October 9, 2008
Metafun for Metaplayers

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending Bruce Sterling's keynote lecture at the 2008 Austin Game Developers' Conference. (I was there co-presenting a video game adaptation workshop with Matthew Weise, a comrade-in-arms of mine at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab.) Sterling was, as ever, utterly brilliant; given my previous exposures to Sterling at SXSW conferences in the past, I was expecting to be entertained. What I hadn't expected was for Sterling to give his entire lecture as a piece of performance art.

Bruce Sterling at AGDC

Thanks to the inestimable Raph Koster, we have a mostly complete transcript of Sterling's presentation, which opened thus:

Hello, thanks for having me into your event today, and thanks for that intro. Though there is a problem with that: I am not Bruce Sterling. He couldn't make it. He sent me instead.

The reason he couldn't make it is that in 2043, Bruce is 89. Dr. Sterling is too frail to get into a time machine to talk to game devs, so he called on me to do it. I am one of his grad students. I volunteered, sort of, to journey back in time using some of our new technical methods. It wasn't exactly easy, but I am here and fully briefed.

Priceless. You should definitely swing by Koster's site and read the whole thing, even though it can't compete with the sheer ludicrousness of Sterling Dr. Sterling's unnamed grad student whipping a cheap kitchen towel out of a bag and introducing it as his computer.

Bruce Sterling at AGDC

"So my PC is like a towel," not-Sterling said. "Cheap and old and the dullest thing in the world, I have always had one. '2008, computer pioneers, they still think computers are exciting! They don't get that computers in 2043 are like bricks, forks, toothbrushes, towels.' I researched that subject, and yeah, for an old fashioned audience, a mid-21st century computer is cool. So here it is: General Electric personal mediators, very stable, five years old. No full functionality in 2008 because we don't have the cloud here yet. It tapped into something called Windows Vista when it got here and gave up, gone all limp, nothing left on here but this frozen screensaver pattern." Which, of course, was the pattern on the towel. Like I said, priceless.

What really left me howling, however, was when not-Sterling all but name-dropped C3.

After riffing on the future of towel-tech, not-Sterling eventually started in on what the future of the games industry would be like. He told the audience that to his time-traveling self, they all looked pretty stupid:

First, forget the computers, that word in the future holds you back, some of you get this, sort of... That [computer entertainment] means handhelds or consoles or phones, et cetera, so you almost have escaped from that bottle. But you hid in other bottles, when it is not about bottles. See, I have a towel, you should think about other phenomena. Traffic systems, billboards, satellites, street lights, credit cards, debit cards, drones, street-based video... Doorknobs. You know how many embedded chips there are in hotel doorknobs? And how many there are around you now... And then stop thinking about chips, because you must transcend that.

You must think about a Zen hippie paradigm, like paint or smoke and... clouds.

And ambient, pervasive, ubiquitous...

And then put your hands together like this... and say "ommm..."

Why? Because it makes you look stupid. See how gullible you all look? Well, that is how stupid everyone looks in historical years. "Gosh, Mr. Bushnell, why would anyone want to play ping-pong on a TV?

And in 35 years you are almost that kind of stupid. No quite, because you have Google, but in that ballpark.

And that brings me to the other half. Entertainment is fun, right? If not fun, not entertainment. One of those phony game educational apps that kids have to be tortured to use. You want users to have fun.

Except for three kinds of people who do not obey your rules. First, the gold farmers, ripoff artists, excluded gray-brown-black market, the pirates. All the same guys, same crowd, invisible to you. You don't want to see them because they are ugly to you, but always there, since the very first day. They are not accidents, they are something important you do not let yourself see.

Second, the griefers. They have a game, entertainment, but not your game – their game of hate, vandalism, the thrill of real conflict. And there are armies of them.

Which brought not-Sterling to the point where I wanted to stand up and cheer:

And third, the convergence culture people, the weird ones. They play while they are using six or seven other sorts of media. They make no distinctions, they use the networks as a metamedium. They don't play the roles. People play the roles in D&D, which like little theater for the home. You don't see D&D people passing each other text messages and looking for cheats on wikis. Convergence guys are metamedia people looking for their metafun. You are outside the game and they want to be there too, super-knowledgeable game fanatics from whom you recruit your talent.

Not-Sterling finished:

And these 3 kinds of people are not fun. Greed as fun, grief fun, metafun. They ambush you and beat on you. Not enemies, but deeply alien to your paradigm. So they have control over your destiny that you don't have.

And the only way to have control is to redefine computer entertainment because their fun is not computers and not entertainment, because they are cultural, more cultural than you, and they kick your ass.

So how do you make them go away? You don't. They beat you like bullies beat kids good at math. And you had to grow up and understand them better. Living well is your best revenge.

See? In the future C3 wins! Well, sort of. In the end, what not-Sterling was trying to get across is that we convergence culture people are here to stay as a force to be reckoned with, and the way to 'win' the game of game design (and, by extension, movie design, TV design, book design, social network design, bicycle design, food design, and so on ad infinitum) is to learn how to incorporate 'metagame' thinking into it.

"They beat you like bullies beat kids good at math." Yup. Priceless.

Bruce Sterling at AGDC

(Oh, and before I go, a quick preview of what I'm geeking out about right now. Those of you as excited by towel computing as I was should take note of another trend currently catching fire: the Internet of Things. I've just ordered a $50 RFID starter kit off Amazon from a company called Tikitag that seems to be trying to "enable anyone to link real world objects with the online world and make applications accessible with a single touch". The open beta launched on October 1st and there's some nifty stuff popping up on their site already. Check it out!)



I think the towel comment was a really great analogy as to the future of computers.