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Category: General Musings (Page 1 of 2)

Sometimes I just ramble…

The future is 20 years old

Picture a vision of the high-tech future.  Go on, picture it.  In your fleshy meat-brain.

Did it involve a lot of brushed aluminium, clean white plastic coated things and bright blue LEDs?  If it does, I’m not surprised.  That’s been the default vision of the future since bright blue LEDs first came on the market in the early 1990s.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) only appeared around 30 years before that, and red LED displays defined the look of the future for quite some time… particularly in the form of seven-segment LED displays, which were used to form things that looked close enough to letters and numbers if you squinted a bit and turned your head slightly.  But red LEDs lost their appeal over the course of the 1980s…  after all, anything fashionable in one decade is destined to be deeply unfashionable in the next.

In the 90s, though, the future turned blue.  Now, two decades later, it’s still blue.  Blue LEDs are still seen as the look of the future.  Even though the black mirror of the touchscreen has taken over to a certain extent, the black mirror still often finds itself in the company of the “searingly bright so it illuminates the whole room” blue LED.

They’re so bright and so blue that I’ve taken to sticking a square of black PVC electrical tape over every blue LED, just to dampen the light of the future enough to let me sleep at night.  They’re everywhere.  Clearly nobody sleeps in the blue-LED illuminated future.

So, designers of the world… what should the new future be?  Black mirrors everywhere, more blue LEDs, or down the natural and sustainable materials route?  I know I’d prefer the latter, but it really doesn’t sell that well.  The future isn’t the future these days unless it’s on sale on the high-street, after all…

Of multi-dimensional sausage visualization and user experience design

I’ve been thinking of this post for a while, and have decided that rather than trying to come up with a better way to explain it, I’d just explain how I picture it in my head.  Consider this post to be one-part UX design related and one-part insight into my mental processes.

It’s a UX related thing, but I’ve not been able to work out how to explain it particularly clearly. It’s a discussion of the complexity of designing a user experience versus the complexity of the resulting experience, and how it’s far from a one-to-one mapping between the two. By which I mean that a really simple experience can be really complicated and troublesome to design, whilst a complex looking design is often the result of a *lack* of complexity in the design process.

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After a few days of insomnia medication related late arrivals at work, I was determined to make it in to work on time today. The universe had other plans.

In order:

  1. My alarm didn’t go off – I was only woken up by the sound of flatmate leaving for work.  Will have to check bulb & fuse when I get home.
  2. Got caught at the level crossing on my way to the station.
  3. I nearly made a train that’d get me in only ~15 mins late, but about 3/4 of the way to the station I turned my ankle and mashed my left orthotic insole badly enough that I had to go home again to find my spares.
  4. On the way home, I got caught at the level crossing again as the train I was meant to be on came through.
  5. Spent 10 minutes finding my spare insoles so I could have wearable shoes again.
  6. Got caught at the level crossing again on my way back to the station, and watched as the last useful train for ~25 minutes went through.
  7. Finally got on a train, and couldn’t get a seat. Ended up standing all the way to Clapham.
  8. Arrived in the office just after the morning standup finished, so didn’t even get to sneak in unnoticed!

Today is cursed, clearly. Trying to read “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell” also doesn’t work too well when standing on a crowded train, so I ended up buying it on the kindle to avoid killing anybody with it.  Oh well – I’m sure my wrists will thank me for that, at least.

Oh look, a bit fell off…

So, I spend a few minutes this morning on my hands and knees, crawling around the floor looking for a bit of myself that had just fallen off.  Not a typical way to start they day, but, contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t a bad one either.

It was only a little bit, after all.

I’ve had a mole on my neck that’s been inflamed and painful for over a month now, and which was due to be removed in the very near future.  It doesn’t need to be removed any more, as it decided to make a bid for freedom all on its own this morning after my hair got tangled around it.

The only problem was that it made a bid for freedom whilst I was only half awake after my first good night’s sleep for a couple of weeks, and I didn’t see where it landed…so I had to get down and look for it before I trod on it and squeezed the tiny amount of blood it contained out onto the carpet.

But after all that, for the first time in several weeks, I don’t get a stab of pain every time I turn my head or move my shirt collar.  I think the mole had realised that the imminent minor surgery to get it removed was going to end it anyway, and it decided to go on its own terms rather than waiting for the inevitable.

I call that a win.

Eastercon Trepidation

Eastercon makes me nervous. I’ve been to a couple of them now, and I always enjoy my time encapsulated in the fannish bubble universe… but that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous about my time there. What I’d like to do here is to write a little about my trepidations, partly to just get them out there, and partly to seek advice and maybe gain some pre-con connections to follow up on whilst I’m there.

My fannish & congoing history

By many measures, I started going to Eastercons fairly late in life. There were no university societies on my campus when I was a student. They were all on the main campus, and were basically unreachable without a car as the public transport curfew for a return journey was at about 8.30pm. On top of that, from what I’ve heard, the SF society was of the “three people in a bedroom talking about Pterry” variety. I found a couple of fellow geeks on my own campus, and managed to get to know a few of them, but we were muddling through and knew nothing of cons.

But I wasn’t devoid of fandom. I got to know a lot of lovely people through being actively involved in the Tad Williams Mailing List (which existed before the Shadowmarch site came about) and went to (and hosted) a few TadMoots. But those were small and ad-hoc internet meetups. Cons were still strange and mysterious things to me.

A bit later still, after some encouragement from one of the tadlisters and with the accompaniment of my then-partner-now-friend Linette, I bit the bullet and invaded the university next door. They had an SF society. By this point I was a postgrad, and outside of the usual student social structures, so that was a very good thing. But it leads on to my current situation…

The problem?

The problem with meeting most of your fannish and geeky contacts through a student society is that they’re generally of a fixed age bracket… it’s always people of student age – predominantly 18 to 21, with a few postgrads. There comes a time where staying too involved with that group starts feeling a bit creepy. Similarly, most of the student crowd disappear every few years. The result is that my social circle is losing people to attrition as they move away, but not gaining as many through new folks arriving.

Part of why I like the idea of Cons is that I get to socialise with a whole new crowd and maybe meet some new folks. The problem is that in a loud, busy social environment, I suck at these things. Just walking up to a random person and starting to talk to them feels like an imposition, and when random people come up to me and start talking, I get that “rabbit in headlights” feeling and my brain starts reciting a mantra of “AAAAAAGH! New people! Don’t fuck up! Don’t fuck up! DON’T GET IT WRONG!” that’s so loud and recurring that it drowns out the actual conversation and I end up rambling or babbling somehow. I am my own worst enemy.

The other problem?

The other problem isn’t really a problem, but it makes me a bit nervous all the same… I’m attending (and sharing a twin room) with a friend of mine who used to be my ex. We’re still close friends, but I’m keen to not be seen as a gestalt entity with her. Whilst I’m not going to the con with the intention of pulling (that would be crass), I’m slightly wary of us falling into old routines and basically spending the con as a two-person unit. But it’s also only her second Eastercon (and her first as a full 4 day attendee) and I want her to enjoy it too.

I’m hoping that the more crafty / creative crowd will take her under their wing and that she’ll enjoy herself as an attendee in her own right. She’ll be dealing with a bit of similar weirdness on that front, I suspect.

Social Props

One of my common social props is my camera, so that if talking isn’t happening (such as if I bottle it in a busy room) I can put a camera in front of my face and hide myself. Or, what I usually prefer it to be is a reason to start talking to people. But even the question “do you mind if I take a photo with you in it?” requires social interaction. I love being able to take good photos of people, but cameras also make people nervous and scare them off.

So, for any Eastercon folks who read this… if you see me with a camera, and you’d prefer I didn’t point it at you, feel free to talk to me and tell me so! The camera will still have served its function as a social prop in that instance. I know there are labels that can be put on folks badges, but those aren’t always visible, so accidents will happen. I’m happy to delete stuff, and being asked nicely to do so isn’t a problem.


I have previously done a bit of tech volunteering at Eastercon, but I’ve decided I’m not going to do that this year. Tech is always stressful, and I’ve backed away from all of my other tech commitments except for the comedy nights for exactly that reason. I’m keeping my technical hand in, but not doing much that’s new. I’ve toyed with other volunteering, but don’t really know what’s what… and want to avoid too much stress, so I’m probably going to give it a miss this time.

Next time I might put myself down to help with green room, gophering or some of the at-con publicity (newsletters, etc…) but I don’t really know what I’m doing with that kind of thing. If there was an active social network back-channel, I might be tempted to volunteer in some capacity that relates to that kind of thing.

Path of Least Resistance

As mentioned earlier, I’m a bit rubbish at actually talking to new people. Once I get started, I’m usually okay… but it’s getting started that’s the problem. I’m an introvert and I’m frequently quite shy (which isn’t the same thing).

For me, the path of least resistance is usually to go to programme items and be a passive listener. This is still good and enjoyable, but I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out on the real con experience. I’d prefer to get to know people as I do that, and to get to know a few more people who go to these things.

The Negative Bit

I’ve generally found my con experience to be a little disappointing. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed them, though. It’s more that I’ve generally had the feeling that those who turn up in a group or already knowing a bunch of folks enjoy them more. Being at a con where you already know more of the other attendees just seems to be more fun. The conventional wisdom is that you meet people socially outside the program items, and that the con experience then starts to become more about the people you meet.

In my experience, the outside-the-programme atmosphere has generally been fairly cliquey. Which is fine – that’s what happens when folks use the con to catch up with old friends. But it’s hard to do the “catching up with old Eastercon buddies” thing if you never manage to make them in the first place.

I’m forever told that a large part of the Eastercon vibe is to be found in the bars. That’s nice, but a) I can’t physically fit in the bars as they’re full of long established eastercon attendees catching up with their mates. If you don’t know anybody else in there, it’s a socially hostile environment and b) I barely drink these days, and a human being can only contain so much lemonade or fruit juice without unfortunate digestive disturbances.

In short, to spend time in a bar at Eastercon you need backup. Preferably experienced and established backup. Whilst my elder sibling probably counts as experienced backup, he’s also got two kids to look after and his own Eastercon social circle to catch up with.

I’ve enticed several people into attending in the past through IFIS, but bringing along folks I already know doesn’t help a great deal with finding new folks. I’ve steadfastly failed to actually make new connections at the event.

Online backchannel?

One of the things that helps me with this
kind of thing at professional tech conferences and barcamps is the use of an online backchannel. An offical hashtag and a means to burble to strangers over the web from inside program items is a great help – it means you can start talking to people before the difficult face-to-face meetup. There seem to be some moves towards this kind of thing this time around, which is good.

The official hashtag seems to be #eastercon, by the way, and I’m on twitter as @the_eggwhite.

Hopefully I’ll get to chat to a few folks this time around and be a bit more sociable. If you’re in the same boat, feel free to ping me. Hopefully we’ll be able to fit in some kind of “tweetup” over the weekend, if there’s not one already scheduled. I’d suggest an impromptu one each day, rather than just one… then we can get the day visitors and folks who were busy as well.

Community Content is POO

I beg your pardon?

In some circles, the title of this post alone would be enough to get me thrown under a bus… and not for the language. I’d be hauled over the coals for the very fact that I’ve dared to besmirch the great god “Content”. But if folks are preparing to throw me under a bus, then at least they’re paying attention… so hopefully I’ll be able to get them to read what I mean by that statement first. It may not save the world’s ears from the horrible crunching sound as the bus casually rolls over me, but at least I stand a chance of getting the message out. So what actually is the message?

Community Content is essentially “Community Poo”…

…But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Poo is a sign of life (It really is! it’s technically one of the seven or eight acknowledged indicators of life), and finding it somewhere is a sign that life has been happening at that location. If it’s fresh, it’s a sign that it’s happened recently. It’s also good fertilizer, so it creates places that life (and activity) can thrive… but if you were to start declaring “poo is life!” you’d probably get a few funny looks and maybe a special jacket that does up at the back and makes you hug yourself all day long.

The same is true of community content. It’s good stuff, and it’s great evidence that a community has been active, but it’s not the community itself. A set of diverse forum threads with loads of posts in are not a community, but they are evidence that a community has passed that way. “Community content” is the trail of droppings that gets left behind by the real community, which is happening up at the front where the interaction is happening.

If you want to help keep a community healthy, it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on the community poo, but it’s not *all there is*. Not by a long shot. Despite what Gillian McKeith might tell you. You should look at the ebb and flow of the community and look at the people that come together to form it. You should listen to what they say and how they choose to behave, not just at what poo they leave behind.

So what should we be focussing on?

If you want to keep a community healthy, it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on the stuff that produces the poo. That’ll generally be the users. You want them to keep pooing, becuase if they’re not, it’s a sign that they’ve either left or died… neither of which is exactly promising for the longevity of your community. But don’t get hung up on preserving every bit of poo for the rest of eternity. Particularly memorable community poo will preserve itself – it will live on in the memories of the *people* who make up the community.

What are you getting at? What’s the point of this post?

If I really have to spell it out for you, the point of this post is that businesses should stop fixating on the community content and instead focus on the engines that generate it. Keeping the community alive and healthy so it can produce more community poo is far more important than lovingly and painstakingly preserving all the community poo that was ever produced.

All you lovely readers out there? Wherever you lot converse and discuss things, you create community. The stuff you leave behind when you move on? The content – the forum posts, tweets, status updates, blog posts and comments and all that stuff? That’s community poo. It’s the leftover sign of community interaction having happened. It’s fertile and creating it is good and healthy, but if you’re fixating on it too much then you’re doing it wrong.

Don’t look a pile of poo and call it a nice meal. Don’t look at a heap of forum posts and call it a community. In either case, you’re looking at what’s left over after the best bit’s happened!

Geek Strolls – It needs to exist

The loneliness of the short-distance ambler

For various reasons, I try to get out and go for a reasonable number of walks around the place. I like going for strolls, and they’re good for me, but I find that after a while I can exhaust the local area’s supply of relatively interesting walks. I’ve found that two things help solve this problem – photography and company. But the number of people I know who are interested in going for a leisurely stroll is quite small. Similarly, my social circle has shrunk a bit in recent years for a variety of reasons. So whilst I was out walking in St. James’s Park over lunch, an idea occurred to me: A simple web / phone app to match up people, location and (potentially) interests for short strolls at lunchtime or early evening. With a focus on geeky interests there’s a chance of keeping the strolling pool to likeminded people who may have some conversation topics.

The idea would be to promote the idea of people meeting up with groups of other people in their area to go for strolls and share some good conversation. That’s all.

Ambulatory geek socials

Strolling groups could easily form around common interests, around planned discussion themes or purely based on location. This is online social discovery of offline social light exercise and company, with the idea that meeting in ad-hoc groups for some gentle outdoor exercise is a good way to explore your area a bit and get in touch with your surroundings as well as meeting new folks.

Rather than the traditional “all go to a pub and eat and drink your way through a chat”, the idea here is to meet at a park gate at lunchtime (or after work) and just walk, talk and maybe take a few photos and fire them at the net. It would encourage people to explore their local areas a bit more, and to meet up with people in an area that they might not otherwise meet who have a connection to the same places.

With integration with a whole bunch of other social tools, you could build up ad-hoc lunchtime walks that end up spawning new social ties between people who work or live in an area, and also help those people to explore their surroundings.

Meet the local community

You might not be around your usual stomping ground, and want some good conversational company for a walk. Sure, the people you meet via a webapp could limit your conversational options to geekier topics… hence the Geek Strolls name, but the geek church is pretty broad! You’ve got the developers and UX people. You’ve got the SF fans, the knitting junkies, the console gamers. You’ve got the roleplayers, the boardgamers and the electronic hackers. Throw in a few amateur theatre folks and a woodworker, then mix in somebody with local knowledge who’s found an interesting spot to walk through and you’re golden.

The problem

I’m a frontend and UX guy. I probably _could_ build something to make this happen, but it wouldn’t exactly be elegant and well written. I could probably make it pretty, and I could probably streamline the interactions and make it slick and usable to a good cross section of users, but somebody else would need to actually code the little bugger up and make it work.

How could you help?

Does the idea sound like a good one, and one that you’d be interested in using? Are you a developer who can knock together something like this? Grand! Go right ahead. I’ll certainly use the tool when it exists, and would be happy to be a test audience, testbed user and (time permitting) UX guy. Maybe even to do some UI work for it.

Basically, I want this app. I want it for a desktop PC (where I can manually specify my location) and for my android phone (where I’d like to be able to manually specify OR use GPS). So there.

The trouble with online identity

I think that most people who design and work with online communities have, by now, learned that identity is an important issue. I’ve certainly been harping on about it for years, and have repeatedly found that it’s a tough nut to crack. People say that they get it, and that they realise that it’s important, but then they’ve repeatedly shown that they didn’t get it.

Now, I don’t know if this is normal behaviour or not, but when people repeatedly don’t get what I’m saying, I find it frustrating. I’ll keep digging around until I find out why they don’t get it, and I’ll keep trying to improve my mental model of the problem until I can find new ways to express it. After all, a clear and understandable expression of the problem is vital if you want to get past the blocks that are in the way.

Every now and then, getting past the blocks makes me realise a gap in my own thinking, and a lot of the time it comes down to language. I don’t mean that I’m writing in english and you’re reading in french (although you might be – I wouldn’t know!), but that the word identity comes with too many meanings. Particularly when you’re a fuzzy, imprecise UX guy talking to rigid, precise developers. Thankfully, having a fair bit of fairly arcane coding in my background (fast fourier transform code and neural networks – particularly Kohonen SOMs) I am often able to speak enough developer to get by.

It was stepping back from working on online communities to work on our product that brought me to something of a realisation about how I’d been communicating something about communities. Or more accurately, how I hadn’t been communicating something.

I’d been banging on and on about how identity was important, meaning one thing. The folks I’d been working with had heard me banging on about identity being important, but hearing something entirely different. Identity meant different things to different people on the team, and that was muddying the waters – I was saying identity was important and that we needed to focus on it more, and they kept going off and focussing on the wrong thing. What they were focussing on was what I’m going to call the system identity, whereas I was talking about what I’m going to call the self identity.

But what’s the difference?

To the developers, the purpose of identity was separation and identification of individuals. It was a means to say “this person in this system is the same as this person in that system”. A way to reliably tell who a person is, and to match up that person in one systerm with themselves in another. It’s how the software tells one user from another and can tell who people are. I’ve taken to calling this one the system identity.

To the social and community folks and the front end users, that’s not what identity means. To those people, “identity” is how each user expresses themselves. It’s a means to say “this is who I am, this is what I do and this is what matters to me”. It’s a way to express what it means to be who you are. I’ve taken to calling this one self identity.

So, using this terminology, you can make it clear what kind of identity you’re referring to.

System Identity is knowing that the UserID 1138 is Jed (and only Jed) and user 1149 is Bob (and only Bob). It’s how the system differentiates you as an individual from other individuals. It’s used by the system itself to differentiate users and associate them with other things.

Self Identity is Bob’s profile letting people know that he can help them file their TPS reports on time and that he likes skiiing. It’s also Joe’s profile letting people know that he likes muffins, playing squash and going out for drinks on friday nights. It’s an expression of what being Jed or Bob actually means.

Both are valid uses of the word identity, and both are extremely relevant in social or community software. You need a strong model for both forms of identity if you want your online community to thrive and be successful. You need to be able to reliably tell users apart behind the scenes, but you also need to allow users to differentiate themselves and present themselves in a manner of their choosing at the frontend.

You must be able to clearly distinguish users at the backend through their system-identity, but you also need to let users distinguish themselves from each other in the frontend through the way they choose to express themselves and present themselves. This latter method of distinction relies on the self-identity. It might be through personalised avatars and signatures, or it might be through and expressive username.

In a real world analogy, the system ID would be the passport or ID card. It’s an official document that states who you are. It’s typically reliable and is useful for proving who you are, but generally says little about you as a person.

In the same real world analogy, the self ID would be your skills, your personality, your fashion sense, your taste, your interests & your hobbies. It says a lot about you as a person, but doesn’t necessarily serve as a unique identifier.

One says “I am unique individual 1138. Nobody else is unique individual 1138. I am only unique individual 1138.”

The other says “I am bob, I like beer and fishing. My tastes are these and you should read what I say because…”

For an online community (or social network) to work, you need to understand both of these and have an appropriate approach to dealing with them. You need to be able to reliably differentiate between individuals, and those individuals need to be able to reliably express why you should care what they say.

Speak Out With Your Geek Out – SF/F

Today’s “Speak Out With Your Geek Out” post covers the fairly broad topic of written Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Yes, I’m a fan of that kind of thing. I even go to conventions.

I can’t pinpoint when I first really got into SF. It’s kind of been there my whole life. I don’t have many memories of my really early years, but one that I do have is playing on a really cool slide for a long time. It was just me and my mum there, and my dad and my brother were elsewhere. It turned out that elsewhere was in a cinema watching Star Wars: A New Hope. I think we were on Jersey at the time, but I wouldn’t like to bank on it

Despite not having seen the film, I recall that moment quite well – as well as attempting to draw pictures from a film I’d never seen. I’m not sure when I actually got to see it, but it was probably quite a lot later. But I think from then on, if not from earlier still, I was hooked.

As a kid, if it was space related, I was probably interested. If it was science fiction or fantasy related and on TV, I’d want to watch it – cartoons, kids tv drama, films… you name it. I was the same with books, too. I gradually ploughed through my dad’s collection of classic SF (by which I mean things like Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Larry Niven – that kind of thing), and through some of my brothers. I also started gradually acquiring my own, aided greatly by semi-regular visits to Hay-on-wye to stock up on second hand books. Libraries helped too, as did the Invicta second-hand bookshop in Newbury. There was never a shortage of old SF in there.

Along the way I strayed over into Fantasy, too. I dabbled with Horror occasionally, but only found myself appreciating it when it was paired with science fiction or fantasy. My tastes in genre have stayed largely that way every since… although I’ve largely drifted away from Military SF and towards more big idea, tight story SF.

Similarly my tastes in Fantasy have changed over the years, too. I used to read the odd bit of it here and there, but it was David Gemmel that made me sit up and take note. It was the first fantasy that I read which was gritty without being bleak or dull, and which did a good job of keeping pace without getting to repetitive. I still read a lot of other fantasy, but it was the odd bit here or there – when there was anew David Gemmel or a new David Eddings.

So now I was reading mostly SF, with the odd bit of Fantasy… and I thought that was how stuff would stay. But one of the “odd bits of fantasy” that I read was a little book (hah!) called “The Dragonbone Chair”, by Tad Williams. That was a gamechanger for me. It’s still right up there in my “favourite books” list, although I’ve not read it for many years. Last time I tried it was still too familiar after too many reads. When I say “too many reads”, I mean that I’m on my third copy of the book after the first two fell apart through a combination of ill treatment (reading in the rain, anybody?) and just plain overuse!

For a while after that, epic fantasy started to come out of the woodwork. Robin Hobb appeared on the scene with the Farseer Trilogy and the Liveship Traders – which I also devoured with a passion. Authors like K J Parker soon joined the mix with “Colours in the Steel”, starting a steady stream of protagonists who turn out to have moments that could be seen as… less than heroic.

Then came George R R Martin. Of course, these days he’s big news because of the TV adaptation, but reading the first book of “A Song of Ice and Fire” was like a gale of fresh air… blowing the airborne corpse of a previous victim straight into your face. Suffice to say that certain developments at the end of “A Game of Thrones” were somewhat unexpected – as viewers of the TV adaptation discovered in Episode 9.

But I digress. I should actually be summing up by now. So, to conclude:

I like losing myself in a good book, and the really good ones will be shoved into the hands of all and sundry. When it comes to written SF, I seem to be quite effective as a memetic infection vector. If I like a book, I’ll identify others who I think will like it too, and won’t shut up until they’ve read it too.

In recent months, for various reasons, I lost the ability to read books for a while. I won’t go into the details, but reading is such a big part of my life that it was pretty horrific to lose the ability. I could read the words, but I couldn’t make them stick. I had many other symptoms, some of them quite unpleasant, but not being able to read and enjoy a book was the killer. I went about five months without reading a single book, and a couple of months before and after where I was scraping through maybe a small book a month.

I’m still a long way from being back to my old reading pace, but I’m getting there. It took me about four weeks to read George R R Martin’s “A Clash of Kings”. About a week later I’m about three quarters of the way through “A Storm of Swords”, and I’ve read a couple of graphic novels in between.

I reckon in a few weeks I’ll have caught up with A Song of Ice and Fire and will be back to my old reading pace. When I’ve managed that, I have a backlog of books to read, and an SF reading group to rejoin.

I’m rather looking forward to it.

Speak Out With Your Geek Out – LARP

In my previous post I got one of the more socially acceptable topics out of the way… so now it’s time for the full in the face, double barrel shotgun of geek:
Live Action Role-Playing, aka. Live Roleplaying, aka. LARP, aka. LRP, aka. Freeforming, aka. Freeform Interactive Theatre, aka. Cross Country Pantomime.

You might think I’m joking, but all of the above are names I’ve heard applied to the hobby.

Yes, on occasion I dress in silly costumes and run around being an idiot with weaponry. Yes, I am an adult. Yes, I have social skills. Yes, I can pass for a normal human being if I really chose to do so. I’d rather pass for somebody who’s prepared to do something a bit daft in the name of fun, though.

But it gets worse. I’m one of the secret elite – I don’t just play these strange costumed games, but I actually organise and run them too.
(note: not actually very secret, nor particularly elite)

I put time and effort into creating coherent settings and plots, then adjusting them to remain fun as the players go out of their way to do things I hadn’t expected or planned for. I have to think on my feet to react to their sudden and inexplicable plans. I have to try to keep pace and atmosphere whilst trying to work out what’s going to happen next after the players came up with a plan that’s so out of left field that it may well have started on another planet.

It’s a lot of work, coming up with a game that makes sense and where the players get to go through an emotional rollercoaster because of half imagined things that are going on around them. But it’s worth it. It’s a deep, engaging and frequently exhausting hobby – both physically and emotionally.

I get a kick out of it because, when I’m running games I have to stay one step ahead of the players to keep things entertaining and exciting… but it’s at it’s most rewarding when they get themselves one step ahead of me. It’s at those moments that I know the game has taken on a life of it’s own and the player are running with it. It’s then that I know they’re really into it, and I can feed off their enthusism… putting it back into the game to build in more barriers for them to break down before bringing the story to a fulfilling conclusion.

I get a kick out of seeing everyone involved get invested in the game. The way that people’s characters grow and gain stories that can be told again and again as the years go by. I like the way that even when a particular game was years ago, the stories can carry on and grow in the telling, becoming modern epics in the world of LARP. Those stories can be told by people who’ve never met the people involved, spread by word of mouth across campfires, whispered from vampire to vampire in a gothic mansion or spoken of in hushed tones in the foxholes of the forgotten battlefields of the 41st milennium.

It’s a hobby that makes people think on their feet, and it makes people look at things from different perspectives. You can throw people into experiences they’d never meet in real life and, between everyone involved, build a story around it that they’ll remember for years. It’s also a hobby that, no matter how into it you get, you can never entirely take it too seriously. When it boils down to it, it’s fun – and it doesn’t take much at all to remind you of that, even when you just saw two of your friends cut down by an orc with an outrageous accent and green “skin” that’ll refuse to fully wash out of their hairline for days to come.

If you think this kind of thing is something people should keep quiet about and hide away from their employers, then I’ve got a suggestion for you: Quit whining, paint yourself green, dress yourself lie a mad-max reject, pick up a foam axe, a NERF gun and an atrocious accent and stop taking everything so damned seriously. Enjoy yourself whilst running around like a loon in the company of others. If that’s not your bag, how about putting on a regency dress (or doublet and hose) and spending a weekend drinking tea and gin whilst the lower classes outside your pavillion beat the crap out of each other for your pleasure. Cheer on your favourite ne’er do well if such things appeal to you.

Either way, there’s several thousand people in the UK alone having a great laugh doing this kind of thing. Why not give it a shot?

This is the second of my “Speak Out With Your Geek Out” posts. There will be more to come over the next few days.

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