Archive for New Media

Talk at University of Maryland

I gave a talk at the University of Maryland today (that’s where I work) as part of its “Semester on War and Representations of War.” A little odd to come out to friends and colleagues as a (war) gamer, but generally an interested and receptive audience. I had copies of several different games out to show, including Avalon Hill’s hoary Afrika Korps and something more recent, Bowen SimmonsNapoleons Triumph. One of the byproducts of the event was getting to meet a couple of new local gamers, including the gent behind Flash of Steel, where there is a nice write-up of the proceedings. From there I also stumbled across this entry on Soren Johnson’s Designer’s Notes blog (such an obvious title for a game design blog too—now why didn’t I think of it?).

I offered three reasons for my interest in table top wargames in an academic setting:

  • that they are a forgotten piece of ludology, the lack of knowledge about them today disproportionate to their historical influence and market share;
  • their function as “paper computers,” that is open systems (or models, the term I prefer) to take apart and put back together again, very different from computer games where source code and the underlying model is often out of reach;
  • finally, the new spaces they open for representation and rhetoric, to which end I briefly discussed War on Terror, as well as the computer game September 12th.

Of course what goes unstated in such a setting are the other reasons we play games, which have a lot more to do with sociability and something called “fun” than these higher minded rationales. But it was a good discussion, if a bit scattered at times—lots of people wanted to talk about first person shooters, for example. (Unexplored question: what’s the difference between a war game and a violent game?)

Lots of good feedback afterwards, including people asking if this is something I write about. Speaking of which, I see Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Third Person, in which I have an essay on board wargames, is listed as out in May 2009 from MIT Press.

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Couldn’t Resist

Godwin's Law

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On Debord’s Kriegsspiel and Board Wargames

From watercoolergames, Wolves Evolve, and VirtualPolitik comes the astonishing news that the estate of Guy Debord has issued a cease and desist to Alex Galloway for his Radical Software Group’s recent implementation of Debord’s Game of War (Kriegsspiel).

As woeful and bizarre as I find that news, the ensuing discussion in the blogs and comments has manifested some terminological confusion over the use of the word Kriegsspiel (the title Galloway employs for Debord’s Le Jeu de la Guerre, A Game of War).

Kriegsspiel, of course, is German for (literally) “war game.” In 1824, the Prussian staff officer Georg von Reisswitz formally introduced the game (versions of which had been kicking around in his family for years) to his fellow officers. (“This is not a game! This is training for war!” one general is said to have exclaimed.) It was quickly adopted, and became the foundation for the German use of wargaming which persisted through World War II (these are the “sand table exercises” of which Friedrich Kittler writes in his cryptic preface to Grammaphone, Film, Typewriter). Some, however, have interpreted the tradition of the German Kriegsspiel and Debord’s apparent use of the same title as evidence that Debord’s game is itself a derivative work, and that Galloway’s implementation of it is simply another instance of the game’s progression since the early 19th century.

Unfortunately, this is factually incorrect. The von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel was played by laying metal bars across maps to mark troop dispositions. By the middle of the 19th century, it had evolved two major variants, so-called “rigid” and “free” Kriegsspiel. The latter attempted to replace the elaborate rules and calculations of the game with a human umpire who makes decisions about combat, intelligence, and other aspects of the battlefield. Kriegsspiel is thus the title of a loose family of military map exercise games, which emerged and evolved throughout the 19th century. (The authoritative account of the origins and development of Kriegsspiel as I have been recounting them here is to be found in Peter Perla’s excellent The Art of Wargaming [Naval Institute Press, 1990].)

Debord’s game bears only the vaguest generic resemblance to the tradition of Prussian Kriegsspiel. The Kriegsspiel was played on actual military topographical maps, often of terrain that was anticipated as the scene of future conflict (for example, the Schlieffen plan was subject to extensive rehearsal as a Kriegsspiel, using contemporary maps of the Ardennes). Debord’s game, by contrast, is played on a gridded board that depicts two abstract nations or territories, more or less symmetrical in terms of geographic features.

metzsegment.jpg eclectics5_lrg.jpg

Above is a small section of the so-called “Meckel map,” the 1:7500 map set that became canonical for play of early Kriegsspiel, alongside of the 2007 Atlas Press print edition of Debord’s game.

Debord’s game actually bears a much closer resemblance to the tradition of commercial board wargaming I write about here on ZOI. I have no idea (or way of knowing) whether Debord was familiar with these games himself, but there are family resemblances worth pointing out. In 1958, Charles S. Roberts founded the Avalon Hill Game Company to publish his military game products, the first of which was called Tactics II. It is a generic conflict game between two abstract combatants, red and blue. Alongside of games on specific historical battles and campaigns (like Gettysburg, which came out the same year) Roberts and others in the emerging hobby published occasional abstract conflict games which sought to model the essence of warfare. Here, for example, is portion of the board for Tactics II, which shows a “mountain pass” (also a key terrain feature in Debord’s game):

tactics.jpg

There are some important differences, however, between Roberts’ designs and Debord’s. Roberts introduced the use of the Combat Results Table, basically a Monte Carlo table with a distributed set of outcomes based on odds ratios of the combatants. To resolve an engagement, players tote up the odds of the forces involved, add modifiers or column shifts for terrain and the like, then roll a die and consult the table to determine the outcome. In Debord’s game, by contrast, combat is deterministic. One calculates the total number of offensive and defensive points that can be brought to bear on a contested grid square, and based on those numbers the defending unit either retreats, is eliminated, or holds its ground. Nothing is left to chance.

Debord’s game also no doubt owes something to the tradition of chess variants that were popular throughout the 20th century, including the “Kriegsspiel” variant that John von Neumann famously enjoyed, in which play proceeds in a double blind manner (neither player is aware of the location and position of his opponent’s forces). Or else consider a 1933 Soviet military variant by A.S. Yurgelevich: “The game is played on a board of 128 squares, obtained by adding to all four sides of a regular eight by eight board a strip of two by eight (or eight by two) squares. Players have each twenty-four pieces: a headquarter, a bomber, a tank, two guns, two cavalry, two machine-guns, and fifteen soldiers.”

chessbat.gif

(Thanks to Peter Bogdasarian for this reference.)

A final note. Alex Galloway, in his writing about Debord’s Game of War, makes much of the “rhizomatic” nature of the all-important lines of communication that govern each side’s ability to move and fight their pieces:

[A] sympathetic reading of Debord would be to say that the lines of communication in the game are Debord’s antidote to the specter of the nostalgic algorithm. They are the symptomatic key into Debord’s own algorithmic figuration of the new information society growing up all around him. In short, Kriegspiel is something like “Chess with networks.”

Perhaps. But it’s worth noting, that while absent from games like Chess and Go, such lines of communication had been a standard feature of commercial board wargames in Roberts’ tradition since at least the 1968 (fateful year) publication of James Dunnigan’s 1914, a strategic level game on the First World War. As typically expressed, the mechanic requires units to be “in supply” or else suffer grievous consequences. Being in supply means being able to trace a line of contiguous hexes, free from enemy units or their “zones of control” to a friendly map edge or supply depot. In practice, this sometimes required excessively “gamey” tactics, as players would trace elaborate looping lines of supply, skirting enemy units to eventually corkscrew around back to their own rear areas. Debord’s lines of communication are much less forgiving, their hard geometries undeniably evoking something of the grid or the matrix that feels very contemporary (Gibson’s “lines of light” in the non-space of cyberspace).

It would be fascinating to know what, if any, contact Debord has with board wargames from companies like Avalon Hill and SPI. We know, says Galloway, that he played political strategy games like Djambi. Board wargames enjoyed similar public popularity during the time when Debord was developing his Game of War, and it is not inconceivable that he would have encountered them.

Others can comment with more authority than I on the ultimate legal merit or lack thereof of the cease and desist. I can say that Debord’s game, while not much in the tradition of classic Prussian Kriegsspiel, does bear some resemblance to other commercial wargame designs then popular in the marketplace. All games, it seems to me, emerge from a thick tissue of tradition and ideas, and it would be a shame indeed if Debord’s work was denied this revival of interest over tired matters of originality and “infringement.”

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Guy Debord’s Kriegspiel

Turns out Situationist extraordinaire Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle and other works) was also a grognard:

In January 1977, the French Situationist Guy Debord founded the Society for Strategic and Historical Games. The Society had an immediate goal: to produce the “Kriegspiel,” a “game of war” that Debord had already designed in his head years before. Inspired by the military theory of Carl von Clausewitz and the European campaigns of Napoleon, Debord’s game is a chess-variant played by two opposing players on a game board of 500 squares arranged in rows of 20 by 25 squares.

Debord’s Kriegspiel has now been reimplemented online by new media arts collective RSG. There’s also a printed edition available from Atlas Books. Here’s an excellent background article.

Debord and his wife, Alice Becker-Ho playing the game

Debord's Kriegspiel, as implemented by RSG

(Via GrandTextAuto.)

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My Spring Seminar

Syllabus for my graduate seminar this spring:

SIMULATIONS

Is simulation the consummate genre of the 21st century? How can we negotiate between simulation as a trope of science fiction and cultural fantasy (the Matrix, to name one obvious example) and the non-virtual reality of the Strip in Las Vegas, or the best-selling video game franchise The Sims? The objective of this seminar will be to range freely between simulation as the essential focalizer of the postmodern, between practices of applied modeling in humanities research online (such as the Virtual Vaudeville project, which painstakingly recreates a performance in a turn of the century Manhattan theater), and between simulation as an established mode and form of digital gaming. We will read widely in the literature and theory of simulation, from obvious high postmodern candidates like DeLillo, Baudrillard, and Haraway to more exotic sites of engagement, such as military technology, theoretical mathematics, artificial life, and the philosophical discourse of modeling. Indeed, our goal will be eventually to adjudicate among three interrelated terms: simulation, modeling, and gaming; and to come to grips with their import and distinctions in the contemporary milieu. To what extent are these forms and practices rivals or competitors to the literary? Can a simulation (or a game) sustain a narrative? Is the virtual merely the latest act or art of wish fulfillment in an age-old progression of mimetic conceits, or is it something else? Something new?

A key component of the course will be a set of hands-on explorations using the popular virtual world Second Life. You will engage with the cultures and sub-cultures of Second Life by creating avatars and participating in the communities and events of this thriving virtual world (current population: 10 million). With only slightly greater investment, you may also learn to “build” in Second Life, contributing your own objects, structures, and experiences to the world. Part simulation, part model, and part game, Second Life will be the social arena in which we seek to activate and literalize our weekly conversations.

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Preserving Virtual Worlds

[News of new funded research I'm involved in. MGK]

The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) is delighted to announce we are partnering with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Stanford University, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Linden Lab (creators of Second Life) for a project funded by the Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) on PRESERVING VIRTUAL WORLDS. The two-year $590,000 award under NDIIPP’s Preserving Creative America program will be shared among the project participants.

The researchers leading the work at the University of Maryland are NEIL FRAISTAT (Professor of English and Director, MITH), MATTHEW KIRSCHENBAUM (Associate Professor of English and Associate Director, MITH), and KARI KRAUS (Assistant Professor, College of Information Studies and English).

The Preserving Virtual Worlds project will explore methods for preserving digital games, interactive fiction, and shared realtime virtual spaces. Major activities will include developing basic standards for metadata and content representation and conducting a series of archiving case studies for early video games and electronic literature, as well as Second Life, the popular and influential multi-user online world. According to Fraistat, “This award from the Library of Congress places MITH and its partners at the forefront of those addressing a range of increasingly urgent questions involving the preservation of creative works that are “born digital”–from interactive electronic literature, to digital games, to virtual worlds such as Second Life. We are especially pleased to have as an industry partner, Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life itself.”

In addition to contributing to the work on Second Life, Maryland will take the lead on interactive fiction/electronic literature as a sub-domain of the project, and will be occupied with all aspects of scoping, metadata, intellectual property, evaluation, and archiving of these materials. We will initially focus on a small number of targeted works of recognized cultural and literary significance, including former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s 1984 interactive novel Mindwheel, Will Crowther’s ADVENTURE (written in 1975 and widely considered the earliest interactive text of its kind), and selected items from a large private collection of 1980s-era hardware and software recently gifted to MITH. The international Electronic Literature Organization will also extend its support and in kind contributions to our work here at Maryland.

The project begins in January 2008. Notice of other recent Preserving Creative America NDIIPP awards is available here:
http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2007/07-156.html

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Grognards Invade Terra Nova

Nice thread on board wargames unspooling on Terra Nova, a group blog that serves as a hub for the virtual worlds brain trust. They give a shout out to the first piece of online writing I ever did about wargames, “I Was a Teenage Grognard,” which originated as a blog entry over on my MGK site and which seems to have found a good audience. That same piece garnered an extended reference over at Scratchpad a few weeks ago.

I’m glad to see the interest in board wargames in the mainstream ludology community, and that more and more folks are picking up on what’s seemed obvious to me for a while now, that these games remain relevant and have things to teach designers, players, and game scholars.

That’s basically the thesis of a longish piece I have forthcoming in Third Person, the follow up to the First Person and Second Person volumes already published by the MIT Press, and, like its predecessors, expertly edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. My chapter, called “War Stories: Board Wargames and Vast (Procedural) Narratives,” argues that it is procedural granularity that stimulates what Marie-Laure Ryan has termed narrativity, i.e. a game’s potential to serve as a narrative agent. The volume should be out in late 2008.

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Interviewed

Peter Leonteos and Bryan McCutcheon, two razor sharp students from Steve Jones’s Video Games and Textual Studies course, recently interviewed me over Skype. They did a great job preparing questions (Charlie Rose, eat your heart out). So, if you want to hear me natter on about academic game studies, digital preservation, formal materiality, and tabletop gaming, go grab the MP3 (~20 minutes, 22 MB).

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Remediation: Playing Games in Second Life

Second Life has become a venue for board games. Part of a genre of so-called “*ingo” games (sort of souped up Bingo, fast playing and very addictive), the latest, Zingo, is typical of the lot: “you comprehend it instantly, can play it reasonably well right away, and soon discover layers of strategy.” Game play involves transactions of Linden dollars, and thus becomes part of Second Life’s economy, to such an extent that according to one write-up the games have “dramatically changed the landscape.”

Of interest to me here is the recursion and overt remediation: Zingo is apparently derived (ripped) from the 1994 board game Take It Easy!.

[Thanks to Mike Siggins on Perfidious Albion for this.]

Zingo in Second Life      Take It Easy

Zingo in Second Life and Take It Easy! in real life.

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ASL Boards on Google 3D

Someone’s been using Google 3D to do some cool basic renderings of the ASL geomorphic map boards.

ASL Board 3 Made with Google 3D

Update 2/25: Here’s another.

Another Google 3-D ASL rendering

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