It's one of those gray Floridian days where you feel like just curling up with a book, here on my "working" vacation. [1] Today I got a bit of an earlier start than I might intend on such a gray day and have been working my way through Inside Straight, a Wild Cards mosaic novel. I got a paperback copy of the book out of LibraryThing's Early Review program [2], so I've got a review promised that you can expect to appear on this blog, but consider this a midway warmup to that review. I'm going to apply some of my thoughts on the novel to some of my recent ruminations about game and world design, so this post isn't exactly a review anyway.

I have a huge interest in shared worlds and Wild Cards is a shared world that I've spent a reasonable amount of time in. Wild Cards is a shared world series that is only a few years younger than I am and at this point encompasses 18 volumes, the shared effort of over a dozen writers and the steady editorship of George R. R. Martin, now perhaps better known for his high fantasy series. The basic premise is a world with super-powers (due to an alien virus referred to as the "wild card virus"). It's a (sometimes quite dark) funhouse mirror of our own history, but filled with heroes ("aces"), villains, a deformed under-class ("jokers"), plague deaths ("black queens"), assassinations and alien invasions.

The series has some of the seriousness in tone and literacy of the post-Watchmen era of comics, as if perhaps reading novelized excerpts from some post-modern comic canon. As much as it speaks of our own history, it possibly has more to say as what might pass for a broad comics continuity such as Marvel or DC's had one been established in the same time period with a copy of Watchmen in hand, smuggled back in time...

I think games have a lot to learn about world sharing, [3] and things like comics and Wild Cards probably have a lot more to teach than game designers may yet figure. Had Inside Straight crossed in front of my view prior to January's Round Table on designing games from literary sources, I probably would have used it or one of its predecessors. I'm still tempted to play with ideas for a "Wild Cards game" as a design exercise. [4]

I arrived at a good thesis on what and why this learning should happen, and realized it was a deep, dark undercurrent of the stuff I've been reading from the Round Table crowd (and Corvus Elrod himself has embedded into his definitions of game, story, and play), but is certainly my own personal take on the subject: All games are shared worlds. I'm thinking it may be the best elevator pitch for my beliefs and interests in gaming storytelling that I've yet come up with.

As with others, I'm more and more of the opinion that our culture's deep copyright-enforced moating of story worlds is no less than a very toxic mistake. The last few decades worth of corporate-backed copyright extensions have nearly lost us our senses of sharing in storytelling. The litigious bullies that fight to keep others out of their sandboxes and others from playing with their toys, serve only to pour salt on our cultures wounds. [5] Fan fiction isn't evil or bad and it certainly isn't a "lesser commodity" or "second-tier product"; it is nothing more or less than our cultural birthright to share each other's words and to share each other's worlds.

If there is a medium to ask us to requestion our cultural beliefs about the place and the presence of deeply, culturally, shared worlds it should and can be gaming. To some extent it already has; more and more it becomes obvious that players are as much partners in storytelling as a game's creators. Certainly some designers/writers for single player games are dragging their heels, but all they need to do is take a look at MMOs or some of the designers/writers that do get it.

Just imagine what might happen if Activision Blizzard were to decide to "enforce their copyright" and send cease and desist letters to World of Warcraft "fan fiction" writers? George Lucas certainly has had many cases of getting away with only minor scratches after such attacks from his legal dogs, but Activision Blizzard would attack the very sorts of "alpha players" that make WoW's community successful, and keep people paying the monthly payments. How long do you think it might take for a good portion of the player base to move on to their next MMO? We already have statistics confirming that entire guilds can and do move between MMOs due to the considerations of strong guild leaders.

But it's deeper than that, too. All games are shared worlds. Not just the basic sharing of the talking stick between designer/writer and player, but also the sharing between designer/writer and the physics programmer, the art director, the AI director, the pre-release hype community, and myriad other people and/or job hats, and then in turn that sharing further amplified by player interactions and media interactions/special features.

I think that gaming will truly come into its own in doing things that currently no other media is doing, or possibly can do, the moment it starts to not just casually allow the shared world culture of games, but to truly embrace it.

Skeptics in the "games as art" debate ask where is gaming's Charles Dickens or Orson Welles. I think gaming might be better off asking: where is gaming's George R. R. Martin? It's one thing to present neat worlds and give players sandboxes to explore. It's yet another thing to stitch those stories into a single self-contained tapestry that both defines what came before and sets up the prompt for the next iteration.

It certainly didn't come as a surprise that the original inspiration for Wild Cards, according to the Wikipedia, was a pen and paper RPG.

I've got a bunch of other words on the subject matter, but this many words into a post I'm feeling lazy and don't feel like highlighting specific examples. Hopefully the tags on this post should lead you to few past examples.

[1]As a currently self-employed misfit, any vacation with WiFi access and a handy laptop is a working vacation. For instance, this blog post is work of a sort. Exciting for me, and probably boring to just about anyone else, on Sunday I got it into my head to go ahead and transcribe a couple of documents into a very simple tab-delimited "animation script". In the subsequent work fuque I then wrote up a very simple Python script to convert from my animation script to a C# partial class that I'll plug in to my build when I get back home. I'm hoping that when I wire up the animation script that it will provide a neat attract mode/tutorial, and possibly also a good trial experience (should I self-publish to XBLCG with the timed trial requirement).
[2]Albeit this is a "late review" in that the book was released last year by Tor, but with a second novel just out and a third out soon they seem to be trying to re-promote the series. It certainly jumped out at me in the Early Review list.
[3]Which should probably be a recognizable recurring theme in my posts.
[4]Or at least maybe write some short fiction of my own in the setting...
[5]Yes, I'm talking about you George Lucas and Orson Scott Card, among so many, many others.