Carpe diem: Travels without my phone

swimmingly

I had my phone snatched out of my hand on Monday morning as I was wandering along listening to some tunes and texting. To be absolutely fair, I have scalded my left hand (the hand I would normally text with) and it was mega cold, so I was holding the phone awkwardly in the wrong hand, numbly and higher than usual. Plus, I was completely distracted as I composed IMHO, a very funny text, the very thought of which was making me laugh out loud with my head thrown back. So, when a hand reached out and took the phone out of mine, I did not see that coming.

As my phone zoomed off the pavement and turned right at the traffic lights on the back of a moped in that very warm hand which had briefly touched mine, my first response was to phone someone to say I had been robbed. When, I realised I couldn’t, I felt its loss. And, for the following couple of days, anytime I reached for my phone, I was right back there in that moment, feeling the loss, like it was a new emotion, and feeling disconnected.

Here on this blog, I have written literally thousands of words thinking about social media, security and oversharing, being intimate online, being in the present moment or being elsewhere. I have even spent time offline and removed all my social media apps from my phone in order to see what difference it would make. Do I need to be online? Do I need to blog? Do I need to follow people?

Do I need social media?

The truth is no I don’t. I don’t need social media, I don’t need to respond to emails the minute they come in, I don’t even need to have a phone, the last couple of days have shown me that. I had no phone and nothing major happened and even if it had, people could have still reached me without a phone on my person. I would still show up if you asked me to, I don’t need a phone for that.

However, I love social media, I love email, I love having a phone because it augments me and the easiest way to augment a human is by connecting that human to another human who has the specific skill set that human needs. I am not in need of any skillset in particular, I just really enjoy walking about knowing that I can reach out to my favourite people with the touch of a button. I also really enjoy walking about listening to music, as if I have my own soundtrack to my life. Even the other day when I was seemingly inattentive to the moment in the street long enough to lose my phone, I was in an augmented moment on that street, in which life was enhanced and expanding – listening to music and laughing out loud whilst you chat to someone cool. What could be more present than that?

Little sips add up to a cool drink of water

So, I disagree with Sherry Turkle more than ever when she says that social media is taking us to places we don’t want to go. I would disagree, it is reflecting us – all those cat pictures, and memes. All those lovely thoughts. We can also have proper conversations on Twitter, those little sips, as Turkle calls them, definitely add up to a long cool drink of water.

But, there is a lot of negativity online, you might say to me. And I wouldn’t disagree. It is, however, all a question of who you connect with, and how you want to spend your precious energy: Who refreshes you and who wears you out? It is the same question to ask yourself on or offline.  And, when you get caught out and have to spend time in a meaningless mean spirited interaction, whip out your phone and transport yourself elsewhere. Or if you are online, click away, don’t get poked or prodded if your needs are not being met.

We are apparently the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. Personally, I am an extremely lucky girl. So, if someone does come along again and take my phone off me, I will be ok, I am the average of some incredibly lovely people.

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Semiotics: Finding meaning in storytelling

Pic showing sign saying warning this is a sign

We like patterns and signs to reduce complexity into something more manageable, and then we like to construct stories to explain how people and the world around us work because we like to feel that we know what we are doing, like we have some control over how the world works, so that we can say that everything is ok.

But in order to find meaning, we create meaning and when it feels right to us, then we say that it is so and we interpret signs, logic and symbols in that way. However, semiotics is not the study of what meaning is, but the study of how meaning is created.

In her book Semiotics and Storytelling, Bronwen Martin says that it is not just signs which help us make meaning, but also the approach of the Paris School of Semiotics led by A J Greimas which is a complete way of understanding a text, and everything it has to offer us.

The four principles

Meaning comes from the universe. So, there is no meaning without difference. There is no light without darkness, and the world only takes on shape with contrast. There are four principles which facilitate our understanding in any given text:

  1. Meaning is constructed by the reader. In the same way as the no function in structure principle. When someone comes across an artefact without instructions, then they will find a completely new purpose for it, depending on what they need it to do.
  2. Text is complete within itself and meaning comes from its structure and language rather than the ideas it contains.
  3. Story structure underlies all human communication. It seems that archetypal story patterns are hard wired in our psyche so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to these patterns are the most likely to be believed as truth – they resonate. In order to be human, we must have a goal or quest, and from there, we have our experiences which we try and understand and make sense of (as the study of phenomenology: the study of the structure of experience, does).
  4. There are three levels of meaning in a text: the narrative level which contains the story-structure; the figurative level, which looks at time place and character; and the deep level or thematic level which links to our inner mental world with its concepts of good and evil.

The narrative level

Any narrative is a change of state or movement from one opposite to another: From life to death, or from conflict to harmony. It can be sudden or progressive where the hesitation has us on tenderhooks and we feel that it may still be possible not to complete the transformation, and that there could be an alternative ending. If a story is long, then it may have multiple transformations which are known as episodes.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp defined 31 story functions and seven character functions which A J Greimas reduced to six actantial roles: sender- object-receiver, helper-subject-opponent which he then put onto three axes of human action: desire, power and communication:

  1. The axis of desire: Any quest is motivated by a lack – of love, knowledge, truth – which leads to doing, transformation.
  2. The axis of power: A story may contain two subjects who quests are in opposition, they could be pursuing the same goal, or one subject takes the other as its object like a stalker.
  3. The axis of communication: The sender is the motivator for the quest and when the receiver receives the information, they are ready for the quest to begin and the action begins too.

Then, there is the canonical narrative schema (or global narrative programme of the quest) which has the sender and receiver negotiate (a) the initial contract to set up the quest which is then followed by (b) the competence stage when the subject (receiver) has the ability to carry out the quest, and (c) the performance stage when the actual event happens. Finally (d) sanction is where the outcome of the event is revealed and interpreted.

The story of any individual in a narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator. Often the confrontation of subjects results in the transfer of an object of value from one subject to another by test or conflict, or by a gift, or exchange.

Sometimes the narrative is interrupted by an active force or persuasion which causes a new quest and narrative to begin and leads us into a new direction.

The figurative level

The figurative level describes and creates our sense of time, place, and character, with descriptions which use our five senses. This level is important in storytelling and is also used in news stories to quickly set the scene and anchor it in our reality.

At this level we are looking for lexical fields or figurative isotopies. So, house, shop, car, factory belong to the isotopy of the city, whereas wind, rain, sun belong to the isotopy of the cosmic. We look for those relating to time and space and those which repeat themselves.

Then we look for differences: high and low, light and dark, to gain sense and meaning, and which link us to the thematic or deep level.

The deep level

The deep level concerns our inner world, our thoughts, and once we know where transformations occur and what is at stake then we can figure out what that means to us.

Then, it is time to ask: Where do the values come from? Martha Beck says that she was surprised when collecting folktales in China as they were never about falling in love, they were always about getting rich. So, in any story, we need to ask: What tradition are the values linked to? And does a story strengthen or challenge the status quo? Does it echo dominant cultural beliefs?

There are so many myths, so much resonance of stars as souls, a desire to return to an original unity, songs as a yearning for beauty and the sacred, we often don’t recognise them explicitly.

But, then if there are gaps or ambiguities in a text, does this allows us to fill them with our cultural heritage and assumptions? Does this render a text more universal? Or more truthful?

After all what is truth? Is the narrator truthful? Is the point of view true? Semiotics is concerned with the feeling of truth because it is the only measure of truth which human kind has been able to devise, no matter how far we think we have come.

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Moments in modern technology

Final cover from film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

If I like a moment, I mean me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera, I just wanna stay in it.

– Sean O’Connell, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

In The power of now, Eckart Tolle says that in any given moment we have three options: remove ourselves from it, change it, or accept it totally.

Sometimes though the present moment is just too much for us, so we do what we can to overcome it. Tolle says that this is an insane way to live, because the present moment is all we have, which is all good and well for Tolle. He gained enlightenment on a park bench in Russell Square and has been euphoric ever since. Whereas the rest of us, for better or for worse, have to rely on modern technology to get a semblance of that same euphoria, which is where things become tricky. Often, technology owns us, instead of the other way round.

Capturing a moment

With our phones, we can capture and share any moment we ever experience. And, if we feel unable to live fully in a given moment, then we can always postpone it and then experience it later. Sometimes, we don’t always want to though. When my daughter was born with kidney failure, I kept a blog for the first two years of her life, because I couldn’t bear talking about it on the telephone to anyone. I read it the other day for the first time in ages and really didn’t enjoy remembering all the moments my memory has tidied away.

But, even when a moment is brilliant and we recognise its importance, we can risk not experiencing it at all, because we are trying to so hard to capture it. This is when we step back, hold up our phone, and miss it. A while ago, I wondered about how different my round-the-world-year would be if I were to experience now. I would be travelling with my phone, recording everything and uploading it. Would I really be experiencing it? And afterwards, could I relive what I didn’t experience? Or, would I retroactively experience something else altogether depending on how I curated all those captured moments online?

In À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust revisits his life to find meaning, and explores what he calls involuntary memory. Eating his infamous madeleine, the taste of which evokes his childhood, Proust slips out of the present and into the past. And, then of course the act of writing and musing on his past in order to find meaning in it, creates a new moment: the combination of the present moment of writing and the past moment which exists in memoir only – a simulacrum of the two moments which created it.

Imagine if he had had a whole Internet full of his memories to write his memoir from. And, what happens to us now when we can record every single thing we ever do, and what gets said and done to us?

Feeding the need

There are at least a dozen times a day when we are needled, when our needs are not met, and our bodies immediately react with the flight or fight response. Imagine being able to record and remember every single needle, every single moment when we felt a lack? Joe Dispenza says in Breaking the habit of being yourself that we will try to run from any emotion which is painful, because to look at it is too uncomfortable. Amazingly, we can run away very easily with modern technology. We can alter our internal chemistry by laughing at a YouTube video, becoming fearful with the latest news on our social media feeds, or get into an angry or exciting Twitter conversation. The possibilities are endless and so our unwanted feelings seem to go away by these distractions. But, then we rely on these distractions – outside of us – so that we can feel better over and over again. And, often we are distracted by the angriest people who shout the loudest on social media, and who don’t make us feel better about ourselves or what is going on in the world.

Occasionally, though we have a breakthrough and experience catharsis, an emotional release, by living someone else’s story. Ultimately, this is why we love a good movie, a book, a meme. We find relief in someone else’s experience because it connects us to them, and also back to ourselves. We mirror each other.

Immersion

When we get immersed in a book, or online in a game, we get a new point of reference, and we use the world in the book or game as starting point, which frees us from ourselves. Normally, we are embodied, that is, we experience the world through our bodies and limited senses and then our brain interprets the experience in light of our past experiences. We pattern match any new experience to a similarly bad or good one that we have had before, and behave in a way that makes this new experience fit its predecessors. We never have a raw experience. But, in virtual reality therapy and in gaming, we can escape our embodiment and adapt to a new world, which potentially opens us up to raw experiences.

Research shows that computer games light up the part of the brain responsible for motivation and learning, and so games are being developed to help people with depression or who have suffered trauma, to train their brains to leave behind their thought patterns and develop new ones. Gamers can literally learn to lose themselves.

In the Gap

In his TED talk, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies that those people who are the most satisfied with their lives regularly engage in activities in which they lose themselves to bring about a state of flow.

In the language of meditation this flow is known as the gap, which is where our unbounded consciousness – the space between our thoughts and ego – lie. It is there where we find our pure potential and infinite possibility. Meditation guru davidji says we have all experienced the gap during those times we have dazzled someone in conversation, that moment when the roller coaster drops us into free fall, or when we lose ourselves in the one we love.

I find meditation incredibly difficult, but gaming less so, and it is with excitement I view the possibilities of technology to teach us how to truly connect to a moment in the right way. And this is why I used The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) at the beginning of the blog. It got mixed reviews on its release but I love this film. For me, it is a gentle celebration of living in the present moment and connecting with who you are.

Walter Mitty lives a grey life as a negatives manager at photo magazine whilst in his head he lives out the most colourful fantasies, until the day his job is threatened and he is forced to engage with life instead. The film’s colour palette saturates, causing Mitty’s grey life to become as colourful as his fantasies because he has opened himself up to the present moment and all it has to offer.

And, this cinematic devices captures perfectly what happens when you tune into your own life in the gap or follow your bliss as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it. Mitty also gets the girl, because instead of just imagining, sometimes hilariously, himself in relationship with her, he learns to stays present in his own life long enough to discover the magic of being all of himself, which is what life coach Martha Beck identifies as the key: Being loved is all about loving yourself. And, being fully present in a moment, paradoxically, is about letting go and losing yourself in it, whether you are holding your phone or not.

I have always believed that technology augments us, and social media reflects us, so it makes perfect sense that the digital landscape has the potential to teach us how to be more ourselves, more human, in every moment of our lives. Perhaps technology doesn’t own us after all.

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Storytelling: Intimacy, privacy and social media

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Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of … self-development.  – Julie E. Cohen

This is me and my girls on Newsnight two years ago. I hustled us across the road to avoid being captured on film. I didn’t know if the camera was on, or why it was there, but removed us as quickly as possible from its viewpoint. The cameraman didn’t bother to find out how I felt and footage of us was used that night during a report on child abuse. I only got to know about it because a few people asked me why I was on Newsnight.

According to UK media law, the cameraman owns that footage so he can do what he likes with it but the idea of being filmed without my consent, with my children, and played on national television filled me with inexplicable dread and anxiety. But, it also gave me an insight into how people feel when they have no control over how they are presented online in a digital culture where honesty, privacy and sensitivity are alas, still being defined.

Last week Ken Bone, a power plant worker asked a question during the second presidential debate and was turned into an Internet star. He was discussed and tweeted ad infinitum, with comments about his dress, his weight, his opinions and every last thing he has ever done online has been dug up and used either to promote or discredit him.

Similarly, there are those memes of Jennifer Aniston on the announcement of  the Brangalina divorce. Apparently, this is people having fun with her Friend’s character. And, it is tame compared to the things discussed in an excellent but horrific article in the Atlantic: outline abuse, rape footage, and moments which have been taken out of an intimate consensual context, turned into porn, and put online. The slut-shaming (a term which is gender specific and has no male equivalent) comes later.

And then, there is catfishing. People create fake identities for the sole purpose of become romantically involved with people they target online, specifically so that they can record and release private conversation and other intimate moments for their own gain, be it fame or fortune. Recently it was Coronation Star Shayne Ward. Last year, it was sister wife Meri Brown. These two celebrities are in the public eye and hopefully have a lot of support. But what about private individuals? Sadly, the linked Atlantic article describes one young lady for whom life became so unbearable, she ended it. She was 14-years old.

As author Jonathan Franzen put it in the Guardian last year, the Internet is a protection racket and lives get destroyed: Who wants to feed that machine? Plenty of people do, as it turns out.

Contrived perfection made to get attention

Last year after Essena O’Neill, an Australian teenager, quit Instagram saying it was contrived, the Guardian ran an article about young women on Instagram. These girls take lots of pictures to present the most attractive versions of their lives. Some make money, others just do it to impress their friends/followers.

Harpers Bazaar reports that brands spend more than a $1 billion per year on sponsored Instagram posts, particularly in fashion, in order to create moments which look real but, you know, also beautiful, perfect and not fake like in a magazine.

The silver bubble problem

And, it is not just fashion which gets a make over, depression has turned into beautiful suffering with memes and imagery, especially on forums like Tumblr, which encourages teenagers to ruminate in a like-minded group. This is known as the silver bubble problem. Teenagers search for things repeatedly and retrieve similar memes and articles to the ones they’ve already seen. Then they ruminate further instead of learning to judge if they are really depressed or just disappointed over some event in life at which point they need to learn strategies to manage their disappointment. As daviji puts it:

We all visit the land of pain and sadness, we just don’t need to live there.

Sadly, teenagers can be seduced into thinking that it is the place to be, because they are young and insecure and just want to belong somewhere.

Jennicam

Back in 1996 Jenni Ringley streamed her life whilst she was at College (University). This was during the days of dial-up with one grainy photograph uploaded every 15 seconds which viewers watched avidly as they assembled it into a story. In an interview with on the podcast Reply All in 2014, she explains how she was a typical 19 year old person: insecure and seeking approval. And yet, she lived so freely knowing that her mother was watching.

This was well before The Trueman Show (1998) and Big Brother (2000), MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), and Twitter (2006).  No one had done this before. The first time she kissed her boyfriend the site went down under the amount of hits it got.

Today anyone can stream themselves online from their phone using Periscope or Meerkat and instantly get a crowd. The two guys who interviewed Jenni tried it out and said that their followers were encouraging mayhem: Kick a dog, steal something, which left them both feeling anxious and overwhelmed. The followers were looking for drama and a story, and didn’t care who gave it. It was more like entertainment.

Actress Helena Bonham Carter has expressed her concern about young people who are sharing their whole lives on social media:

It reminds me of what it was like when I was very young and famous. It’s very difficult when you have no sense of self yet and now you’re reading about yourself. That’s what they’re inviting in: asking strangers to make opinions and judge them. It’s so vulnerable and precarious — and also meaningless.

The intimate digital space

Offline, in our normal day to day activities, we normally only share our lives and stories with our intimate circle of people around us – our strong links. And indeed, we know these people so well, we can predict what they will say about something. Occasionally, we share our stories with our consequential strangers – those people (weak links) we see regularly in the gym or at a cafe.  And rarely, we share private information with a complete stranger – like the stranger on the train – someone we won’t see again, but with whom we have an honest connection. Sometimes this can be empowering. These strangers complement our strong relationships by providing us with fresh advice and insights.

However, the main ingredient which encourages us to share a story is intimacy. And, intimacy, like self-development, only grows in a private space, such as a gym changing room where we are naked and vulnerable; or, a carriage compartment on a train: there is only you, me and the four walls. Heady secret stuff. But also important stuff, where we learn about ourselves and grow as humans. Historically, we have been limited in our chances of intimacy. But, nowadays we have our digital secret spaces. Where is there a more intimate place than the inside of our phones? Those late night taps into a tiny screen. There is no need to even whisper.

It is easy to lean in, to feel that special connection when your cute person in the instant and private messenging section of your favourite social media platform is telling you that they find you cute too. Be still my beating heart. You know exactly how they feel, you feel the same way… except you don’t, you don’t know how they feel, you might not even know what they look like, you don’t know them AT ALL. But because it is exciting and feels good, and seemingly intimate/private, it is too easy to think you do know them and get swept away into a story, a fantasy,which is mainly playing out inside your own head.

Connection is what gives our lives meaning, even those horrendous trolls who abuse are connecting in their own twisted way. We all want to be seen and heard. We all want to be loved and admired, but the Internet is not the private space we think it is. Privacy is a different place altogether. The Internet is a public place, even instant messenging, and most servers are public – no data is ever unreadable. The Internet is a place where people go for entertainment and distraction, whatever form that make take, and because we access it through a screen, it is only as real as we decide it to be.

We cannot ever know how our stories, our connections and lovely moments will be used. On the other hand, we don’t need to distrust absolutely everyone we meet neither. Connection is our life force.

We just need to be honest with ourselves. What is my intention by sending this cute message? How would I feel if it got plastered across the Internet? Could I tell my other half what I’m doing online?

And, if we can’t or don’t want to answer any of those questions, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it all.

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Gaming: Storytelling and ludology

Minecraft from playstation

Source: Playstation

Playing video games is, I am sorry to say, not my favourite pastime. My first attempt at playing was The Hobbit back in the 1980s on my brother’s Spectrum 48k and it frustrated me no end. Though, I did like playing PacMan a couple of years later, on a handheld device which only had Pacman on it. In the late 1990s I was introduced to MOOM – one of the first mass multiplayer online games – which I felt very excited to take part in it (I was asked by one of the creators) but alas, I didn’t really persevere because I didn’t have the patience.

Now when I play video games (and I get asked everyday) I last about 10 minutes because I hate learning all the rules to find out what to do. However, I love watching others, especially my girls, playing video games, because the games are fantastic entertainment. So, I understand completely how the likes of Stampy became so popular, and I love thinking about what gaming means. Apparently, this means that I like thinking about fun rather than having fun, sort of a theory of fun.

Storytelling

You know what kind of gamer I am? When we come to a cinematic, I jump it. I go ‘I’m not watching a movie’ – Guillermo Del Toro

Video games can be viewed in a context of storytelling, or narratology – the way we construct meaning from creating stories about the world around us. Games have cinematic effects, great plots, soundtracks and super cool music, as well as cut scenes which explain backstory, or give rewards to players, or move the story along.

I love cut scenes and enjoy watching whole movies of cut scenes like LEGO Lord of the Rings. But, film directors, Guillermo Del Toro and Steven Spielberg have criticised cutscenes saying that they interrupt the flow of the game, as they are non-interactive.

With or without cut scenes, video games have structure and tell a story to engage players emotionally which then motivates them to perform certain actions. Consequently, they have been analysed in the humanities as interactive storytelling or electronic literature which began before the WWW and focuses on readers interacting with stories to change the outcome of the narrative. Games can be played many times, and each time it is different. Narratives generally, unless they are our favourites, are read once, and don’t change each time we read them. We change though and our interpretations change too (which is a different though equally interesting phenomena to blog about).

Each experience in a game is different and we can be surprised and delighted with what happens next, like the time my girls went swimming in the Los Angeles River in Grand Theft Auto and were eaten by a shark.

Once dead, they could start that level again and follow another outcome not necessarily following the prescribed narrative, because they love unstructured play and often choose open world settings. This desire to play without structure is another area of gaming study, and has led to many video games set in real world simulations like Sims and Second Life.

Simulation and simulacra

In these virtual worlds, we can explore and make, we can all be designers, and we can have different experiences in order to fulfil our basic needs but we do it in an immersive environment. That is to say, we feel like we have left our world and are present in a simulated world. When we are so immersed, there are fewer blanks we need to fill in in order to make sense of that world. It feels normal to walk about The Shire, drive a car round LA, or ride a horse in Red Dead Redemption.

The stronger the narrative is and the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels.  And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not. So, we feel like we are stealing cars in Los Angeles or being a super hero in New York. And, often we interact with simulated humans in video games which are non-player behavioural algorithms that look like humans.

It was The Matrix which first got us all talking about algorithms which aren’t human as well as simulation and simulacra.  Simulation is a copy or version of something, say the real world, and simulacra is a version which does not have an original copy. For example, a digital file is not real until it is printed out, and music which is recorded in a studio one instrument at a time is not a performance and never has been. It is a simulacra of a performance.

Ludology

However, Professor of Humanistic Informatics, Espen Aarseth has contested the idea of describing video games as storytelling narratives simulated or not and proposed the term ludology because, after all in video games we, via our avatars, are normally action driven and want to win.

Ludology is the study of games. When playing a game, we need to: 1) learn the rules, 2) play the game, 3) win or lose. In terms of ludology, we play to win.

However, Aarseth proposed this back before the World of Warcraft (WOW) which was released back in 2004 and became one of the most popular most popular massively multiplayer online games with more than 10 million active subscribers worldwide. Apparently numbers have dropped. WOW allows gamers to play however they want by choosing which class you want to be in in the land of Azeroth and then the quests comes from that choice.

Minecraft too carries this idea further, released in 2009, it has been in development ever since and allows players to be and do whatever they want. Players can build extraordinary works of architecture, or live in villages and interact with villagers (non-player behavioural algorithms) who grunt instead of talking. It is an amazing construct, which is really popular.

In 2015, Minecraft released Minecraft: Story mode which is very much like an interactive novel, you can choose to be a girl or a boy, who with a small group of friends tries to win a building competition. Unlike the original Minecraft, it is a game of levels, cut scenes and branching conversations, and little in the way of exploration or creativity. The theory behind it seems to be that people who have an emotional attachment to Minecraft might enjoy experiencing a story in it. Rather like fan-fiction backwards, I guess.

Video games defy categorisation, just when we find a way of thinking about them, a new game comes along to challenge that. And video games remain the fastest growing form of entertainment sector, so it is hard to label constant change. One constant remains though, most gamers when asked tell you that they play for fun. There exists a theory of fun and its purpose is to allow game designers to change the face of game design even further by creating more fun. The theory of fun at its best.

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