Episode One Hundred and Eighty Six: Videogame Tourism; Principles for 21st Century Government 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

 

8:42am at a Starbucks in suburbia, getting the suburbia Giant Car fixed because the magic eye that lets us see out the back of the car gets fogged up and moisture clogged resulting in a fog-of-war type rendering effect whenever we look through the magic mirror that lets us see out the back of the car. An aside: there’s a Starbucks in Portland that’s made out of a SHIPPING CONTAINER which I keep wanting to visit because there are certain people I know who get either very excited or very interested in shipping containers but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that some of their best friends are shipping containers. Anyway, here’s a picture of the Shipping Container Starbucks in Streetview[1] and Satellite[2].

 

[1] Starbucks Shipping Container: Streetview

[2] Starbucks Shipping Container: Satellite

 

1.0 Videogame Tourism

 

Okay, follow my train of thought: the latest installment in Ubisoft’s series of historical fiction meets conspiracy theory meets alien encouragement of human evolution  (oops, largely unsurprising spoiler) meets free-running meets getting stuck in the ground meets assassining[sic] people meets tourism (previous episodes included visiting Jerusalem, Acre, Damascus, Venice, Florence, Rome, Constantinople, Boston and New York) videogames[1] is set during the French Revolution.

 

One of the things about the Assassin’s Creed series has been Ubisoft’s somewhat fanatical if not painstaking-ish devotion to more-or-less recreating (I realise the qualifications are somewhat working against the description here) the locations in which they’re set, to the extent that the second in the series, Assassin’s Creed II: Italian Holiday Edition, included a reasonable accurate and *evocative* representation of Venice and Florence. (I haven’t played Assassin’s Creed: Let’s Visit The Pope, but I’m going to assume – ethics in video games journalism concerns aside – that the reproduction of Rome is reasonable atmospheric there, too).

 

All of this leads somewhat inevitably to the accusation that Assassin’s Creed Unity: An Assassin In Paris is historically inaccurate[2], which recalls the Jon Stewart response “I’m a comedian, this is a comedy show” to the fact that he is one of the more interesting journalists and news programmes on television. (John Oliver makes a similar point whilst meeting the New York Times’ David Carr[3]).

 

The point being that, as one of the developers said, Assassin’s Creed Unity: Les Grandes Vacances, is a “consumer video game, not a “history lesson”, which is fair enough, but did make me remember how nice it was to just *wander around* and the model for idle entertainment. The Assassin’s Creed games, when they’re released, are normally priced at around $50-60 – the top pricing tier for that generation of gaming console/gaming PC, which is pretty expensive for a videogame, but nowhere near as much as flying over to Paris to wander around for a bit.

 

Of course, not that playing a videogame and ignoring the prompts to sneak up on people to steal from them or kill them, or complete side-quests is anything like a holiday (or, at least, the kind of holiday that the vast majority of people take), but it certainly is *nice* using the free-running system to explore and stand, Hollywood Hero style, on top of a very tall building and spin the camera around you.

 

In other words: videogames as tourism. Sure, the idea of videogames-as-tourism, or escapism, isn’t necessarily a new one. But in Ubisoft at least we do have a multinational company (headquartered in France!) that makes videogames “developed by a multicultural team[s] of various faiths and beliefs”[4] that is spending gazillions of dollars (trust me, I checked, or at the very least, a Person I Trust Told Me So) on asset creation is mainly making games where you can run around and watch some tedious exposition about conspiracy theories and a memory-exploration device (such exposition is vaguely interesting in that – OMG – Ubisoft is the corporation that’s allowing you to explore the unreliable collective memory of a people and visit the past!), but really, my anecdata points to a bunch of people who just like wandering around other cities and climbing on top of things.

 

So what’s the market for an explore-and-climb-on-things-in-a-real-city game? Well, maybe not enough to spend gazillions of dollars on, but the nice thing about videogames and data and computers is the close-to-zero-marginal-cost when you’ve already done a lot of the legwork. Sure, you’d need to strip out all the quests and stuff, but maybe you’d need lots of people milling around (hopefully they’re people who are of differing heights[5]), but you’d have a Different Thing. It might not be a Triple-A sales-expectation game, but then, you’d be not selling to “gamers” – you’d be selling to people interested in visiting Paris and wandering around a bit. Which as we’ve seen from Google Maps and streetview – at the opposite end of the entertainment/utility spectrum, is *totally* a thing.

 

But what if Assassin’s Creed *were* a history lesson and not a consumer video game? For one, it probably wouldn’t look as good because the production budgets are totally different, but if there’s one thing that videogames *could* be good at, it’s the idea of unreliable narrators and presenting differing (and contradictory?) points of view[6].

 

What I’m getting at, I think, is this: there’s a stupendous amount of value locked up in the high-res mostly-accurate models, textures and geometry involved in the production of contemporary Triple-A videogames. With organisations like the BBC and their will-they-won’t-they Creative Archive[7], I can kind-of imagine a company like Ubisoft offering some of their assets up on a CC-alike no-commercial use licence for educational or non-profit products. Imagine what could be created with access to those kinds of assets. Imagine what The Fullbright Company[8], the studio behind Gone Home, could do with such assets.

 

[1] Assassin’s Creed – Wikipedia

[2] The new “Assassin’s Creed” game is reviving an ancient debate over the French Revolution – Quartz

[3] John Oliver’s Complicated Fun Connects for HBO – NY Times

[4] Assassin’s Creed, Multiculturalism, and How to Talk About Things – Magical Wasteland

[5] https://twitter.com/ultrabrilliant/status/534332698383638528

[6] Hat tip to long-time reader Paul Rissen: https://twitter.com/r4isstatic/status/534385638842593280

[7] BBC Creative Archive

[8] http://fullbright.company

 

2.0 Principles for 21st Century Government

 

I haven’t written much, specifically, about the new day job. One of the things we’ve been working on over the past (counts) six-and-a-half weeks since I’ve started is trying to define how we think government should work, and the result is this: Principles for 21st Century Government[1]. Let me see if I can write some background here.

 

[and we’re back, at 9:35pm and in the sky on the way to the family farmhouse in Missouri]

 

Code for America has an interesting position: they’re a 501(c)(3) – a non-profit – whose goal (I’m paraphrasing here, and producing my own explanation, which is part of the issue) is to improve the quality of government using technology and process. Part of the clue is in the name, but the name is also a bit of a misnomer: before I really started talking to them I was under the apprehension that they were a bit like Teach for America[2], which is a different kind of thing. They’re also not a government program, unlike organisations like 18F[3] or the US Digital Service[4], both of which are modeled, in some ways, on the success that the UK’s Government Digital Service has had. (You can see the practically seminal effect that GDS has had through 18F’s current website subhead, “*Delivery* is the strategy”, an inversion of one of GDS’ taglines, “The Strategy is Delivery”.

 

Anyway, I digress. Part of what I’m trying to do at CfA is help with a sort of organisational clarity. I think it’s fair to say that at the very least *I’m* not very happy with one of CfA’s current slogans, “We believe that government for the people, by the people, can work in the 21st century” because it doesn’t really say what we do. And we’re (the royal organisation we) are at that stage, getting to nearly 50 staff, where we’re approaching a phase-change that most organisations go through.

 

For example, the principles are a tightening-up of what were previously known as “capabilities”. We talked about things that governments ought to be able to do, abilities that they should have, in order for them to deliver services that people would prefer to use. But the shift that I wanted to make was that a capability without implementation is, from a practical point of view, not a capability at all. Ability without use is just unrealised potential.

 

So it’s one thing to parrot “The strategy is delivery” but I feel that, the vagaries of human communication being what they are, it’s a very simple phrase to grok on one level, but you need to really understand what *delivery* means. In GDS’ case, they have a unique situation: a top-down mandate, both political and apolitical for change in the way that the civil service does things. They also have, in Mr. Bracken, someone with what can only be a formidable political superpower in terms of shielding those doing the work from day-to-day political machinations.

 

No, if you’re serious about taking on “the strategy is delivery” you need to know what it means, and you need to make sure that *everyone* knows what it means. This is an interesting challenge for CfA because we don’t have a mandate at all. We have to go out and persuade local governments, who are frequently at the sharp-end of delivery in the Federal United States, that “delivery” is the way to go.

 

In other words, we have to sell delivery.

 

And the thing about “the strategy is delivery” is that it’s recursive: the reason why your strategy is delivery – of making things, of incrementally improving services, of focusing on, as the jargon goes, outputs and outcomes, on the things that residents and citizens actually use and are entitled to use, is because results – instrumented and measured results, are hard to argue with.

 

The strategy is delivery because when done right – and there’s the point, see – delivery works.

 

The strategy is delivery because delivery means improving the end-user experience and capturing the documentation that the end-user experience has improved. That wait-times have decreased. That support costs and enquiries have gone down. That usage has gone up, or gone down. That policy is actually being delivered.

 

This is hard. It isn’t easy. You can’t “buy” delivery. You can’t just come in externally and train a capability or an ability to do user research and then not actually enact it. So right now, we’re having an internal discussion about what it means when local governments ask for training. How do we make sure that we’re actually achieving our aim of better government, delivered, rather than providing training for an ability that might not actually get used?

 

And, bluntly: how do we help those who don’t know what help they need?

 

Personally the principles were an interesting thing because they were written from the point of view of “things that you should be able to do” rather than “look, you have to agree with these things”. Because if you don’t – if you don’t agree with those things, then you’re never going to do the other stuff. If you don’t, in effect, drink the kool-aid, and agree to work this way and do things this way, then you’re not going to, essentially, do things this way.

 

So then you have to prove them: why these principles? Why “Design for people”? Does it actually work? Well yes, it does. So the next step is the case-studies and examples that prove and shore-up that work. We don’t have the benefit that GDS does in terms of a top-down mandate to tell people that this is the way things are going to happen. We don’t get to dictate standards. We have to win converts, one local government at a time.

 

And for that, the strategy is better government, delivered.

 

[1] http://www.codeforamerica.org/governments/principles/

[2] http://www.teachforamerica.org

[3] https://18f.gsa.gov

[4] https://playbook.cio.gov

 

 

9:59pm on a Wednesday evening.

 

Send me comments, as ever. I love to eat them.

 

Dan