My Proposal Draft

Having a hard time with your #BCM311 assignment? I am too. But here’s the way I’ve structured mine, with the idea that hopefully it’ll help you get something out:

The Project

I’m creating for my DIGC302 and DIGC330 project, a table-top card game, currently with the working title of ‘Middlespace.’ The game is set in a heavily digital future Australia, stranded as a middle power between the United States megacorporate conglomerations and the pan-Asian zaibatsu. Players play characters trying to coexist in this space while covertly working to circumvent large, mute computer systems, the algorithms of both sides.

Why This?

I like card games. I also like games, in general, because games are a way of conveying information that in many cases you simply don’t get. Games can introduce us to concepts that we may learn about but never internalise – such as how Papers Please showed people the way shifting incentives introduces the banality of evil. Games like Trains show how competing private industries can struggle with providing services vs ‘winning’ a market.

What Have You Got?

Right now, I have some concept, some diagrams, and an overall game structure. The game is in essence going to be a deck-building game, where players start with a small deck of cards, and add to it. In game terms, this creates an individual economy, and players have to balance the desires to acquire things for their deck with the risk of making those things rarer. This is relatively common in card games – players will find, over time, they have to strike a balance between aggressive moves and defensive ones.

What’s Next

From the BCM311 perspective, the main values of mine I want to bring to bear on this task are a form of active, background representation. In many forms of media, there’s a default to whiteness (and maleness, and cisness) that can make marginalised people feel excluded. Basically, characters in this are going to try and represent anything but the standard white, male, mentally able, cis, heterosexual archetype that defines a lot of gaming spaces. Since one of the game’s themes is about middle spaces and being marginalised between larger powers, this seems obvious.

I want this game to be approachable; I want it to be engaging; I want it to be easily transported and reasonably affordable. I want the game to evoke in players the feeling of being in the space of characters who are like them, or perhaps very much unlike them.

I also want this work to be interesting and informative. For the most part it’s going to focus on areas of network security, which we often think of as lost passwords and cyber-hacking, when it’s really much more diverse and has a lot more interface with out personal lives.

How’s the Presentation Going To Go?

Hopefully when the presentation comes up, I will have a functional prototype and I’ll be able to sit down and teach if not a teacher, but maybe some classmates how to play. This may involve a simplified version of the game with a pre-emptively stacked version of the deck.

Who Am I Going To Interview?

I know a number of people in gaming; I was thinking of trying to find one of them and conducting a short audio interview about ways in which games can be used to reinforce and project our personal values.

And What’s The Summary?

With my final submission, I intend to submit a copy of the game, and maybe a 500-1000 word report on the game mechanics, illuminating choices I made in the mechanics to indicate how they were meant to explain themselves to the player. This would be for reading after the game has been played.

This is around 500 words, so chances are it might be ‘too small’ to really impress the point it’s trying to make. But as with a game it’s very hard to necessarily convey information cleanly and clearly about it without dipping into jargon about familiar mechanics. I tried to avoid talking about games assuming game understanding on the part of the grader.

Now, this isn’t just for your benefit, o fellow student. I’m hoping that this structure works. Please, if you think it doesn’t, let me know.

Debt

It’s funny we talk about debt in class – which I missed, because I’m sick – because at its core, debt is something we talk about in game design. We talk about technical debt – borrowed from computer system design – where elements of systems ‘owe’ to earlier systems, meaning over time, designs accrue details that people are expected to internalise and that can turn new players off. We also talk about information debt, where players can be confused by the amount of information they need to take on and remember over time.

But that’s not the kind of debt I’m looking at for Middlespace.

Middlespace is a neo-cyberpunk game that uses high technological motifs to underscore modern concerns, and one of those concerns is debt. In many games, there’s some score you track, usually up or down, that reflects how much you can suffer before you lose. In a lot of games you’ll know this as ‘life’ or in a setting like Star Realms, as your authority.

What I’m thinking about using is debt.

The notion is that players start with some baseline debt. They want to get out of debt, because debt is one of the many ways a character is shackled to the system overseen by the Zaibatsu and Megacorporation servers. The idea that your ‘life’ isn’t something like your actual money is important for this system, but where it can represent a number that gets bigger or smaller over time. I want the game to help feel like you’re assuming the life of a character for a time, with its positive and negative elements, where your problems are over time things like debt, not the more urgent things like loss of life and limb.

Basically, safety is important, and debt is a kind of imposition on your safety that you often don’t even consciously recognise.

Design Notes – Definites

At this point, I’ve made a few solid decisions:

  • The game is a deck builder.
  • The game is player-versus-game
  • The game is character driven

The deck-builder game I’m planning on modelling after is Star Realms; the player will be mostly interacting with a small deck of cards, making single or small choices based on limited resources. The players (shorthanded to characters) are all going to have to deal with upkeeps, where every turn they have to invest some time and effort into just functioning. The threat is the slow, steady grind of being beaten down by a system – very rarely are the enemies going to present a single, big, shocking point of opposition.

More later.

Standing Apart With Our Eyes Closed

In my first piece examining Gojira I tried to look at the movie as a movie, and then react to what I saw. In my second piece, I was meant to examine that first piece and consider just what I was referencing, what I spoke about, the epiphanies and the personal experience of that media and how they illuminated things I did not necessarily understand about Asian cultures. That’s what I was meant to do.

But in the first piece, I talked about how Gojira connected to Japanese culture and things in Japanese history that it referenced. In my second piece I talked about how we put cultural distance between ourselves and Asian cultures, othering for some reason. And right now I guess, since I picked this up, I have to put it down somewhere.

Eventually this comes down to my reaction to being asked to react to Gojira as if it was outside my culture. As if I didn’t watch it as a kid. As if my own dad didn’t know who Godzilla was, as if there weren’t Godzilla jokes and remakes and toys and references throughout pop culture that originated in the English language, as if a Disney Movie hadn’t been made that directly referenced Godzilla.

I mused on the distance between Asian culture and Australian culture, as I consumed my French-recipe bread crafted by Australians of Vietnamese descent with Indian curry on it, using a laptop manufactured in South Korea connected to a wireless signal of a phone manufactured in China for a South Korean country and drinking soda that I knew had been travelling through Indonesia a few weeks before. The more I mused on them, the less sense they made.

The seventh-most common surname in Australia is Nguyen. The second most common language in Australia is Mandarin. The nearest European-based country with English as a primary language to us is New Zealand, and for proximity and population, there’s Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Phillippines, and East Timor all to our other side. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, came to Australia and declared ours ‘the same culture,’ as if that was a thing to aspire to, to be, in the part of the world we nebulously define as Asia, this strange, alien outcropping of Not-Asia. But here we are, pretending we’re not where we are, pretending we don’t trade with who we trade with, pretending we’re not doing business, importing people, importing media, and living as part of Asia.

Really, the thing that really gets me is how much ‘Asian’ stuff we normalise as Not-Asian. How we think of laptops and computers as American, how Smartphones are iconically held up as iDevices in the name of Jobs and not as a symbol of Foxconn. How half the world’s population can be so near to us and we instead pine to be part of a nation that gave us all the worst habits of colonialism and genocide.

One of the codifying instances of Australian culture, we’re often told, is World War I. “We’re All Australians Now” is something most of us see in primary school. “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest” is put on our money. We venerate the generals and the diggers daily. That war was seen as iconic, as driving us – and yet, India contributed a million troops to that same war, on the same side, in the name of the same Empire. In my lifetime I’ve seen Indian students harrassed for their manner of dress, because we’re as a culture blind enough to the world outside of our little cultural bubble with its harshly defended walls, that we assume the Middle East and India are basically the same thing and that terrorism comes from there.

I wish this was an epiphany. I wish it wasn’t an argument I have semi-regularly. I wish that this was some greater narrative I could tell about this one miraculous day that I discovered racism and then with that enlightenment under my fingertips, could move on to be free of those shackles forever, and I can show you how. Sadly, that’s not the case.

The definition of racism, wielded academically, is a crux of prejudice and power. It is not just disliking people, it isn’t single, isolated, discrete acts, ala ‘Johnny Did A Racism.’ It’s much more about structures, about systems of mute indifference that serve to comfort the comfortable and benefit the benefited. We other and separate ourselves from Asia despite our cultures being interwoven, despite our histories being interconnected. And it’s very hard to, in this current day, see just why we keep doing it.

oh wait, racism, that’s why

again.

I might just be sore about this. It might just be this past few years, where our Prime Minister, who came to Australia on a boat, speaks slanderously and vilely of other people who came to Australia, on a boat, as if there’s something magical about my mother and him that made them both acceptable fits to Australian culture, and these strangers fleeing harm and danger in terrible conditions don’t. It’s hard to forget the stories of my Finnish relatives, talking about when they came over on the boat, of being asked to stand on the outside of groups, so the people on the docks of Sydney harbour would see the crowds and assume they were all white.

Gojira’s part of my culture, because the culture of Australia is standing within Asia and fiercely pretending we’re not.

The Dumped Draft

Today we were told to come into class with a draft of what we’re going to do. I was a bit lost, but then, that is more me than anyone else. This is what I brought, in total, unedited and unvarnished

The Thing I’m Making

A card game.

What my Media Studies Skills Is Bringing To Bear On This

First, it being a game is important to how it works and feels.

I want to make an actual game because games are amazing ways to convey ideas, and to demonstrate how a person can transmit an idea from one to another without explication. Mechanics can convey a lot of meaning that people internalise.

Games also give us creative space to work in, creative spaces that aren’t normally present in other media. In a book, if you focus on the tactile experience of how a box is designed, it forced the focus of the reader, and then if it doesn’t come up again, it feels strange and odd. On the other hand, for a game, props convey information about themselves – how they feel, and what they do is important to their function. If the player can handle the box, and look at it, they can think about the things in the setting of that box, diegetically that mean something, without the ‘eye’ of a narrative device like a camera or narrator projecting onto it.

Within that creative space, then, is the kind of stuff you can put into the game, then reinforce with it. Right now, the game’s theme is focusing on a cyberpunk future modelled on our cyberpunk present. World building is a part of this, and I seek to use my understanding of international media, specifically Australia as a middle-space between Japan and America, is of interest to me. In this setting, I’m planning for a very Ameri-manga aesthetic; deliberately juxtaposing these sets of different values; with one set of values projecting iconically Japanese aesthetics and views of power structure/interdependence, while the other side more of an American influenced independent form.

In addition to this I intend to include characters that draw from these two locations

  • A Vocaloid character, trying for some form of identity for herself,
  • Someone struggling for health care provisions thanks to privatised insurance
  • A person protected by law but unable to have those protections recognised
  • Someone operating as an ‘actor’, without an identity except as is imposed on them

There’s also an issue very important to me here: Representation. Characterisation in tabletop games is often projected through a very familiar, white lens (with even some remarkable historical values). Based on readings and studies, I’ve come to view characterisation and representation as very important values to widening the audience for games – both good for consumers (and making ethical, morally sound products) and good for the creators (as inviting an audience to feel more franchised can increase people buying stuff).

Finally, one of the other elements of this degree is the focus on digital connections – of moving intangibles and on the value of labour that can be done remotely – are all going to play into the themes and mechanics of the game.

Thing is… now… none of that is as important. Because now we have a restructured set of rules. What I’m going to put together now, is instead a guided list for this following four-point plan:

  1. This summary
  2. A presentation to the class about the thing I’m making
  3. An interview with a person in a relevant professional industry
  4. A final essay to accompany the game

Probably going to cannibalise some of the draft for this, of course.

Card Game Design – Junk And Theme

Let’s just dive in on this.

Junk

Ted raised the concept of junk in the last conversation I had on card games. A disused dystopia, a future with needless crap in it. I am as I’ve said, a big fan of mechanics expressing theme, which means that just calling things junk and crap is easy when what I would want to do is look at mechanical ways to enforce this feeling of a disused future. When it comes to needless junk, two different games spring to mind: A Few Acres Of Snow and Trains. Both of these games are deck-building games.

few acres of snow boxA Few Acres of Snow is a war game, with two players trying to claim territory Players add cards to their deck from turn to turn to try and address problems, but because they are going into a deck, which is also shuffled, you’re often trying to anticipate problems two or three turns in advance. Thing is, this often means you wind up accumulating cards that are useful at one stage in the game and less useful as time goes on. The cards become junk. There is a card, the Bureaucrat that can remove other cards from your deck, but after it does that, once, it does nothing else, again. Every time you draw a Bureaucrat, after that point, it is junk.

trains box

In Trains, there’s an extra step beyond this. Every time you add a certain number of cards to your deck in Trains, you also add Junk cards – meaning that no matter what you will fill your deck, over time, with things you don’t need. That means that clearing the junk out of your deck is an important part of Trains otherwise you wind up choked by them over time. You lose points for having junk in your deck.

Space

Now space is important when we consider how this game is going to go together. Right now I’m looking at either a deck-builder game in the vein of Dominion or Star Realms, or a tabletop RPG where players input the majority of the media, and the card system works instead as a resolution mechanic, or memory tools. The RPG is a fun idea, but it also would need either a lot fewer cards or a lot more.

Dominion is a card game that focuses on a wide spread of a small number of cards – which still means that at its core it needs two hundred cards to start with. The basic mechanism of Dominion is very simple, but it makes it a very strong game with a lot of flexibility. You select every turn, based on what you can afford, a card from a selection that every player can see. Usually the question is not about what’s available as much as it is about what will work together. Dominion decks tend to be about crafting machines with purpose behind them.

Star Realms works on a smaller number of cards available for adding to your deck, known as the ‘trade row’ – a number of cards from the deck are dealt out, and players are expected to build a deck a card at a time out of that row. Star Realms is very fast, and starts with some inherent recognition of the ‘junk’ effect – where some cards remove other cards from your deck, and winning decks can be very small and tight.

Theme

Also there’s been the additional involvement of two other projects: Both my DIGC330 and BCM311 projects have been rolled into this one. This helps inform the theme of the game, and of what kind of issues and greater concerns in media that interest me.

The theme as it stands is about middle space. It’s about the cultural position of being a nation torn between two other superpowers – in this game’s universe, it will probably be Japan (as a proxy for China) and the United States (as a dying superpower). The BCM311 has me wondering about characters as fronts of representation – an issue that’s also important to me in game spaces.

Direction

With that in mind I think what I want to design is:

  • A player-versus-system game
  • Cooperative play options
  • Deck-building mechanisms
  • Space for characterisation

Based on this, I have a few mechanical ideas I want to use:

  • A central source of cards that act/react blindly to the players, as a ‘server stack’ that represents a megacorporations’ powerful and dangerous motions.
  • Individual character-based decks, which are how players start out, like Star Realms’ starter decks of 10 cards.
  • Individual goals representing how different characters in this cyberpunk landscape are dealing with their world.

The idea that’s forming at the moment, as I write this down, is a deck-builder where each character starts with a small deck of cards that includes both their starting resources but also a list of personal goals. Those goals reflect the character. Another thing that I quite like is the use of a deck to represent a ‘server’ – literally a ‘stack’ of cards and players are trying to attack this, in a variety of ways. The server could be designed that, in response to player actions, it reacts to triggers, or even to particular types of characters.