Tagged games

#RPGaDAY 1, 2 & 3: Catching up

There’s a lovely initiative during August (the month of GenCon, the big tabletop games convention in the US) to write about an RPG each day, according to a schedule of prompts. My schedule being what it is, I’ve not managed to get a start until day three, so I’m gonna play catch up. If you want to join in, check out the original #RPGaDAY intro from its instigator, David F. Chapman.

#RPGaDAY 1: First RPG Played

Without spoiling day two, I didn’t get to actually play an RPG until I got to university, where I’m pretty sure my first proper RPG experience was a game of Vampire: The Dark Ages, using the Mind’s Eye Theatre LARP rules. I wasn’t familiar with Vampire but my friends talked me through it. I was playing, suitably, a very young, newly Embraced (i.e. recently transformed) vampire, and I remember being offered shelter by a character who gave a few of us communion blood. I drank it, not knowing any better. I think I played a vampire of the Brujah clan, but since I only played the one session and was still learning the ropes that didn’t really matter. I recall it was exciting and new and it felt just like the World of Darkness books described it: a game of personal horror. I was a vampire and on a sort of adventure, but I was still cursed and lost and afraid in the night. It was great.

#RPGaDAY 2: First RPG Gamemastered

I started out as a GM, mainly because when I discovered roleplaying games in early high school, I didn’t know anyone else who was into them – or so I thought. I somehow found Dungeoneer!, aka Advanced Fighting Fantasy, an extension of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Fighting Fantasy books, like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, are like a cross between an RPG and a choose-you-own-adventure book and were hugely popular, but as far as I can remember I never owned any of them. And that was a bit weird – Advanced Fighting Fantasy more or less assumes you’ve played them, and builds on your knowledge of how they work. It’s pretty simple as RPGs go, but even after reading through it around twenty times and still wasn’t sure I understood how it worked. I managed to persuade my brother and a couple of his friends to play, but I don’t think their hearts were really in it and we didn’t get very far.

As I mentioned above, though, I only thought I didn’t know anyone else in RPGs. It turned out another high school friend owned a couple of very different games: the fourth edition of Champions, the Hero System superhero game from I.C.E., and the third edition box set of Paranoia, both of which ended up in my hands (and are still part of my collection). I loved both of these games, but it was Paranoia we eventually played, in a session that devolved rapidly into the players accusing each other of treason and mutation, and eventually throwing the dice at each other. (We were convinced the d20 left an upside down “18” on someone’s forehead, and tried to take a photo as evidence, but viewing it now – we’ve reconnected nearly twenty years later over Facebook – the evidence is disappointingly unclear.) It wasn’t a full campaign, arguably we barely got through a whole session, but it was so much fun! I never played with those guys again, but I knew roleplaying was gonna be one of my things.

#RPGaDAY 3: First RPG Purchased

I’m going to assume I didn’t buy Dungeoneer! for myself, and as explained above I kind of inherited/stole Champions and Paranoia. I played a lot of World of Darkness stuff at uni, and the student university library had a pretty great collection of all the second edition stuff, but then the revised editions started to come out in 1998 and it seemed like a good time to start an RPG library of my own. So I suspect – though I can’t be sure – that the first RPG I purchased was Vampire: the Masquerade Revised. There were lots of other games I was playing or buying to read (I have always read way more games than I’ve had a chance to play) around that time, but I think that was first.

Gamer culture(s): why I’m not at PAX Aus

This post is gonna get long. I’ve thought about this a lot, and now I’m putting my thoughts here for all to see. I’ve put some headings in; I hope anyone who reads it finds it helpful.

TL;DR – it’s not the panel, Mike’s comments or PAX Aus itself, but the larger culture surrounding Penny Arcade’s slice of the gamer community that’s the problem. I want games to be a mature artform, to join the broader arts culture and tackle issues of social justice and discrimination accordingly. I don’t see that happening at PAX Aus, and so I’m not participating. But Penny Arcade is not the only gamer culture, and I will foster more inclusive ones wherever I can.

What happened with PAX Aus?

I was going to be on two panels at the first ever PAX Aus event, a games and gamer culture expo run under the banner of web comic Penny Arcade. One I submitted myself, a chance for Pop Up Playground and some other interested parties to discuss the new kinds of games being made: pervasive games, urban games, street sports, the sort of stuff we make at PUP. Another I was asked to join, about taking role-playing games “beyond the tabletop”; I was going to talk about fusing RPGs with improvised comedy, something I do every month in Dungeon Crawl.

The full program of panels was released on June 19, a month before the show starts. Immediately there was controversy, mostly surrounding a single panel titled “Why So Serious?”, discussing whether critics and the media take games too seriously. The original description included the provocative sentence: “Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic and involve any antagonist race other than Anglo-Saxons and you’re a racist.” The description was cleaned up, and I’ve heard many of the panelists involved didn’t know that’s the angle it was taking.

There was fallout; there were responses. Some game blogs ran pieces in support of the panel’s original themes. The PAX Aus organisers stressed that panels were submitted by the community and not vetted; they apologised for any offence. But, for some, the damage was already done; after some serious discussion with all the participants in the panel, Pop Up Playground pulled our panel from PAX Aus. I and most of the other participants also pulled out of other panels we were in, too.

Mike Krahulik

A day after the release of the PAX Aus schedule, Mike Krahulik posted on Twitter about a videogame that teaches women how to masturbate; someone suggested it would be great if someone made such a game that also included women without vaginas, and he went on to say some pretty grade school things about what makes a woman a woman, and to tell anyone who uses the word “cis” that they needn’t speak to him. Again: fallout, response. Krahulik first apologised for being angry and antagonistic on Twitter, then posted extracts from emails he exchanged with a transgendered friend, and finally suggested he may not be equipped to handle this sort of discussion, donated a large sum of his own money to a LGBTI charity, and bowed out of any further discussion. But again, the damage was done: the Fullbright Company pulled out of the indie showcase at PAX Prime.

I won’t talk more about this, because it’s not my primary reason of pulling out of PAX Aus. But it does illustrate that the voices at the top of Penny Arcade, and the culture connected to the comic, still have the same kind of issues we saw back in 2010 with the “Dickwolves” debacle. It was also important because, if it hadn’t happened, the previous issues with Penny Arcade’s culture wouldn’t have been brought to the attention of participants who weren’t already aware of them.

That panel

It might not seem a big deal, but – especially revealed through the language used in the original description – I think it is. First, it’s important because this panel is the only one which touches on issues of inequality in games or games culture (there is a talk, too, but I’ll come back to that). This means the “Why So Serious?” panel is the main representation of the PAX community’s attitude towards these issues. Unfortunately, the panel embodies a common (and probably unconscious) silencing tactic: rather than asking “what do we do about sexism and racism in games?”, it asks “do we have to keep talking about racism and sexism in games?” It puts those who are trying to change the culture on the back foot. We’re not talking about an even playing field; telling someone a game they like is sexist is not in the same ballpark as making a sexist game and the message that sends to women who play games.

Women and others who are insulted and treated poorly by games, excluded from the culture of making them (see Christian McCrea’s excellent analysis of recent figures and the attitudes and biases that has created them) and by the “proper geeks” of mainstream gamer culture are not in a position of equal power. Asking whether we need to be concerned about that sort of discrimination and negative attitude is a question that can only be asked by those who have the privilege of not being targeted by such depictions. Asking “can we just all get along?” (or worse, in the original: “can we get off the soapbox”) is an attempt to sidestep change. I’d love for there to be a proper dialogue between makers and players about the content of games, to believe that they will change. But this panel’s discussion has been framed in such a way as to preclude that.

For games to be seen as a mature art form we must be able to ask the same questions about them as we do about films, television and literature; I can’t imagine a panel with a similar theme appearing in a writer’s festival, film festival or any other kind of celebration of an art form. I want to see games join the broader arts culture, to judge itself by the same standards as other art forms. Games are art; that “debate” is dead. What is ongoing is the transition to a mature, artistic culture – one that embraces social and political issues. The desire and need for change is there, in some corners it’s a deep and vocal hunger, but criticism is rejected, and indeed those doing the criticising are attacked, much more viciously than any videogame maker.

The revised description for “Why So Serious?” still mentions that “developers and publishers are professionally and personally attacked” – but again, this is a privileged description. Outspoken critics – especially women – bear much worse than any game developer will ever imagine, but this discussion is framed to exclude the rape threats and graphically violent images directed at Anita Sarkeesian; the violent and deeply misogynist trolling attracted by those who posted during the #1reasonwhy hashtag; the backlash and bile levelled against Jennifer Hepler for daring to suggest some players might like to skip combat in games, six years after the fact. (It’s also worth pointing out that this behaviour seems more frequent and extreme with games. Anita was only attacked after asking for help to make videos about the ways videogames get it wrong when it comes to depicting women – she’d been doing the same pretty uncontroversially with film, television and literature for years beforehand.)

Pulling out

I’ve been asked by several people whether, by pulling out of the show, I’m depriving PAX of a possible feminist voice, of in fact making things worse. I’ve also been challenged over whether I should have pitched a replacement panel to try and deal with these issues. And I seriously considered doing just that. I even came up with a title, a list of people I’d want on it…but it didn’t feel right. There are many reasons why. Not least among them is the fact I’m a white, straight, able cis-male; I possess all the privilege I’d be trying to challenge. There’s some credence in the idea that if you have a privileged voice the least you can do is use it to give volume to the voices of those without such privilege, but it still felt a bit off for me to head up a panel about how non-white, non-straight and non-cis-male people are treated in games and gamer culture. Certainly I couldn’t do it alone; and I even asked a few of the people on my list. But they weren’t going; they never felt comfortable associating with Penny Arcade in the first place. A hastily assembled panel with second choice participants wouldn’t do any of the issues justice.

I don’t think the organisers have created an event which is non-inclusive; I’m not boycotting the event based just on the description of the panel or Krahulik’s comments. As the Pop Up Playground statement says, those things just revealed to us that the culture surrounding PAX Aus is not that different to the problematic culture associated with Penny Arcade in the past. We weren’t invited to speak – we submitted an idea for a panel and were accepted. Most of the panels are community suggested; the organisers and the high ups at Penny Arcade have pointed this out in the wake of criticism. They didn’t title them or write the descriptions. So the program of panels ought to give us an idea of what the community at PAX wants to talk about; the community that created them is the community that wants to engage with PAX Australia.

Given that, is it telling that something like only 15% of panellists overall are women? That a clear majority of panels have no women on them at all? (I’ve no idea what the ratios of non-straight, non-white participants are like.) Perhaps they weren’t invited; perhaps they were and didn’t feel comfortable participating, despite the clear harassment policy and lack of “booth babes”, both things I certainly applaud. When you look closer at the PAX Aus program, you find a lot of near misses; panels that almost, but don’t quite engage issues of social justice. There’s discussion of games being criticised for being sexist and racist (“Why So Serious?”), but not of the racism and sexism in games. We have two panels critical of how other forms of media portray geeks and gamers (“That’s What She Said”, “Is There Such A Thing As A Fake Geek?”), but none about how our own medium portrays women and minorities. There’s advice on how women can navigate games as a man’s world (“Not Fair? Then Grow Some Ovaries and DO Something About it!”), but no challenge of the systemic sexism which makes the industry unwelcoming to women. There’s even one about the entitlement players feel and the impact this has on makers (“Gamer Rage – Entitlement Issues”), but nothing about the entitlement and privilege unconsciously possessed by white, straight and/or cis-male players.

Looking at all that, it’s easy to be left with a clear impression that the PAX audience hasn’t thought about these issues yet – or doesn’t want to. In such a climate, it’s not hard to see how people wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing them up.

This decision is about me and Pop Up Playground

I don’t think everyone should “boycott” PAX Aus. If you’re reading this, chances are it’s because you’re going, or are participating, or maybe even involved in running it. I don’t think you’re sexist or racist or homophobic or transphobic. But we don’t live in a world without sexism and racism, and those things raise their heads far too often in games cultures, so you can’t make a games event truly inclusive just by not excluding anyone. You have to take active steps to make the event inclusive and welcoming. We’ve tried to do that with Pop Up Playground, to make sure everyone feels welcome at our events; I try to do it at all my shows and events. We do it in lots of little ways: choice of venues, the design of our activities, the information we provide about them, the language we use. If there’s a chance – and it’s more than a chance, judging by the reaction – that being associated with PAX would make even one person feel less welcome at our events, it’s not worth it.

Personally, I am in a particular position; I’ve made feminist activism a big part of my life. I am (or have been) associated with a variety of events and organisations – Pop Up Playground, SlutWalk Melbourne, Cherchez La Femme, Can’t Stop The Serenity, PlaySpace Australia, Freeplay – whose agenda is specifically inclusive.  My responsibilities, priorities and concerns are necessarily coloured by these things, and so I preference intersectional feminist ideals – those that consider all forms of privilege, discrimination and injustice.

The decision is not without personal cost, either, though I’d be first to admit that the cost to me is far smaller than to someone like the Fullbright Company. Still, I won’t be able to spruik my particular nerdery to new (potentially large) audiences, I may not see good friends in town for the show, and I’ll also miss perhaps my only chance to see one of my biggest heroes of game design, Ron Gilbert – a man who, by the way, put seven playable characters in The Cave, and still managed to find a way to make exactly half of them female (and also put a pretty even number of male and female faces in his latest game, Scurvy Sallywags). I wonder what he thinks of all this?

Does it matter?

It’s only a games expo, some people will say. It’s just a bit of fun. It’s just boys being boys. It’s just a bunch of maladjusted nerds.

Those aren’t acceptable responses. They also aren’t things people say about a mature art form and those who engage with it. Those on panels decrying the media portrayal of gamers without examining the game portrayal of others are making their own problem.

But geek cultures do matter because – traditionally at least – they’re the dominant culture where people who don’t fit in with the mainstream can go and be embraced. (The idea that “geek” grew as a counter-culture for men seeking an alternative to traditionally masculine power out of their reach is perhaps at the root of many of these problems, but that’s another discussion.) Sci-fi conventions – good ones at least – are among the most inclusive places on Earth. If you have strong opinions of women in the works of George R. R. Martin, steampunk fiction’s glorification of empire and misappropriation of non-European cultures or the sexual politics of Russell Davies’ era of Doctor Who then it doesn’t matter if you’re L, B, G, Q, T, A or I, which gender and/or sex you might (or might not) have, or what level of ability or mobility you possess. They are places which have made the effort to be truly inclusive, even if they are still niche, still a mystery to mainstream culture.

Games matter all the more because in many ways they are the mainstream. Games are a dominating force in modern culture; they matter as much now as television or film ever have, and they will only have more influence in the future. We have to be able to have conversations about the content of games and the culture of the people who play them.

Luckily, there’s no such thing as “gamer culture”; there are multiple cultures of people who play games. And in some of them, these conversations and changes are already happening. Freeplay is one such place; the (in)famous “The Words We Use” panel of 2011 was proof that there is a games culture out there that wants to engage, to be better, to include everyone in the evolution of what making and playing games is like. PAX doesn’t feel like part of that culture, at least not yet, so for now I’ll bring my energy to those who are willing to listen; and I’ll come back next time and see if things really are changing, and be among the first to muck in if I think anyone will be on board.

I love games. I want them to be better. I want the cultures surrounding them to be better. And when I think talking on a panel at PAX Aus will help that, I will be the first to do so.

Ada Lovelace Day 2011

I’ve a feeling that the average person in the street would guess that Ada Lovelace, with a name like that, must have been a cabaret singer, poet or actor. They wouldn’t be entirely off the mark, either, since she did do something beautiful and artistic to become famous: she was the world’s first computer programmer.

On Ada Lovelace Day we celebrate women working in technology and science who have inspired us. I have been definitely been inspired by women in science, from the famous like Ada herself and Marie Curie, to more recent heroes like student astrophysicist Amelia Fraser-McKelvie. But I’d like to talk about some of my friends, and in the wake of my participation in a discussion about feminism and games at Cherchez la Femme this month, specifically those working with computers and technology, like Ada did. All are inspiring to me, for their drive, their outlook, and their success, so I thought I would ask them a few questions to find about about them, and their inspiring women, in their own words.

Moran Paldi (ranpal.com.au)

Moran has over a decade of experience in the games industry; now living in Melbourne, she builds and designs video games, and teaches others to do the same. To spend even a few minutes talking games with her is to uncover an incredible depth of knowledge and passion for games in every facet of their existence, from code to controller.

How did you get into the games industry?

I studied mixed media practice at uni in London, originally planning to be an investigative journalist. I got hooked on animation at school and managed to land a job as an animator at a small indie studio when I graduated. Since then I have worked professionally as a games developer at companies like Sega and THQ,  and have now come full circle to back to my independent roots. I also teach at RMIT University on the Games Graphic Design course where I lecture in maths and games design theory.

Why video games? What do you love about this work?

I love the technical and creative challenges that making games presents. They are multilayered digital puzzles, and there’s this cycle of figuring out what you want to do, and then figuring out how to make it happen. They are fractal beasts. The more you explore them the more there is to find. Plus, the technology is always evolving, so you have to keep up with it, and that pushes you. I love exploring the boundaries of what is possible, and finding new ways to tell familiar stories. Oh, and it’s also hella fun.

Who would you be writing about for Ada Lovelace Day?

Obviously Ada! She wrote the worlds first computer program for a then theoretical analytic device. Her work is the basis of modern computing, and she deserves to be better known. Similarly, it was a group of women who built and programmed the ENIAC, which was the first electronic computer, not that you’d know that from most of the histories. Coding used to be considered women’s work, until it became high value. Now it’s perceived as a masculine pursuit. Women in tech have been made invisible for too long now. We need to break that pattern.

Leena van Deventer (grassisleena.com)

Leena is a freelance writer, both for and about games; though she only started eighteen months ago she’s already written for MMGN.com, The Age‘s Screen Play blog and a whole bunch of gaming sites, and is co-host of the GamePlayPodcast and the games correspondent for Tech Talk Radio. The first game to be released with her name in the credits will be the seventh Gamebook Adventures title for iOS, Temple of the Spider God.

How did you become a games writer?

I started with a blog, just quietly doing my own thing until people seemed interested in hiring me. I then cast out a net and worked for anyone who would let me, paid or unpaid, for the experience to then make it into a proper job. I went to as many industry events as I could find and talked to as many like-minded individuals as humanly possible. Much scotch was consumed. Oh the scotch. From there I’ve been offered amazing opportunities to work in a field I’m quickly falling head over heels in love with.

Why the love affair?

I love having an opinion. It was always a negative growing up. The over-opinionated only child stereotype was in full flight and it was always treated as a personality flaw. Once I grew up and mellowed a bit I realised I could temper it to be a powerful force – and one that could be capitalised on, at that. Taking what was once considered a flaw in my personality and turning it into a positive, constructive “thing” I had to offer was extremely rewarding, and mirrored my feelings about my favourite pastime. Playing games was always either a little bit geeky, or something only the boys in the street did, or something I was scared to talk about at school for fear of scorn. I love the fact I’m “out” now as someone who loves games so much, and that I can embrace my voice and my opinions about them. The thought of utilising those strong feelings to help make great games one day is something that inspires me immensely. Working in this industry makes me feel less broken.

Who would you write about for Ada Lovelace Day?

Brenda Braithwaite is a powerhouse of a woman – a stalwart of the games industry – who inspires me greatly. She stood up when people were saying that consoles would ruin the games industry and said “That’s bullshit”. She’s now standing up when people say games on social networks will kill the games industry and says “That’s bullshit”. She’s paving the way for many great game developers to come after her and to me that’s a lasting legacy that will stick and is something to be truly proud of. We need people to stand up and say when something is bullshit. Our industry is still in its infancy, and despite that there are many issues ingrained deeply into it. The only way we’re going to move forward and improve on our weaknesses is for people to stand up and say “That’s bullshit” and stop accepting the mediocre. She inspires me to want more from the industry and ask “Can’t we do better?”.

Catriona Wimberley

Catriona is a PhD student in medical physics at the University of Sydney, currently working at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). Though studying science, her career has been heavily entwined with technology, from computer programming to electronic engineering. She’s travelled around Australia and the world to present her work, and was featured in the Cosmos Ultimate Science Guide 2011 for prospective science students.

What are you working on for your PhD?

I’m working on kinetic modelling and parameter estimation in PET (positron emission tomography) imaging. In a nutshell, I take the images/data from scans and do some interesting mathematical modelling to find information about how the body/brain is working, or more importantly, not working, so that we can study how different neurodegenerative disorders (eg. MS or Alzheimers) progress.

How did you reach this point of your career?

A winding path where every opportunity was taken to explore exciting areas of research!

Before finally settling on the area of research I am currently in, I had worked in a biomedical engineering division (doing repair and maintenance of medical equipment), in a cardiology lab, a respiratory lab and a sleep lab (all doing clinical work). These placements helped me realise that I need more than a clinical or repair and maintenance job – I need to be able to think, create, analyse and innovate!

In final year uni, an opportunity came up to do a placement at the Bionic Ear Institute and I jumped at it. It was a great placement, gave me a taste of the research life, I was able to find out how part of the brain works using the computer and programming! But still… before I settled, I knew I needed to explore my other science love: physics.

I applied for the Nuclear Futures graduate program at ANSTO and was accepted into it. This program was what helped me decide that I truly did want to be a researcher. It was a rotational program so I got to work in an engineering project management role creating devices and upgrading safety systems, in the maintenance team for the OPAL research reactor; I wrote computer programs for physicists to interpret their data, I wrote reports about nuclear power for the Australian Government, I designed equipment to improve the quality of medical imaging – and from all of these adventures, I decided I wanted to specialise in medical physics – where else do you get the combination of physics, computing, maths and the end result is figuring out how the brain works?

What drives your passion for science?

I do it because I love finding patterns and meaning in data. I do it because I love programming and I love making programs that work and make life easier for people or elicit information. I do it because I get to think and discover new things about how the world works. I do it because it is fascinating and I couldn’t not do it.

I do it because I am curious and I need to figure things out. I love that I can lose myself in thinking and designing and analysing and interpreting.

Who would you write about for Ada Lovelace Day?

Marie Curie, for her ideas, her hard work and her drive to never give up. My PhD lineage can be traced back to her! Marie’s daughter Irene Joliot-Curie was also a chemist, and won a Nobel prize in 1935. Irene’s son Pierre Joliot is a biologist and was the PhD supervisor of Marie-Claude Gregoire, who is supervising me.

Also Elizabeth Blackburn [winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine], for showing people that it is possible to have a highly successful science career and have a family.

Variations on a theme

I love soundtracks. I think it comes from when I was young, when I used to put my tape recorder next to the television and record the audio of my favourite Doctor Who stories so I could listen to them on my Walkman later. Sure, there was lots of dialogue, but I also heard those music cues a thousand times. When I started buying CDs, some of my earliest purchases were a box set of the Star Wars soundtracks (I don’t even like Star Wars that much!) and the Silva Screen Doctor Who soundtracks. Listening to the medley of music from The Caves of Androzani I am always transported to the first time I saw it, and I picture every moment in perfect detail. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. I’m also a bit obsessed with Hans Zimmer’s amazing soundtrack for the Sherlock Holmes movie, Alan Silvestri’s score for Back to the Future, Joby Talbot’s work on The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (especially the desctruction of Earth, one of the funniest pieces of music ever if you’ve seen its context), even Vinc DiCola’s ultimate 80s electronic rock for Transformers: The Movie, but I also love the best game work, including Yu Miyake’s Katamari soundtracks, the Final Fantasy titles scored by Nobuo Uematsu, and the incredible work of Michael Z Land.

I also love cover songs, and nothing brings the two together like a good theme. I was part of a sadly abortive cover band called Rough Draft, and our gimmick was that we would play only acoustic covers of cartoon theme songs. We started with the theme to Sealab 2021, and managed to learn at least a dozen songs or so – I particularly enjoyed performing The Trapdoor, Dangermouse and Count Duckula. We never got past rehearsal stage though – probably because, even if we played our entire repertoire, we hardly managed a 6 minute set!

But there are three themes which have occupied my brain like a fever over the years, one quite recent.

Doctor Who

The Doctor Who theme is one of the most important pieces in the history of electronic music. Composed by Ron Grainer, it was “realised” by Delia Derbyshire, for many years an unsung heroine of the Radiophonic Workshop (who were never credited individually). In the days before computers, Derbyshire used tone generators and manually spliced together tape to create the most iconic television theme tune of all time. Grainer himself was rightly so impressed by the final product that he supposedly didn’t recognise it as his own composition. There were several revisions in the show’s first couple of decades, then the Peter Howell 80s update changed the pace and spawned a couple more revisions (I have a soft spot for the Trial of a Time Lord version, with its extra little layers) until Dominic Glynn’s slower version for Sylvester McCoy. The television movie in 1996 (which I prefer to call by its nickname, Grace: 1999) had a pretty lame orchestral version which lost a lot of what made the originals great, and while I have enjoyed the new series versions, they too started out too generic themey; when more of Delia crept back in, and they lost the trumpety bits added in by Murray Gold, they won me back.

But it’s not just the show that’s produced new versions; there have been loads. The most famous is probably Doctorin’ the Tardis [sic], the KLF’s cynically manufactured number one single, a glorious mash up of the theme with Gary Glitter’s “Rock n Roll” (parts one and/or two) and “Blockbuster” by The Sweet. I do love that track; it brings a mix of memories, of car trips, my first album (Smash Hits ’88 or the equivalent), and of being chased around the school yard by bullies chanting the chorus.

But for my money, it’s the fan versions I love. Some are slavish recreations of this version or that; some horrible misfires; some new interpretations that blow you away with power, or humour, or experimentation. The web site whomix collects them and even has a handy feed you can subscribe to as a podcast; I have nearly 250 of them sitting in my iTunes library, and despite having a few CDs worth of profressional remixes and new versions, it’s one of these I sometimes use as a ringtone (it’s the Vortex Mix by Hardwire, a chap who’s made many of my faves on whomix).

Monkey Island

I’m relatively old school when it comes to gaming. Sure, I like Dragon Age: Origins and Portal and my XBox 360 gets a decent workout with the cream of the crop of new titles and downloads, but my heart belongs to the long dead graphic adventure genre. While I played plenty of games before it, it was LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island which really made me love computer games – and no small part of that lies in the musical genius of Michael Z Land. He put together a magnificent score, and at its centre lies the theme from Monkey Island, a brilliant piece which combines a Caribbean feel and a real sense of humour to perfectly encapsulate the mood and tone of the series.

Like the Doctor Who theme, it’s an iconic piece that many, many fans have sought to cover. While The International House of Mojo has been the main community hub for LucasArts fans, your best bets for finding covers of the theme – and other parts of Land’s very memorable score – are World of Monkey Island, which has a whole section for fan music, or The Scumm Bar, which also has a fan music section. My favourites would have to be Monkey Island Rocks, a heavy guitar version by Eduardo Gouveia, and the enigmatic MJ, TW, and PH’s atmospheric Monkey Island Medley, which reinterprets various refrains and introduces new music which fits in seamlessly with Land’s stuff.

Game of Thrones

I have rarely found a new obsession and thrown myself into so wholeheartedly as I have Game of Thrones, the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s beloved series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. The theme – and the score – for the series are works of art by Ramin Djawadi, and indeed my newest heavy rotation playlist has been my top nine tracks from the soundtrack album – including the title theme of course – and a couple of fan covers for good measure.

Yes, before the series was even finished, lots of people were covering the theme. In keeping with its newer pedigree, most of the covers are found on YouTube, though thankfully both of my favourites also provide mp3 downloads. Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of the books among metal bands – there are at least three songs titled “Take the Black”, which is what it’s called when you join the ancient order of the Night’s Watch in the series – one of the best ones gives the theme a harder edge.  The Heavy Version version is by Whitenoise Lab, and since it was the only version I had prior to the release of the soundtrack, iTunes tells me I’ve listened to it 159 times. (It’ll be 161 by the time I finish this article.) The layers of guitar, bass and drums really kick things up a notch! My other favourite is no less amazing, though accomplished with just two instruments – both of them violins. Jason Yang’s violin cover is a thing of beauty from a great musician, laying down around a dozen tracks on acoustic and electric violin to give a rich, full sound. This one is climbing up the charts!

Journey of the Sorcerer

This is a bonus track, of sorts. It’s not technically a theme, but rather an instrumental track from The Eagles’ album “One of These Nights”. You probably know it, though, as the theme from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The original radio series used the song without any modification to great effect; the ethereal banjo and strings arrangement really does fit perfectly with hitchhiking between the stars, and was used at Adams’ insistence. The television series used a new version which has charm, but the soul of the original wasn’t recaptured until a short sequence in the film version which paid homage to this extraordinary piece of music. It’s been my default ringtone for years, and back when I had a phone which could use custom text message tones (are you listening, Apple?), my phone would emit one of those iconic banjo chords to let me know I’d received a message.

There are quite a few covers and alternate versions on YouTube, though to be honest I can’t really fault the original, and play it constantly. Of the others, this one is perhaps most interesting: played at the end of the last episode of the expanded radio series (produced by Dirk Maggs and covering the books after the first two, bringing them into the radio continuity), it uses parts of the original song not often heard in the radio series, and brings a little orchestration in.

Wow. Look how productive I am when waiting for my iPhone to restore from backup!

Science Week 2009!

It’s that time again! From August 15 to 23, it’s Science Week here in Australia, our yearly celebration of all things scientific. Among the major events are the light pollution survey and “Hello from Earth“, a project where you can send brief Twitter-style messages into outer space, courtesy of NASA. I have to say that, cool though the latter is, some of the press coverage has erroneously claimed that this is something that’s never been done before. I have already signed up for more or less the same thing as part of a promotion for And Another Thing…, Eoin Coifer’s forthcoming sequel to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But there are differences, and no doubt the Science Week effort will be a little less tongue in cheek…

While I will be out and about, enjoying the activities on offer, sadly I won’t be performing or speaking at any events this year. I do have a few projects on the boil, though, and I promise to update here more often; I have six unfinished draft articles lying around, all of which are now badly dated! Watch out for something new appearing here before too long…

Despite my lack of Science Week involvement, I am putting in a public appearance this weekend.  This year Freeplay, Melbourne’s computer games festival, returns, and tomorrow at the Victorian State Library I will be moderating two of the panels: Games and Screen Culture at 10:30, and The Black Sheep at 3:30. Both aim to offer different perspectives on how games function in the larger and more traditional culture of  film and television. Freeplay continues on Saturday, and if you have any interest in computer games beyond just playing them, I encourage you to check it out!