Submission: The Indoor Kids

Update, 12/12/11:

 Great googily-moogily, I was awarded something for my efforts.

The Indoor Kids

 just emailed me to let me know they'd selected me for one of their prizes - 

The Art and Design of Gears of War

. It's a book, which is probably better for my brain than an Xbox.

To find out how I acquired this prize, read on...

Recently, one of my favorite podcasts -

The Indoor Kids

- announced a contest, the prizes for which include an Xbox 360. The theme of this contest is

Gears of War

, a third-person shooter game with which I have limited experience at best. Still, since I had played the game a bit and I'm on something of a gaming kick again (see




) I thought I'd give it a go with that most powerful and not-at-all-cliché medium: The Personal Narrative. Enjoy.

Dry Spell

I don't own a console system, for a few different reasons. I haven't had one since I was about eight or so, when our dad brought home a knock-off Colecovision bought from some shop on one of our trips to one of the many membership campsites we attended along the East Coast. The thing had an integrated keyboard - though for what exactly I never discovered - the kind that had the keys just printed on overlaid, pebbled plastic so you had to jam your knuckles again and again to even get it to acknowledge a keystroke or two.

I remember the display was various shades of orange, and that we had to change the dial on our old TV with a clenched fist to access its feed. We played a knock-off 

Pole Position

 (my personal favorite, though I kept wishing the cars could shoot, like a knock-off 

Spy Hunter

), a knock-off 


, a knock-off 


, and the television barked those electronic grinding noises that passed for sound simulation at the time. It was magic, even if I knew it wasn't the genuine article. That machine cast a spell that kept me coming back to it and trying again, in spite of whatever serial programming or Technicolor cartoon might be on.

The main reason that I don't own a console system is a similar one to why I don't buy

Chewy Chips Ahoy!

at the grocery store (unless I'm drunk). If it's in the apartment, I will wring it dry, 'til I'm dehydrated and there are rings around my eyes. My awareness of my own lack of self-control saves me from many things (unless I'm drunk). Video games are among these, kept company by puppets and baked goods.

A few years ago, however, I rediscovered an antidote to this approach. When the Knock-Off Console kicked it, which couldn't have been 


 long after we first exposed it to actual electricity, my dad resolved never to buy another. He'd seen the mountaintop, and was satisfied there'd be no greater heights; particularly if it was going to continue plumbing the depths of his wallet. In desperation, I left the house, and found my friends. Here an actual Colecovision, there a Nintendo. This guy had a VGA monitor, that girl could afford Super Mario 3. But piecemeal gaming was bound to make me fall behind, and by the time I went away to school the trickle had dribbled out completely.

Still found money for Chewy Chips Ahoy! somehow, though.

Anyway, a few years ago my sister moved in with her boyfriend, a nascent stand-up with a love for comicbooks and video games. Once I got over the idea of him being some kind of stealthy, geek Lothario, I started hanging out. I fell into that familiar pattern, but with a new twist: co-op play. The game of choice for this was, of course, 

Gears of War


I'd never played anything like it, even when sampling the latest fare at one of those kiosks at Virgin stores, edging my way around familiarly eager eight-year-olds. In terms of co-op, 


 has a dynamic that's particularly rewarding, and Dom is a great character to play when you're kind of fresh to the whole thing. I still think sometimes of that duck-and-cover motion out of nowhere, like I used to see Tetris shapes in every building and street sign. We would play with those tremendous senses of frustration and accomplishment that let you know when you're really in a game. I hadn't felt that compelled to "try again" when we bombed on a mission since 

Commander Keen

; and that, my friends, is saying something.

All good things end, and eventually my sister and her boyfriend broke up. I'd be lying if I said I considered any part of that break-up more tragic than the sudden clamping off of my 


 supply. I can't complain - I got a good year of 


 and the first few scenes of 


 out of it. That probably seems like scraps to live on, but they were some tasty scraps. It's probably for the best, but I can't help wondering if I'll get to experience how 


 ends someday. If I'll get to try again.

Nyuck Nyuck OOF! Bleaah...

One of the things I find interesting about the silly season is how miraculously it makes me multi-task to the point of forgetting really basic priorities. It's a little bit like how I remember skiing to be, back in my gilded youth when I skied somewhat regularly. I would get going on the up-and-down of it all, five o'clock would roll around and I'd begin to wonder why I felt dizzy and my eyes had dried up in my head. I don't forget to eat and drink around Christmas, but it's close. I was fortunate enough last week, however, to have a nice, centering

ACTion Collective

event to anchor me in spot for a bit. Just long enough to plant a cream pie in my merry face.

This, our third event --

ACT III: Nyuck Nyuck Nyuck

-- was an intimate and rather relaxed affair. The "cocktail hour" period was spent with all in a single, spontaneous circle of chairs, which was a first. We had a total of about nine there, including Andrew and myself, partly a result of three last-minute cancellations due to holiday complications. None of this was surprising, of course. We wondered in planning ACT III whether it made sense to adhere to our not-yet-a-schedule in the face of everyone's holiday, and decided we should, for a variety of reasons. Several of the people who did attend last Thursday's event specifically scheduled their holiday plans to make time for it, and we learned a lot as a result of the smaller group.

The goal of the evening was to play comic two-hander scenes as well as possible when they are selected at random. We emailed the scenes in advance, save a couple that

Friend Nat

brought in that evening, and asked everyone to have a passing familiarity with them so they wouldn't be handed a scene with absolutely no context. Of course, how much of those attachments people chose to read was out of our control, and it seemed that some were more familiar than others. Nevertheless, no one was quite out to sea, and some people really brought on some interesting work . . . both intentionally, and accidentally. Nat himself chose a scene from Moliere's


that, for reasons of an error in transcription, switched the roles midway. He and his scene partner rolled with it, though, and it was a very nearly seamless transition -- it became practically a deconstruction of the scene. Moreover, with the smaller group everyone had a moment or more to really shine and create something memorable.

Our game mechanics did not function quite as well as I had hoped they might, and it's difficult to identify exactly why that might be. Certainly part of it was that very few people were willing to repeat a scene that had gone before, which led to a deflation of a big part of our idea: that actors would build on one another's work. I had every title in the hat twice, to safeguard against this possibility, but it quickly became evident to me that there was in our group no enthusiasm for repetition. I think we'll return to this idea with a different (and stronger) structure, because I'm excited by the possibilities in collaborative character-building and scene-work. When it is the focus of an event, I think we'll have some very interesting results.

The exercises were bookended by a set-up and a payoff (though I muffed the timing of the set-up a bit by brazenly forgetting to mention it until we had already started). We started (almost) out by mentioning that, by the end of the evening, someone would be hit in the face with a pie. This was Andrew's idea at some stage of brainstorming, but I was 100% behind it.

Zuppa del Giorno

has been trying to incorporate pie fights into our shows for years, and I was eager to see it in action. Fortunately for me, I was eager to see it from any perspective. What we did not reveal until later in the evening was that it was a choice between myself and Andrew as victim of the pie toss, and that everyone was going to vote. It would seem I was a little too expressive of my enthusiasm for this idea, however, because the decision to have me picking shaving cream out of my nostrils 60 seconds later was in fact unanimous. Pow. Right in the kisser.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Elliott.

The ACTion COLLECTIVE: ACT II - A Tale of Two Screens

On Monday Andrew Elliott and I hosted the second ACTion Collective event and, despite some initial concerns about the responses we received to the invitations, it turned out to be even more rewarding and fun than the first event. It looks like we can learn after all!

We had about a dozen in attendance, which means we would have had more than for our first, had not a few unfortunate last-minute cancellations come our way (wash your hands and sneeze into your elbows, kids). Of that group, nearly half were new attendees, either folks we'd invited before who couldn't make ACT I, or "second generation" ACTors, who were invited by folks who were in attendance for ACT I. (We like the word "ACT.") This time around, the scenes were much shorter, and pulled from draft film and television scripts. We changed the names and such to help camouflage the sources somewhat, gave everyone about twenty minutes to rehearse, then presented them. We also had a gimmick for deciding who went next, granting whomever could guess a given movie quote the power to choose the next group to perform. This worked remarkably well in a number of ways, but perhaps the best result was that we had time to do two rounds' worth -- and fortunately, Andrew and I had prepared enough scripts for this.

ACT II really acquired the feeling of a party as the evening progressed; the good kind, the kind where you not only know almost everyone, but you're also really glad to have a chance to reconnect with them. We served drinks and small food again, and there were groups of two or three who knew one another to begin with, but the atmosphere didn't really develop until everyone had watched and done a little work. Then there developed a sense of gamesmanship, and play, and the simple enthusiasm for exploration that comes of exploring together. It was great. By the end we were gently ribbing one another over our respective abilities (or lack thereof) for celebrity imitation, and laughing aloud at impromptu pratfalls. Oh yeah: And I got to see some seriously cool acting.

It really was a tremendous time and, in addition to that stand-alone reason to feel encouraged to continue, it resulted in a lot of specific clarifications in what The ACTion Collective's ever-evolving mission statement and function should be. There was definitely a spirit created by the room that I found myself wanting more of, a sense of play that encouraged more work and more risk-taking. This is a very important aspect of creating good work, yet it is an oft neglected one as well when it comes to the rehearsal process. It's definitely a component of our ambition with this project, to provide fellow actors with more of what they need. It may seem odd to non-actors that we sometimes need to be reminded of how much fun what we do can be, but I think this is true of almost any work. And acting, in addition to being play, is most definitely work.

Now Andrew and I are feverishly collaborating to come up with a best-of-both-worlds event for December, and I am excited by the prospects. It's a somewhat dodgy time, what with being between holidays and during prime party season, so attendance may be a problem. No work is ever wasted, however. Especially when you're having a good time doing it.

Hate the Player, Not the Game

The other day I had an especially trying one at el jobbo del day, the details of which we needn't repeat, even in my imagination. (Today is looking up; I already had to kill a mammal with nothing but my cunning and a serving spoon.*) Luckily, Friend Adam had already extended an invitation to join him for some recreational activity that evening. I dutifully tromped over to the outer limits of Queens, where many n00bz were pwn3d (read: many inexperienced players had their digital avatars removed from the game by force). Of course, by "many n00bz," I mean "me, over and over again," and by "were pwn3d," I mean "trounced, most likely by 'tween boys with a 100-word limit on their available vocabulary." It was my first time playing XBox Live, you see. In spite of my adamant liability to my fellow teammates -- something I really do feel quite bad about -- I did feel considerably happier after my little adventure.

Never mind that there are some indications video games can be helpful in alleviating depression; games that conference in other live players can have a decidedly social aspect to them, not to mention the sheer teamwork involved. In the games of Halo I played the other night, our team never could have won the rounds they did without talking through what was going on. It was better communication, in many cases, than I experience in a given day at el jobbo del day. But I write not here to draw insinuations of insults by comparing a fictional war game to a real-life office environment (not here, anyway) but rather to discuss the prejudice against games.

What prejudice? You may well wonder. People love games. They watch reality TV for the games people play, and football for the games titans play. We even have fantasy football, in order to play a game outside of the game. Gambling is a short-form game, and driving is a rather high-stakes action game. Games abound. Even video games are getting a great deal of respect these days, comparatively speaking. Gaming consoles are bleeding cool into what was once a domain of the ubergeek, and even housewives are getting excited by the Wii whilst stock brokers eagerly anticipate the next Call of Duty installment. Heck: "Gaming" and "gamer" have been appropriated into terms associated almost solely with video games, as far as the mass audience is concerned.

In spite of all this acceptance, imaginative gaming (and I'm coining a phrase here) continues to get a bad rap. Perhaps it's because of all the acceptance; I think it's an ingrained habit for we humans to define ourselves by what we reject, what we do not believe in, and if we're accepting all this other gaming, maybe we need something to point a finger at and say, "Bleargh!" I don't understand it, frankly. I never have, and that inability to understand has resulted in countless awkward social predicaments from about age five on up to now. However, it's also resulted in some of my most rewarding experiences in life. So I stick with being a little different in this sense.

What do I mean by "imaginative gaming"? I mean improvisation. I mean games that are relatively free from conventional constraints. I mean role-playing games (RPGs), but I don't mean the kind that can be played on a computer (as of now, that is) nor do I mean only RPGs. I perceive a unique category of games that spans a bunch of different categories, yet has very much earned a distinction in being rather more openly creative than the rest. I'm basically naming something here that I like, personally, but I'm inclined to believe that I'm not alone in this specific preference. Expatriate Younce outlined some categories of RPG play for me a couple of years back (gamist, narrativist and . . . and . . . LOOK, A SEAGULL!) but these are more styles of playing than descriptions of the game itself. Imaginative gaming is any game in which the players are the ultimate authority over the rules. It is a play in which the sense of play is more important than any other element -- meaning the game itself is based on how well it is played, not how well it is won. Moreover, if this scares you or sounds ridiculous, imaginative gaming is as applicable to buying groceries as it is to making up stories around a table. Movies can be written with it, and difficult negotiations can be compromised with it.

We've all been in the position of working with someone whom we don't particularly appreciate or enjoy, and in some ways playing with such people is much worse. (And I'm perfectly comfortable admitting that I have been just such an undesirable player on more than one occasion, for more than a few people.) Memories such as these make us cautious, and resistant to new experiences. We want to be able to control outcomes, or at least be supported in the belief that control is a factor at all. But the beauty of a game is that we get to be surprised by what occurs, and we get to test ourselves against adversity of all kinds, within a contained environment. Maybe learning to play well with others is one of these challenges. I personally believe that anyone can be a welcome addition to play, if only you can find a good way to play with them.

All this is just to say: Try not to hate the player but, even if you can't achieve it, find a love for the game. It's all some kind of game, after all, and the games that are most true to life are the ones in which we create our own rules.

*My cunning is less lethal than the spoon; luckily (for me) the little guy had run across the wrong side of a glue trap.

La Prova Generale

So you drive to Siena, and head at a serious clip toward the main piazza, because as far as you know you have maybe a 3% chance of getting a ticket to their "dress rehearsal" for the most famous bareback horse race in the world. You don't really know what that means, but . . . hell: "When in Rome."

You're not in Rome, though. After much run-walking over cobblestones, you're here:
After a good pause for a refreshing beverage (which helps you recover from the embarrassment over having covert-sprinted amongst all the laid-back Italians) you set about trying to figure out how to get a ticket. Your friend, who speak much better Italian than you do, works it out. E la:

So, you've got good seats. The seating is right beside the course, which runs the entire circumference of the (very large) piazza, and has been covered with tightly packed earth specifically for the event. I mean to say: You are RIGHT THERE. It's hard to believe someone's actually going to bring a semi-wild animal that close to you on purpose. It's also difficult to believe that you needed to rush so, because the piazza still looks like this:

But, you know, you go with it because your friend speaks better Italian than you, and has been to this event before, and because just maybe this will be a memory of the sort that never goes anywhere it can't be remembered again. It's good you kept these things in mind, because within ten minutes, the piazza goes from looking like the above to this:

There is much accepted pomp and circumstance prior to the main event. The city, you see, is divided into various neighborhoods that are represented by animals. The tortoise, the porpoise, the little owl, etc. These contradi are the participants in the race, and whoever wins the real race (the next day) gets bragging privileges for the rest of the year. So groups gather, songs are sung, children are corraled into choral groups and everyone has a boisterously good time. It's hard to imagine it getting more intense for the real thing, but it surely must. Juxtoposed beside that sort of contemporary hootenanny is medieval ceremony, such as a procession of the city emblem:

The real deal. See those guys in the back? Plate mail and wicked pikes. Wicked pikes, man. Further traditions include really skilled flag-twirling/dancing and processions of drummers, etc. The last little pre-show bit is the procession of what I assume represent the city's cavalry. These fellows march in, their horses high-stepping beautifully, swords raised:

Then you know what they do, after completing a lap? They point their swords forward and haul ass for a lap! In formation! It's seriously amazing. If I saw these guys bearing down on me, forget it. Even if I had a cannon or two. I'm going home and watching it on the news. Good luck, everyone else. Of course, after that, some clean up is necessary.
Dudes with brooms. If that isn't old school, I just don't know what is. After all these things rad, they get set for the race itself, including the latest technology. Ropes, for example. Very large ropes.
Which are spring-loaded. You know, to contain the semi-wild horses and their death-hungry riders. It's like some terrible idea of a horse race dreamed up by a Dungeons & Dragons (TM) -obsessed fourteen-year-old...
Yes, I am that fourteen-year-old.

Anyway, the horses arrive one by one, bearing the crests of their particular contrado. We got to sit right in the section where the horses begin, between the two ropes. It is due to this buona fortuna that I present to you contrado Lupa:

Now the really, really good stuff starts. It takes forever for the horses to get in line. I thought this was simply because, well, they're semi-wild horses. Ah, no. It turns out that it has something to do with signals the riders are getting from the officials/palio-captains of their contrado. Those people are standing -- as they have done for hundreds of years -- on a double footbridge that spans an alley between two buildings of the piazza. They are signaling their rider to be slow, or agitate his horse, or freaking kick the guy beside him. It's like baseball, with all the hand signals. It's part of the game, but the part that goes largely unacknowledged. This is, in fact, a primary reason for having a rehearsal for the event! The tortoise is the last contrado to enter the corral, and he sits it out for a long time, his rider's face as placid as the Buddha's, while the other horses and their riders kick and shout and otherwise try to hold it together.

You'll have to forgive me, because it started even faster than I could have imagined, so I don't have the beginning. I also don't have the end, because as soon as it was over people started climbing off the stands behind me to congratulate the winner and see if the guy who fell off his horse had died. (He didn't.) But, well, the final event of the thing is, simply put, this: