegetarians.
Overall the sessions were pretty good. I don’t know why but I seem to always bristle at these things if it doesn’t seem like the presenter really knows their shit. I guess it comes from falling into presentations at conferences where I didn’t know what I was talking about that well. I know I was grumpy the first morning because I had soaked up the WiFi on the plane all night and got no sleep (but got caught up on a lot of email).
Thursday July 15 Sessions Overview:
My first criticism of the space was that there was no WiFi, rather no conference WiFi. I heard in retrospect that the hotel wanted to charge $20 per participant per day for access (when they usually just gouge their guests for around half that). Ya know, I understand the gravity of the decision, but I wish the organizers had found a way around it because it made it hard to be there without normal access. We ended up connecting with a guest of the hotel who helped us out with a basic, free, low end connection. Enough for email and twitter is all I require.
Beyond the Brunette – Andrea Phillips. This was an excellent, well researched, funny presentation about the clichés within the ARG dev community of the beautiful brunette (female) that gets in over her head and needs help or saving as the sort of trigger for the ARG. Phillips provided a nice overview of women’s roles in games and deconstructed the damage both to the games and the esteem of the players. This was my first tweek and I looked around the room. The audience, the devs and people who want to be devs (& marketers) were pretty homogenous. Mostly white and predominantly male (though that mix was much better than the racial mix). Now I know this dialog comes up frequently for me, and I am guilty of being a white male pretty much my entire life. Why is it us at conferences? Are we not welcoming to ethnic diversity?
1) Can Transmedia Save the Soap Opera – Brooke Thompson & 2) ARG TV – Nina Bargiel, Mike Monello, Owen Shiflett – I regretted missing these two sessions, but want to offer a comment anyhow. I wonder about saving TV or connecting with TV because I don’t see a model for this in the evolution of newer media. For example film started with a connection to theater, but moved beyond that as it realized the nature of itself as a medium. Extending the function of a property in a single medium by tacking on another seems more like a gimmick that anything with staying power.
We Want to Play!– David Tenenbaum & others – this was sort of interesting, bring out a group of people with varied play experience and see what they have to say. The lessons were clear, story & community. However, the thing I neglected to notice is that this discussion is the same in the video game community, and even in higher education (though the take aways are different). Players will only ask for what they know, they won’t ask for something new (except perhaps to say “something new”). This is problematic. I think I would have preferred a backwards look at what was most fun, challenging etc. I don’t think any of the players was especially amazing (you know like the professional Starcraft players in Korea) and that flattened the responses. I also don’t think that any of the players were designers, though I believe a few had dabbled. The panel came off as a vacuous love fest.
Small Group Block – ARG game jam. Okay I got really excited about this, the small group block had a chance to MAKE and play a game. Wow, what a way to find out about the whole scene. Well we ended up in a conversation with Peggy Weil that lasted too long and were 10 minutes late to the session to meet with an empty room. ARGfest – where is the leader of this workshop. Brooke eventually came by and offered some help with the city and materials, because she had to replace another workshop leader but this was disappointing. Thomas and I decided to forge ahead. Taking into account what we had learned in the morning (from the players, god love them) and our observations of the group we thought we had a good chance to do something interesting. We ran the workshop. Now I need to make clear that we didn’t go into this blind, but have a background in gaming, LARP, invisible theater, film, video, interactive media, MMO and many other sources of theory and practice. In other words we know the foundational skills, though we don’t know the precedents within the medium. I am going to be writing two more posts on the game we developed. The first will lay the groundwork and talk about it from a player perspective, hopefully with a way to minimize spoilers. The second will be a designer perspective and will lay bare all of our machinations.
Dotmocracy Wrap-Up – the idea was interesting, but the implementation was a little difficult. Answer surveys on paper with a marker, tally said responses and talk about the results. I have to say though that the questions were pretty good. “Do you have to play ARG’s to design them?” It was sorta sad that this was promptly discarded at the end of this session. (actually they made it back into the survey room but remained in a pile never to be posted again).
The World Outside – Evan Barba – Evan is an interesting PhD student doing some very narrow work in Augmented Reality. I have to say that I enjoyed his presentation and other than the fact that AR is totally overhyped at this point, so much so that it is nearly impossible to find out what the state of the technology is or where it is reasonably applicable, AR is quite interesting. He covered a few of the basics, but really didn’t bother to demo anything (really? WTF?). My beef with AR is that it is primarily driven by people with smart-phones, that it’s computational intensity is being pushed towards the likes of ATT and Verizon. The subscription model for data is broken, and if the only way to get into AR is via iPhone or Droid then I am gonna wait and watch for a while. Beyond that I have seen little beyond “gee whiz” though I do know that it exists. Evan’s work seemed out of place, undemonstrated and full of “gee whiz.”
Day 1 decom:
Overall I have to give the first day of ARGfest high marks. I did manage to meet some interesting people, dinner was fantastic and though we didn’t actually crack into the popular crowd the people were generally nice to us as newcomers. I started to sense a desperation to “go mainstream” which oddly I have seen through most of my career in new media. If I remember correctly I started to catch wind of the new buzzword in the community which is oddly attributed to Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling.”
It is nice to hear a little theory bandied about, but frankly I don’t think the general crowd gets what Jenkins is talking about. I think there is another post in the comparison, but I have to confess that I do not know his work that well either. But that I can fix : )
Brekkie with Thomas upon arriving in Atlanta was particularly nice. I was so easily flummoxed by the waitrons and really by any questions because I had stayed up all night working on the airplane. In retrospect I would do it again.
We were joined by a celeb who I just have to say that I like, in fact the art in http://foursquare.com/venue/46715 was really quite interesting, but the food was great and really hit the spot.
Other than being super tired all day and hyper critical of the conference things went really well. We met some interesting folks and later found out that Peggy Weil of Gone Gitmo was there, and that she was presenting. It was really wonderful to hear her questions during the panels and I am looking forward to the art angle during (today’s) session. The conference had setup a series of parallel tracks and Thomas and I had chosen to participate in the “Create an ARG to play this weekend” track. There were four people signed up and though that seemed intimate, we ended up rolling in about 10 minutes late to an empty room. Empty as in no facilitator either. I guess we were inspired because we decided to throw together an ARG.
I will probably post on it later, or even wait for the session to end (not that I am really worried about players catching vital info here). Suffice to say we wanted to do something that had a message, something about Atlanta, and something that would not take a lot of tending during the session. I think we hit on something but have literally only put about 90 minutes into it so far. It is nice though to work with someone you have worked with before as I think we temper each other pretty well.
We ended our day in the top floor of the W for a booze and schmooze. The place was stunning and we could see why the conference was so pricey.
We wound down chatting up a few people and deciding to collude with Peggy and Sara Thacher of nonchalance.com She is so smart and totally dialed in to different aspects than Thomas and myself that I think this is gonna be a lot of fun, if not great.
I like this sort of low risk thing. No one is gonna say “man that story sucked for the 3 hours you put into creating it” however the thing does risk being under attended as there are only 30 or 40 people here, most of whom are from the “industry.”
So it is now 3:42 am and I am awake blogging because I cannot sleep. My clock is messed up and my rhythm is off, I miss my bike and my bed.
Sigh, but I would do it again. More tomorrow.