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Archive for April, 2011

“Entertainment can sometimes be hard, when the thing that you love is the same thing that’s holding you down.” – Pulp, Party Hard

It was a simple yes or no question – “Do you wish to uninstall Dungeons and Dragons Online?” – and yet, like so many simple questions before it, it heralded a significant step in my life. I knew what had to be done, I knew that there could only be one answer to the question, yet for a moment I lingered, pondering the consequences. Could I really walk away from the City of Stormreach? Could I really abandon the members of the guild I had only recently begun – The Frozen Spine? Could I honestly leave behind the myriad pleasures of adventuring with friends and strangers in a virtual fantasy world? Would I ever see my wonderful avatars again? The likes of Hallifax Bender, Jasparr Krait of Luskan, Bethanie Brinsett, Honeydrop Sundew, Snowfell Vanish, Arnalde Holdfast, Lucessa Rainsinger, and Yardley “The Scissors” Bruce? Would I really never trade on the auction house again?

What had brought me to this decision was, however, a different set of questions. Did I really want to spend many of my waking hours thinking about characters in a virtual world? Did I really want to suffer further the anxieties of grinding, levelling, equipping my characters, searching for loot and waiting to find a decent group of people to play with? Did I really want to spend hour after hour on inventory management, arranging hotkeys, buying goods from the town pawn-vendors and selling them at profit on the auction house? Did I really want to spend another year in which I barely slept, in which I was merely a ghostly social presence on account of physical and mental exhaustion?

These activities, fun though they could be, were so time-consuming, so thought-consuming, so addictive despite being so repetitive, and ultimately, so utterly pointless, that I could not in any way justify their pursuit a moment longer. What had begun as a hugely fun, thrilling and exhilarating gaming experience then blossomed into an uproarious social experience, had ultimately become a part-time job which required most of my mental faculties, then a dreadful grind wherein I could barely think of anything else. Once I had passed the zenith of pleasure, it took a long while to reach the nadir of despair. I walked away and came back, I took holidays and tried to forget, but ultimately, the lure of the game was so great that only a significant and final step would do the job. And so it was that I pressed the “yes” button, and in an instant, my heart flooded with an unimaginable sense of relief. I felt as though I had put down a very heavy burden. And, indeed, I had.

One of the defining factors of an addiction is the persistence in doing something long past the point of it being any fun at all. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction in the following manner:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in the individual pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviours. The addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioural control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can involve cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Addiction is generally seen as a physical and psychological dependence on drugs or alcohol, yet it can also be characterised as a continued pursuit of activities, despite negative consequences derived from such pursuit. Psychologists have identified many areas of addiction such as gambling, food, sex, the internet, work, exercise, television, pornography, religion, shopping and computer gaming.

I, it would seem, fell into the final category, though it was hardly the first obsession of my life. As a child I had, sure enough, been obsessed with pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons, to the extent that my brother and I once locked ourselves in my room and refused to come down to dinner as we did not wish to stop playing. Later, in early adulthood, I developed an addiction to cigarettes, alcohol and to marijuana, again with varying periods of intensity and rejection and relapse, all, fortunately, now a very long time ago.

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing games (hereafter MMOs) can be especially addictive, largely because there is always something to do. There is levelling to be done, there is equipment to purchase, there is loot to seek out, there is the auction house to trawl through, there are rare reagents to find… the list goes on. There are social obligations, group and guild activities, deadlines, events, and so many targets one can set for oneself that the mind boggles. Each game will have its own incentives to keep one playing. The problem is compounded if you have my habit of continually starting new characters or “toons” and running them up with some tricky, experimental build in mind.

Of course, it is also well to remember that everything is potentially very good fun, and people wouldn’t play these games if they weren’t enjoyable. The problem is the sheer amount of time and effort it takes for one to reach the endgame, if one ever gets there at all. It is estimated that players of World of Warcraft have already played for more than six million years in total. I must have spent positively thousands of hours gaming over the years, but nothing took my time away so successfully as DDO.

Much of the time it felt like great fun, though it was often difficult to tell. There is a significant difference between behaviour designed to stabilise one’s mood, and behaviour that produces genuine pleasure. Smoking cigarettes is not only about fulfilling a physical addiction, nor is it necessarily otherwise for the sake of pleasure, but it is also largely about the reassurance it brings from the anxiety of not smoking.

Similarly, people who check Facebook repeatedly often do it less for pleasure than to allay the fear of missing something, or of not being up to date. I won’t attempt to venture an opinion about addictions I have not experienced, such as heroin, suffice to say that where physical necessity is not involved, the desire to do something repeatedly is often driven by anxiety about not doing it, rather than the joy of doing it.

So how did it come to this pass? What drew me in, and what, you may be wondering, was all the fuss about? Well, allow me to explain.

I have always taken my gaming rather seriously. A little too seriously, in fact, for I was a snob about role-playing games. I felt I had a right to be so, however, having cut my teeth on 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons back in 1981, and having played a large number of early role-playing systems such as Middle Earth Role-Playing Game (MERP) / Rolemaster, Runequest and Traveller. Between us, my brother and I owned a large number of other role-playing systems, many of which we read but never played; games such as: Chill, Conan RPG, Call of Cthulu, GURPS, Palladium, Twilight 2000, Paranoia, James Bond RPG and Top Secret. We felt confident from a young age that we could sniff out a pretty decent rules system, and many games simply didn’t cut it; still, they were worth a look. D&D and MERP took the cake by a long shot, so far as rules complexity and functionality were concerned, and I was also most drawn to their themes and settings. The aesthetics of these games were essentially an offshoot of genre fantasy, yet as pioneers in the genre of fantasy role-playing, they had their own mood and style. So far as D&D was concerned, this style shifted considerably with the increased popularity of the game and the employment of better artists such as Larry Elmore, who gave the game a more air-brushed, commercial appearance, yet still retained and expanded the sense of epic fantasy.

The need to rely on the imagination with pen and paper role-playing has always been its greatest strength. Most individuals and locations are accompanied by a description, but not by a picture. Take the following example from module EX2, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, by Gary Gygax, first published in 1983.

“This largish room is cluttered indeed. Large, colorful rugs

lie on its hardwood floor. The walls are paneled to about

waist height, and metal brackets with strange, crystal-tipped

torches stick out of them. Several table and floor

candelabra also hold these weird torches. The couch,

chairs, tables, and other furniture are of unusual design and

workmanship. All around the wall are glass boxes that

contain dead insects, or else odd bits of brightly colored

paper stuck on a dark background, placed behind glass,

and framed with wood. Several small animals and birds are

sitting on shelves and tables. They are regarding you with

unwinking stares! In strange contrast to all of this are

numbers of crudely made weapon heads, possibly made by

cavemen, proudly displayed beside the arcane materials

and unknown insects. A large book on a table near the

windows has white pages covered with more small, colorful

bits of parchment. On either side of the windows are shelves

that, in addition to holding the small birds and animals,

contain devices that resemble sun dials stood on edge.

Nearby is a huge mirror (point of entry, possibly) fixed to

the wall. Across from it is a tall thing made of glass, wood,

and metal: a rectangular box at least 7’ tall.”

Once the Dungeon Master has read the above description to the players, a vivid image of the space in which they find themselves will take shape in their minds and they are at liberty to explore the place for clues or whatever it is they may seek. The Dungeon Master will, of course, have further information about the contents of the room, including any nasty or pleasant surprises that may be in store for the group of players, and the DM is also at liberty to embellish the scene at will. The players will also have a quite firm vision of themselves within this space, feeling anxiety and excitement in equal measure for their character who may be on the brink of finding some important information or wondrous item, being poisoned by a trap, falling through the floor, or perhaps facing an attack from the myriad dead animals about the room. As a child, I was constantly transported into these scenes which held me entirely in their grip as events slowly unfolded.

I don’t wish to go too deeply into the lure of pen and paper role-playing games, suffice to say that it is an experience I’ve never forgotten and always longed to return to. As we grew older my brother and I continued to play Dungeons and Dragons and MERP, only stopping when he left home after finishing school. Ever since I have longed to play the game whenever possible, but apart from a few sessions with friends in my final year of high school and an excellent pen and paper campaign in 1994/5 run by my friend Cody, along with the rare revival on a visit to my brother in Brisbane, the sessions have been few and far between. It is largely the difficulty of organising a game that makes it so impossible to play. It also requires a lot of time, a good large table, and a general absence of the nagging bullshit that constitutes adult life, like having to go to work, which is, let’s face it, practically a crime against humanity.

Thus it was, in this barren world without pen and paper role-playing, that I was forced to turn to computer games as a last resort. Computer games had long been an adjunct to pen and paper, yet their lack of graphical sophistication back in the 1980s made them a pretty poor substitute, especially as story elements were usually rather truncated. The first fantasy computer game that attracted my attention was called Phantasie II, which I used to play repeatedly with my friend Mike when I stayed at his house.

Though it was hardly driven by a strong narrative, its length and seemingly epic proportions made the advancement of our party of adventurers a story in itself. It was highly derivative of Dungeons and Dragons – much to our pleasure – and offered a large world to explore full of random encounters, caves, towns and the like. We were certainly very taken with it and for a while it actually superseded pen and paper gaming as a priority.

I have, elsewhere, described the circumstances under which I first encountered the 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons computer game, Baldur’s Gate, and thus will not go into detail here.

https://tragicocomedia.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/baldurs-gate-in-paris/

My discovery of it, in the year 2000 was, however, the long-awaited moment where something faintly akin to the pen and paper experience was replicated for me in a computer game. I became mildly obsessed with playing Baldur’s Gate at first and had a difficult time walking away from it, yet ultimately, I found I could regulate my interest in it and push it back to playing a mere hour a day. Baldur’s Gate 2, however, was so utterly gripping and engrossing that I could not walk away from it. I first got hold of it late in the year 2001, two weeks prior to flying out from Cambridge to Australia for a home visit, and I basically locked down for two weeks and did nothing else. I played it all day and night, smoking roll-your-own cigarettes, drinking tea and coffee and sleeping a bare minimum to maximise gaming time. Even in two full-time weeks of gaming, I only made it halfway through the game and was forced to walk away only by the pressing need to get down to Heathrow. Upon returning from Australia, with a deliberately perverse glee, I started from the beginning again and put my PhD on hold for another month. When I finally finished the game, I felt so awfully bereft that I kept replaying it, despite its having largely lost the ability to surprise me. Even in the face of the law of diminishing returns, I was still sucked in.

After Baldur’s Gate 2, having seen just how well a computer game could be driven by a strong story, I came to expect all games to provide an equally engaging storyline. Thus, along with many other RPG enthusiasts, I keenly awaited the release of Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights, based on the 3rd edition D&D rules, when it was first announced back in 2001/02. Unfortunately, however, the storyline of Neverwinter Nights proved to be a great disappointment. It lacked intrigue, contained wooden dialogue, and the action elements of the game seemed ultimately repetitive. It was practically an advertisement for itself, a sample of what could be done with the engine, yet not a very engaging game. What the game did provide was an excellent platform from which to play Dungeons & Dragons, for Bioware, bless them, had the foresight to release the toolset with the game, so that writers and modders out there could create their own adventures using the same kit as used by the game designers. It was the community response that ultimately made the game what it should have been from the start. There was a veritable explosion of community-written modules which appeared on www.nwvault.com and elsewhere, some of which provided far superior narratives, more engaging characters, more interestingly designed locations and, in some cases, epic scope of up to 150 hours playing time. The amount of work that people put into these games out of love and the community spirit in assisting the writers and designers with play-testing and advice was astonishing. The NWN vault still holds thousands of modules, many hundreds of which are well worth playing, despite the age of the game engine.

So it was, having long been a snob about pen and paper role-playing systems, I now became a snob about computer games. I had very little interest in action-based games without a sophisticated story, though I could enjoy them as a brief diversion. When it came to the fantasy genre, however, I felt there was no room for compromise. Without a story, without a purpose, without the ability to change the world one inhabited, I felt there was no point playing. It was in this spirit, with this attitude quite firmly established, that I first encountered MMOs.

I had certainly heard plenty about MMOs since they first became broadly popular. Everquest, released in 1999, was the game making all the headlines long before World of Warcraft appeared on the scene. The nicknames which Everquest earned make play of its addictive qualities: NeverRest and EverCrack. Everquest was so time-consuming for many players and caused so many broken relationships that an online support group called EverQuest Widows was created, along with sites such as www.GamerWidow.com It became a commonplace for people to apply the suffix “aggro” to whatever called them away from the game or interrupted their attention: “wife-aggro”, “girlfriend-aggro”, “work-aggro” and, indeed, “life-aggro.”

It was clear that the emerging social and cultural phenomenon of the MMO was out of the bag once newspapers began commenting on it outside of their game review sections. Attention was initially largely focussed on people’s playing habits and the buying and selling of virtual property for real money. MMOs were not merely seen as games, but as “chat rooms with a graphical interface”. They were social experiences, and thus, to all intents and purposes, legitimate virtual worlds in which people lived parallel virtual lives.

Despite the attention given to MMOs and their apparent popularity and attractions, I was not initially interested in playing them. This was largely on account of my perception that they were not driven by strong narratives, but instead focussed on goals that were accumulative – repeating actions and quests over and again to level characters and gain items and money. It didn’t appeal to me, though I knew very little about the actual nature of the games and made rather a few too many assumptions.

When I moved back to Cambridge from Sydney in 2006 and caught up again with my old friend and colleague Chris, I found him in the grip of a heavy obsession with World of Warcraft. He and I had, some years ago, shared a strong interest in BG1 and 2 and we often discussed computer games from an objective point of view, being curious about their design and indeed potential. I was, in the case of MMOs, a little too subjective and decided they weren’t for me. However, after spending some time watching Chris play WoW, I found myself increasingly drawn to the possibilities of such a game. Most of all, its scope was very attractively broad, with a whole, vast world to explore – then consisting of two major continents. I liked the fact that travel had to be done manually – players were forced to run, fly, walk or take a ship across large tracts of land or ocean. There was a lot of variety in the terrain and nature of the encounters, though many of the quests and tasks were disappointingly dull and repetitive. I thought it was time to stop disparaging it and give it a go. Sure enough, as I began co-teaching a summer school with Chris in Pembroke College, I took a small attic room in central Cambridge with a fast broadband connection, installed the game and got underway.

It’s fair to say I was quickly hooked. Despite the absence of any strong narrative and the relatively mindless nature of all the quests and objectives, I was sucked in by the scope and free-flowing nature of the world. Most of the games I’d played previously worked on a far more restricted plane. One entered a particular area, be it a dungeon, a town, a cave, a forest or open plains, but to progress to the next map or area required a transition. There were limits to the world, limits to the map. What made WoW so interesting was that there were no limits. It was possible to continue walking in any direction until the geography literally ran out at the coastline, after which one could take a ship across the sea. When one needed to travel longer distances over land, one could hire a griffin and fly across the continent, and one would indeed fly over the land in journeys that could take five to ten minutes. It was always an excellent opportunity to make a cup of tea if I wasn’t busy being mesmerised by the beating wings of the great beast I was riding, or the landscape passing underneath.

Having said that, on the whole I found the game graphically disappointing. The female characters all had man-hands and most races looked silly rather than interesting or attractive. The scale of things was also horribly out of proportion, with avatars often being completely dwarfed by vast cobblestones or planks of wood six times wider than their bodies. I found this to be very annoying, though I should have let it go. Another thing I did not immediately warm to was the sheer number of people active in the game at any given time. I understand now that populated servers are a bonus, but with so many people running around and jumping over my head, it felt like a silly cartoon and not an immersive fantasy game. I didn’t like it either that the world could not be changed. If I finished a quest then nothing in the world was permanently effected; I could just do it again or watch countless other people do it around me. It all seemed rather pointless and meaningless, and yet, I was continually drawn back to playing.

It was when I discovered that I could make in-game money on the auction house by finding ingredients, mixing certain reagents and putting them up for sale, that the game really began to interest me. This real, living economy was something no single-player game could replicate. The other thing that held my attention was the crafting. I chose cooking and fishing for my character and spent the vast bulk of my time doing both of these activities. In fact, in a month of playing, I only made it to level 18, but I had maxed my cooking and fishing skills to their highest possible level. Whenever I got a whiff of a good catch, I’d pop out a line and sit there reeling them in. It was quite therapeutic and I learned a number of recipes either for refining reagents from the fish, or cooking them to make potions and salves that could be sold on the auction house.

It goes without saying that the principal objective of MMOs is teaming up with other players, but I hardly ever grouped at all. It was partly because I wasn’t used to it and felt rather timid, but also because, being a noob, I was afraid of the censure of more experienced players. It should have occurred to me that there were no doubt many other noobs around as well, and the few times I did team up with other players, they were kind and helpful, but I still couldn’t seem to snap out of my single-player mentality. Indeed, the only other multiplayer gaming I’d done, apart from console-based hand-to-hand combat games, was playing linked Neverwinter Nights with my friend Mike and also with my brother. That seemed a far preferable style of gaming as, despite being localised to a module with limited areas and a closed story, there was at least a strong narrative driving the adventure, which, when well-written, brought emotional engagement. I also found Neverwinter Nights to be more immersive on an atmospheric level, if only for not having random idiots jumping over me all the time as they ran around Azeroth.

So it was that World of Warcraft had me hooked, but with deep reservations. What bugged me most of all about the game was that it was impossible to multi-class. One was either a mage, a druid, a hunter and so on, and each class was restricted in the items they could use or armour they could wear. I found this awfully simplistic compared to the variety and complexity of Dungeons & Dragons and couldn’t stand the thought that no matter what I did, I’d have pretty well exactly the same build as everyone else playing the same class. It reminded me of the arbitrary silliness of 1st Edition D&D wherein a Magic-User (read Wizard) was not allowed to use any weapon other than a dagger, dart or staff and could wear no armour whatsoever. Why exactly? Could they not take combat training as well? But before the introduction of the feat system, and the freeing up of class combinations with the 3rd edition rules, this was not possible.

After a month, my reservations had mounted and I was concerned about the time I was spending online, so I walked away. What really got me to walk, however, was the release of Dungeons & Dragons Online. The game had hit the shelves a few months before and CodeMasters, who were running the servers in Europe, were offering free ten-day trials of the game. I signed up, downloaded the game and got Chris to join me in our initial trial.

I was, I have to say, initially quite impressed. The action had a nice flow to it, the combat was exciting and the strict adherence to the D&D 3.5 edition rules, with a few necessary tweaks to make the game workable, made me a lot happier with the structural aspects of the game. What I didn’t like at all was that I couldn’t seem to make any progress, largely on account of being unwilling to team up with other players. Chris dropped out quite early in the trial and I played on until the tenday expired, soloing with very limited success. Again I felt too shy to accept the random party invitations I received from other players and just skulked about the city of Stormreach in a hopelessly ineffectual manner, wondering what was wrong with me. When the ten days expired, I uninstalled the game from my laptop, went back to playing Neverwinter Nights and drooling over screenshots of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and thought that would be the end of it.

Fast forward to 2008. I had returned from the UK to Australia and was busy finishing my Masters in Creative Writing, which I had deferred for two years. I was doing my best to avoid playing any games at all, in order to focus on my writing. There were the occasionally lockdowns with Neverwinter Nights 2 and Civilization IV, but on the whole I managed to remain disciplined until I got hooked modifying Oblivion. This process seemed to open the floodgates again, and once I had finished my degree, having no immediately pressing deadlines, the craving to spend my time immersed in virtual worlds returned.

I have a hard time resisting desire once it is firmly rooted in my mind, and the desire to play computer games seems so innocuous on so many levels, that it’s easy enough to satisfy it without feeling like a heroin addict or smoker. The first true addiction I ever had to a computer game was the first iteration of Sid Meier’s Civilization, back in the early 90s. I didn’t have a computer myself and so had to head around to my friend Mike’s place to play it, but once I got hold of his computer I was very difficult to dislodge. I could sit there all night, until dawn, swilling cask wine, smoking cones and building a civilization to stand the test of time. I was, between 1993 and 1995, living with my then girlfriend Kirstin, and she became very annoyed with me for spending whole nights out without calling, because I simply could not drag myself away from the screen to use the telephone.

I repeated the same behaviour regularly at my friend Rob Curtis’ place; sitting in his front room until the sun rose and then some, unable even to bring myself to go to the toilet. And it wasn’t only the dreaded Civilization that could hold me in its thrall. When Kirstin got her first PC computer, a second-hand 486, I installed Centurion: Defender of Rome on it and, in my first game, played from 2130 one evening until 1300 the following afternoon, only leaving the chair once to go to the toilet and get a glass of water. So the pattern was established early, indeed, it had long been established in the pen and paper days when my friend Gus coined the phrase “five o’clock maniacs” aged 12, after we repeatedly stayed up all night playing Dungeons & Dragons with my brother. When Civilization III came out I was living in Rome doing a post-doc at the British School at Rome. I had submitted my PhD on the 3rd of January 2003 and flown straight there, completely exhausted after four months spent working like a dog until dawn every night and sleeping four hours a day. I had no interest in doing any more work ever again at the time, and when, a week later, I bought the Italian version of the game, all hope of a future academic career died. I had some of the greatest sessions of my life in that place, fuelled by daily visits to ruins, museums and galleries. Armed with a bottle of primitivo, I’d fire it up for positively hours on end. It seemed that when it came to gaming, I was built for immersion – for commitment to the long haul. “Close the curtains and get the heater, bro, this is a lockdown.”

And so it was, around September 2008, that, bored with games I was playing and looking for a new experience and challenge, I began to consider giving Dungeons & Dragons Online another go. After all, most MMOs take a couple of years to get up and running, so far as the in-game economy is concerned, and ironing out problems with the gameplay and interface. I figured that this one had had sufficient time to mature and that it might well be worth another look. I signed up for another ten-day trial, downloaded the game and, after an absence of just over two years, found myself back on the streets of Stormreach.

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The following is the 2nd chapter of the first novel I wrote entitled Fools’ Gumboot and later, No Job Too Strange. I began writing it at the age of 21 when living in Calder Rd Darlington. The first draft took me from 1994 to 1996 and came out at a total of 260,000 words. It was monstrously incompetent and came to constitute a perfect lesson in exactly how not to write a novel. “Is he really on as much dope as you say he’s on?” Well, yes I was. The original premise in part rested on the, er, inspired idea of a “drug lord” as a sort of superhero in another plane of existence, where, powered by their respective substances, like elemental forces, they did their deeds for good or evil.  It soon morphed into a story about a private detective called Roland Columbus who found a means by which to travel to an alternative universe where the characters who populated our literature were made whole in one gigantic, ungodly mess. This other plane of existence lay across an expanse called “The Blue”, which was, of course, the very same “blue” that things come out of – unexpectedly. At its conception, the novel was titled Fools’ Gumboot. I shan’t elaborate.

The story was hopelessly bloated, badly written and hugely self-indulgent. So tangentially wayward was the plot that even I had trouble following it at times. Still, in its ultimately clumsy way, it held to an internal logic and made some degree of sense. The second half was far superior to the first, because it was written in a more consistent flurry of writing which took place between December 1995 and August 1996. I had quit smoking cones and was living in a sunlit, one-room flat, high up above Bronte beach with an incredible view of the coast from my balcony. Swimming every day in summer and, motivated by working seven days a week to save money for an overseas trip to make the most of my spare time, for the first time in my life I began to write in a determined and organised manner.

I finished the draft just before I left for Europe on August 19, 1996, and left it until I returned. It was thus in 1998 and 1999 that the second draft was completed, whilst I was living in a one-bedroom flat in Glebe and back at university doing honours in Australian Literature and Medieval History. The second draft was practically a second novel – I dismissed the bulk of the first draft and kept only selected elements as a story within another story. This reorganisation relocated the story to a fictional town in Queensland called Clayton, where the author of Fools’ Gumboot, Dirk, is taking a holiday and has his manuscript stolen. In his subsequent encounter with the police, and via the medium of the stoner thieves who end up reading his manuscript, the more promising and coherent elements of Fools’ Gumboot were revealed. The goings on in the town of Clayton became, in fact, the true narrative framework for the story. The novel also received a new title: No Job too Strange, and it was at this stage of the process, in 1998, that the below chapter was written. It’s not exactly all that great, especially in its rather tired colloquialisms, so I present it here more in the spirit of putting it on the record.

 

The Too-hard Basket

“Jeez it’s hot today, Trev,” said Bill.

“Sure is,” said Trev.

And it really was hot that Tuesday. Now, at midday, the sun reached its cruel zenith. Bill adjusted his corpulent body in the sagging brown swivel chair.  His red face glistened with perspiration, gathered in the gullies of his exhausted frowns. It ran down his temples and dripped from his nose and brows; dropping away into hot space.

“Sure is, Bill,” said Trev. “It’s a real hot day. Lucky we haven’t gotta go out, ‘cos I don’t know if I’d be up to even walkin’ down to the corner.”

“Too right.”

Trev plucked up the courage to reach for a cigarette. His arm hung across the air and flopped onto the fake-wood veneer desk where it inched towards the smokes. He took one out and lit it with genuine effort from a disposable lighter. He sank back into his reclining brown leather chair. The smoke curled off into the unpleasant air, writhing in the agony of the heat.

“I’m bushed already mate, I’m really bushed.” The deep whine of his voice trailed off. He grunted, clearing his throat. “But we got a job to do Bill, we’ve got this case to think about.”

Bill shrugged with sincerity. “Sure do mate. I’ve bin thinkin’ about it all morning and I haven’t got anywhere. Let’s go over the facts again.”

“Alright mate.”

They both paused a while. They were not men accustomed to pouncing.

“Now, let’s see,” said Bill. “It happened in Doug’s cafe, two days ago. A guy walks in who Doug claims was a short, swarthy lookin’ bloke, with dark hair. He could see a bit poppin’ out the bottom of his balawhatsicallit. This swarthy bloke was wearing a blue denim jacket and black jeans, and he had a ring on his right hand with Adolph Hitler on it and the bloke had somethin’ tattooed on his knuckles. There were some letters, though he didn’t see what they were.”

“Not the epistles to the apostles I don’t reckon,” threw in Trev.

“Aye? What’s that, Trev?”

“Nothin’, mate,” said Trev.

“I’ll take ya word for it. Anyhow, this bloke pulls out a gun and says, ‘look ‘ere pal, turn it over, the loot I mean,’ and a’ course Doug’s no slouch when anybody orders anything. You know how quick he can whip up a mixed grill. I mean, sure, this time he doesn’t exactly want to pull out all stops, but he gets on with the show and the guy chucks him like an airport bag.”

“Did Doug see the airline or anything like that?”

“Nah.” Bill paused to catch his breath and his eyes widened in obese appreciation. “But that’s real thinkin’ that is, see if he’s like a registered jetsetter. He only said it was ‘like’ an airport bag, so’s it might a’ been something else altogether, only like an airport bag.”

“Ah, heck.”

“Yeah, we mighta been onto somethin’ with real evidence like that.” Bill reached down and undid one of the buttons on his dark brown shirt. The moist hairs on his chest popped out in a grizzled plume. Trev sucked back on his dismal, hot cigarette.

“Anyway, mate. Two’s a crowd, the bloke says, and next thing you know e’s off with the lot, and poor old Doug’s wondering what’s ‘appened to his morning’s takings.”

“Far out, Brussel sprout.”

Trev shifted his bulk and ran his spare hand through his tropical hair.

“So what can we do with that?” he asked.

Bill stared long and hard at the ceiling. The orange and yellow lampshade dangled flypaper over his head. A large blowfly that had become attached seemed to give up the fight and stare back down at Bill. The brilliant green of the eyes held the lure of sighing bottles, of longaway refreshment, hunted into misery by the savage, unforgiving heat. Trev’s gaze wandered into the axis of his companion’s hypnosis.

Bill soon broke the spell.

“It’s a tough one Trev, a real tough one.”

“Phew, you can say that again. Where on earth do you start with a thing like this?”

“You write it all down mate, you write it all down. Then you sit and think about it, and you talk to people.”

“Well, yeah, that’s what a case is all about. But this time around. I mean, this case, Bill. What can we do?”

“Let’s think. We spoke to Doug, right. Hang on.”

He reached forward with immense effort. His body heaved and droplets plunged from his fringe. On top of the desk was a two-tiered wire tray, an in-tray and, well, another one altogether. Reaching into the top tray, he levered his fingers under the single manila folder that lay there, removing it to his lap with a deep exhalation.

“Here we are.” He opened it up and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here’s what Doug said. Blah, blah, blah, bloke comes into the shop. Yep, blah blah, give us ya money, yep, and then he goes on, two’s a crowd, and whooshka ‘e was off.”

“What else we got in there, Bill?”

“Well, that’s all we got, mate. Shivers, I been thinkin’ about it for days, but I just don’t see how we can get the bloke. E’s probably left town by now, for sure. Gone up the coast, you know.”

“Yeah, I reckon you’re right. If I remember rightly, Doug said he asked a few people, but nobody saw anyone with a balaclavala or Mr Hitler, or any black jeans or anything. It was lunch time and there was just nothin’ happening. If he’d walked in and there was plenty of people we might have had something to go on, but what can we do?”

Bill took a deep, serious breath. He raised an eyebrow in resignation and puffed his cheeks like a bullfrog. His brow knitted and his eyes roved from his right hand to his left. He looked closely at Trev, sunk deep in the hot trance of his chair.

“I guess this one’s for the too hard basket, mate,” Bill said, and plopped the file into the full tray beneath the in-tray, on the top of the brown desk.

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If you had told a teenager playing PONG back in 1972 that one day computer games would be the most profitable entertainment industry on the planet, they might just have believed you – but few others would. That computer games could become so completely entrenched in society, that we should find ourselves discussing the game-ification of life itself, might also have been difficult to fathom some forty years ago. The evidence is clear however. Not only do people love games, and computer games in particular, but they have embraced them on an utterly breathtaking scale.

Computer game and console revenues have continued to show steady growth globally since the 1970s, with the market showing periods of accelerated growth in the mid to late 80s, mid 90s and again from 2006. Initially a very expensive luxury item, the speed of technological development, steady advance of miniaturisation and the vast up-scaling of production has made computers and consoles both easily affordable and ubiquitous.

Much of the growth has been driven in recent years both by emerging markets and the further expansion of already established markets in Asia, Europe and the United States. Even in the developed world, where the inevitable maturation of the market saw a levelling of revenues in the first half of the previous decade, there were strong forecasts for growth and the industry was tipped not only to outstrip both music and movie revenues, but to double them by 2011. Sure enough, in 2006/07 revenues in the United States grew by a staggering 28.4%. Indeed in that year, on average, according to Entertainment & Software Association (ESA) CEO and president Michael D. Gallagher, “an astonishing 9 games were sold every second of every day of the year.”

In 2007 total global sales for consoles and games hit $41.9 billion. Compare this with roughly 30 to 40 billion for music sales, 27 billion for movies and around 35 billion for books in that same year. Also consider that in 1994, the entire gaming industry generated just $7 billion in revenues, and in 1982, a mere $1.5 billion.

In 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV became the most successful entertainment release in history. In the space of 24 hours, the game had grossed $310 million US in sales, compared to the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the film Spiderman 3 which grossed $220 million and $117 million respectively in their first 24 hours. In 2008, video games revenue smashed all predictions, with the industry selling more than $54 billion. In 2009, Guitar Hero 3 became the first single computer game to generate more than 1 billion dollars in sales. Total global computer game revenues, despite the economic downturn and an 8% correction in 2009, are projected to reach as high as $68 billion in 2012. Should the rapid expansion of the middle class in India and East Asia continue for some time as many predict it will, then this will almost certainly ensure further significant growth in this industry.

Even if these projections are not met, the computer games industry is already, far and away the fastest growing entertainment industry in history. In both the United States and the UK, video games revenue is already considerably larger than music or movie sales. In the UK, gaming revenues are now greater than music and DVD sales combined and four times greater than cinema box office takings, with further expansion predicted. The above statistics take into account many different formats and platforms, including different gaming consoles, mobile phone and PC games, games rentals and online gaming subscription fees, so it is arguably not a single phenomenon in itself. Yet, what unifies them all is, inarguably, a single phenomenon – gaming.

These figures might perhaps give a skewed conception of the industry’s scale, and it must be remembered that much of the income derives from the sale of expensive consoles and hardware accessories. It is necessary to look at the scale of participation to get a clearer idea of the industry’s penetration. For online gaming alone, not including gambling, there are an estimated 500 million gamers; a number predicted to grow to 1.5 billion in the next decade. Zynga, the company responsible for social games such as Farmville and Mafia Wars, boasts a total of 266 million active monthly accounts, with Farmville alone having 62 million players at last count.

In the developed world, the average age for video game players is roughly 35, a number which is slowly increasing. This trend is less surprising when one considers the age and maturity of the industry; those who grew up playing arcade, console and PC games in the 80s have largely stayed in touch with newer formats and continue to do so. Globally the average age ranges from mid to late 20s. Just over 20% of gamers in the US are over the age of 50. This is a very cross-generational phenomenon.

The gender distribution of gamers is also now approaching parity. A 2009 study showed that 60% of gamers were male and 40% female, though the distribution varies considerably by format, with almost 80% of female gamers preferring the Sony Wii compared to only 41% of males. It is estimated that female gamers now constitute a majority of online social gamers. Gaming has also increasingly become a family activity, especially with the introduction of consoles such as the Wii and Microsoft’s new Kinect controller for the Xbox 360. In the developed world, over 70% of children aged between 8 and 18 have a video game console, not including other platforms such as personal computers and mobile phones.

In the US, where an estimated 67% of households play video games, depending on whose statistics you accept, the average amount of time spent by players is between 8 and 18 hours per week. A 2007 study in the US found that 97% of boys and 94% of girls aged 12 to 17 played video games regularly, with little variation according to ethnic or economic background.

Not only is the video games industry the fastest growing entertainment industry in history, it is also one of the fastest growing cultural phenomena in history – a phenomenon that has been subject to a great deal of stigma, condescension and negativity. Computer gaming has long been derided for the prevalence of violent themes, with all manner of claims being made about its social and personal impact. Yet, social research has repeatedly exploded myths about the influence of computer games on people’s lives, particularly with regard to violent behaviour.

In the United States, a country where almost the entire youth cohort has been exposed to computer gaming, often with violent themes, juvenile crime-rates are now at an all-time low. Indeed, violent criminals have been shown to consume less popular media before offending, with causes of crime being more closely linked to parenting, mental illness and economic status. Psychological studies indicate that violent computer games do not turn otherwise non-violent people into violent criminals. Indeed, gaming has been shown to be a highly effective outlet for aggression. Considering that roughly 90% of males play video games, it is dubious at best to cite this as a cause without examining broader crime trends, which indicate a reduction in criminal behaviour.

This is all perhaps less surprising when we take into account that studies of primate behaviour suggest that apes are capable of making clear distinctions between play fighting and actual fighting. Just as children who stage mock sword fights with sticks know the limits of contact and engagement, and almost all such play will end with first blood. Again, both with apes and children, those who fail to make the distinctions between play and combat tend to be those who have a psychological predisposition to violence, either through mental illness or traumatic socialisation. As with many such influences, violent movies being paramount, we must ask – do we legislate for the norm, or for those rare exceptions?

The games industry has been notorious for its stereotyping of women and there has been much valid criticism on this front. Traditionally a pre-occupation of young men, computer game designers made often very unsophisticated appeals to their pre-occupation with sex and sexual imagery. Gender typing in games tended to reflect chauvinistic attitudes with two-dimensional characters with exaggerated proportions presented as subservient objects of titillation. This trend has, however, shifted significantly in recent years with the introduction of far more well-developed, powerful and independent female characters. The Tomb Raider series marked an interesting turning point, wherein a strong, intelligent and capable female character not only allowed female gamers to feel empowered, but also provided the requisite titillation to keep male gamers interested. Increasingly computer games have catered to women and also to men who preferred more interesting and intellectually appealing female characters. Indeed, in the 2005 release, Tomb Raider: Legend, Lara Croft’s breasts were reduced from a DD cup to a C cup. Bioware has long been leading the way on this front with its more deeply-drawn female characters in games such as Baldurs Gate 2, Mass Effect 1 & 2, Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2, and Dragon Age Origins. Many girls who play computer games now cite a sense of empowerment through their online avatars, an empowerment which extends into their everyday lives. Games designers have also recently begun to introduce sympathetic homosexual characters, such as Zevran in Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins.

Gaming has also been derided as a mindless pre-occupation with little personal or social benefit, yet increasingly research indicates that games are extremely effective educational tools. Gamers have improved hand-eye co-ordination, are better at multi-tasking and have considerably increased ability to process information from their peripheral vision compared to non-gamers. In his book Everything bad is good for you, Steven Johnson argues that computer games both demand and reward more than traditional games like Monopoly. Many games serve as a sort of ethical testing ground, with genuine choices and consequences. We can feel deeply guilty about the actions of our avatars, or our treatment of other characters, be they the avatars of other players, or computer-controlled bots. The way gamers play often mirrors the way in which they interact with people in real life, and games where actions and choices have moral consequences offer a chance to learn about social interaction.

There are many different genres of games such as shooters, simulators, adventure, action adventure, Role-playing, action role-playing and strategy, to name a few. There are also a wide variety of goals within games. Some games merely hone our skills at a particular, often meaningless reflex task. Others engage with stories, sometimes linear, sometimes open ended. Some games are merely about acquisition, a sort of “cumulomania”; others have more noble goals, such as saving lives, helping the disadvantaged or slaying monsters. Some games have a difficult learning curve, others a simple, easy learning-curve. Some games are especially literary with seemingly endless detail about the game world; its history, culture, politics and landscape; other games simply require shooting as many things as possible. What is almost always present in every game, however, is some form of competition and some form of goal, quest, outcome or reward. This can be played out as either PvP (Player vs Player), PvE (Player vs. Environment), or a player competing against their own standards. It can be a race against time, or a strategic, tactical battle against sophisticated AI. The pace will vary significantly, as will the pressure, but most successful games present challenges to players that are not beyond them, but might, ultimately, be difficult to achieve.

Jane McGonigal, a games designer, researcher and author of the book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World, has made many strong arguments in favour of computer gaming. She cites four positive factors associated with gaming: Urgent Optimism, Social Fabric, Blissful Productivity and Epic Meaning. She states that gaming involves the desire to tackle difficult obstacles, the willingness to create communities, the joy of working hard to achieve goals, and the sense of a great story or meta-narrative.

She cites the example of World of Warcraft (hereafter WoW), where over twelve million players have, since its beginning in 2004, spent a grand total of more than 6 million years playing the game. In WoW, complete strangers from across the globe team up in groups of up to six (with larger groups for raids), and co-operate in solving quests and achieving particular goals and outcomes. Knowing their role, according to the class or profession of their avatar, players will join together and help each other in a common cause, often communicating through speaking, or simply typing in often very basic English, the lingua franca of online gaming. The enjoyment of the exercise and the need to co-operate makes it not only a fun experience – although of course, things can go horribly wrong – but also a very social, diplomatic experience.

This type of co-operation is significant when we consider just how much people in the developed world and beyond are gaming, especially in MMORPGs (hereafter MMOs). In a 2010 TED talk, Jane McGonigal stated that: “The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10000 hours playing online gaming by the age of 21… the same time spent in school from fifth grade to high school graduation with perfect attendance… what we’re looking at, is an entire generation of young people who are virtuoso gamers.”

She sees this as a parallel education creating a virtually unprecedented human resource, and asks the question “what exactly are gamers getting so good at?”

Principally, it seems, energetic and willing co-operation in solving problems in teams with complete strangers from different cultural and geographical backgrounds. If such skills can be harnessed to solving legitimate social, economic and logistical problems, she argues, then this would be of immense benefit to global society as a whole. With this idea in mind, McGonigal has been a driving force behind the development of games designed to mirror global problems and find solutions, such as World Without Oil, a sort of participatory economic and environmental simulation set in a time of peak oil. This type of grand narrative is a commonly recurring theme in computer games and is potentially compelling for all gamers, but particularly so for those engaged more by stories than mere action or accumulation.

In his book, The Study of Games, Brian Sutton-Smith writes, “Each person defines games in his own way — the anthropologists and folklorists in terms of historical origins; the military men, businessmen, and educators in terms of usages; the social scientists in terms of psychological and social functions. There is overwhelming evidence in all this that the meaning of games is, in part, a function of the ideas of those who think about them…”

Games can make us feel proud of ourselves, they can make us feel more capable and more determined. They can also leave us with as intense a recollection of story and experience as any film or book. Already games have become one of the dominant modes for conveying narratives to people of all ages. Their storylines are often old myths and narratives rehashed, but by making the player the protagonist, they achieve a unique level of emotional investment in the story. Just as some books are un-put-downable, or as a movie keeps us glued to the screen, games can be equally mesmerising, often over considerably longer time spans.

There are of course many problems that derive from gaming, largely on account of them being so compelling. This is particularly the case with MMOs such as WoW, though it manifests itself in many ways – be it obsessive playing of Patience, Bejewelled Blitz or Farmville, or the infamous “just one more move” syndrome associated with Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

Whilst not actually certified as a psychological disorder, video game addiction displays many of the symptoms of compulsive disorders and impulse control disorder. Players of MMOs are considerably more likely to suffer from addiction or overuse, playing on average two hours a day more than regular gamers. A 2006 poll suggested that roughly 12% of online gamers displayed addictive behaviour. A 2009 survey in Toronto of 9000 students from grades 7 to 12 showed that roughly 10% spent 7 or more hours day in front of a screen. Other studies have indicated that problematic gaming behaviour effects roughly 4% of regular computer gamers, and this often corresponded with other underlying mental health issues.

There have been notable cases of addictive gaming leading to death, either indirectly through neglect or directly through derived health problems. In 2009, in an ironically tragic incident, a three-month old baby died of malnutrition whilst her Korean parents spent hours in an internet café raising a virtual baby in the online game Prius. In 2005 a Korean man suffered a cardiac arrest and died after spending 50 hours playing Starcraft in an internet café.

The reasons for the addictive nature of MMOs are many and complex. The term “grinding” refers to playing continuously, often without pause, and often repeating the same process to achieve a result as quickly as possible or to harvest loot or other items. There are so many possible goals in MMOs, such as levelling, crafting or making money, that players can easily become obsessive about achieving these outcomes at the eclipse of other concerns. Owing to the need to co-operate and participate in parties of players to succeed in quests, many players also see playing as a social obligation to their fellow gamers, particularly those players who are closely involved with a guild. There is also pressure to continue playing in order to stay in touch with other players, some of whom advance very rapidly on account of devoting so much of their spare time to playing. Once a significant level-gap has opened between two characters, it is no longer worthwhile teaming up on quests.

There are also many players who enjoy acting in a deliberately anti-social manner within MMO gameworlds. Different situations can develop different attitudes. There is often a stark contrast between PvP servers and PvE servers, with the former attracting people who can only, based on their in-game behaviour, be classified as psychopaths. The much vaunted but ill-received and poorly populated Age of Conan MMO became infamous for the behaviour on its PvP servers. It was common for players to camp near area transitions and, in effect, to assassinate travelling players who were unable to defend themselves while they loaded into the new zone. Thankfully, for every “troll” there are usually three or four community-minded gamers, and PvP servers can also bring out the best in people, with powerful characters seeking to defend the weak from the ravages of more bloodthirsty players.

The sheer proliferation of MMOs has created hundreds if not thousands of often tight-knit global communities. Recent statistics indicated up to 12 million registered accounts at World of Warcraft, and roughly 3.5 million for Aion, a game mostly popular in Korea and east Asia. The server populations can vary dramatically, with the science fiction space-trading game EVE Online holding the record of 54,446 players simultaneously active on a single server in 2010.

Players on the same server will often band together to assist each other, and many develop a very community-minded spirit. Educating new players can also be a real pleasure; not only in the technical aspects of the game and various styles of gameplay, but also in the social mores and ethics of the gaming world or particular server. Experienced players will often make the effort to advise players about what will be required in particular scenarios, for it is foolish to assume, when going into an instance, that what one has learned through hard experience is common knowledge. Such assumptions will often result in disappointment and embarrassment. The more investment experienced players make in new players, the more one might expect such things in return. It also helps to ensure a better crop of players, especially in PUGs (Pick-up Groups), which can otherwise be a very hit and miss experience.

MMOs also benefit those who are shy or who have socio-phobic tendencies. Whether they are uncomfortable with their appearance or some form of disability, the internet can provide a suitably anonymous means through which to interact with others successfully. Avatars are more often than not an approximation of how we wish to look, realistically or otherwise, and few people will look as good, or, for that matter, as ugly and formidable in real life as they might in the context of a game.

Video games are also a wonderful vehicle for a sort of “identity tourism”. In video games, players often assume another race or gender. Terry Flew, associate professor of Media and Communications in the Creative Industries at QUT, in Brisbane, suggests that much of the appeal of MMOs lies in the ability to assume the role of someone or something that is not possible in real life, and then to step into a virtual social context. In many cases, the online identity may become more acceptable to the player than their real-life identity. This can even lead to tensions between gamers and the game-creators, the former considering their avatars to be theirs, with the latter considering all content to be the property of the manufacturer. Male and female gamers regularly gender-bend and most experience excitement rather than discomfort at doing so. Negative responses to men playing female characters are generally frowned upon and considered out of step with the game-world’s mores. In games which originate from an Asian context, strongly influenced by Anime styles, male characters often have a feminised appearance, with large, round eyes, soft, pale skin and delicate features.

Another fascinating internal dynamic of MMOs is their economies. Much has been made of players selling virtual goods and services for real money: levelling characters, the sale of rare items, or indeed, the sale of established characters and whole accounts to other players. Such actions are, in almost all cases, a breach of contract and are punished heavily by account suspensions or character deletion. Yet far more fascinating is the workings of the virtual economies in-game, most significantly through the auction houses. Here players can choose to set a starting bid and a buy-out price for literally anything they find or craft in game. It takes some time for economies to get started, but once an MMO has been up and running for some time, market forces take over. Rare items, weapons, armour, clothing, crafting materials, reagents, components, minerals, decorative attire, anything and everything has a potential buyer and prices will fluctuate accordingly. Learning what sells well adds a whole extra dimension to obtaining loot, herbs, minerals, components and what have you. In most MMOs there is a surge of players logged on over weekends – a convenient time for crafting in particular, and the more savvy players will list items required for these processes in anticipation of a buying spree.

The in-game economy is a real economy and mastering it is no mere adjunct to gameplay – it is a practical necessity. To put it bluntly, players who don’t know how to generate income are an underclass. Their inferior weapons and armour, lack of accessories such as mana potions, salves and healing wands, can often prove costly when a party is stretched to the limit. In Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) a cleric who cannot heal is a grave liability. Similarly, tanks and DPS (Damage per second) toons in DDO fronting up against, for example, a clay golem, without appropriate weaponry to beat its resistances and damage reduction will be of next to no use. Learning to make money in game ensures a better playing experience for all involved, and discerning players will blacklist those who are not well enough equipped to perform their role. The learning-curve of an in-game economy is often a significant educational experience in financial management.

Other virtual phenomena have startling parallels in reality. Take for instance the proliferation of psychologists in Second Life. Here one can talk to an accredited analyst, whilst sitting on a virtual couch. And outside, in the real world, psychologists are now using virtual simulations to help with phobias by putting people in the virtual presence of situations they fear, whilst providing structured reassurance. Consider also the “Corrupted Blood” plague incident in WoW, possibly the most fascinating glitch in the history of gaming. The Corrupted Blood plague, a debilitating, and potentially fatal debuff which was supposed only to affect players in a raid instance, made its way into the game-world through player pets and minions. It was then transmitted from pets and minions to players, who transmitted it to other players and so on. Within hours of the first outbreak, major cities in game were heavily affected because of strong player concentrations, with lower level characters being killed almost instantly. The reactions of players and the rapidity of the spread of the disease has since been studied by epidemiologists.

The debate continues about whether or not computer games can ever be considered to be “art”. One objection is that, on the grounds of player involvement, a sort of co-authorship is taking place. Yet are not installations often an interactive experience requiring the presence and, occasionally, the participation of an audience? If we are to judge games on the basis of artistic merit, then we must ask does all cinema, music and painting automatically achieve the standard by which we define art from commercial product, or just plain junk? Computer games are another genre, another medium, with many different levels of design and expression. One could focus on the components, such as the art of story-telling, the art of design of both the engine and the skins that clad it, the art of writing, both dialogue and in-game descriptions, or one could focus on the package as a whole.

Computer games have also generated a vast amount of creativity amongst their devotees. Many games that can be customised have large communities of highly skilled, literate and artistic modders. Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights games encouraged people to use the toolset to create adventures. Using the the same virtual components – landscapes, buildings, trees, monsters, character models, etc –  used in making the original game, players constructed their own complete game-settings and plots. In one collaboration, a Hungarian science-fiction author wrote a module entitled Tortured Hearts, with over 400,000 words of dialogue, and a complex array of possible role-playing interactions in an extensive world. Playing it in its entirety required almost 150 hours of game-time. This was one of many thousands of modules, several of such exceptional quality they were rated by community members as superior to the original game. These hobbyists are not only giving pleasure to themselves and others, but also honing their skills, and in some cases, finding subsequent employment as game designers.

Whether we like it or not, computer games are already deeply embedded in modern society and will likely become even more so in the future. Theorists, noting the readiness of people to engage with gaming in so many different contexts, have began to postulate on the game-ification of life, where people are encouraged to do public good or improve themselves by game-like reward systems, or via game-like mechanisms. Just what the long-term social implications will be are difficult to predict, but the initial scare of a grossly negative impact appears not to have materialised, and the appeal of gaming has increased dramatically.

The long antiquated idea that video-gaming is essentially an anti-social pursuit is no longer supportable in the era of MMOs and social network-based games. It was always something of a misconception when one considers the nature of console-gaming – gamers have been competing and cooperating with their friends and family since the the days of the first consoles. On a smaller scale, the LAN party, in which players bring their computers to a friend’s house and connect via a local router, is another example of socialising both physically and via an interface.

Perhaps in the not-too distant future, more affluent houses will contain a room, let’s call it the “iRoom,” where the entire space is utilised for the sake of gaming. A central, ceiling-mounted, 360 degree projector turns the space into a completely immersive environment of interiors & exteriors; speakers embedded flush with the walls provide surround sound, whilst receptors collect both movement and voice data from the player or players who stand in the midst of this space. Such a space will ultimately be a luxury product, but ever since consoles provided steering wheels and handguns, we have been moving towards this level of immersion.

People who treat games lightly and dismiss them as an ugly, crass, superficial and violent form of popular culture, will be disappointed to learn that not only are they not going to go away, but they are on target to become the supreme entertainment format and a dominant cultural phenomenon in the developed and developing worlds. Artists need not fear them, but instead, they should get on board. This vast gravy train is steaming ahead and writers, composers, painters, designers, voice artists and actors will find many opportunities for gainful and satisfying employment in this unstoppable industry of the future. It seems that for video games, the only way is up, and with the diversity of the market, there is, quite literally, something for everyone.

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When I was a child and had little to do, I would often pull out the Players Handbook and whip up a few characters. It was fruitless task really, for I never expected to use the characters at all. The truth is I just loved rolling dice and poring over the tables and charts. I also loved naming characters and equipping them from the very limited starting gold they were permitted at first level. It was an especially effective strategy for a sorrowful Sunday afternoon.

This urge to create characters never left me and was later transferred to fiction writing. Come to think of it, I was keenly writing fiction as a child, albeit heavily-derivative genre fantasy and the odd scrap of science fiction. When I tried my hand at genre writing in later years, I found I was often more creative in inventing characters than I was with non-genre fiction, where I tended to model characters on people I knew in real life.

After my first encounter with Baldur’s Gate in 2001, I found myself once again drawn to creating Dungeons & Dragons characters. Baldur’s Gate only allowed for the creation of a single character (though I was later to discover that by starting a game in multi-player mode one could in fact create an entire party) and as a consequence, I didn’t initially have the chance to indulge myself. I did, however, re-start the game several times just for this purpose, bringing back to life such luminaries as Luven Lightfingers, and an Elven Ranger by the name of Yessir Eldith, who may have the good fortune to be commemorated in this series of character portraits.

When I finally got hold of a copy of Icewind Dale, however, which required the creation of an entire party of 1st-level adventurers, I had the opportunity to really go to town. Sadly I have lost the old saved games from that initial burst of character creation and cannot recall the names of my first party, suffice to say that the barbarian, Arnalde Holdfaste, a name I revived from the final campaign I played with my brother back in 1989, featured. There was also a Halfling Fighter/Thief with the name of Whistler Skilift. I do recall having had some fun with the alpine themes.

In 2003, shortly after returning to Cambridge from four months in Rome, I bought Icewind Dale 2 (hereafter IWD2) from the Lion’s Yard Game store. The game was the last of the old Bioware Infinity Engine games and suffered in its reception for having adhered to the old Bioware Infinity Engine. It was considered rather outmoded in time when the FPS was finally coming to full fruition, but as has ever been the case with all Bioware products, the artwork, writing, soundtrack and gameplay were all first class. It was also the first official product to implement the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules – a welcome advance on the somewhat illogical and impractical 2nd Edition ruleset.

I sat down that afternoon and installed the game on my crappy little laptop. It was the first laptop I ever owned and wasn’t actually all that bad, considering the times. Running Windows XP, it had a 6gig hard-drive, a 499Mhz processor and 196MB RAM. It could just about handle Civilization III and had more than enough to run IWD2. I was living at that time in a small room at the very top of number 12 Madingley Rd, next door to my eccentric American friend Edward. Number 12 was a veritable mansion, built in the mock-tudor style and owned by St John’s College, and my room looked from on high across a large front lawn surrounded by yew trees and redwood cedars towards number 10, where I had lived for my first three years in Cambridge.

It was a strange time in my life. Having submitted my PhD some five months ago and still waiting on a date for my viva voce, I was working part time at the Anchor Pub where I had worked for two and a half years already. I spent my days re-working volume one of my autobiography, Sex With a Sunburnt Penis, applying for jobs, and playing computer games.

Sitting thus beside the small lead glass window with its diamond panes, I fired up the game to discover that, s with it predecessor, IWD2 also required the creation of an entire party. This meant a few hours of undiluted joy for me were on the horizon, though it also meant that role-playing elements in the game would be limited as there would be no scripted interactions between NPCs.

The group I came up with consisted of the following personalities: Milla Sorrow, Amra of Aquilonia, Freya Stark, Laurie Nosgrit, Zorl Bankie and Summer Thingis. Apart from having been a real person, Freya Stark had also been the name of my oldest friend Gus’s first character, which he had the presence of mind to choose at the age of 10. Amra was a blatant Conan ripoff, whilst Laurie Nosgrit was another resurrection from that final 1989 campaign, a Halfling Fighter/Rogue. Zorl Bankie was a name inspired by my South African friend Chris, who had told me that in SA a banky of zorl (sic) was a very large deal of marijuana, usually wrapped up in a sheet of newspaper. Milla Sorrow is a name I find I still rather like, but of course, most important here is the long-delayed subject of this already overlong narrative, Summer Thingis. Her name was the last chosen and it was created in an act of desperation, as I wanted to finish and get started. The name was taken from the English title of a French film that was playing at the Art House Cinema at the time – Summer Things. An extra ‘i’ and I was good to go. I chose a very fetching portrait for her and made her a pure-class cleric. After all, every group needs specialist healers. Thus was Summer Thingis born. Needless to say, she performed admirably well as the party’s principal healer and I developed a real attachment to her, as I did to the others in the group.

Largely on account of my being so fond of her portrait, I later made use of her name in a variety of other games, though she had to wait until 2006/07, after my return to Cambridge. Firstly in Neverwinter Nights 2 (Hereafter, NWN2), then again in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I had a different vision of her by the time NWN 2 came around and remodelled her as a multi-class Ranger / Rogue / Wizard. I had a rather bad habit of making unwieldy multi-class builds in NWN2, simply because I could and Summer was no exception.

It was really, however, with Oblivion that Summer came into her own. With its far more customisable character creation system, allowing for much greater versatility in builds, I made a custom class called a Rainsinger. The name bore no relationship to her role, but rather celebrated my love of both rain and bards. She was a rogue-based blade, light armour and caster class, born under the Sign of the Lady.

I first played with her whilst I was in England, then, in 2008, when I returned to Sydney, I began to mod Oblivion. This became something of an obsessive process wherein I spent weeks completely customising the game. I replaced nearly all the textures and meshes, tweaked the game mechanics, added hundreds of user-created mods including new quests, quest and gameplay overhauls, a new user-interface, new equipment, locations, NPCs, including companions who could be recruited as party members.

I expanded the sound-track, slowed the levelling speed to one-tenth its original, slowed down time so that it was merely half that of the real world, added weather effects, transformed the shape of all the cities and towns, installed new cities and towns, removed the borders of the massive world and exploited the unused land out there and added many other new features to the game. I say that I did this, but it was all the work of the amazing modding community wherever they might be in the world. From websites such as TESNexus and Planet Elder Scrolls, I downloaded these at times quite extraordinary modifications and improved the game dramatically.

It was a lot of very hard work, but the results were astonishing to say the least. When you consider that the original skin textures on characters were 128×128 pixels, and these were upgraded to 4096×4096, you can get some idea of just how much more detailed the features of the characters in the game were. In most cases, however, the textures were merely four times the original size, yet this still gave the game a dramatic facelift. Some notable mods were Quarl’s Texture pack III, Exnem’s EyeCandy Body, Ren’s Mystic Elf Remake, the CM Companion mod, Growlf’s Hot Clothes, Improved Trees and Flora 1 & 2, Animated Window and Lighting System, Let the People Drink, Better Cities, Enhanced Magic Effects, Natural Environments, and the essential Oblivian Script Extender and Oblivion Mod Manager, to name a few. Two particular favourites on the quest front were the incomparable Lost Spires and the very engaging and useful Origins of the Mages Guild.

The sheer number and size of mods did cause some problems. The game was not entirely stable and crashed when minimised, and occasionally, but rarely, just plain crashed. It also tended to cause some quite heavy lag in populated areas and I did at times, particularly in cities, suffer a significant drop in FPS (Frames per second). This was not such a problem, even when the FPS dropped to a nadir of 12, compared with the standard 60, as I tended to walk through towns for the sake of role-play, thus improving reducing load pressures, and without combat, spell-casting or action sequences taking place in towns, it in no way hampered game-play.

The original Oblivion folder was four gigs in size, but the additions took it out to a total of nineteen gigs. Ouch.

I played this modified version of the game intermittently, but over a two-year period. I’d fire it up here and there and immerse myself in the province of Cyrodiil, with its lush, swaying foliage, long grass, rolling hills, high mountains and quaint medieval towns. It looked so good and the new mechanics made it play so well, that I was especially inspired to take the game as slowly as possible. I made Summer and her three companions walk or ride horses everywhere, only occasionally using the modded transport network to take a ship from say, Leyawiin to Bravil or on to the Imperial City. I was so enamoured of the new look of the game and the sheer vastness of the world that I nicknamed it The Beautiful Game. And it was, indeed, beautiful. Especially when under the influence of a certain cannibinoid, I found I could sit amongst the trees and watch them thrash around during a heavy thunderstorm for a very long time. I often did nothing other than wander around in the forest, pitch my portable tent in a clearing and sit beside it.

One of the great advantages of having installed so many mods, especially new lands, buildings, forts, castles, houses, estates, villages and what have you, was that I often stumbled upon things I had no recollection of installing at all. This made the game doubly enjoyable as having already played the game thoroughly and become very familiar with the landscape and quests,  it had become almost entirely novel again.

Sadly all this work came unstuck when my operating system developed some fatal errors and I was forced to do a complete overhaul, including finally making the switch to Windows 7. I rescued all the files, but the game would require a complete rebuild. A hobby I have only recently, one year on, found the time to pursue. It’s a work in progress.

Meanwhile, Summer continued to see action in the MMO Dungeons & Dragons Online.

Using the 3.5 edition rules, DDO again gave me licence to make her a multi-class build. I recreated Summer as an Arcane Archer – a Ranger / Wizard / Rogue – levels 9/3/1 respectively at last count. The final build, bearing in mind the game cap of level 20, was to be 14/5/1. I doubt this shall ever come about as I have since deleted the game in accordance with my new years resolution to stop wasting time and start doing more productive things with my spare time. I’m pleased to say, this has achieved the desired result.

Long live Summer Thingis!

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The first love of my life, apart from Jason the dachshund, was Dungeons & Dragons. It was 1981 and I was nine years old when my brother came home from school one day raving about a game he had watched some chaps playing in the playground.

“Several people can play. There’s not even any board. One guy is the Dungeon Master and he explains everything to the other people and they have to decide what to do. The Dungeon Master has maps and books with all the descriptions and rules in them. The players all pretend to be someone and they have to fight monsters and stuff. And they use these dice, with like twenty-sides and twelve and eight sides. It’s a fantasy game. It’s untold!”

He had, in fact, been watching people play for several days, sitting under a fig tree in the senior playground. His enthusiasm had grown steadily and, once he was hooked, he decided to recruit me so we could play at home. Naturally I was curious, and being the younger by two years, I often looked to my brother to introduce new things to me.

Aged nine and eleven we didn’t exactly have enough pocket money to rush out and buy the game rules, so to begin with my brother wrote an adventure, based on what he had seen at school. It was called the Keep of Terror and was, in every regard, what would later become known as a classic dungeon crawl. He drew a map of corridors, rooms, stairwells and underground caverns with an accompanying booklet defining the contents, replete with monsters, pit traps and even a pendulum blade trap. He had obtained a sufficiently rudimentary understanding of the rules to be able to help me create a character, and thus was my first ever avatar born: A Fighter by the name of Heedik. Without the appropriate dice, he approximated everything on three six-sided dice (3d6) and we sat down one afternoon in his bedroom to play.

I was instantly, and I mean, within seconds, totally and utterly engrossed. As I began to explore my first dungeon, armed with a long-sword, wearing leather armour and carrying a shield, my imagination came alive in a way that no story or film had ever managed to achieve. For first time ever, I was the protagonist. In the flickering torchlight and haunted illumination of the cobwebbed arrow-slits, my life depended not only on the decisions I made, but also the dice-rolls. When I opened a door to be attacked by three skeletons armed with rusty old weapons, I was thrilled, terrified and delighted, especially once I crouched over their shattered remains to pilfer a valuable gold necklace. My long, long, long and ongoing fantasy adventuring career had begun.

We replayed the Keep of Terror twice, then, that same week, pooled every cent we had managed to save, just under twenty dollars, and set off for Mind Games in Bondi Junction. We weren’t entirely sure what we should buy, but for some strange reason, rather than simply buying the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, we bought two adventures instead. In Search of the Unknown and The Palace of the Silver Princess, B1 and B3 respectively.

I had a few dollars more than Matthew and bought two dice as well – a D20 and a D8. We rushed home and got stuck into reading these “Modules”. In no time flat, my brother, ever the Dungeon Master, was taking me through In Search of the Unknown.

Like most modules back then it too was a classic dungeon crawl – the long-abandoned lair of a vanished wizard. After years of neglect, the place had been overrun by monsters and overgrown with strange, in some cases sentient plants. Other adventurers had tried and failed to explore this musty hideaway and the entrance corridor was grisly with their decaying corpses.

Feeling it was time to move on from Heedik, and now more aware of just how makeshift my brother’s initial crack at the rules had been, I picked a character from the pre-generated list at the back; a first-level cleric called The Mystical One. It was a crap name, it must be said, but I rather liked it at the time. Accompanied initially by a few more robust NPCs (non-player characters for the uninitiated) The Mystical One survived the challenges of In Search of the Unknown and, believing at the time that it was only possible to have one character at a time, I stuck with him.

It wasn’t until our birthdays came around that we finally got hold of the rules and things became a lot clearer. My brother also succeeded in recruiting his best friend Shah, and I got my best friend Gus on board, thus significantly increasing the player roster.  Of course, they could hardly be there on a regular basis, but my brother and I played almost every day after school. One weekend, whilst the two of us were staying at Shah’s house, The Mystical One finally met his demise at the hands of a village of enraged Lizardmen on The Isle of Dread. I was somewhat upset about this, but also felt ready to move onto another character.

Needing a new avatar, I again turned to the long list of pre-generated characters at the back of In Search of the Unknown and chose a thief by the name of Luven Lightfingers. This time he stuck, and, despite being somewhat pissweak, he proved more capable at keeping himself alive. Within a year Matthew and I had bought the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, in the first edition of course, and we simply adapted our game to this far more complex and ultimately satisfying rules system. Luven, survivor that he was, would go on to reach 9th level over the next few years of gaming.

More than just a character in a fantasy role-playing game, Luven Lightfingers was my first true alter-ego. Cunning and resourceful, dextrous and skilled, intelligent and sharp, he was my hero. But, best of all, he was me. I imagined him looking rather lank and devious. The shady guy in the corner, a pick-pocket, a pilferer, yet he was also one who favoured helping the disadvantaged and tyrannised. He would, if at times in an underhanded and unconventional fashion, always try to put an end to evil where he found it. He had the common touch and was not fond of the excesses of the aristocracy. He was himself no assassin, was not an evil man, and appropriately this was reflected in his alignment – chaotic good. The Players’ Handbook, and here I quote from the 1989 2nd edition, has the following to say about the chaotic good alignment:

Chaotic Good is known as the “Beatific,” “Rebel,” or “Cynic” alignment. A Chaotic Good character favors change for a greater good, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. They always intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of alignment with the rest of society. They may create conflict in a team if they feel they are being pushed around, and often view extensive organization and planning as pointless, preferring to improvise. While they do not have evil intentions, they may do bad things (even though they will not enjoy doing these things) to people who are, in their opinion, bad people, if it benefits the greater good.

Around the age of twelve, with Luven rapidly approaching tenth level, my brother, who had started to display an increasingly mean streak as a Dungeon Master, tried to kill off Luven in Against the Giants. Having snuck his way deep into their compound in the mountains, Luven came upon a treasury, the centre-piece of which was a large, iron-bound chest. Naturally excited at the prospect of some quality loot, he proceeded to search for traps and found none. The chest was locked, yet the lock was not beyond his skill and Luven sprang it without difficulty. Sadly, however, there was in fact a poison spike trap which he had failed to detect, and as the lid popped open, a spike shot into his arm, tipped with a lethal poison.

I needed to roll a 10 on a d20 to make the “saving throw”, but when I threw that die I rolled a 9. My heart sank, and I looked at my brother as though to say, “Surely, no?” Yet I received no sympathy.

“Too bad,” he said. “Luven’s dead.” Indeed, he seemed almost to revel in the demise of my beloved Luven. We fought, there were tears, and I ran away and locked myself in my room.

The following day, however, still mourning his death as much as I had the death of Jason the Dachshund that same year, I remembered that Luven was in fact wearing a Ring of Protection +1, which gave him a positive modifier on his saving throw dice-roll and thus should have seen him survive the deadly poison. I took this information to my brother, but he refused to accept it.

“It’s too bad, he’s dead,” he said, re-iterating his cold response of the day before. “But,” I kept pushing, “we forgot about the ring. That’s the rules,” yet my brother would not budge. He must have decided he had had enough of Luven Lightfingers and wanted him to stay dead. Again, there was fighting, anger and tears and this time the situation prevailed for several days. Ultimately, my father was forced to intervene to try to convince Matthew that it was in the best interests of family harmony that he allow for the resurrection of Luven. My brother would not quite agree, but I at last decided that I didn’t, in fact, need his say so on this one. So far as I was concerned, Luven was still alive.

My attachment to Luven Lightfingers never quite diminished and he has enjoyed further resurrections over the years in various fantasy settings; especially in the many later iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, be it 2nd or 3rd edition, or in computer games such as Baldur’s Gate I & II, Neverwinter Nights I & II, Icewind Dale 1 & II and Dungeons & Dragons Online. I have, of course, used many other avatars, some of whom will be featured here, but so deeply nostalgic do I feel for Luven that here and there I can’t resist bringing him back to life in some form or another. I suspect he will crop up again in the future, in some as yet unforeseen campaign, although the pleasure I receive from naming characters will likely ensure he won’t be my first choice.

Dungeons & Dragons has shaped many aspects of my life and, since I was a child, role-playing has been my escape. When I didn’t like my situation, I would pretend to be somewhere else or go somewhere else; when I didn’t like myself, I would pretend to be someone else; and when I didn’t like someone else, I would pretend to take them out with an arrow. Dungeons & Dragons was no mere game and it rubbed off on me as a way of looking at the world. Ever since I first embarked on In Search of the Unknown I’ve never ceased to view people, including myself, as “characters”; some friendly, some hostile, some worthy of love. Just as I developed my characters during my obsessive childhood until I grew bored of their capability and started afresh with a new character, so it was with me and my associates. Characters in life have often seemed like commodities and when people, through overexposure, became reduced by waning interest to caricatures of themselves, I am often forced to go back out in search of the unknown in the hope of finding the novel.

When I became unhealthily obsessed with the MMO, Dungeons & Dragons Online in recent years, I found myself constantly switching “toons”. One character would have a good long run from 1st level up, then sit for a while as I grew restless with them and wanted to run a different build. So it was that I went through Hallifax Bender, Bethanie Brinsett, Jaspar Krait of Luskan, Snowfell Vanish, Summer Thingis, Honeydrop Sundew, Lusetta Sorrowdusk, Lucessa Rainsinger, Applefrost Loveblossom, Jyzze Badajon and the indomitable Yardley “The Scissors” Bruce, to name a few. Each of these toons had their own style and personality, and though hardly a game that inspired role-playing, being in groups, miked up and chatting with five other random strangers from faraway places such as Brazil, China, the US, Spain, UK and Israel, inspired a certain role-play in itself. Still, I could never quite work out who I wanted to play – healer or assassin, tank or buffer, crowd control or hardcore caster of arcane magics.

I found this restlessness with characters also translated to people, especially once I started using online dating websites. The profiles looked to me just like character sheets and I was torn in deciding which one I’d either like to “play” or have in my party as it were. Indeed, I soon realised that my obsessive switching between toons had shortened my narrative attention span so that I couldn’t date someone without already thinking about who I’d like to date next. Most people I met had a certain appeal, but perhaps it was insufficiently broad to warrant whole-hearted enthusiasm. I have always played multi-class characters, and I guess I expect people to have a wide range of interests and to be extremely versatile thinkers and conversationalists. They can judge me however they like too! I also have a tendency, both in life and in roleplaying, not to give much thought to the endgame. I’ve always far preferred the beginning with all its immersive excitement and novelty. I’d like to think that I have moved on from this phase now – one can but hope.

So, here we have it, the avatars. Luven first, as there could be no other first, despite his predecessors. I’d like to think that, unconstrained by the forces of entropy, they might live on forever. And so it is that I have chosen to commemorate them here.

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I’ve been meeting with Dr Fantasy a lot lately. He and I are writing a TV show together and we have a lot to talk about: the plot, the characters, the arcs, the tone, the mood, the aesthetics. Number one, of course, is the plot and working out what happens in each episode. We have completed six so far, all of which have been the result of a process of lengthy discussion. Dr Fantasy makes his suggestions, and Mr Plausibility makes his. Oh yeah, that’s me, Mr Plausibility.

Workshopping is a common enough approach in writing. Many writers use their friends as sounding boards – simply beginning to discuss something can highlight issues of story or character. It works rather in the same way that tossing a coin does. It comes up heads, but then you know you wanted tails. It’s not the result that matters, it’s just that tossing makes you feel the right answer in your gut. I don’t want to draw too many parallels between talking and tossing, but there you go.

I have a lot of experience in workshopping from doing a Masters in Creative Writing along with many hours spent discussing work with other writers outside of university. It’s also fair to say that I learned a very great deal about process and structure through discussions with my PhD supervisor, Professor Rosamond McKitterick, irrespective of the fact that my PhD was in late Roman / early medieval Italian history. She deserves credit as my first real editor. Dr Fantasy too has a great deal of experience in workshopping through his studies in communications and later drama at NIDA. No longer precious about our work or ideas, we can make all manner of bold suggestions for our characters, reject them, pick them up again, rework them, and perhaps discard them altogether, or in they go.

Dr Fantasy, whose show it is, and who has kindly taken me on as co-writer, is fond of the expression “It’s television!” I’m fond of it too, for it allows for all manner of melodramatic situations.

“Why not? Who cares? It’s TV, that shit happens on TV.”

And, indeed it does.

Dr Fantasy, like a sorcerer, conjures scenes from the great miasma of television and Mr Plausibility refines them, within the bounds of reason. Now I don’t mean to suggest that Dr Fantasy isn’t also a realist. His concern for plausibility, for characters to remain true to their personalities, goals and motivations is no less strong than mine. Yet, Mr Plausibility’s job is, like the devil’s advocate, to ask every question there is to be asked about why a person would say a particular line, take a certain course of action, do one thing and not another.

The process always starts with a question. Sometimes as big as: “What’s going to happen in Episode 6?” A blank canvas can be daunting, but two people can circle this very effectively if they’re thinking clearly. I like to lie down, Dr Fantasy loves his notepad, but either way, we make ourselves comfortable and just talk. The important thing is to keep talking. Thinking too much can be detrimental – you can get bogged down. Pause, certainly, but keep talking about ideas. What’s good about them, what’s bad about them. Even seemingly irrelevant tangents can flavour the vision of the characters, so it’s worthwhile voicing some of the more peculiar ideas which seem initially unworkable.

“How about this,” says Dr Fantasy. “Let’s take it out of Sydney – focus on Frederic (our main character). Get some different settings. Like a country house or a big mansion somewhere.”

“The Blue Mountains could be the go,” I suggest. “It’s misty, cold, winter. There’s a big wedding he’s shooting and someone goes missing.”

“Yeah, I like that. Maybe Bowral or something, you know, southern tablelands. It’s a big wedding, like some media mogul or something – his daughter is getting married.”

“She looks like Miranda Kerr.”

“Tasty. She’s marrying a guy called Brady.”

“American?”

“Why not?

“How about this. The old media guy is like Citizen Kane. He calls his elderly wife Rosebud. He’s a bit of a Murdoch figure, but perhaps less, I dunno, sinister.”

“Good, good. But how does Frederic get to the wedding? Who gives him the job?”

“I dunno. Maybe he meets some old cougar in a bar. Hell knows.”

“Ok, how about this,” says Dr Fantasy. “An old friend of Frederic’s is in town. A real heroic, Hansel-type dude. He’s American, called something like Cory McFlynn, or something.”

“I like it.”

“The opening scene is him and Frederic, paintballing. They’re chasing each other, maybe a montage over the intro. Then in the cafeteria – Cory invites Frederic to the wedding. He knows the daughter. Maybe he’s been banging her on the sly.”

“Or maybe he knows the dad, the old media mogul. Roland. Roland Chandler. Maybe Cory worked for him for years. When he was starting out he was a rising star of a photographer, Roland was still hands on, editing the newspaper or whatever. He was a bit of a maverick like Rupert, and then he sold out. Cody’s an old family friend, he’s the best in the business.”

“Cody? or Cory?”

“Hey, Cody, why not? They want him to shoot the wedding.”

“Maybe,” says Dr Fantasy, “he likes to suck a dick here and there and he’s Roland’s old bum- chum.”

“It got him that feature.”

“Moved him up the ranks.”

“Maybe Roland’s a bit of a media guru, when he was younger, he lectured in journalism. Cody was one of his students.”

“His wife is very sophisticated. She’s French, she doesn’t care that he likes boys on the side.”

The above is a pastiche of a considerably longer conversation held only recently during which the plot of episode 6 was taking shape. It’s always a genuinely collaborative process with each of us refining each other’s ideas as they emerge, taking them to extremes and then trimming them into plausibility. Once a pool of information has been put together, such as that contained in the above exchange, we filter it for clichés and give people names that sound less like they derive from cheesy sitcoms or Restoration dramas.

Once we had developed a working framework for the episode, the debate found its biggest point of contention: the timing of a blow-job.

“Look,” said Mr Plausibility, “if Miranda’s going to catch this chap Cody giving her dad a BJ and then go riding off on her horse at dawn, only to get lost in the heavy fog of the southern tablelands, then surely we have to ask the question of why in hell has this old chap stayed up all night only to have a fire-side brandy-fuelled blow-job from his sycophantic former bumchum at five thirty AM on the morning before his daughter’s wedding?”

“Hey, who cares,” says Dr Fantasy. “Does it matter? They’ve been talking all night, sitting by the fire – maybe a little saucy line of coke or two. They’re hardcore night owls with plenty to talk about. Maybe all the men were sitting up late, playing cards, smoking cigars, the odd game of chess. Then, just after everyone goes to bed, down comes Miranda, all bleary-eyed, on her way to get a restless snack from the kitchen, when bingo – she sees Cody crouched over her dad’s lap working his magic for that next promotion.”

“But, dude, the guy’s like sixty. Is he really going to be up that late? Wouldn’t the saucy old fruit retire a good deal earlier, say one o’clock, which would still constitute a pretty late night? He’s got a wedding on the next day.”

“Maybe it’s not dawn then. Why does it have to be dawn anyway?”

“Because we want Miranda riding off at dawn – it’s a visual thing, we want that silver grey morning light through the fog, so we need to have moment of shock in the morning. You know that’s how you want it.”

“Of course. But why can’t she ride off in the middle of the night, and then Frederic and others go looking for her in the morning?”

“But, that’d be crazy. I mean, who would go off on a horse in the middle of the night in winter in a nightie when it’s freezing cold and dark out in the country? She’s a sensible girl. Yes, she’s in shock, but at one or two in the morning, she’s far more likely to go flop on her sister than hop on her horse.”

“Why not? She’s upset, she’s crazy. She’s not thinking. It’s a brain-snap. Hey, come on, it’s television!”

“But…”

Anyway, you get the drift. The debate continued over two further sessions. How could we make the timing work? How could one event lead to another in a smooth and ultimately plausible transition? Often it seems as though one is patching over things, looking for any means of bridging the distance, of establishing a suitable flow. Timing has always been one of the biggest issues with writing, especially when all the events of a story or show are stuck within the tight constraints of a weekend or even a single day. There is always the option of a complete overhaul of events, but having seen the dramatic possibilities of one course of events and having already worked characters and situations to fit around these, it seems as though finding a way through is the first priority.

Dr Fantasy certainly recognises the need for tight scheduling, but he is perhaps more willing to use larger bandaids than Mr Plausibility.

“Sometimes, you take this plausibility thing too far, you know,” said Dr Fantasy. “Sometimes you’ve gotta let it go.”

“Well, they don’t call me-

“Mr Plausibility –

“Mr Plausibility for nothing.”

Either way, we got there in the end, and of course, I have no intention of revealing further details of the plot – not to suggest that the above is especially accurate. What’s important here is the process. Talking, putting out feelers, wrestling with possibilities, asking questions of all the characters, from their point of view. Dr Fantasy is a master of the raw materials, and I’d like to think that in my small way, Mr Plausibility is something of a craftsman.

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The response to the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East has been varied to say the least. Initially underestimating the scale of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, many governments favoured a pro status quo approach for the sake of political, strategic and economic stability, which slowly, then more rapidly moved towards support for regime change. In the case of Libya, there was little disagreement amongst the international community that Gaddafi’s actions were worthy of condemnation, and instead the debate centred around how strong the response should be and whether or not some form of intervention was necessary. Why, however, in the wake of ongoing deadly crackdowns against protesters in Bahrain, who have equally compelling reasons to demand regime change, has the international response been so muted?

The protests in Bahrain, led by Shia parties and activists demanding more representative government and greater equality, which began in earnest on the 14th of February across Bahrain caused immediate alarm when heavy-handed policing led first to the death of a protester and then a further death at the funeral which followed. The situation changed dramatically in tone after the February 17 crackdown on protesters gathered at Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama, which left 6 people dead and hundreds injured. Undaunted, protesters returned to Pearl Roundabout where they continued their sit in, refusing to accept offers of dialogue and calling now for the end of the monarchy.

On March 14 hundreds of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops and police, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, arrived in Bahrain at the government’s request. The following day a state of emergency was declared and, on the 16th of March, Bahraini security forces again drove protesters from the symbolic Pearl Roundabout and from surrounding streets. Public gatherings and marches were subsequently banned. The Salmaniya hospital, where most of the dead and injured protesters had been taken, was raided, medical staff were arrested, and the tents set up by protesters were also removed.

On the 18th of March the Pearl Monument was torn down by the government in an attempt to deny the protesters what had become their rallying symbol. Concerned about violent repression, the opposition parties called off further protests for fear of more deaths. Last Friday, a call to action via independent protesters through Facebook and Twitter drew large crowds in towns across Bahrain, but the protests were dispersed by a heavy security presence.

In total, at least twenty people have been killed, including two policemen, and hundreds, possibly thousands injured during a month of heavy-handed security crackdowns. The security response has included house raids and arrests of human rights activists, dissidents and members of opposition parties on charges of sedition, murder and contact with foreign states. Perhaps the most shocking image to come from this is a video showing protesters marching towards security forces holding flags and chanting “peaceful, peaceful,” being gunned down in cold blood. One man appears to have been killed instantly by a shot to the head. http://bit.ly/gcjinZ

Bahrain is a society that is significantly segregated along sectarian lines. The ruling Al Khalifa family is part of the Sunni Muslim minority, who constitute roughly 35 percent of the population. Bahraini Shias are heavily discriminated against in politics, employment and services. Yet, unlike Egypt, the protests in Bahrain are not largely driven by poverty, but by inequality and lack of representation. Unemployment stands at close to 20%, but this is largely amongst the Shia population.

The Al Khalifa family have been refusing more participatory government since the 1950s. Significant constitutional reforms were again promised in the 1970s and then abandoned. King Hamad, who has been in power since 1999, promised reforms in 2002, but the new constitution which did emerge gave considerable new powers to the Consultative Council of Bahrain, which is handpicked by the king and has powers of veto over the lower house. Despite the largest opposition party holding 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house of the Bahraini parliament, this does not translate into legislative power. Protesters have avoided taking a sectarian stance and have instead stressed the need for equality and unity, to little effect.

The Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, has held his position since 1971. In recent weeks, opposition Shia parties have opted to boycott parliament in support of the popular protests. The crackdowns have been seen as a victory for hard-liners in the regime.

It is for these reasons that the opposition groups, led by Wefaq, have repeatedly rejected offers of dialogue and instead demanded the establishment either of a republic or constitutional monarchy. In the wake of the increasingly violent crackdowns, however, they have eased their demands that the royal family step aside from politics altogether, and have shown some willingness to engage in negotiations.

What makes the situation of the protesters in Bahrain so difficult is that there is next to no chance of either the security forces or military siding with them. The Al Khalifa regime has for some years now been recruiting exclusively Sunni personnel, both from within Bahrain and also from other countries such as Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan, including Iraqis formerly employed under Saddam Hussein. Most of the Pakistani recruits speak neither Arabic nor the local dialect and are seen by the Shia majority as hated mercenaries. The foreign recruits are given housing and citizenship, creating further resentment amongst the local Shia majority. Often, the recruits are hardline Sunni fundamentalists with strongly anti-Shiite sentiments.

“Our army are not really native Bahrainis,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwedaye, a Bahraini activist, speaking to Al Jazeera. “They are all brought over from different countries. So their loyalty is not really to the country. The army is fully controlled by the king himself and his agenda is the agenda which has to be followed.”

http://bit.ly/dKBQog

The exact figures are kept secret, but the policy is part of a broader attempt to shift the demographics in favour of the Sunni minority, who constitute just 35% of the population.

In a country with such a clear sectarian divide, which has until now, managed to avoid much sectarian violence and unrest, there is grave potential for Shia-Sunni relations to worsen dramatically. This will not only have domestic consequences, but regional consequences as well. Some analysts are concerned that should the situation drag on, it will lead to greater radicalisation of Bahrainis and might potentially result in civil war. Bahrain may be small geographically and population-wise, but then so is Gaza and the impact of events there cannot be downplayed. Iran and Syria, who already support and arm Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon for example, may seek to do so in Bahrain as well. Iran has made it clear that it regards the deployment of Saudi troops in Bahrain as an “occupation”, making full use of the circumstances to promote further its regional leadership amongst Shias. Iran has demanded the removal of GCC troops and recalled its ambassador. Bahrain has expelled the Iranian charge d’affaires, whilst Iran has ordered out a Bahrainian diplomat.

The United States finds itself in a bind because the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. All Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had to say after the brutal crackdown on March 16 was that Bahrain and the GCC were “on the wrong track.” The United States seems more concerned about Iranian influence in the Gulf state than the implementation of reforms. Even with the very muted pressure the Obama administration has placed on Bahrain, its relations with Saudi Arabia have become increasingly strained. The Saudis have several times warned both Iran and the United States not to interfere in Bahraini affairs.

It is not merely the United States who have taken a soft approach on Bahrain, but response of the international community has been decidedly cautious. Despite expressions of outrage, with the exception of Iran, little real pressure has been applied. After a recent fact-finding visit to Bahrain, Robert Cooper, a special advisor to EU foreign Policy chief Baroness Ashton was defensive of the Bahraini security forces saying “accidents happen.” He stated that “the exceptional nature of recent events is part of the problem, because… it’s not easy dealing with large demonstrations in which there may be violence.” Despite some strong criticism of his comments by EU colleagues, there seems little willingness to consider the application of greater diplomatic pressure.

The United Nations has made clear its displeasure at the situation in Bahrain, and in Manama in particular, but again there seems little appetite for stronger measures. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed concerns about “arbitrary arrests, killings, beatings of protesters and of medical personnel, and of the takeover of hospitals and medical centres by various security forces.” She described it as “shocking and illegal conduct.” UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his “deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians.”

 

The Middle East has long been a strategic balancing act for the United States and the international community at large and it seems that in the case of Bahrain, the old paradigm still stands. The overriding concern is to maintain economic and strategic stability. The US will be reluctant to damage further its standing with Saudi Arabia, and has little room to move because of its naval base. The EU seems reluctant to engage with the situation and whilst the UN has used strong language, it has done little else. It begs the question as to what ultimately caused the world to recognise the need for change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? Because it was morally right, because regime change had become inexorable and thus inevitable, or was it out of concern to garner positive relations with the newly emerging leadership? It seems that in Bahrain, strategic and economic concerns have outweighed any moral imperative to pressure the regime to make significant reforms. What happens next is likely to happen internally, though external mediation is still a possibility. A new offer by Kuwait to mediate in talks with the regime has been welcomed by Wefaq, but it remains to be seen whether the Al Khalifa regime is willing to consider reform. If the government is not genuine about dialogue and the unrest continues, there will likely be regional implications that may force an unwanted shift in the world’s relationship to Bahrain.

 

This article was first published in New Matilda on 28/03/11:

http://newmatilda.com/2011/03/28/bahrain-not-quite-top-list

 

 

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