Shared posts

11 Jun 19:00

11 ways to use nutritional yeast (and why you should)

by Zachary Shahan
I've been eating nutritional yeast essentially my entire life and love it on so many dishes, but I realize most people don't know what it is, so here's a quick rundown of its benefits and 11 ways to use it.
09 Jun 16:49

It’s Time To Start Treating Video Game Industry Like The $21 Billion Business It Is

by Kate Cox
Jonathon Howard

Take Games seriously? Crazy!

The majority of video games in the U.S. are purchased and played by adults. The largest titles make money that Hollywood films could only dream of raking in, and the biggest players in the industry run multibillion-dollar multinational operations that employ thousands of people. Yet many consumers still think of gaming as a kid’s thing that doesn’t merit serious consideration or scrutiny. In an age where our culture recognizes previously sniffed-about industries like professional sports as much more than child’s play, it’s time to get over that same hump about video games.

Games, like film, TV, and literature before them, are commercialized art and products of our culture. They can be great or terrible, memorable or forgettable, and everything in between. They can be five minutes of dreck you play on your phone on the bus, or 500 hours of life-changing tramping around a richly imagined virtual world.

In 2013 alone they were also a $21 billion business in the U.S. And still, in the rare instance that the nightly news even mentions video games, it’s likely to be an ill-informed pundit grandstanding about violence in games, or video footage of “booth babes” and cosplayers at a convention, without considering the huge amount of money, time, and people involved.

Selling It

Image courtesy of Brian Erzen

This week, as they do every June, about 50,000 video game industry professionals and game-focused media will descend on Los Angeles for E3.

Nominally a trade industry conference, E3 has for nearly 20 years been not just a trade show but rather, a caffeine-fueled orgy of blazing virtual guns, polygon-count comparisons, and top-volume trailers for the Next Big Game.

By the numbers…

59% of Americans play video games

51% of all American households have a dedicated video game console

58% of all American adults have a smartphone

71% of players are over age 18

81% of young adults ages 18-29 play games

23% of seniors over age 65 play games

48% of players are girls or women

36% of players are women over age 18

17% of players are boys under age 18

Sources: Nielsen, Pew, and the ESA.

Large international companies dominate the show floor, with smaller developers scattered through hundreds of side-rooms, all of them holding endless screenings, demos, and interviews, clamoring for attention.

Major tech companies like Sony and Microsoft use the event not just to show off their games but also to announce major hardware launches, like last year’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

But why does it matter, you might ask? Why do so many people get so caught up in the announcements, the trailers, the projections, the marketing, and the hype? Why should anyone except the most hardcore of console enthusiasts care about a single word that comes out of the L.A. Convention Center this week?

Because despite the lingering popular conception of video games as child’s play — and, specifically, boy’s toys — they are anything but. The business is, well, serious business.

What Does A Gamer Look Like?

Image courtesy of Jason Cook

There is a tendency almost toward ethnography in the mainstream media whenever video games come up.

Earnest news anchors and reporters approach “the gamer” as a heretofore unknown species, a sub-type of aggressive young man whose befuddled mother doesn’t understand his “Nintendo” but who nonetheless stands a very good chance of growing up to be a productive member of society.

And sure, teenage boys like to play video games. But the truth of the matter is, they are far from alone.

In 2014, one might as well talk about a “TV-er” or a “movie-er” as a “gamer.”

About 59% of Americans play video games, according to estimates from the ESA (the gaming industry’s major trade and lobbying group).

Some quick math says that in a country of about 315 million, that’s just shy of 186 million players.

How does that compare to other media?

  • Movies: about 68% of Americans (214m) see movies in the theater (MPAA – PDF)
  • Cable: roughly 100 million Americans have paid-TV (cable/satellite/fiber) subscriptions
  • Premium cable: Game of Thrones, considered wildly successful, has about 18 million viewers per week.
  • Broadcast TV: The top-rated show the week of May 19 (ABC’s Dancing With The Stars) drew 15.5 million viewers
  • Netflix: Had a little over 33 million U.S. subscribers at the end of 2013.

Games now are at least as mainstream as any other pop culture in our fragmented media landscape.

Who’s playing? Pretty much everyone.

Games Escape The Living Room

Image courtesy of Great Beyond

Having “a Nintendo” just isn’t what it used to be. In 2014, there are lots of players competing in the video game space — but the biggest competitor is one that makes the smallest devices.

It’s Not Just Shooters

The following list of 2013′s best-selling console games makes it clear that while big-budget, violent blockbusters are big business, so too are plenty of other kinds of games:

  1. Grand Theft Auto V
  2. Call Of Duty: Ghosts
  3. Madden NFL 2015
  4. Battlefield 4
  5. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
  6. NBA 2K14
  7. Call Of Duty: Black Ops II
  8. Just Dance 2014
  9. Minecraft
  10. Disney Infinity

According to ESA data, 32% of 2013′s top games were “action” and another 20% were specifically shooters, meaning half of all top-selling games fell outside of those two categories.

For PC-only games, strategy (38%) and casual (28%) titles take the day, while shooters and action titles together come to less than 10%.

Enter Apple, and the more than 500 million iPhones they’ve sold since 2007. Sure, mobile devices let us use Facebook and access mobile boarding passes and stream video and all the rest — but what they mostly let us do is play games.

In 2013, the most-downloaded and highest-grossing iOS app — ahead of YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, SnapChat, and Instagram — was Candy Crush Saga.

Candy Crush has seen its star fall a bit since it dominated the mobile airwaves last year, granted. But when publisher King prepared for their IPO this March, they claimed 408 million monthly active users.

That’s not 408 million people who downloaded the app once because some friend told them to and forgot about it; that’s players who actually open it and play the game somewhat regularly.

Predictably, Candy Crush and other “casual” puzzle, card, trivia, and social (think Words With Friends) games dominate mobile gaming. But what of all the “traditional” console and PC players out there?

Back in the land of “traditional” or “hardcore” gaming, the field is more evenly split.

Microsoft has sold about 83 million Xbox 360s, Sony’s sold a similar 80 million PlayStation 3 systems, and Steam, the most heavily-used PC gaming service, has over 75 million users.

Specifically tracking who’s playing what and where can be very difficult. Although every publisher knows exactly how many copies of every game it’s sold, the numbers are rarely public. And while the numbers of physical retail copies — the actual discs– of games sold are closely tracked, physical copies now account for less than half (47%) of estimated video game spending.

Although in 2014 the major industry market research group has started tracking digital sales, for the most part that remaining 53% remains largely mysterious, as each digital storefront — including Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Steam, and other, smaller outlets — keeps its own numbers proprietary.

Billions… With A B

Image courtesy of Great Beyond

There is a whole enormous world of cheap and free small, independently developed and produced games out there.

But, as with movies and books, the big-budget blockbusters tend to make headlines and grab attention.

When Grand Theft Auto V launched, it reached $1 billion in sales in three days.

Seeing a large studio spend between $50 and $100 million on a video game is no longer uncommon. The most expensive video game produced so far is Grand Theft Auto V, which cost a reported $265 million to make.

That puts the big-budget blockbuster games about on par with big-budget blockbuster films, money-wise. Legendarily pricey Avatar probably cost Fox about $280 million, and three years later Disney spent a reported $220 million on The Avengers. So GTA V fits right in that range.

But gaming publishers, like Hollywood studios, are finding that the rate of return on that ludicrously large investment can sometimes be worth the risk.

In the history of the American box office, there are 18 movies that have grossed $1 billion or higher. The fastest to do it was Avatar, which hit the 10-digit gross mark in a scant 17 days.

When Grand Theft Auto V launched last September, it reached $1 billion in sales in three days.

That’s three days. Less than a week. The game hit store shelves and digital storefronts on Tuesday morning, and by Friday had sold $1 billion worth of copies.

Even acknowledging that many of the sales were pre-orders that took place over the months beforehand, and even accepting that a $60 game reaches money-based milestones faster than a $10 movie ticket does, that’s ridiculously fast. The previous record-holder was 2011’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which cruised to an easy 15-day billion after making the first half in just 24 hours.

But smaller-budget games, in the mobile-friendly era, can make bank even more reliably than their big-budget cousins. Those “free” Facebook and mobile apps, laden with microtransactions and $0.99 shortcuts, are cash cows for their publishers.

The specific numbers are tightly-guarded, but back in February, a hacker released what was allegedly the financial information from mega-hit Clash of Clans (the new Candy Crush Saga, as these things go).

Nobody verified the data, so it’s worth taking with a grain of salt, but the images released claimed that developer Supercell takes in $5 million per day from its free-to-play games.

How The Game Makers Fail Gamers

Image courtesy of Alan Rappa

Whenever there are billions of dollars at stake, there are companies who will try to make a few million more by cutting corners and not caring how it harms workers or consumers.

For example, video game publisher EA managed to take Consumerist’s Worst Company In America trophy two years running before losing out to Time Warner Cable (and ultimately, to Comcast) this spring.

That’s a lot of ill-will for an entertainment media company to have built up over a few years, particularly as their games remain generally well-liked top sellers. But when consumers vent their hostility at the way EA has treated them, they have ample targets just from the last 2-3 years:

As games become more popular, more ephemeral, and more and more part of a streaming on-demand or rental-access future, consumers have more chances to get screwed over and less opportunity for recourse, meaning game publishers will only continue to ship more titles that are broken and incomplete.

If the movie studios sent films to theaters with missing reels and promised to send out the missing minutes a within a few weeks of release, it would be front page news.

If book publishers knowingly sent out books with screwed-up page numbers and chapters in the wrong order with the promise that you’d get a fixed version in a month or so, and another fixed version a few weeks later, then another, and another, no one would buy books anymore.

We should be holding video game publishers to the same standards.

27 Mar 17:10

April is National Poetry Month 2014 — are you ready?

by Ed Darrell
Jonathon Howard

Celebrate National Poetry Month!

If you ask me, we don’t have enough poetry in our lives.

In bygone times, newspapers carried poems almost daily.  Magazines carried poems in every issue, but today you find fewer poems published in fewer magazines — can you name the periodical publication in which you last saw a poem that caught your eye, or heart?

National Poetry Month poster for 2006

National Poetry Month poster for 2006. Click image for a larger, more inspirational view.

Rhyme and meter power their way into our minds.  Teachers who use poetry find lessons stick longer with students.

Shouldn’t we use a lot more?

Since 1996, several groups including the Academy of American Poets have celebrated National Poetry Month in April.  There are posters,and of course April is a month with several poems to its creditPaul Revere’s Ride, The Concord Hymn, To a Lady with a Guitar, An April Day, The Waste Land, and several poems just about April as a month.

It’s a good time to beef up our poetry tool boxes, if we are managers of organizations, or teachers, or parents, or human.

Poetry lovers gave thought to how to do that, and there are many good recommendations out there.  For example, from, 30 activities for National Poetry Month 2014:

30 Ways to Celebrate

Celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day
The idea is simple: select a poem you love, carry it with you, then share it with co-workers, family, and friends.
Read a book of poetry
“Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.”
Memorize a poem
“Getting a poem or prose passage truly ‘by heart’ implies getting it by mind and memory and understanding and delight.”
Revisit a poem
“America is a country of second acts, so today, why not brush the dust off these classics and give them a fresh read?”
Put poetry in an unexpected place
“Books should be brought to the doorstep like electricity, or like milk in England: they should be considered utilities.”
Bring a poem to your place of worship
“We define poetry as the unofficial view of being, and bringing the art of language in contact with your spiritual practices can deepen both.”
Attend a poetry reading
“Readings have been occurring for decades around the world in universities, bookstores, cafes, corner pubs, and coffeehouses.”
Play Exquisite Corpse
“Each participant is unaware of what the others have written, thus producing a surprising—sometimes absurd—yet often beautiful poem.”
Read a poem at an open mic
“It’s a great way to meet other writers in your area and find out about your local writing community.”
Support literary organizations
“Many national and local literary organizations offer programs that reach out to the general public to broaden the recognition of poets and their work.”
Listen on your commute
“Often, hearing an author read their own work can clarify questions surrounding their work’s tone.”
Subscribe to a literary magazine
“Full of surprising and challenging poetry, short fiction, interviews, and reviews, literary journals are at the forefront of contemporary poetry.”
Start a notebook on
“ lets users build their own personal portable online commonplace book out of the materials on our site.”
Put a poem in a letter
“It’s always a treat to get a letter, but finding a poem in the envelope makes the experience extra special.”
Watch a poetry movie
“What better time than National Poetry Month to gather some friends, watch a poetry-related movie, and perhaps discuss some of the poet’s work after the film?”


Take a poem out to lunch
“Adding a poem to lunch puts some poetry in your day and gives you something great to read while you eat.”
Put a poem on the pavement
“Go one step beyond hopscotch squares and write a poem in chalk on your sidewalk.”
Recite a poem to family and friends
“You can use holidays or birthdays as an opportunity to celebrate with a poem that is dear to you, or one that reminds you of the season.”
Organize a poetry reading
“When looking for a venue, consider your local library, coffee shop, bookstore, art gallery, bar or performance space.”
Promote public support for poetry
“Every year, Congress decides how much money will be given to the National Endowment for the Arts to be distributed all across America.”
Start a poetry reading group
“Select books that would engage discussion and not intimidate the reader new to poetry.”
Read interviews and literary criticism
“Reading reviews can also be a helpful exercise and lend direction to your future reading.”
Buy a book of poems for your library
“Many libraries have undergone or are facing severe cuts in funding. These cuts are often made manifest on library shelves.”
Start a commonplace book
“Since the Renaissance, devoted readers have been copying their favorite poems and quotations into notebooks to form their own personal anthologies called commonplace books.”
Integrate poetry with technology
“Many email programs allow you to create personalized signatures that are automatically added to the end of every email you send.”
Ask the Post Office for more poet stamps
“To be eligible, suggested poets must have been deceased for at least ten years and must be American or of American descent.”
Sign up for a poetry class or workshop
“Colleges and arts centers often make individual courses in literature and writing available to the general public.”
Subscribe to our free newsletter
“Short and to the point, the Update, our electronic newsletter, will keep you informed on Academy news and events.”
Write a letter to a poet
“Let the poets who you are reading know that you appreciate their work by sending them a letter.”
Visit a poetry landmark
“Visiting physical spaces associated with a favorite writer is a memorable way to pay homage to their life and work.”

How will you use National Poetry Month in your classroom, teachers?  And by “teachers, ” I mean you, math teachers, social studies teachers, phys ed teachers, biology and chemistry teachers.  You don’t use poetry?  No wonder America lags in those subjects . . .

What’s do you remember about your teachers’ use of poetry in learning?

What’s your favorite poem?


Filed under: History, Leadership, Learning, Poetry, Teaching, Teaching Resources Tagged: History, Leadership, Learning, National Poetry Month, Poetry, Teachers, Teaching
28 Jan 16:25

How cars have squeezed pedestrians off the streets and made it almost impossible to walk

by Lloyd Alter
A before and after photo of Lexington Avenue tells the story.
27 Jan 19:20

Big Mouth: Heavy Doody

by Pat Moriarity
Jonathon Howard


Read all Big Mouth comics here.


02 Dec 15:00

Cocktail of the Week: Red Apple & Bourbon Fizz

by falselogic
Jonathon Howard

Drink up!

2013-11-23 18.48.22-1

As we move further into Fall I find myself flipping through my cocktail book looking for drinks that fit with the season. There are 1000s of cocktails but so many of them seem better suited for Spring and Summer. So I find myself flipping through my cocktail book again and again hoping to stumble upon a warm or hot cocktail, one that isn’t iced or chilled, or one that uses seasonal fruits. Mostly without any success. I do have one more cocktail recipe from a cookbook I’ve previously mentioned, Fresh from the Market. And that’s the cocktail we’re making this week! It’s also the perfect drink for Fall as it places apples center stage!

The ingredients

The ingredients

Red Apple & Bourbon Fizz

  • 2 oz. Bourbon
  • 1 oz. Apple Juice
  • 1 oz. apple syrup
  • 3/4 oz. lemon juicw
  • splash of ginger ale
  • 2 thin apples slices

Combine the bourbon, apple juice, apple syrup and lemon juice in a shaker. Shake with ice and strain over fresh ice in a highball glass. Top with a splash of ginger ale and garnish with the apple slices.

2013-11-23 18.48.02This is a delicious cocktail! A perfect blend of sweet apple and bourbon! As soon as D had finished hers she wanted another one. Cool, crisp, and clean going down the cocktails warms its way down into your core. Bonus: turns out the sliced apples that garnish the drink taste delicious after soaking in your drink.


02 Dec 15:00

Distract yourself with free browser games

by Boing Boing
Jonathon Howard

Want to waste time at work/home? Want to lose all balance in life? Try these!

This post sponsored by the delicious caramel, chocolate and nougat inside every Milky Way®


For some of you, sites like this one are a welcome distraction from what you really should be doing or, more likely, what someone else thinks you really should be doing. So to go one recursive step further, here are five distractions from this distraction, a short list of fantastic free browser games, from Cookie Clicker to Kingdom of Loathing:


Cookie Clicker: In this highly-addictive browser game developed by Julien Thiennot, your goal is simply to make more cookies. You can from hundreds of cookies to thousands to millions to billions of cookies. Just keep clicking that cookie. You can use cookies to acquire the assistance of people, specifically grandmas, and technology, like a time machine, to increase your cookie production and collection. Just keep clicking. There is no end to the cookies. Or the game.

A Dark Room lies somewhere between a classic text adventure and a Zen koan. It is considered a "passive browser game," which means there is a lot of waiting. But don't give up. You don't play the game as much as it plays you.

14082 b

Oodlegobs: Viruses, called Oodlehobs, are the heroes of this game by Nitrome, and cats are the enemies. You control the Oodlegobs as they wage war against the Mew Tube network by infecting cat videos. Exciting side-scrolling action is combined with smart planning as you coordinate the Oodlegobs to fight the felines. Play it everyday, but especially on Caturday.

Candy Box is a trendsetter in the ASCII art, minimalist narrative genre of roll-playing browser games. It's deceptively simple. You receive candies. Approximately one per second. But then things get deeper. Much, much deeper. The sequel, Candy Box 2, was released in October.

Kingdom of Loating: Be you a Seal Clubber, a Turtle Tamer, a Pastamancer or Sauceror, in Kingdom of Loathing adventure awaits! Quests, puzzles and insanely spicy enchanted bean burritos await in this excellent text-ish world brought to you by Jick. Discover how everything works on your own, or lean on the excellent Kol Wiki. The fun literally never ends.


14 Nov 15:00

A Thought on History and Permanence

by falselogic
Jonathon Howard

I thought it was a pretty good piece of writing...

You know this guy…

In 1898 Mark Twain was vacationing in Europe, Austria specifically, and he wrote this:

I am living in the midst of world-history again. The Queen’s Jubilee last year, the invasion of the Reichsrath by the police, and now this murder, which will still be talked of and described and painted a thousand a thousand years from now.

Before you google that quote ask yourself “Do I know who Twain was talking about?” Have you read any histories of it? Have you seen paintings of it in any museums? This event, so pivotal, that Twain believed that it would be talked about and commemorated in the arts and culture for the next thousand years, is unknown to most people. So, who was he talking about?

But who is this?

He was talking about the Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Elisabeth, who was assassinated on September 10, 1898 in Geneva by Luigi Lucheni. Who, according to his own words, was an anarchist and was in Geneva for the sole purpose of:

I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign, with object of giving an example to those who suffer and those who do nothing to improve their social position; it did not matter to me who the sovereign was whom I should kill…It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view.

This is what Mark Twain had to say about Luigi:

He is at the bottom of the human ladder, as the accepted estimates of degree and value go: a soiled and patched young loafer, without gifts, without talents, without education, without morals, without character, without any born charm or any acquired one that wins or beguiles or attracts; without a single grace of mind or heart or hand that any tramp or prostitute could envy him; an unfaithful private in the ranks, an incompetent stone- cutter, an inefficient lackey; in a word, a mangy, offensive, empty, unwashed, vulgar, gross, mephitic, timid, sneaking, human polecat. And it was within the privileges and powers of this sarcasm upon the human race to reach up–up–up–and strike from its far summit in the social skies the world’s accepted ideal of Glory and Might and Splendor and Sacredness…


One of the commonest forms of madness is the desire to be noticed, the pleasure derived from being noticed. Perhaps it is not merely common, but universal. In its mildest form it doubtless is universal. Every child is pleased at being noticed; many intolerable children put in their whole time in distressing and idiotic effort to attract the attention of visitors; boys are always “showing off”; apparently all men and women are glad and grateful when they find that they have done a thing which has lifted them for a moment out of obscurity and caused wondering talk. This common madness can develop, by nurture, into a hunger for notoriety in one, for fame in another. It is this madness for being noticed and talked about which has invented kingship and the thousand other dignities, and tricked them out with pretty and showy fineries; it has made kings pick one another’s pockets, scramble for one another’s crowns and estates, slaughter one another’s subjects; it has raised up prize-fighters, and poets, and villages mayors, and little and big politicians, and big and little charity-founders, and bicycle champions, and banditti chiefs, and frontier desperadoes, and Napoleons. Anything to get notoriety; anything to set the village, or the township, or the city, or the State, or the nation, or the planet shouting, “Look–there he goes–that is the man!” And in five minutes’ time, at no cost of brain, or labor, or genius this mangy Italian tramp has beaten them all, transcended them all, outstripped them all, for in time their names will perish; but by the friendly help of the insane newspapers and courts and kings and historians, his is safe and live and thunder in the world all down the ages as long as human speech shall endure! Oh, if it were not so tragic how ludicrous it would be!


Except of course Twain was wrong. Luigi Lucheni and the Empress he killed are forgotten to all but historians, lovers of early modern Europe and collectors of trivia. An event that seemed so momentous at the time, one which as Twain correctly stated hadn’t been seen in Europe for over 2000 years, turns out to have been just a sign post on the way to much more tumultuous things. Events that would wash any significance that Empress Elisabeth’s murder might have had to those who witnessed it away. Events that would largely purge her memory from our collective consciousness…

Of course I’m sitting here just over 100 years later, my view of the assassination comes with the perfect clarity of hindsight and in light of all the events that followed it. Twain could not know that in the next 30 years much of the Europe he was familiar with would be washed away and in the next 70 much of the world he knew would also be remade. His comments serve as a reminder to us that we are all victims to the here and now. That our views on the importance of events is myopic and contingent on a future we cannot know until it is already past.


As far as I could find there are no works of art that portray the assassination of Empress Elisabeth.

Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Joseph’s son and heir, Rudolf, killed himself and his wife in January of 1889. The next in line was Joseph’s younger brother Archduke Carl Ludwig who renounced his succession rights days after Rudolf’s death. Ludwig’s son, Franz Ferdinand, became the heir presumptive to the thrones of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia. His assassination in 1914 precipitated the first World War.


The Memorable Assassination by Mark Twain
The Assassination of Empress Elisabeth

06 Nov 00:20

Marketing, Dumb Luck, and the Popping of the Indie Bubble.

by Jeff Vogel
Jonathon Howard

Yup Yup

This article is kind of depressing, so here is a puppy hugging a kitten.
Sigh. I hate writing articles like this. Even if I’m right (and I really think I am), nobody thanks the bringer of bad news. If what I predict does come to pass, people will resent me more, not less. But I really think what I have to say should be considered by the jillions of ambitious game devs who are quitting their day jobs to go indie. So here goes.

Interesting game article in the news recently. This guy named Alexander Bruce wrote a puzzle game called Antichamber. It did very well. He just did an interview (written by Brendan Sinclair) about how it’s very important to do marketing and develop a good relationship with the press and your players.

The article contains a lot of questionable statements (by the writer, not Bruce) like …
"Just a few years ago, developers didn't need to worry so much about their relationship with the end users."
Does this match the experience of anyone trying to keep a small software company alive in the last few decades? The ability to keep a good relationship with end users was our best tool for staying alive. But I digress.

(Edit: Just to be clear, a lot of stuff Bruce says is very sharp and worth heeding, especially about how dealing with limited resources forces you to be clever.)

Despite the weird stuff, Bruce gets a bit of good advice in too. To a point.

Now, first, it's evidence how amazingly sweet things have been for indie devs for the last few years that anyone would even think "You should do marketing." is news. When I started out writing shareware in 1994, the first piece of advice anyone ever gave anyone about anything was, "Yeah. Marketing. Do that."

Not the right way to market your game.
But, Um, Duh, Right?

Isn't it kind of an obvious bit of advice? When you finish your game, you'll tell people, won't you? Is anyone trying to succeed at business by finishing their game, putting it in a lead box, and burying it in the backyard?

But here is where the article sort of falls apart. There are many paths to success in the indie biz, and each needs its own marketing plan. Each developer has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, both mental and in cash and time resources.

Just because one path (Hint: Steam) has been popular of late doesn't mean it's the right one for that particular game (since the genre you are working in will require its own strategy, depending on how niche you are), or that it will be a plausible path forever. If you are trying to make it writing high-cost, boutique games in a serious niche field like, say, turn-based wargaming, following the strategy Alexander Bruce used for his puzzle game will lead to ruin.

You see, the conventional wisdom now is that, to make it in indie games, you need to blow it all on one big, flashy title. Spend all your time at GDC giving the gaming press hot oil massages. Then release it on Steam, get fifty articles written about you, and make meelions of dollars. Buy a Tesla, give interviews, have your next game be a 2-D platformer, and die happy.

But buried in the article is the real news. The little tidbit that really says where things are going ...

"Even being featured in a coveted place like the Steam Daily Deals doesn't mean as much as it used to."

Yes. This is true. A Steam Daily Deal used to mean doing a happy dance and putting on your Super Money Pants. What? That's fading? Uh oh. And this is the beginning of the real story.

By The Way …

I’m not happy about any of this. A few years ago, there was a huge demand for indie content, and I had a bunch of quality games ready to go. I profited from this temporary state of affairs far more than I deserved. I am not gloating about sweet times coming to an end. My modest games will be the first on the chopping block.

I can't get rich selling THIS anymore? NO FAIR!
When Can We Start Using the Term "Indie Bubble"?

On October 29, Steam accepted 100 titles for publishing from their Greenlight system. A HUNDRED. IN ONE DAY. JUST ON STEAM.

This is the problem with so many indie devs cozying up to the Escapist and Kotaku and the PA Report. There is a flood of new titles, so many that Humble Bundle sells them in Costco-sized bundles of a dozen for a dollar. A lot of good titles won't ever get that press. They just can't. There's not room.

And that's just for the flashy titles (the "AAA Indies"). My turn-based, low-budget, word-heavy RPGs are a lot of fun and have a real audience, but nobody at Kotaku gives a crap about them, nor should they. Why would a Let's Play channel on YouTube want to do one of my games? It'd be like putting up a movie of someone reading a book. Alexander Bruce's marketing path is useless to me, but my business is still valid. Has been for 20 years.

Also, the gaming community doesn't care about indies as much as we like to think they do. (Minecraft is an ultra-mega-uber hit, right? Well, Grand Theft Auto V made more than it in like 18 seconds.) The gaming press knows that gamers only want to hear about so many indies. Soon, they'll start picking who lives and who dies.

The point? Any article about marketing indies that doesn't mention the word "luck" is lying to you.

Even if she was alive, she still wouldn't want to play your 2-D platformer.
By the Way, Luck Exists

I know all you young developers are brash libertarians who believe in a just, deterministic universe. So feel free to get angry at me for this part: Unless times are really good, you need luck for your business to succeed. You need the rare sort of good times where there's a ton of demand and very little product. A time like the period that is now ending.

Yes, Luck: Getting a good break. Meeting the right editor who will champion you or making the right publisher connection. My company, Spiderweb Software, has been lucky. Many times. I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Worthy titles sometimes fall by the wayside now. There is no inherent universal justice that decides that the "best" games succeed, whatever you mean by "best". Some gamers will love you, and some won’t. You have to hang on until one of those gamers becomes an editor somewhere. The more niche your product is, the longer you will have to wait.

Disagree? Think that everyone who fails only fails because they were lazy or stupid or just suck? Fine with me. It's your call if you need to believe in a universe based on justice and fairness. I hope someday to join you there.

This article is kind of depressing, so here is a puppy.
Can There Only Ever Be One Path?

Here's how it works now. Everyone makes a team, puts something together with flash, pushes the heck out of it at GDC/PAX/whatever, and waits for Steam to wave its magic fairy dust wand and make them rich.

Which is great. If it works. But there's a problem. There's still a lot of fairy dust in that wand, but it's getting spread awful thin.

Is there another route to success in this business?

You could try what I did to make a long career. You could pick a neglected genre, write the best games you can for it on a limited budget in your spare time, release one game after another, and push your work where you can to build a loyal audience with word-of-mouth and good customer support. Then, maybe, years later, thanks to your persistence and hard work, you might go full time. A loyal audience can keep you in business through good times and lean.

All you need to make a game is a $299 computer, a chair, time, and some software which we'll pretend for the moment you didn't get on BitTorrent. It will probably look cruddy, but a lot of people don't care (and many people get off on the rough DIY thing). You won't be on Steam, but there are plenty of ways to sell it like on your own site. It'll be tough, but starting a new business is never easy.

When I did it (shut up, grandpa), there wasn't even the web. Now there are forums and communities galore. There are a million places to start assembling that customer base, and you don't even need to say the word Steam.

Is this possible? It should be. It happens. I'm not the only small dev who has made a living this way. But, sadly, there aren't many. I don't know how feasible the slow and steady building of a clientele is in indie gaming. I am, however, confident that we're going to need to start finding out.

Dear God, please let Polygon notice meeeeeee!
But What About the Future?

I think we're in for an interesting few years in the computer game industry. I have my own opinion about the future of small game development, and it's this:
If your game can't succeed based on word-of-mouth marketing, unless you get real lucky, you need to adjust your budget, your quality, or both.
I know, I know. "Jeff Vogel is just being a crazy old coot again." Sure. Nobody wants to hear a whole business model being called into question.

But I've lived through rich times and lean times, several of each. Small-scale software development is a rough business, and you need to operate lean and mean to live in the long term.

Some indie devs will use their bubble money to get big and survive. Anyone who can't grow huge and doesn't have the patience and persistence to go the small company path will have to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to see anyone lose their jobs. I've actively enjoyed seeing people who do what I do getting rich.

However, Microeconomics 101 is still true. When people start making a ton of money, they will attract competitors until nobody makes easy money anymore. It’s an iron law of capitalism.

Alexander Bruce deserves his success, but it is important to remember that the path he described in his interview is only sometimes the best way, even if the press often treats it as the One True Route. Not everyone can market their way to success.

(Edit - The final sentence was perhaps a bit too hostile, so I changed it.)


My incoherent mumblings are now available in condensed form on Twitter.
28 Oct 15:40

Make your soul grow

by Shaun Usher

Back in 2006, a group of students at Xavier High School in New York City (one of whom, "JT," submitted this letter) were given an assignment by their English teacher, Ms. Lockwood, that was to test their persuasive writing skills: they were asked to write to their favourite author and ask him or her to visit the school. Five of those pupils chose Kurt Vonnegut. His thoughtful reply, seen below, was the only response the class received.

Transcript follows.

(Letter kindly submitted by JT; Image: Kurt Vonnegut, via.)

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.

Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

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23 Oct 05:01


by Ed

My current city is essentially a company town. There is a bit more here than simply Caterpillar, but everything else lags far behind one of the fifty largest corporations on Earth with $100 billion in assets and operations in something like 100 countries. It is not an overstatement to say that Cat runs the show around here; all local governing is done with the company's blessing and most of the very small number of things to do here are funded directly or indirectly by the company coffers. As is the case with all company towns, the city has risen and fallen with the fortunes of its great patron.

At least it used to, that is. Now the company continues to rise and the city continues to fall, as it has followed the trend of closing up facilities here in its Midwestern home and shifting them to developing countries or, if they really feel like slumming it, the deep South. In fact, on the day I moved from Athens to Peoria, Cat announced the closure of a Peoria manufacturing facility to be replaced by a new facility in Athens complete with the usual Southern governments' buffet of free money, tax abatements, infrastructure investments, and promises of a docile $10/hr workforce. I can say without exaggeration that I was traded to Peoria for a major industry to be named later.

So while the city lives and dies by the company, there is less of the company here with each passing year. Part of the reason is the quest for cheaper labor and more obsequious state and local governments. Another part of the reason is that Peoria is a world-class dump. Think Flint, MI or Youngstown, OH with the headquarters of a major global corporation plopped in the center. I've said enough about it to fill volumes; suffice it to say here that Caterpillar does not relish bringing leaders in the business world to Peoria. It's pretty embarrassing.

This isn't idle speculation; I know a handful of white-collar Caterpillar folks, and they complain regularly about the condition of the city. They have berated the city government for lacking suitable hotels (now being built or remodeled downtown with plenty of "incentives"), restaurants, entertainment, or airport. The downtown looks neat from a distance but up close is an abandoned Scooby-Doo ghost town. They have legitimate complaints.

However, they also seem ignorant of their own role – arguably the leading role – in the city's decline from the post-War boom years to its present sorry state. Whenever Cat people, be they acquaintances or the top executives on TV and at city council meetings, complain about what a dump they inhabit I have to suppress the urge to say, "That's funny, because it looked a lot less like a dump when you had 30,000 factory workers here compared to the few hundred here now." And by "suppress the urge to say" I mean that is what I say.

This is not new; General Motors has been doing it to Detroit for years, as have General Electric, Kodak, Dow, and other companies that make up the crumbling cities of upstate New York. They openly pine for the neatly manicured office buildings, suburbs, and downtown chain restaurants of a Phoenix, Dallas, or anywhere-in-Florida. And they criticize their cities – cities and people that have bent over backwards to make them the enormous successes that they have been for a century or more – as though some exogenous force (alien invasions, perhaps) have destroyed everything. It never occurs to them that if they would like the city to be full of the kinds of things that sprout up wherever sizable populations with disposable income exist then perhaps they should stop cutting the workforce and perhaps even consider expanding it. Of course, that suggestion inevitably leads into the race to the bottom that is modern competitive federalism – why stay here when Alabama's politicians are willing to write blank checks and its people are willing to work for half as much because Freedom?

For people and institutions who hold the principles of capitalism so dear, they sure do seem to struggle with "You get what you pay for."

16 Oct 18:50

Study: Low-Paid Fast-Food Employees Cost Taxpayers $3.8 Billion A Year

by Chris Morran
Jonathon Howard

How shitty low paying jobs cost all of us! AKA how giant profitable companies make their money off of tax payer generosity

(Source: NELP)

(Source: NELP)

As McDonald’s own suggested employee budgets indicate, it’s not easy to support yourself or a family on just a job behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant. And a new study claims that the 52% of non-management fast-food workers who take home some sort of federal subsidy are costing taxpayers around $4 billion a year.

The report [PDF] from the National Employment Law Project looks at how much is paid out in social welfare benefits to non-management employees at the nation’s 10 largest fast food chains.

As you can see from the chart above, McDonald’s workers alone receive an estimated $1.2 billion in public assistance from taxpayers. This is followed by Yum! Brands — including Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC — all of which total to around $648 million a year. Subway ($436 million), Burger King ($356 million), and Wendy’s ($278 million) round out the top five.

“[T]he overwhelming share of jobs in the fast-food industry pay low wages that force millions of workers to rely on public assistance in order to afford health care, food, and other basic necessities,” reads the report, which points out that many of these companies have the profits to pay workers enough that would equal their wages plus what they receive in subsidies.

NELP has been one of the organizations pushing for increases in both the national minimum wage and the wages paid to foodservice workers, so critics of the study say it is taking a simplified view of the situation.

“Taxpayers do have a choice,” the research director at the Employment Policies Institute said in a statement responding to the NELP report. “They can either provide partial support to less-skilled employees who have difficulty finding employment at higher wage rates, or they can provide a 100 percent subsidy when these employees lose their jobs due to an unrealistic wage mandate.”

[via the Miami Herald]

11 Sep 14:59

Nothing is ours, except time

by Shaun Usher
Jonathon Howard

Nothing is ours except time. As true today as the day he wrote it.

Towards the end of his 69 years, Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote numerous insightful letters to his friend, Lucilius Junior, in which he offered often invaluable advice relating to a wide range of issues. In 65 AD, the year of Seneca's death, 124 of these missives were published under the title Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (Moral Epistles to Lucilius). The first of these fantastic letters, on the subject of saving time, can be read below.

English translation follows.

(Source: Seneca, Volume IV, Epistles 1-65; Image: Portrait of Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens, via Great Thoughts Treasury.)

Seneca Lucilio suo salutem

Ita fac, mi Lucili: vindica te tibi, et tempus quod adhuc aut auferebatur aut subripiebatur aut excidebat collige et serva. Persuade tibi hoc sic esse ut scribo: quaedam tempora eripiuntur nobis, quaedam subducuntur, quaedam effluunt. Turpissima tamen est iactura quae per neglegentiam fit. Et si volueris attendere, magna pars vitae elabitur male agentibus, maxima nihil agentibus, tota vita aliud agentibus. Quem mihi dabis qui aliquod pretium tempori ponat, qui diem aestimet, qui intellegat se cotidie mori? In hoc enim fallimur, quod mortem prospicimus: magna pars eius iam praeterit; quidquid aetatis retro est mors tenet.

Fac ergo, mi Lucili, quod facere te scribis, omnes horas complectere; sic fiet ut minus ex crastino pendeas, si hodierno manum inieceris. Dum differtur vita transcurrit. Omnia, Lucili, aliena sunt, tempus tantum nostrum est; in huius rei unius fugacis ac lubricae possessionem natura nos misit, ex qua expellit quicumque vult. Et tanta stultitia mortalium est ut quae minima et vilissima sunt, certe reparabilia, imputari sibi cum impetravere patiantur, nemo se iudicet quicquam debere qui tempus accepit, cum interim hoc unum est quod ne gratus quidem potest reddere. Interrogabis fortasse quid ego faciam qui tibi ista praecipio. Fatebor ingenue: quod apud luxuriosum sed diligentem evenit, ratio mihi constat impensae. Non possum dicere nihil perdere, sed quid perdam et quare et quemadmodum dicam; causas paupertatis meae reddam. Sed evenit mihi quod plerisque non suo vitio ad inopiam redactis: omnes ignoscunt, nemo succurrit. Quid ergo est? non puto pauperem cui quantulumcumque superest sat est; tu tamen malo serves tua, et bono tempore incipies. Nam ut visum est maioribus nostris, 'sera parsimonia in fundo est'; non enim tantum minimum in imo sed pessimum remanet. Vale.


Greetings from Seneca to Lucilius

Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius—set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which til lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words—that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose. What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death's hands.

Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today's task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow's. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity—time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practising. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.

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06 Sep 15:52

Poisoning Enemies in the Ancient Mideast

by AdrienneMayor
Jonathon Howard

Chemical warfare is as old as warfare itself...

imagesby Adrienne Mayor (Wonders and Marvels contributor)

The insidious tactic of poisoning one’s enemy—noncombatants and soldiers alike—is nothing new, only the technologies have changed. Choking clouds of dust with the effect of tear gas and rains of red-hot burning sand with the effect of phosphorus bombs are two examples of chemical weapons and biological strategies actually employed in antiquity (see for example, “Alexander the Great and the Rain of Burning Sand,” and “Before Pepper Spray,” among my other posts, in Wonders and Marvels archives).

Several instances of poisoning water and food supplies in North Africa by the Romans and their enemies the Carthaginians were reported by historians in antiquity. Such practices raised ethical issues even then but that did not stop some commanders from using biological and chemical strategies to destroy entire populations. Some Romans, for example, bristled at the very notion of resorting to toxic weapons because they contradicted the traditional ideals of Roman courage and honor. When several cities in the Near East revolted against Roman rule in 129-131 BC, however, the general sent to quell the rebellion turned to poison. Manius Aquillius was known as a cold-blooded commander notorious for his harsh military discipline and his ruthless suppression of the uprising in Rome’s new Province of Asia Minor (Turkey and Syria) led to disturbing rumors in Rome. The Roman historian Florus reported what occurred in his military history written in about AD 140.

The insurrection against Rome was led by Aristonicus of Pergamum (Turkey) succeeded in mobilizing ordinary people, rich and poor as well as slaves. Several cities joined the revolt and Aquillius’s Roman army was unable to gain control. “Aquillius finally ended the Asian War,” wrote Florus, “but his victory was clouded. For Aquillius had used the wicked expedient of poisoning the cities’ springs to force their surrender.” Florus was very clear about the immorality of such measures. “Though it hastened the Roman victory, it brought shame because he disgraced Roman arms and battle skills which until now had been unsullied by the use of foul drugs.” Aquillius’s poisoning of the entire populace of several cities, declared Florus, “violated the laws of heaven and the practices of our forefathers.”

About the author: Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (2009) and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.

06 Sep 08:30

Samoa Cupcakes

by Annie
Jonathon Howard

I really want to eat these...

One of my best friends and I have a saying we use all the time: “You don’t need to worry, I’ve already over thought it.”  No doubt this is one reason she and I get along so well – we think the same way, and we both over analyze nearly everything.  Really, everything.  Sometimes this can be a bit of a burden, but when I’m experimenting with recipes in the kitchen it can be pretty useful.  We’re in the midst of birthday season at work and when a coworker chose samoa cupcakes, my mind immediately went into overdrive.  ”How do I ensure that the chocolate cake doesn’t overpower the flavor of the topping?  Should I even use chocolate cake?  How do I incorporate the shortbread cookie component?  What kind of frosting should I make?  Does frosting even belong on these cupcakes?”  These are just a few of the questions I pondered out loud and poor Ben did his best to humor me with a response.

As for my final answers to those questions, here’s where we ended up: I made small shortbread cookies for the base of the cupcakes (though you can use store bought, I won’t tell.)  The cupcake itself is my favorite chocolate cupcake, and it turns out that no, it didn’t overpower the other flavors.  I decided frosting had no place on these cupcakes but that a caramel coconut ganache would do much better, and it did.  Oh yes, it did.  Finally, the cupcakes are topped with the classic coconut-caramel concoction that we all know and love, and I decided to poke a little indentation in it to mimic the cookie shape.  Drizzle with a little bit of extra ganache and there you have it.  Though I have no scientific evidence, I believe this is the most popular treat I have brought into work ever.  Truly.  The only disappointing thing about these is that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to top them.  But I’m kind of okay with that.

As a former Daisy-Brownie-Girl Scout (whose favorite cookie is Caramel DeLites/Samoas), I approve these cupcakes.

22 Aug 19:15

What the next 30 years will hold for 360, PS3 and Wii owners

by Polygon Staff
Jonathon Howard

If youve got one you should read this!

12 Aug 15:46

Unsealed court-settlement documents reveal banks stole $trillions' worth of houses

by Cory Doctorow
Jonathon Howard

Well just FUCK

Back in 2012, the major US banks settled a federal mortgage-fraud lawsuit for $1B. The suit was filed by Lynn Szymoniak, a white-collar fraud specialist, whose own house had been fraudulently foreclosed-upon. When the feds settled with the banks, the evidence detailing the scope of their fraud was sealed, but as of last week, those docs are unsealed, and Szymoniak is shouting them from the hills. The banks precipitated the subprime crash by "securitizing" mortgages -- turning mortgages into bonds that could be sold to people looking for investment income -- and the securitization process involved transferring title for homes several times over. This title-transfer has a formal legal procedure, and in the absence of that procedure, no sale had taken place. See where this is going?

The banks screwed up the title transfers. A lot. They sold bonds backed by houses they didn't own. When it came time to foreclose on those homes, they realized that they didn't actually own them, and so they committed felony after felony, forging the necessary documentation. They stole houses, by the neighborhood-load, and got away with it. The $1B settlement sounded like a big deal, back when the evidence was sealed. Now that Szymoniak's gotten it into the public eye, it's clear that $1B was a tiny slap on the wrist: the banks stole trillions of dollars' worth of houses from you and people like you, paid less than one percent in fines, and got to keep the homes.

Now that it’s unsealed, Szymoniak, as the named plaintiff, can go forward and prove the case. Along with her legal team (which includes the law firm of Grant & Eisenhoffer, which has recovered more money under the False Claims Act than any firm in the country), Szymoniak can pursue discovery and go to trial against the rest of the named defendants, including HSBC, the Bank of New York Mellon, Deutsche Bank and US Bank.

The expenses of the case, previously borne by the government, now are borne by Szymoniak and her team, but the percentages of recovery funds are also higher. “I’m really glad I was part of collecting this money for the government, and I’m looking forward to going through discovery and collecting the rest of it,” Szymoniak told Salon.

It’s good that the case remains active, because the $1 billion settlement was a pittance compared to the enormity of the crime. By the end of 2009, private mortgage-backed securities trusts held one-third of all residential mortgages in the U.S. That means that tens of millions of home mortgages worth trillions of dollars have no legitimate underlying owner that can establish the right to foreclose. This hasn’t stopped banks from foreclosing anyway with false documents, and they are often successful, a testament to the breakdown of law in the judicial system. But to this day, the resulting chaos in disentangling ownership harms homeowners trying to sell these properties, as well as those trying to purchase them. And it renders some properties impossible to sell.

To this day, banks foreclose on borrowers using fraudulent mortgage assignments, a legacy of failing to prosecute this conduct and instead letting banks pay a fine to settle it. This disappoints Szymoniak, who told Salon the owner of these loans is now essentially “whoever lies the most convincingly and whoever gets the benefit of doubt from the judge.” Szymoniak used her share of the settlement to start the Housing Justice Foundation, a non-profit that attempts to raise awareness of the continuing corruption of the nation’s courts and land title system.

Your mortgage documents are fake! [David Dayen/Salon]

(Image: Foreclosure, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from andrewbain's photostream)


06 Aug 15:00

Removing Bad Tattoos in Antiquity

by AdrienneMayor

by Adrienne Mayor (Wonders & Marvels contributor)

Today’s unwanted gang tattoos, names of ex-lovers, piratas_do_caribe_4_jack_sparrowoutgrown cartoons, misspelled mottoes, and other mistakes on skin are printed over with complex designs or erased by long sessions with a laser. Painful — but not as painful or risky as the procedures invented by ancient Roman doctors for removing demeaning tattoos.

Your visit would go like this: Clean the tattoo with natron and terebinth (turpentine). Bandage for five days. Day six: Return to the doctor, who pricks out the tattoo design with a sharp pin. He sponges up the blood and covers the mess with a layer of stinging salt. Now you run a strenuous mile or two to work up a lather and return to the doctor,  who applies a caustic poultice of  lye or powdered quicklime. Your tattoo will disappear in about 20 days. In its place, you’ll sport an ulcerated chemical burn that obliterates the old tattoo.

“I will tattoo you with images of hideous punishments suffered by the most horrid criminals in Hades!” This violent verse threatens revenge by tattoo, probably written by the poetess Moiro of Byzantium in about 300 BC. Around the same time, a woman named Bitinna summons a professional tattooer of criminals and slaves to bring his needles and ink to punish her unfaithful lover, in a Greek play by Herodas called “The Jealous Woman.” Tattoos today are decorative and voluntary, even if sometimes recklessly selected and deeply regretted later. But in ancient Greek and Rome tattoos were punitive, forcibly inflicted on slaves, prisoners of war, and wrong-doers. Tattooing captives was common in wartime. For example, in the fifth century BC Athens defeated the island of Samos and tattooed their Samian prisoners’ foreheads with Athens’ mascot the owl. Later, the Samians crushed the Athenians and tattooed their captives with the Samos emblem, a warship. In 413 BC, after Athens’ disastrous defeat at Syacuse, 7,000 Athenian soldiers were captured. Their foreheads were tattooed with the symbol of Syracuse, a horse, and they were sent as slave to work the quarries. Slaves were routinely tattooed and runaway slaves had sentences such as “Stop me, I’m a runaway” crudely gouged and inked into their faces.

These dehumanizing tattoos were not artistic or carefully applied: ink was simply poured into grooves carved in flesh with three iron needles bound together, with no thought of hygiene. There was copious bleeding; infection could be ugly. The indelible marks turned one’s body into a text recording forever one’s captivity, enslavement, or guilt. Naturally, there was a market for hiding or removing shameful tattoos, should one be lucky enough to escape a master or prison. Some opted for a painless approach: Grow long bangs to cover forehead tattoos. During the Roman era, pirates’ crews offered a haven for many criminals and runaway slaves. The dashing pirate scarf trick—tying a bandana around their foreheads—was invented to mask the tattoos of one’s old life.

About the author: Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (2009); and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.

17 Jul 21:18

The world’s cutest moth

by whyevolutionistrue
Jonathon Howard

It's sooo cute!

From Arther Anker’s Photostream we have this photograph of a cuddly moth, which is becoming about as Internet-viral as an arthropod can get.

Don’t you just want to kiss it? It’s labeled:

“Poodle moth (Artace sp., perhaps A cribaria), Venezuela”

Picture 1

And its caterpillar, equally adorable:

Picture 4

There’s a video, too, though it doesn’t show much more than the above:

Anker has some lovely photos on his flickr website, especially those of arthropods (I recommend the treehoppers).  His c.v. (he’s a postdoc) is here.

11 Jul 19:01

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Introduces ’21st Century Glass-Steagall Act’ To Rein In Too-Big-To-Fail Banks

by Chris Morran
Jonathon Howard

At least she is keeping the conversation alive. I doubt we'll see any action though...

In response to the stock market crash of 1929, the Banking Act of 1933, also known as the Glass-Steagall Act, put up a wall between commercial banking and investment firms. That wall stood for more than 60 years until it was torn down by the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bilely Act, which allowed commercial banks to reap huge profits, but also resulted in financial institutions that were so large that, had they failed, they would bring down the entire economy with them. So when those banks began to crumble following the collapse of the housing bubble, we taxpayers were left with little option but to bail them out while our federally insured deposits were put at risk. Thus, Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts has introduced legislation that would reenact the regulations that were stripped away 14 years ago.

To make no bones about the nature of the bill, Sen. Warren has titled it the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act [PDF], and states clearly in the introduction that the legislation is intended “To reduce risks to the financial system by limiting banks’ ability to engage in certain risky activities and limiting conflicts of interest, to reinstate certain Glass-Steagall Act protections that were repealed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, and for other purposes.”

The bill already has a bipartisan group of co-sponsors in Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Sen.Angus King, an independent legislator from Maine.

In simple terms, the new Glass-Steagall Act would separate banks with FDIC-insured savings and checking accounts from “riskier financial institutions” like investment banks, insurers, hedge funds, and private equity firms.

The bill also specifies what activities are considered the “business of banking” to prevent national banks from engaging in risky activities, and bars non-banking activities from being treated as “closely related” to banking. In the decades leading up to the end of Glass-Steagall, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency had allowed the divide between traditional banking and investment banking to be blurred by institutions who claimed that things like credit default swaps were simply part of the business of banking and not securities.

“Since core provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act were repealed in 1999, shattering the wall dividing commercial banks and investment banks, a culture of dangerous greed and excessive risk-taking has taken root in the banking world,” said Sen. McCain in a statement. “Big Wall Street institutions should be free to engage in transactions with significant risk, but not with federally insured deposits. If enacted, the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act would not end Too-Big-to-Fail. But, it would rebuild the wall between commercial and investment banking that was in place for over 60 years, restore confidence in the system, and reduce risk for the American taxpayer.”

Sen. Warren concedes that recent efforts to rein in banks’ risky actions have been fruitful, but she contends that the nation’s largest banks still present a hazard to the economy.

“The four biggest banks are now 30% larger than they were just five years ago,” says the Senator, “and they have continued to engage in dangerous, high-risk practices that could once again put our economy at risk. The 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act will reestablish a wall between commercial and investment banking, make our financial system more stable and secure, and protect American families.”

10 Jul 14:00

2013 False(B)logic Summer Book Giveaway!

by falselogic
Jonathon Howard

Get free books from me!

The selection won’t be quite as vast as this picture suggests…

It’s that time of year when the sun doesn’t set until eight, children are out playing in yards, the air is filled with the sounds and smells of BBQ, and I give books away! If the book giveaway had corresponded with Fall the selection this year would have been massive. Alas, it didn’t and all the books D and I gave away in the two moves between this give away and the last are being enjoyed by strangers and the kinds of people who get their books from thrift stores.

What False(B)logic lacks in quantity we make up for in quality! This year I’m giving away, out of my personal collection, the following:

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (signed)
  • Selected Poems of Robert Frost
  • Amphigorey Too by Edward Gorey
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
  • The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss
  • Overheated by Andrew Guzman
  • Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

How does it work?

Simple! For the each post in the month of July a book will be given away. To enter your name in to the raffle for that book simply comment on the post! You may comment on multiple posts and win multiple books!

When does it start?

Right now! Just enter a comment below for a chance to win!

09 Jul 21:55

I've Decided To Give Orson Scott Card The Benefit of the Doubt!

by Ken White
Jonathon Howard

Don't give Orson Scott Card your money

I'm strongly considering giving Orson Scott Card the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he doesn't want me to be killed, and therefore I might go see Ender's Game, the movie they've made out of one of his books.

Now, I'm not certain that Orson Scott Card doesn't want me killed.10 I mean, after all, I think same-sex American couples should be able to get married. I've voted and advocated for that position when I've had the opportunity. I strongly supported the decriminalization of "sodomy,"11 and generally oppose the use of government power to enforce personal and religious opposition to homosexuality. Orson Scott Card thinks that any government that agrees with me and fails to prevent gay marriage should be overthrown by any means "possible or necessary":

Because when government is the enemy of marriage, then the people who are actually creating successful marriages have no choice but to change governments, by whatever means is made possible or necessary.

. . .

How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.

Biological imperatives trump laws. American government cannot fight against marriage and hope to endure. If the Constitution is defined in such a way as to destroy the privileged position of marriage, it is that insane Constitution, not marriage, that will die.

Orson Scott Card has also called for private sexual contact between consenting adults to remain criminalized, though to be fair as far as I know he has not specifically advocated violent overthrow of any government that fails to imprison sexually active gays. Nuance alert!

Card has called, in short, for the government to be the tool of his personal religious preferences, and for it to be overthrown by (implicitly) force if it fails to satisfy those preferences. In addition to being an opponent of criminalization of sodomy and a supporter of gay marriage I am a vocal opponent of the use of government to promote individual religious dogma, which further puts me at odds with Mr. Card.

Now, Mr. Card only speaks of bringing down by any means necessary the government if it fails to ban gay marriage to satisfy his religious views. He doesn't specifically threaten supporters and fellow-travelers and thus and such. However, violent revolutions often result in violence towards those who have supported the ancien régime. Mr. Card rails against the term "homophobia," against decreasing acceptance of his views, and against social mores with which he disagrees; it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility that he will consider me, a promoter of that which he hates and a supporter of government policies he views as destructive of his family, to be bloodworthy.

But I've decided to give Orson Scott Card the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn't want me dead!

I was moved to this assumption by his moving plea for tolerance in the wake of calls for a boycott of his movie:

Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.

Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.

Orson Scott Card

Here Orson Scott Card has shamed me.

First he's shamed me by correcting my ignorant and mistaken impression that the equality and humanity of gays was a political issue prior to 1984. Next he shamed my meager grasp of the law, which had led me to believe that the impact of the Windsor decision striking down DOMA on states that currently ban gay marriage is unsettled and will likely require years of litigation to sort out. I'm sure that when gay couples married in, say, California seek legal recognition in his state of North Carolina, Mr. Card will file an amicus brief asserting that the matter is now settled and that North Carolina must recognize the marriage. I believe in Orson Scott Card's consistency and good faith!

Most of all Card has shamed me in my grievous misunderstanding of tolerance. I had assumed that tolerance meant that it was a good thing for a free people to let consenting adults engage in private sexual conduct without government interference, or allowing loving consenting adult couples to marry even if some religious traditions oppose it. I assumed that tolerance meant that unpopular views — at one time the view that homosexuals should not be jailed, and now the view that they should be — ought to be addressed by the marketplace of ideas rather than by government force. But I was wrong! Tolerance means that people must be able to revile gays and gay marriage without any social consequence. Tolerance means that I should go see a movie by someone who makes me want to vomit — who wants to overthrow the government by force for doing something I agree with, who might or might not think I deserve to die so that his social policies can trump mine — because botcotting his works would be oppressive to him. Tolerance means that if he calls me a barbarian, and suggests that my friends have dark desires to seduce his children into homosexuality through the machinery of the state, then I should smile and go see his movie, because otherwise his speech might be chilled and he won't be as free to call me a barbarian and my friends child-craving tyrants.

I've already learned so much from Orson Scott Card just from this brief plea. Imagine how much I can learn from a whole movie based on his book! I just can't wait. I thought that I held Card in contempt and that I would express that contempt like a civilized man, by eschewing his society, directly or indirectly, in an exercise of my freedom of expression and association responding to his. But it all right, everything was all right, my struggle is finished. Mr. Card has helped me win a victory over my intolerant self.

I've Decided To Give Orson Scott Card The Benefit of the Doubt! © 2007-2013 by the authors of Popehat. This feed is for personal, non-commercial use only. Using this feed on any other site is a copyright violation. No scraping.

28 Jun 21:32

Government wiretaps were foiled by encryption for the first time in 2012

by Joshua Kopstein
Jonathon Howard

I dont have anything to hide but I don't really want my stuff being read by government nerds...


Law enforcement agencies like the FBI have long complained about what they call the "going dark" problem — the assertion that encrypted communications hamstring their efforts to catch criminals and terrorists. But US officials are only now reporting, for the first time, that encryption has managed to stop government wiretaps dead in their tracks.

Of the 3,395 wiretaps authorized by federal and state judges in 2012, investigators were only unable to circumvent encryption in 4 of the 15 cases where they encountered it. The figures come from a new annual report to Congress from the US Administrative Office of the Courts, which has been tracking the use of encryption since 2000.

In 109 cases between 2000 and 2011, encryption had not...

Continue reading…

24 Jun 14:00


by falselogic
Jonathon Howard

A poem I wrote. You might like it.

Copyright to whoever took it. Lifted from


It is late.
The horned moon declines
As I lay my head
Into soft down
That feels
Like soft skin.
And I dream
That in your arms
I am held.

You are gone
Under a sun that
Is never veiled
In clouds.
A light, heat
I could not sustain
And, so I lie,
Bathed in the cold
Pale glow
Of weakness.

And I wish I could wake up
Wake up to new life,
New love, new you.

14 Jun 22:24

Watch 2013 Obama debate 2006 Biden on NSA surveillance

by Xeni Jardin
Jonathon Howard

Both The President and Vice President should answer to Senator Biden!

Watch then-Senator Joe Biden from 2006 directly refute each point made by his now-boss, President Barack Obama, about the NSA surveillance program at a news conference last week.

Dave Maass and Trevor Timm at the Electronic Frontier Foundation write:

After a leaked FISA court document revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) is vacuuming up private data on millions of innocent Americans by collecting all the phone records of Verizon customers, President Obama responded by saying "let's have a debate" about the scope of US surveillance powers.

At EFF, we couldn't agree more. It turns out, President Obama's most formative debate partner over the invasiveness of NSA domestic surveillance could his Vice President Joe Biden. Back in 2006, when the NSA surveillance program was first revealed by the New York Times, then-Senator Biden was one of the program's most articulate critics. As the FISA court order shows, the scope of NSA surveillance program has not changed much since 2006, except for the occupant in the White House.

Watch this video, as Senator Biden from 2006 directly refutes each point President Obama made about the NSA surveillance program at his news conference last week.


11 Jun 18:00

NYC sushi restaurant nixes tipping, provides workers with living wage salaries

by Xeni Jardin
Jonathon Howard

Now we just need this everywhere for every job!

At The Price Hike, Bloomberg News food critic Ryan Sutton writes about Sushi Yasuda, a high-end restaurant in New York which recently eliminated tipping. You cannot tip your waiters, but you can eat there (assuming you can afford the bill!) knowing that your wait staff receive a living wage, and benefits including paid sick days and vacation days.

09 Jun 23:45

Bill Maher takes apart Reagan

by whyevolutionistrue
Jonathon Howard

True facts! Reagan was a bastard!

Since Ronald Reagan died nine years ago, I’ve watched him transmogrified into something of a saint. Even Democrats like Obama don’t dare say a bad word about this bigoted right-wing, demagogue. All he had going for him was a faux affability, which was a thin veneer on deeply dangerous ideas.

Two weeks ago Bob Dole, in a critique of the Republican Party on Fox News Sunday, argued that the GOP had moved so far right that Reagan couldn’t even make it as a Republican candidate were he to run today.

While it’s good that Dole points out how crazily conservative the GOP has become, I didn’t buy for a second his view that Reagan wouldn’t be a comfortable fit with today’s Republicans. Reagan was a right wing-nut, and his beatification is mystifying.

I see that Bill Maher agrees with me. Here’s a clip from a recent show in which he disassembles the Reagan myth, and does so in an extraordinarily serious way for Maher.

05 Jun 04:01

When Fizzling Was Taboo

by Anne Curzan
Jonathon Howard

I can't believe we lost this word!

donkeyReviving obsolete meanings of words is largely a futile business, but with the verb fizzle, it just might be worth the effort. At least it’s worth a chuckle.

My own discovery of this word’s history happened two years ago with an innocent question. A friend called me up and asked me about the etymology of the word sizzle. (Yes, my friends really do call me up with these kinds of questions.) The answer to my friend’s question is not all that interesting: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb sizzle is probably imitative (of a hissing sound). But the OED’s etymology of sizzle cross-references the verbs sizz and fizzle—and I figured as long as I was in the OED, I might as well look up fizzle.

An etymological jackpot. When I saw the earliest meaning of fizzle in English, I thought, “How did I not know this before? Why isn’t this gem in every history of English textbook?”

The verb fizzle is first cited in 1601, in Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny’s Natural History. It meant, in the wonderfully prim, Victorian wording of the OED (the entry was published in 1896), “to break wind without noise.” The quotation: “ … they say if Asses eat thereof, they will fall a fizling and farting.” The noun fizzle could be used to describe the action of breaking wind without noise, and a fizzler is one who partakes in said action.

How wonderful that we had a verb for that! And why in the world did we let that meaning become obsolete? (We now have the noun SBD—”silent but deadly”—but not a verb that I know of.)

By 1859, the OED has records of the verb fizzle meaning “to make a hissing sound,” with reference to oil and “unambitious rockets.”

It is 19th-century U.S. college slang that gives us the meaning we have today, where fizzle means “to come to a weak conclusion, to fail.” It shows up first in a record of slang words at Yale University (1847) in reference to failing exams: “My dignity is outraged at beholding those who fizzle and flunk in my presence tower above me.” Slang thrives on play with the taboo, and if you’re now thinking about the slangy phrasal verb fart around (“waste time”), I was too.

Not only has the verb fizzle lost its taboo meaning, it’s not even all that slangy anymore. It remains more colloquial than formal, but according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English it shows up describing politics as well as sports in newspapers and even appears sometimes in academic prose.

I sincerely doubt that, in everyday language, fizzle is going to regain its ability to pair with fart in the memorably alliterative and slangy “fizzle and fart.” But you can now join me in using the word fizzle with secret irreverence.

28 May 14:49

Plant revived and growing after being frozen in a glacier for hundreds of years

by Nathan Ingraham
Jonathon Howard

Very cool!


Up in the northern reaches of the Canadian Arctic, researchers have discovered that a category of plants buried by the Teardrop glacier hundreds of years ago is alive and well, despite having been frozen for centuries. Scientists from the University of Alberta found samples of 400-year-old plants known as bryophytes (plants like moss and liverworts that lack vascular tissue for transporting liquids), and thanks to the rapid recession of the glacier, which is uncovering land that had previously been frozen. "We ended up walking along the edge of the glacier margin and we saw these huge populations coming out from underneath the glacier that seemed to have a greenish tint," said Catherine La Farge, lead author of the study, to the BBC News....

Continue reading…

13 Apr 02:27

Formalists and Zinesters: Why Formalism Is Not The Enemy

by Tadhg
Jonathon Howard

Fascinating look on the formalist views of aspect of indy art games and the struggle for "legitimacy"

Prior to emigrating, I found myself vigorously defending Raph Koster on Twitter. It started as a result of this article, in particular this quote from Anna Anthropy:

"Videogames have been one of the most exclusive communities i've ever encountered," she said to me via email, "some dudes, like Raph Koster, insist that when he says dys4ia 'isn't a game,' that's not a value judgement. That's bullshit. the attempt to label games like dys4ia as 'non-games,' as 'interactive experiences,' is just an attempt by the status quo to keep the discussion of games centered around the kind of games it's comfortable with—cus if there's one thing existing videogame culture is good at, it's making a certain kind of dude very, very comfortable."

I've noticed a recent uptick in this "certain kind of dude" argument. On the one hand it's about the acceptance and treatment of women, minorities and other groups within the game industry - and rightly so. On the other it's about the perception of patriarchy. It's saying that a "certain kind of dude" oppresses creative people with his view of an industry organised around keeping him happy, and he uses the definition of "game" as an exercise of power. 

This assertion is far more contentious because it conflates three different discussions. The first is political and asserts that passivity or apathy are actually forms of complicity. The second is to do with market preference, asking why is it that the white-dude market buys certain kinds of game endlessly while ignoring greater diversity. This point lays the blame at the feet of the industry, whereas the industry maintains that market dynamics are evolutionary and so the industry chases the market rather than dictating to it. 

The third discussion is about critique. To many formalists (myself included) many new kinds of interactive art are either not games, or not very good when thought of as games. Many are gamelikes, gamified systems, limited, persuasive, personal interactive stories. Some are virtual worlds. Some are more conceptually interesting than playable. Many are reliant on knowing the author's intent.

In creating a "game" not meant to be played or won, its creator is saying something. To then call that work something other than "game" can seem like an attack directed at its creator. Particularly for the group that could loosely be termed "zinesters", "game" has become a highly charged art-politik battleground that has to be won. Increasingly zinesters have taken to folding formalism into the patriarchy, complicity and "certain kind of dude" debates to paint all with the same broad brush.

Not only is that yet another attempt to win the debate over games through equivocation, it has the effect of dissuading some otherwise-interesting voices from engaging. Some, like Raph, continue to try such as with this open letter in which he discusses the debate and its personal side (an indie developer he respects crossed the street to avoid him at GDC) only to find himself yelled-at once more on Twitter. The question for zinesters is this: Is yellers and name-callers essentially all you are?

Because if so, zines will inevitably flame out.

Poor Enemies

Zinesters consider themselves to be an emerging class of interactive artist. Their work covers everything from their life stories to observations about the universe and purely aesthetic experiments, and that work takes thousands of forms. In her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anna Anthropy paints the movement as akin to Youtube uploaders or other aggregate-media makers, free of the shackles of commercialism or elitism, and able to make whatever they want. Quite right too.

And yet unlike Youtube uploaders, zinesterism also has a combative side. Provocateurs like Anna appear at GDC and read poems about their struggles, fights, victories and defeats in the battle for true equality. Sometimes zinesterism goes beyond even that. For some the struggle is less about validation of self and more about the invalidation of others. It's about the opportunity to yell "I'm as mad as hell at you, token white dude". It's to say you just want an enemy.

We may be formalists, but writers like Raph or I are the wrong kind of enemy if your intent is to defend the right of game makers to make statements with games because we agree with you. Among our ranks you'll find some of your strongest supporters, passionate advocates and earnest evangelists. You'll find fierce debate and considered responses as we try to come to a point where our critical framework is both as inclusive and as clear as possible. But you'll find few people who fault your works on quality for those reasons (As an aside, in the rush-to-judgement in recent weeks over this whole issue, where many are content to maintain that value judgements and the like are at the heart of what-is-a-game, none of its proponents have yet cited a credible example of this.)

What you will also find, however, is people who have been around the gaming block a few times. People who have seen this struggle over "what is a game" happen before. People for whom the idea of a game that uses permadeath to make a point is not startlingly original. People for whom the cleverness of character reversal and the notion of play as self-loathing, or games that demand to not be played, are ideas that they've seen before. People for whom the debate has little or nothing to do with their own sense of power and everything to do with trying to get to a better understanding. People to whom zinesters seem intent on repeating a very old mistake.

Toward the end of the 80s a desire grew among young tabletop roleplaying gamers (myself included) to push beyond the limits of numbers. We started talking about roleplaying games as storytelling games. We regarded many old guard gamers who talked of campaigns, classes and hit points as quaint. We were convinced that one day "game" would have room for stories, epics and themes. We talked endlessly about non-plot narrative, non-rule games and moving beyond fun. 

The early energy surrounding this movement led to lots of creative output. The sorts of game we created were concept pieces. We worked on games that were intended to explore themes of mythology, identity and sexuality. At first we used traditional backgrounds, plots or mechanics, but over time moved into stylistic territory, the roleplaying equivalents of Pirandello's Six Characters In Search of an Author. We were essentially the proto-form of today's zinesters. 

For us this was fascinating stuff, but it gained no traction beyond our ranks. So over time we descended into an increasingly introverted conversation. While the rest of gamerdom didn't care so much, we became factional and obsessed over minutiae, slights and perceived insults. We went from being a passionate tribe to a collection of niches who bitched about one another, and over time we shrank. "Game" remained much as it was, despite all of our bluster, and by the late-90s it had pivoted back to its roots through Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition.

This, largely, is the pattern that zinesterism seems to be following.


On Whose Terms

For storytelling roleplaying games the premise that, by changing the meaning of "game", the rest of the world would follow along and validate the revolution was self-deception. "Game" did not change for those outside the scene, and instead it was swallowed up by its larger, older parent. In a digital form, I fear that zinesters are making exactly the same mistake.

As an oft-uncertain white dude who happens to write a fair bit about games, I have recently encountered a lot of defensiveness surrounding the idea of what games are. Those arguments tend to boil down to "you don't like it", "it's not meant for you", "it sold X copies" or even "you secretly hate games". I suppose I should expect that kind of reaction given that I am pretty forthright. I often say that the most effective ways of conveying the artistry of games (thauma) needs to come from a place that is game-native, and that that enables and restricts the game's maker in some ways. I tend to advocate for the player, for the need for games to be dynamic in order to build up to a convincing world. 

I have also been known to say that some interactive artworks are not games. I don't, for example, consider Dear Esther a game, nor Proteus. I don't think The Passage is a game, nor The Stanley Parable nor most Tale of Tales' work. I consider them to essentially be gamelike performance art. 

Taken on its own terms, art can be very powerful. However, taken on the terms of something else, art can invite unfortunate comparison. Depending on how you regard it, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is either a classic work of modern art or an example of conman craft. Similarly, taking some interactive art on the terms of games devalues it enormously. Proteus might be interesting, one might say, but it's not much fun. Interactive art like Proteus struggles for traction outside of academia, certain sections of Steam, highbrow publications or conferences like GDC, because to label it as "game" invites comparison with the usual understanding of game that involves doing to overcome.

Zinesters are asking for their work to be taken in the same breath as casual and hardcore videogames, puzzles, crosswords, sports, the Olympics, the World Cup, the casinos of Las Vegas and so on. Furthermore their work's lack of fun leads to some negative reactions (such as this satirised review of Super PSTW), which in turn leads to creators equating incomprehension or apathy to a "certain kind of dude" who deliberately shuts them out. And so it seems that "game" won't change to include them because the patriarchy is afraid/unsure/resistant.

And this is true of many gamelike art works. Many of them are challenging, observant or interesting but they ultimately sideline themselves by wanting to be spoken of in the same breath as games. Their gameplay tends to be thin. They tend to be either unidirectional ("this is my message") or directionless ("just walk around"). They tend to sound interesting as high concepts for GDC talks. Yet they're not games. 


The Forms and Labels of Interaction

The fact that The Color Purple exists means as much for the novel as the content within it. To some designers it's basically the same with games. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters lays out the argument that because games are mostly made by geeky white dudes for geeky white dudes, they tend to be mono-cultural. Muscular men shooting other muscular men in the face is the order of the day, and women tend to either be swapped out for men in that scenario, or relegated. There are very few gay women avatars in games. 

I mostly agree. Big blockbuster games do tend to be mono-cultural and involve a lot of shooting dudes in the face. Yet at the same time bridging those issues with "what is a game" - and demanding that anything interactive and artistically expressive be considered a game - is unsound. 

"Novel" is a format of story, not a token of legitimacy. Alice Walker's novel is as much a novel as Jane Austen's because they are two instances of the same general format (a long-form arced tale with internal and external writing etc). The argument over the acceptance of one kind of novel over another what that means for society is usually separate from the argument of whether or not it is a novel (although, granted, some modernist and postmodernist works have deliberately tried to play with the format). 

Howl is a poem. A poem has a different format, kind of structure and voice than a novel. We can comfortably understand and accept that poetry and novels are two kinds of writing, and in order to maintain attention and interest from the reader they each operate according to their own rules. Similarly we can see that the short story, screenplay, comic, theatrical play or song also have their own special requirements. None of those formats are any more or less valid than any other. Novelists don't spend all of their time wishing poets would include them.

What the angrier zinesters seem to want is the equivalent of Ginsberg demanding that Howl be recognised as a novel. For some reason they believe that "game" means "valid, legitimate, in-the-club", something to be won back from the hands of the white dudes.

What fascinates me is how much that in itself is a tacit acknowledgement that (despite all arguments to the contrary) apparently labels do matter to the zinesters. If zinesterism really was just about self-expression, it wouldn't matter what formalists thought. Despite it being something of an ideal to exist in an aggregate everyone-can-publish universe of making whatever you want, a world beyond labels and types, zinesterism is obsessed with owning a particular label. It seems to revolve around wanting to have legitimacy granted to it by hook or by crook, which I find undoes it somewhat. 

The label issue is also one that only exists in the zinester space. Outside of it, nobody gives a good god damn. In the everyday world, "game" is a noun that describes a mode of play. "Game" means sport, puzzle, task, problem and test. Games can be won or lost. Games can be practiced. Games may open a door to understanding and emotional enlightenment, generate heroes and cultural lodestones, but they do so through creative constants. They must operate under the joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics.

Otherwise, as games, they don't really work. And the judgement criteria for why this is so comes not from patriarchy or shadowy cliques, but from players. If a game is not fun it is simply not played for long, regardless of its intent. Games are meant to be played. However none of that is true of interactive performance art if the player knows that it is not meant to be a game.

But how to convey that intent?



I think there's a solution to this conundrum, a formalist solution no less. I also think that many zinesters are not going to like it. Maybe in time.

In her book, Anna describes a class of maker analogous to the newsletter-zine-makers of years past. Such people are generally considered outside the mainstream, working away on personal projects and finding fans the hard way. Zinesters are typically not programmers (whom she categorises as white middle class dudes, etc.) and they have tools like GameMaker or Twine to make their art.

Rather than call that art "game", "gamelike", "notgame" or get into arguments over just how much game is game or not, or getting stuck in the quagmire that is "interactive entertainment", Anna (perhaps inadvertently) supplies us with a great term. "Zine" strikes me as a very neat term to describe a political and critical intent, a description of how a thing is meant to be approached rather than a classification of what it is. 

Some zines may be games, for example. Some zines may be gamelike, but not games. Some zines may be toys. Some zines may be worlds to be wandered for no particular purpose. Some may be digital promenades. Some may tell stories. Some may deliberately not. Some zines may be none of the above, or incorporate aspects of all. Some zines may be digital. Some zines may be analogue.

"Zine" is a label that demands a work be regarded on its own terms, much as "modern art" does, rather than describing a format, as "statue" does. Zine allows the discussion to get past issues of who gets to be in what club. dys4ia and Warioware, for example, could be considered as contrasting examples of zine vs not-zine, irrespective of whether they are games. The main differences between them are:

  1. How they treat challenge
  2. Whether they are meant to be replayed
  3. How they treat learning
  4. Whether failure is possible
  5. Whether emergence is desired

Warioware tests player skills and ramps up those tests. It is meant to be replayed, often for long periods of time. It is meant to be mastered. Failure is possible, as are emergent effects. Every time a group gathers to play the party version on a Wii, funny and unexpected things happen. This all makes Warioware a game, but not a zine. Warioware is ultimately a commercial product intended to delight or entertain, and any sense of personal expression within the game is likely to only be found around its edges, if at all. 

dys4ia tests player preconceptions. Its tests do not become more difficult (in terms of skill) but they do become more emotionally illustrative. It is meant to be replayed a couple of times, but not many. It is not meant to be mastered, but participated-with, so the player comes to understand the depth of its author's situation. Failure is not really possible, only delays of success. Emergent effects likewise - dys4ia is deliberately experient. It is personal, authored, intended to paint a picture and conjure a feeling that its creator experiences (which is the definition of art according to Tolstoy) every day.

Viewed in the context of "game", on games' terms, dys4ia does not have much in common with Warioware, Chess, the 100m hurdles, Darts, Tetris, Backgammon, Halo, Poker, Ridiculous Fishing, Snake, Go, Arkham Horror, Tag, Diablo, kiss chasing or slot machines. It's not much fun, nor mechanically fascinating. You don't really win or get better at it. Those are the sorts of qualities that generally describe games.

Viewed in the context of "zine", however, the question of whether dys4ia is a game, or how much, or what parts might be, is irrelevant. So is the question of whether it is fun. As a zine, as a piece of performance art that illuminates the player about what it is to be transgender, dys4ia is amazing. By thinking of it as a zine, I find I can get past its gameyness or lack thereof. 


Toward Détente

It makes sense in my mind, but my instinct tells me that my "zine" label notion won't fly. Perhaps we'll end up in a place where, like the gameplay vs story debate, everyone eventually concludes that the whole thing was predicated on straw man arguments. Perhaps we'll end up with a "Game" and "game" distinction (like "Art" and "art") or a convention like "performance game" or "gamezine" that fudges definitions of game specifically to accomodate zinesters. 

However at this point I am inclined to say it is up to zinesters to decide who they want to be. As a formalist I'm personally growing bored of hearing a lazy argument that clumps all white dudes together and proclaims that any opinion a white dude may have is suspect and equates to non-specific-complicit-apathetic oppression. In part I was motivated to write this article to explain why, for all its virtues, I tire of listening to certain ranters rant the same rant over and over, how the novelty of that rant will fade away, and how it seems to me that zines are currently just a bit of history repeating.

Right now zinesters are not giving much of a reason for people who don't already agree with their general viewpoint to care. They seem more content to yell and be acknowledged by their own tribe, but that energy will eventually peter out if it does not engage with others. The passions of zinesterism are not to be trifled with or denied, but the risk of it marginalising itself is strong. Rants are important, but after a while there needs to be more.

I can't help but feel that the zine movement's fight with straw men will ultimately relegate it to a kind of angry-to-be-angry nub. I can't help but think that the movement will eventually fracture, as the storytelling-game movement did. In the hunt to find enemies, I can't help thinking that zinesterism will ultimately start to find enemies in its own ranks and become cannibalistic. All it takes for zinesterism to fail is for people to ignore it, to conclude that all it is just fringe folk being fringe folk. Personally I think if zines end up in that box, it will be tragic.