Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 3, 2008
I wrote this for a contest over at The Escapist and thought it was worth sharing. It still brings me a smile.

There once was a game from Japan,
About a jumping Red Man.
With mushrooms he grew stronger, flowers made his life last longer,
and coins earned him many a fan.


But as the sequels went by,
players stopped wanting to die.
They made the game less tricky, they made the power-ups more nifty,
and now anyone can play as that Red Guy.


So they sent him into space,
such an amazing place.
So many stars to collect, the same old Princess to protect,
but little to explain the newfound pace.


You can ride on Manatees,
you can even talk to psychotic peas.
But at around Star Seventy, you’ll wonder about brevity,
and instead play something with Miis.


There once was a game from Japan,
About a jumping Red Man.
With mushrooms he grew stronger, flowers made his life last longer,
and coins earned him many a fan.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Sep 1, 2008
A few observations on the ever-shrinking divide between digital lives and real ones.

Level 70. Xbox Achievements. Leaderboards. These are common terms in the gamer lexicon and for many they signify something far greater than their digital existence. They have value. Something that exists in no other place but the virtual world has significance and meaning in the real one. Ray Kurzweil, a noted…I’m not actually sure what his official description would be but let’s just say he made a very lucrative business out of predicting technologies just before they came into existence, Kurzweil once commented that it will actually get to a point in society where the virtual and real world merge. That people will stop considering them different and think of them as the same thing. He also predicts that the place where this overlap will begin to occur is in video games. What does that mean? What are the signs that our fantasies in video games are becoming real?


Sadly, the first real indicators of the two worlds merging are when a traumatic event in the virtual world affects the life of someone in reality. An article in the Boston Globe highlights the growing field of therapy for people who have lost their virtual lives. The doctor interviewed, Dr. Block, proposes that the therapy needed goes far beyond mere remedies for addiction. He suggests that much of the problem is that the person has trouble just finding someone who will take their loss seriously. The subject often won’t be able to find an outlet until they are able to talk with someone who understands the game itself and the magnitude of the loss within those boundaries. Take the EVE Online player in the article. That was a part of his identity. He spent years deriving self-worth and personal esteem from being one of the most powerful people in that game. Should he be ashamed of that? Should he not feel loss when his entire digital empire gets taken from him? We all get self-worth and esteem from goofy things. Hell, you’re reading one of mine. That’s just what people to do to make themselves feel better. Why should someone’s prized armor collection be of any less value just because it’s virtual rather than destroying their garden if both prizes took the same amount of time to accrue?


Another sign is that people are starting to believe their interactions with real people in the virtual world have value. They are having have real debates online, far beyond just chatting in the comments. Academics long ago realized MMORPG’s gave them insights into how people would behave in real world conditions, but now they’re holding conferences there as well. The most interesting thing in that article about running an academic conference in World of Warcraft is that the people conducted themselves as if they were at a real academic meeting. Certain people run the forum, insights are noted, and the entire exchange is recorded for analysis later. They were able to do something in the Virtual World that would’ve taken months of planning and huge expenses in the real one. And it doesn’t stop there, businesses have started training their employees and holding meetings in digital environments. Whether it’s having people show the appropriate reactions to an oil rig fire or holding private gatherings on secluded islands, companies have embraced virtual reality for the low costs and the value the experience still provides in application to the real world. As one manager notes, people still bond even though they’re meeting online.


But perhaps the greatest sign that the boundaries have begun to blur is the fact that the real world has begun to spill back into the virtual. A place that was once reserved for acting out our fantasies and creating sense of accomplishment has finally begun to reflect back. There are now video games about real world events. There’s the groundbreaking Super Columbine Massacre RPG that forces the player to experience an intense documentary-like game and uses actual writings from the two killers to recreate the event. Or the unflattering McDonald’s simulation that doesn’t just show you how to run a successful fast food joint, it forces you to realize that the only way these companies can make money is through corruption. Or Audiosurf, which takes the music in the real world and converts it into a virtual level for the player to navigate. The fact that we’re starting to take virtual reality seriously is exciting and somewhat frightening. The fact that virtual reality has begun to reflect back at reality is where the real shift begins to occur.


I had a really interesting chat with a friend of mine who researches on lab rats about virtual reality a while back. The guy literally kills rats by suffocating them, gauges their heart status, the efficacy of the chemical he’s injected them with, and does this for months on end. He’s testing a medication that would save people’s lives if they were having a heart attack and were able to take it in time. What’s ironic is that he gets offended by violence in video games. His complaint is that the violence is totally meaningless. You gun down hundreds of people, yet there’s no meaning to that death. No value given to all that destruction beyond a score or reward. When I pointed out that his occupation involved a pretty horrific amount of violence as well, he disagreed. To him, killing the rats had purpose and utility for a greater good, while in video games it all just seems kind of senseless. Issues of game violence aside, perhaps the best way to create meaning and purpose in video games is if the player provides them on their own. Perhaps by blurring the lines between the virtual and the real, we can go beyond just dragging our fantasies into reality. We can do more than just brag that our Level 70 Paladin runs their own guild. We can say that they did something important there as well.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Aug 31, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-09-01...

Quick—think of the last Spore-related article you read.  It could have been yesterday, it could have been last week, but think about it: What was it about?


EA's Spore

EA’s Spore


It makes me sad to even type this, but it’s my estimation that for something around 90% of you, the last Spore-related article you read was about penis monsters, mammary trolls and the like.  The fallout of releasing the Spore creature creator almost three months before the full game was released is that every sexually-challenged goofball out there who thought he or she was being absolutely hilarious (RoFL WoFLs!) decided to make a monster that looks like human sexual organs.  Some of the more enterprising souls released the results to YouTube.  In fact, the “Sporn” phenomenon has grown so quickly and placed in such a prominent position in the mainstream coverage of the game thus far as to have all but completely overshadowed the incredibly ambitious nature of the full-length game.


The mere idea of Spore has been making gamers, particularly PC gamers, drool for some years now, and it’s unfortunate that the pre-release press for the game is so focused on the juvenile.  Still, if Spore even approaches the mere idea of itself, the press post Sunday’s release should focus on the changing face of the simulation genre as a whole.  Spore is the one to watch this week, maybe the one to watch this year.


Square Enix's Infinite Undiscovery

Square Enix’s Infinite Undiscovery


Elsewhere, there’s a whole pile of releases for the Xbox 360 this week, including Infinite Undiscovery, Square Enix’s next venture into non-franchise role-playing.  Given the incredible response to The World Ends With You, Infinite Undiscovery has a lot to live up to.  Facebreaker looks like it could be good for a laugh or three, and hey—some people actually liked Vampire Rain, so maybe PS3 players have something of their own to look forward to.


So what are you picking up this week?  Scope out the release list, check out the Spore vid, and let us know in the comments!  Oh, and enjoy your Labor Day!


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 27, 2008
A new flash game pushes the boundaries of taste and forces the player to confront the overt sexuality in some games.

Editor’s Note: The portion of this blog post located after the jump is distinctly NSFW. 


I found this game thanks to Play This Thing, a superb website for all things indie.


Popping the psychological hood open on any artistic creation can garner a mixed reaction from people. Whereas some gain a deeper understanding of a work by seeing the sexual and mental impulses going on, others prefer it on a less complex level. This is particularly true in video games because the player input allows for the player to invest much more of themselves into the experience. Whereas anyone debating the phallic nature of light sabers is eventually going to have to shrug and roll their eyes, video games don’t quite allow for the same degree of neutrality. That’s because you, the player, are complicit in the action of the game. You are acting out the metaphor. When someone points out that using a gigantic sword to kill the Final Boss (with an equally large sword) has sexual overtones to it, they are implying that somehow something subconscious or sexual was going on in your mind at the time. That’s a distinct cross-over from the realm of “The artist is saying something sexual to me” and into the less secure world of “I just did something overtly sexual”. This does not, needless to say, necessarily go over well with some people.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Aug 25, 2008
It's getting near the end of the month, bills are starting to come in, and L.B. thinks up a bunch of bizarre schemes to make money.


The expense of video games has always had a tenuous relationship with what the consumer is purchasing. Sixty dollars is no small amount of money and it’s not unreasonable for a gamer to expect quite a bit of bang for their buck. A game needs to have a great solo experience, fun multi-player, generate a lot of playtime, and appeal to a wide audience to garner much critical acclaim these days. Hell, it had better jump through hoops and entertain the whole family for that kind of cost. Yet some games are definitely worth that kind of money. The sixty dollars you pay for Call of Duty 4 is going to be repaid tenfold when you go online and get absorbed into the matches. Like buying a set of golf clubs or a croquet set, you know this is a game you can play over and over again. There’s long term value in that, there’s a sense of getting your money’s worth. But for a game that’s purely single-player, that’s trying to give a tight plot and precise experience, it’s much more difficult to justify the cost. Sixty bucks for a game I’ll play once or twice is asking a lot. In a consumer culture where I can rent a series for a monthly fee or buy a long book for a few dollars, it can be hard to justify the sixty dollars for a plot-heavy Third-Person game. How do we make video games that are just about the stories work for the consumer?


 


The biggest solution going on right now is downloadable content and episodic game formats. TellTale’s Sam & Max games are doing well financially and have even been breaking into the green on metacritic. At ten bucks to download and averaging about 3 to 5 hours of gameplay, that seems like a fair deal. It’s just the right length for a lazy afternoon or spread out over several days without putting my wallet into a world of hurt. It makes the story flow a lot better as well; a game that runs ten hours suffers because the narrative ends up lagging somewhere. Your favorite book or movie still adheres to a basic formula of introduction, rising action, climax, denouement, and resolution. But when a video game tries to apply that formula, it usually stalls somewhere because it has to drag one of those elements out. You’ll spend five hours on the rising action, only to blister by the climax and have the resolution be a two minute pop song. Episodic content isn’t just a good value for a game, it’s better suited to keeping the narrative flowing properly. Portable games have also been adopting this style, with the average level or episode taking about 15 minutes to an hour to beat. This helps people who play in quick bursts on the subway, but you can also see how, inadvertently, portable games tend to have better story pacing.


 


But how can we use this design to maximize the income of a Third-Person game? Sam & Max uses a lot of great concepts like the season pass or the full season purchase, but I can’t help but wonder if the economic model is at its full potential yet. If episodic games are going to be as appealing as T.V., you’d need to distribute the games episodically for free for a limited amount of time (to get people hooked) and then recoup on advertising and season passes. As flash players become more powerful, the lucrative options of this model will soon be a reality. Little downloading, minimal hardware demands, and the necessity to stand out amongst the competition should all help drive narrative games into new and creative territory. Consumers have consistently shown their willingness to play a free game in exchange for seeing an advertisement, but people are just now beginning to offer more complex games in this model. Why not play a commercial during the load time between games? Or do as Rainbow Six Vegas did and fill the world with in-game billboards and ads. With companies producing prototypes like this for Flash 10, it’s only a matter of time before this is feasible. Graphically complex episodic games could find a home in a few years when my web browser can produce graphics as cutting edge as consoles today. But is there a chance for more? If including multi-player can expand the value of a product, what other options could be given to the player?



One of the most interesting things to come from gamer culture has been the mod community, and it might be in the best interest of developers to embrace that community more fully. Why not throw the gates wide open and actively try to make creating games with the engine as easy possible? With so many brilliant mods and games coming out from the likes of RPGMaker or Garry’s mod, by letting people make outside games and hosting them on your server you could get no-risk content. Work out a licensing agreement with people who make good games, divide up the revenue, and suddenly you’ve got an army of potential narrative games to offer your consumer. I don’t mean just leaving the door unlocked, this is about making in-game tools easier to use for the player. Software that lip synchs, incredibly easy animation tools, and editors that even my grandma could use. Furthermore, you don’t even need to hand people a blank slate. You would include all the in-game art and animations and consistently add new ones as you create a larger body of work. It would be a huge boost to the Machinima scene as well. Naturally, anyone who downloaded all of this and tried to make money without the owner’s consent would be subject to legal measures. People would still be able to distribute their work for free, but perhaps by offering to sponsor a good game with professional voice work and editing you’d give them an incentive to work with you. If narrative games are eventually going to migrate to the internet to reduce costs, it is not enough to just start posting brilliant narrative games. Developers must continue to innovate in multiple fields to stand out.


 


There are plenty of other applications for video games that could generate revenue. What about a Victoria’s Secret catalogue that uses the Unreal 3 Engine to let people have their customized avatar try on clothes and see how they look? Architects already use game engines to demonstrate their designs to potential customers, why not let people check out hotels or explore national parks before they even make the trip? A lot of this article has turned into speculation and wild business proposals, but it’s important for those who enjoy plot heavy Third-Person video games to be mindful of the economics going on. It’s very hard for any story, no matter how brilliant, to get much of a chance when the gamer has spent a fortune on it. All that cynicism and irritation melts away when you’ve only spent ten or twenty bucks on the game. In those kinds of conditions, the plot is given a chance to really shine. Short of the game being perfect in every regard, would we even notice the ‘Citizen Kane’ of games after it ripped us off sixty bucks?


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