Tag Archives: video games

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.

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.

A Whole Lotta Video, Not a Lot of Game

24 Mar

Last year, a lot was made of Roger Ebert’s statement that video games can never be art. This raised the ire of many gamers who rushed to defend their medium with offerings of their favorite video game titles. I wonder how many of those gamers are artists, or art historians, or otherwise give a shit about the world of accepted, mainstream art. I took Ebert’s comments to have been made by a person who, watching their familiar world become relegated to a musty corner in favor of newer digital media, railed against something that he barely understood. But the angry gamers who attempted to change Ebert’s mind wound up looking more ridiculous. When an older person tells you to “turn down that racket,” you tell them to mind their business and turn it up another notch. You don’t sit them down and detail the inherently good qualities of whatever misogynistic, violent noise you happen to be pumping.

My introduction to video games happened when I was about six years old. My brother was lectured by my parents for about an hour as punishment for hanging out and playing Pac-Man for too long. I guess my brother probably issued a defiant, and therefore meaningless concession, then trudged up the creaky, wooden stairs to our shared bedroom in the attic. I had been listening in on his conversation with my parents, and when he walked in the room I asked my brother what Pac-Man was. He scoffed and said I was a fucking idiot if I didn’t know what Pac-Man was.

And a fucking idiot I was, because it seemed like every day after that, Pac-Man became more and more a part of my life. And not just Pac-Man, but Centipede, Donkey Kong, Arkanoid, and Defender. At the time, I thought I was only noticing these games and their merchandise because I had become aware of their existence, like how you can learn a new word and then it seems like you hear it on every news broadcast and while casually chatting with friends. Looking back, I see that my learning about video games happened on the cusp of an arcade game explosion that would dominate the U.S. through much of the 1980s. One day, there was nothing to do at the pizza place but eat pizza. The next, you could crowd into the tiny parlor with a dozen like-minded youths and pump quarters into Dig Dug. Which, incidentally, left precious little money for pizza.

I was never crazy about video games, but I certainly played the shit out of some. Arcade games began falling out of favor as I reached pubescence (though they would see a short resurgence thanks to Street Fighter II) but that coincided neatly with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the first video game system that was undeniably awesome. I saved one-hundred and twenty dollars of my own money to purchase a NES from the Consumers electronics store in the Rockbottom shopping mall on Northern Boulevard. One of my brother’s friends worked there, and I made a deal with him to purchase stolen games for significantly less than retail value. I bought other video game systems along the way, but frankly none were as emotionally rewarding as the first.

I try to keep abreast of current video games because, whether they’re art or not, video games are certainly a major force in media. Since media is within my sphere of interest, so are these games. It’s not a chore because I am routinely astounded by the depth and scope of the technology pushing this industry. Where we once had to use our imaginations to picture Link from The Legend of Zelda wearing a green tunic, today you can practically feel a breeze caress Link’s ass as his finely-woven tunic flaps in high-definition wind. Games used to take a couple of hours to beat, now you can log in eighty and a hundred hours just wandering around some meticulously-rendered battlefield, popping your gun blithely at whatever enters your field of vision or specifically targeting enemy players’ internal organs. It is truly mind-boggling, and I suspect that certain esteemed elders’ words on video games are a reflection of how boggled their minds are when considering them. Many films are beloved because we can project ourselves into a character as portrayed by an actor. Video games take that to the next step where we become the actor.

Which is, I think, where we can cease considering many of these video games to be “games” at all. Pac-Man is a game where you run around mazes of increasing difficulty, chomping pellets and racking up as many points as possible. The next person to play, if they’ve put their quarter up at the edge of the screen, will implicitly try to beat the highest score. The game is one of repetition, requiring the player make many mistakes (at the cost of about ten cents an error) until they figure out the best patterns. A lot of games today are just stories with set conclusions where the player makes a series of decisions in order to eventually arrive at one of them. You can never actually lose these games, you keep on playing and playing until you get past the difficult parts and advance the story to a new act. Right now, I am playing a game called Fallout 3, which is a massive, open-ended game where you can interact with practically every person and every thing you come across. Most of my game play thus far has consisted of me having long, text-based conversations with computer characters, and choosing between three or five dialogue options in hopes that I don’t come off like an asshole. I have enough trouble with real world personal interactions, I don’t want to start getting anxious about whether a fictional super mutant likes my hat or not.

I am not prepared to say whether video games are art, or if they ever will be art, or if they ever were art. That kind of a question seems so loaded that there can be no right or wrong answer. But it does occur to me that a lot of the actual playing part of video games has been excised from some of the most heady and popular titles. These games guide the player along a series of pre-set routes, reaching one or more inevitable conclusions which are effected depending on a sequence of pressed buttons. Playing these specific games is an almost passive experience, the only aim being to wait out the game until you reach the story’s conclusion. However, movies still have the edge on video games because when watching a movie, your hands are free for snacking or masturbation.

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