|My name is Christina Kelly, alias Peanut,
and I promote great games by creating strong gaming communities.
Check out some of my writing below!
Also see the About page for a brief bio.
[Originally posted on Google+ on Dec 21, 2011]
For as long as I’ve had easy access to them, I’ve been drawn to programmers and their self-created culture, yet I’ve never had a sustained interest in learning how to program, myself. I took one computer science class in college (the intro course for non-CS majors) and learned a bit about machine architecture and Java, but while it was nifty, it didn’t make me regret my own academic path. I was a linguistics major – I love natural language in all of its ridiculous intricacies and I love being able to communicate verbally with people and I love thinking about the deliciously opaque mental processes under it all. It’s pretty intuitive that an interest in human language might facilitate an interest in artificial or computer languages, but at the same time it puzzled me that I was much more interested in the people who used the computer languages than the actual languages themselves. I liked listening to my compsci friends discuss their problem sets and make nerdy references to their expanding knowledge. It didn’t frustrate me in the way that listening to an unknown foreign language sometimes frustrated me – it was more like listening to music. I couldn’t understand it perfectly, but it still spoke to me in a satisfying way.
Moving to Silicon Valley accelerated my development as an informed outsider to programmer society. I learned that each programming language has its own idiosyncrasies and, therefore, its own evangelists and haters. Charts like this made me giggle, but also fascinated me: http://bit.ly/4A3paS. There were clues everywhere telling me that these languages were not just differentiated by vocabulary and syntax, but also by fuzzier connotations of attitude and even emotion. Lisp is old and elegant; Perl is chaotic and community-driven; everybody loves to hate C++. I found out that most programmers worth their salt were fluent in multiple languages, since it’s trivial to learn a new programming language once you’ve mastered one – much more so than natural language. Programming languages are also much narrower in scope and much more abstract than natural languages, allowing speakers to champion their favorite language and bash others without the icky nationalistic/ethnic/racial trappings that firmly limit any such discussions about natural language (were such discussions even practical to begin with). Taken together with the engineer’s tendency towards certainty of opinion, you suddenly have culture clashes and borderline holy wars over something innately and starkly devoid of emotion. Someone who might seem robotic and removed when it came to typical conversations about pop culture, romance, etc. would turn around and passionately, humorously create this (the top answer, not the question): http://bit.ly/4pvfAB.
I have realized that I will probably never fully understand why Lisp is more elegant than Perl, since I doubt I would have the interest to learn them. I use language for communication and expression, and not for creation and organization. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the people who wield them in all of their glory – in fact, it probably facilitates this state of affairs. I like imagining programming languages as colorful man-made deities (Greco-Roman style) who are constantly being summoned, tinkered with, praised, and cursed by acolytes. For all that they are more often against religion than for it, I find that the true-blue software engineers resemble the prophets of yore – they are obsessed with strange and wonderful thoughts which many of us cannot imagine; they often do not conform well to “normal” society; they use unintelligible strings of words to create and destroy things, guided by a great system of knowledge larger than any one of them. I think software engineers are beautiful, powerful people. And I think if I tried to become one of them, then the magic would disappear. The noble sackcloth would be itchy and I could not approach that plane of existence as perfectly as I would want to.
So, even though I’m probably a pretty darn good coder in a parallel universe, I choose to observe and adore rather than become. But sometimes I do wonder what it would be like to sit down and just createfrom the sheer power of language – to produce something that needs no external validation or direct observation to be of value, in contrast to a work of natural language. I guess the grass is always #008000-er on the other side.
Today I had the pleasure of attending a talk by +Kent Hudson, a game designer at LucasArts, who spoke about design-driven storytelling in games (note: slides can be found at http://www.onethree.org/talks).
My philosophy on storytelling in general is that it is a crucial, hardwired part of the human experience. Human beings have a fundamental need to tell stories, hear stories, and, perhaps most importantly, create stories. The ability to construct a narrative out of the chaos of the world is part of what keeps our enormous, buzzing brains sane and stable, and is also part of what challenges us to keep putting one foot in front of the other and becoming more than we were before.
Video games are descended from a long line of pursuits that tap into this amazingly universal element of humanity. In the best cases, as I and I think Kent would argue, the video game storytelling experience is crafted so that players feel somehow that the story is about them, even if it takes place in a thoroughly foreign environment and includes situations that your average gamer would never find him or herself in. The most powerful storytelling in games is not the kind that leads you on a pre-set Disneyland cart ride through a cinematic tale (i.e. FFXIII), but the kind where you as a player see your own personality and decisions coming to life within an engaging world.
Kent brought up a bunch of really interesting examples from singleplayer games, including a tiny 8bit game called Passage as well as triple-A games like Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock 2, and others. One that I found fascinating was a brief look into the quest system of World of Warcraft – in the more typical kind of quest, your character walks up to a computer-controlled character (NPC) with an exclamation point over his head, and he gives you a little spiel about how he really, really needs the tusk of this particularly nasty boar for some kind of exotic but urgent purpose, and you’ll get a small reward if you go out and kill enough boars to obtain a good tusk specimen. Then there’s another kind of quest which you “discover” by finding a note in the pocket of some baddie you kill, purely by happenstance (well, you were purposefully killing him/it, but weren’t expecting the note), and the note happens to contain some kind of request that also advances the quest storyline. The latter, Kent argued, was a much more meaningful and engaging application of the quest mechanic to storytelling in WoW, because it suddenly feels like the story is about you. Your independent actions in the course of participating in a normal gameplay mechanic triggered a change in the story, which merges story and gameplay together without the artifice of a guy with an exclamation point over his head. You had real agency in your own game experience. That’s so powerful.
I was also fascinated by Kent’s description of Portal 2′s environment-based storytelling, and how this method exemplifies the idea that you don’t have to have amazing cut scenes with tons of animation and modeling in order to get people into a story, even in a top-quality game. In much of Portal 2, the voiceovers of the main antagonist and other key figures are disembodied – robots talking to you from speakers in the walls or recorded messages triggered by your actions in the game which play outside of cut scenes. It’s not like Valve didn’t have the resources to create amazing cinematic animations to go along with these voiceovers – it was a specific style choice of the game that really worked well for the game’s atmosphere and puzzle-oriented gameplay. You can do much more than you think with less than you think you need.
After the presentation, I was able to find Kent outside the auditorium and talk to him about one of my favorite subjects – StarCraft 2 competitive gaming and commentary. StarCraft 2 is an excellent example of a game that was very specifically designed to lend itself to creating engaging stories driven by players, as evidenced by the huge professional scene around it and the professional commentators (+Wolf Schröder +Dan Stemkoski +Nick Plott) who are needed to explain the story arcs of each game. I told Kent about a wonderful talk I attended at GDC this past year by SC2 lead designer Dustin Browder (+Rob Simpson in lieu of DB) where he explained the different ways his team developed game mechanics that would produce gameplay that would make for an excellent spectator experience – in other words, that would produce great stories. StarCraft 2 was designed in part to maximize the potential for the close win, the victory derived from a tiny advantage eked out through skill and speed (and a little luck), which translates into something really exciting that commentators and spectators go completely crazy over.
Compare this subtlety to the “rubber banding” of MarioKart, a racing game where players who are leading the pack have an obviously higher chance of getting crappy items to help them in the race compared to those in last place, who get awesome items that let them take potshots at those in the lead. As a result, races are closer than they might be without this mechanic, so it does get the job done, but in a very artificial way. MarioKart, Kent observed, will never be a competitive game (or a story-producing game) on the level of StarCraft 2. People most want to see and experience stories that people have agency in, not ones that are unduly influenced by mechanics obviously meant to level the playing field.
This talk really got me thinking about what storytelling means to good games and how gameplay can produce, enhance, and encourage players to create their own stories. Maybe it’s something I can bring to my own work, even if I am not directly involved in game design most of the time. At any rate, look up +Kent Hudson if you’re interested in this topic and don’t miss any talks by him going on in your area. He tells really great stories, which always makes for a good time.
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My alarm clock goes off. Well, it’s not really an alarm clock, because clocks are analog and made of wood and aren’t synched to anything. What wakes me up is something that has a passing visual similarity to an alarm clock, with hands and everything, but it’s a GUI for a program on one of my various devices that checks in with something on the internet that can tell the absolute correct time anywhere with atomic precision, which – let’s face it – is better. Let’s just call it an alarm.
My hand navigates to the device channeling the alarm so that I can shut it off. I am cocooned by several devices with enough computing power to guide several nuclear missiles simultaneously, but it doesn’t confuse me because they are all synched to the cloud, and any change I make on one of them is instantly reflected on all of them.
I start to check Gmail on my phone, then realize I also have my tablet handy and switch to that. Some emails from Linkedin and other random messages (maybe from my family, who realize I can only be contacted by email), but I get distracted by a red notifications box.
I check Google Plus – for an hour.
I take a shower and dress. Apparently it’s gorgeously sunny outside again. That’s cool, I guess. I put on a t-shirt and jeans, because anything dressier or slightly uncomfortable looking would be out of place at work.
I check Google Plus again on my desktop before I leave. A desktop is nice to have, too. You know, for gaming and stuff.
I pack up my company laptop, which is lying on the floor from working until late last night.
I drive my silver Prius to work. Parking is a bit of a hassle. The sun beats down on my head as I hurry inside to glorious air conditioning.
I check Google Plus. I love cat pictures and stimulating intellectual discussion about Google Plus.
There’s a very complicated coffee machine that I use in the kitchen, one of several in the building. It’s next to the fridge filled with soda and juice and the boxes of granola and chocolate bars. I can steam milk with this thing! Who needs Starbucks?
If my job does not specifically involve computer programming, it involves making sure that programmers can do their job efficiently. I creatively clear obstacles for them. I work very hard.
Why do people say that there’s no content on Google Plus? I follow like 30 Googlers on it and those folks alone are posting stuff all the time … about Google Plus. People just need to understand Circles better. I still don’t get Sparks, but don’t tell anyone.
I check TechCrunch. Man, apps are where it’s at. This graph with the curvy upward line says so. Look at how many people love Angry Birds! I secretly despise Angry Birds, but it’s a great use case for showing other people that apps are the future. I would definitely use more apps if I weren’t working all the time.
The Google Plus app is gorgeous. Zuckerberg must know about how superior it is to the Facebook app. Why doesn’t Zuckerberg post anything?
I think about the Singularity. We have to be close to it, right? I bet Silicon Valley will be the first in. Sweet.
I hear someone talking about reality TV. They must not be a programmer. Back to Google Plus.
Occasionally I will post something to a specific circle, just for the novelty of it, but I mostly like lurking on +Vic Gundotra’s posts and seeing how fast the comments come in. I wish I could get into a Hangout with +Bradley Horowitz, but I know I won’t be able to check my hair fast enough. Ever.
I have lunch at work. I have dinner at work. The people who commute from SF are all out by 5:30, probably because they do things like go to tiny bars to drink overpriced organic handcrafted beers with each other. I am secretly envious.
I drive home – it might still be a bit light out, but probably not. I bring my company laptop home. There are still bugs to triage.
I check the Onion and maybe watch a bit of the Daily Show. This is basically what I need to be aware of the world, although Google Plus takes care of most of that. Hey, a cat!
I check Facebook and Twitter on my netbook in bed, just out of morbid curiosity. They’re talking about reality TV or something. Meh. Facebook is just a fad, anyway.
I contemplate the cloud as I drift off in electronic serenity. The cloud has my alarm. It has my back.
[Some disclaimers and information: I specialize in community management for online games and the company I currently work for recently received a significant investment from Google Ventures. Also, my boyfriend works at Google.]
This article all started with a public Google+ post by Kelly Ellis, a software engineer at Google who works on Google+. She posted a short video update in the morning of July 1st describing some changes that the Google+ team would be making to their product over the long weekend. The leafy, sundappled background behind Ms. Ellis and her professional-yet-relaxed demeanor exemplified the Silicon Valley ease amidst unthinkably advanced technology. It’s like she’s just chatting with you over lunch about the project she’s working on – never mind that it’s the latest brainchild of the most cutting edge software company on Earth. 8 hours later, the video post had 1000 shares and almost 300 comments. Needless to say, a lot of people started following Ellis for future updates on the development of Google+, including me.
That wasn’t the interesting post, though. What fascinated me was a series of interactions that followed when Ellis posted to the public once more, in a more personal and frivolous tone (although notably still G+ related): “I’m going camping this weekend and I’m actually worried about being in the wilderness without a connection and separated from Google+…I’m addicted!” Amidst the many who were also excited about a) the holiday weekend and b) Google+, one less-than-positive comment stood out:
People immediately jumped in to support Ellis and bash the naysayer. Ellis herself cordially invited him to stop following her or “mute” the post so that he wouldn’t need to see it, but that she intended to make it publicly viewable. The naysayer very shortly thereafter posted a clarification and an apology:
In a sense, this fellow (let’s call him Smith) has a point. He probably initially came across Ellis because of her original update video and figured that she would primarily be posting information in developer diary style – casual, but focused on the product (similar to Google VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra’s stream). Her previous posts mostly discussed G+ features as well. Based on this small corpus of information and conventions for other social networking tools like Twitter, it’s not difficult to see why Smith might assume that Ellis’s posts would continue in the same educational vein, and why he might be a little miffed that Ellis seemed to be dragging down her own standards of discourse by posting something pretty trivial. The stage was set for a dilemma that many employees of web 2.0 companies find themselves in: as a creator of a participatory, discussion-oriented product who is interacting with users of that product, who are you? A spokesperson or a regular Joe? An information bot or a human being? In response:
Ellis is personifying an aspect of Google+ that may be one of the product’s most interesting – although least technological – innovations in the web 2.0 space. What if, instead of press releases and vanilla FAQ pages, you had the people who actually worked on the product itself hanging out and talking to users? What if a core feature of a next-generation social networking platform was the opportunity to talk to the people who made it, in a very natural and conversational way? What if Google+ weren’t just a way to connect with friends, but also a way to connect with the culture and people of Google?
As someone whose livelihood involves being a go-between for users on one side and developers on the other, I have seen the potential for disaster when developers try to engage users directly. I make my living trying to prevent (or at least moderate) these kinds of disasters. It’s not a pretty sight when game developers and players are in keyboard-to-keyboard combat, and it has dramatic consequences for the user community and the reputation of the product and company. It’s also easier for developers to make difficult decisions that may not be taken well by the users if they are shielded from the inevitable outrage that flares up. Users look to one reliable and hopefully personable source to receive information and give feedback, and then that source channels good feedback to the developers and in turn relays information from the developers in a way that is best for the users. This role is tricky in large part because you must make the users love you and trust you while not revealing too much about yourself. You must be enough of a person to seem real, but not enough to distract from the larger image of the product and the company. When someone with a company email address says something about a product, even when it’s clearly their personal opinion, imaginations and rumors run amok and can hurt the bottom line.
Google+ is certainly in its halcyon days. The early adopter crowd is largely intelligent, enthusiastic, sick of Facebook, and willing to try something new and shiny. This makes it easy for people like Ellis to enjoy the honeymoon period of community relations. But as the userbase expands and joining G+ becomes a matter of social networking’s “keeping up with the Joneses” – when people who see corporations in faceless black-and-white join the fray – what will happen to these interactions? Will Googlers be forced to add huge disclaimers to their profiles and toe a company line? Or will Google itself somehow coordinate and support the brilliant individuality of its involuntary ambassadors, creating a corps of developer-community specialists who amplify its brand a thousandfold? How long will it be before a Google employee makes a mistake on G+ that spreads like wildfire among the jaded and gossipy, and what will Google do in response?
Google has definitely earned itself a little breathing room and cause for celebration with its newest offering – Ellis and her co-workers have every right to buzz jubilantly in the playground they have so thoughtfully constructed for us. But as one who has seen the carnage at the front lines of community, I worry for Ellis even as I cheer her on. The days will come when people less reasonable and apologetic than Smith will arrive on the scene, and I hope that Googlers can continue to carry their professional affiliation as a plus to their real selves, rather than a minus. I look forward to getting to know some amazing people in the process.
Sunday night I came home from a glorious weekend at MLG Dallas. I was very happy I went, even if it took some time away from my quest to get to diamond league. This was my first MLG event and I noticed a lot of interesting differences between MLG’s StarCraft tournament and similar events in Korea. I’ve been in the live audience of many eSports events, both in Korea and in the US, and so the article below looks at the MLG event in comparison to the Korean style based on those experiences.
Walk into the Hilton Anatole convention center main room, and after about 30 steps you could turn left and see Day9 and djWHEAT’s 10 feet high faces smiling at you from a huge projector screen, surrounded by faceless bodies in darkness closer to the ground. This was the StarCraft II tournament at the Major League Gaming national finals in Dallas, Texas.
If you’d ever been to a live StarCraft event of note, the fundamental participants of MLG’s tournament would’ve been familiar to you – the SC2 competitors over in a gated section set up with tables and PCs, the commentators sitting at a podium with cameras and lights aimed at them, the fans and passerby watching the show from chairs, bleachers, floors, or mobbing the better-known players as they emerged from practice or play. There were also the familiar unexpected technical difficulities and other surprises that audiences have come to expect from most eSports events. But lurking right beneath these superficial similarities were huge differences between MLG and other events (namely, Korean events or Korean-style events like BlizzCon) in venue layout and tournament presentation which significantly affected the audience experience. I’d like to take some time to analyze these differences and discuss how they might be better understood by tournament organizers to improve on for future events.
Here is a diagram I’ve created (using Inkscape, which is a great open source SVG editor) comparing the layout of each venue from a birds’ eye perspective.
If you put yourself in the shoes of someone in the audience at MLG vs. Korea/BlizzCon (the two are lumped together because the venue layout is basically the same), you’ll notice some significant differences right away. For me, the biggest disparity was that, at MLG, there was no stage, and no way to watch the commentators and the game at the same time. The audience at MLG was essentially expected to watch the screen only, with glimpses of the competitors (or, farther away, the commentators) beyond the screen simply a side effect of venue space and physical convenience. In effect, from an official presentational standpoint, the experience of someone at the event and the experience of someone watching the HD stream at home were the same.
In Korean eSports stadiums (as of 2008) and at BlizzCon (2008 and 2010), the commentators are front and center (the players whose game is being casted are also visible via the player booths, but this is secondary). The game footage is visible from different perspectives on the screens behind the commentators, which is of course essential for the audience to understand what’s going on visually, but it is clear that the commentators are the main focus presentationally. They are the live guides to the tournament’s events, and if you’re up near the front of the audience you can see every gesture and grimace they make. This layout difference also differentiates the live experience from the HD stream experience – the audience can switch their focus between the game footage and the commentators whenever they choose to, which is not an option if you’re watching at home. The commentators are also much more aware of the reactions of the audience, which leads to more interaction between the two groups, and also makes fun stunts like the one below possible because of the short distance between the audience and the commentators’ podium:
[Originally posted on my TeamLiquid blog: www.teamliquid.net/blog/peanutsc]
This is a current screenshot (well, with some parts blurred for visual effect) of my Facebook profile’s “about me” section. For basically as long as there’s been a “Religious Views” field on Facebook (I’ve been on the site since about August 2005), it’s looked exactly like it does today. Religious Views: StarCraft.
At first it was just a “I’m not really religious and LOL wouldn’t it be funny to have a computer game as my religion” kind of thing, but upon further review it’s actually fairly representative of my relationship with this game.
Background: My Take on Religion
My take on religion is less the “worship one or more personified deities” approach and more the Asian philosophical approach. If you’re familiar with Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Shinto, or other such schools of thought, it’s easy to understand that these “religions” are really more like philosophical systems which influence and provide structure to their adherents’ worldviews as profoundly as religion in the more familiar sense does. These systems each offer a set of concepts and metaphors which attempt to make sense of the world within a certain logical frame of reference. Some examples:
Human relationships come in 6 different types and each type has its own ideal role for each party involved. Pain and suffering come from an imperfect understanding of these relationships and violations of these roles.
One lifetime is a single link in a chain of reincarnations where the individual attempts to escape suffering and attain a higher state of existence.
These schools of thought try to organize and explain the rampant (perceived) chaos of life in a way that seems logical and intuitive from a certain perspective. To an extent (that is, from my perspective), you can apply this to the scientific method and more archetypal religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.):
Controlled observations of natural phenomena can be used to generate hypotheses regarding cause and effect, which can then be used to predict further related phenomena.
God gave humanity a means of redemption from (avoidance of/organization of/systematic outlook on) sin (i.e. chaos, pain, suffering) by creating Ten Commandments and then further by creating a human Savior who taught and personified this redemption.