Nicky Case explained my XOXO experience way better than I’m going to.

XOXO isn’t quite over with, yet — the closing party is still going on while I write this. But it’s gotten chilly, and my knee is acting up a bit, and I have dogs — so I’m at home and the festival is basically over for me. Sort of. Well, not really. I mean, I’m still writing about it, and I’ll be continuing to chat on Slack to the attendees until/unless they close the channels (please never). Maybe XOXO will never truly end. That would be lovely.

What I wanted to write up tonight was a breakdown of the second day of speakers… but that’s not what’s going to happen. I will get to the rest of them, but first I have to spend a bunch of words telling you about Nicky Case’s talk, because that talk, more than any other, explained what exactly my XOXO experience has been.

Nicky talked about a lot of things — like chaos and black-market bubblegum and serial killing your dreams — but the moment I went “oh that is exactly what this XOXO thing has been like!” started when Nicky started talking about the game Coming Out Simulator 2014, and put a giant picture of a decision tree up on the main projector screen.

I wish I’d taken a picture, but just imagine (or google) your standard forking decision tree — choose option A or B at the first fork, then A-A, A-B, B-A, or B-B at the next, etc. (Edit: Nicky tweeted me copies of the images used in the talk, thank you!) Nicky talked about how there’s a finite number of possible endings to that sort of tree when you’re writing a game, because they could obviously just keep splitting into infinity, but then you could never finish the game, and the game devs would cry. So you can make some of the small decisions not affect the story at all, really, or just give you a non-essential cut-scene — or you could use the nbd decisions the way Nicky chose to do in Coming Out Simulator 2014:

In addition to all those big decisions in the story there were lots of all these small in between choices, and they would unpredictably affect and subtly flavor the latter parts of the story.
The important thing is that the player wouldn’t be able to tell in advance which ones were the big or the small choices.
That’s where the anxiety comes in. Yay!

You know, a lot like real life.

I wrote a bit about my own big decision-tree moments that led to me attending XOXO 2015 — in brief, I chose “no” at the “would you like to sign up at all” decision in 2012, 2013, 2014 (and so got the “not attending XOXO” endings) but then chose “maybe” this year, which put me on a previously unplayed track. And there were a few more “big decision” moments after that — the lottery (a random number generator that could have sent me right back to the “not attending” ending) and choosing “yes” at the “would you like to join the Slack channel?” question (which I fully believe also kept me from the “you gave up, please try again” bad ending).

But those choices and consequences are really easy to see, and I had stopped thinking about the things that got me to XOXO until Nicky mentioned those small choices, and how they can affect a story, too. That’s when I realized how many non-game-changing decisions had led to my specific XOXO experience, and probably everyone else’s. That was the start of my “Aha!” moment and when (I think) I finally got what Andy Baio had been talking about when he said we were all alone, together. We aren’t just 1000+ who came together for four days — I’ve been making little everyday choices and actions as part of the XOXO community for months leading up to the event (and will continue to do so, after), and the same can be said of (probably?) everyone who attended.

For instance, I made choices like “what slack channels do I want to join, and who do I want to talk to there?” That didn’t affect who attended the festival and talks, but it certainly changed who I interacted with once I got there in some cases. I chose to add some folks on twitter once the attendee directory went up, and so saw what they talked about in a different, more public environment — and so was exposed to links that I then talked about at the conference, subtly changing my conversation cut-scenes. I chose to (finally) figure out what Medium even actually is after Andy Baio posted a call for folks to write about XOXO, thus subtly changing how I thought about what I was hearing at the conference — shifting ever so slightly from “I’m listening to the speakers” to “I want to write about this, later.”

And none of those small choices really changed the big-picture outcome—I would have attended the conference no matter which of those little choices I’d made differently, as would (probably) everyone else who did. And it’s no great, never-been-thought-of realization that, gosh oh golly, everyone makes little decisions all the time that subtly change the flavor of their lives.

But Andys Baio and McMillian could have left many of those small choices out of my decision tree altogether, when they were writing this program. And I hadn’t thought about just how much of a difference that would have made.

If there weren’t an XOXO Slack at all, as I’ve previously mentioned, I might not have attended. So we can’t cut that, even hypothetically. But what if they’d set up the Slack without giving other users the ability to make their own channels? There’s a hypothetical where I certainly met people in the main channel, and attended XOXO — but I never spent any time getting to know the fantastic #ladies from out of state until I got to the venue. If at all.

(What if we’d been on some other messaging app, where DMs had been disabled by default? I’m internet-private(ish) and mostly just lazy enough that I wouldn’t have changed that setting, and would have cut out quiet, getting-to-know you interactions with at least ten people who I later met IRL at the conference.)

What if we hadn’t had a real-world meet up before the main event? That was non-essential to my attending, but it cuts a huge chunk of people out of my “oh, I know you!” experiences once I got to XOXO on Thursday. It possibly cuts out my carpool, too. Which would have possibly made it very difficult to work up to going to the opening party, at all.

This list could get really long (and that’s all before the event), so here’s the TL;DR: Andy & Andy are going to get a lot of thank yous over the next few hours, day, week, maybe even months for putting that Really Big Fork in the decision trees of 1000+ people. The “XOXO exists, would you like to go” choice is a big one, and it’s awesome that they added it to reality. But, thanks to Nicky Case, I realized there’s one more thank you I need to add onto the pile: thank you, Andys, for adding lots and lots and lots and lots of small choices between “would you like to go” and “here you are.” Those small choices didn’t change the end-game — I went to XOXO — but they did affect the flavor of the outcome for me (and many other people) in wonderful and unexpected ways.

Let’s hope I get a chance to play again, next year.

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