Writings that have been published online and elsewhere

The Way We Play: Rituals and Luck

Jack stood over the pile of cards, his hands outstretched to the sky, fingers clawing at some invisible wall. From his mouth wailed a long series of noises and grunts akin to some lovecraftian sorcerer summoning a beast from the nether. With a quick swoop Jack picked up a card and flipped it onto the pile. A moment of silence as the card’s value was registered before hollers and woops of excitement with Jack proclaiming, “I am the best at this game.” War was the game and Jack was considered one of the best players in class.

I’ve been working for the last two years at a primary school in Melbourne. It’s been a rollercoaster ride filled with screams of delight and tantrums of tiredness. These last two years have also been invaluable for me as a game designer in the observations I’ve made on how children interact and create games. One of the most interesting aspects of game theory I found was the innate sense of luck versus skill and how ritual interacted between the two.

In War a deck is split between two or more players who in unison flip the top card of their piles; the person whose card is highest wins and takes the opponent’s card. Essentially the game is without agency, as nuanced as Snakes and Ladders. Game designer Greg Costikyan believed that War was not a game since no choices could be made and all the outcomes were predestined by the shuffle, yet this fact did not establish itself in the children. They played this game for months on end, rushing to take hold of the now fraying and battered cards. As I watched, it was amazing to note that the children truly believed that they were masters of their fate, that some children were considered better War players than others. I watched summoning rituals just before the draw and if it was not to their liking the players would shrug and say quite confidently, “I meant to lose.” But when the card was drawn that was in their favour they would claim they had summoned it into existence.

Jack understood the concept of luck, however it seemed to him that luck was only a partial agent in his actions and that it was their skill or ritual that decided the outcome. As a designer it reminds me to look at ritual within my own games. Players live in a fallacy of luck versus skill, believing themselves to be better than they actually are. This is not subjected just to gamers but to stock brokers, fund managers let alone the individual in their everyday life. We practice rituals every day to maintain and keep agency over our own existence from the simplicity of shaking your dice before rolling to the power of prayer as an attempt to wrangle cosmic randomness. Wouldn’t it be fantastic and elating to keep rituals we perform as children in games we play today. To have these moments of divine connection to the fates, correlate with a direct mechanic in our games. Of course if the outcome wasn’t as we expected we could always shrug saying, “I meant to do that.”


Am I Not Pretty Enough?

I don’t live in the most rural of places in Australia, but I cannot ever overcome the awe and love I have for this sun burnt land. I’m a city kid, grown and bred in the trendy and cosy parts of Melbourne. Thankfully there are some beautiful parks and places that are easily accessible, my favourite is a place called Studley Park. It’s a national park in the leafy suburb of Kew, Fairfield and Abbotsford. There you can hear the call of Kookaburras, see the deadly eastern tiger snake and marvel at the tawney frogmouth’s bark-like feathers. Parts of the park are reserved for native flora, creating a bush away from the city. It’s always a pleasure to walk through these spaces and interact with them. However, as a consumer of media it is rare that I ever find myself in the Australian landscape in any digital means. Is the Australian landscape not pretty enough?

There have been plenty of games designed and set in Australia, such as AFL 99 and AFL Live 2004 along with the little known title AFL Live 2: Season Pack 2014. A quick google search provides a woeful display of commercial titles in the game industry ‘set’ in Australia. Over half of the games I found were either sports games such as the Tiger Woods golf series, or only contained one map in ‘Australia’ in which a eucalyptus tree was never seen. The games that do use Australian flora and fauna are generally at best depicted in a deformed stereotype lacking anything Australian in them at all.

Game makers in Australia too have shied away from the Australian gum, instead happy to revert to the European evergreens. Australian based company League of Geeks with their beautiful and stunning Armello is lathered in an Australian quality yet features only European and American animals. I’d love to see a tanky Echidna character that could be accessed or maybe a cute sugar glider with a paunch for fencing.

The argument that exporting Australian content won’t be well received is false, we only have to look at other forms of media to see that it is the most iconic of Australian film and television garners most success overseas. TV shows include Neighbours and Round the Twist both considered to be dipped in Australian iconography and setting are constantly being shown and repeated across the globe.

I’m not blaming developers for wanting to build Euro-centric and American based games. Heck, even I love playing in a Germanic and eastern European Witcher 3 but I question why that is. There have only been a handful of games I can think of that truly engage with the Australian environment in a rich and positive way. The Call of Cthulhu adventure Old Fellow That Bunyip by Penelope Love and Mark Morrison was for me the first time I realised I could tell stories based in the environment that was most familiar and I had most loved. It created an excitement in me I had never felt before and as soon as I stepped out of my door I suddenly saw stories everywhere that I could tell. Suddenly the lane ways could be set pieces for a stealth game, the Yarra river was now a snake already filled with Indigenous meaning that I needed to find out.

Another beautiful example is a student designed game from RMIT called Paperbark in which you take the role of various bushland animals exploring a temperate forest in Victoria. The level of detail and familiarity with the landscape took my breath away. The colour palette, the familiar ambience of birds and cicadas, the dangers of rival animals and bushfire. I fell in love because it spoke to me in words I could not express and made me realise how much I had yearned to explore a world I engaged with every day.


The Spear that Struck Me Down

I woke up one day with a spear in my chest.
It was solid and long, ripping through my
Right lung.
It ached and hurt but I got up and showered.
I went to work and felt it throb.
I went to write and felt it sting.
It hurt so much that my fingers stopped.
I went to see friends but I knew
they could see the shaft waving around, knocking
glasses and spilling food.
I apologised for the spear in my chest and hurrie
It doesn't hurt so much when I lie down.
But if I try to pull it out, it threatens
To tear me in two.
Maybe one day I'll wake up with nothing in my chest.
But today it's still there.