Monday, October 29, 2007

Naught's Had, All's Spent, Where Our Desire is Got Without Content

Regular readers of this blog know that I am obsessed with the genre of the public apology on the Internet, so before the month is gone I have to say something about Edward Castronova's fascinating open admission of failure in "Arden Slows Down" at the Terra Nova blog.

The official website doesn't yet indicate this month's tumult about the virtual environment's stunted development or the fact that, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the MacArthur Foundation has refused to provide additional funds to Castronova's persistent synthetic world, which is intended to bring Shakespeare's works to life by using videogame technology and the paradigm of the massively multi-player online role-playing game.

In the absence of any explicit acknowledgment of a setback to the Indiana University project, the website of Arden does appear to have much of the apparatus of an online fan site for any game: an FAQ, community forum, etc. But whether or not this flattened out narrative, set against historically scrambled backdrops for the War of the Roses, would have really foster emergent behaviors was yet to be seen.

I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, teach it, read it at the dinner table, drag my kids to perfomances a few times a year, recite it in the car, and just this week saw Ian McLellan's private parts from ten feet away during the storm scene in King Lear, but I'm not sure that videogames are the right idiom for the Bard's masterpieces, even speaking as a booster for embodied digital experiences. Knowing these texts, I'd favor something more like "Grand Theft Shakespeare," where the objective of the game is to steal from as many different sources as possible, while still creating a remix that produces a coherent aesthetic experience for the audience. Besides, as I've said snarkily before, I think The Aeneid would make a much better MMO.

That said, putting on my rhetorician's hat and taking off the one I wear as a literary critic, I'd give top marks to Castronova for making the initial difficult public statement that hasn't invited ridicule or castigation in the blogosphere. Maybe I wouldn't have used clich├ęs like "lessons learned" or "bumpy roads," but I do think his willingness to credit the labor of his beta testers and acknowledge uncertainty in the project's future does show the proper decorum, given the occasion of loss associated with the death of a funded grant.

Most revealing, of course, is the part where one reads further down into the comments section on the blog posting and finds Castronova admitting more candidly to institutional dramas befitting the Jacobean period.

You're all correct in guessing that there's more to the story. I made some awful mistakes as a manager, which I don't hesitate to admit because, well, I am not a manager. And the project wasn't funded at a level where hiring a manager was feasible. As manager, I did a lot of stupid things.

@Timothy: Volunteers! That was my starting philosophy. But my experience has been that each additional volunteer (n) detracts n*n from the project's quality. Because you're not paying them, you have to give the volunteers leeway. Their leeway in terms of content eats into your vision. Their leeway in terms of time slows you down. Basically, you need full-time employees (or slaves). Students have talent and enthusiasm but you can't get five of them in a room at the same time. And once you start paying tuition for them, they cost $60K FTE (10K stipend + insurance + $20K tuition for 20 hours of work). In future work I will subscribe to the Lee Sheldon Fascistic Theory of Managing Creative Projects, which, if I my improvise, is to tell your volunteers and employees to be slaves or be gone.

@David: You guessed it. Rather than be a manager, I'm going to be an author. I'm coding it myself this time, implementing a personal and idiosyncratic vision, using no more resources than my time and my desktop. I hope to have something worth playing eventually.

@Tripp: the object is and remains to do experiments. Emphasizing Shakespeare was a mistake. The burdens of a license! Everyone thought it was World of Hamlet and the point was to teach high school kids 2B|~2B. But teaching Shakespeare has always been an ancillary benefit, not the point. I thought it would be cute. But putting Shakespeare in the game, I found, took away resources from fun. Lore, by itself, did not make a fun game. Shakespeare also loaded us up with an entire community of expectations, people who dig the idea of a digital Shakespeare. To those people, I want to say YES, I dig the idea too, but please come up with the $50m it will take to build that world before asking me (AGAIN) when Arden is going to be done. I had $240K and was thrilled to have it. But that's 1/200th of the money you'd need to do what some of the folks out there had dreamed up. Their dreams became pressure on us, and made me wonder why I didn't say I was making Arden: World of Actuaries.

Also, we are working on our website. January.

@Robert (and others): Thanks for the words of support and respect. They are mutual.

But don't get the wrong idea. I am not quitting this. Not because I am pugnacious, not because I owe MacArthur results (though I sure do, and I am very mindful of that) but because I just love coding in NWN Script. LOTRO is my main game right now, but when I sit down at the computer after my kids go to sleep, I just feel more like coding. I love D&D and I love being a game author. It's the most fun I've had intellectually in years. I've made this announcement mostly to get monkeys off my back - I got sick of dealing with the multiple layers of wild expectations that I had stupidly encouraged (another dumb management move.) MacArthur supported me for a year so that I could get the damn thing going. Now, it's going. Thank you John D. and Catherine T., I will never forget you. But now it's time for me to apply my own effort to make a world that people would want to play. When I get them playing, I will do my super-secret experiments, and then write the paper I owe MacArthur. And the world I make will live on, a little society lab, and I will keep fiddling and experimenting with it.

It's easier to say nothing, of course, but as a result nothing gets added to the knowledge base about institutional authority and digital media development.

I'm fascinated with cryptohistories and the story of the game (or digital library or distance learning initiative or website) that wasn't built, so I'm sorry to see that there wasn't even more discussion after this stunning series of revelations from Castronova in the comments section. Instead, readers largely commented on the big budget/small budget questions of game development -- which are standard panel talk topics at game studies conferences -- rather than address the real role-playing games of Arden that implicated decisions made at the level of the chain-of-command and the treatment of bit players.

I think that this could prove to be a significant turning point in the educational videogame development movement. Often these games fail both as educationally rich pedagogical experiences and as genuinely fun games, so this opportunity for reflection that Castronova is inviting may be particularly timely for a lot of players.

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