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XOXO 2018

XOXO is an event in Portland, Oregon that describes itself as “an experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet.” There are conference talks during the day, and a variety of festival-like events at night (film screenings, video games, live music, etc.). It ran annually from 2012 to 2016, took 2017 off, and then returned this year.

I love XOXO. I’ve been lucky enough to go to all six of them—literally lucky, since it’s popular enough that the ability to buy passes is determined by a lottery system–and with that perspective, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the conference has changed over the years.

The speakers are different, for one thing. Conference cofounder Andy Baio has a fantastic blog called Waxy, which I used to read religiously (and am now reading again!); when pitching people on the first XOXO, he said it was “the closest you’ll ever get to WaxyCon.” As a fan of the site that sounded great, but in practice it did seem like there was a certain insularity to the lineup. That improved over the years—more of the speakers were pulled from attendees’ suggestions, and XOXO became a much more interesting place where I learned about cool new people in addition to seeing folks I already knew about from Andy’s blog.

The topics of the conference talks themselves have also shifted over time. There was initially more of a focus on moonshot success stories, a tendency which Darius Kazemi sent up at the 2014 conference to great effect. Those gradually gave way to a different kind of talk, the kind that I most closely associate with XOXO: frank descriptions of impostor syndrome, harrassment, loneliness, money problems, and the other difficulties of making a living on the internet, all delivered with the raw honesty I’d expect from people commiserating privately with friends rather than publicly on stage at a conference. These talks, I think, get at the core of what XOXO is about, to whatever degree XOXO is “about” anything.

Perhaps the most noticeable change, though, is that XOXO has gotten big. In 2012 there were 400 attendees; after a few years of relatively modest growth, this year there were over 2,000. And while previous years’ events went out of their way to embed themselves into various Portland neighborhoods—even when that involved the organizers bringing their own AV equipment, and even bathrooms, to venues not naturally suited for conferences—this year they resorted (presumably out of necessity) to a more traditional venue, the Rose Quarter’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

This definitely involved some compromises, both practical and cultural. The Rose Quarter is sort of a concrete wasteland, so it was both less pleasant and less feasible to hang out there than in past XOXO neighborhoods; I think I ate meals away from the venue twice as often this time as in any past year. Still, I personally thought the change was worth it. Not only were more people able to attend, but there was also more room for attendees with subsidized passes. (There were about as many people who came free this year as there were total attendees in 2012, which is incredible for an event of this size.) At the same time, I can empathize with the people who felt like something had been lost in the process—it was as though XOXO had to contort itself to fit a space that wasn’t shaped quite right, and we all had to expend a bit more effort than usual to keep it in place.

Anyway! Big picture trends aside, here are a few personal highlights from this year:

  • My favorite talks were from Demi Adejuyigbe, Claire Evans, Jennifer 8. Lee, and Jonny Sun. (I’ll edit in links once the recordings are posted!)
  • Outside of the talks, I also enjoyed seeing comedian Cameron Esposito, enigmatic YouTube musician Bill Wurtz, and comedy duo Jean and John.
  • At XOXO Arcade, the video game exhibit, I was excited to play Mineko’s Night Market, Ooblets, and Untitled Goose Game. I was already following all three, but it was great to see them in person.
  • This isn’t directly XOXO-related, but I came into town a bit early this year to hang out around Portland. After spending an entire day in Washington Park, and nearly as long browsing through Powell’s, I think I’d still have had a nice trip overall even if the conference wasn’t any good.
  • XOXO seems to attract an introvert-heavy crowd, but I’ve always found that most people are willing to strike up conversations with strangers all the same. It’s one of the friendliest events I’ve ever been to, and that remained true this year even with the larger crowd.

Habits

Back in January I made some New Year’s resolutions about keeping up on a few hobbies, like playing music and meditating. I’ve had trouble with building habits in the past, so this year I tried a new approach adapted from two ideas in this blog post by Andy Matuschak.

The first idea is to use fine-grained measurements wherever possible. Instead of setting a goal like “practice guitar three days per week,” for instance, I used “practice guitar for 60 minutes per week.” Fine-grained measurements don’t work for every type of habit—it’s not very useful to, say, cram all of your meditation into a two-hour session one day a week—but it works for most of mine.

The second idea is to use a moving time window when setting your goals. Continuing with the same example, “practice guitar for 60 minutes per week” can be revised further into “practice guitar for 60 minutes over each seven-day period.” In other words, if you count backwards seven days from today and you’ve logged an hour of guitar practice over that period, you’re good. (And this one does work for habits like meditation—you can say “meditate for five days over each seven day period,” for example.)

Both of these ideas were appealing to me for the same reason: they offer flexibility for maintaining a streak.

Streaks are great for motivation, but traditional methods of measuring them can feel brittle. In the past, when I’ve set a goal like “practice guitar three days per week,” I’d sometimes get into a situation where it was Friday and I hadn’t managed to practice at all yet; then I’d think “Well, I already failed, so there’s no use now—I give up.” Not only would I not bother practicing for the rest of the week, but it was that much harder to start up again the next week since I didn’t have an active streak anymore.

But when I frame the goal as practicing for a certain amount of time over a certain period, and without the constraint of it being within a calendar week, I never get into those situations. If I’m going on a trip, or I’m busy with work, or am just feeling too out of it to get something done one day, I don’t have to spike all of my progress—there is flexibility built into the goal. All six of my habit-based New Year’s resolutions still have perfect, unbroken streaks, two thirds of the way through 2018!

To facilitate tracking this stuff more easily, I made a spreadsheet in Numbers that has two tables side by side. In the left table, I type in how much time I spend each day on various habits; the right table is then automatically filled in with a sum of the last seven days of activity, with conditional formatting to turn the cell green when I’ve hit that day’s goal. The result is something like this. When I’m busy (or tired, or lazy), I can look at my spreadsheet and see what the bare minimum is to keep my streaks alive.

NetNewsWire

NetNewsWire was my first RSS reader and a constant companion for the better part of a decade. Eventually, though, Twitter overtook my Internet usage to the point where I got all of my links from there instead, and I stopped using it.

Now that I’m trying to divest myself of Twitter, and since my Mastodon feed is orders of magnitude lower in volume, I’ve somewhat sheepishly picked RSS up again. Many of the blogs I used to subscribe to are gone, of course, but there are still some hanging on. (Let me know if you’ve got one!) I remembered having a bad first impression when Black Pixel took over NetNewsWire, so I’ve been experimenting with other options like ReadKit and Reeder, though none of them have felt quite right to me.

And so I was glad to read today that Brent Simmons, NetNewsWire’s original developer, has finally gotten his app back. It sounds like he’s planning to continue developing it as a free and open source project. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out!

Welcome to the Yard Sale

This talk from NYU’s PRACTICE conference by Zak McClendon—who currently leads Pyschonauts 2 at Double Fine, and was once design director at Harmonix—is an all-time favorite. It’s useful to anyone who has trouble organizing ideas about games, design or otherwise.

Replaying Shenmue

Yesterday I played Shenmue for the first time in eighteen years, and I still remembered where the Hazuki family keeps their flashlight.

My first couple of hours played out the same way as when I was a teenager: I meticulously examined each drawer and cabinet in Ryo’s house, and pulled all the paintings and hanging scrolls off the walls, and picked up every pot or fruit or tchotchke that the game would allow me to pick up. I rotated whatever I could rotate. I prayed at the altar and triggered a cutscene by looking at the food on the table. I gathered up all of the game’s lovingly rendered domestic mundanity and swam in it. Then I stumbled out of the house at half past five and wandered into town, refreshed, looking for more marginalia to investigate.

So far, it seems that Shenmue is deeper in my bones than I thought. I was a little worried that it wouldn’t have aged well; perhaps it actually hasn’t and my nostalgia is carrying me through, but I guess the distinction isn’t important. The upshot is that I can still be transported back to Yokosuka, and the muddy textures and antiquated control scheme barely register.

I feel like I can see a throughline between Shenmue and other “encyclopedic” media that I’ve enjoyed, from Animal Crossing to Moby Dick. There’s something satisfying about that gradual accretion of mundane information, even (or perhaps especially) if it’s not in service of some narrative beat. The information is an end, not a means.

I mentioned that I’ve been replaying Trails of Cold Steel II. The meat of the Trails series for me isn’t the combat or even the main story but the reams of NPC dialog, which is as necessary for enjoying those games as exploring Ryo’s desk drawers to find a cassette player is for enjoying Shenmue. Which is to say: entirely necessary.

Boring

I’ve noticed an odd pattern in my media consumption lately: I’m intentionally seeking out experiences that I’d normally consider boring. I’ve fulfilled this desire in a variety of odd ways, from watching ASMR videos on YouTube (which don’t even give me the reaction!) to replaying the JRPG Trails of Cold Steel II with New Game+ settings that entirely remove its challenge.

I think this is a response to a general sense of overstimulation I’ve felt recently, particularly from social media and world news. To counterbalance that, I’ve apparently been attempting understimulation. A tranquil emotional state sounds even better than a positive one right now, to be honest; if there were a spectrum with despondency on one end and euphoria on the other, I’d be aiming for the zero point on its graph.

Last weekend I saw an exhibition called Seeking Stillness at the MFA in Boston. Part of its description read:

Artists help us see and make sense of our world. Many, in this divisive moment, have engaged directly and powerfully with the social and political issues of our age. No less powerful or relevant, however, are the works that can lead us beyond the unsettled present: to places of respite, contemplation, transcendence, stillness.

Much of the exhibition featured aggressively plain works: Chinese scholar’s rocks, simple porcelain bowls, a quiet John Cage soundtrack, large rectangles filled with white and beige and taupe. I loved it.

Lucky

So here’s a milestone that feels strange to type: today is my ten-year anniversary at Harmonix.

According to all of the statistics and thinkpieces I’ve seen, this is not really supposed to happen. Millennials and game industry employees are both known for frequent job changes (voluntary and involuntary). Meanwhile, I’ve somehow spent nearly a third of my life working at the same studio.

It’s tempting for me to see this kind of longevity as a reflection of some virtue of mine. I can imagine a self-aggrandizing framing of my career that makes it sound like I’ve survived, and even thrived, by the sweat of my brow: I started as contract QA, got hired full-time a couple of months later, jumped over to design after a few years as a tester, and eventually worked my way up to being the lead designer on Rock Band, our flagship series. It sounds almost inspiring, written that way!

The truth, though, is that my own skill and persistence have comparatively little to do with it—I’ve just been extremely lucky. I was hired because Harmonix happened to be growing just as I finished school, and I showed up at exactly the right moment with exactly the right skills and interests. Over the ensuing years I survived a number of rounds of layoffs, also by chance; I’d be on the right project at the right time, or I’d happen to have experience in some area that the company thought it needed. Even that brief stint as a lead designer was largely luck—the rest of the team had moved onto other projects, and I was the one who stuck around doing post-release patch support. (It turns out that one way to become the lead designer on a project is to become…the only designer.) And that’s not even counting all of the other privilege I’ve lucked into throughout my life.

This is not to say that I don’t think I’ve done good work at Harmonix. I wouldn’t have survived long enough to get those chances otherwise! But at the same time—not to get all Nassim Taleb here—I think it’s healthy to recognize how large a role randomness plays in these things. It helps keep your ego in check, if nothing else.

Here’s to another ten years of whatever has let me get this far.

Hello world

“I feel ten Internet years younger using this site,” I wrote last week on Mastodon. “I want to download an RSS reader and start a new blog.” It was unclear at the time, even to me, if I was joking.

I’d decided to give Mastodon another whirl after the latest round of morally reprehensible behavior from Twitter, and hanging out there has made me nostalgic for an earlier Internet age—perhaps an idealized one—when our online presences weren’t wholly mediated by huge social media platforms. This blog is my small attempt to push back against that trend. I miss having an online space that feels like my own.

That said, I imagine it’ll be hard for me to leave Twitter entirely; I’ve met lots of great people there, video game industry folks in particular, and many of those relationships effectively only exist on that platform. Plus, I’ve been using Twitter daily for more than a decade, and it’s been my sole social network since deleting my Facebook account in 2016. The habit is deeply ingrained.

But it lately feels like a change is possible, and perhaps even necessary. And so here I am: I’m going to make a go of long(er)form writing again. Subscribe in your favorite RSS reader!