If a “History of the World According to Video Games” textbook ever existed, the biggest chapter would be for World War II, the source of countless first-person and third-person shooters. Why there aren’t more games based on other time periods or wars is a bit of a mystery, but in the meantime, Call of Duty: World at War is the best of a crowded genre. It helps that World at War doesn’t serve up a Normandy and D-Day rehash for the billionth time; instead the game covers the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific as well as Russia’s reversal of the tide at Stalingrad all the way to the Fall of Berlin. It also helps that the game features quality voice acting from Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Oldman, an extremely fun four-player cooperative campaign, addicting multiplayer similar to Call of Duty 4‘s, and a bonus Nazi zombie mode that unlocks when you finish the campaign.
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What more can be said about a stellar product that sells itself? A little bit more enthusiasm won’t hurt. High-quality sound and video? Check. Excellent concert footage? Check. In this third in the series set: Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderlley, Bill Evans, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Lionel Hampton and Oscar Peterson. Bonus disc: performances by Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. If the jazz fan in your household does not already have Series 1 and 2 of this fine collection, then really make her happy and buy her all three sets. They will stay with her as long as she draws breath.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the current AAA climate in game development is that it’s tough to find a high production game that experiments very much. Although they might slip in an interesting idea or maybe a radical plot, in terms of game design most things are by the book. Rockstar’s Manhunt 2 is a very interesting game that inadvertently, due to the controversy and subsequent censoring of its violent kill scenes, developed a very unique game design. They lobotomized the reward structure. Whereas the original appeal of the game was experimenting with weapons and seeing the various death scenes unfold, in its censored form this appeal is no longer there. The game design’s entire function was to challenge the player to get the most impressive kill and now that no longer exists. The result is the unique experience of getting to see the nuts and bolts of a game with zero appeal attached to their function. The way the game creaks and falls apart without that reward system is nearly as instructive an experience as seeing an excellent game fully intact.
Manhunt 2 is a combination of Resident Evil 4 combat and a simplified light/dark stealth system. When you bar turns blue, you’re totally invisible. Otherwise you can be seen from a certain radius. Sounds like running or knocking on a wall will attract guards. You then wait until they walk around to inspect the noise, turn their back on you, and then lock on. The longer you hold the lock, the more violent the stealth kill. Like Thief, melee combat with more than two people is suicidal so the stealth kill becomes a necessary strategy in many levels. Mixed with this are the gun portions of the game. Aiming with guns resembles Resident Evil 4 albeit clunkier and with some awkward control issues. You can also lock on and make insta-kill shots provided they are close enough. Structurally, it’s a high road vs. low road scenario to help people who are stuck on a level. Once you get sick of trying to lure a guard close enough to see their gory death, you can just shoot them and get on with it. The low road is supposed to be much less satisfying because you’re missing out on the death scenes. Now, with the last minute censorship, there is no incentive to ever take the high road. You’re just doing the simple head shot move that offers little satisfaction and trudging through the level. Playing such a game is strange because one is so accustomed to the subconscious sense of progress and reward in a game. Without a reward structure to give the incentive to self-induce more complex play, vast elements of strategy and nuance are abandoned by the player. You just run through the experience as quickly as possible, rather than exploring all the tiny details and elements of design. It’s a crisp example of what happens when a game’s rewards don’t encourage more complex play: the player inadvertently shirks themselves of the full experience of the game. Without the death scene rewards, the game doesn’t have a way to make players do anything except the same easy-to-win tactics over and over.
Which begs the question of how one should feel about a death sequence as reward in the first place. The plot of the original Manhunt was about a snuff film director capturing a death row inmate. He then makes him run through various obstacles and abandoned buildings, brutally murdering psychopaths and gang members. Whenever you initiate a death sequence, the screen cuts to a video camera recording while the director (voiced by a fantastic Brian Cox) murmurs his praise. In the sequel, the protagonist is immediately portrayed as completely insane. The first level is your breaking free from an insane asylum while your Tyler Durden esque alternate identity Leo guides you. In those sequences it is Leo, instead of the snuff director, praising you for the brutal murders. It’s a simple metaphor: Leo/the Director both represent the player controlling this other person. Whereas both Cash/Danny have sane emotions and desires, this insane outer party is controlling them and making them do awful things because they enjoy the violence. Which is what the player of Manhunt or its sequel are thinking, they are enjoying the violence that this helpless agent is committing under their control. As the game’s violence continues to grow and serve as a reward, the disturbing epiphany that you have been complicit in the villain’s destructive love of death is its masterstroke. In either of these games, the player’s final realization is that they are the monster of the horror story.
From the very beginning it is made obvious that Leo is a figment of Danny’s mind. Whenever Danny does something awful, he becomes Leo for a brief while during the censored murder sequences. It could’ve even been an interesting foil of Danny’s denial that he himself is the killer to have this censoring, except the game doesn’t have a reward structure to replace not seeing the kill. When he is aware of the violence, Danny sometimes vomits or cries. Yet this forced innocence while he is covered in gore and murdering dozens of people becomes a source of mixed emotions for the player. Danny may be protesting his actions but there is always the second voice, Leo, shouting out support. The part of us nagging that what we are doing is wrong and sick is represented by Danny, while the voice in our heads telling us that it’s hilarious and awesome is Leo. He’ll often say after a kill, “You gave me a boy. Now I present the man!” or “Whose the alpha male buddy? YOU ARE!” The weak voiced and glasses wearing Danny, as everyman a game character as you could ask for, chooses to never question this conduct as he pursues his own goals. Violence, for both the player and Danny, is easier to just not think about and instead enjoy on a more carnal level. This pleasure is aptly paralleled in numerous levels by the sexual imagery planted throughout the game. Enjoying the adrenaline of committing a gory murder is connected with enjoying sex and other bodily pleasures. During one level the player must work his way through a whore house taking out guards and looking for a scientist. During all of the fights and kills, the sound of sex is in the background. This sex/violence analogy is ultimately made explicit when Danny walks onto a movie stage covered in blood carrying a gun to an audience of thugs. Behind him, as blunt as possible, is a softcore porn playing.
The final plot twist of the game is one reminiscent of the social commentary found in Myst, that if you participate in a virtual environment long enough your behavior will spill over into the real one. Towards the end of the game the player discovers that Leo is not actually a split personality but a real human being planted in Danny’s mind. The indulgence in violence’s satisfactions, our Mr. Hyde, has become a real and independent being. The final mission takes place in Danny’s mind and requires him to properly bury the wife he murdered while Leo was in control of his body. It is not so much a boss fight as it is an endurance match of lugging her corpse across the yard while Leo attacks you. Putting to rest the female figure in Danny’s life, who was only seen fighting with him in other cutscenes, is to make amends with the thing that drove Danny to signing up for the project in the first place: his inability to make enough money to feed his family. The insecurity he felt as a male, as a father who could not provide, must be buried to defeat the need for Leo’s support. It is probably this final moment that suffers the most due to the lobotomized game design. Without having done enough violence to become a monster, Danny’s catharsis ultimately is not felt by the player. We are not complicit enough in the dark fantasy the game means to lure you into, if only to give the experience of escaping from its awful reality. We are instead no better than film goers pressing a button when we are ready for the monster to make yet another kill, over and over and over.
The sums involved in the fraud perpetrated by Bernie Madoff are so staggering, they’re almost blasé. Madoff apparently ran a Ponzi scheme that racked up losses of $50 billion—an incomprehensible amount of money outside the realm of government bailouts. This is not cash printed by way of state seigniorage; this is private money that at one time was possibly earned by someone. Confronted with that amount, my mind shuts down and absorbs it as though it was a figure named by Dr. Evil in mad scheme of world domination.
Madoff allegedly provided the illusion of steady returns for years mainly by managing to recruit new investors and distributing their funds to previous clients. When the market turned down, redemptions came in and the jig was up, the news was out, etc. What everyone wants to know now is why nobody noticed what he was doing before. As the NYT story notes, “Competing hedge fund managers have wondered privately for years how Mr. Madoff generated such high returns, in bull markets and bear, given the generally low-yielding investment strategies he described to his clients.” His returns were too improbably regular, according to an analyst cited in the article. And in 2001, analysts were smelling something fishy about Madoff’s funds and his “split-strike strategy”. Naked Shorts links to this report that now makes for very interesting reading—Madoff defends his investment approach against skeptics, who wondered “why no one has been able to duplicate similar returns using the strategy” and “why Madoff Securities is willing to earn commissions off the trades but not set up a separate asset management division to offer hedge funds directly to investors and keep all the incentive fees for itself”—that is, why they outsourced the recruitment of new investors to other fund managers when they could have brought them in directly and earned more money. Of course, the answer is clear now—those intermediaries were the advance guard for Madoff’s pyramid scheme. The punch line is the report’s last sentence:
Madoff, who believes that he deserves “some credibility as a trader for 40 years,” says: “The strategy is the strategy and the returns are the returns.” He suggests that those who believe there is something more to it and are seeking an answer beyond that are wasting their time.
But if some investing pros had been skeptical of Madoff for at least seven years, how did he keep his pyramid scheme afloat. Sadly, one can ask the same question about our entire subprime-loan-driven economy through the housing-bubble years. That makes the “cynical” take that Paul Kedrosky cites in this post especially piquant.
While many dopey investors in Madoff’s funds thought he was actually running a “split strike option” strategy (and most of those people had no idea what that meant), most of the smart investors didn’t. They just thought he was using the trading order flow from his securities firm to run a lucrative insider-trading operation, and they were happy to get a piece of it.
Kedrosky adds, “Imagine how pissed those wise-guy investors were when they found out that Madoff wasn’t running the fraud that they thought he was. Instead, he was running a different fraud.”
But it is possible to be even more cynical and figure that investors knew it was scam, but figured that as long as they got in and out early, relative to the rest of the herd. That trading strategy, if you believe Marx, is called capitalism.
Capital, which has such good reasons for denying the sufferings of the legions of workers that surround it, is in practice moved as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun. In every stockjobbing swindle every one knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the outcry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.
At some point, capitalism compels us, by its own integral logic, to adopt unsustainable approaches that can’t be generalized to include everyone—we all can’t be at the top of the pyramid. Instead we become committed to a desperate effort to keep the machine moving, to bringing in more and more into the system so it won’t collapse under its own weight, and the pile of grievances it generates through its merciless functioning. The more merciless the system becomes, the more merciless, we, its agents, have to become to perpetuate it. Subprime loans were made with no real faith that they will be repaid, but with some hope that new, even more desperate and exploitative techniques would be contrived to bring in a new influx of profit and prevent their insolvency from mattering. What has happened now is that for the time being, we have lost faith in the schemes, and we can’t persuade ourselves to naively believe anymore, or alternatively, we have lost the will or ability to recruit new naifs.
Over several thousand years the human brain has been changed by the act of reading.
Our brains continue to evolve, and a number of scientific studies as well as popular nonfiction works are exploring this fascinating issue. Recently I read an accessible introduction to the subject by Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. Her book, Proust and the Squid (2007), describes how the evolution of learning to read has helped to change the way humans think as a species.
The way we view and use textual information today has changed dramatically from the ancient clay tablets where Wolf begins her discussion. In her book she examines major shifts in literacy and the tools which make it possible to disseminate information, including electronic formats. What does it mean to be literate in today’s increasingly digital society? For me personally, reading online tends to be a more superficial process than sitting down for quality time with a novel.
It turns out that our brains actually do process text differently depending on the format, and just as Nicholas Carr pointed out in his provocative Atlantic magazine article, “Is Google Making us Stupid?”, of July/August 2008, some people are now finding that as they read more online, focusing on longer narratives becomes tougher.
The experience of reading varies dramatically between mediums. Is the way we process the information we read also changing, depending on the media in which we view text? As the next generation grows up immersed in digital text and spend little or no time reading traditional narratives, will the ability to follow traditional plot structure and character development become a skill of the past?