adventures in the Gulf await.

In three hours, I’ll be on a leaving on a jet plane…heading to Kuwait and Qatar! I’m currently enrolled in a class called Seminar in Public Art: Spatial Cultural Identity, part of MIT’s Art, Culture, and Technology department. We’re taking a comparative look at the intersections of public space, art, and culture in Boston, Kuwait City, and Doha. I’ll report back here about my adventures. You can also follow my exploits on Twitter.

digital media and learning 2014.

Tomorrow kickstarts the Digital Media and Learning conference here in Boston! If you’re headed this way, check out the panel Learning Where You Least Expect It—Games that Educate in Non-traditional Settings on April 6 (tomorrow!) at 2pm. I’ll be co-presenting with Chelsea Barabas, Jesse Sell, and Erik Stayton

"it’s just the particular magazine that we ended up doing": interview with The Thing Quarterly.

I think we wanted to make a traditional magazine at some point. We still do. But we’re not magazine editors and we’re not really writers. Even now we both still think of The Thing as a magazine to a degree. It’s just the particular magazine that we ended up doing. 

Over at Big Red & Shiny, I interviewed Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan. Their periodical, The Thing Quarterly, challenges traditional publication models by inviting artists, musicians, writers, and designers to create objects that incorporate text in some way.

wordhog, or, going hog wild with game design.

Last semester, I worked with my classmate Jesse Sell to design a board game for our graduate course CMS 950: Workshop. We share a love for word games and puzzles, and wondered if we could break into this hallowed realm of the game world.

The result? Imagine if Scrabble and Carcassonne had a baby. We combined the word building objective of the former with the landscape and path building of the latter to create Wordhog. Here, I’ll describe how to play the game, share some of the feedback we received during playtesting, and outline some our design challenges. 

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In this game, two or more players build words along horizontal and vertical paths. Unique to Wordhog are tiles that, when put together, form paths, much like the tiles played in the board game Carcassonne. Players lay down one tile at a time matching tiles along open and closed sides, which create paths of words. Words are read horizontally and vertically, and tiles may be rotated to be played in any direction. On each turn, the player does not necessarily complete a word (as they might do in Scrabble), but instead must add tiles that can build towards a legitimate, non-proper noun words. 

When a player completes a word that is three or more letters long, he or she claims those tiles. However, these tiles may be “hogged” by an opponent when he or she either adds another letter to the word, creating a longer word and therefore winning back all of the tiles in the word, or when an opponent creates an intersecting word. At the end of the game, the player with the most tiles, and therefore points, wins. The “hogging” system thus incorporates an element of the strategy game Reversi (also known as Othello), a two-player game in which players place double-sided tokens on a board to change tokens that are in a straight line to their color.

A few more notes on the rules: Players maintain seven tiles in their hands at all times. The game ends when all of the tiles have been played or no other moves can be made. (If you want to see the complete ruleset, feel free to contact me—see the about section.)

Audience

The intended audience for Wordhog is for word game and word puzzle aficionados. However, the game is not intended for the most elite of players, but rather a more general audience interested in playing with language. One playtester, who has played Scrabble often but does not identify as a fan of the game, noted that “this game is easier than Scrabble, and I like that.”

Board game version

We originally conceived of Wordhog as a board game with contents consisting of 84 tiles and colorful tokens that mark tiles a player has “won.” The board game version presented a few challenges, some of which are addressed in the app version of the game. However, the board game version has many positive characteristics. In a game in which only one tile is played at a time, a physical board game allows for faster-paced and more social, enlivened game play. Additionally, as in Scrabble, players can challenge each other’s moves in this version of the game. When a player questions whether an opponent’s addition to a string of letters will lead to a valid word, he or she may challenge the opponent; if the challenged player cannot provide an example of a word that uses the letter sequence, he or she loses a turn.


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App version

After receiving feedback from a few playthroughs of the game, someone suggested that the game would work very well as an iPhone application. We mocked-up the potential designs for digital version below.

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The digital version of the game has some inherent benefits coupled with a few significant drawbacks. First, the digital version of the game allows for a clean and ordered board which clearly defines which players are in control of which tiles and tracks the number of points each player has. Any time a player wants to reorient his or her tiles, they can do so without losing the orientation of the letter. The digital version also allows for extended play. This allowance can be seen as both an augmentation or as a detriment to the game. If players feel stuck, they may want to put the game down for a moment and come back to it later; however, this feature may lead to frustration or lack of motivation in some players. Additionally, players cannot challenge one another’s word choice and have discussions about it. Instead, the program dictates what is and is not an acceptable word.

The number of tiles in a player’s hand became an issue in creating the mock-ups for the app version of the game. It quickly became apparent that seven tiles were too many and the screen looked cluttered. While we don’t believe that this change would have significant impact on gameplay, it could limit a player’s options throughout the game.

Design challenges

We knew early on that we wanted to make a Scrabble-Carcassonne hybrid; we did not, however, know how to end our game. In our initial test sessions, we ran into the issue of play sessions lasting much longer than expected. Eighty-four letters ended up being far too many to expect two players to get through without feeling overwhelmed. As fans of word games, Jesse and I felt that the game was easy to play, but more casual players quickly revealed some flaws in our game. (That’s why playtesting with lots of different people and skill levels is important!) Players often felt as if their available moves were very limited. One playtester commented that “I had very few options to put anything” and that, sometimes, “it feels like your moves don’t have weight or strategy.”

To alleviate this issue, we allowed players to rotate the tiles and orient them in different ways to open up more play options and allow for further strategy. In the board game version, the result looks a bit sloppy, but this fix translates well into the digital version of our game. The orientation of the letter tile turned out to make perceptual difference in the game play. When all of the letters face the same direction, play seems much more cohesive and understandable. While reorienting the tiles afforded players with more options, it was more difficult for them to read the board and determine where best to play their tiles. One possible solution for the physical board game version would be to design tiles that have letters printed in multiple directions.

A few final thoughts…

Wordhog is a game which encourages players to build language skills in a fun and innovative way. The game is simultaneously more cooperative and competitive than classic word board games like Scrabble: Players add to each other’s string of letters, thus building words together, but they may also “hog” a word, stealing their opponents’ points. The game tests players’ mastery of vocabulary, spelling, and anagramming, while also incorporating new strategy, such as thinking about which tile to playa closed side or an open one to try to end a word or elongate it—or how to orient a tile.

The view from THATCamp CAA 2014 headquarters at Columbia College, Chicago

I’m back from Chicago, where Liam Andrew and I presented on the collaborative work we undertake as HyperStudio research assistants. The conference? Well, it’s more of an unconference: THATCamp CAA 2014 is part of the THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) series, which puts on informal, participant-driven sessions all over the world. THATCamp CAA brought together scholars, educators, librarians, and museum professionals interested in exploring digital art history. I ditched my pen and paper in favor of Twitter this time—and I saved them all using Storify. Check ‘em out here.

my DIY business cards and THATcamp news.

I needed some business cards, and I needed them stat.

I’m excited to report that Liam Andrew and I are giving a presentation titled “HyperStudio: Collaborating with Colleagues and Institutions” at THATCamp College Art Association in Chicago. And even though this conference is focused on ways to infuse digital strategies in art historical scholarship, one thing that stays very analog is business cards.

I like to call my new cards “the mullets of business cards”: business on the front, party on the back. Last Monday, I mocked up a quick grayscale front, placed an order for 250 cards (costing me about $25, shipping included) through Overnight Prints, and received them three days later. For the design on the back, I bought an oversized stamp and a chartreuse inkpad from Michaels and got stampin’.

on indiewire and interactive film.

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Lauren Moffatt’s Not Eye (source)

The premise of this iteration, curated by Shari Frilot and dubbed “The Primordial Pool,” is that technology has created a new world order. In practice, the individual works rarely delve into this concept. It would be more apt to say that the new world order addressed in New Frontier is the unsure place of creative technologies within the world of film, especially when many of the projects on view blur boundaries with other genres, such as visual art and music. But as these artists expand our ideas of what film might be, they often return to themes and motifs that filmmakers have long tackled.

Remember that time I went to Sundance to see the New Frontier series? I reviewed it for Indiewire.

one trace after: the game.

One Trace After, a group exhibition at NURTUREart that investigates the idea that art and the experience of it is constantly shifting, eschewed producing one authoritative press release to interpret the works in the show. Instead, curator Alison Burstein invited writers—myself includedto come up with four different press releases. Mine, in the form of a game, just went up yesterday.

I’d like to also plug the One Trace After blog, which allows you to “track the exhibition’s progression through this real-time record of its shifting installation, programming, written materials, and visitor responses.

sundance 2014: the reviews!

The reviews are in!

My mission at Sundance was simple: write for Indiewire about New Frontier, a young series that showcases experimental, technologically inclined, and installation-based works. But with my press pass in tow, I was also able to check out several screenings. Below, I share my thoughts about the six feature-length narrative films I saw, in order from favorite to least. (And if you’re just dying to know more about New Frontier, stay tuned over the next few days.)

One quick note: I’ve had the chance to learn a lot about the film industry and the role a major indie film festival like Sundance plays in it. At Sundance, many filmmakers come hoping to strike up a distribution deal that will give them the much-needed monies to get their flicks in theaters; many distributors come hoping to find the next runaway hit. I address the distribution game in some of my reviews below.

Tied for first place in my heart are Dear White People and Obvious Child. Both movies are whipsmart and hysterical, and give much-needed screen time to issues we rarely see in movies but desperately should talk about. Dear White People, Justin Simien’s debut film, has received a lot of hype—it was funded through a $40,000+ Indiegogo campaign—and deservedly so. The campus satire takes on race like we’ve never seen before. When the administration at a fictional Ivy League university passes the Randomization of Housing Act—dismantling the campus dorm that traditionally housed African American students—tensions run high. A series of events, catalyzed by the motives of and complicated relationships between sundry characters, culminates in a “hip-hop” (a.k.a. black) themed party thrown by a house of mostly white kids. Instead of preaching one message, Simien provides a cast of characters that demonstrate the nuances of dealing with black identity in a majority white school; every character doubts his or her beliefs at some point in the film. Visually and aurally, Dear White People is stunning, from aweing tableaux of campus cliques to the sounds of Swan Lake at the most unexpected moments. When the credits roll, we see newspaper articles and Facebook photos of actual parties at actual universities with actual white college students donning Rastafarian dreadlocks, done up in blackface, or otherwise taking on wholly offensive costumes. The credits are a testament to how much we need a movie like Dear White People in mainstream distribution—apart from the fact that the film is just plain good.

I could describe Obvious Child as a romantic comedy, or an unplanned pregnancy movie, or just another flick about a young woman trying to make it in Brooklyn but failing miserably. But these labels wouldn’t do director Gillian Robespierre’s first feature film justice. Jenny Slate (you might know her as Marcel the Shell or Mona Lisa Saperstein) is fantastic as Donna Stern, a twenty-something comedian whose acts are equal parts potty humor and real talk. She gets dumped, fired, and pregnant just before Valentine’s Day. It’s a sweet movie, but moreover, it’s the most honest, funny, and feminist take on abortion that I’ve ever seen in a film. Bonus points: Gaby Hoffmann (Now and Then!) plays a supporting role as Donna’s fiercely feminist and fiercely loyal best friend. I’m happy to report that Obvious Child has been acquired for distribution by A24 films. When it comes out in theaters, I will be in the front row.

God’s Pocket, the directorial debut of Mad Men’s John Slattery, has thus far received mixed criticism. If I had to pick a side, I’d be on the favorable side—but just slightly so. When the unlikeable burnout 20-something Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) suddenly dies in a construction “accident,” its up to Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to make funeral arrangements while his wife (Christina Hendricks) grieves. Turns out Mickey does everything wrong. No character is entirely likeable in this dark comedy set in working class Philly, a tension that might make others uncomfortable but I’m okay with. At certain points, Slattery’s sense of humor is palpable, although not as quickly-paced; at other times, unexpected (but not gratuitous) violence is reminiscent of Mad Men’s surprise dark moments (the tractor incident comes to mind).

52 Tuesdays is a film from Australia with many moving parts. Firstly, it is a film about a teenage girl named Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), whose mom (Del Herbert-Jane) is undergoing gender transition. During this process, Billie goes to live with her dad, only seeing her mother each Tuesday. The filmmakers included clips of real people discussing their experiences transitioning or having transgender parents, which proved to be lovely, sincere additions that grounded the intense plot. (No spoilers, but Billie’s storyline ended up being much more intense than I could have imagined.) To suggest the idea that people change a lot in a year, the creators filmed only on Tuesdays, an interesting limitation in concept but probably not entirely necessary in practice. A final component of the film is My 52 Tuesdays, a website and app in which users can respond to a new question (“What is the hardest thing you have ever had to tell someone?”) every week. While it is nice to see the filmmakers use media for community outreach, I find it hard to imagine that the same people responding to the touchy-feely questions would overlap with the audience for a film that can veer towards X-rated content. If I sound negative here, it’s because I still am not entirely sure how I feel about the film’s many apparent and possibly conflicting strategies and goals; but to be sure, 52 Tuesdays is compelling and beautifully acted (by a cast of individuals entirely new to the movie biz), leaving me with tear-smeared mascara streaks on my face.

The Foxy Merkins: Eh. The Sundance program described the film as a buddy comedy about lesbian hookers, which is why the press and industry screening I attended was packed. As the film progressed, attendees dropped like flies. The premise was intriguing, some of the jokes were funny, but this would have been preferable as a twenty-minute short, not a two-hour-long affair. Interestingly (but not entirely successfully), director Madeleine Olnek chose to include testimonials of what I presume to be real-life former lesbian prostitutes. While perhaps a well-intentioned gesture to acknowledge that there are women out there who are, in fact, making a living sleeping with well-to-do ladies, their commentary seems far removed from the absurd chain of events of the two protagonists. At the end of the film, I wasn’t sure what Olnek wanted us to get out of The Foxy Merkins, except for an occasional laugh.

After watching Dear White People, I had just enough time to pop into one last screening before heading out to catch my flight. And I wish I hadn’t. The sci-fi psychological thriller I Origins takes on the concept of the “eyes as the window to the soul” (cue groans). Molecular biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) and his lab partner Karen (Brit Marley) are attempting to build an eye from scratch as a way to debunk theories of intelligent design, when a discovery shatters their beliefs. Ok, whatever. An unbelievable romance between Gray and hippie dippy Sofi (Astrid Bergès Frisbey), major plot holes, and predictable conclusions all contributed to me deciding to skip out of the last ten minutes, despite having held out for so long. Too bad I Origins (also: dumb title) already been picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight, bringing its mediocrity to a theater near you.

amy sillman, art in america, and me.

I published my first review for Art in America, available at art-inclined newsstands near you! I snapped a few poorly-lit images of my review of the exhibition Amy Sillman: one lump or two at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.

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