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by Nick Dinicola

3 Jul 2009

When starting a new game in Tom Clancy’s EndWar, the player is faced with three options for difficulty: Normal, Expert, and Hardcore. When I saw the choices for the first time I immediately choose Expert because I had been conditioned by numerous games over several years to know that the middle option was always the medium difficulty. Sure it was labeled “Expert” but I knew it was just a label. Before getting into the game proper, the player is encouraged to play through the Prologue, what is essentially a series of tutorials familiarizing the player with the various mission types. I did, and I could not beat the third mission. I lost so fast, so many times that I turned off the game in frustration and didn’t touch it for a month. When I finally went back to it, I started a new game on Normal. I beat the Prologue, I won World War III, and I had a blast doing so. As someone who usually never plays a game on the lowest difficulty setting, it was easy for me to rationalize the switch because the setting was labeled Normal. This was the setting the game was meant to be played on, right? Be that as it may, there’s no denying that I had to switch to lowest difficulty setting in order to get past the third tutorial mission. But I don’t really mind anymore, because I loved conquering Europe and Russia and I’d gladly choose that experience again any day.

Mitch Krpata at Insult Swordfighting wrote a series of posts in which he tried to come up with new words to describe people’s gaming habits since “casual” and “hardcore” are horribly inadequate. He wrote, “Some people play to master a game—to perfect its mechanics, to explore every inch of the game world. Some play to “see the sights”—to hit the high points and not get too caught up in the minutiae. Let’s call these groups ‘Skill Players’ and ‘Tourists.’” There are further subcategories, but for now these two terms effectively describe two distinct (though not mutually exclusive) styles of play. One plays for the experience, the other for the challenge.

These differences in play are exemplified in the blogosphere in people’s reactions to Red Faction: Guerrilla, and the news that New Super Mario Bros. Wii will incorporate Nintendo’s new “demo play.”

Russ Frushtick at the MTV Multiplayer blog and Chris Kohler from Wired’s GameLife blog both write about why they played Red Faction: Guerrilla on the Casual difficulty. Kohler describes what a difference the switch made, “I could absorb far more of the enemies’ bullets, meaning that instead of having to hang back and pick them off from afar, I could run up to the soldiers swinging my sledgehammer, taking all of them out with brutal bashes to the head. I could destroy enemy buildings with impunity, not having to worry that I’d be sniped as I was gleefully reducing a communications tower to splinters.” Frushtick writes about his frustration with the game on Normal, “What did get old was getting shot and dying. Having to run around corners to wait for my health to recharge. Having to take cover and use strategy when all I want to do is rush forward and bash the world in the face with my large hammer. If the difficulty impedes access to the greatest part of a game, just toss the difficulty!” That sentiment more effectively describes the Tourist gamer than any dictionary definition. Sometimes it’s fun to just play.  The mere act of messing around, of shooting and jumping and climbing and smashing and exploring and discovering and dying and doing it all over again, is enough.

But what then, if free play such a good thing, is one to make of Nintendo’s “demo play,” which clearly takes that away from the player. “Demo play” is a kind of help system that would allow players to get past a certain parts of a game by essentially letting the game play itself, and then jumping back in when they’re ready. Reactions by gamers have been mixed, with some supporting it, some indifferent, and some despising it, but the one complaint that caught my attention was the worry that certain players would just watch the game play itself all the way though, treating the game as a movie.

Even if a player watches a game play itself to the end and only jumps in to participate in the final battle, he’s still embracing the very thing that separates games from movies: Interactivity. The player is being given the option of choosing which challenges he’ll face. Skipping certain sections of any game will certainly change the experience for the player, but changes it for the better. For players who find pleasure in watching a game unfold, and not in the challenge of beating it, skipping a hard part only adds to their experience.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I like the more extreme possibilities of “demo play.” As much as I would like to play Mass Effect, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty 4, or any of the Splinter Cell games again before their sequels come out, I just don’t have the time. I would love to experience those games again in some condensed form, to refresh myself on the stories and characters without having to commit eight to twelve hours to each game. Maybe just a half hour here and there to fight a Big Daddy, assassinate a 12th century politician, or shoot down a helicopter. Just for the fun of it.

by Bill Gibron

2 Jul 2009

Legend has it that when Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni came to America to make his second English language film (after the monster success of Blow-up), he was shocked by the backlash his production received. There was never any doubting of his ideals - the filmmaker famous for such seminal cinematic statements as L’avventura, La note and L’eclisse was as left leaning as the turbulent times allowed - and his planned film was to take on all aspects of the debauched Western (read: US) culture. But with local law enforcement accusing Antonioni of everything from inciting riots to corrupting the morals of youth, the counterculture’s latest auteur was heading for a face off with the most conservative of stateside Establishments - and it really wasn’t a fair fight.

As a result, many consider Zabriskie Point to be a failure. They see it as a kind of compromise, a version of Antonioni’s philosophies foiled by a time when the ‘60s was dying and no one was around to eulogize the corpse. The Manson Family had killed, the War in Vietnam (and the battle at home) raged on, and politics preempted freedom and common sense for the sake of a slipping nation. Antonioni wanted his ethereal encapsulation of the entire Peace Generation to be a strong and unswerving statement, a view of a land corrupted by consumerism and corporate greed. What he got instead was a tantalizing tone poem, a masterpiece that makes its point in symbols so obvious and complaints so calculated that one just can’t imagine his message would be so simple.

When we first meet out hero, Mark, he is storming out of a student strike rally meeting. He is tired of all the talk and wants to act - and act NOW. Sadly, during the resulting confrontation with police, an officer is shot and killed - and Mark is targeted as the likeliest suspect. On the run from the law, he steals a small airplane and heads out into California’s Death Valley. There he runs into temporary secretary turned CEO mistress Daria. A fertile example of free love flower power, she’s off to help her middle-aged man secure a deal to exploit some local land.

The minute they meet, the coquettish Daria woos Mark with her earnest and easy sexuality. She connects with his need for rebellion and revolution. They make their way to Zabriskie Point, where they continue to discuss politics both social and personal. There, among the various mineral deposits and dusty dunes, they express themselves physically. Mark decides to take a risk and return to campus. He is sure his sense of innocence and justice will pay off. Daria simply goes off to meet with her boss, hoping for a happiness that, sadly, will probably never come.

It is often said that foreign filmmakers do a far better job of capturing the American zeitgeist, no matter the era, than their US counterparts. A perfect example of this proverb arrives in the form of Zabriskie Point. You will not see a better distillation of the entire 1960s and everything it stood for - good, bad, indifferent, insightful - than this uncompromising artistic overview. As a modernist, a moviemaker noted for his disconnected ideals and luxuriant long takes, Antonioni was still capable of contravening expectations. Zabriskie actually tells a rather linear story, settling on Mark and Daria’s escape from society as the basis for all that follows. Unlike some critics who’ve claimed the film is all outdated screeds and sand dune canoodling, Zabriskie Point actually builds, offering multiple layers of meaning. It may not always succeed, but when it does, it’s magical.

In essence, this is a story about sin, and the sacrifice of two human beings toward the betterment of mankind (make that Western mankind) in general. All throughout the opening of the film, Antonioni counters the high minded pronouncements of the student radicals with the ever-present pulse of materialism and advertising. We see billboards promoting the good life, and sale pitches poised to get would-be “suckers’ to buy their unnecessary desert dream homes. As Mark rides around LA, railing against the apathy he sees, the source of said indifference bombards us from all angles. Antonioni also tosses in the necessary mood music of the time, giving Pink Floyd, the Youngbloods, and The Rolling Stones (among others) a chance to air their always intriguing sonic dirty linens.

But it’s the finale that will stay with you long after Mark and Daria finish their fateful meeting. Using a high tech home in the side of the mountain as an icon for all that’s wrong with America’s economic inequality, Antonioni systematically blows up all the trappings of such a sour post-modern philosophy. We literally see piles of clothing, refrigerators loaded with foodstuff, library shelves larded with books, and various iconic bourgeoisie settings explode in a slow-motion dance of disintegration. For these moments alone, Zabriskie Point deserves to be revered. But there is more to this movie than criticism. Antonioni also wants to celebrate the purity that could have come from such a realized rethinking of the typical communal norms. When Mark and Daria eventually make love, their spirit of passion is so strong that it calls up the dusty ghosts of all young lovers of the era. It’s a sequence that Antonioni visualizes with all the musk and meaning he can create.

It’s not wonder then why this movie was challenged - before, during, and after its making. Our country comes off as cold, cruel, callous, calculated, controlling, contrived, and in the end, committed to the stagnant status quo. Antonioni may be anguishing over the lack of true extremism in the actions of student groups and unions, but his answer seems obvious from the moment Mark and his buddies hit the gun shot - arm yourself and take down the Man one bullet at a time. Even the ending uses the infamous bombings of the era as an inference on how to rid the structure of such harmful board room robber barons. In many significant ways, Antonioni is pissing on both the peaceniks and the powers that be. Neither deserves his ultimate approval and neither get it.

As a result, Zabriskie Point can feel incomplete and ambiguous. Instead of staying with its obvious leftist leanings, it chastised the audience for believing to readily in their own peace, love, and harmony pronouncements. Our leads may seem naïve, walking directly into traps that almost any ‘right’ thinking individual would see a million miles away, but that’s part of this movie’s before-its-time charms. By 2009 standards, such a declaration would seem silly. Back almost four decades ago, it was prophetic. Antonioni could see the end of the era in signs more sensational than acceptable, and many coming to his celluloid table weren’t happy with the creative dishes being served. Sadly, that’s their loss. Today, Zabriskie Point plays actually as it should - slyly, uncompromisingly, masterfully.

by Thomas Britt

2 Jul 2009

Dan Gubbins’ Silent Paper Radios project is a departure from his past work as a DJ and hip-hop/electronic music producer. Gubbins says that the inspiration for Silent Paper Radios was the “Weird Folk” movement of recent years, but his sound is less showy and more traditional than much of what that trend produced.

New Silent Paper Radios album Reborn As a Wind Chime is one of this year’s most pleasant surprises, and the unsigned Gubbins has decided to offer the album as a free download for a limited time. On a MySpace blog entry, he instructs listeners to “Download my album free for a month and spread the silent word!”

Silent Paper Radios
Reborn As a Wind Chime [MP3]

by Rob Horning

2 Jul 2009

Complaining about the technologically mediated acceleration of life and the loss of the time for contemplation has become a lot like crying wolf. From what I gather, people seem to be sick of hearing it—as a meme it had its moment several months ago. Even though I’ve beaten that drum many times, I find myself thinking: Okay. Concentrating is hard, but then when hasn’t it been? There are a surfeit of distractions; I get it. But it’s not like I am going to go on an information fast and spend my free time meditating. I’m not going to dismantle my RSS feed and devote an hour a night instead to reading a single poem. Those seem like idealistic, nostalgic fantasies about the “life of the mind,” which in practice would most likely amount to a refusal to engage with life as it is actually being lived. For example, I very much wish I was in a world without Twitter and maybe even without telephones, but that doesn’t mean it’s imperative that I live as if it were so. Down that road lies the technological equivalent of veganism, wherein everyone in my life would need to adapt to my fussy, righteous rules about which ubiquitous behaviors were permissible in my little world.

Still, though David Bollier’s account of an April 2009 lecture (probably based on this paper, pdf) by media studies professor David Levy has its share of neo-Thoreauvianism in it, it nevertheless raises some points worth considering. The main gist is this: “The digital communications apparatus has transformed our consciousness in some unwholesome ways. It privileges thinking that is rapid, productive and short-term, and crowds out deeper, more deliberative modes of thinking and relationships.” I have said the same sort of thing lots of times, but, as Levy asks, what actually constitutes the difference between “productive” thought and “deliberative” thought? I tend to think of the former as data processing—tagging mp3 files, for instance—and the latter as analytical inquiry, but it may not be so easy to distinguish the two. The mental modes tend to flow into one another. Working through menial mental tasks sometimes allows for inspiration to break through—and after all, what is one supposed to be doing with one’s mind when it is taking its time to deliberate? The “information overload” critique sometimes centers on the idea of slowing down the mind. But the mind is always moving, thinking one thought after another; the problem with the internet is that it gives it too many places to go all at once, has the potential to gratify too many idle curiosities. Bollier suggests that “We are sabotaging those inner capacities of consciousness that we need to be present to others and ourselves.” But the dream that Levy attributes to Vannevar Bush seems a more apt description of what we’ve tried to do. “Bush’s intention was clear: by automating the routine aspects of thinking, such as search and selection, he hoped to free up researchers’ time to think more deeply and creatively.” It’s just that the two functions can’t be separated; the way in which we think about things doesn’t have degrees. It’s holistic; we require routine tasks to fire our creativity, and creativity can often become routinized.

It’s important to distinguish between having information at our disposal and lacking the discipline to make contemplative use of it. Often the two are implicitly elided, as if too much information automatically leads to frivolous surfing through it. Bollier writes, “Fast-time activities absolutely crowd out slow-time alternatives. The now eclipses the timeless. And we are becoming diminished creatures in the process.” I don’t quite understand this. We have to live in the now, because we are not “timeless.” We die. And the problem with information overload doesn’t lie with the activities and the media so much as they do with the approach we take to them, the ideology about information consumption we have internalized in the course of mastering these new technologies. We think they are supposed to make our lives convenient, and we measure that in terms of time efficiency. If we do many different things in the same span of time we once were forced to do only a few things—if on the train we can read 17 books simultaneously on a Kindle rather than one—than we are “winning.” The pressure to consume more is not inherent to the technology or in some new perception of time, but is instead inherent to consumer capitalism, which fetishizes quantity. As Levy points out, the roots of this are in the “production problem”—how to keep making more stuff if people are already sated and don’t have the time to consume more. The solution: manufacture new wants and speed up consumption. So the consumerist imperative probably led us to develop many of these technologies. But still, we should be careful not to blame the tools for the kind of people we have become. (If Twitter went out of business tomorrow, many people’s discourse would still remain superficial and inane.) If we have ceased to be able to love, it is not because we lack the leisure or are too distracted. It is because we have learned to privilege different sorts of experience, are rewarded for different sorts of accomplishments.

So the call for “an ‘information environmentalism’ to help educate people about the myriad and aggressive forms of mental pollution afflicting our lives” seems misguided. The “mental pollution” is an effect, not a cause, of our loss of contemplative peace. That is, our mental lives are not degraded by information but by a pervasive cultural attitude about it, that treats ideas as things to be collected and/or consumed.

ADDENDUM: Ben Casnocha’s review of Tyler Cowen’s new book presents a far more cogent critique of the “attention crisis” hullabaloo then what I’ve provided above.

We have always had distractions. We have never had long attention spans. We have never had a golden age where our minds could freely concentrate on one thing and spawn a million complex and nuanced thoughts. Cowen reminds us that charges to the contrary have been made at the birth of every new cultural medium throughout history. Moreover, the technologies that are supposedly turning our brain into mush are very much within our control. The difference between the new distractions (a flickering TV in the kitchen) and age-old ones (crying infant) is that the TV can be turned off, whereas the crying infant cannot.

He also notes the way in which chaos and “un-focus” can lead us to breakthrough insights. Though I don’t remember agreeing with much of Sam Anderson’s New York magazine essay in praise of distraction, this point that Casnocha highlights seems apropos: “We ought to consider the possibility that attention may not be only reflective or reactive, that thinking may not only be deep or shallow, or focus only deployed either on task or off. There might be a synthesis that amounts to what Anderson calls ‘mindful distraction.’ ” That’s what I was struggling to express above: thinking is thinking; subjecting it to binary categorizations does injustice to how it actually works and leads to unnecessary and useless prescriptions for how to provoke thinking of a certain type. 

by tjmHolden

2 Jul 2009

Photo: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

PM is on a break, so I might as well come off mine.

I’ve been traveling about for some time now, collecting pictures and anecdotes, which I’ll post as time permits. But while I was sifting through the shots and sorting out my thoughts, I came across this piece in the Los Angeles Times.

It was listed under their “Most emailed Stories” sidebar, but that is actually a misnomer, since it is mainly a collection of photos with a bit of text clinging precariously—apologetically (one might even say)—to the outer edge.

Proving (what we already know): that pictures often speak more authoritatively than words.

Anyway, clicking through the photos, the following thoughts came to mind (not necessarily in this order):

//Mixed media

'Steep' Loves Its Mountains

// Moving Pixels

"SSX wanted you to fight its mountains, Steep wants you to love its mountains.

READ the article