Arash John Sammander

PRAYERS ON A PORCELAIN ALTAR, AKA WHAT THE HELL ARE WE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING? (UNDERSTANDING GAMES, LARP REVIEW)

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So we are all laying around on the cold floor or hard tables of the game design lab in TAIK Media Lab, Helsinki Finland.   Half of us read the rules for the game and others just got the gist of the part they had to play.  Each person had a character sheet describing their personality, what they did last night and how they felt about the current situation.  Fortunately for me my character was exactly who I am in real life so all I had to do was just act natural.  Supposedly waking up with really bad hangovers we find out that we are in someone’s house after a crazy party, maybe celebrating the end of entrance exams to a theater school we are all trying to get into.  One of us finds a bloody bed and we are all so nauseous that we don’t dare go anywhere but the bathroom.

We laid there till one of the characters finally broke the silence and mumbled something I have long forgotten.  After a few minutes of a really confusing discussion, she got up went upstairs, then hurried back, warning us of the bloody bed upstairs that none of us would be able to go to.  So here we all began to try to move the game forward.  My character’s job was supposed to be the realistic one, and move the group forward to solve the problem, but at the same time I had realized that I had sex with someone last night and was hoping that I didn’t kill anyone.  The thing that was even more awkward was that there were only two other females playing the game and none of them seemed to have gotten laid last night.  So I had a sinking feeling I had sex with one of the guys, or the person that I did actually sleep with was one of the characters that we did not pick.  Or could I be the killer?

From here, it was pretty much confusion, all of us trying to force ourselves to attack the other character’s morals, etc.  Hoping that we could turn up the killer, if there really was one.  Unfortunately this never happened.  A few people got up to go to the bathroom room and when they left, no one said anything special which I had assumed was a perfect time for us to gossip to find out what was going on, but alas things just drudged along.  No one really finding anything out and after about ninety minutes of just sheer force and confusion the story never got anywhere.  We were all just as confused as when we had begun.

I believe the main problems were that we all knew each other fairly well, and just had too much trouble really trying to attack each other to the point that something might have probably happened.  It would have been nice to have some type of moderator, someone that knew the bigger picture and tried to help us along, but alas we just basically ran around in circles until people finally gave up and decided to leave.   Afterwards we discussed the event and also read all of the sheets, hoping to find out who did what and still we were lost and confused into exactly what was supposed to happen and where we were supposed to go.  What was the final outcome supposed to be?  Was it supposed to be so open ended that anything is valid?  If this was the case then it is very hard to ever predict what will happen from this game and to guarantee a rewarding experience to all players.  Though I really wanted this to go well, in the end, it just kind of became more of an awkward waste of time.

If I were to say one thing that might have made things easier on us, it would have been to specify strong clear goals that the characters have to achieve and what the outcomes of achieving or not achieving them would result in.  Some type of risk versus reward, some type of direction.  Anything so the players would know if they were on the right track, if there was any track to begin with.  Maybe we missed the point.  But I hope we do get a better understanding of what was actually supposed to happen if we continue to play the scenario over, maybe this time with a full ten people.

HALF-OGRES CAN’T FLY. (UNDERSTANDING GAMES, LECTURE #5)

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So this huge ogre with chain-mail and a pet whirlwind (Dingy, I think it was called.) is chasing us to the edge of this cliff.  The rest of the party consisting of various Dragonlance characters, a minotaur, kinder, and my half-ogre mage are all running for dear life.   Me being the heroic idiot that I was, decided to “slow him down,” while the others got away, ignoring the obvious signs from the game master that this was not the stunt I should be trying to pull right about now.  I mean what really got us to this point?  I don’t remember exactly.  I was feeling all the real emotions that I would be feeling if I was actually there in real life, which was awesome.  It was the early 1990’s and these were our adventures in the world of AD&D.

We would plan for weeks in advance, fighting with our parents to allow us to sleep over my best friend’s place.  My parents would rarely let me go, my father usually telling me that home is a place for sleep and that I should always come home. Sometimes for birthdays, special occasions, or when my parents had gone away on trips, I would be able to stray from the rules.

Outside of our AD&D campaigns, I would draw little comics of our adventures and the big events that would happen to us.  I would draw bubbles above the cartoon characters and my best friend would write the dialog.  Sometimes he would write thing so funny that we would cry from laughter.  Like one time I had a picture of Riverwind getting killed by a dragon (or something) and he laid there as mass of body parts and guts, us standing over him sad and confused.  My best friend wrote, “Gee, I didn’t know Riverwind was made of silly putty, I wonder if he can copy comics.”  This was my favorite picture of all time.  Unfortunately as always most of these things were lost in the many spring cleanings that my family would have when I happen to “not be around.”

So back to where we began, I turned around, thinking I was some bad ass warrior and threw my +1 magic dagger at the ogre, and after a failing dice roll and the game master shaking his head, looking at me like I’m an idiot, the dagger bounces off his chest like a pebble.  Then my best friend assuming the role of the ogre points at me and in an angry ogre voice, commands his whirlwind to commence throwing me off the side of the cliff.  Ironically, I’m sure I got to the bottom of the cliff before the others.

When my character had died, I was actually at the brink of tears and had to leave the room.  It was amazing now looking back how much real emotion I had felt for a character that never really existed but that I had associated so strongly with.  Much later, my friend came up and told me I was resurrected and we could continue our adventure.  Though, I said that this was bullshit and that I thought I should stay dead, he told me he did a successful roll to recover me and I was legitimately resurrected not just a fake roll to bring me back to make me feel better.  To be honest, that may have been the last day that we had ever played AD&D.  Soon we just grew up, and got so busy with life that we never resumed our adventures.  It was a nice feeling though, going through old hard back AD&D books and coming across my character sheet, looking over the stats, and remembering all the good times we had.

STUCK IN THE MUD. (UNDERSTANDING GAMES, LECTURE #4)

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Unfortunately, long ago, upon graduating from high school (mid-90’s), I was considered by the state of Delaware and the US educational system, not “smart enough” to go directly to a university.  Probably cause of my poor PSAT/SAT scores.  I have no idea.  But I remember being told by my counselor that I could probably hope to become a gym teacher one day.  (Mind you I graduated from that same school magna cum laude with two engineering degrees.) Which to me was a riot cause I pretty much sucked at pretty much all the “cool” jock sports.  Instead doing well in things like volleyball and badminton.  Anyway, I was required to go to a transitional college to “prove” myself before I was accepted into one of our universities.  So while in this school I studied the same subjects and got the same credits that would transfer to my future university, just that I would be eased into university life.

While there, I became a fan of MUDS (Multi User Dungeons).  Lets not just say a fan.  I became addicted.  In the beginning yes, things were interesting, even though it was just some colored text that would scroll up the screen.  I think what was most attractive was that it had grinding RPG elements tied to a social activity.  It was here I had my first MUD crush, as you would call it.  Meeting a girl (I hoped), and talking about more interesting things outside of the MUDDING environment was very much a high.  Of course I eventually met other guys that filled me in on her not being up front about a lot of things and treating all guys the same way, so I was not her special “one.”

Then there is the official trading of photos.  And of course you will see what you expect; it is not Megan Fox on the other side.  Megan and the other hot girls are out with the guys that used to beat the crap out of you in school.  You my friend, have reached the all time low of trying to build a relationship with someone you haven’t seen or met in person in an online environment.  Eventually things did not work out and we went our separate ways.  But alas this was not the death of my mudding days.  The nail in my mudding coffin was from a Miller Lite (Beer) model.

I was the top student in my Elementary Evolutionary Ecology (Say that three times fast.) class.  One day a really beautiful girl from class came up to me.  She had jet-black hair and mesmerizing blue eyes.  She asked if I could tutor her in the class.  Of course I’m living with my parents still so no way to ever get her to come to my place, so every day after class we sat and studied together in the school dining hall.  Anyway, long story short, she got a B in the class and came the last day in the lab to thank me personally.  I being the idiot that I was, did not realize that she wasn’t just thanking me, but wanting to “thank me,” by saying maybe we can hang out sometime.  I of course being so into my game said, “sure no problem, sounds cool, talks to you later.”  I blew her off!  So she said bye and left.

Immediately all of the other guys in the lab stood up in unison and said you are a #$%*ing idiot!  That girl was hitting on you and you were too dumb to notice.  I froze, replaying everything in slow motion, analyzing every word.  They were right; I just threw away my chance with being with the hottest girl I had ever met in my life (Of course not as beautiful as my wife who is probably reading this; checking up on me.)!  I said, maybe I should go after her?  They said No!  It is too late, you #$%*ed it up, there is no going back.  I agreed, and sat down staring at the colored words going up my screen.  They no longer held my interest and became colored words again, like they always had been, and my days of mudding had come to an end.

GAME IMMERSION, BLEED, AND PLAYER RESPONSIBILITY. (UNDERSTANDING GAMES, LECTURE #3)

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Any good role-playing game will cause the player to go in and out of character and an immersive flow throughout play.  Of course this flow is not constant and can even last for fractions of a second as the outside world brings forth its distractions via ringing phones, yelling moms, and nagging spouses.  Especially good games can cause a mingling or bleeding between fiction and reality, sometimes to the determent of the player, causing him to get slapped for hitting on a girl in “tlhlngan Hol.”

Some may underestimate the actual power and seduction of fantasy and the dangers of this bleed.  Though embarrassing to speak of today, I can only look back to my younger days as a teenager with a smirk.   Reading punisher comics, I played the secret role of Frank Castle, The Punisher; a badass vigilante, taking pop shots at old j-walking grannies and litterbugs on the streets of New York.  Of course preventing more serious crimes through very effective and mostly violent and unlawful techniques.  But who the hell cares?  They deserve that form of punishment for what they did to my wife and two kids.  Mind you I had enough trouble getting a date to the dance in our local gym, let alone have time for a wife and children.

Fortunately for me, 7th grade middle school in the suburbs of Delaware was far from the mobs and back alleys of New York.  Here the double layers of foam pad that I had sewn under my T-shirt bearing the Punisher skull were my Kevlar.  It may not stop real bullets, but at least the punches of the local bullies who wanted to steal my lunch money.  But in my mind, it was the most powerful protection known to child-kind.  When wearing it, I swore I felt more powerful. I was in the flow!  Unfortunately all good things must come to an end.  Someone finds out my secret identity, and notifies the local bully-mob and my days as Frank Castle, the Punisher of playground bullies is over, as well as not having any lunch money for the rest of the year.

Was I playing a game?  I probably was.  Where winning meant I had lunch that day, and losing meant I would go home with a growling tummy.  Even though I was playing alone, the role did bleed into my normal life, and I did act differently.  But at the end of the day I was still the little guy that acted and reacted the same way to things that I had learned throughout my life growing up.  So this brings me to the point, are players responsible for their actions when they are “only role-playing?”  This is a definite yes!  If I were to have taken one of those bullies, tied him up to a chair, and bitch slapped him silly, it may have felt good, and probably been what The Punisher would have done, but alas, I was not Frank.  I was Arash John Sammander, 7th grader and bully lunch money vending machine.

So I would have probably gotten a suspension from school (Giving vacation time from school to bad children is probably one of the stupidest inventions of the US educational system.  But I digress.) and my parents would have been notified, etc.

So for all you people out there that stab your friends in the back or cheat on your significant others during role-playing games because you are playing a different character, the only person you are fooling is yourself.  Take it from me, I have the scars, and lack of lunch money to prove it.

STORIES IN ROLE-PLAYING GAMES? A PHILOSOPHICAL DISPUTE. (UNDERSTANDING GAMES, LECTURE #2)

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A proposed statement:

If a story is the recounting of past events, then a story cannot be a present nor future occurrence, and can only exist after those said events have ended.  Thus a story cannot be told or exist in a live event and can only be produced from it.

Assuming this to be true, one could say that a role-playing game cannot tell a story unless it is successfully completed, thus they do not exist in the realm of RPGs and are only produced from them.

I don’t agree with this idea because I have a different view on what a story actually is.  I never really thought deeply about what a story was until I was working on a project for a design company that wanted to create a service that allowed individuals to be able to share stories with each other.  While interviewing my uncle (who is a well-known philosopher in the afghan community and fell within the company’s user base), when presented with the question of if he was interested in telling stories, he said no and regarded them as being childish.  He was not interested in telling the story of Sr. Isaac Newton’s observations of the falling of an apple but instead his opinions on Newton’s theories that were later developed from that occurrence.  I said well that can be a story too.  And he did not agree, and we had an interesting discussion, both of us learning from the other, and broadening our scope of what we defined as stories.

So if I were to define stories, I would expand on them to say that since they include one’s opinions, they can also include all occurrences of one’s life, including the one that they were currently living.  Thus the story of telling a story is also a story, and the act of living life could be the telling of that story.

Though this might seem confusing, we could look to Goffman’s (1974) and Fine’s (1983) breakdowns and descriptions on social frames and see that blurring can occur when one does not know exactly which frame she is currently in at any given moment: outside, game, or diegetic.  Delving deeper into this, we could also argue that the second a thought occurs in ones mind, it is now no longer in the present and thus in the past.  So all of the thoughts, utterances, and situations leading up to a game can be included in the over all story of playing the game.  Thus there can be an outside, game, and diegetic story.  So the guy delivering pizza to your game is part of the on going story.  The ideas going on in ones head only spoken to herself can also be a story leading up to that specific second in time.

In addition to this the game master also has a set storyline that she is trying to describe and create as the game progresses.  This outline contains a story, even if the players never play the game.  The story still exists, even if fragmented with no one to read it aloud, like a book of ideas that is never opened.

If we were to combine these ideas, we can easily see that the act of living in the present moment is the continual creation of a story that I am telling through this text, and as each word is created it now becomes part of the past and further extends the story of me writing for lecture #2 of understanding games.

Things to ponder on:

Does a story have to end?  Does it exist if it is never told?  If it is my life, does it end when I die?  What if I’m talked about till the end of time?  What if the stories change each time they are told?  Am I immortal?  I have no ending therefore I have no story?


REFERENCES TAKEN FROM LECTURES SLIDES #2

Goffman, Erving (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

Fine, Gary Alan (1983): Shared Fantasy. University of Chicago Press.

WHAT IS A ROLE-PLAYING GAME? (UNDERINGSTANING GAMES, LECTURE #1)

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What is a role-playing game exactly?  I think before one can really understand the term, we would need to try and define what a game is.  This can fill volumes of text describing various theories from many different people.  To keep things simple and to not drag this article on to long, I will try to define a game and then use that definition as a basis to define what role-playing is in that context.

So what is a game then?  I believe there are a few key components that must exist for something to be defined a game:

– Interactivity – with the game itself, or other players.
– Challenge – in the form of decision-making and/or against others.
– Rules – defined by the game system or group of players, which is agreed upon.
– Goals – in the form of winning / losing conditions.

Though these things exist in other contexts as well, they must exist within a game.  Some may say it has to be fun; the players must be willing to play and what about self defined goals?  To this I say players can be forced to play a game and not enjoy it. Watch any of the SAW movies for a good example; the “players” are definitely not willing to play.  It may not be a game to them but to the killer it sure is.  Self-defined rules and goals also pose a problem in that they can turn anything into a game.  I could for example say that typing this is a game.  I must finish in a set amount of time, have a set amount of words, and if I don’t, I lose.  This doesn’t sound like fun now does it?  This brings us to the most overlooked component.  FUN!  Unfortunately I cannot include this because there are many games that lack this.  Back to the SAW example, I’m sure the players are not having fun playing someone else’s game but just cause they don’t want to play does not make it something other than what it is, a game with their life.  I do admit though, that in most gaming scenarios, willingness to play is a key in that if it does not exist, one’s job can fit into these key elements.

So now that I roughly fleshed what a game is, let us look at role-playing.  Lets break this word down into two different words, role and play.  A role is the act of someone performing a set duty within a given society.  This can be self-assigned or governed to them.  The society can be the entire human race, the people of a certain country, state, province, group, etc.  As long as more than one person accepts the position of this person, they can say they have that role.  At the most basic terms, one could say, “I’m the head of the household.” All that I need to accept this role are my wife and kids.  Now, play can be the act of doing an action for the amusement of oneself or for/with others.  This action usually is performed willingly, bringing enjoyment and fulfillment.  Now that I have basically defined theses two words, when combined we see that role-play is willing assuming a role in a given situation to bring forth enjoyment and fulfillment.

Thus a role playing game is a challenging, interactive system containing rules and goals, in which individuals assume an accepted role for personal pleasure. Though this definition is probably far from complete, it lays out a good framework and foundation to build upon as one delves deeper into this genre.