Research Blog Antarctica #133 – Whale Wars (season 3)

October 12th, 2014

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TV series: Whale Wars (season 3): U.S.A. 2010

Whale Wars is an American documentary tv series about the conservationist group Sea Shepards. Each season follows one Antarctic summer in which the Sea Shepards attempt to disrupt the operations of Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean.

Season 3 is quite amazing in the sheer amount of danger and derring do. This time, the Sea Shepards have three ships, the familiar Steve Irwin, and the new Bob Barker and Ady Gil. The Ady Gil is a speedboat captained by a New Zealander called Pete Bethune, who emerges as the star of the season.

Bethune ends up taking many of the risks that make following this season of the series so hair-raising. You guess that probably everyone survived from the fact that there’s six seasons of this series, but it doesn’t make it less exciting.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #18: Uber Goober & Dark Dungeons

September 26th, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(Uber Goober)

Uber Goober is a case study in how to defend something in such a way as to make it look as bad as possible. It’s a documentary about roleplaying games, larp and other non-digital games and people who play them, but more importantly, it’s a documentary about prejudices against gamers and gamers who have internalized them.

Two of the interviewees appear only in silhouette because they fear repercussions if they’re publicly outed as gamers. In one scene, a man who doesn’t want his face shown sneaks into a children’s playground at night to collect some sand for a structure he’s building for a miniatures game.

It’s true that gamers face a lot of attitude in U.S. society. However, when someone appears in a documentary in silhouette, it makes him look bad, like there’s something shameful to hide. The set up communicates the shame, and reinforces it.

The bad impression is strengthened by the low technical quality of the movie. Because of bad lighting, normal folks look grubby.

The whole thing has a depressing, defensive tone, and many of the interviewees seem desperate to justify gaming. The problem is that when they do this, they, and the makers of this documentary, implicitly accept the premises they try to argue against. In cases like this, you have to change the rules of the discussion, not try to win by arguing that roleplaying is not Satan worship, honest!

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(Dark Dungeons)

Dark Dungeons is a roleplaying pride movie. It’s well made, hilarious, and makes roleplaying look cool. In 1984, Jack T. Chick published a little comic about the Satanic menace of roleplaying games. At that time, the moral panic about roleplaying games and their occult connections was still going on, and the comic tried to dissuade young people from playing. You can read it here, it’s pretty funny stuff.

Dark Dungeons is a movie adaptation of the comic. It’s quite loyal to the source material, often using dialogue word for word. It trusts the sheer weirdness of the original comic to carry the day, to great effect.

Since it needs to sell roleplaying as a dangerous, seductive menace, all the cool bad guys roleplay. Of course we’re meant to take this with a wink and a nudge. It’s a joke. But that doesn’t take away from it’s effectiveness: We see roleplaying that looks fun, the same way sex, drugs and rock’n’roll is fun.

The movie Mazes & Monsters was Dark Dungeons, except they meant it. It was shown on Finnish television in the late Eighties, and essentially started the Finnish larp scene. Many different folks around the country saw it, thought it looked cool, and decided to try to do the same. Dark Dungeons takes this aesthetic of making things seem seductive by advocating against them, and uses it knowingly.

Turkmen Sci-Fi

September 17th, 2014

Turkmenistan looks like  something from another planet. Or more precisely, from a science fiction movie.

Here’s a few buildings in Ashgabat. Note the consistent architectural style, common to many fictional space civilizations:

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A view from the spaceport parking area.

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The “Golden Eye” defense system is ready to blast hostile spacecraft.

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The dimensional portal is operational.

(The buildings are actually a circus, a wedding palace and a Ferris wheel.)

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The weird surface formations of an alien planet.

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The fire planet. A visiting alien shown in the upper right for scale.

(All photos by me.)

Research Blog Antarctica #132 – Whiteout (the game)

August 28th, 2014

Video game: René Rother: Whiteout

Whiteout is a small game playable either in a browser or as a stand-alone installation. Made as part of a 48-hour game creation challenge, it distills a simple Antarctic experience. You’re an expeditioner, and your partner has disappeared. You’re in the middle of a white nothing. Using flags, the sun and the widn to navigate, you try to find your partner.

For such a small game, Whiteout is stylish, atmospheric, clever and true. It communicates wonderfully the desperation and peace of Antarctica’s empty whiteness. You can play it here.

Life Under Occupation is out!

July 23rd, 2014

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Life Under Occupation: A documentation book for the larp Halat hisar has been published! Edited by me, it’s a collection of articles, photos and other stuff about the larp we did last year. Download it for free from here.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #17: Good Luck Charlie, Huge & Emily Owens, M.D.

July 6th, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(Good Luck Charlie, season 2 episode 5 “L.A.R.P. in the Park”)

The larp episode of the American family comedy series Good Luck Charlie is one of the most miserable pieces of roleplaying television we’ve seen. Larp appears as ridiculous and stupid, but the real issue is the general conservative atmosphere. The gender roles in the family, the assumptions about the Mom, all of it seems to be from some kind of a rancid Eighties tribute.

Teddy (in the picture, left) tries to learn to play a Pokemon-stand-in to get closer to a guy she has a crush on. The guy proves to be a total dork and even talks Teddy into joining his larp group. The only upside to the whole thing are the bizarre costumes worn by the larpers.

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(Huge, season 1 episode 3 “Live Action Role Play”)

Huge is an American tv series about a group of people at a camp for losing weight. In this episode, one of the characters wants to organize a larp, another hijacks it and corrupts her vision, and moderate drama ensues.

As seen in the picture above, the view of larp in this episode is not the most dignified I’ve ever seen. For some reason, the apparently adult people at the fat camp behave like twelve year olds with their temper tantrums and pouting, so the whole thing is emotionally unsettling to watch.

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(Emily Owens, M.D. season 1 episode 9 “For the Love of LARP”)

One of the side-effects of our project is that we see a lot of individual episodes from tv series we’d never watch otherwise. This is true especially for inconsequential American series that don’t really make any kind of a splash here in Finland. Without our project, I wouldn’t even know that a series called Emily Owens, M.D. existed.

Emily is a blonde and bland doctor in a featureless hospital. In this episode, larpers have medical problems too. In the end we learn that they can separate reality from fiction! What a relief!

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #16: Shakma, Gamerz & Skullduggery

July 1st, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(Shakma)

Of all the larp movies we’ve seen, Shakma has one of the simplest, yet singular concepts. A group of medical researchers and students lock themselves into a building to play a really crappy-looking larp. A raging baboon kills them one by one.

The best thing about the movie is that the baboon is played by a real baboon, called Typhoon. No special effects bullshit here! Only hardcore baboon action.

The larp seems to be a treasure hunt style thing where players communicate with the game master via walkie talkies. “I’m using one of my keys to open this door.” The game master has a primitive computer simulation of the game, connected to tracking devices each player has.

During the movie, we had a lot of speculation about how it would end. Perhaps the baboon would kill the game master and take his place. Maybe he would rescue the princess and they would live happily ever after. He could kill everyone, and the last shot would be him driving away smoking a cigar.

Unfortunately, none of these things happened in this movie.

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(Gamerz)

We’ve seen a lot of movies about roleplayers or larpers, but most of them have been made in the U.S. A typical feature of these films (Unicorn City, A Game of the Year) has been a depiction of the hobby and the people in it that I can’t recognize from my personal experience.

The 2005 movie Gamerz was made in Scotland. In style it’s a European slightly comedic slice-of-life film, with little of the overly mannered structure or self-hate that characterizes bad American films of this type. Along with Zero Charisma and The Gamers 3, its one of the best movies about roleplayers out there.

The movie is about Ralph, a university student and game master who hijacks the local roleplaying club and starts to run the game himself. He falls in love with the only female player (like almost all roleplaying movies, Gamerz is routinely misogynistic). His local bully wants to join the group. Off-game bullshit creeps into the game.

I spent my high school years roleplaying intensively, and a lot of the people and situations in Gamerz are recognizable from my youth. Some of the people made me go: “I’ve played with that guy!” One of the themes is the responsibility of the game master not to use the game as a vehicle for personal power games.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t quite carry to the end. The scene where Ralph goes over to the dark side (so to speak) is too hard for a movie like this.

Despite it’s problems, Gamerz is worth watching. In the opening credits, the letter i looks like a penis. This is not an accident.

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(Skullduggery)

Skullduggery (1983) was described as Mazes & Monsters meets El Topo. This description is accurate. It feels like an Eighties moral panic movie about roleplaying games where the filmmakers have gone native in the weird and occult world of fantasy games.

The movie is about Adam, who works in a costume shop and playes in a game that looks something like early D&D or Talisman. There’s a game master and other players, one of whom does exactly the same sexist jokes as a guy in Gamerz. It was uncanny.

Adam is cursed: one of his ancestors played a game and fell victim to a sorcerer or possibly Satan. The curse manifests through Adam and the game, making him attend strange amateur theatre where immensely talentless people try do do farce and a janitor wanders around with a game of Tic-Tac-Toe on his back.

I don’t mean that negatively. That was all great stuff. For much of the running time, Skullduggery felt like something directed by Jodorowsky.

Unfortunately, by the end Jodorowsky fades away and is replaced by Dario Argento. I suppose one could charitably say that the persistent misogyny of roleplaying movies reached its logical conclusion here in the form of a killing spree.

Skullduggery follows one of the two main cliches of game movies: “The game becomes real”. However, it would be reductionist to think it was nothing more, because this time the cliche was only a starting point in a movie that became something else. By the end, it’s unclear in a metaphysical sense if Adam is still alive or acting from beyond the grave. As his last act, he reaches out to kill his game master.

Sometimes the movie was also pretty funny. There’s a hospital scene where we see the sihouette of a nurse fucking a doctor on a hospital bed. The nurse moans: “You’re the best! In this room. At this time.”

That’s a great line.

The nurse comes out from behind the curtain in her underwear. The doctor sneaks behind her back, and startles her. He’s wearing a gorilla suit.

Because this is Skullduggery.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #15: King of the Nerds, season 2

July 1st, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(The contestants on King of the Nerds, season 2)

King of the Nerds is an American reality tv series in which a group of people compete on who’s the nerdiest. We watched season two because one of the contestants, Xander Jeanneret, is a larper. In the picture, he’s the guy with the red pants.

A lot of the second season is characterized by a single casting choice that makes the whole thing seem exploitative and unpleasant. I’m fine with strange people on reality tv, but this time it felt like watching someone who probably shouldn’t be on tv.

Simplistic tasks, crass sponsor visibility, terrible hosts and pointless cheesecake all carry over from the first season. There’s little to like in King of the Nerds.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #14: High Road

June 12th, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

This is the music video for the song High Road, by the band Mastodon, released in 2014. Watching this after seeing so many movies about larp feels strange. It’s like the condensed essence of a certain type of American larp movie. If you want to know what many larp movies are like with the bare minimum of effort, watch this.

Research Blog Antarctica #131 – Southern Exposure

June 6th, 2014

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Non-fiction: Alia Sorensen: Southern Exposure (AuthorHouse, 2005)

Southern Exposure documents writer a year of Alia Sorensen’s working life on Antarctica in the early 2000’s. It’s not an ambitious book, and perhaps that’s its strength. Sorensen worked both a summer and a winter at McMurdo station in the kitchen.

The book’s perspective is on describing the working culture and conditions of the people who make an Antarctic station run. I’ve always liked these blue collar accounts of life on Antarctica, and there are not too many of them around. Sorensen’s lack of artifice means that you get a clear idea of how everything is.

At the end of the book, there’s a pointless and overlong account of tourist activities in New Zealand and Australia. These can safely be skipped.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #13: Peter Watkins

June 6th, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

The British director Peter Watkins has made three movies that are quite interesting from a roleplaying perspective, The Battle of Culloden (1964), Gladiatorerna (1969) and La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000).

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(The Battle of Culloden)

The Battle of Culloden and La Commune (Paris, 1871) are interesting because of the way they were made. Both have historical subjects, and both involved large-scale recreations of the events they documented. The idea was to recreate the battle of Culloden and the Paris Commune in the style of historical re-enactment, and then do a movie about it documentary style.

The only element out of time in each movie is the camera crew, interviewing participants and shooting as events progress. From the way the interviews play out, it really looks like the people participating in the enactment are in fact larping.

Both are also good movies. The Battle of Culloden is one of the most savagely anti-war films I have ever seen, with unrelenting focus on the miseries that followed medieval warfare. La Commune (Paris, 1871) is 345 minutes long, but the duration pays off in its depiction of life in the Commune.

There’s a good documentary about the making of La Commune (Paris, 1871) called The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins.

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(La Commune (Paris, 1871))

The third movie, Gladiatorerna, is a scifi mockumentary set in a fictional future where the great powers of the world have stopped waging war and have instead started organizing games in which teams of combat specialists take on each other.

The way the setup is depicted is very interesting, and there’s a lot of attention being paid to how the whole thing works. We see the game master rooms, how enviromental hazards are activated, and the decisions that go into setting up each game.

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(Gladiatorerna)

The movie would be a solid basis for anything from a milsim to a fullscale larp. Its ideas develop admirably, and its interesting to see its characters both go along with the game, and rebel against it.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #12: Community, The IT Crowd, Full Battle Rattle, The Last of Sheila & Midnight Madness

June 6th, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(Full Battle Rattle)

Full Battle Rattle is a documentary movie released in 2008 about a fake Iraqi village built in the Mojave Desert built by the U.S. Army for training purposes. Its not larp or roleplaying, but pretty close.

Amazingly, the village is populated by actual Iraqis, refugees from the country ravaged by the very same war the soldiers are training for. Insurgents and occupying soldiers are played by real soldiers.

The simulation doesn’t seem to have proper individual characters, but its social dynamics and game master techniques place it somewhere between larp and milsim.

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(Community, episode 14)

The tv series Community has had two episodes in which roleplaying features prominently, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (season 2, episode 14) and Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (season 5, episode 10). They represent some of the best use of roleplaying games in a tv show I’ve seen.

Both episodes use the idea of the characters playing D&D to tell multilayered stories not about what happens in the fiction, but to the players as they play the game. The episodes grasp the metanarratives created in any act of roleplaying very well.

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(The Last of Sheila)

The Last of Sheila, an American movie made in 1973, is the story of a group of Hollywood people invited to a yacht to play a game. Each of them is assigned a secret, and in each of the ports the yacht calls in, there’s a chance to find out what someone is hiding.

The basic setup of the game looks like a very rich people’s treasure hunt, and its fun to see the character running the game happy when it works and cursing when his design has issues. The game master experience is on display, even if his attitude is a little diletantish.

The movie has many ideas that have since surfaced in alternate reality games and other types of organized urban adventures. Typically for a movie like this, the game becomes real.

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(The IT Crowd, season 4, episode 1)

The geek comedy IT Crowd has one episode in which tabletop roleplaying has a significant role, Jen the Fredo from the fourth season. Other stuff happens in the episode too, but one character, Moss, runs a tabletop adventure for a group of guys who are intially reluctant to play.

The fun thing about this episode is that the magic of roleplaying carries them away, and soon we see dudely business types fantasy roleplaying in all seriousness. That is the joke, of course, but it also works as a straightforward demonstration of why its fun.

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(Midnight Madness)

One of the most essential alternate reality game movies (in addition to Westworld and The Last of Sheila), Midnight Madness is about an urban treasure hunt -type game called “The Great Allnighter”. People participate in teams of broad stereotypes: there’s a jock team, a nerd team, a women’s team, etc.

A lot of the stereotyping in the movie is pretty rough by today’s standards, but the movie shows the structure of a game like this very clearly. It might even be called a little pedantic in its devotion to explaining how the game works.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #11: Cloak & Dagger

June 3rd, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(Cloak & Dagger)

Cloak & Dagger is an American children’s movie released in 1984, originally as a double feature with The Last Starfighter. It’s about a boy who likes to play imaginary spy adventures that greatly resemble roleplaying games in the backroom of a game store.

As usually happens in these movies, the game soon becomes real, and the boy has to foil an attempt to bomb an airplane.

The movie is both boring and morally questionable. It seems to be about learning how to steal, run into traffic and kill people. Sometimes you just have to shoot people even if you don’t want to, because they’re evil.

The beginning of the movie is fun, with a spy clad in a grey leather jacket arriving with a parachute in the colors of the American flag. Giant dice rolls on the streets as we move from the game to the children playing.

Unfortunately, the good stuff stops after the first five minutes, never to return. Perhaps the only other good thing about the movie is the setting of the game store. It’s a nice glimpse into the period. Amazingly, they have a poster of the Atari E.T. game on a wall.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #10: Zero Charisma

June 3rd, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

(The trailer for Zero Charisma)

Zero Charisma is an American movie released in 2013 about Scott, a thirtyish guy running a tabletop campaign and living with his grandmother. Scott is a temperamental and acerbic guy with a very clear idea of how roleplaying games should be conducted. Eventually, the difficulty of dealing with him drives away even his closest friends.

The movie is a cringe comedy built so that almost all expectations it creates remain unfulfilled. It’s also one of the very rare cases of a movie about roleplaying games that could be called good, or a real film.

The central question of the film is about how to play roleplaying games: are they supposed to be just “fun”, or should we take them more seriously? Scott wants to make games seriously, and encounters a lot of pushback doing so. Even a Gary Gygax stand-in ridicules him. Yet the filmmakers have gone Scott’s route. The movie’s aesthetic choices mirror Scott’s vision of roleplaying, and justify his point of view.

All of this culminates in a non-ending where the viewer is first teased with a triumphant revenge, and then made to watch everything fall flat. Yet life goes on.

Incidentally, the experience of seeing this movie changes a lot based on who you are. In the beginning, it seemed like it might be another example of the rote roleplaying or larp amateur movie in the style of Unicorn City or Game of the Year. That proved to be another expectation the movie first set up and then dashed. Nowhere was the comparison to other larp and roleplaying movies more clear than in a scene where a new member of the group starts playing like an asshole. (“What the hell, I’ll just stab him and steal his stuff.”) In movies like Lloyd the Conqueror, cheating and playing badly is something the hero does to show how cool he is, but in Zero Charisma, asshole playing is asshole playing. Even if Scott reacts badly to it.

My experience was also shaped by who I am in the various roleplaying scenes I inhabit. I started to suspect I was probably the hipster dude, although I liked Scott’s uncompromising “you’re doing it wrong” attitude.

Zero Charisma has a lot going for it, but unfortunately it also repeats many of the routine tropes of this kind of moviemaking. Indeed, it felt like it could have dashed a couple more expectations than it finally did. Its portrayal of women is abominable, some of the nastier geek humor is just shopworn and tired, and it never goes beyond a self-hating conception of who a roleplayer is. Even the hipster guy, who intially seems cool about his hobby, is proven to be ashamed.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #9: Eskapistit

June 3rd, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

(The Eskapistit trailer.)

Eskapistit (eng. Escapists) is a Finnish short film written and directed by Niklas Lindgren, made in 2013. It’s about a guy who has to make a choice between going on a date with a girl he wants to impress and a larp, and later about concealing being a larper from the girl.

It’s a fun little movie, and I appreciate the message of larp empowerment it ended with. Yet at the same time, I have to say I’m done with geek, roleplayer and larper self-hate as a subject matter.