Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Researching Daizhong

One of the major projects I work on for Tephra is Daizhong. It's the Asian steampunk setting for the game. As a result, it strongly features many aspects of East Asian culture and tradition, filtered through the elseworlds lens of steampunk.

Faithfully representing Asian culture in a fantasy game is a difficult task. While I'm Chinese, I grew up in America. Some of my perspective is based in Chinese tradition, but I lack the understanding that immersion can bring. I am still at least partly on the outside, looking in. So research is important. In addition to the obvious refreshers on Asian history (History of Chinese Science and Technology was one of my majors in college), it's also good to see how other games have made the effort. This allows me to see what gaps remain to be filled so Daizhong can differentiate itself and avoid being labeled, "Just another expansion for anime fans."

Overall, the results of my look into various Asian-themed games have been disappointing.

First, the majority of games dealing with Asian culture are fantasy ones in nature. This is likely due to the types of games that comprise the market - fantasy ones dominate the field in numbers. That immediately means that the aspects of Asian culture selected for inclusion are limited in much the same way as the elements selected from western culture. Non-fantasy elements, and often non-violent aspects, are left out in favor of flashier combat oriented ones.

The shared basic elements can be summed up as mysticism/superstition, martial arts, and maybe some cultural mores (like ancestor worship). But that's it. There is rarely anything deeper or more expansive.

The one aspect that bothers me the most that is present in almost all of these games is their basic approach to establishing Asian culture is to stress the "other-ness" of it. "Mysterious," "strange," "unusual," and "exotic" are all common adjectives. By itself, this wouldn't be too much of an issue - feeling out of place on entering a setting you're unused to is a normal human emotion.

Where it becomes a problem is in the regular and steady emphasis on how technologically "backwards" or "inferior" their Asian culture location is. This propagates the widely held misconception of medieval Asia being inferior to Europe. Even when not actively portraying an Asian setting as technologically lesser, there is rarely, if ever, a mention of East Asian science or technology - even if the game tries to mention science in a western context. Basically, for most games, science is purely a western concept and one that should be left out of Asian settings, because "science" doesn't feel "Asian."

To put it in different terms on how annoyingly shallow this is: imagine if every game you came across had a Greek culture expansion. However, they only used the Spartans from "300," portraying every Greek as warriors who wanted to die gloriously for their pantheon of gods. Oh, sure, the characters you get are cool - but they always leave out Euclid, Pythagoras, and all the other things that made ancient Greece what it was. That's how Asia is done in most games.

I make "raising the bar" one of my goals with Daizhong. I want to not only make the link between East Asian culture - especially that of China - and human's scientific progress a central theme, I want to model that science in a way consistent with how they saw the world. I don't want to have Chinese inventions and Chinese developments presented with western methodology. Steampunk is an abstract concept that can be applied to any civilization while retaining the fundamental aspects of that culture. I seek to make Daizhong not a "Chinese flavored London" (as many game developers would do), but "Nanjing experiencing its own steampunk revolution."

Daizhong will exemplify steampunk born, not of Britain, but from those who invented the steam engine: the Chinese.

Monday, April 28, 2014


I often forget the scope of what I can do and have done.

I think it's because I regularly seek new skills and put myself in situations where I am not necessarily good at something. Through practice and effort, I learn and grow, acquiring the skill to a level of mastery I am comfortable with.

However, since in the moment I am usually learning or approaching mastery, I tend to think of myself as behind the curve. I also tend to appear as such to those who have dedicated themselves longer to that particular skill. This means I forget about all the other knowledge curves that came before.

I need to create a system of reminding myself of past achievements now and then.

Friday, April 25, 2014


Discipline, determination, preparation, and opportunity. That's luck.

Success isn't guaranteed, but its achievement isn't arbitrary, either.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Strange Candy 4/24/14

The comic for 4/24/14 is up.

I really like how the art came out here. Emi did a very good job at showing how Eri-chan is being mentally torn into pieces by the forces at work in the twisted subconscious of the environment. 

One of the fun things about this arc is thinking of new and disturbing imagery for her to draw in an effort to squick the readers. In this case, I went with a bloodless effect to contrast with the earlier comics' gore levels. Seeing the body torn like fabric or paper hits the uncanny valley harder than if it fell apart like normal flesh.

Harassment and Culture

The recent harassment cases of Janelle Asselin and Larry Correia bring to light that irrational hatred and attempts to suppress other viewpoints through intimidation and threats are not strictly a male problem or a fandom problem. It's a culture problem. It's about what we are willing to treat as "acceptable behavior" by our peers.

When someone accuses an author or critic of not being "real," is that acceptable to you? When someone reacts to an article or a book by smearing the writer, is that acceptable to you? When someone threatens another with violence and rape, is that acceptable to you?

These behaviors stem from the same goal. Those who attack Asselin and Correia are not interested in their ideas or creations; they want only to shut them down, to drive them out, to make life so unbearably horrible for them that they will shut up. Because the people who do this are so insecure in their own worldview, so afraid of critical thinking, that the only way they can feel "safe" is to stifle anything that might make them reassess their perspective.

To me, that behavior is not acceptable from anyone. I may not agree with or even like the art that's been made, but I will not forgive those who think that they get to decide who can and cannot participate as creators.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Time and Relative Developments in Science

The differential in technological development between China and Europe is not widely understood. Here's something that puts it in context:

When the Titanic was launched in 1912, it bragged about its watertight compartments, which had begun to catch on in European ship design around the 1800's. Watertight bulkheads were a standard feature on Chinese ships going back to as early as the 400's (and dated definitively to ~1000).

It took 1500 years for Europe to create a luxury liner using something merchants in China had when the Roman Empire existed. And it was still novel enough for the Titanic's builders to think of it as a "special feature." This would be the same as a city planner today bragging about the aqueducts he's having constructed to deliver water into his city and touting it as something awe-inspiring.

The abnormality of our modern era is not that China is catching up to the west in computers and engineering. The abnormality is that they are not centuries ahead of us.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

When Trolls Ruled the Net: A Dystopia Concept

Half the world's population - women - have been rendered almost completely unable to access the world's data net. It isn't because of lack of access or availability. It's because no female can login without suffering a nonstop barrage of threats and negative stimulus spam (visual, audio, text, etc.). The onslaught is so terrible that it overwhelms the senses and renders the latest in digital connection technology useless. Older forms of interface are buried, with servers crushed by the bandwidth consumed by spewed hatred.

The source? A small but nigh ubiquitous group of degenerates, comprising only a tiny fraction of the online world, but who sniff out and bombard any who threaten them with ruthless abandon. Filters are developed daily to counter them, but the skill of the degenerates routinely outstrips these defenses. Lacking physical commitments or interests, they have become an all-seeing eye, immune to appeals of logic or decency. They act without structure or purposeful coordination, each one a lone wolf. They are as terrorists with a perfect cell structure: taking down one does nothing to threaten the others.

How would perceptions of the Internet and digital realm change? What would be the response in gender roles? What means might be explored to combat this threat? What policies, both online and physical, be employed?

(Concept inspired by the trolling endured by many women who publish articles online on topics such as comics. Such behavior is unacceptable and harmful to everyone. One way to tackle it is to consider the extreme case, as posited above.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Opposite of Deconstruction

What is the literary opposite of Deconstruction? Affirmation.

Let's start with what makes something a Deconstruction. Deconstruction seeks to target the foundation of a given genre, it's fundamental tropes, and then to twist or alter them in a way that makes people rethink many of the basic assumptions that go into consuming that genre. The goal is to highlight contradictions, instabilities, or oversights that underscore a particular literary form.

(I am here only discussing Deconstruction as it applies to works of fiction, not the broader philosophical form.)

Three famous deconstruction works are Huckleberry Finn, Time Machine, and Watchmen. Huckleberry Finn deconstructed the "boy hero" genre in its last half, where Finn and Tom Sawyer move to rescue Jim. That genre often features boy heroes overcoming unrealistically huge odds to save friends or accomplish goals. Mark Twain skewers this by having Tom Sawyer deliberately create obstacles to their planned rescue to increase the danger and thrill. In so doing, he highlights the tendency of the genre to make things so difficult no actual person would ever succeed.

Time Machine dealt with the utopia/dystopia genres. Many had a protagonist go the future or some other world and find a utopia/dystopia. The lead would then find why the world was the way it was over the course of the book. This became a thinly veiled attempt by the author to recommend some kind of policy or political stance they saw as bettering or worsening mankind. Often, the time frame would be soon, as a way to show that either the utopia was achievable in the reader's lifetime or to warn them of impending dystopian doom. Time Machine took that concept and pushed it by sending its main character into the far future, so that the world he ran into was utterly dissimilar to our own.

Watchmen is probably the most widely known deconstruction of its respective genre, that of superheroes. Many superhero comics are set in slightly altered forms of our own Earth. In DC and Marvel comics, the presence of superheroes tends to do little to change history or politics. The same presidents come to power and many of the same events, such as 9/11, occur. Watchmen rejected that premise, instead having Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian altering the course of history widely. There are many other examples, too. Moore uses Manhattan to represent what he sees as the behavior of a true "superman" and reflects on the psychology of those who would wear masks to fight crime.

Each of these works takes an aspect of the genre they belong to and alters it, usually to create something more "realistic" but also as a form of literary criticism.

What, then, is an Affirmation?

An Affirmation, like a Deconstruction, is about the fundamental tropes of a genre. Affirmations deal with the common elements or underlying meanings that make a type of show or book belong to a general class of work. However, instead of seeking ways to subvert expectations, Affirmation takes one or more expected elements and makes them central to the story. It bolsters and reinforces a central element, calling attention to it by trumpeting it in its story.

Gurren Lagann is one of the best known works of Affirmation. It takes a single aspect common to the mecha genre of anime: the hot-blooded hero. The concept of hot blooded-ness then becomes central to the story. The entire mechanism of spiral power is based on will and determination. The entire coming of age story of Gurren Lagann is made by Simoun acquiring power and agency by powering through every obstacle using a philosophy of being increasingly determined to succeed.

Simply having a hot-blooded hero would not be enough to make something an Affirmation. Just featuring that character archetype puts a show in the same middle-ground category as others. Gurren Lagann affirms the trope of a hot-blooded lead character by both featuring one and by making that trait central to that character's growth and means of conflict resolution. That is what makes Gurren Lagann a special case of its use, rather than "just another show with a hot-blooded lead."

Contrast this with Neon Genesis Evangelion (EVA). EVA deconstructs mecha shows by making its main pilot a relatively weak and depressed young man, Shinji Ikari. It highlights the kinds of emotional trauma such world-saving stress would induce in someone. One of EVA's themes is to undermine the image and viability of a character who grows by sheer force of will and to make viewers question them as realistic. This provides stark contrast between the goals of a work that seeks to deconstruct versus one that seeks to affirm.

An Affirmation does not seek to alter the fundamental tropes of a genre by introducing a twist or variation. Where a deconstruction seeks to call attention to a trope by changing it, an Affirmation calls attention to it by emphasizing it strongly. Watching Gurren Lagann makes the viewer aware of the hot-blooded trope by stressing it so strongly, allowing them to identify it in other works, such as Kill la Kill.

This awareness can lead to critical thinking, the same as deconstruction, but it can also be used as a refutation to deconstruction. Evangelion portrays piloting a mecha as a horrifying and draining experience. Gurren Lagann refutes that portrayal by showing it as an uplifting character builder. Many viewers repulsed by the dark tones of EVA embrace Gurren Lagann as a result, preferring Lagann's portrayal of an idealized reality where determination brings victory.

Now with knowledge that Affirmation can be a distinct approach like Deconstruction, how can this be applied? What genres would lend themselves well to an affirmative story? What relationship and similarities might there be between Affirmation and Romanticism?

Everyone is John


I want to play this some time. Simple mechanic, lots of shenanigans possible.

Friday, April 18, 2014


"A picture is worth 500 words."

"I thought it was 1000."

"That's before you adjust for inflation."

- A student and I

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Introduction to Tephra

A key focus of this blog will be my work on Tephra: The Steampunk RPG. I'm one of the main developers for Cracked Monocle, part of the team tasked with generating materials related to the game's setting (nations, cities, etc.). Official projects I'm currently working on:
  1. Izeda: The Desert Crucible
  2. Evangless: The Gates of Heaven
  3. Junkyard Wars
Because of NDA clauses, I won't reveal very much on any of these in terms of specific content. Don't expect to see me posting drafts of lore or systems elements here. I will mainly talk about research related to working on them or realizations I've had about the Tephra system that came from work on them. Post-release, I will post commentary and facts about what went into each of them.

However, there are a number of side projects I can be more open about, as their development is much more long term. As a result, things made for them are not close to final form and can be discussed more openly. I'll refrain from posting actual system content, but thoughts on lore, ideas for characters, and reactions to research being conducted can all go up.

One of the main side projects I've been working on steadily for the last year is Daizhong. It's the East Asian steampunk setting for Tephra. As a result, I've put a lot of time into researching a broad array of topics for it, such as how Asian culture is presented in table-top games, the history of science in East Asia, as well as general research on steampunk itself. Many of my posts will be related to Daizhong, focusing on my discoveries and thought processes as I slowly assemble what I need to bring it to fruition.

A second side project is Metamathics (working title only, of course, which is why this blog is named for it). It focuses on bringing the mathematical revolution of the late 1800's into the realm of steampunk gaming. A third is Psychodynamics (working title), which focuses on the developments of psychology and the mind from that period. No steampunk game to date has successfully captured either of these elements and it's my hope Tephra will be the first. A fourth project is to adapt Tephra to a LARP format; there's a lot of demand for a good steampunk LARP here in Texas. I'll discuss my thoughts on translating a table-top game to a LARP system and my prior experiences with LARP's.

I have other, smaller ideas, things that likely won't be published in any form, but may suggest future avenues of exploration. Additionally, there are always the amusing anecdotes and quotes that come from a good night's worth of gaming!

Strange Candy 4/17/14

First, some background: I've been writing Strange Candy, a webcomic, since 2004. It's been one of my main sources of regular writing practice. Every week, I push myself to get a script done in time for Emi (the artist and creator) to draw. Sadly, it's also wrapping up soon, as Emi wants to move on to other comic projects on her own. As it enters its final stage, I'll post commentary and thoughts here.

I highly recommend reading from the beginning. There are only a little over 1000 comics in the archives (I took over with comic #466), which, compared to some, is not a lot. My commentary here will assume familiarity with the comic.

The Strange Candy for 4/17/14 is up. Here we find an aspect of fandom Eri-chan doesn't like: card games. And we finally have some clues as to the origins of that game we saw introduced way back here. Expect the next few comics to be very disturbing and NSFW as Eri-chan reunites with our main heroines, who we last saw here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reverse Charity

Idea for a social experiment: an organization sends money to average citizens with the attached note, "This dollar could save someone's life. We're sending it to you to make sure it doesn't. Have a nice day."

See how people react to the dollar.

Why Metamathics?

I picked the name, Metamathics, for specific reasons. Metamathematics is the study of math using math, a way for the eye of logic to look at itself and check its own consistency. Here, I generalize the concept as a way of looking not just at the specifics of a given system, but the broader meta-concerns in its structure.

As a math teacher, the nature of math itself outside just the content is of interest to me. It's not just about "How do I teach square roots" but when and how to teach it so skills related to other topics are covered. Thinking about how we think about math and using it in curriculum instruction has occupied much of my time.

There is another level, though. Apart from just the classroom instruction, there is the environment around the classroom: the school itself. How the school is lead, organized, and run impacts the way the math is taught. This is another meta-level to education that many forget: the context of the classroom and the layers that separate a teacher from the student.

Games are a type of formal system, with axioms, theorems, and proofs. As a game designer, thinking about games is a type of meta-level analysis of this formal system. It's not just about the game itself, but how it expresses and uses the formal system of games to define itself.

Sequential art is a form of language unique to itself, where a string of images rather than words conveys the meaning. We see the images and we absorb the information, but how do different frames and designs influence the data we absorb? What is the common meaning we assign to certain visual tricks? A language must make sense to be of use, and comics do make sense - and understanding the why and how requires generalizing across types and styles.

My influences here are Douglas Hofstadter, with Peter Senge and Thierry Groensteen added in for good measure.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Facebook and Youtube

Want to see other things I post that won't make it here? You can peruse my public Facebook account. I try to avoid politics and stick to general topics of human interest. Many of the smaller notes I post here will be from that account.

For some of my old videos on the Create a Comic Project, this Youtube channel has them.

Introduction to Metamathics

Welcome to Metamathics! My goal is to express some of the regular meditations and epiphanies that occur to me now and then as I reflect on my activities as an educator, game designer, and comic creator.

This blog focuses on two general topics:
  1. My experiences and reflections on education and math.
  2. Thoughts and ideas on game design.
I've blogged about my early years with the Create a Comic Project quite extensively, so I will mainly focus on 2010 onward. This is when I became a classroom math teacher and on my role as a game designer for Cracked Monocle, which started around the same time. I will also post about my experience writing webcomics, such as Strange Candy. However, expect the lion's share of comic posts to go to the CCP Blog. If I mix comics with other topics, I will likely cross post.

Additionally, I will post monthly columns:
  1. Tephramathics, which focuses on a straightforward breakdown of the mechanics underlying Tephra: The Steampunk RPG
  2. Fabulous Confabulating Gentlemen, a more leisurely look at how the mechanics of Tephra might be viewed in-universe; and,
  3. Game Systems, where I apply the concepts of a formal system to games and game design.
These columns will alternate month-to-month. I am currently thinking of a series detailing my experiences with educational administration and what we need today in school leadership.

You can also expect small snippets of things ("Tidbits"), for things like one-line jokes or random musings/conversation starters.

I hope you enjoy this. Please feel free to comment as you wish. My hope is to inspire discussion and conversation.