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by L.B. Jeffries

5 May 2009

For an artistic medium that focuses heavily on mimicking real life activities, video games still have a few activities that they still seem to struggle with keeping entertaining. Games have been able to make shopping entertaining (so long as it’s for armor and weapons), getting dressed entertaining, and even going to work marginally engaging for a person. So why does driving in a car or traveling long distances cause people to complain? Tim Stone, in an essay on flying in Microsoft Flight Simulator comments, “There are two kinds of boring simulations. The bad kind bore because they fail to replicate some or all of the interesting aspects of their subject matter. The good kind bore because the activities or machines they recreate contain elements that are inherently boring.” Stone’s acknowledgment that some things are inherently boring is interesting because that’s technically true of almost any activity outside run and gun gaming. What makes shopping entertaining is finding out all the gear you could potentially have to improve your game. What makes getting dressed entertaining is creatively improving your appearance and stats. Even going to work has the minimal benefit of generating cash or some other perk for the player. What are the pitfalls of traveling and what are the ways games can make it work through benefits?

Traveling in games comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Luke Maciak at Terminally Incoherent identifies three main types: instant public transportation, real time public transportation, and instant map based transportation. Everything else is just using in-game means to get around. Maciak praises Morrowind’s system because it created an intricate commerce and bus route, which makes it so learning how to travel is a part of exploring the game. That’s consistent with the RPG elements of the game and something that Oblivion and Fallout 3 hold onto by requiring the player to find the location personally before they can fast travel to it. The complaint many people have about fast travel is that it’s both immersion breaking and discourages discovering missing quests or details. When you just insta-travel everywhere, the game world ceases to be really relevant or necessary. The problem for many players is that many times there isn’t anything left to discover and they’re just trudging to get on with the game. JRPG’s are able to circumvent this by making any form of travel beneficial due to getting cash and experience from random encounters, but that can easily become just as mindless once the monsters are inferior. The other alternative Maciak notes is World of Warcraft’s real-time public transportation, where you literally watch the landscape go by as you travel. In my personal experience, the most interesting part about taking the bus or subway is fighting for seats and watching crazy people. MMO’s typically provide the latter on their own but there’s always room for playing with the former.

The other, much larger kind of travel is the means given by the game. The first title that pops to mind is naturally Grand Theft Auto and the series has defined itself by giving the player a world to travel in. The games themselves opted for a curious solution to travel boredom by creating a huge number of radio stations to pick from. It ameliorates the boredom of traveling by providing the activities we typically do ourselves. Just like driving in real life, when you get in the car you tune out by listening to music and hearing the news. Saints Row and a few other mob games experimented with this by adding hostile zones where you’d be fired at for traveling into as well. The issue this is resolving is that often these games don’t make getting into a car wreck game ending, which means a chunk of the tension in driving is missing. An inherent sense of risk, however mild, adds to the focus required from the player and means they can’t tune out and become bored. That’s the concept that Far Cry 2 seized on by abandoning the radio distraction and focusing purely on the hostility. The landscape is literally unconquerable, meaning you will always be shot at and always plowing through guard posts. The game also borrows from the Morrowind design by filing the map with diamond briefcases that can be found with your GPS unit. The consistent issue at work is keeping the player focused on the game and engaged with traveling. It’s customary for walking or driving to not engage us, people can space out and often use the time to think about other things. In Stone’s essay he comments that this in of itself becomes a pleasure, to have a game accurately create that same meta-leveled escapism. The farther you plan to travel in a game, the more you have to accept that boredom is a part of the experience itself.

The incentive to create huge, open worlds that we can explore is very appealing on paper, but the method by which we explore and inhabit that space is still very much under consideration. Is it okay for you to ever get bored while playing a video game? Is the medium designed purely to alleviate boredom or can it just channel the sensation in strange directions? Should people just be allowed to fly or skip everything if they want to? There’s the Freelancer system, which allowed you to flip on afterburners to travel at high speeds or use a series of rings to travel through the universe. Or Final Fantasy 7 that made you trudge through the entire world map once before handing over the airship so you could go anywhere. Bobby at GameCulture Journal cites two key concepts to travel in real life as outlined by Michel de Certeau. ‘Synedoche’, when you describe the whole of something by referencing just one part, and ‘asyndenton’, or when you leave a conjunction out of a phrase. The point Certeau makes is that when we discuss traveling we often remove the actual travel part of the description and just describe the place we’re going to. Bobby comments, “The space traversed is often ignored; the destination is often represented by a single symbolic piece.”

So perhaps traveling is always conceptually going to be a backseat concept for players. The goal of traveling in a game should not necessarily be about entertainment or alleviating boredom but instead just fleshing out the experience of the game itself. If you’ve created a world where there might be something they missed or some hidden treasure yet to be found, the world will communicate a sense of discovery. When you’ve created beautiful vistas , you will create a sense of wonder. And when you’ve trudged through miles of forest and desert to get there, you will have created the sense of tedium that makes the final pay off worth it all. Whatever form the game is using, it’s helpful to remember that nobody really goes anywhere without first some kind of destination in mind.

by Rob Horning

4 May 2009

At Salon, Laura Miller reviews Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, a book about why we find it difficult to concentrate. Miller points out how technology has made it easy for us to distract ourselves with a continual flow of mini-activities, which constantly rewards the novelty-craving part of our brain at the expense of the part of our consciousness that likes to be absorbed in things, achieve flow. We find ourselves becoming the functional equivalent of that guy who is always scanning the room looking for someone more important to talk to and who never has a real conversation or listens to anything anyone is saying. We are always made aware of the alternatives that are slipping away, of the imperative to consume as much as possible within the limits of the time we have to devote to entertaining ourselves. The pressure of what we are passing up becomes intolerable, clouding over the activities we would like to wholeheartedly choose. Miller laments, “In many cases, the thing we wish we would do is not only more interesting but ultimately more fun than the things we do instead, and yet it seems to require a Herculean effort to make ourselves do it.”

Rather than make this effort, it seems we try to compensate by indulging alternative ideals: convenience for its own sake; quantity of experience over nebulous qualitative experience; competitive consumption and early adopterhood—various measurable efficiencies that allow us to belief we are prospering in the attention economy, regardless of harried we may feel by the pace. Or, as Miller notes, we can attempt to use technology against itself, as a filter to block out options, to restrict our freedom, to limit the range of our responsiveness. This is one way to understand the success of Twitter, which synthesizes both approaches—it’s a binge-purge technology whose arbitrary restrictions seem to be simplifying the media onslaught while actually authorizing it accelerating our gluttonous information intake.

Gallagher’s book endorses the idea that we are what we pay attention to, so it offers methods for us to seize control over our attention span. But the implication that something other than our own will directs our attention, that it is some wayward entity with prerogatives of its own, is a bit troubling metaphysically. It leaves us subject to “the machinations of late capitalism,” as Miller puts it (and I probably would have put it that way if she hadn’t), the firms that know how to exploit weakness in how our brain works to grab our attention and fix it on things we would have been perfectly happy ignoring. It also negates for us the possibility of what Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey” calls “unremembered pleasures”:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.

Those lines are open to all sorts of interpretations, but I’ve always understood them to suggest that we are more than the sum of our sensory impressions, of the stuff we have paid attention to and collected in the treasure house of our memory. Instead it’s what we do, and the unself-conscious grace with which we do it that fills our contemplative moments—the moments we are systematically banishing from our lives now—with the spirit of self-satisfaction. The anxiety of identity gets suspended, and there isn’t room for the feeling of missing out on something. Rather there is a sense of completeness that comes with giving up on keeping score—a recognition that our souls are too immeasurable for that.

by Sarah Zupko

4 May 2009

Alex & Liane direct the newest Tiga video, “Shoes”, which is the lead-off single from the Canadian DJ’s new album Ciao! releasing May 26th on Last Gang Records. It’s a bit of futuristic high fashion and glammy foot fetish kink on the colorful video.

Tiga
“Shoes” [MP3]
     

by Bill Gibron

4 May 2009

It started with a sign. Strike that, with a bumper sticker. Everyday, as I walked to school, I would pass the house at the end of our street and see the familiar message straddled across the back window (apparently, the owner didn’t want their car’s chrome damaged by such a vinyl placard - or perhaps thought the higher placement would attract more attention?). While my memory is now as foggy as a San Francisco morning, I do remember certain parts of the sentiment - and in the light of revisionist history, I am convinced the communication was clear - “Call NBC - Save Star Trek”. At the time, I was probably six, going on seven, and I was unsure what the issue was, including what Star Trek itself…was. Even a couple years later, when older kids in school would lament its passing, I was perplexed.

Fast forward four years. I’m ten going on eleven. Saturday morning TV is my life, as it is for anyone who grew up in the format’s formative decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s. NBC, which I then understood was one of the three major broadcast companies in America, was bringing Star Trek back (there’s that name again…) in cartoon form. Many of my friends in Fifth Grade were ecstatic, anticipating the return of one of their favorite franchises though, honestly, few had any idea what they were actually talking about. As sci-fi nerds, we shared favorite authors and books. But something about Star Trek bridged a gap for many that I, as a maturing adolescent, was yet to discover. So I watched the animated adventures of the Starship Enterprise and was…well, I’m not sure what to say. Then I discovered the reruns of the original series.

You have to remember what life was like 35 years ago. There was no legitimate cable television (though first variations of same were being tested somewhere way out in the Midwest) and for those of us lucky enough to live in a sprawling urban market (Chicago), there were six - count ‘em, SIX! - TV channels to surf through. ABC, CBS, and NBC were the “Big Three” - while there was always a PBS alternative to explore (ZOOM, anyone?). In addition, we were lucky enough to have a local independent, WGN, and a UHF option. So we were literally living in the lap of entertainment luxury, the choices and available time slots seeming to mesh perfectly with our after school/weekend needs. Of course, in retrospect, we were living in an era of paltry opportunities. I sometimes wonder if my appreciation for certain shows is based on a genuine love, or the forced favoritism of having no other alternative.

Yet I loved Trek. It followed me. It tagged along as I moved to Florida (a true bastion of variety nothingness). It accompanied me as I sat through Star Wars seven times. It became a presence in my conversations with friends, and most importantly, a freshman year college ritual. I was one of the few residents in my door with access to my own color TV, and everyday, once classes were completed and the various recreational vices were begun, the 13” mega-screen was tuned to the continuing voyages of that iconic spacecraft and its capable crew going boldly where no man had gone before. My roommate and I would set ourselves up on our beds, then allow in the growing throng, a couple turning into more than a dozen by the time the daily diversion became a habit.

During those heady, smoke filled afternoons, we’d argue over characters and favorite episodes. We’d rally behind certain actors and mock those who favored the so-called “fringe” (sorry Sulu and Chekov). We learned the names of episode writers and sought out books and other contributions by them. And most significantly, we fueled the fanbase fires. We elevated a once dead speculative fiction masterwork, made by people interested in ideas vs. massive merchandising dollars (wonder who that might be???) and argued for its continuing commercial relevance. Debate all you want to over the first fighters in the mix, the men and women who convinced NBC to give the original series one last third season chance. You can also praise the participation of the ‘70s adults, whose fond memories of the material kept the syndication scores high.

But it was us who made Star Trek into the viable property you now see before you today. It was us who tolerated the tepid, trying aspects of The Motion Picture (or “The Motion Sickness” as we called it back then) and turned it into a monster hit. It was us who initially celebrated the returning Wrath of Khan, who practiced our silly Shatner screams and amazing Montalban line readings long before most of you were born. We were the demographic, the 18 to 24 year olds who mandated the movies that were made. We had helped George Lucas cement his status as a fantasy filmmaker to watch (and later, reject). We gave Steven Spielberg his career defining hits, and sadly, helped Hollywood move from the post-modern majesty of ‘70s cinema to the high concept cheapness of the disposable ‘80s.

Perhaps that’s why now, some thirty years after Robert Wise took the original actors and thrust them directly onto the big screen for all the world to see, we Star Trek geeks are ready to see the series reborn. After all the Next Generations and Deep Space Nines, after the outsized ideas of Voyager and the failed origin attempts of Enterprise, the time has come to go back to square one and reset the star date. As Spock would agree, it’s only logical. The first cast is now far too old to jumpstart the franchise, and the various fragmented incarnations of the concept have apparently worn out their welcome (though Jean-Luc Picard and crew could still give the series a run for its residual money). By finding a proper way to bring Trek into the 21st century, by introducing the youth of today to the joys of yesterday’s future, without the stigma of the 11 other films flying over their head, a whole new chapter in series’ lore can be written.

As Paramount reconfigures the original, adding new effects and a professional polish to what was often a seat of their pants production, as DVD gives way to further Blu-ray wonders, fans can look forward to J.J. Abrams reboot masterpiece (my rave review arrives Tuesday) and the possibilities it offers. Let’s face it - if it can satisfy an old school Trek head (both Trekkies and Trekkers seem so…silly) like me, and make me wish for more installments just like it, the individuals behind the scenes are doing something right. Remember, we are the ones who made Star Trek what it is today. It’s nice to know that, some 40 plus years later, the right people were put in place to “save” it. It makes all daily trips past the bumper sticker seem all the more real - and relevant.

by Joseph Kugelmass

4 May 2009

“There’s a new Dylan album coming out,” my father announced, at the end of our weekly conversation.

“Have you heard any of the songs?”

“No. It’s supposedly an album of love songs.”

For me, growing up amidst the ‘60s hangover of small town Northern California, Bob Dylan was always one of those artists whose work provided a bridge back to the lost Eden of the ‘60s. He never seemed to date himself or to become a novelty: his classic albums were always digressive and angry enough to keep their relevance and cool from one generation to the next.

Thus, when Dylan began his mighty comeback with Time Out of Mind, I bought it right alongside albums by Radiohead, Pavement, and Tori Amos. I’ve followed him fairly closely ever since, and, like parents and friends, I’ve taken an interest in the new Dylan books and films, including Chronicles, I’m Not There, and Scorsese’s No Direction Home.

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