Post-Memorial Day Thoughts on Fake Guns, Using Them

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons User Duffman

Let’s start by observing two important and (hopefully) relevant things.

1) Recently, we celebrated Memorial Day here in this lifelong party we like to call America.  

That means that “The Troops” are on everybody’s mind, a fact which I am not at all lamenting.  Rather, I am harnessing it, taking that thought by the hand and saying, “follow me, new friend, to a group of people that might want to get to know you a bit better.”

2) There are a lot of violent video games.

Some attempt to address violence in sophisticated ways, some in straightforward ways, some in intentionally troubling ways, and others in unabashedly unempathetic ways.  The majority of video games don’t really even “deal” with the topic, at least not nearly so much as they simply feature violent action as a narrative impetus.

These two observations combine to form a brainchild in my brainwomb.  I think interactive experiences that feature violence as a central mechanic are an incredibly unique chance for us to think deeply about violence itself, especially when those experiences come in a virtual manner.

Watching films that feature violence — or reading a book that does the same, as long as the media is passive — is a somewhat legitimate way to encounter violence, and sometimes even brutal displays on screens are enough to push one’s tolerance.  At best, a non-interactive piece of media displays some horror, and causes you to feel some sympathy and — if it’s quite well-done — empathy along with it.  A non-interactive story can display something tragic in an emotional fashion, and make you think about the effects of those tragic acts.

I’m not saying static stories can’t be dramatically effective.  Books like The Yellow Birds and films likeThe Hurt Locker have dramatically changed the way I think about war.  I’m saying that Mass Effect 3made me think about violent conflict — and mortality itself — in a more profound and personal way.

Image courtesy of Flickr User JBLivin

Games are experiences that require agency within a set of rules.  They are active moments in our lives, not passive ones.  Many games — even thematically “violent” games like Risk — require conflict, competition, and confrontation.  Whenever I play Risk, I want to win it by “killing” the overwhelming opposition.  But “killing” those armies gives me the same feeling as taking virtual people’s virtual currency in Online Poker.  I never feel as though I’ve committed something violent; I’ve simply committed an act that granted me superiority.  I’ve won.

When the subject matter is on-screen, violent, and interactive, things get hairy.  When you have to make a decision between two groups of virtual beings, killing one cluster and saving the other, you have the opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of the imaginary humans that would make those choices.  If you choose to sacrifice the one important gun to save a thousand children and risk losing the war because of that decision, you have to at least rationalize a bit, since you are stepping into a role.  Likewise, if you choose to save the gun and sacrifice the babies, you’ll have to rationalize all that blood on your hands.  When a decision like this is presented to me — and it’s a common one, at least in essence — I rationalize both, as I can only assume at least a decent amount of people do.  I weigh pros and cons.  I picture future strategies.  And yes, I “gamify” the decision, since I am actively gaming.

However, the grim reality of these decisions — and how difficult they are to make — is accentuated in the right interactive moments, especially those that involve horrific acts of violence.  Don’t get me wrong, here.  I am absolutely not saying that games in which you get to pull people’s spines out are good games because they are games in which you can pull people’s spines out.  Rather, making ME do the spine-pulling is really what has the potential to teach me about the horrors of violence, either in an illustration of desensitization or an induction of squeamishness.  For me, Telltale’s The Walking Dead was filled with the latter.

If a piece of media makes me make the decision, I’m more likely to be able to see both sides.  

If a piece of media makes me commit the violence, I’m more likely to be disturbed by it.

If a piece of media makes me walk through a bunch of bodies that I chose to set ablaze, I’m infinitely more likely to feel personal regret.

Of course, none of these things even come close to teaching me about the reality of human violence.  I will never assume that.  Virtual interactivity is just another way that we can grow towards appreciating / appropriately fearing the human animal.  So, next Memorial Day, I want you to sit down, play a violent video game, and think.

[This post was originally published on Plus10Damage May 28, 2013.]

Point-Counterpoint — The “Gamer” Label: Should It Be Retired?

Image by Flicker user Official GDC
Image by Flickr user Official GDC

Inspired by the recent Gamasutra article, Opinion: Let’s retire the word ‘gamer’, the Duck, Hatm0nster, and I take a point-counterpoint approach to discuss what we think about the “gamer” label. Should it be “retired” as the article suggests? Do we accept the label ourselves? Is there some way for the term to escape the stereotypical notion of video game players? Read on and let us know what you think. Are we on target or way off base? Join the conversation in the comments below!

Continue reading Point-Counterpoint — The “Gamer” Label: Should It Be Retired?

“I’ll Definitely Need This Later…” (Probably Not)

Image By Flickr User: Elen Nivrae
Image By Flickr User: Elen Nivrae

When it comes to RPG’s I’m what you would call a hoarder. My character’s house in Skyrim is filled with old armor, weapons, potions that I’ll never use, and gem I will never sell. In traditional RPGs like Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger or Mario RPG, I never use the best items, even as they take up more and more of my inventory. I’ve gone whole games without using any of the items I’ve stockpiled, and why?

“I’ll need it later.”
Continue reading “I’ll Definitely Need This Later…” (Probably Not)

Games That Inspire Adult Tantrums

Several posts ago, I wrote about how many video games seem to be getting easier now than in the past.  This made me think of games on the other side of the spectrum.  Not really difficult games, though, as you’d expect.  Difficult games can be good for those who like a challenge.  But, what I had in mind was games that were difficult in a bad way.  Some of us like a challenge, while others prefer games that are simpler and more relaxing.  But, I would have trouble believing anyone enjoys games that are just, well, ridiculous and unfair.  That make you toss your controller across the room and tug out all your silky locks.  And scream completely new profanities at the images on the scream that made you behave this way.  You know those kinds of games, don’t you?  Don’t feel ashamed if a game has reduced you to insanity one time or another.  It happens.  But, boy, do I despise those kinds of games.

“Donkey Kong Country Returns” is one game that automatically springs to mind.  While the old Super Nintendo “Donkey Kong Country” games could be pretty hard, they never inspired such absolute loathing as this game.  This game has moments of fun.  It looks beautiful.  But, I hate it.  I just hate it so much.  It is ridiculously hard sometimes.  You know that Super Guide I mentioned in an earlier post, that completes the level for you if it’s too hard?  While it’s silly to have a game that plays itself, I do understand why they added it.  Because some levels can’t be completed using the skills readily available to us carbon-based life forms.  But, I have a tip for you, game developers.  DON’T make the levels so hard that they can’t be completed using the skills readily available to us carbon-based life forms in the first place!  What a radical notion! Continue reading Games That Inspire Adult Tantrums

Gaming And Me – My Identity As An Intermediate Gamer

Screenshot by Flickr User: nixinStudio
Screenshot by Flickr User: nixinStudio

Many of you may not be familiar with me or my blog over at simpleek. If you visit my blog, you may notice how I call myself the “intermediate gamer.” Ever since I started blogging over a year ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences and my identity as a gamer. I consider myself an intermediate gamer because my level with games lies somewhere in the middle. I’m not completely clueless about gaming because I have watched my cousin play Mario and other games that would be considered classic and retro at this point. I have held a controller before and played a little Mario, Mortal Kombat, and Aladdin as a kid. For some reason having a brief flirtation with games as a kid wasn’t enough for me to become a hardcore gamer.

My transformation as a gamer didn’t come until 2009, the year I decided I wanted to purchase a Nintendo DS and then the Wii. The Wii attracted me to gaming because of the motion controls. I don’t know why, but the idea of interactive gaming that encourages you to get up and move was appealing. By purchasing the DS and Wii it just opened up the floodgates to more gaming devices my friends felt I needed to have. When the PSP was added to the bunch, thanks to a friend who gave me one as a birthday gift one year, I thought this would be the last portable handheld device and console I would have in my possession.

Friends thought they could sway me to add an Xbox 360 or a Playstation console to my growing collection of gaming devices. I refused for the longest time. I was content with Nintendo and all the current systems I had. And the games! They just never stopped coming. I bought a few and then each Christmas and birthday were opportunities for my friends to pile on games they thought I would like to add to my growing library. I still have an insane backlog of games. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to put a dent on them.

My resolve against getting another console finally broke sometime in the fall of 2012. My friend showed me Dragon Age: Origins and I was a goner. It quickly became, “Why hello there, Xbox 360! Where have you been all my life?” The rest, as the tired saying goes, was history. I was knee deep into gaming and there was no turning back. I don’t regret my transition into a full on gamer. It just makes splitting my time amongst other leisure activities way trickier than it was before. Navigating my new found status as gamer was exciting, confusing, and a little intimidating.

Being the intermediate gamer meant I was no where near being a total infant in the realm of games, but I wasn’t an expert either. When I bought my Xbox and it came time to play a game where I had to get used to all the buttons and joysticks the controller had, I was as awkward and unsure as the girl who waited with baited breath to find out if the guy she had a crush on in high school may actually like her back. That’s how I compare the experience. It was a little embarrassing to find the simple use of a controller hard to grasp. What do all these colorful buttons do? When do I need to use the left/right trigger buttons? Why am I getting dizzy from moving the camera with this joystick? Believe me, there were plenty of issues I had to overcome when using the Xbox controller for the first time. These were not issues I encountered with the Wiimote.

Nowadays, these aren’t issues I have anymore. I was amazed by how quickly I got over them. It was a matter of getting used to something unfamiliar. A few years have gone by since my entrance into gaming, but I’m still reluctant to call myself an expert gamer. I have a lot to learn and plenty of games to conquer, but maybe in a few years time I can proudly call myself an expert gamer.

Being the Controller

Screenshot by Flickr User: Casul Media
Screenshot by Flickr User: Casul Media

By now, nearly everyone with an internet connection has heard something about the Xbox One reveal.  Most of my next-gen predictions were proven correct as I read several round-ups on the matter: Usual banter about hyper-speed processing and superior graphics, Check.  Profile-specific purchases and the supposed downfall of the used games market, Check. Baffling denial of an always-online console but the need for a persistent internet connection, Check.  Every console will ship with a Kinect and there will be a push for more games/features to become Kinect-enabled… wait, really?

At first glance of screenshots and press releases, I had assumed that there would be some sort of Kinect accessory, but I was rather surprised to hear that Microsoft decided to make Kinect ownership mandatory for the next console generation.  With the excellent sales and consumer reaction to the device, maybe such a development is not so surprising.  Much of this initial shock was based on my own personal experiences with the Kinect.

Last year, Laura and I borrowed the motion-sensing accessory from a friend of ours, mainly to try a variety of demos and see just how different Skyrim was with actual shouting.  For the most part, I found the Kinect to be an interesting, but ultimately gimmicky toy.  Navigating through virtual environments using my own gestures and movement was engaging at times, but thanks to regular sensor re-adjustment and frequent delays, I never felt fully immersed in the experience.  These problems were compounded by the space restrictions of GIMMGP Headquarters, which provided roughly ten feet between the television stand and the couch.  Plus, the lack of a controller in hand just felt wrong to my doddering old gamer self.  Slashing the enemy with my arms, running in place, and jumping to avoid obstacles just couldn’t replace the comfortable heft of a traditional controller; my anchor to the video game world had vanished.

Long before developers were including force-feedback technology and pushing motion controls for every console, all of the gamers I knew were already having their sense of touch and spatial recognition engaged by video games.  The most common example could be seen whenever we would gather to play Mario Kart 64 (or any racing game, really).  As each of us steered through a hard turn, we would twist the controllers and lean our bodies into the curve.  These motions did nothing to affect our in-game performance, but that didn’t matter; a connection had been made.  Controller and screen melted away, and the weight of our bodies in the kart would register with our characters’ movements.

These sorts of spatial connections would also occur whenever I played a game with pushing or pulling.  The crate puzzles in Ocarina of Time task the player with moving boxes around, normally under a time limit.  Whenever Link would struggle against a block, the resistance he met became palpable.  I would lean forward and put extra pressure against the analog stick, struggling against the drag of a massive crate.  Watching Laura play Katamari Damacy, I saw her performing similar actions: leaning her body, pushing the controller towards the screen, knowing in her heart that this helped the massive ball of junk lurch forward.  With the Kinect, I felt none of these immersions.  Even when pantomiming a push or pull, or leaning into a curve, I was met with no resistance; nothing tactile to provide a response.  Without the anchor of a controller to translate my movements, I felt like I was flailing about in an open space with no bearing on the in-game world.

From everything I have read about the new Kinect sensor, it seems that Microsoft is trying to enhance the gaming experience through an improved sensor and biometric readings.  The upgraded Kinect will be able to better detect player movement and facial features, along with estimating heart rate through a variety of factors.  These readings could be used to change game difficulty on the fly, or alter in-game achievements over time to better suit different play styles.  While these science fiction nuances may be impressive to some, the thought of a persistent camera monitoring my every move does not scream immersion to me (rather Big Brother and paranoia).  Unless the improved sensor can recreate the moments of spatial connection and total engagement that I found from a traditional console, then I will just let a controller stay as its namesake and stick with the classics.

-Chip, Games I Made My Girlfriend Play

When You Know It’s Right

Image by Axel Pfaender: http://www.flickr.com/photos/axor/5775058735/sizes/o/in/photostream/
Image by Axel Pfaender (source)

I’ve been playing Dragon Age II (very slowly) for a couple weeks now and I think, finally, we’ve clicked. How do I know? Because the gameplay and my characters from the game pop into my thoughts when I’m not playing. And when that happens, distracting as it may be, I starting thinking about where I’m going to go and what I’m going to do next in the game.

And then I start thinking about just playing the game – being in my house, controller in hand, calm and comfortable, ready to explore the unknown. [happy sigh]

How do you know when you’ve hit your stride with a game? Is it love at first play or does it take awhile to build up a relationship?

Continue reading When You Know It’s Right