Bits of a Puzzle - Part III
Bits of a Puzzle - Part V

Bits of a Puzzle - Part IV

Two tales.

Story one

Once upon a time (back in 1950), Las Vegas, Nevada had a population of 24,624. Fifty years later, it was getting nearly 600,000 visitors alone each year. Between the city and the surrounding valley, its current population is approximately 1.5 million, expected to double within ten years.

Founded as a central railroad stop in 1905, Las Vegas has been a gambling mecca ever since. Nevada was the first state in America to legalize casino gambling, and the last to officially outlaw it in 1910. Three weeks later, according to reports, the gambling simply moved underground.

Then in 1931, under the urging of an influential but reportedly temperate rancher, the Nevada legislature reopened up legalized gambling to generate tax revenues to pay for local schools.

From there? Hellooo natty mobster Bugsy Siegel. Followed for the next five decades by a parade like The Rat Pack, Liberace, world class chefs and finally, the global titans of low brow/high brow pop, Cirque-du-Soleil.

Today, ladies and gentlemen, the emerald city is a travel hub, its McCarran International Airport averaging 980 flights a day, ranked between the 8th and 9th busiest passenger sites in the world airport. Woosh!

This once sleepy desert oasis is now America’s fastest growing city. Reports from four years ago showed between 5,000-7,000 people moving there each month. Sunday evenings there are traffic jams that run between the strip all the way to the sister suburb of…. Los Angeles.

Given that my previous post started to explore Las Vegas taking over Hollywood’s aura as the iconic symbol of modern times, perhaps I’m stretching things. Okay then...

        Story two

  • 2004: Combined earnings from American casinos, lotteries, and horse tracks -- $72.87 billion (from Not Just For Losers, by John V, LastWall Street Journal, Oct. 5th 2005)
  • 2005: Global video and computer game revenues: over 29 billion dollars
  • 2005: 43% online gaming growth, $2 billion, expect to triple by 2011
  • 2005: Hollywood theater box office revenues fell by 6 percent from $10.2 billion in 2004 to $8.9 billion last year, attendance dropping by 9 percent.
  • The End.

What's the moral of the two stories? This: the period of crowds finding meaning together at the movies is gone. The collective is moving to the sphere of games, whether at places like Vegas, on the web, or jumping between the net and the tube.

Just as film provided a backdrop and affirmation for life in the last 100 years, gaming will do it for us moving forward. This view, itself, is a distillation of a few patterns of thought, chief among them a terrific book by game designer Ralph Koster called A Theory of Fun.

In the book, Koster separates games from stories.

  • Games tend to be experiential teaching. Stories teach vicariously.
  • Games are good at objectification. Stores are good at empathy.
  • Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify. Stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions.
  • Games are external-they are about people’s actions. Stories (good ones, anyway) are internal – they are about people’s emotions and thoughts.

For Koster, “Fun is the act of mastering a problem mentally.” And games are how we get there.

From his perspective, games are, let’s say, “not for keeps.” While you do play to win, it’s not the winning of hard consequence that interests him. It’s the fun of learning the patterns and mastering them. He's not quite talking about Las Vegas.

On the other hand, he's talking about play of genuine intensity. As far as I know, there's not yet a 12-Step Program for lovers of World of Warcraft, but these entertainments are more than engaging -  they are overwhelmingly immersive.

In fact, there’s an entire economy growing out of online games, people selling their own virtual properties and creations on ebay. That suggests that whether or not they're of the empathic quality Koster assigns to fiction, people are creating virtual stories that translate into real world monetary value.

To me, Koster's thoughts about gaming extend beyond the game space. Because just as Hollywood movies shaped attitudes about life for much of the last 100 years, my sense is that something between a digital and gaming aesthetic will do the same for future decades.

What's that mean? Not to get all college professor on you, but the significance can be partially spotted looking at this post's structure, specifically how I set things up. First, in meandering bits about Las Vegas. Second, an outline of factoids about gambling versus movie revenues.

Both were stories, but the narratives were laid out differently. The first was lazily poetic. The second was bulleted “just the facts, you infer the rest.”

And that’s part of what I’m attempting with this entire "puzzle" about the connections between shared myths, entertainment, and a nation's economic infrastructure.

It’s more than we’re moving to an era where gaming has over-taken 20th century narrative as escape. It’s that our identity, indeed how we look at the world, will be increasingly come to fruition less via seamless movies for the mass and more through highly designed (and because of that... controlled) arenas engineered to allow varying levels of free form play.

More, the material with which we will play will increasingly be bits and bytes of data from which we yield patterns and morph them into new patterns. Component parts to build structures and then rebuild new structures.

And unlike social space where movie myths dominate, in which most action focuses on the journeys of individuals among groups, in a gaming sphere, the individual is just another component of the game. Unless they or their team wins. And that is a nuanced but important difference from, say, a movie hero (or anti-hero) who finds moral grace by becoming part of the larger group. Games are both more intense and colder.

To put it less abstractly, the world of a lone John Wayne saving the settlers is gone, but the world of celebrity poker is here to stay, at least for the near future. Equally important, we are going to find our own place at the table, with at least a dollar’s chance of being celebrities ourselves.  Or just believing that we are.

That’s not to say Hollywood and all the hoopla around movies are going away.

The television network's are confronting real threats from user-generated video online, the mass of it short form story telling. Offline, IMAX is a theater experience where the crowds have grown in the last year. But as entrancing as both genres can be, IMAX and online video shorts are also far different types of story telling.  Not quite about taking deep empathic journeys with a bunch of unknown (and known) characters.

Take the two most enduring recent shows on the small screen of television: Survivor and American Idol. Each, in its particular way, are simultaneously voyeuristic and participatory games. Constructed arenas of character-testing acting as laboratories for us to not simply imagine but aspire to. A theater of choreographed spontaneity, the pleasure here is making patterns and identifying new forms those patterns can take, whether of a visual, aural, and ultimately moral form.

Fiction-based television hits like 24 are fueled less by seamless stories than the kinetic energy of pattern making. Plot-wise, it's not that much more complicated than an ancient television hit like General Hospital. Map out 24 and you have is a highly produced soap opera with triple espresso juxtaposition of visual cuts, foaming with double frappacino thriller froth.

But it's multiple layers of data points are crack cocaine for the eyes, ears, and blood pressure, a roller coaster kick of keeping ahead of the rocket-fast bouncing ball. And the real hook is asynchronistic perspective of every moment. Few of us will ever live such adrenaline-soaked lives as the world portrayed here, but given the nature of our multi-tasked universe, emotionally many of us feel as if we already do.

Magazines like Real Simple and other popular design create a digital aesthetic, which pushes us to both constantly consume while we also constantly edit. Identify components that are of value, edit out elements we don't want. It's the mindset of nomads versus farmers. More on that in future posts. For now, just look at the genesis of reality television, the most recent, Unanimous, which is basically Survivor minus pith-helmet stage set, a poker game with mind games as the chips. 

Or compare the aesthetics of yesterday’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with Deal or No Deal. The former now almost seems quaint. Gone today are the questions that gauge intelligence. Gone is the player having the saving grace from a single phone call with a designated real world friend.  

The only frame for Deal, No Deal offers is the host, the silhouette of a shadowy banker, and the fetishistic-looking titanium-like suitcases offered by the skimpily dressed babes on stage. The total of these elements makes the show's yappy chorus “No Deal” a non-sequitor, given it suggests taking the money and going home, but here yelled out happily as the players dive deeper into the morass.   

“Just the facts,” surrounded by live-wire electric currents of different artifacts associated with money. Or, as novelist James Buchan once brilliantly put it, Frozen Desire.

Identify and exploit patterns, you win. Get things right, you unfreeze and liberate the value.

These shows... indeed these gaming spheres, are still about narrative. Because beyond the short term thrill of spectacle, narrative is the primal DNA to capture a crowd's attention. At core, information is only turned into knowledge through stories, whether in the form of film noir or lengthy bureaucratic reports. We create meaning by telling stories about "the facts." And as scientists like Karl Popper saw it, socially-accepted stories define how we even identify what we see as facts.

Digital technology generates new forms of story telling and story gathering, just as the printing press once changed how people looked in the world and, by extension, lived in it. Today's digital culture is a world of pattern making around component elements. To whittle things to a minimum of exposition - the focus on asking the audience to get in the act and... parse!

What interests me now is how component thinking and "pattern making" fits in the dizzyingly complex world of how we work and meet collective needs.   

Which for me, make Koster’s ideas about fun and games relevant to anyone in business, politics or the social sciences. Because just as tiger cubs are cute as heck wrestling around, such playing trains them to grow up to be dangerous predators. Well, games are emerging as arenas of collective approach to how we live - learning, so to speak, how to hunt. Or farm. Or how, as Nintendo seems to want to do, how to keep brains active as we age.

As Koster's genuinely delightful book makes clear, they do offer the possibility of "fun." More, they offer a vision of life, what it is and can be. In that, they provide us a world of parts or components, where winners are successful to the degree they identify new shapes for them to work, creating or designing their own infrastructure and world.

Learning how to put those components together is how we play. The game space is simply practice for more serious play.

What's it got to do with the original subject I set up in the beginning post for this ever-longer puzzle: the connections between a sense of disintegrating authority amid disintegrating infrastructure?

This: infrastructure and authority are up for grabs because so many of the components that once shaped them... and once kept hidden, are now transparent. Sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, for sale.

Whether at places like Radio Shack, which offer hardware and software that are as sophisticated as some of the best stuff in the American military, or online at MIT's learning space, where this fabled university will make all of its courses available for the public... free. And that reinforces the gaming mentality.

There are as many negatives as positives. Want to see the impact of quick parsing of information? Outsourcing jobs that don't command as much money overseas, in the process creating havoc among communities.

In this millennial world of game play, we don’t have time to sit back and just watch. Our stories will play essential parts of the experience. They'll just be shorter, frequently collectively created, and also frequently collectively deconstructed and/or deposed, without much focus on consequence for individual components. And maybe for the individual.

End of story. But just for now.

by Jonathan Field


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