Playing Lotus (2016)

This post is the first autoethnographic account in a research project for a future article to be titled ‘Cardboard Asia’.

Background
The lotus flower is a common element in Asian themed games where it is used to denote orientalism and mysticism. The flower, while often used to represent Chinese themes, also has a long history as the ‘sacred lotus’ in the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The lotus is, therefore, a polyvalent symbol and generic orientalist signifier. The lotus is featured in the German Der weiße Lotus (2000) that depicted territorial control in the middle ages and Flower of the Lotus (1996), which was republished under the title China Moon (1998). The German-only language version of Lotus (1998) is an award winning piece-stacking racing game with some strategical elements, which featured a red snake-like dragon on a grid layout that somewhat resembled a flowering lotus plant, a very stereotypical representation of Chineseness.

Lotus (2016) by Jordan and Mandy Goddard (Renegade Game Studios)

Lotus (2016)
The most recent Lotus boardgame first signals its ‘asianness’ representationally with the box cover that depicts a digital watercolour painting of a woman in traditional straight collar purple cheongsam with coiled buttons and green and gold embroidery, who appears to be levitating a glowing lotus flower. On the cover, the title ‘Lotus’ has a calligraphy-styled font, and the game’s designers are simply listed as ‘Jordan & Mandy’, while the back of the box has images of the game’s components. The back of the box signals the game’s Chineseness with a single hànzì character appearing next to the component list, which Google translates suggests is ‘lotus’. The game is illustrated by Anita Osburn and Chris Ostrowski, and made in China, but Lotus is published by Renegade Games studies, which is listed as a Californian company, who also publish two other popular Asian themed games Lanterns: The Harvest Festival and Honshu.

First encounter
As with most ‘boxed’ board games, the first game involves several commons experiences including the removal of shrink wrap, the ‘popping’ of cardboard tiles from the factory punched card stock and the learning of the rules. Our first game was a four player experience, with Harriet, my ten-year-old daughter, my partner Lucy, and our friend Jodie, who began reading the rule book while I search for a ‘how-to-play video on YouTube. The first game we played was an introduction to the game’s aesthetic experience that I described as ‘beautiful meanness’. Playing the game involves placing the individual flower cards on the table and completing the flower ‘sets’ of the flowers placed by others by adding the right number of cards/petals. Each of the flowers – Iris (3 petals), Primrose (4 petals), Cherry Blossom (5 petals), Lily (6 petals) and the Lotus (7 petals) – is a typical Chinese flower type. The font on the Guardian cards and points coins replicate the calligraphy style of the box cover, but the cards lack other overt symbols of ‘Chineseness’.

Each player gets two insect tokens – Yellow (Butterfly), Red (Ladybug), Blue (Dragonfly) and Green (Caterpillar), which evokes the connections to Japanese games media where bug collecting (Pokemon and Yokai Watch) is considered an honourable and worthwhile pursuit. In Lotus, the insects are ‘Guardians’, and when placed on the flower cards, they count as that player’s territory. To take a flower, the player must complete it, but to get the bonus points or special power tokens, the player with the most Guardians wins. This helped to offset the ‘meanness’ I felt in completing the flowers that other player’s put down. By building up the flowers, we emotionally invest in them, and it can feel mean when other players complete your carefully assembled Lilly or ambitiously planned Lotus. The beautiful meanness of the game became even more profound to me during our second game. In the first game, my strategy of completing flowers rather than investing Guardian tokens into them meant I won with a huge lead and prompted an immediate second game where I became the one to beat. Instead of focussing on taking the flowers in the second game I invested in achieving all the special powers, which gave me fewer points but it felt like I was experiencing more of the game than simply winning.

Final thoughts
Lotus is a game designed in the United States and made in China. It is a global product, one that is clear in its Asianness but also offering a contemporary feel to the concept. Lotus has a degree of ‘ludonarratological dissonance’ in which the gorgeous aesthetic, underlying spiritual and botanical motifs, contrasts sharply to the competitive element of traditional ‘trick-taking’ in Western card games like Bridge or 500. Board games, in general, suffer from this problem, and in the future, I’ll put together a blog post on those that work to overcome it (I’m thinking specifically of Netrunner).

Lotus is a game designed in the United States and made in China. It is a global product, one that is clear in its Asianness but also offering a contemporary feel to the concept. Lotus has a degree of ‘ludonarratological dissonance’ in which the gorgeous aesthetic, underlying spiritual and botanical motifs, contrasts sharply to the competitive element of traditional ‘trick-taking’ in Western card games like Bridge or 500. Board games, in general, suffer from this problem, and in the future, I’ll put together a blog post on those that work to overcome it (I’m thinking specifically of Netrunner).

“…interaction design is the highest form of creative expression…”

Checkout this wonderful TED talk by Museum of Modern Art senior curator of architecture and design, Paola Antonelli.

Antonelli complicates the ‘video games are not art’ debate with a new collection of 14 video games at MoMA that celebrate ‘interaction design’ as the “highest form of creative expression”.

The appeal of the collection, according to Antonelli, is the distance and shock between art and design when on display in a gallery setting that enables visitors to appreciate the implications of video games and their contribution to the wider importance and meaning of design and celebrates these objects as having a crucial cultural value and roles within our everyday lives.

I’d love to play them all, at MoMA.

E-sports and gamer persona

At one point StarCraft 2 player ‘Idra’ held one of the most lucrative sponsorship contracts in E-sports and a notoriety for trash talking and disdain for other players. His dismissal from the competitive SC2 team ‘Evil Geniuses’ sends an important message to high profile players about attention to their public persona, acceptable competitive behaviour and the messages they communicate to fan communities.

Serres, time travel and the Gothic in science fiction

Three new postgraduate students to co-supervise this year. The first I’ve caught up with so far is a Creative Arts students writing a science fiction novel. The exegesis for the thesis will focus on the Gothic in science fiction and to kick the process off, we will be working on an analysis of the Gothic in the Mass Effect series. The aim is to prepare an article for a games studies or the science fiction studies journal, and to contribute to the formation of an emerging research group on technology and science fiction studies at Deakin. In doing some fresh research I came across a great article by Laura Salisbury on Michel Serres, time travel and gothic SF. It’s a cracking read and coincides with the material I’m working on using Serres concept of quasi-objects to analyse the use of screenshots in participatory gamer cultures (to adopt Joost Raessen’s term).

screenshots as digital tools and media objects

Now that I’ve had a chance to properly experiment with the open source social network overview and exploration tool, NodeXL, I’m finally finding some traction. I’d  tinkered with the plugin in the past and more recently managed to spend some time acquitting myself with a little graph theory and social network analysis methodology. Together with an updated version of the software and the Hansen, Schneiderman, and Smith’s (2011) Analyzing Social Modeia Networks with NodeXL, I was ready to explore the use of screenshots in social media.

The approach in my postdoctoral study of ‘indie’ and independent cultures of games production in Australia has, until now, featured a purely ethnographic methodology; interviews, participation, observations and combinations of the three. It was quickly made obvious by the research participants, however, that one of the long term effects of the global financial crisis on the games industry is the intensification of the role of social media in games development at three distinct levels: as means for communicating with a diverse audience populations (an evolution of the more traditional marketing/broadcast model modified for social media); as tools for facilitating actual game development remotely (using Skype, Google Docs, Facebook,Twitter, etc); and as processes and practices for the knitting together of a global games community of developers, artists, players, etc that spans the mainstream, that provides indie and independent with a powerful (but not equal) means for gaining attention to their games. It is this last feature of social media technologies and their uses that contributes to changing conversation about play and games, and has even produced a few global celebrities, like Minecraft developer Notch.

The well established ties to the global console ports, movie tie-ins, mobile- and web-based games markets were already jeopardised prior to the GFC with the rising Australian dollar which made local development more costly. A series of major studio closures from 2010 meant the turn to the iOS and Android platforms for Australian developers was inevitable. In part as a reaction to the convergence of web and mobile markets through smartphone and tablet devices and also in part a reaction to the new digital and social tools available to developers. The new generation of young graduates from specialised games development courses have emerged to start competing with much more established studios and major IOS Australia studio success like Halfbrick and the Voxel Agents.

Although it’s only speculation at this point there are signs that the rise of the indie developer and the growth of the small independent studio developers means an overdue shift in the industry’s entrenched problem of diversification, with women being underrepresented in the Australian industry. One of the data sets I intend to look as part of this research is the recent use of Twitter hastag #1reasonwhy that has been increasing attention to the conditions women face working in the industry (if they can get hired in the first place). It is clear through observing the highly profitable and expanding market in games paratexts (including websites and merchandise, YouTube channels, blogs and podcasts) that we already seeing a significant change with many more women’s opinions, perspective and thoughts on games and games culture being seen and heard, and not just from so-called ‘gamer girls’ or Booth Babes at the latest convention.

As social media takes hold at all levels of games culture the digital literacies involved for the humanities researcher attempting to understand these changes takes on higher stakes at the level of cultural production of media objects, such as screenshots. Learning to use NodeXL means having to correct a number of deficiencies in my repertoire, including a lack of knowledge and expertise in using Excel, and coming to terms with the discourses and terminology of social network analysis and graph theory. By no means have I achieved an expert status, but I feel confident graduating from padawan, especially as I begin to dig into the analysis of the use of screenshots in social media. This research intersects with a personal hobby and helps me expand on the analysis of the digital objects (like virtual hats and game screenshots) that are used as a means for building a mediated online persona. By persona I don’t mean avatars or individual profiles, but a collective and identifiable online presence, one that is often text based – blogs, profiles,Steam and Xbox Live – with important visual components and aesthetics captured on PCs, mobile phones, laptops and tablets and shared via sites like Flickr and Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube.

I’ve put together a Flickr set for the purpose of demonstrating NodeXL here and will be updating the blog with results and discussion as I progress further.  Below is a graph of my core Flickr user network, grouped by relevant cluster, you can see my two accounts Crypticommonicon (for game screenshots) and Moorenet (the family photo album) and you can see the links to close friends and family in the boxes on the left then move across to contacts I have added to my follow list but who have not added me in return.

NodeXL Flickr User Network Map
This graph represents connections (contacts and comments) in my Flickr user network, as plotted by NodeXL, using the Harel-Koren Fast Multiscale algorithm. The layout is arranged with the group by cluster function according to the Girvan-Newman clustering algorithm. Duplicate edges are merged,  Edge Width and Visibility are mapped to Edge Weight. NodeXL Version 1.0.1.229