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From Issue #14 April 11, 2013

Editor’s Note

Games people play; lumpy cushions; and what’s in a name.

By Glenn Fleishman Twitter icon App.net icon 

Adult animals rarely play. For species other than ours, play in childhood appears to be preparation for the more serious adult tasks of hunting, fleeing, socializing, and mating. We humans — mostly overgrown infants already with our lack of hair, giant foreheads, and flat faces — carry the childish task of play past puberty. And we also seek to accentuate our propensity to prolong play in the species we bring into our homes, such as the neoteny we imposed on wolf descendants.

The play we engage in as adults typically falls into the more formal strictures of games, rather than the free play of kids. (In fact, a side benefit of having children is that one can run around on playground equipment without looking like an escaped lunatic.) Games provide the structure and excuse for us to adopt personae other than our own, even if those other faces are just enhanced aspects of our everyday facade. We get to act purely physically or purely creatively without opprobrium and without a purpose. Playing games also lets us stop time: we sustain a moment that exists outside the rest of our lives.

In this issue, we look at several aspects of games and gaming. Scott McNulty explains how Dungeons & Dragons gave him the tools — including arrows and spells — to break out of his shell. The process of creating characters and playing them in the game helped Scott find his tribe and take lessons into his more general social interaction.

Brittany Shoot gets sucked into the resurgence of pinball playing — and quickly receives a solid worldwide ranking as a player. If you live in any medium-sized or larger American city, you’ll have noticed “barcades” opening all over. Unlike dive bars with pinball machines and videogames stuck in the back, barcades put the games front and center, but you can drink too (and in Seattle, eat ice cream). Brittany tells you how to find the nearest machines with the Pinball Map site and apps.

Brianna Wu takes us through the throes of bringing her vision of a videogame — starring the kind of strong female characters she’s always admired — into reality. Along the way, as she develops her game and her company, Brianna learns how to develop her staff’s personal and professional strengths by listening to them and watching them grow. She tells us what she’s learned along that path.

Nestled on the CIA campus sits a remarkable sculpture that contains a cryptographic cipher so fiendish that decades after its dedication only part of it has been decoded. Visitors outside of government are rarely allowed within the CIA’s confines, and few have seen the sculpture in person. Mark Siegal has been doing his modest part to crack the remaining encrypted text since 2005, and he takes us into the world of Kryptos and explores why it continues to fascinate.

Unsprung

From its start, Couchsurfing has provided an online meeting place for people who wanted to have interesting travels — those who would prefer the hospitality of a home (even if the bed were lumpy) to the impersonal crispness of a hotel. It’s not about money, even though Couchsurfing participants don’t pay each other in cash. Instead, it’s about experience. Unlike Airbnb, the site connects people for the mutual benefit of host and guest, rather than acting as a kind of booking agency.

The site abounded in goodwill, from semi-official ambassadors who welcomed new users and helped familiarize them with the forums to developers who donated their time at regular conclaves around the world to add new site features. The site was powered by donations that reached nearly $2 million in 2010. Then, suddenly, Couchsurfing announced that it had switched from being a nonprofit organization to a for-profit, venture-funded corporation with no notice and little clear explanation.

Stefan Kamph, in “Loose Stuffing”, lays out the events that led the site’s founders to make a sequence of opaque but perfectly legal choices in 2011 to keep the site alive. He also documents the turmoil since then among Couchsurfing’s users as the company has begun to change its basic community features.

The Magazine believes Stefan provides here the most definitive account of Couchsurfing’s last two years ever assembled. It should clear up some confusion by those who know the site well, and gives insight into how troubling a lack of transparency can be for an organization whose members think of themselves as stakeholders.

Naming day

When I compose a title for a story in The Magazine, I try to distill the general feeling of the piece into something that’s evocative, brief, and a little funny. It should tickle your brain to convince you to read the article, and the title should make even more sense when you’ve finished.

But Scott McNulty’s story about D&D helping him conquer his introversion defeated me no matter how many times I threw down the dice. I tossed out the general concept of the story to Twitter and received some wonderful suggestions:

Shy & Mighty

Creatures & Camaraderie

Dungeons & Meyers-Briggs

Solids & Silence

Total Party Kill

Contemplation & Comity

Melancholy & Majesty

Friends & Foes

Pals & Palisades

I, Paladin, I

Saving Throw

Nerds & Nazghuls

The Tomb of the Horrors of Puberty

(Thanks, @TimBreen, @symptomatic, @lukei4655, @siracusa, @mwiik, @tonyskyday, @afarnham, @GrumpusNation, @dloft, @dmoren, @_kFh_, @quantumamy, and @abockelm.)

John Siracusa, the author of “Strange Game” in issue #2, provided the winning title, which combined a use of D&D terminology with just the right feeling: “Roll for Initiative.”

Glenn Fleishman is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, hosts the podcast The New Disruptors, and is one of the writers of the Economist's Babbage blog. The father of two, Glenn won two episodes of Jeopardy! in 2012, and he won't let you forget it.

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