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A lot can happen in two months...

When last I wrote, it was still summer vacation for me, with school about to start up again at Four Corners after the Labor Day weekend. I was facing down that regular turning of the year with a mixture of resignation and unrest—in my mind, I’d always promised myself if I spent more than 5 years moonlighting as a school employee, I was screwing myself over. Here I was: not quite at 5 years of working within the school district yet, but at the beginning of my 6th school year as an Educational Assistant. I hadn’t hit my silent deadline, but it was looming right in front of me.

But the start of the year came, and as much as I’d looked for work over the summer and dreaded this return to the norm more than usual, it was easy to get back in the groove. The staff at Four Corners is a pretty solid crew, so much better than what was the norm elsewhere. Before, most of the employees in my same position were ladies 30+ years older than me in a sort of semi-retired limbo, with a lot of bad attitudes all around.

At Four Corners, I finally had peers around my own age, a better balance of male & female, and almost everyone on the same wavelength. It’s hard to describe what that wavelength is… a sort of good-natured cynicism—black-humored, wise-assed, foul-mouthed, but still genuine & supportive. Just my style.

So I sighed internally and resolved to make my peace with another year of doing work that is, yes, important and rewarding and different every day, but for not enough money to live on and with no path for advancement outside of picking up a teacher’s degree. Is it any wonder that in the absence of anything constructive happening in my career, I so regularly threw myself into the deep end of my hobbies instead?

All of that to say, I was looking to shout down my inner doubts and reach a point of forced contentedness rather than make a change. Maybe it was something about that effort that made it all come together. Call it latent desperation: so subliminal I didn’t even realize it was happening.

But with my savings in the toilet, a couple money scares and more than my share of lingering and looming financial doom, I’d cope by trolling through my regular rounds for online job-hunting. Just enough so I could tell myself I hadn’t given up, mostly Craigslist and a few corporate pages I’ve got bookmarked, waiting for my lucky day. Careful to not be looking at any education jobs.

Thus it was that I took a look at the Portland subreddit, since I’d noticed after posting to advertise Ready, Set, Game events there that they had a monthly job-seeker thread stickied to the top of the page. Plenty of local outfits listed their openings there; I’d seen that Simple had someone regularly posting for their hiring, as I’d applied with them before. I didn’t see them this time, in that September thread, but I saw another company: Squarespace.

For context, this is a Squarespace site. Even now, these words sit in memory on a Squarespace server somewhere, in a room in New York I’d imagine, where they’re headquartered. Or as I should say: where we’re headquartered. Because while I’m still working in Portland, it’s for the very recently-opened Portland branch of Squarespace, Inc.

It all happened crazy-fast. I’d been a user for ages—I heard a promotion on This American Life way back in 2009—and I figured the company would be a good fit. It was working online support, and I’d done similar work for a friend’s company two summers earlier. I applied in September, not even two weeks after school had started, and only 10 days later I’d interviewed for & accepted a job offer to start the first week of October. Head-spinning stuff!

And what a turn-around it’s been already. Taking home almost twice as much in pay was certainly a nice step up. Let’s be real: I was making shit money before, but even so. I’d gotten used to making nothing, though not quite living on nothing. Hence money scares, debt, etc. But to skyrocket to double what I was used to, well… let’s just say I no longer have stress nightmares. I’m not exhausted all the time from laying awake worrying. And you no longer can track the figure in my bank account by my following my mood & sense of self-worth.

That’s the baseline for a positive change. On top of all that: holy shit I’m doing something where my background feels at least somewhat relevant. I didn’t go to college for this thing, no, but it’s honestly not that far from formal public relations, which I at least got familiar with. And four years of learning how to communicate comes in damn handy plowing through emails.

Ah yes, the job itself: online customer support. Doesn’t sound glamorous, but in all frankness I love problem-solving. I’ve always envied people in tech support positions at least for the fact that when they worked to solve problems, those problems could usually be solved. Working with troubled kids is all about problem-solving too, but these kids ain’t gonna be “solved” anytime this decade, for the most part.

If we’re counting, then, that’s two big improvements: pay and position. And then there’s the company and team. At Four Corners, as I said the team was solid. I had some concerns about our latest administrator (the most recent in a chain of principals who rarely lasted more than a school year), but everybody else in the building was a total keeper. They made that job worth coming back for: all reliable, supportive, and a fucking good time to hang out with.

That part has stayed true here in my new job, I’m happy to say. They’re a touch less cynical—I mean, come on, they’re not public school employees, so of course they’re less cynical. So I miss a bit of the old “we’re all in this fucked shit together” vibe. And on the upside, while Squarespace is indeed a venture-capital funded startup, that’s a hell of a lot more stable than tax-funded school district. Reynolds (a district I grew up in, so this is not just from a place of worker bitterness) laid me off three years in a row at the height of the recession, only to rehire me & a raft of other laid-off EAs every fall. Whether those moves were cost-cutting, poor planning, the ebb and flow of tax money, I’ll never really know. But I’m thrilled to no longer be subject to those particular whims.

It’s only about a month on from my start date from Squarespace, but already it feels like home. I get to work downtown, use my discounted TriMet pass to avoid a stressful commute, and I’m jazzed to see the folks at the office every day. Lots & lots of overlapping spheres of interest, experience, and perspective, but without sacrificing the spectrum of diversity. (Other than age, maybe—everybody there trends totally young, but again: startup, right?) I enjoyed the hell out of my colleagues at Four Corners, but I sincerely doubt I would have ever been running D&D games in a conference room there after hours. Which I now am, haha! And I’m already putting the perk of unlimited free websites to use

So I’m looking forward to settling into this particular groove for the foreseeable future. Already I know that the opportunities here are great. Staying within this company for the next 10 years or more is something I can absolutely see happening. And if that’s not the longterm plan, then halle-fucking-lujah, I’ll be able to take a more transferable skillset away from this than I ever could’ve gathered in public schools. That was, above all, my greatest fear: getting specialized enough in the field that I’d find my options trapped by a cage of my own making.

My Journalism degree still sits mostly unused, but who knows? By any measure, this is more of a step in that direction than just about anything that’s happened in the last 5 years. I’m excited to see where this takes me, and looking forward to sharing more about that in the weeks & months to come.

Pointing to the bottom line when under-represented audiences cry foul

So, as it happens, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of the often-great Zero Punctuation videogame vlog series turns out to a bit of a disappointment when it comes to facing the reality of the gender & sexism issues in AAA games & holding those who create them accountable.

The title of his Op-Ed at The Escapist, written in response to widespread critique of the lack of female protagonists in big-name game titles (among other things):

“If You Are Going to Hate on a Game Company, Do It For the Right Reasons”

Here’s a graf from that Op-Ed:

”[…] the fact is, the lack of diversity may well be a result of big companies not wanting to take risks. And I’m not saying female-driven games would definitely be a risk, but if white-dude-driven games are bringing in the cash, then it is the nature of the soulless corporation to not try to fix what isn’t broke. And why SHOULD they? It’s not something they can do casually, experimentally; the jobs of hundreds if not thousands may depend on a game’s success. Even more so with budgets being so ridiculously high these days. I don’t think you can blame a corporation for keeping things safe and bland out of the desire to maximize its chances of continued existence. More to the point, I don’t think you should be ‘blaming’ anyone.”

Thought experiment time. Okay Sherman, turn on the WABAC machine. Dateline: 1860.

If You Are Going to Hate on a Plantation Owner, Do It For the Right Reasons

The fact is, the lack of civil rights may well be a result of big plantations not wanting to take risks. And I’m not saying freeing slaves would definitely be a risk, but if black-slave-driven crops are bringing in the cash, then it is the nature of the soulless plantation to not try to fix what isn’t broke. And why SHOULD they? It’s not something they can do casually, experimentally; the jobs of hundreds if not thousands may depend on a plantation’s success. Even more so with the cost of labor being so ridiculously high these days. I don’t think you can blame a plantation for keeping things safe and black out of the desire to maximize its chances of continued existence. More to the point, I don’t think you should be ‘blaming’ anyone.

Hm. That’s got a different ring to it, eh? Maybe the appeal to “commercial realities” is, in fact, one of the weakest ethical & moral tactics around.

Amateur archaeology on a budget

Sometimes it’s hard to understand if certain aspects of your life are symptoms or causes.

I’ve got weird cleaning habits. In my ideal state I’m a nitpicky perfectionist about organization, systems of layout and arrangement, and that kind of keeping house. Less so the dusting, the laundry, and actually getting dirty shit clean. The deep brain layers just don’t seem to get as excited about it. I don’t want it to sparkle; I just want to know where it is & have it good enough to use. But, the perfectionist streak never goes away.

So this manifests in a lot of delaying tactics, hoarding, good old denial. Reliable pals. I still can’t handle the clutter though. I can build up some tolerance, some immunity, but it’s the same way a person living in a garbage dump might develop a tough immune system: you’ve just gotten better at living in a shitty life. And denial is cool but it doesn’t get the towels off the floor, the books out of piles, or the tumbling stacks of bills… actually, denial doesn’t do half bad on those. Point taken.

The moment still comes though when I feel a sheen of flopsweat over my whole body and a shuddering certainty that holy shit, we’ve gone too far. Too far with the normalizing, too far with the rationalizations, far enough that if I don’t sort out this mess right now I’m going to lose my mind. And not by accident, but like, drop it down a storm drain or fire it into the sun.

It would feel a lot more unhealthy if it wasn’t so stimulating. Like, whoa, I can see carpet again! Hot damn, there’s room for humans at the kitchen table! And man, this is taking all day but all the carboard boxes are gone and the pantry’s all sorted and I found where the motherfucking moths are coming from…

Yeah, some of these are dubious pleasures. I still won ‘em.

Mixed in with that there’s the mind-blowing shit. Because yeah, these papers are important, but not now, not yet, let’s revisit this in a couple of months. So the envelope gets added to the stack, swiftly forgotten. And it all worked out okay in the end. But then today, I come across DMV paperwork to renew my car’s tags through 2012, which I just did the repeat of this month to cover me through 2016, which means this watermarked DMV form is from holy shit all the way back in 2010 and sat on that couch for 4 years and suddenly this sound is playing.

I can remember a lot about that DMV form, actually. I remember more delay tactics, being summer-poor, the heat & boredom, I’ll-do-it-later, getting the ticket once fall came around & now the tags were expired, and the shape of the yellow envelope from the traffic cop, and whose house it was I was parked in front of. (And how did they know I was actually driving the thing anyway, since it hadn’t moved from her house in like a week?)

But after the memory comes the time. I can feel the years in-between then and now: the dizzying differences & unseemly sameness. There’s a moment of silence, not commemorating anything in particular. Just a brain with a tangle of concepts and a practiced reluctance to really connect the dots.

Because we’re still cleaning, right? Still riding the high that comes with it being 3 AM and we’re still awake and fuck you, we’re getting shit done. But later I have time to think about it. And I have thought about it.

It’s funny, because the more I inventory what’s left to chew through in this season’s purge, the more I appreciate how I’ve left myself landmines everywhere. Memorials to past disgraces & defeats sit patiently in wait, until my organizational zeal disturbs their forgotten tombs. Blasts from my pasts. In the war-scarred European countryside, they call it the iron harvest.

I can’t make up my mind if that’s my perspective on what I do, though. Do I forget these things, let the ignominy build up so that I can interrupt a decisive moment of inspiration with an explosion of time-released shame? Lord knows I harbor mild-to-moderate self-defeating & self-destructive tendencies. That could be the thing right there.

On the other hand, jolts like those DMV forms aren’t just raw nostalgia & ennui. It ain’t all sad playlists and self-pity. Sometimes it’s a reminder that, yeah fucker, get a load of yourself living in the past without even realizing it. You wanted to bust out of this gravity well but you fell back into the same old loop. You didn’t notice, but now you did.

Do I let the time bombs tick on the shelf because I don’t want to deal with it? Or is a part of me saving them for later… just in case?

Icon inspirations for Cabin Wars!, my GameChef 2013 entry

Wahoo! I lived up to a personal goal and crafted an RPG for GameChef, an annual competition where designers are given a theme & ingredients and are charged with crafting a game out of it. Not unlike the Iron Chef, and hence the name. This year’s offerings took the form of graphic icons, which bothered me a little at first. I’m a words guy, so working with proscribed images felt more limiting.

I got over it though, and made Cabin Wars! A game that is about campers vying for a Camp Cup by winning points, while also being about trying to keep your head above water in a sea of demerits stemming from your vicious prank war. Peering through the entries today, I have to say that while there are a few themes (the bug-in-apple icon seems to have pushed a lot of designers in a certain direction) the field of entries submitted is pretty wide. The icons don’t seem to have been limiting at all.

I put this bit at the end of my game, but as I probably won’t leave it in the game text forever I thought I should post it here, too. So then, for the curious, and a peek behind the curtain, here’s how I used this year’s GameChef ingredients and theme to inspire Cabin Wars!

Theme: An up-and-down arrow with a bespectacled person standing in front of it. I used this as the basis for the idea of points and demerits in tug-of-war with each other. The stylized person is Authority, the force on high that watches as the players rise and fall via points and demerits. In this case, the staff that are watching the campers and judging the games leading up to the Camp Cup.

Ingredient: A big head with a snowflake inside it. To me, this looked more like a big head with a gear inside it. That implied to me plans, plots, schemes within schemes all being hatched out of the mind of this egg-headed person. So, something about making plans… this one didn’t come into focus as planning a prank until I had a good idea from the next ingredient.

Ingredient: A belted tunic covered in a smattering of diamond shapes. This icon fascinated me. I knew I didn’t want to use the bug-apple icon, and this one seemed like it could determine a lot about my game, once I knew what it would be. Then I had it: merit badges! I’d considered something about summer camp once I settled on “points & demerits” from the theme, but this clinched it. Merit badges would be An Important Thing in my game.

Ingredient: A paper lantern in the corner softly illuminates a person’s silhouette. This just played more into the idea of summer camp stuff. Sneaking around at night when you should be in bed in your cabin is a time-honored tradition, and since I already wanted my game to be about the interplay of winning prestige (via points) and breaking rules (earning demerits), a sneaking element was a perfect fit. Since most of the sneaking I did in my summer camp days involved messing with other cabins and pranks, I figured it should be the same in this game. And I liked too how it suggested that trying to pull a prank, which is perhaps the most obviously fun action to take in the game, is a risky action that must be attempted with stealth.

And there you have it! You can see the ingredient I chose to leave out here, it seemed very out of keeping with the form my design was taking. Also, a game is only supposed to use 2-3 of the 4 ingredients anyhow. For now, all that’s left with Cabin Wars! is to leave it be while other GameChef participants comb through it and pass on their reactions.

Free associating GM prep work via player input

I’m running a DungeonWorld one-shot/miniseries for some friends in a week or two, and I’m doing my damnedest to follow the suggestions from the book to keep planning at a minimum for session number one. I don’t want to be completely empty-handed and rudderless for our first adventure, though, so what to do?

A week’s delay for our first session gave me a chance to try something out: a free-association exercise for the GM, created via player questionnaire. The email I sent to my four players had simple instructions to pick one word from each group of three, and send the reply just to me. The list was as follows:

1. desert | forest | island

2. cavern | ruin | tomb

3. castle | village | wilds

4. trade | war | magic

5. cultists | sorcerers | mercenaries

6. stars | stones | sigils

I didn’t give any clues as to what each group meant, though there are some obvious categories at play: setting for #1, baddies for #5, etc. I had ideas in mind of what elements I was addressing with each set of three words, but depending on the results I get back, I’m letting myself stay open to whatever inspirations strike me from the final combination. I’ve received a few already, and each is different, and conjures up a different suggested world and setting with just a simple six words.

(Hopefully, with three choices and four voters, we’ll avoid any ties—who gets the tie-breaker vote should there be any 2/2 splits, I haven’t decided yet.)

I think this method could work nicely for any DungeonWorld game and a lot of traditional D&D games besides. Here’s the six categories I had in mind when creating my list, each of which is relevant to play:

1. Environment/climate

2. Adventure sites

3. Steading/home base

4. Notable local specialty

5. Crafty adversaries

6. Sources of wonder & omens

I think this is a good way to put the GM principles of DungeonWorld to use in a slightly different context. You’ve got the questionnaire for players (ask questions and use the answers) and a free-association for the GM (addressing the draw maps, leave blanks and play to find out what happens precepts). Sending the replies just to me lets me have player input and maintain a sense of mystery, too! Fingers crossed that this makes for a fun set of sessions.

Postscript: I should also add that this is a socially-polite way to be a little selfish, too. This is good! Choosing what words to put on offer is a kind of limit-setting without forcing things, and can guide the direction of your players’ ideas without having to shoot anything down. Tailoring the list of options to your own tastes (in a broad-minded way), before offering choices to your players, can set you up for better GM buy-in from the start.