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The Sunday Papers

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Sundays are for one last hurrah, before melting into the freelance void. I will miss you, paps. Here’s the best writing about videogames from the past week.

For Polygon, Avery Helm dove into the weird, wild world of Blaseball. It reminds me of board games like Risk/ Pandemic Legacy, where the rules to something simple shift beneath your fit – except those rules are shifting for thousands at once, and a lot of them are just in people’s heads? I want in.

Blaseball had bits and pieces of great background lore when the site launched, and there was just enough of it to be intriguing and inspiring to fans, without stifling their imaginations. For example, when fans voted to open the Forbidden Book at the end of season 1, a tab was added to the site that featured a heavily redacted book of Blaseball rules, but at the same time, a swarm of rogue umpires descended upon the land, incinerating players left and right, marking the beginning of something the game called “the Discipline era.”

For Eurogamer, Grace Curtis contributed to their ever-excellent “Someone should make a game about” series by comparing Northumberland’s Devil’s Causeway to the citadel from Mass Effect. You really should keep reading these, you know. I won’t be around to remind you anymore.

Straight lines do not occur in nature. Beaches curve, roots twist. Ever put a spirit level on a cow? It’s a bad idea, take it from me.

So when Germanic settlers arrived on the shores of modern day Northumberland, they were confused to find an 8ft wide band of ribbed stone running 55 miles from the Tyne to the Tweed. They assumed it was the work of otherworldly creatures – fairies and/or demons, as those were the days when Christian and Pagan mythology was still mixed together in a fun folkloric jambalaya – and avoided it like the plague, despite the myriad benefits of an all-weather highway. With fear and suspicion came a suitably sinister name: The Devil’s Causeway.

For Vice, Matthew Gault shone a light on what a tough time the US military is having with Twitch. There’s a more recent update here, too, about all the lying their navy has been up to.

In the chaos that is a Twitch chat room, the U.S. Army and Navy esports teams encountered something they weren’t used to: some skepticism. There’s a diversity of views and opinions on Twitch that more closely map the real world than the sheltered world of the media the Pentagon is used to dealing with. On Twitch there is no deferential news media, flag-waving entertainment media, or sports leagues taking money to “salute service”.

For his blog, ARG designer Adrian Hon illustrated the overlapping appeal of ARGs and conspiracy theories. It’s a compelling case, although I’m not sold on the conclusion that ARGs are the answer to a declining trust in truth. Maybe let’s put pressure on governments to actually govern responsibly as well as doing the cool ARG thing.

QAnon fills the void of information that states have created – not with facts, but with fantasy. If we don’t want QAnon to fill that void, someone else has to. Government institutions can’t be relied upon to do this sustainably, given how underfunded and politicised they’ve become in recent years. Traditional journalism has also struggled against its own challenges of opacity and lack of resources. So maybe that someone is… us.

ARGs teach us that the search for knowledge and truth can be immensely rewarding, not in spite of their deliberately-fractured stories and near-impossible puzzles, but because of them. They teach us that communities can self-organise and self-moderate to take on immense challenges in a responsible way. And they teach us that people are ready and willing to volunteer to work if they’re welcomed, no matter their talent.

For Catapult, Jess Zimmerman argued for a more compassionate and considered approach to emotional traumau, using her body’s surprising pain response to a harrowing dog bite as a platform to explore the collective and not-so collective suffering brought on by the pandemic. This is remarkably well-written.

My fear of going outside, I think, was more like the opposite of a fear, the buffering negative space around it—an anti-fear. Like episodic analgesia, where the brain holds pain at bay, it was a protective nothingness, a shutdown. We are all so afraid. We are all so angry. We are all so lonely for our former lives, and mourning the collapse of the future. We are genuinely in danger, from the virus. We are genuinely being endangered, actively, by a government that sees us as disposable or worse. It’s too much: a black hole, all gravity and no light. At the same time, we are relentlessly, inescapably aware of how much worse it could be, how much worse it is, for someone, for many people. How do you let yourself feel that bolus of emotions at all? How, especially, do you feel it knowing that this is what “lucky” looks like?

For Wired, Sarah Scoles spoke to the hackers who’ve been tasked with breaking into a satellite by the American military. To qualify for the opportunity, teams had to run through a gauntlet of challenges that seem like they’re ripped straight from a movie script. It’s a surreal insight into a world where ethical concerns rub up against hackers clapping their hands at the chance to play with military kit.

Vittitoe started doing CTFs more than a decade ago, while he was in the hospital after his son’s birth. He was a member, back then, of a team called sk3wl 0f r00t (a group once name-checked on HBO’s Silicon Valley), and a Defcon qualifying event was going on. The hospital had Wi-Fi; Vittitoe had his laptop; he didn’t need as much sleep as a newborn or a recovering mother. Why not? “I guess I’ve always been a hands-on dad with a hacker twist,” he says. A more modern example: He recently put a cipher lock on his office door, gave his son the code in binary, and told him, “If you can figure it out, you can come into Daddy’s office whenever you want.” (The son currently comes in whenever he wants.)

Also for Wired, Eric Ravenscraft wrote a great primer on how to avoid being manipulated by the internet. Most software brims with unprecedented opportunities to twist behaviour, and most people spend most of their time interacting with software. Understanding how we’re being manipulated is important, even if we ultimately decide to listen to that goddamn Duolingo owl anyway.

Every day, you use apps and services that were carefully crafted by teams of professional designers to deliver the best user experience possible. At least, that’s the idea. However, if you’ve ever found it easier to sign up for an account than it is to cancel it, you’ve stumbled onto a dark pattern. And over the next several weeks, WIRED is going to dissect common examples across online shopping, social media, search, and more.

The term “dark patterns” was first coined by UX specialist Harry Brignull to describe the ways in which software can subtly trick users into doing things they didn’t mean to do, or discouraging behavior that’s bad for the company. When you want to unsubscribe from a mailing list, but the “Unsubscribe” button is tiny, low-contrast, and buried in paragraphs of text at the bottom of an email, it’s a strong sign the company is putting up subtle roadblocks between you and cancellation.

Here’s Off The Record, “An interactive narrative about the reality of working as a journalist of color”. It’s arresting, compelling, and immediately more enlightening than most articles I’ve read that cover similar ground.

This thread of animals that look like they belong in fantasy books is unbelievably good. It might be the longest I’ve ever spent scrolling through twitter replies.

Music this week is Goodbye-ee, from that film.

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Matt Cox

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Matt is the founding member of RPS's youth contingent. He's played more games of Dota than you've had hot dinners.

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