Middleware: Reflective Essay

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InstructionsDesign Notes ♦ Reflective Essay

Introduction

I don’t want to tread over well-worn ground explaining why I made a game as a way to express my values, and with an eye to the future. Most simply, that can be boiled down to a series of almost bullet points – board and card games are going through a renaissance right now and inviting more and more people into their folds, the market sector for board games is growing, digital distribution has made them more accessable to more people, human beings play games as a fundamental way we interact with the world, games are an important way for humans to tell stories to one another, and stories are one of the ways in which humans learn. Actually delving into that reason in-depth would be, itself, a monster essay and would leave absolutely no room to discuss the idea of what I did specifically, and why I did it, with explanations for the personal experiences I had along the way.

Stories and Games

Stories are important. I’ve been thinking about this for years now, as I work on writing and creating fiction. I’ve been watching people struggling with their lives, embracing stories, some that can be made real and some that never can. Stories are used as proxies for pain, as ways to escape real hurts, as ways to stabilise and reconsider. Stories being important feels almost tautological to me at this point: Stories are one of the ways the human mind contains and contextualises information.

Second, play is important (Huizinga, 1955). Play, defined in this case as a space in which there are rules and structures that only apply within that play space are ways we can control and struggle with ideas that we might otherwise find too hard to examine as stories. A story lets us understand one path through an idea, but play lets us consider it from many angles at once. Play lets us choose to care about something, and we can then choose to set that care aside.

With this in mind, I forward the idea that Games are machines to make stories. I think games are important, and I think that considering them in light of these story-generating machines is a useful way to step aside from the current passive disdain that ‘distractions’ or ‘just for fun’ media are shackled to.

When the time came to design the game itself, the first thing I did was look for limitations and restrictions. Things I couldn’t do, so I could avoid trying to do them with the design. Designing game components is often a matter of adjusting values that don’t yet have any meaning to react to one another. There’s an old non-joke:

  1. How long is a piece of string?
  2. Twice as long from the middle to either end

That’s how a lot of game design works, where you say ‘this works this way,’ and the only reason is it was, at some point, decided and then that worked well enough. I needed an idea for how much a deck would cost based on its price range; I considered the possible commercial value of individual decks of the cards. This is a pretty simple comparison point – if printing a whole deck of cards costs too much, the game isn’t a viable product. I had a broad idea that I needed a decently large build deck – something in the district of 70-80 cards – and that individual players’ decks would also be quite small. With some playtesting I found a starting deck size of 10 worked out okay, and used those numbers to start with.

Practical limits were useful, but they were also effectively absent when the time came to design the characters, which is where the majorit of the flavour and tone of the setting came from. The characters would reflect on every other part of the game – Halt cards represent things that inhibit the characters from acting, server behaviour is things that could impact the characters, and the buy cards would reflect things those characters were capable of doing. It’s one thing to call a card ‘tactical airstrike’ but that then implies that calling in an aristrike is within the means of a character to do it.

With that in mind I started working on the characters, starting from what I will refer to as the Deliberate Values.

Deliberate Values

First things first, with four characters I knew I wanted to address issues of representation. The cast of characters were all non-white in some way for a start. Each characters’ name is a half-way name – Akito Carlyle, Tara Kazeno and Haruka Em are all names that can’t be rendered wholly or properly in either English or Japanese. F10RA’s name is an impossible name as well, but doesn’t project quite so clearly her ‘between’-ness.

Second to that, I knew I wanted to ensure gender representation. A number of boardgames limit player options to one girl out of a cast of four, leading to what’s known as the Smurfette Principle, where a lone woman is made the representative of being a woman. One idea that came up early was where each character could be less of a character and more of an archetype, and where the character card could be two-faced, showing a ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ version of each character. This was a cute idea but broke down for me, because it implied a gender binary, and it meant the characters would be broader and less specific than if they were designed to be a singular, fixed characterisation.

Pushing back against the gender binary is why Haruka is in the game – I wanted to make sure that the characters were not isolated to just gender binaries. Some ideas – like agender robots came up, but after reading writing by @ArchivistBecks on Twitter and a number of other nonbinary people I know personally, I thought it would be best to provide representation of an agender character who was defined loosely enough that all players could know for sure is their pronouns and that they weren’t a boy or a girl.

I also knew that Japanese media was important to the work I was doing. With DIGC330 in my mind, I was looking to Japanese genre media. I’m a big fan of genre media, which is a sort of meta-type of media. A lot of media is heavily scrutinised, while genre forms tends to be much more about broad, sweeping strokes, the tropes and storytelling beats of a familiar form. Storytelling language is implied to be a universal tongue, but it’s really much more dialectical; the storytelling of a b-movie or a musical are all very different to one another, for example. Even a b-movie musical involves its own understanding.

Japanese genre media is pretty well codified – it’s one of the more interesting things about the anime, manga and videogame scene across Japan, where thanks to a lot of cross-pollination of cultures and a heavily active fan community, there are even specific terms for character archetypes. This language is heavily codified, too – and can best be compared to the language western audiences use when discussing wrestling, where the structure of each story is itself expressed in these trope signifiers.

The Middleware characters started then as the following basic archetypes, designed to be expanded with a western influence:

  • An Idol Singer – the visual tropes and social significance of a young photogenic person who can perform dance and singing, made into a very particular style of pop star.
  • A hikikomori – a term used to refer to the social condition of long-term shut-ins, people who cut themselves off from society at large and sometimes ask of their family to support them, or support themselves through online labour.
  • An Action Girl – While common in western media as well, there’s something of a genre set of tropes for women who engage in combat. In this case it refers to someone with a very ‘cool’ aesthetic.
  • A Teen Soldier – A lot of Japanese media makes use of strangely young members of military and combat forces, often in the Giant Robot genre or other high-tech series that are, for lack of a better word very ‘toyetic.’ Part of this is to connect to an audience, part of it is just because of modern genre convention.

One of the nice things about genre media is that there’s a lot of room to do interesting or different things with them. If a character generally fulfills the role of their archetype, if they tick a check-list of traits, it’s very easy for them to feel ‘right’ in their genre. So for this case, the idea that the idol character is also an emergent AI that isn’t about fearing technology was important.

What followed was an exercise in creativity, filling out the spaces of these characters – and then, when I sat back and surveyed what I created, I saw as other values were revealed to me.

Unconscious Values

First things first as I sat down to make my presentations about this game, I approached all the decisions I made as if I had to defend them. I realised that as I had created this project, that there was more of me in it than I’d done so deliberately.

First of all, when I set out to make the game a card game, a multiplayer cooperative experience, I thought I had done so initially to make the design simple and easy for me to make. But there were many things that would make the game faster and easier. Memory tokens, for example, or demanding that the players keep track of extra elements. Making the  game competitive would actually make design much easier – because then half the game is just making a balanced system, and putting those two systems against one another.

I wanted to make this game cooperative because I like playing with people, but not necessarily against them. The experience of a deck-building game is much more of crafting a machine than it is about defeating an opponent.

The game is also small – physically, tangibly small. Some games are very big and that’s nice, but I do like the idea of being able to slip a Middleware deck into my pocket, and just go somewhere with it. If the opportunity to play comes up, I can play, and I can teach or share that experience with my friends.

Typically a larger game, as a product is actually more likely to succeed in a marketplace. It means the case and front of the game stands out, it serves as its own advertisement. I didn’t want to do that with Middleware. I felt like it was more important to ensure that players could hold the product in their hand, that they could carry it with them.

I felt in that, that I wanted to respect the players’ logistical needs more than my own marketing needs.

Second of all, the characters that resulted expressed ideas that tie them to the people I care about. This game, without deliberate intention, has become a game about my friends.

The character of Tara Kazeno is a mix of Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, a transhumanist anime with a focus on a technologist future. Her western influence, however, flows from Javert from Les Miserables -a character who I see inextricably linked to one of my friends. She is a fierce, angry woman, possessed of a great sense of justice, an uncompromising view on the rightness of the world, even as she recognises the reality of the world she is in. Kazeno does not experience a world that accommodates her – she is at odds, oppositional to it in all ways. Trapped between corporate interests and justice, she has to make a choice between living her life as she would, true to her ideals, or complying with corporate oversight. Her body, her life is part of an interface with a complex system of incentives and money, that tell her she does not own her own body.

Tara was inspired in no small part by trans friends telling me about how they ultimately are engaged in a nearly-daily conflict to have access to technology that lets them exist as who they are. This isn’t some dystopian future – it’s a thing that’s real, today. I imagine the story of Tara is that of a woman who is finally acting, as thoroughly as she can, to own herself.

The character of F10RA is a mix of a Vocaloid character, an idol singer, and a contrary view of western AI. In almost all forms of media where AI come up as characters, the characterisation of AI is of a doom-seeking apocalyptic kind. The assumption is that there’s something about AI that will just naturally want to destroy humanity, that it will annihilate us because we don’t matter to it. The implication is that there’s something inherent to humanity to makes us assert the value of humanity, or the notion that there’s something humanising, a soul or the like, that an AI could never be taught or helped to understand.

When I talk to programmers who do not believe in souls, this perspective – this overwhemlingly common  persepective – seems both othering and cruel. We live in a world full of people who have to learn how to interact with people – but our writing tells us that such creatures are monsters.

I wanted to make F10RA represent the idea that you can be very different but at the same time, still matter and still be a person. F10RA is an AI girl but she also can connect to neuroatypical people – she is inspired, in part, by friends who experience neuroatypicality like autism or faceblindness.

Akito Carlyle touches on youth rights – something that I’ve grown to see more and more important as my friends and I share our experiences with abusive or harmful home and adult environments. Akito is a child who has been conscripted into a war, then pampered with a variety of treats that are meant to defuse any criticism or complaint he has about his state or life. The notion is that as long as certain needs of his are met, he is not permitted to make choices or consider his own future – even if that means he’s conscripted into killing people. With some of the trappings of Esports, the modern fear of drone warfare, and the millenial concern of the elderly punching down at them, Akito is meant to be an expression of frustration at having control over his own life and choices removed from him.

Finally, Haruka Em is an example of the people who do not fit into conventional capitalist labour-market values. They work very hard, consistantly – and they struggle against medical concerns that most people don’t consider important or meaningful. They have their identity ignored, their lifestyle criticised, and their support networks eroded, and that mostly flows from observing the way my friends are often induced or coerced to try and comply with standard models of ‘how people should be.’ This helped define Haruka’s character quote – I’m okay. I’m just not like you. I know coders and web designers and data enterers and artists who want to create, who want to work, but who are unable to access that work because they do not comply with a standard model of ‘how people should be.’ Haruka Em stands as a cloud of wonderful, whole people I love, who are told by the world that they don’t exist, or that their needs are not legitimate needs.

Conclusion

In the end I think the real thing that Middleware reflects in my values is that I value my friends. I love them, in this mangled and broken way I have, where I have a hard time feeling like I’m doing any good. I try to show them things that they inspired in me, I try to share with them the stories that they helped craft in my head, and how the world may not be a fair place or a fun place, but it is a place with them in it, and that they matter.

It is a machine that tells stories – my stories, but also it gives players a way to tell and find stories they’d never have thought of.

The good news is that in this case, there’s a chance that this product is, itself, marketable. That I can take the stories of my friends, spin them into something, and share those people with strangers, and in so doing, hopefully, make people out there remember that the world is full of more stories than they may just have expected.


 

References

  • Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Print.
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