Saturday, March 7, 2015

RPG Systems: An Analogy with UI Design



The current game in our weekly role-playing group is Deadlands. The previous game was Shadowrun. Both rule systems lie closer to the “chunky” side of the spectrum. Shadowrun has a particular reputation for its complex and somewhat cumbersome rules, and while Deadlands has less overall complexity, the system has a degree of granularity that interrupts play more often than it enhances narration. I enjoy role-playing games because I like participating in a good story. The rules system provides a set of constraints for the characters, the setting, and the conflicts. They help give the narrative structure, a background against which the story will take place. Too few rules, and telling an interesting and well-developed story becomes difficult. Too many rules tend to get in the way of individual scenes or events. With the right balance, it’s possible for the game master, usually me, to be sufficiently fluent in the rules system to resolve any conflict without extended consultation of one (or more) books. When I describe my ideal role-playing system, I am reminded of user interface design. A good user interface gets out of the user’s way. The user shouldn’t have to think about UI elements like chrome, throbbers, or buttons. Everything should just work, leaving the user to focus on tasks, specific applications, and workflow. Likewise, I like a role-playing system that fades into the background of the story. If the structure is too obtrusive, there is no room left for the narrative.

Since I’m a game master and not a game designer, I can understand that striking this balance is not easy. A rules system can provide an amazing formalization of the setting’s flavor, defining the boundaries of the ordinary and extraordinary for the setting. I sometimes find myself running chunky systems just because the setting is provocative enough to motivate a bit of extra study and note-taking before game.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Incredible Lightness of Collaborative Consumption

Last week, we had to exchange our defective futon frame for a new one. The store didn't want to cover transport cost in either direction, so we had to figure out how to get our re-boxed frame from Mountain View to Los Altos. If we had a car, it would not have been very simple since we were aiming to buy a small sedan, nothing that can easily carry the frame and its box.

Fortunately, we have a car sharing service that gives us access to a range of vehicles, including a van stored down the street from my building. After work, I grabbed the van, picked up the frame at our place, and then Tara and I drove to the futon to make the swap. I dropped off Tara and the new frame at our place, and then headed back to campus. On returning the van to its parking space, I hopped on a shuttle back to downtown Mountain View.

We were able to do all of this because we're not tied to a specific vehicle for all of our transportation needs. The last car we owned was a van, and it came in handy on more than one occasion. We used it to move our household twice and for several craft fairs and art markets. However, most of the time, it was simply more vehicle than we needed. In the end, we spent more money on gas regularly for the convenience of having a vehicle that accommodated all of our use cases. Collaborative consumption allows us to have the vehicle we need for each case: a small car for most errands and a van or SUV for the occasional cargo load.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Carless in California


For various reasons, we do not own a car despite living deep in American car country. The reasons are largely financial; the cost of living in downtown Mountain View crowds car ownership out of our budget. We pay more to live in a pedestrian friendly neighborhood, so we are less able to afford a car. At the same time, I don't need a car to get to work, and Tara doesn't drive, so any car we had would sit in the carport most of the week. Combine that waste of resources with a reluctance to contribute to the Bay Area's traffic congestion, and forgoing car ownership doesn't sound all that bad.

Car sharing services allow us to grab a vehicle as long as we plan ahead a bit. The Caltrain provides access to San Francisco. There are convenience stores and cafes in walking distance, so we don't feel the absence of a car too often. Last night was one of the few times where I did. After getting home from work, we wanted a dinner cheaper than nearby delivery options. The nearest quick bite came from a fast food place about 1 kilometer down the street. I'm a car, the trip is so fast, it almost feels excessive to drive. On foot, the trip is a bit longer, requires dodging some poorly controlled intersections, and doesn't prove particularly scenic.

I enjoy walking because it clears my head, lets me reflect and unwind a bit. On yesterday's walk, I was surprised by the absence of any other walkers. Make no mistake, this is a car town. Scurry from the driveway to the door, and no further. Children and sometimes the elderly take to the sidewalk, but the bulk of travel relies on four wheels rather than two feet. It's a pity, too. All of that blue sky and sunshine shouldn't go to waste. I don't mind the solitude, I suppose. It's fine to walk, observed by the occasional driver and the rising mountains from which the city takes its name. If folks would rather clutch the wheel and weave among the horde of mobile boxes, I shouldn't judge. I'll just walk tall, stretch my legs, and take in the air.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Juxtapositions

The most striking feature of living and working in Silicon Valley is the extreme contrast between technology and nature. On campus, I am surrounded by towering redwood trees and verdant hillsides. As my eyes trace serpentine trails in the distance, the click-whir of an electric car startles me from my reverie. The sheet metal giant who shares the view with me is unmoved by such noises, continuing his silent meditation as I navigate between his feet. The air hums with connection, thick with the invisible media of 21st Century communication.

The transition from garden to workstation does not jar the senses as it might in a less cared-for space. The glass walls leave the room open to the wild, filling my eyes with trees and sunshine. Ephemeralization of devices enables attending to work, ears filled with the murmur of winding water. The utopic vision made evident here is healing, a restorative against the bare concrete freeways and the cacophony of cars, malls, and music that make up much of our shared human space.

In this place, the wild, untamed frontier of the planet meets the wild, untamed frontier of human endeavors. Rather than meet in conflict, here they merge into one another, each one growing and thriving in the same space. Achieving the balance requires continued maintenance, care, and compromise, along with attention to the needs of the natural world, human and non-human alike.