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A Theoretical War, Part 1

This is the first article in The Academics Are Coming series.

1. prologue

Perhaps one of my saddest university memories is when I shrugged my shoulders and accepted the end of mathematics.

Before my undergrad years, I devoured every mathematical fact I came across as if starved of adequate mental nutrition. School did a bang-up job of cauterizing the subject, giving the impression that mathematics was done, there was nothing else to know. Congratulations. Game over.

Yet at university, I was faced with an enormous banquet of knowledge that, at first, made me physically excited. I just couldn't get enough. However as I consumed and digested my way through lecture after lecture, I came to the unpleasant realisation that I wouldn’t be able to know everything. In a personal way, it was the end of mathematics and the beginning of unavoidable specialisation.

Mathematics divides into branches and branches within branches. It's like Inception minus the snow soldier shoot-out. It’s ridiculous to vote down one branch as being more “important” than another (fuzzy logic versus probability theory, for example) because each theoretical direction has its place, a purpose.

Take, for example, the humble quadratic equation. You’re taught in school that the solutions of


can be calculated from:

x = \frac{{ - b \pm \sqrt {b^2 - 4ac} }}{{2a}}

A decent teacher might let slip that there’s also a special formula for cubic equations (involving powers of 3) and another for quartic equations (powers of 4). And what you certainly don’t get told, for fear of shaking your belief in all things holy, is that no one was ever able to find a nice formula for quintics (powers of 5).

It's not that mathematicians weren't trying hard enough. The quartic solution was discovered in the 16th century and all attempts to derive a quintic solution were fruitless. It took another three hundred years and a detour into a highly abstract branch of mathematics called algebra to prove that a general quintic solution doesn’t exist.

Algebra is a strange land with terms like cyclic groups, isomorphisms, Noetherian rings and algebraic closures. The takeaway from this is that all of these different mathematical lines of inquiry relate to each other in obscene, almost underhand ways.

And then you have games studies.

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Project Launch: The Academics Are Coming

There was this idea I'd had for a while: an article about game-making academics. Once Where We Came From had finished, I thought I should probably give it a shot. I started approaching academics for contributions last October with a view to write up something short and tight like Punchbag Artists. But I came to realise that I was working towards something much larger than an essay...

So it's time for a new series, The Academics Are Coming. Based around several interviews, it's about games studies academics who make games - who they are, why they do it and the relevance of their work to the gaming industry.

It kicks off for real next Tuesday with the first part of A Theoretical War. Oh and here's a video.

For more information, have a look at the project page which contains the week-by-week schedule. The series should finish mid-August. Please enjoy the ride.



Cat’s Away Chronicles I

The first of a five-part video series. This week I drink myself into a stupor with Shaun Green and AJ of Arcadian Rhythms.

Contains swearing, violence and nudity. Actually there's only swearing. What you will discover in the video:

  • Why write about video games?
  • Why does AJ have a love/hate relationship with GameFAQs?
  • Cutscenes: to play or to skip?
  • How gamers on the fringe need the mainstream
  • The shocking truth that Shaun has a thing for Lyle Fernandez of Mindjack
  • Schafer vs Hofmeier deathmatch

Referenced links:

The second episode was posted on 22 May. Sorry about some of crackling on the audio; the rest of the series is crackle-less.



Klondike Icon

On the train, tired. Don't want to get a book out, so I fumble for the Blackberry. I've already checked today's news and Google Reader. There's nowhere else to go and it's not much fun seeking out new destinations with a wireless syrupband connection.

I look at the games included in the company Blackberry build. I am as underwhelmed as I was the last time I gazed into this small puddle of choices. I break out Klondike. It'll pass the time. I was fascinated with Patience when I was younger even though it is virtually a game of following instructions that emerge from the cards; more tarot than tarot. Jonathan Blow could probably dedicate a whole seminar to the evils of the game.

I just want to get to the end of this journey.

But another begins.

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Parenting Is Not an Escort Mission

In a personal essay, Jenn Frank used 90s simulation Creatures to talk about her disconnection from motherhood – both physical and mental. It's worth your time if you haven't read it already and I'm not here to rip into her article – but I do want to pick up on one point.

There's an implication nestled in the final lines that her experience with Creatures tells her what she would be like as a mother. And zing! went my abstraction alarm.

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