31 December 2006

NYE gaming

I am generally a little confused by NYE and how to mark the day, and often I will have a party, but I'm still recovering (and cleaning) from my party last Saturday. So this year I'm going to actually accept an invitation that's landed in my inbox for a few years now. I went to a Fourth of July version a few years ago, but apparently the tradition for the hosts started with NYE. It's the 19th annual NYE gaming party, hosted by Pavel and Kathleen.

I've met Pavel a few times over the years -- our paths crossed from MUD and MOO days. And when he first relocated from Silicon Valley to Seattle I managed to corral him for a guest lecture in one of my classes. (As I recall, his house was flooding during the lecture, but he valiently carried on.)

The 4th of July version that I attended was pretty darn fun, and I remember being introduced for the first time to the game Carcasonne (which until then I knew of only as the medieval walled town in France near which I rented a house with some friends several summers ago), a low-tech, locally produced cardish game with a spy theme (maybe called Secret Agent? I don't quite remember), and some puzzles that made my brain ache.

So this should be fun. My friend and I are going to stop by a Russian themed party (maybe they're serving polonium??) for the first part of the evening, and then onward to games. Seems like a good way to start a new year; I don't do resolutions, but if I did, remembering to play more would be the only resolution I'd be willing to entertain.

29 December 2006

Return of the prodigal kitties

Last year I fostered two kittens for a friend.

It's a slightly complicated story: my habitual pet/house-sitter and friend Matthew, upon the death of my cat, tried to convince me to take in a kitten or two from a litter borne by a stray his family had taken in. I wasn't quite ready to re-catify, so I encouraged him to take them. He wasn't able to have pets where he lived, although he was looking for a new place. So I offered to foster them while he continued his house-hunting. Five months later -- after I got to enjoy all the cuteness of kittens and they had crossed over into the destructive teenage phase -- I handed them off to Matthew and they took up residence in his new condo.

This week they're back.

Matthew headed out of town, and I stuck around trying to piece together a syllabus for a new class on human-computer interaction that I start teaching as of January 4th. So we reversed roles and I became his pet-sitter, and the kittens have returned for a week of vacation at Beth's place.

My god.

Okay. They're cute. Don't get me wrong. They are adorable and sweet and after they got past being freaked out and hiding under my bed for two days, they remembered the tremendous joy of racing full speed up and down the steps (preferably underneath the feet of someone trying to go downstairs).

But good lord are they destructive. They're still kittens at heart, only now they are *lots* bigger. And they clearly have very little concept of their own strength. It's actually great to have them here, but I have had to do quite a bit of sweeping up of shattered bits and mopping up of spilled things. On the other hand, the kitty love at unpredictable hours is pretty darn nice.

If they would stand still long enough, I'd take a picture and post it.

And oh yeah, the HCI class is taking shape, and I'm getting pretty darn excited about teaching it. Links when they're ready.

26 December 2006

Helsinki Santa Rampage

A few weeks ago I sampled a local event, Santarchy. (A few hundred people dressed up as Santa, roaming city streets and partaking in various kinds of revelry). Taken by the charms of Santa Anarchy, I did a little background reading, and found there were similar events in a handful of cities, including -- coincidence! -- Helsinki on the very night I was going to be there. So with some help from someone I ran into at the Seattle version (thanks, Danyel!), I got a hold of the flier with the Helsinki event info and showed up.

The Helsinki version of Santarchy is a little different than the Seattle version. First, the name: Santa Rampage. Second, the scale: a couple dozen guys who all went to school together. But they very graciously got past the "who are you and why are you here??" stage (although they had a harder time getting past the 'How did you find out about us and know to show up at this public park?" stage) and let me tag along as they toured Helsinki, a smaller crowd than Seattle's but no less boisterous. Drinking, bowling, ice skating -- and then, presumably karaoking, but by then there was no way I could keep up with a bunch of Finns drinking.

You can see some photos . And I now have my very own Santa suit, thanks to the very generous, Swedish-speaking Finns of Santa Rampage.

I can now report, by the way, that Finnish bowling is pretty much the same as American bowling (i.e. I was able to bowl equally pitifully in a foreign language), with the exception of completely incomprehensible signage. I know a little bit of a lot of languages, but Finnish had me reduced to utter illiteracy to the point where using a public restroom was anxiety producing. What's the word for 'men'? for 'women'?? Seeing a familiar alphabet but being completely unable to recognize any root words definitely made an impression. Add that to the very few hours of diffused twilight that constitutes "daytime" and this was the most disorienting trip I've taken in quite a while.

12 December 2006

Too long layovers (and a bit on WoW)

Exhausted in the Copenhagen airport. Waiting forever for a connecting flight to Tampere. Scouring the airport for power.
It's a skillset all its own, finding the elusive (unoccupied) power outlet. I just scored one near a seat, so I don't even have to sit on the floor. Happy day.

I was just going through my notes from summer fieldwork, looking for good snippets from interviews with gamers for my talk tomorrow. Probably the most interesting thing that emerged is the way games serve as the main impetus for public space gatherings. Even in Uzbekistan, which is arguably the most private of the countries in the region, young people gather to talk about games. In some cases, it's the only public discourse of which they're part.

And I have to admit I am riveted by the stories of the city-wide LANs for playing World of Warcraft.

If you're a WOW player, you can imagine what it would be like to have your experience of that game and its world shaped by a playing environment where, on a busy night, the server hosts about 100 players. Sounds like a pretty lonely version of Azeroth. No wonder they schedule playing time with their friends. Not much chance of a pick-up group under those circumstances. But I think that the small population must change all kinds of game dynamics, from auction house activities to guild formation and instances.

And just trying to navigate between Russian/Uzbek terminology for the game and English teminology was a research problem all its own....how do you translate griefing??

04 December 2006

Upcoming: Finland

Next week I'm off to Tampere, Finland to give a talk at the games and storytelling series which is sponsored by several folks including the Hypermedia Lab at the University of Tampere and the Media Lab at the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

Playing Off the Beaten Path...I'm going to talk about games based on fieldwork I've done in the developing world for the past several years.

I have some interviews to do in Helsinki for another project, so I'll spend a couple days there, too. Brrr....

Any tips on fun things to do in Helsinki much appreciated.

03 December 2006

Is your cell phone a listening device?

One of our researchers in Uzbekistan came back after a recent trip with the following story:

A family gathered in the home. An educated, elite family. Not so far from ties to the government.
The head of the household tells everyone to put their cellphones on the table and switch them off.
Then he scoops up all the phones and puts them in another room.
Comes back.
"Now," he says. "Okay, now it is safe to talk about politics."

I thought it was a case of misplaced paranoia about technology in a place where, admittedly, you need to be careful what you say in front of who. But they yesterday I read this about the FBI using powered off cellphones as listening devices, and I had to rethink the Uzbekistan story.

Fish or cut bait

My friend David is probably lucky he doesn't live close by anymore, or he might have had me on his doorstep this morning with a few choice words.

I was a reluctant blogger, and finally capitulated to David's relentlessly pro-blogging arguments. But since I haven't posted for several months, I suspect my feelings towards the whole blogging enterprise are pretty clear. Until I discovered that this damn, dead blog comes up as one of the first hits on google for my name. What I thought I could keep a nice, quiet little backwater of conversation...no dice. Given the nature of online traces, I'm stuck on this track for now.


Time to fish.