Archive | video games RSS feed for this section

The Curious Case of Prostitution in Grand Theft Auto

28 Feb

I was interested in playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City because I’d heard so much about it. Phrases like “sandbox-style” and “the first truly open world” were bandied about by bloggers and reviewers, and I wanted to see what the hubbub was about. My girlfriend and I crossed the lobby of our building to visit our neighbors, friends with the correct hardware and newly-purchased software, for the express purpose of seeing and playing Vice City. That was my purpose, at least. I’m sure my girlfriend wanted to see the female counterpart of our neighborly hosts, to talk perfume and tampons and whatever else ladies converse about.
I was duly impressed by the video game. It was actually the second of the Grand Theft Auto series to feature point-of-view game play, but this was the first to make it look believable. It looked like Miami, sounded like the 1980s and felt like you were in Goodfellas. Game developers Rockstar Studios presented this slick, engaging world whose playability could be measured in tens of hours. Even my girlfriend was impressed, until she saw something in the game that horrified her: my neighbor showed us how you could actually have implied sex with a prostitute for money, then kill her immediately afterward to reclaim your payment. That was it for my girlfriend, she had seen enough. She insisted the game be turned off and we departed shortly after so she could go home and simmer.

 photo gta2_zpsbd6f2b74.jpg
Over the years since, I’ve seen this specific aspect–that one can employ and murder hookers in the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise–come up again and again. Very recently, I saw it referenced on a repeat episode of The Big Bang Theory. It’s obviously a sticking point with many people, something fundamentally revolting that supersedes the more average revulsion reserved for prostitution or murder alone. It is true, you can hump and then slay prostitutes in the Grand Theft Auto series. You can also kill business people, students, and scores upon scores of police officers, FBI agents, and the military. The carnage eventually becomes so absurd that it would be a feat to avoid killing prostitutes, peppered as they are between explosions and streams of automatic weapon fire. In fact, you don’t actually recoup your losses by killing prostitutes after services–a point I laughingly tried to impress upon my girlfriend in the Vice City days: when you kill hookers, they cough up a randomized amount of money like any violently deceased citizen, so that you might actually earn less than you tendered all told. Of course, this point of video game coding was lost on her.

 photo gta1_zpsaa5677bb.jpg
There’s very little in the Grand Theft Auto series that isn’t calculated to offend your sensibilities. You can gun down an old woman pleading for mercy. You can lay waste to throngs. Still, there’s something about killing a hooker you’ve just poked that rankles more than blowing a police helicopter out of the sky with a guided rocket launcher. I think there’s an element of misogyny implied in the act that heightens indignation. This collection of colored and textured polygons meant to resemble a prostitute is just trying to ply her virtual trade. She’s got enough pain in her life, theoretically, without having to be murdered by a video game sprite. Hookers are fairly marginalized in mainstream society, that’s why many serial killers test their skills on a half a dozen of them before moving on to blond women and closeted homosexuals. And a 128-bit murder is still murder, I suppose.

 photo gta4_zps000c05e7.jpg
But isn’t it fantasy, a “thought crime” at best? If someone thinks about having sex with hookers and then offing them, but never actually does it, has a crime really been committed? This is sort of topical now, as the “Cannibal Cop” court case begins in New York. The case involves, in short, a NYPD officer chatting online with like-minded deviants about wanting to capture and cook women. There are transcripts of him discussing how to prepare his wife, how to bind and properly subdue her, as well as boasting by another party about the women he’s eaten. But no ropes, no chloroform was found. The officer talks about a house upstate with an oven suitable for cooking people, but no such place seems to exist. So it seems like this officer was talking a lot of shit, but the nature of his shit-talking is, itself, a crime. Using this logic, anyone who has written or produced a horror film is subject for arraignment.

 photo gta3_zps56374edf.jpg
Similar questions are raised in the haunting HBO documentary Capturing the Friedmans. If we can be arrested for the things about which we’ve fantasized, then I’m set for death row. And I won’t be lonely, because I know that many of my male peers have considered scenarios so offensive that they’ve disgusted themselves. Perhaps it’s women, to an extent, that do not consider these dark fantasy scenarios, and it’s too bad really because you could be imagining breaking my balls for some video game infraction instead of MAKING MY ACTUAL LIFE A GODDAMNED LIVING HELL FOR THE LAST HOWEVER MANY YEARS FOR FUCK’S SAKE! I need to blow off some steam now. Time to kill a virtual hooker.

Punch Wood: Mods and Rockers

16 Oct

There was a game for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System called Wizards and Warriors. It was a decent side-scrolling platforming game, where you played a knight (the titular warrior, I suppose) who jumped around slaying monsters and ultimately, perhaps–it’s been a long time since I played the game–a wizard. Along the way, you could gather power-ups to enhance your character, like a temporary high jump to get over obstacles, or the ability to fire bolts from your steely lance. There was one power-up, the Cloak of Invisibility, which was the most useless extra, to the detriment of gameplay. The problem was that the cloak didn’t merely make you invisible to enemies, but to your own eyes, so you’d invariably steer your sprite into a bottomless chasm or jutting spikes or some other hazard. Anyone who’s played the game will tell you they got this power-up a few times, then passed over it like poison for every subsequent playing. “Why did they put this shit in the game?” I remember thinking, “Someone should tweak the code to make it work.”


I had neither the experience or the gumption to do this myself, but eventually there would be a big community of people who modify video games, or “modders.” They make “mods,” which can be anything from extra levels in a classic Super Mario Bros. game to new items and types of gameplay for newer titles. Many video game developers release a tweakable version of their proprietary code, allowing independent fans to create new quests and textures, extending the shelf life of some games far beyond the fifty or so hours provided upon purchase. It’s happening with a lot of titles these days, but I don’t think it’s as ubiquitous and pervasive as with the game Minecraft. There are mods to adjust the basic performance of the game, and mods that completely change the entire gameplay. No longer can you necessarily mine and craft, instead you will survive and fight hordes of speedy zombies and other players while looting abandoned towns and military encampments. There are so many mods, from the ludicrous mods that add blocks made of shit, to amazingly complicated mods that allow you to set up entire rock quarries and create solar batteries for your jet pack.


It’s a curious business model, to create a framework and allow users to change their experience as they see fit. Imagine you went to see a movie in the theater, but were able to change the level of violence within to suit your tastes. Or picture yourself reading a mystery novel and you’re able to change the ending per your findings throughout the text. That’s sort of like what’s happening with Minecraft, though I suppose since it doesn’t offer a linear story with limited options, adding various “to do lists” to the mix makes good sense. Without any mods, what you’ll do for the most part in Minecraft is mine, smelt, and build, with a little hacking of archer skeletons and occasional forays into the Hell dimension for potion ingredients. The addition of a mod or two can increase the number and type of creatures that spawn around the land, or add new weapons, or change your avatar so that it looks like a character from the My Little Pony cartoon. Yes, I’m serious.


The Minecraft modding community is part of what makes the game’s fanbase so rabid and growing exponentially. By rights, popularity for a game which mostly entails wandering around empty spaces should have petered out a long time ago. But as long as people are still interested to mod this game as they see fit, interest will be generated among veterans and new players alike. With mods, the game that is all things to all people can truly have something for everyone, possibly even those who didn’t think they liked to play video games at all.

Get Minecraft and see for yourself at minecraft.net!

Punch Wood: It’s a Family Affair

16 Feb

My family never had a Game Night. We hung around with each other at times, and I certainly played games with my dad–Mille Bornes was one of his favorites–but we didn’t sit around as a family to roll dice against a piece of cardboard once a week. I think the main reason we didn’t do this is because board games suck. This fact can be applied to all board games, without exception, and any person who postulates otherwise is possibly suffering from a mild hysterical delusion. Board games are “fun” when pitted against “sitting in a room of uncomfortable silence;” if the latter is a likely option, only then does playing a board game seem like an attractive alternative. But anything else is better than playing a board game, down to arguing with loved ones about politics and scrapbooking. You might actually take away some memories, bad or good, from scrapbooking with your mother and Aunt Matilda. You’ll never remember a solitary thing you did while playing a stupid board game.


However it’s also true that I was not instilled with much familial “team spirit.”. We didn’t have a goofy sign with our surname outside the house, we took no yearly Christmas photos of us in a huddle dressed like a group of used car salespeople. I was given the option to join every manner of extracurricular activity: Cub Scouts, Little League, after school art programs–but unlike many of my peers, it was my option to do these things, they weren’t forced upon me as requisites. Given the choice, I opted out, and there was never any fighting or further discussion about it. I was happy to read and draw and concoct my version of the world within the angular walls of my attic bedroom. I don’t think it’s for me to say whether mine is an enviable or regrettable way to have grown up, but I don’t feel in the least bit angry or bitter about having missed the camaraderie of playing sports I don’t enjoy with kids I regarded suspiciously. My eschewing of team experiences were just some of the lustrous fibers that wove themselves into the wonderful, loveable tapestry that I am today. Don’t cry for me, Auburndale Soccer League.


I am aware that Family Game Night is an institution in many homes across America, one begrudgingly attended by teenagers who then turn around and foist it upon their own children, perpetuating a cycle that allows the board game industry to exist. One pitfall of playing these games is that the learning curves are so steep: games appropriate for all ages are often suitable only for infants and morons, while more adult fare like Pornographic Pictionary is too ribald for pre-pubescent family members to appreciate. Today, many Family Game Nights involve playing video games, often computer graphic-interpreted versions of popular board games which have the same inane pitfalls as their cardboard counterparts. Most other video games are either a non-stop bloody sex carnage, or involve repeatedly bouncing a pink bubble from one rainbow cloud to another while an anthropomorphized woodchuck cheers you on in Japanese. Enter Minecraft, a game that is simple and pleasant enough for small children to play, but also entices older players with action and challenges. And perhaps playing Minecraft is a better pursuit than racing your plastic token around a crummy picture against other members of your own family, because success in multi-player Minecraft involves teamwork.


I don’t mean to sugar-coat it and imply that playing Minecraft is primarily a team-based effort. You can certainly play it quite happily all on your own, and you can also spend time on servers slicing other players to ribbons with your pixelated sword (though you must then watch your back once your target respawns). I furthermore don’t intend to imply that Minecraft is the only or even best co-operative video game: many team-based first-person shooters require precise, military-style group maneuvers to effectively extract a maximum number of bloody deaths from the opposing team. But Minecraft seems to be an equalizer, a compromise between the many different wants and needs of a family unit. Watching families play Minecraft on YouTube, you see how easily each member falls into their supportive roles, depending on their proclivities: one person might spend tireless hours gathering resources (like the interminably boring job of chopping wood and replanting saplings) while another concentrates on constructing a sturdy home and establishing an animal farm. Even the hormone-addled teenager can satisfy his wanderlust and carouse the countryside defeating monsters, only to return and use his valuable experience points to enchant tools for the rest of his clan. Or, more than likely, get blown up by a Creeper and be respawned back at the family’s virtual stead anyway. Now there’s one way to make sure your kid is home on time.


One of my favorite things about families playing Minecraft is how variance in levels of immersion from each player can still result in a productive afternoon of playing games. When a family plays Monopoly, it’s usually one person who cares about playing and winning the game, and a bunch of other people who half-heartedly push their top hat or terrier around the board until the one person actually engaging with the game wins. In Minecraft, one member of the family can be very pro-active in killing zombies and collecting iron, while other members lazily tend to their wheat farms and home decoration, and at the end of a session everyone will have something to show for it. Most of all, they have the collective experience of having created something together, existing in an equalized playing field where the youngest member can defeat the meanest monsters. Mom and dad don’t have to worry about providing for the family in Minecraft, they can let the kids distill watermelon into life-giving potions while the adults go off on a journey to punch sheep. When the goals aren’t explicitly defined, the only thing left to do is have fun.


Or be bored out of your mind. I won’t pretend that Minecraft doesn’t have its limitations, but with a long list of potential activities and ever-expanding and updated software being provided by Mojang, Ltd., not to mention all the mods available for the game, you could play for a long time before it truly gets redundant. The virtual world is also a good place to commune over family issues that might be too touchy or painful to deal with in real life, as evidenced by the above video. Luclin at Minecraft Workbench produced this episode as a memorial to his son, Devlin, and it features the construction of a virtual remembrance while the family recalls memories of their lost member. Sure, that could–and almost certainly did–happen in the real world, where there would be real tears, real hugs, real warmth. But mourning on a Minecraft server carries different implications, a sharing of thoughts and words, the collective creation of something unique and wholly from one’s mind. A little easier on the old heartstrings, I think. For someone raised without a Family Game Night, and therefore is emotionally detached from everyone, it speaks to me as a good alternative to sobbing over a casket.

The Joystick is Broken: Watch the Way I Dance

29 Jan

In the initial parts of this rather muddled series of essays, I attempted to show how video games have been a communal function from their inception, beginning with crowds of competitors and onlookers thronging arcades and pizza parlors in the 1980s, and ultimately arriving at online co-op play of games of every type, sometimes including hundreds of people at once. There is another, lesser-known way that people share video games–one very much akin to the origins of video game spectating–and that’s when one records oneself playing games, sometimes with simultaneous commentary, for the benefit of people to watch later. This commentary can be aimless rambling on any number of personal or universal subjects, other times it is structured, scripted role-play and carefully edited video game footage. It seems to me like a new form of expression, one whose implications are interesting to consider as the format invents itself.


Many of life’s most perplexing problems were pondered by yours truly while he played Battletoads and listened to the Dead Kennedys during my junior high school years. Most video games, especially those made before the twenty-first century, are little more than sequential patterns that behave predictably. The first few times you play a game, it’s a matter of discerning these patterns and then anticipating their pitfalls on the next go ’round. By the time you’ve played a game a few dozen times, you’re barely even looking at the screen as the muscles in your hands react to pure timed memory, particularly on the first levels of game that often get played again and again. And it was in these zen moments, playing world 1-2 of Super Mario Bros. for the umpteenth time, that I would ruminate on my life’s deepest issues: at that point, mainly girls and acne. My mind would wander and I would consider events that had happen at school, or concoct complicated dramas involving myself and school crushes. Playing video games becomes a therapeutic, meditative experience at this point, an experience separate from the goal-oriented task of, well, achieving that game’s goals.


Thanks to online video outlets like YouTube and twitch, gamers can now share these intimate thoughts with the world at large. Many of these videos are interesting thematic juxtapositions, as people talk frankly about something like bullying or depression while blowing opposing players’ heads off with a 10mm submachine gun. By adding this layer of soundtrack–their voices–to gameplay, there is created a unique piece of media, presenting elements of watching video games and listening to talk radio, but providing the full extent of neither. Often, the commentary is about events in the game, but it always spirals into any number of subjects on which the commentator wishes to expound. Watching how they play certain games and listening to them speak about particular subjects give the (perhaps illusory) effect of getting to know the person, in ways you might not know someone you merely have lunch with now and again. How people play games and complete puzzles is one of the factors in making psychological and psychiatric diagnoses, and in this way, these viewers of these videos become armchair therapists, offering their support (or derision) in commentary and public responses.


Not all commentators free associate, however, some role-play or even create elaborate dramas that are acted out within the framework of a game. This takes a few different forms: sometimes, the commentary is live and the player assumes the role of an in-game character. Other times, video game footage is carefully edited to present a scene that is voiced-over. In any case, episodes run about ten to twenty minutes in length and are uploaded around once per week (with a potential for higher frequency of episodes in the instances involving live commentary). A YouTube video game commentator will juggle three our four different “shows” at a time, either by playing through a few different games simultaneously, or by acting out different roles in one game, or they’ll do a little of both. Minecraft is a game that is very popular among video game commentators, for two reasons: Mojang, Ltd., the company that owns the game, has given express consent for video of its game to be uploaded to the internet. But the second reason is because Minecraft is a game that is what you make of it, and since everyone plays it differently, there’s merit in watching how disparate people deal with it. Some Minecraft players concentrate on the building aspect, others are more into adventuring. I wrote an essay about Minecraft, so I won’t go into detail about its many facets here, except to say that there are many.


I became clued in to the potential of this new form of entertainment while watching a series by a UK group that call themselves the Yogscast. What began as a normal Minecraft series, featuring two relatively funny guys figuring out how to play the game, subtly became a massive, fantastical drama, rich with a dozen fully-realized locations and a limitless cast of characters that could rival any daytime soap opera. Using various game mechanics and modifications, they’re able to display and exploit the best aspects of the game, making for a show that is as entertaining as it is tutorial (well, perhaps a bit more entertaining than tutorial). Based on their wildly popular YouTube channel, the Yogscast have created a little cottage industry all their own, with a legion of devoted fans who line up at conventions for a glimpse of their heroes in three-dimensional glory. It’s brilliant, I think, and the possibilities for this format are wide open. As computer graphics get better and actual, human actors more annoying, we will probably see more and more cartoon programming, where the only things actors lend are their voices. There’s every reason to think that these cartoons will increasingly be representations of popular video game characters, probably opening a bar together or moving in with their auntie and uncle in Bel Air, or some stupid thing like that.

Punch Wood

25 Jan

Imagine you find yourself awakening on an unfamiliar beach, blinking your bleary eyes at the glare of a rapidly rising sun. Before you is a seemingly endless ocean of clear blue water. Turning around, you see a strange and beautiful landscape of snowy pine forests, towering mountain ranges, rolling green hills, and expansive deserts, all adjacent to one another like a patchwork quilt. There are no obvious, immediate signs of civilization, no visible inhabitants save for a few bleating sheep and a couple of pigs meandering lazily along the terrain. You are lost, quite possibly stranded, and find yourself in a survival situation. Eventually, you’ll signal for help or find a way back to humanity, but for now you’ve got to worry about satisfying your most basic needs. What do you do first?

Well, if you’re playing Minecraft, you walk up to a tree and punch it with your bare fist until it coughs up a log.


Created independently by Markus “Notch” Persson in 2009, Minecraft is a game that is about playing. It’s simple enough for first-timers to quickly get the hang of, but complex enough to entertain and engross gaming veterans. The gameplay is basically as described above: you are deposited in a randomly-generated, nearly infinite world where you must survive. You begin by making rudimentary tools of wood, then use those tools to gather stone for an arsenal upgrade. After a little while, night will fall, and then it’s time to make a shelter because things come out in the dark.

Bad things.

Unspeakable things.


Namely, creatures that will be hostile and try to kill you. Should you be caught outside after the sun goes down, you’ll contend with lumbering zombies, precise skeleton archers, and exploding sneak artists known as Creepers. If you make it through that first night, then you’ll be in a good position to establish yourself and bolster your position in the coming days: expanding and securing your abode, gathering resources and mining precious ores, perhaps starting a farm with those two pigs you spotted when you first…arrived. With industriousness and a little luck, you can build your mud hut into an impenetrable kingdom, well-stocked with food and materials fit for a king. And you’ve done it. You’ve won the game.


Or perhaps you grow bored with living alone in your respectable but uninhabited kingdom and decide to strike out into the world. You explore your surroundings and find a land carved by winding rivers and impossibly deep ravines, where minerals are so abundant that great veins glint in the noonday sun. You must have them, so carefully you descend into the cavern and begin extracting precious metals while angry monsters swarm around you. Deftly, you murder them all, gaining experience points in the process which you then use to enchant your weapons for improved effectiveness. You are now this world’s mightiest warrior. Creatures tremble at your approach and the very land before you succumbs to your every desire. You are at the apex, having achieved as much power as reasonably possible, and now you have finally won the game.


Or perhaps you are bored with the reality as presented before you, and you decide to see what other dimensions have to offer. Carefully arranging the proper materials, you are able to build a portal to a fiery hell world known as the Nether, a world of eternal night, lit largely by treacherous seas of lava that fill nearly every available space. You’re beset by new species of monster: zombie Pig-Men that wander aimlessly with their golden swords unsheathed, gigantic floating Ghasts that emit sickening whines and shoot fireballs in your general direction. You discover a pitch black fortress made of unfamiliar materials, and from it you’re able to gather unusual resources that bestow new abilities when taken back to the normal Minecraft world. Using your newly-found resources, you craft new items and, eventually, potions that impart incredible powers. You are now a superhero, limited only by the number of buffs you can create. Without a weapon, you are the most formidable being in existence, and after repeated trips to the Nether, you’re able to dominate that dimension as well. You are now a denizen of two distinct worlds, master of both, lord of all you survey. Surely, nothing more can be accomplished. You must have won the game.


But there is yet more gameplay, including dominating stronghold fortresses buried beneath the ground, the discovery of a weird fungal landmass where cows grow mushrooms on their backs and give mushroom stew instead of milk, and yet another dimension to reach where you will have to slay a constantly regenerating dragon. And even then, you aren’t really done. You can continue to mine and build and fight to your heart’s content, alone or with friends on shared servers, either with the original “vanilla” game, or using any one of dozens of modifications that affect the game in a variety of ways. You can even create your own custom maps utilizing the same simple tools needed for regular play. As a result, the modding and custom map community for Minecraft is an entity all its own, propelling the simply complicated oxymoron that is Minecraft into ever-expanding–and possibly endless–territories. Much like the randomly-generated Minecraft world in which you spawn, every game is different, and every person plays in their own way.


It sounds like I’m gushing over the game, and truthfully, I am. There’s so much more that I could say about the Minecraft, but there’s no point when you can go and experience it for yourself right now. Go ahead. There’s a Java version right on the website you can tool around to get a feel for the game. It’s the merest glimpse of what Minecraft has to offer, so beware: it may whet your appetite for conquering dungeons and killing dragons. However, many before have fallen to lesser pursuits. Punch some wood.

The Joystick is Broken: Well Met On the Ethereal Battlefield

2 Jan

When I was young, I had an idea for a video game: rendered in first-person, three-dimensional perspective, the player controlled a character that was essentially me. You’d wake up in a computer-generated version of my bedroom, walk down some polygons rendered as stairs, and enter the kitchen to get a bowl of cereal. You’d be able to interact with everything; theoretically you could make yourself lobster thermidor, if the ingredients were to hand, but doing so might preclude you from performing other tasks that morning. Ultimately, you’d get dressed, leave the house, and attend a full day of school, just as I might on an average weekday. You could interact with every character in complex ways and the object would be simply to live in a virtual reality with no fantastical elements, except for the amazing and likely impossible amount of video game coding required. I think this says two things about me: for one thing, I would make a really shitty video game developer. But it also implies that I was open to living on a non-physical plane, to commune with the same friends, acquaintances, and strangers I regularly encountered without having to smell them. Somehow, even in the days of 8-bit Nintendo sprites and 14.4 baud modems, I knew that this dream of a mundane online existence was a distinct possibility–perhaps an inevitability, considering how much more I enjoyed playing Golgo 13 than I did cleaning my room. I’m sure if I could have just dragged and dropped all offensive bedroom articles into an iconic trash can where they would magically disappear, I’d have been more likely to perform the chore.


Every advance in communication has made the world more accessible, and perhaps perceived a little bit smaller. Telephones made it possible to speak to anyone in the world in real time, television made it possible to see each other. Interacting online is the most complete form of transferring information yet, a stopgap solution before pure teleportation. We can see and speak to each other simultaneously over the internet, collude on projects and build on collective ideas, even remotely control devices and actuated machinery to create objects from halfway around the globe. We receive breaking news from Libya while simultaneously communicating with our own elected representatives in immediate, electronic fashions. It seems like almost anything can be accomplished while navigating the world wide web, and the possibilities are rarely exemplified as well as when people play video games online.


I don’t have any extended personal experience in playing video games online, but I am fascinated by its implications. Hundreds and even thousands of people from every corner of the world play these games at once, against each other or co-operating towards a specific goal. There are lots of kinds of multi-player games to play online (board games like Chess and Scrabble, and casino games being the most obvious and accessible), but by and large, popular online video game play seems to split into three basic types: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), First-Person Shooters (FPSes), and open-world sandbox type games where the users largely dictate their own functions and goals. Any one game can have elements of the other types, and often contain minigames, games-within-games that a player must accomplish alone to progress his character. Playing these games becomes a set of experiences richer and more rewarding than those offered on the physical plane, many of which seem to involve waiting around and being forced to watch commercials. A given game will appeal to a type of player for a variety of reasons, but the core impetus is our innate desire to interact with other human intelligences.


In an MMORPG, the player designs a stalwart, brave character and outfits him with the best possible armaments so he can sally forth and massacre woodland creatures for a few hours in order to approach a respectable experience level. This process is known as “grinding,” and it’s the dirty secret of the MMORPG world. Ostensibly, games like World of Warcraft and Eve Online would prefer a player begin their tenure in the game by joining smaller quests, perhaps requiring everyone to band together and kill an iguana, then assuming more and more challenging quests until you have gained sufficient rank to attempt the take down of a dragon. However, it is much more common that someone will hole themselves up in some secluded forest and murder Thumper over and over again for the meager experience points that each kill provides, emerging from the wood days later with a level score in the triple digits. Here’s where the shared virtual experience breaks down: since in-game “learning” is represented as an additive integer; it’s a simple numbers game to tweak the system and have the cumulative level experience of an old-timer, but the actual game experience of a newbie. Still, the co-operative questing in these games works well, and no matter how they got there, when players of like experience levels band together to complete an objective, they share experiences that forge actual friendships. It’s easy to discount achievements in the video game world, being that they aren’t tangible, but the accord between players is very real.


FPSes are probably the most popular type of game play today, and the name describes the gameplay accurately: you move around some virtual arena in first person and shoot other characters and objects. There are dozens of these types of games: in the last quarter of 2011 alone, Battlefield 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Gears of War 3, and Halo 4, the last one bucking the trend of that season’s trilogies but completely in line with the recycled scenery of FPS games. These games have very short lives when played alone, since repeatedly spending ammunition clips on the same fields of battle, against the same non-player characters with the same artificial intelligences, can quickly wear thin. It’s in the multi-player arena where these games shine, adding the challenge of other human brains that are constantly calculating the best ways to perforate your ass with soft-jacketed bullets while simultaneously protecting their own posteriors. It’s during these games that players speak to each other in order to coordinate strategies, and when you are most likely to be called a derogatory name by some acne-scarred kid with a voice like Minnie Mouse. FPS games leave me cold, for the most part: once the game play is mastered, the challenge–even in multi-player–can be facile. I also can never shake the sneaking feeling that these games are promoted and engineered with the help of various military agencies in order to recruit children. Whether they are turning our kids into Manchurian Candidates or slothful slug-a-beds, it’s difficult to deny that shooting the shit out of people with no legal or moral repercussions is a lot of fun, and when you can participate in this digital slaughter with like-minded friends, the fun increases exponentially.


The best-known line of sandbox-style video games is Rockstar Studio’s Grand Theft Auto series. The object in Grand Theft Auto, as it is in most sandbox games, is to move around a vast world, picking up quests by way of speaking to non-player characters (or NPCs) or simply being in the right place at the right time. The player then completes these quests to gain more experience, new and improved abilities, or just for the sheer fun of taking down a helicopter with a scoped 9mm handgun. The novelty of sandbox games is that while there often is an over-arching story, quests can often be completed in any order, and there’s lots of extraneous game play not related to the main storyline. An NPC can ask that you escort her kindly mother to church, you can agree to help out, and then spend the next ten hours on the complete other side of the map collecting golden flowerpots or jumping stolen motorcycles off of rooftops while granny theoretically waits patiently in her Sunday best. Theoretically, I say, because time never works normally in sandbox games. Plot points are triggered when certain combinations of quests are completed, so even though some super villain threatens to blow up the world in three hours at the outset of the game, he will actually hold off for as many hours of game play as you desire, until you decide to enjoin the final quest and face the main baddie.


Due to their open-world, multi-directional nature, most sandbox games don’t lend themselves to a similar type of online play. A sandbox game with true online play would behave more like an MMORPG, with players acting independently in different areas of the map. Because sandbox games have a narrative that is advanced by in-game triggers, you can’t rightly have someone moving the story right along at a rapid pace while you’re still at the starting gate figuring out how to open your inventory screen. For this reason, most co-operative game play for sandbox style games involve special matches of Capture the Flag or team-on-team assault. These matches can be fun and rewarding, but they are far from the open-world experience of a true sandbox experience. The only co-operative game I know of that offers such an experience is Minecraft, an independently-produced game of such depth and breadth that I will likely need to dedicate an entirely new essay in order to describe and define it.


Many people look down on co-operative online video gaming, as they probably do video games themselves, as being perpetual time-wasters with no redeeming real world value. However, when I remember my own childhood, I recall whiling away the hours watching television re-runs, or listening to the same album twenty times in a row, or doodling on every page of a notepad and then summarily discarding it in the trash. Most of our moments are not enriching life experiences, we spend a lot of time spacing out and standing in line. While it is true that slaying a video game dragon will result in no actual corpse, the shared experience of solving puzzles, discerning patterns, and gamers just bullshitting with each other is authentic and observable. Perhaps online social interaction pales in comparison with meeting in real life, but as the Information Age gains momentum, that might be less true going forward. The internet is a great equalizer, a point made obvious when you join a team of people from around the world, of nearly every age and background, and combine to annihilate a similar ragtag bunch on the same server. Then, some eleven year-old kid in Wheelies fires three bullets into your virtual cranium, in between contemplative bites of Lucky Charms cereal, and sends you to digital oblivion. And then, in his innocent, high-pitched voice, he calls your mother a slutty whore and suggests that you eat shit and expire.

The Joystick is Broken: I Got Next

8 Nov

In the first part of this essay, I discussed how playing video games are and always have been a communal venture, players either acting as digitized performers for audiences of like-minded gamers, or directly competing during game play (most often in the form of beating the snot out of one another.) In that piece, I focused primarily on the arcade video game experience, a group dynamic created when interested people meet on the neutral field of the pizza parlor or carnival midway and crowd around noisy, blinking machines. There is another dynamic with its own observable traits created when people play video games together on home consoles and personal computers, either side-by-side in front of the television, or online, largely with veritable strangers and, embarrassingly, ten year-old racists that laugh while tearing you a new high-definition asshole. Today more than ever before, video games are a group endeavor, perhaps replacing aimless teenage “hanging out” with actual goal-oriented projects and shared virtual experiences. Or maybe it’s a new-fangled bunch of time-wasting bullshit.


Home consoles have always had the option for two or more players to enjoy applicable video games. Some games, like Atari’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial required one player to manipulate two joysticks. By the time I bought my own home console, the dear Nintendo Entertainment System I’ve written about before, you had to purchase your own separate joystick (a D-Pad, in the case of the NES) to play two-player games. This was a smart move by Nintendo, because everyone dreamed of bouncing up and down on the couch with their friends in front of some epileptic fit-inducing game while hopped up on sugared cereal like the kids in video game commercials. Buying the second joystick was a certainty the moment the system itself was purchased–even though it came with a Zapper, the second in a string of Nintendo video game peripherals that would quickly become virtually useless–because playing games with your friends is a natural thing to want to do. The dynamics of playing a game together on a home console differ quite a lot from playing in a public arcade, however, and should be described and understood.


My invitations to sleep over at a friend’s house in elementary and junior high school often included the enticement that my host would “show” me a particular game. Though the implication was certainly that we’d play together, quite often I was merely shown the game, idly sitting and watching my buddy’s deft maneuvering and expertise. This could take a few forms, including the repeated allowance for “one more second” of play while a seasoned veteran races to the last boss and saves the princess or whatever. However, even if a proper two-player game was executed, the host would automatically play for longer lengths of time since he was more familiar with the game play. Truth be told, I didn’t mind. I’d much rather be dazzled by the full technical capabilities of the flickering sprites and eight-bit music rather than muck about and die a billion times in front of my friend.


This exchange takes a different hue, however, when considering two-player co-operative or combative play. Many from my generation recall frustrating sessions of Super Contra and Ikari Warriors, when a less adept player would slow down the screen’s horizontal or vertical scrolling by hanging back due to their ineptitude. And nearly everyone’s first experience with games like Super Street Fighter involves getting their ass repeatedly handed to them by someone who can play the game, read a book, eat a full chicken dinner with all the trimmings, and deride you in front of a group of onlookers with a casual, demeaning attitude. This scenario was played out in pizza parlors, arcades and living rooms all around the world, I presume, a stiff lesson in humility and instilling the burning desire to pass your embarrassment on to someone else. You practice and practice until you know the game inside and out, defeating it a series of memory-triggered button pushes and joystick twists until, perhaps, you go for real competitive play.


This is how I grew up with games: playing Nintendo and Sega Genesis games with friends, all of us hollering at the screen and crying out about defective joysticks, or sitting in rapt attention while a chum instructed me on the finer points of a hot video game title. To be frank, playing video games by yourself can be fucking boring. And while the loneliness and downright scariness of some video games lend themselves to solo play, there’s still more of a visceral thrill in sharing that experience–or that possibility of an experience–with another party. Nowadays, people play video games with each other more than ever before, online through various channels, and the world shrinks ever smaller as you compete for high scores with hundreds of millions of gamers around the world. Playing online with others is also a good way to discern how familiar the younger generation is with racist epithets and their derogatory nature. Even in my limited experience, I can assure you that the future of racism is well in hand.

The Joystick is Broken

27 Sep

It’s usually pretty easy to tell when criticism against video games is being levied by an older generation that’s largely unfamiliar with them. For one thing, criticism against video games is almost always issued by a member of an older generation with limited personal experience. For another thing, that criticism is often way off the mark: accusations that video games foster isolationist and anti-social behaviors, declarations that their pixel arrangements are devoid of substance and story and their challenges facile and repetitive. Many gamers today play online, and have good friends in every corner of the globe. While they may not see these people regularly (or ever), they are in constant contact via various communication devices and networks. The games they play are these massive, virtual reality affairs that have more depth and scope than your average film trilogy, tales which beg multiple viewings because the outcome is different every time. No matter how many times I watch Return of the Jedi, those fucking Ewoks are still there. If it was a video game, I’d happily mow them down with some overpowered, unlimited ammo-having machine gun on at least one playthrough.


Video games have had a socializing effect since their early installations at pizza parlors, bars and arcades, where people would crowd around a blinking, noisy machine and watch a stellar performance or a spectacular failure. This would carry over to the ascension of home video game consoles in the 1980s (well, ascension, then plummet, then ascension again) when families would pile into their living rooms and cheer on each member of the clan as they manipulated flickering sprites on the television screen, excitedly waiting their turns to do the same. At least, that’s how the advertising looked. In the history of my family, we had two video game consoles: the Odyssey 2 and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Both of these systems my brother and I had to procure ourselves due to our parents’ disinterest, and neither of these consoles were hooked up to the living room television set. I played hours of Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Contra alone in my bedroom, Misfits blaring on the stereo, thinking about everything else in the universe except for the actual task I was performing. That was my personal experience, though I do recall actually knowing families that played video games together at least a few, initial times. It’s worth mentioning that my brother and I got along okay while playing Nintendo together, some of the few friendly moments in what was an otherwise antagonistic relationship.


Most of the early arcade games were two-player games, which meant that player one got to play the game for a while, until he died and forfeited the joystick temporarily to player two. Interestingly, the first video game, Pong, was a co-op game, but we wouldn’t see this kind of partnered playing again for many years. My earliest memory of a really good co-op video game is Gauntlet, a four-player dungeon crawler where you could be a warrior, an elf, a wizard, and a valkyrie (if you wanted to be a chick for some reason). You’d roam around mazes, shooting hordes of ghosts and orcs and whatever-the-fuck else while the game boomed helpful advice in a baritone voice: “Don’t shoot the food!” or “Warrior, your life force is running out,” or the most ominous, “Shots don’t hurt the other players…yet.” There were other arcade games, notably fighting games like Super Street Fighter II where two people could play on the same video screen, but co-op game play really hit its stride on home consoles, beginning with the Atari 2600 and continuing all the way to the present age of console sorcery and magic.


Playing games with your friends is a tradition dating back to, well, the advent of games, I’d say. Video game accomplishments are nothing without the validation of a neutral party, and in fact the achievement can only be measured against the venue in which it was committed and the audience that bore witness. Playing games simultaneously with friends leads to a competitive camaraderie, producing a shared experience that is viscerally as exciting as sitting on the same couch with someone and watching television, maybe while one helps the other crochet or something. Detractors are right in saying that playing video games is an exclusionary act, it summarily excludes people who don’t understand or give a shit about video games. Among gamers, however, it can create lasting bonds, never more so than today when people play games online with innumerable other players around the world. I’ll delve into that a little more deeply in part two of this essay, which will come out before you’re old enough to start telling your own kids to turn down those goddamned video games you like so goddamned much.

Artists are Fucking Assholes

23 Apr

In producing a variety of pointless creative ventures, I’ve had the opportunity to work and interact with many different artists. I do this for two reasons: one, because my craft and ambition are severely lacking, and two, so I can split the forthcoming derision and jeers with another person. Frankly, I’m more prone to blame the whole thing on them: “I didn’t want to make a Ku Klux Klan robe out of Tyvek home insulation! It was all her idea!” Whatever the case, I’ve known many artists that are proficient in a variety of media, and by and large I can say that most artists you’ll meet are fucking assholes.

Interestingly, artists seem to align their poor behavior along their chosen form of expression, meaning that a musician will be a different kind of an asshole than a writer, though they both be assholes. Here’s a short list of the kinds of experiences I’ve had with certain kinds of artists (or arteestes, as many prefer to be called):

Musicians


The rare times you’ll see a musician wearing a wristwatch, know that it is just for show: no musician can actually tell time. People that make music are habitually late to everything, and seem to operate on their own internal clocks. Perhaps musicians can’t understand numbers except where they define a time signature, because they appear to have a fuzzy concept on money and value as well. A music maker will either work themselves to the bone for a pittance, or fart around and waste time yet expect a bundle of cash for it. Whatever they’re paid, most musicians will spend their money on drugs and booze anyway. Musicians like free liquor, well-worn concert t-shirts, and people that take their inane chatter seriously. Musicians dislike sunlight and fiscal responsibility.

Painters and Sculptors


It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and if you happen to talk to the artist who made a particular piece, you will probably hear all of them. No painting or sculpture can ever be bad, in the creator’s eyes, merely misunderstood. And they’ll have no compunction about explaining it to you until you understand or acquiesce. These types of artists don’t ascribe to normal social conventions like tact or bathing, and consider their implementation to be a kind of oppression. Despite the fact that they work in visual mediums, a lot of these artists look like slobs. Painters and sculptors like weird caffeinated drinks, expensive art supplies, and unventilated gallery shows. Painters and sculptors dislike supermarket cheese and commercial art.

Actors


Some artists pursue art because they want to share beauty with the world, or because they believe they have something important to convey. The only reason people go into acting is to escape their shitty childhoods. A profession where people are paid to lie, acting should be very emotionally taxing, and yet off stage or behind the camera actors are usually more mercurial and prone to hissy fits than anyone else. There may be genetic reasons behind why so many actors are sucseptible to bouts of sickness which cause them to cancel on their engagements at the last minute. Actors like attention, melodrama, and wearing scarves. Actors dislike monogamy and other actors.

Filmmakers


Being the youngest of all media discussed in this essay, you’d think that most filmmakers would be humble and mindful of past masters. To the contrary, no artist wants accolades for reinventing the wheel more than the person behind the camera with the megaphone. In another life, these people might be fascist dictators; in this reality, they are curt taskmasters who, when they need their shoelaces tied, will employ thirty-two assistants, one for each eyelet on their shoes. Directors and producers are some of the most loathed people in existence (mostly by the people they work with), ranking slightly above proctologists but well below trained ninja assassins. Filmmakers like trespassing, yelling, and making people stand still for long periods of time. Filmmakers dislike disobedience and editing film.

Writers


Never call a writer a “writer,” instead call him or her an “author,” unless you like being haughtily corrected. Writers tend to regard deadlines with suspicion and will usually miss their target dates out of spite. People who write will never say “hide” when they can say “obfuscate,” will correct your use of a semicolon, and often mispronounce words that they’ve read but never heard spoken. They are also fat and have stupid names like Reggie. Writers like solitude, comfortable chairs, and the letter “e.” Writers dislike paper cuts and criticism.

Babs, They Did You Dirty

12 Apr

Batman is often projected as an inconsolable loner, someone so emotionally distant and single-minded in his crusade that no one can ever get close to him. Funny thing, really, since Batman works with a gang of no fewer than half a dozen superheroes at any given time. Suffice to say, if you slip on a pair of tights and a domino mask in Batman’s town, you’ll be working for him soon enough whether you like it or not. It’s a wonder that criminals even attempt to cause mischief in Gotham, it being the best-patrolled city in the fictional DC Universe.


Batman’s cadre of muscular weirdos are organized via a high-tech Bluetooth (or maybe Bat-tooth) system of intelligence gathering and dissemination. This system is controlled by the enigmatic Oracle, who we, the readers, know is Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner James Gordon and one-time Batgirl. Barbara “Babs” Gordon was the first Batgirl, she whose fiery tresses streamed from beneath her cowl and whose reversible skirt could turn into a cape. All that changed with the publication of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, a Batman story where the Joker shoots Babs in the spine and photographs her naked in an attempt to drive her father insane. That doesn’t work: Commissioner Gordon is seemingly none the worse for the wear after enduring a surrealistic ordeal at the hands of the Joker, Batman captures the Clown Prince of Crime who presumably gets carted off to Arkham Asylum. Everything is as it was before, ready for the next installment of Batman where he’ll probably slap Killer Croc around while Robin hops about making whimsical puns.

Except for Barbara Gordon. She wound up crippled for life.


I have to thank the brilliant and wonderfully talented Sarah Velez for opening my eyes to this inconsistency. Because, for people whose lives are too full of joy to scrutinize such things, characters become critically damaged and bounce back to a full recovery on a regular basis in comic books. In fact, superheroes routinely die and come back to life. There are very few permanent changes to the status quo in comics: whatever given facts you know about a character are almost always immutable in the long run. To make this point even more cruelly, within the Batman universe alone there have been so many miraculous recoveries and lives after death that Barbara Gordon sticks out like a sore, wheelchair-bound thumb. Batman, himself, had his back broken and still resturned to full power to kick the crap out of a pretender to his throne. Yet Babs sits behind an array of computer screens, sending intel to any garish acrobat that skirts the rooftops of Gotham with an earpiece in.


I didn’t notice this inconsistency at first because, well, by and large I never gave a shit about Batgirl. Similarly, I never cared about Ace the Bat-Hound or Bat Mite or any of the other ancillary characters that padded out Batman Family. It just seems uncreative, really, to hit paydirt with Batman and then saddle anything that has a pulse with a pointy-eared cowl and a bat silhouette across its chest. It’s ironic, because if Batman was real–which is to say if dogs wore bedroom slippers and people walked on their hands–there certainly would be scores of Bat-wannabes. But as long as I am believing that there is a reality where citizens condone a maniac shooting zip lines along the roofs of Gotham City, I prefer to believe that he’s the only one doing it.


I would be remiss to sell Batgirl short, however. Batgirl is one of the most recognized characters in Batman’s many media incarnations. And unlike quickie characters like Bat Woman (the original one, not the post-Crisis lady), Barbara Gordon has a rich back story and a tight DNA connection to one of the main people in Batman: Commissioner James Gordon. So while I was never a huge Batgirl fan, I never mocked her stories like I did, say, Alfred Pennyworth’s. I took it for granted that she hung around, and suffered the occasional romantic tension between she and Robin whenever that cropped up.


But the bigger reason I didn’t notice how fucked up it is that Barbara Gordon has been left in a wheelchair is because her newer incarnation as Oracle is so awesome. Using her as a conduit for information has made Batman almost totally unstoppable: through Oracle, he has access to city plans, blueprints, surveillance camera feeds, and just about anything else that can be divined via computer. I think Batman is the first hero to make such use of the information superhighway, and it would be difficult now to imagine him doing his work otherwise. Oracle is so awesome, she’s even spawned her own successful and long-running comic book series, Birds of Prey where she’s the point person for a team of lady heroes. The comic birthed an awful television series that died after thirteen episodes, but I don’t blame Oracle for that.


Oracle has become something of a handi-capable idol to comic book fans everywhere, making her miraculous recovery an even more remote possibility. That, claims DC, is reason enough not to return Babs to her walking state, particularly since a few other waifs have adopted the Batgirl name (if not the precise mantle) with reasonably good effect. And for handicapped fans, I’m glad for them. But it’s still fucked up. There’s no reason an entirely new character couldn’t have been introduced, or even dredged up from days of forgotten comics lore, who could have become Oracle. Alan Moore himself was shocked that DC decided to keep Barbara in a wheelchair: he never intended The Killing Joke to be canonical, and even if it did become part of Batman’s continuity, he assumed she would be repaired and walking around right as rain like every other fucking hero in comics. But that didn’t happen. The Flash died and came back to life twenty years later, but Barbara Gordon still rolls around on dubs.


I think it all boils down to misogyny, personally. While there have been plenty of female heroes who have been battered and broken only to make a full recovery, it’s safe to say that they’d never leave Green Arrow in a wheelchair. Hell, they’d never leave Jimmy Olsen in a wheelchair, and he’s not even a superhero (well, most of the time he isn’t). But Batgirl, being a kind of second-string female in a very macho comic where a grown man horses around with a teenage boy, she’s okay to make an example of. It’s fucked up, and despite that I think Oracle is a great and integral character to the Batman universe, I can’t read the comic anymore without thinking about the disservice that’s been done to this fictional person.

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t click hotlinks, then please visit Sarah Velez’s website at http://sarahhorrocks.wordpress.com/. She’s really talented.

%d bloggers like this: