Recess! 13 – Game Design as a Nihilistic Endeavour

I have a current shtick that says that game designers harbour no illusions about human reality. Designing and testing a game on people reveal the murky depths of human nature in a way few other pursuits do. Take even the simplest game with the possibility of deception and it will often devolve into the horrible treatment of one player for the advantage of another.

I’ve been enjoying reading Venkatesh Rao’s ‘The Gervais Principle’ a lot. Because I think it also sheds a lot of light on the human condition. He just published the final installment ‘Children of an Absent God’ and I was more than pleasantly surprised to read a lot of game design thinking in it and quite a bit of speculative realism as well.

Take this passage which calls game design a power literacy:

So the process of ripping away masks of social reality and getting behind them ultimately turns into a routine skill for the Sociopath: game design. Once you do it a few times, it becomes second nature, a sort of basic power literacy. An understanding of the processes by which the fictions of social reality are constructed, and growing skill at wrangling those processes.

I don’t know if I’ve read that definition of game design before (and I’ve read quite a few): ‘an understanding of the processes by which the fictions of social reality are constructed and […] skill at wrangling those processes.’ The interesting differentiator I think then is whether the participants in those social realities are willing or unwilling ones.

After that there follows a de-centering of the uniqueness of human experience which is very similar to what we’ve been reading in new materialism and Object-Oriented Ontology:

Social realities exist as a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated and specialized fictions for those predisposed to believe that there is something special about the human condition, which sets our realities apart from the rest of the universe.

It is nice to see the philosophy I have been reading for the past year being operationalized into a thinking that can be applied to personal power dynamics. But to tie back into Kars’s statement of assumptions, here’s one:

Game design is an endeavour that from nihilism creates something of meaning.

Don’t release anonymized datasets

There is no thing as an anonymized dataset. Anybody propagating this idea even tacitly is doing a disservice to the informed debate on privacy. Here’s a round up with some recent cases.


Just today Berlin visualization outfit Open Data City published a visualization of the devices that were connected to their access points during the Re:publica conference earlier this month. The visualization is a neat display of the ebb and flow of people in the various rooms during the event.

It is also a good attempt to change the discourse about data protection in Germany. The discourse tends to be locked in the full stop stance where absolutely ‘nothing is allowed’ without a ton of waivers. Because of that hassle, a lot of things which could be useful are not implemented. A more relaxed approach and a case by case decision on things would be better. In the case of Re:publica there does not seem to be any harm in making this visualization or in releasing the data (here find it on Fusion Tables where I uploaded it).

What I find to be a disservice to the general debate is the application of ‘pseudonymized’ data where the device ids have been processed with a salt and hash. The identifying characteristics have been removed but the ids are still linked across sessions making it possible to link identities with devices and figure out who was where exactly when during the conference.

To state again: at a professional conference such as Re:publica there would in all likelihood be no harm done if the entire dataset would be de-anonymized. The harm done is the pretense that processing a dataset in this way and then releasing it with the interlinkage across sessions is a good idea.

Which brings me to my next point.


Yesterday the Dutch company, Equens, that processes all payment card transactions announced a plan to sell these transactions to stores. Transactions would be anonymized but still linked to a single card. This would make it trivial for anybody with a comprehensive secondary dataset (let’s say Albert Heijn or Vodafone) to figure out which real person belongs to which anonymized card. That last fact was not reported in any of the media coverage of this announcement which is also terrible.

After a predictable uproar this plan was iced, but they will keep on testing the waters until they can implement something like this.

Today Foursquare released all real-time checkin data but with suitable anonymization. They publish only the location, a datetime and the gender of the person checking in. That is how this should be done.

License plates

Being in the business of opening data we at Hack de Overheid had a similar incident where a dataset of license plates was released where the plates had been md5’ed without a salt. This made it trivial to find out whether a given license plate was in that dataset.

This was quickly fixed. Again this is not a plea against opening data —which is still a good idea in most cases— but a plea for thinking about the things you do.

AOL search data

The arch-example of poorly anonymized search data is of course still the AOL search data leak from back in 2006. That case has been extensively documented, but not extensively learned from.

Memory online is frightfully short as is the nature of the medium but it becomes annoying if we want to make progress on something. Maybe it would be better altogether to lose the illusion that progress on anything can be made online.

For the privacy debate it would be good to keep in mind that the increasingly advanced statistical inference available means that almost all anonymization is going to fail. The only way around this is to not store data unless you have to or to accept the consequences when you do.

Week 321

The week before last was filled with theater, a full 9 hours of it which should last me for the rest of the year. I wrote the one negative review you will find of ‘Krieg und Frieden’ as a result of it.

These swinging seats however are quite ok.

I also spent quite a bit of time struggling with German bureaucracy to be able to request a new Dutch passport. It’s always a fun thing to do.

So this morning I got further conformed onto the state's digital grid. Treated like a criminal for no particular reason.

And add to that the fact that I was in the middle of moving offices from Praxis to KANT and you can say productivity was a bit hampered that week.

The new (temporary) arrangement with @fidothe working in the background

I dropped by the Git-Merge event in Berlin which besides hosting the Berlin git community seems to draw out a group of interesting developers. The party they hosted the next day was a great opportunity for me to catchup wit old friend Cristiano Betta who is now an evangelist at Paypal.

Git-merge, from up here you can't see the feral throngs if tourists down below

Almost hit and run

Screen Shot 2013-05-18 at 5.33.27 PM

The turn above from Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße into Schönhauser Allee yesterday around 19:15 is where I almost got hit by a woman driving a black car with license plates LDS HS 179. Shaken but not too shaken I pursued them up the street to demonstrate my discontent and to write down the plate number.

I should have seen that they weren’t going to stop though they usually do but this was rather unexpected during a leisurely evening ride where absolutely nothing should have gone wrong.

Police will be contacted on Monday and then we’ll see how far this can be pursued.

Moving into KANT

So that cat is out of the bag: I’ve taken up residency at KANT, the Kreuzberg Academy for Nerdery and Tinkering. Peter who you may have read before on The Waving Cat just wrote the inaugural post on our freshly pressed Tumblr (tweets are still forthcoming).

The new (temporary) arrangement with @fidothe working in the background

I’m in the process of moving over, getting my things in order and doing all of my other work, but I do believe that we have struck upon a mix here that has all of the right kinds of volatile creativity with a solid dash of make.

I don’t know what will come out of it yet, but that is the nature of a lab like this. My main source of inspiration is the Open Coop model as pioneered in Amsterdam North where independent entities team up and create new structures from their intellectual and physical overhead. There has been talk about all kinds of ideas already but we all know ideas are bullshit. The challenge will be to narrow things down and figure what we want to do. I do think that we are heading into the right direction. Onwards and upwards.

Week 320

The week before last started out with me still in Paris sampling the local coffee scene which has been improving massively over the past year or so.

Télescope already was nice:
Proper coffee

But with the addition of Loustic, French coffee can finally be taken seriously again:
Very nice place and only open for six weeks now.

Most of these places seem to be run by English speaking expatriates and they are also mostly frequented by the same. This was something I also noticed at my coworking space in La Cantine. It seems that foreigners are a necessary mediator to introduce new things —digital or coffee— into French culture.

That Tuesday I worked at KANT and all of the people there presented roughly what they’re doing at the agency we sublease at Panorama3000.

I was thinking of writing a screensaver that does the live OSM viewer ‘Show me the way’, but it turns out there’s a way easier solution by plugging that URL into the WebView Screensaver.

Shawn holding coffee court

That Wednesday I did a quick ignite for UIKonf on Beestenbende’s design aspects and the next day I was at Heimathafen Neukölln at 06:00 to help them with setup and registration. I managed to catch a bit of the conference and based on the content on stage and reactions in the room, it looks like it was a resounding success.

Going to demo the new Cuppings in a bit at the #uikonf #uikode

The next day I spent working at the office for most of the day, but in the evening I dropped by the UIKode hackathon to show the iOS project I had picked up again that week. More on that to be announced here soon.

War and Peace under the shadow of the Apparat

I’ve learned my lessons: I will not go to traditional German theater anymore and I will never again book a play without first checking its duration.

Yesterday night I went to the Volksbühne to see Krieg und Frieden, five hours of 19th century Russian war drama, by the Centraltheater Leipzig as part of the Theatertreffen. I had been listening to its soundtrack by Apparat for the past months. It used to be freely available on Soundcloud and is out now on Spotify.

The excellent music and the fact that the intendant of Leipzig, Sebastian Hartmann, had made some interesting statements about the state of German theater heightened my anticipation for this play.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one drawn in by the presence of a world renowned electronic musician. The  room was noticeably younger than for instance the Haus der Berliner Festspiele the day before but unfortunately it didn’t stay that way. As soon as people around me figured out that this wasn’t going to be an Apparat concert, that in fact the bits of music were going to be interrupted by long and boring German theater, many of them left.

The music was good. So good in fact that the play suffered by comparison.

What was wrong with the play? I would give it an A for effort because that had gone into it. But still all of that effort could not improve the poor writing and dramaturgy. We got subjected to literal hours of exposition. Actors enter, they declaim happenings in the 19th century, they expect this to have an affective effect on us and then they leave. Repeat. Sometimes they do this in chorus form which makes it even worse.

The absence of gripping monologues or almost any sharp dialogue did not help the energy level of the play. I felt like I was being beat into drowsiness that was occasionally relieved by the music.

Qualitatively there were lots of good things in this bad play. The acting when it was allowed was actually really good. There were a couple of scenes that managed to be evocative and memorable. The tilting platform was used brilliantly and added interesting dynamic variations to the scenes. It looks like there are two hours of very solid theater hidden away in these five. If only the director’s creativity had been restrained a bit and his darlings been massacred by somebody.

After the main play, a third part was tacked on which should have been scrapped. The actors go into a meta-treatment and engage in extensive amateur-philosophizing. This was the part where I got my much needed bit of sleep (the room was a third empty by then). The electronic lighting and animation at the very end were added in a way that didn’t match anything in the piece. One wonders at the deliberation that went into that if any.

German theater need not be stuck in the past as proven by Ostermeier. Russian classics need not be enacted in a boring fashion as proven by van Hove. That makes the creation of this mix with its good music, quality acting, terrible indulgence and dramaturgical chaos a choice. A choice that should have been made differently.

Week 319

This week was the week where we were in full sprint for the pilot launch of KAIGARA. Besides that we had a dinner off NEXT with some people involved and some speakers. What I managed to catch from NEXT’s program while working was nothing short of splendid. Bruce Sterling’s talk has been shared widely and I’m eagerly awaiting Anab Jain’s to be published as a video (the slides are already there).

On Thursday I managed to set aside a bit of time to go to the local multiplayer picknick at Amaze. The Amaze Indie Connect is the most fun event of the Berlin game scene and it always gets lots of very cool people to come out. Just sitting at the same table as Terry Cavanagh and Michael Brough left me a bit star-struck:
@smestorp and @TerryCavanagh playing a game in the beer garden! Amaze Indie Connect is awesome.


Just played a bunch of Samurai Gunn. It's an incredible amount of fun.

It was also nice to see lots of old friends who I manage to see a couple of times a year. My highlight of Amaze was to be able to play Samurai Gunn. This game isn’t available yet and the video I’m going to post below does not nearly do it justice. It is one of the most gripping multiplayer combat games I’ve played to date.

On Friday I had breakfast at the Sheperditchi and then on Saturday it was off to Paris for CHI for the designing gamification workshop run by Sebastian Deterding.

Sebastian Deterding wrangling the post-its

Week 318

Unbelievable how many weeks behind I am on these. That’s not wholly intended, but the last couple of weeks have been a bit busier than usual. This was the week of April 15th which I spent mostly in Amsterdam.

I spent a full day with the team on Tuesday working on KAIGARA:
Today's office

I drank very awesome coffee that Angelo had brought back from his road trip along the west coast of the USA:
Angelo got that fresh package from the states

We celebrated shipping some projects that night with Kars and Simon and the next day I was back at Hubbub for another day of work. That night it was off to the Open State offices in Amsterdam for a bit of envisioning with our new managing director. A very solid and constructive session, well catered by our in-house team of Bite Me:
Nicely catered strategy session

My work setup at the brilliant Koko:
Today's office

The Thursday I spent working at the Open Coop and preparing my Python programming course I gave on the now defunct Gidsy.

Friday I took the train back to Berlin and it was confirmed to me again that train companies are stupid. If I take a different train to Berlin I need to pay the difference in distance even if I start and end in the same place:
Had to buy an extra ticket because train people are crazy.

And Saturday I also managed squeeze out a long overdue Recess!.

So lots of stuff and more to follow.