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by Rob Horning

7 Oct 2009

In the New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes about his skepticism of the much-ballyhooed new frugality. (He expands the column on his blog here.) After some zigging and zagging, he concludes:

But the evidence for a radical shift in the way we consume seems more like the product of wishful thinking (there’s a palpable longing among pundits for Americans to become more frugal) than anything else. In many categories, spending has dropped only slightly, if at all. And, while these are very tough times for retailers who believed that spending could only go up, retail sales rose briskly in August. Before we go proclaiming this the age of the American tightwad, a little perspective is in order. Even after the worst recession of the past seventy years, retail sales this year will be about where they were in 2005. Does anyone really think that four years ago Americans were misers?

His point about wishful thinking extends beyond pundits; it seems as though we all would like to see some more frugality from everyone else—this would ease the pressure on us to spend more to keep up, and make what we purchase more distinctive. I suspect that many Americans carry around an idea of how much the U.S. should be saving, and that we would like to see as much as that as possible done by other people. Frugality is one of those traits we piously praise in others because we secretly believe that takes us off the hook for exhibiting it ourselves.

by Lara Killian

7 Oct 2009

It has been an irrepressible activity since the dawn of man: to heap insults on enemies, rivals, neighbors, and even friends.

Despite the ubiquitousness of expressions of disgust and frustration, just because one may be well versed in Anglo-Saxon cursing doesn’t mean you’ll be ready to call out a Russian or an Italian while traveling through this increasingly multicultural world. Not only do authors Dodson and Vanderplank want to give you the tools you’ll need to understand that Swede when he invokes the devil, but also the understanding of where many colloquial put-downs come from.

Dodson, creator of the LanguageHat.com blog, and Vanderplank have gathered an admirable representation of the wide variety of Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World. In his introduction, Vanderplank notes that:

For me, insults and curses are the “dark” side of manners and customs and all the more interesting for that, as they may inform us about what lies beneath the social codes, what verbal games men and women play with each other.

The quest to bring obscure insults to English-readers starts in the ancient world, where many Roman insults have to do with sex, and Greek ones with drunkenness. Some of the insults culled from modern vocabularies may be quite familiar; for example readers in the US may have heard someone on the playground tell someone else they’ve been ‘beaten with the ugly stick.’ The Brits have many ways to refer to someone as an idiot, too many to list in this collection, but a favorite Britist insult of mine is ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ to describe a woman who uses clothes and makeup to try to hide her age.

In my experience, calling someone a mama’s boy is usually an insult meaning that he has been coddled and isn’t able to take care of himself. In Italy, sons are traditionally quite close to their mothers and this insult bears no weight—so instead they have figlio di papá, meaning daddy’s boy, implying that the person has left his father behind as he moves up in the world. ‘Scum of soya paste’ wouldn’t have meant much when thrown around at my elementary school, but in Japan misokakku is a popular children’s curse to describe someone annoying.

Translating the ‘Untranslatable’ presents a challenge even for Vanderplank, the Directory of the Oxford University Language Center, so the contextual notes are key to making this guide worth flipping through. Whether you’re looking for an unusual way to taunt your older siblings, or you’re something of an armchair linguist, you’ll find something unique and possibly useful within the pages of Uglier.

by Ashley Cooper

7 Oct 2009

Raphael Saadiq has answered his fans’ hopes by planning an all new winter tour for this year, which kicks off in Seattle in November and ends in Minneapolis in December. This tour, which features his first live shows since appearing at a bunch of festivals this summer, from the Essence Music Festical to Bonnaroo, to positive reviews, will also showcase Canadian chanteuse Anjulie and Grammy nominee Janelle Monae.

Raphael Saadiq has been playing music since he was six years old, working up the charts as a member of the trio Tony! Toni! Tone! and then with supergroup Lucy Pearl. His current album, The Way I See It, was on many critics’ “best of” lists for the year 2008.

Saadiq’s brand of R&B is part dance, part philosophical, part feel good, and all pure energy. He is positive, engaging and talented, and is known for working with such artists as Joss Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Jay-Z, and for writing “I Can See In Color” for Mary J. Blige, so his tour should not be missed.

by Kirstie Shanley

7 Oct 2009

Over ten years ago Hope Sandoval split from Mazzy Star but the distinctive voice that defined the music has followed her ever since.  Dreamy and feminine in all the right places, her lyrics tend to cascade down like raindrops on a windowpane.  Her work with both Mazzy Star and The Warm Inventions is an example of a slower psychedelic folk with a touch lo-fi done right.

The evening began with a moody jazz track as prolonged entrance music for the band.  When they did take the stage, the band stayed back in the darkness, letting the visuals of two film projectors do the work.  Sandoval’s lovely vocals floated above spinning ethereal bodies—dancing women whose dresses seemed to turn into flames. 

Sandoval, also remaining a mystery to the naked eye, was obscured behind shadows and her long dark locks.  She deflected attention, not even talking between songs despite the proclamations of love from audience members.  Her focus was entirely on the music.

Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions just released their second album, Through the Devil Softly, which they worked on with some notable musicians, including Colm O’Ciosoig of My Bloody Valentine.  Not surprisingly, the band focused on this album during their live set.  Highlights included “Wild Roses,” “Trouble,” and “For the Rest of Your Life.”  2001’s Bavarian Fruit Bread was presented to a lesser extent, with “Suzanne” and “Charlotte” feeling slightly transcendent.

Throughout, Sandoval’s vocals seemed to linger with the effects of the psychedelic guitars she was sandwiched between and, at times, unfortunately, not loud enough to overpower.  Individually she alternated between just singing and singing while playing the xylophone.  As her music conveys, if you concentrated hard enough you might have made out a look of longing when her eyes flashed through the darkness. 

While the cinematic images crept up and faded, it was difficult not to feel the impact of the songs that were longer and darker than most. 

After playing more than 60 minutes the band vanished quickly, and, for what seemed like ages, the packed audience clapped for their return.  Upon reemerging, they played a two song encore.  “Satellite” made Sandoval’s vocals even spookier and more effective with only half of the band present.  Returning to their first release again, the night ended with “Feeling of Gaze.”

Sandoval only two words to the audience the whole night were “Thank-You,” just before leaving.  And then she was gone.  While the crowd departed for the night, the house music played Johnny Cash’s “We’ll Meet Again,” which seemed nothing less than intentional.

by G. Christopher Williams

7 Oct 2009

In yesterday’s Moving Pixels Column, L.B. Jeffries considered the concept of “ganking”, a term commonly applied to multiplayer gaming experiences and how the problematic concept of players finding loopholes to circumvent rules in a game might additionally apply to single player experiences.  Jeffries began his essay with a kind of real life example of how a system might be “ganked”, which I guess is a good enough place as any to respond to some of his intriguing thoughts on the issue of how rules and the violation of rules might boil down to a desire on the part of players to simply have the freedom to merely “play”.

Jeffries’s initial real life example considered the decision to enact a law to ban highway signs along certain stretches of roadway in order to beautify them. When the owners of the billboards brought suit against the government for essentially seizing their property, courts upheld the law but required that the owners pay the billboard owners in order to cover their losses.  Since the government couldn’t pay, the owners maintained their billboards.  The intended rules still exist in this scenario, but they have also have been effectively circumvented.  Thus, the system allows for violating the rules despite the rules continued existence—something akin to ganking.

Jeffries goes on to offer some quite compelling examples of how players then might want or need to be able to violate some rules in order to better enjoy the “system” within a game.  While I hesitate to propose a counter argument to this in a political sense (I consider myself a staunch libertarian and thus desire to align myself against rules on general principle and promote freedom) nevertheless, as I have considered Jeffries ideas, it occurred to me that one problem that I have with this notion of encouraging player “freedom” might be an idea that I was troubled by that is embedded in his real life scenario.  Sometimes laws and rules aren’t good to begin with.  It may not be that we need to abolish law but that we need better law.  The “ganking” that occurred as a result of these rules becoming problematic in practice may indicate that the weakness of the design of a rules system (indicated by the potential collapse or lack of necessity for a rule altogether) may indicate that the rules themselves are weak ones and needed to be reconsidered altogether.

To return for the moment to questions of system ganking that apply to multi-player games for instance, I am reminded of the problem that exists for many co-operative MMORPGs concerning power leveling.  Since characters in a role playing game gain power by gaining experience (usually through combat) in a role playing system, the obvious temptation to circumvent the standard rules of gaining experience at a controlled rate by killing monsters exists.  Often players do so by piggybacking on the greater powers and leach additional experience from other higher level characters by teaming with them in order to kill monsters that lower level players should be unable to kill.  Since much of the challenge of the game is predicated on a rules system that suggests how quickly a character may be developed, nevertheless, players do not often want to go through this “grind” and often for good reason.  If your pals play City of Heroes every night for 4-6 hours at a time, and you would like to join them but you are burdened with real life responsibilities like a spouse and a job, taking the time to level up alongside them might become difficult for you.  Since you can’t stay up until 3AM every night, you are going to quickly fall behind your friends and find that you can’t play at their level: the “rules” are prohibitive when it comes to low level characters challenging mid to high level content.

This indicates a conflict of the needs of the player and the designer in generating rules for playing. Perhaps, then, a compromise or reconsideration of the rules might resolve this problem.  Interestingly, City of Heroes implemented rules to deal with power leveling and to address the needs of the casual gamer.  A “sidekick” system was put into place that allowed a lower level player to become a sidekick to an upper level player, effectively increasing the low level player to the level of the high level player (thus, allowing low level players to participate temporarily in higher level content areas with their friends).  However, experience gains were adjusted so that the low level character did not gain access to high level experience.  An inverted version of this system (the name of which escapes me) was also implemented allowing high level characters to essentially “sidekick down” to low level content and again adjustments were made for experience point gains.  While these rules still contained some problems, they were a better “law” than the one currently in place as they allowed for what players wanted to do without violating the intentions of the system.  Additionally, such solutions indicate that the answer to resolving system ganking might not always be met by “nerfing” or by simply letting rules become purposeless (as in Jeffries’s example).  Sometimes adjustments can be made to make a law better and suit the needs of the player’s interests and the designer’s intentions, a balancing of needs.

One type of single player “ganking” of the system that has always bugged me is the exponential growth of economies in simulation and other types of games.  While in games like The Sims the player usually begins the game with scarce funds, eventually (and generally quite early in my experience) an efficient player will find that his own personal income will rise as a result of taking good jobs and managing resources well at a rate that far outstrips the cost of items that that cash is intended to buy.  Once you have a couple million simoleons buying whatever is necessary for your sim home becomes an invisible expense as you generally can simply buy at leisure, reducing the challenge of managing resources in a game whose rules partly (if not wholly) depend on keeping a handle on an economy.  While we could just chalk these moments up to a kind of lovely sense of freedom that this experience creates for the player (getting to experiment without effort with every item in the game), that the system can be ganked economically may just indicate that the rules of economy are badly implemented and that, for the next iteration of the game (or games like it), that better rules might be put into place that maintain the intended challenges of the game.

One such solution to the economics issue is a recognition that stop gaps need to be created on progressive economies and assigning ways of encouraging the player to starategize about managing resources better.  For instance, things like time limits might be helpful.  Generally, more traditional economic board board games like Puerto Rico, Caylus, and Agricola have recognized such problems and attempted to resolve them in this way.  All three games concern creating mechanisms to generate resources in the most efficient ways possible in order to score the most points to win the game.  Since building an economic machine that is efficient and that is unencumbered by random acts of God that might interfere with a real life economy means that eventually profits will boom wildly out of control, designers like Uwe Rosenberg and Andreas Seyfarth have placed limits like a certain amount of turns to play or game ending conditions that halt production before it becomes absurd.  As my recent review of Majesty 2 observes, such limiting factors can be put in place in the scenarios of an RTS in order to control for the hyper-production that ruins the challenge of struggling with resources rather than finding this essential element of the challenge of playing such game to be only burdensome at the game’s start.  Again, this isn’t an example of abolishing or ignoring the rules of a system but adjusting them to balance the competing needs of player and designer.

I am assuming in some sense that most players, ironically, are interested less in “play” (a term that I associate with freedom and the violation of rules), perhaps, than they are in “gaming” (a term that I associate with challenge, competition, and learning how to function well within a system of rules).  I, also, do think some questions might also be raised about the desirability of gaming (the pleasure derived from knowing that you have won a game because you played within the rules well) and the desirability of experimentation, or more simply put, “cheating” (the desire to see if you can gank the system by breaking the rules well).  But, perhaps, those are issues that Nick Dinicola will address on Friday.

This discussion began with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 1: Considering “Ganking” the System in Video Games and concludes with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 3: The Right to “Gank” the System in Video Games.

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