Curious Games: Tools and Neutrality

adventures in gaming, curious games, Process Writing, research

This past Wednesday during the Curious Games Studio class, we talked about the neutrality (or rather lack thereof) of software and other tools that most people use on a daily basis. Most tools are designed with the expectation that they will be used to create some fairly specific output with some fairly specific methods. The example that we discussed in the most depth is PowerPoint, which encourages an element of performance to the presentation of information and gives users all the tools to create punchy, attractive slides that privilege design over content. Here’s Edward Tufte on PowerPoint – and of course we can do this kind of analysis for nearly any kind of software.

When asked about the software and other tools that I myself use on a daily basis for content creation and how it affects my process, I immediately thought about a relative newcomer in my array: the cellphone, and, more specifically, the Apple iPhone 4S. Having only gotten a cellphone what is now almost six months ago, I can directly trace what impact it has had on my work and on my life more generally.

Now, before December 2012, I had never owned a cellphone and barely had any contact with them – if I had to borrow a phone, it was limited to a few minutes to place an urgent call and that was about it. The iPhone 4S is my first cellphone ever, and it was fairly easy to get enamoured with. It’s also easy to trace how it’s affected my practice and my day to day interactions with people. I decided to get a cellphone because I was home a lot less, I was about to begin a job working with video games, I was under the impression that a lot of indie games are released on iOS (which is the case but most are now pretty quickly ported to Android, so the joke’s on me – but honestly having gone from no cellphone to a 4S, a lot of what my cellphone does still feels incredibly sophisticated to me) and that having a smart phone would be great for live-tweeting journalism.

It used to be that I would fill up the small notebook that I carry in my bag with me about once every three months, taking down appointments, phone numbers, ideas, for writing down what my friends and I wanted to order out, that sort of thing. I also had larger notebooks for taking notes in class and for writing out those ideas in their larger forms. (Oh, incidentally, in January 2013 I acquired my first ever laptop, meaning that in two months I jumped forward about a technological decade.) Now, I’ve had my present notebook since December and there’s barely anything filled in. I’ve begun to take notes on my phone and laptop.

It also used to be that I would spend any traveling time reading books, but now I’m more likely to fiddle with a game or check in on work that needs doing. I used to read about a book or two a week just on transit. Now I’m still stuck on Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood.

My iPhone also dictates, in some ways, what tools I will use on it – certain apps are free for Android but cost money on the iPhone, and vice versa, and since I’m a student, I don’t usually want to pay more than a dollar for an app that I may or may not end up using/liking/needing, etc. – and even then, the apps that I usually don’t mind paying for are things like critically-acclaimed indie games or…well, yeah, mainly those.

Having any cellphone at all has also changed the way that I communicate: it used to be that people could either call me at home and either reach me or leave a message or they could email me. I really liked the fact that if I was out and about, I was incommunicado, untethered and unlikely to be disturbed. Now, I can get called by work while I’m out at social events and of course I get way more text messages than phone calls.

In terms of productivity, my having a cellphone makes other people’s jobs easier – they can contact me when they need something and I can act right away, and they can contact me in real-time to see how the job is going. In terms of my personal productivity, what a terrible thing having a cellphone is! I’m not terrible about the whole obsessively checking my phone thing yet, but I have definitely played ‘Hanafuda’ more than I have read in the last six months, and I think that I can no longer really call Hanafuda “research.” I also waste time that should be spent writing checking things on social media and such, which was less the case when I was limited to my desktop.

On the other hand, and this is a bit of a sidebar, having a laptop has increased the speed at which and the number of places where I can write and accomplish other work. It permitted me to attend a conference the other weekend without any fear of missing important information and updates on my projects, and I am able to write much more quickly than with my pen and notebook since I type much faster than I handwrite.

So, in sum: having a cellphone has changed the way that I communicate and the kind of cellphone that I have has determined what products I use. It has made me more accessible to other people but has made my productivity decrease by quite a lot (I’m currently fighting to push the balance back in the other direction by simply taking the time to think about ideas while traveling instead of playing iPhone games). I do use it for work, having played games that I wanted to research on it, recently recorded an interview with Lynn Hughes and Bart Simon, live-tweeted talks and events, and done some writing/note-taking on it, but the ratio of work to time-wasting that I do with my cellphone is absolutely shameful. On the other hand, going mobile in other ways has had its advantages. I guess that as long as I can work on limiting my time-wasting activities, I’ll survive this personal technological revolution.