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Blokus with Nolan Bushnell: it’s all the field now, baby

I’ve never been big on unified field theories, but have to admit a realization that dawned on me several weeks ago (during the triple As) has held more generally than I’d thought. These days, wherever I go turns out to be the field.

Photo of people playing Blokus Case in point: last night the delightful and inspiring Ellen Steuer took me to a games party at which Nolan Bushnell (pong creator, Atari founder) turned up to play Blokus. Nolan’s the one with his hand on his head. Ellen’s the one who snapped the photo with her trusty Sidekick.

Apparently his latest venture is another entertainment and restaurant venue called uWink, but it wasn’t mentioned. Instead, Ellen quizzed Nolan about the installation he was planning for next year’s Burning Man. Something involving LEDs mounted on revolving cherry picker to project an image of a hovering flying saucer, a scaled-up use of the same light-scan technology found in those clocks that project the time in mid-air, and other geeky gadgets.

I was more fascinated with the mag-lev wind chime installation Mike Steele was designing for next year’s Burn, after going for the first time in 2006; and with Patricia Pizer’s ideas for the class on online game design she begins teaching next week. Mike and Patricia were the hosts of this Almost New Year’s Eve games (and snack!) extravaganza, and it has been a very long time since I’ve met such a gregarious, playful, and accomplished pair. This party they were throwing was a luscious testament to the capacities of human civilization, truly an anthropologists dream: a multi-generational gathering of kin, friends, and neighbors; knit of spatial, professional, and recreational affiliations; at which great swathes of non-codified knowledge were spun out in social space-time-being.

Photo of Blokus board game in endstateTo put it more specifically, I saw several people learning to play Blokus, rules and strategies were discussed. There was a show-and-tell history of caricatures in European art. I overheard an eight-year old girl ask her neighbor if she would enable communication between their Nintendo DS systems. All the while, in the front living room, a man with a guitar–who I later learned was Raph Koster–and many fine singers created a steady stream of pleasant and familiar songs, passing on traditions and practices of which I remain blissfully ignorant. Instead of ethnomusicology, I focused on finding out from Patricia what she had planned for her games class and how it had come to pass that Nolan Bushnell was in her family room playing Blokus with her teenager, their neighbor, and my friend Ellen.
Given the impending new year–which for me holds the task of writing a dissertation start to finish–I found the answers to both lines of questioning valuably portentous. To answer the second one first: Patricia and Mike took their kids to the uWink restaurant in Woodland Hills and Mike was bold enough to strike up a conversation with Nolan. Later, Nolan appears at their party. Mike’s bold gregariousness is precisely what I’ll need to strike up the conversations I need to write a dissertation, I think as I hear Patricia tell of husband’s prowess.

What Patricia said about her class, however, was an even more valuable touchstone for my project. She made a number of really astute points on misconceptions about multiplayer, online gaming. First, she pointed out the tendency to apply the label “multiplayer” only to  MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) when, with the exception of solitaire, most games–from chess to Ms. Pac-Man–have multiplayer capability. I take it as a sign of the social, its primacy and perpetual erasure in the naturalization (one of culture’s favorite methods) of such terms as “multiplayer.”

Patricia builds on it to talk about the kind of projects she hopes her students will undertake this spring. While everyone wants to create the next big MMOG, the budget and resource realities of producing such a game preclude the MMOG as a wise term project choice in most cases. Thus, she plans to point out the diverse variety of thriving game genres and communities online besides MMOGs and encourage students to design games they can feasibly produce in a semester. Here again, the potent and peculiar combination of object lesson and subject lesson all-in-one. Or, to put it in tagline form, it’s all the field now, baby.’

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