Student Blog Posts

Reflections on Dread

Looking back a few weeks to our unit on Algorithms and Cyberwarfare, I want to talk about Dread, and why, out of all our critical making challenges, I found it the most difficult to design for.

Dread’s metaphor of the tower works well with the topic, Algorithms and Cyberwarfare, which (like surveillance and predictive policing, which both use algorithms) is keen to produce paranoia. And as a DM, I had the urge to lean in to these terror-inducing mechanics. However, I soon ran into difficulty. The skeletal framework for the campaign, which was provided to us as designers, insisted we have the narrative take place online. Introducing this component meant the embodied affect would be remediated through descriptions of Twitter and Facebook feeds. And because I only had 45 minutes of gameplay, I felt like I would have to go with one of two scenarios. Either I could have a very sudden tweet-storm be the entirety of the campaign (which felt unrealistic and would probably not give players enough agency to respond to the situation and see the repercussions of their actions–or inactions), or I could work with a plot that spans an extended duration and fast-forward between events (which risks stamping out the hand-quivering affect).

So my challenge was further complicated. I wanted to expose players to the affect of Dread’s tower mechanic, which meant creating an engaging story that could sustain the careful atmosphere that makes Dread a unique roleplaying experience. But on a meta-level, I was concerned with making sure the game was being used as a pedagogical tool that could increase player agency (even if that means through a post-game debrief with players, if their characters fail) around topics of Algorithms and Cyberwarfare–all while keeping within the constraints provided by the framework that was distributed to designers. I think the crux of the challenge for me was the question of how to maintain player engagement. From what I can tell, the success of a game of Dread depends on the careful tension between desire and loss (i.e., terror), which is why the question of spatiality and temporality is so huge here. How can I make the stakes feel real to the players if the game takes place online? How does one begin designing an affectively engaging story that is told through distributed descriptions of posts on social media platforms?

I decided to go with the second of two formats: breaking the game apart into three “real life” sessions, spaced out over an extended period of time. The players’ characters (activists for the Coalition of Tomorrow) would meet in person in a board room, collaborating with each other to plan a project, when Trump tweets:

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A fake tweet used in the game.

After this tweet, the players begin encountering attacks from alt-right trolls, who harass them, even going so far as doxxing one of the characters’ younger sister. I also played with affect by dimming the lights and using sound. For instance, I would slowly increase the volume of a dark ambient cyberpunk(ish) track whenever I felt that a player’s character was going through a very internal trauma. I also put together a queue of phone vibrations (and later twitter chirps, which I borrowed from Patrick who began using them for a similar purpose at another table) that would play whenever a character got an incoming notification on their phone, as well as ambient train noises and rain that I used in an attempt to bring a degree of mimetic texture to the narrative in order to make up for the story taking place online, which can feel a step removed from the stakes of reality. The game ended with Trump supporters gathered outside the Coalition headquarters and a multilinear end game state: either they do nothing and call the police when the supporters start trying to break into the building, or face the supporters and risk getting hurt–the potential reward being dispersing the protest with words and saving a kind Yemeni man who is caught in the crowd from being harassed by the alt-right.

In the end, I think this was a great design challenge, (both for me and my players, who were good sports, said “yes, and…” and contributed to the story in playfully productive and provocative ways.) I know my gratitude is long over-due, but thank you all for being such a great audience! It was a pleasure to DM for you and I hope I made our game worth your time.

India Weston

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Immigration

Being an immigrant in new country can be frightening and brings with it an array of different issues and challenges, one of them being trying to find work. This scramble for a job oftentimes leads people to leave their professions and work in different sectors where the need for labour is greater.  Somehow the idea of immigrants is always linked to the idea of labour. Why are human bodies boiled down to the work they do? I have come across many people from foreign countries, who complete their higher education and come to the US in pursuit of the “American dream.” Yet despite their qualifications, they end up working in sectors they never thought of working in. Why is it that your immigration status is directly related to how valuable your work is to the economy? I was reading the Federation for American Immigration Reform report posted earlier, and was appalled. The main aim of their platform starts with the world, ‘fiscal’ showing how the economy is the first concern.  How is it that this invisible system, the economy is more important than the very real human beings that are being deported and treated inhumanely? The idea that immigrants are stealing jobs is one that is based purely on racial differences, according to David Card, Christian Dustmann, and Ian Preston, “most existing studies of the economic impacts of immigration suggest these impacts are small, and on average benefit the native population.” So why is there so much hate for immigrants?

 

 

 

Unjust and unFAIR Immigration Reforms

Although it is admittedly a little late in the term, I wanted to put forward a last quick blog post highlighting one of the more shocking hypocrisies I found in the suggestions put forward by the Federation for American Immigration Reform in their expanded report/policy suite. While even just the language surrounding these plans is generally racist and classist (identifying the need for enhanced security on the southern border for the sake of keeping out immigrants from Mexico versus the need for security on the northern border to keep out, not Canadians, but “third country [sic] foreign nationals”), there are also structural elements of the policies which expose more subtle intentions than their explicit goals. Noting that the stated aim of their platform is to “reduce the fiscal, cultural and environmental burdens of illegal migration and unbridled legal immigration” by reducing the population of immigrants currently in the country and those who are not yet here (legal or otherwise), what stood out to me the most was the suggestion of mandatory minimum sentencing for those who attempt re-entry after deportation.

I find this so amazingly brazen because there is such a welldocumented practice of labor exploitation through prison systems that this seems to be an effort to establish a legal framework for the incorporation of illegal immigrants into the U.S. labor system while also freeing oneself of accountability to their “immigrants steal jobs” nationalistic conservative supporters. By positioning criminal sentencing as a disincentive against illegal immigration, FAIR simply appear to address a perceived issue and instead shift the point of labor exploitation from the realm of extra-legal undocumented work to an even harsher system of criminal punishment, rather than, say, crafting mutually beneficial opportunities for those who wish to live and work in the country to do so legally and, more importantly, freely.

And as an aside, check out the absurdly tasteless language of an abstract from a paper which I stumbled across while writing this:


“Applying Rusche and Kirchheimer’s theory regarding labor markets and penal change, this paper examines recent initiatives to expand the labor force participation of federal and state prisoners. Globalization and labor market transformation have increased the potential value of prison labor as a subcontracting component of post-Fordist production systems. We examine privatization’s ideological rationale (economic “cost benefits”) and its political strategy of foreign job repatriation. Based on cultural and economic factors, the South is identified as the probable locale for “repatriation.” A case study of Escod Industries reveals the emerging elements of a post-Fordist penology, involving a fundamental transformation in prison discourse, techniques, and management objectives.”

Non-Sleep Futures

I read the first chapter of Jonathan Crary’s “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep”, our optional reading for this week, and found it to be really interesting. There was a quote on page 3 that laid out Crary’s vision of a future in which the military’s current sleeplessness research will eventually implement itself into everyday life:

“As history has shown, war-related innovations are inevitably assimilated into a broader social sphere, and the sleepless soldier would be the forerunner of the sleepless worker or consumer. Non-sleep products, when aggressively promoted by pharmaceutical companies, would become first a lifestyle option, and eventually, for many, a necessity.”

This vision makes sense considering the usual paths that new technological/scientific innovations trickle-down and grow their user bases, but I actually had envisioned a completely different future for how a potential non-sleep product would manifest in a current market. Judging by how valuable productivity is in a capitalist culture, the value, and thus the cost, of a non-sleep product would be incredibly high. I could see elite business people being incredibly protective over a technology that would increase productivity, and in effect make it a valuable and expensive commodity that not everyone would be able to have access to. Instead of Crary’s vision of a widespread “sleepless worker or consumer,” I can see such a valuable product only being accessible to the wealthy people who could afford it. In this way, only those people will be able to access the productivity powers awarded by it, allowing them to work longer and more productively than those who don’t have it. Since someone who’s able to work around the clock without a need for sleep will be able to accomplish and produce a lot more work than someone who isn’t, this non-sleep product can actually become a powerful tool for the reproduction of power, as those who are already wealthy will be able to continue to accumulate and grow their wealth at a rate than those who can’t afford it.

Additionally, since the aim of this sleeplessness research is “not to stimulate wakefulness but rather to reduce the body’s need for sleep,” the product also wouldn’t have the health downsides that current productivity-enhancing stimulants have, and could actually provide health benefits for people who have sleep disorders and aren’t able to fulfill their body’s need for sleep. In the long-run, this would bring humans closer and closer to the abilities of non-humans, who can function non-stop without the inconvenience of bodily needs or health concerns to slow them down. However, since only certain groups of people would have access to this, it could in effect create a divide among humans, in which certain people would become a breed of “superhuman,” functioning in machine-inspired ways, while others wouldn’t. When you add in that the line between these groups would be drawn based on class, it becomes a future much scarier to me than the one posited by Crary.

What do other people think? What route do y’all see the development of a potential non-sleep product taking?

Childcare and Employment

I just quickly wanted to address a topic brought up in the Future of Work article. The author discusses the importance of investing in the care economy. As someone who works in a pre-school and has previously worked in child care, this factor is crucial. Proper child care in accredited facilities is exorbitantly expensive. This means that in many states, parents are either forced to find work around difficult schedules or spend the majority of their income on childcare rather than covering other important expenses such as food and clothing. One solution to this is instituting pre-school for all programs.

The ideal city to look towards for this is Boston. Boston’s in-schools pre-school for all program has evidence-based backing to be shown to be beneficial for the children in the program. Additionally, this would free up the hours from 8am to 4pm for the parents, especially the mothers, to work during the day. Early childhood education is really important for children. By instituting pre-school programs for all children around the country, not only does this benefit the children, but also the parents and employers who now have an expanded workforce.

Separation of Work and Income

I am interested in how increasing automation is already triggering a rethinking of economic policy and governance. Last year, the 77% of Swiss voters rejected the unconditional basic income plan put forward by their government.This was the first plan of this kind to be put forward so far, and was a pretty big leap for thinking about the separation of work and income. The Netherlands is next in line to test out a pilot program for such a proposal. It’s worth noting that there wasn’t as strong an urge for such a scheme before as there is now (granted this topic had been on the discussion table for a while), as most supporters of these plans are not only concerned with socialism and the distribution of wealth–they are concerned about “how modern societies can continue to create jobs while pushing technological advances such as factory robots and driverless trucks”.  It is worthwhile to think about the future of work having nothing to do with income–will people work differently? Will there be more individuality, personal commitment and creativity? In my view, I can only see intensified deprofessionalisation (a phenomenon already well in progress currently), with amateurism as the new level of expertise. But on the other hand, will it reduce immigration tendencies and inequality if such schemes were introduced in developing economies? I wonder what new forms of inequality it would yield. How will people use their new-found freedom where their work has nothing to do with their income?

Farmworker Fantasy

The Marez essay having steered my thoughts on the topic of migrant labor to the aesthetics of automation and “idealized” farm work (from the perspective of the supervisor), I found myself thinking of the ways in which automation and engagement in menial labor are both developing their own distinct genres and, subsequently, common aesthetics in “simulation-style” game media.

As Mack brought up in Tuesday’s class session, the phenomenon of finding gratification through a 1-1 labor input to skill output dynamic is something that video games easily facilitate. It’s a means of wish fulfillment that turns farming into fantasy, and promises mastery over any skill as a given, provided one spends enough labor-time on the activity. One can easily track their progress and even quantify their skill in terms of levels, XP, or some other kind of points system that can even translate indirectly into meritocratic social status in MMO communities. Menial labor in video games does more than simulate assured skill improvement however, and I think the difference between a fantasy of improved, embodied labor, and one of supervisory, seamless automation lies in the difference between two distinct subgenres of simulation games.

Anybody who’s played Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, or the newest iteration of the “property maintenance” game, Stardew Valley, can attest to the fact that chores can be charming. These games usually center around the cultivation of a house or some tract of land (the farm setting comes naturally) and are more rooted in the satisfying nature of routine than the gratification of overcoming challenges. Players are rewarded for their adherence to schedules and attention to upkeep with the opportunity to further beautify their surroundings, diversify or expand the boundaries of their living/working space, and generally invest in new projects that will also require routinized menial labor to maintain. The massive popularity of these games can be attributed to their role as “simplicity simulators” – here, the domestic is intertwined with the productive such that work is not an imposed burden but a voluntary tranquility of a romanticized agrarian life. Labor always has clear purpose and practice – the act of weeding a garden or fixing a fence being self-evidently necessary for the upkeep of your virtual home – and oftentimes pleasurable labor for labor’s sake is the driving force of the game. This cheerful ethos of self-sustainability and labor-centric contentment is likely not a direct example of farmworker futurism, but it represents a counterpoint to the dominant narrative that progress is inextricably linked to automation. It challenges the very necessity of “progress,” asserting instead a reality where cyclicality is more valuable than acceleration. I’m still torn over whether or not these are useful fantasies to engage in, since they seem to primarily serve as idyllic escapisms for those who are otherwise entwined in the stressful, alienating complexities of capitalist socioeconomic reality. Essentially – is Stardew Valley a way of asserting a competing reality of labor, or a mere fetish for those privileged enough to avoid menial labor in their day-to-day lives?

The other subgenre that I’ve seen gain a ton of traction lately (its following often straddling that delicate border between irony and sincerity) is something I’ll call the “passive management” game. This term encompasses games like Cookie Clicker or AdVenture Capitalist, where the player takes on a much more supervisory role with the aim of accumulating some form of in-game currency through relentless automation that increasingly removes the need for player input at all. These games are mechanically very simple. The player clicks a button and is rewarded with a small sum of currency. After a set amount of clicking, the player can afford to start hiring non-player characters that will do some clicking for them. At another price threshhold, the player can increase the extractive efficiency of each click. Pretty soon, there is no need for the player to click at all – their automated click-mining workforce has expanded to the extent that this virtual labor is related in terms of productivity rates (how much money is being made per second without player interference). The procedural trajectory of these games often places emphasis on obtaining the “next big technology” that will let the player increase their yield further, making gameplay a never-ending accumulation of capital and a minimization of personal exertion in favor of resistance-free automated labor. In these games, labor is something to be commanded and accumulated as a commodity in and of itself. Fortunately, they also seem to be largely satirical – the two examples I listed above are caricatures of the capitalist business model and Cookie Clicker particularly revels in the cruel, dystopian absurdity of exploiting the labor power of an army of grandmas (an achievement earned for selling one of these workers is titled “Just Wrong”).

Despite entertaining two drastically different fantasies of labor, I think both of these categories of “work simulation” serve the same purpose of posing what Marez calls “subaltern epistemologies” (Marez, 39) of labor. While the maintenance games romanticize self-sufficient, satisfying labor, the management ones re-appropriate the aesthetics of capitalist production to criticize the late capitalist model of labor extraction. I think the very participatory nature of video games makes them a more effective visual medium than most for opening and contributing to such dialogues, and am curious to see what pro-agribusiness games might look like.

 

Sources Cited

Marez, Curtis. Farm worker futurism: speculative technologies of resistance. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2016. Print.