Ah, the ‘80s. That magical time when men did lots of cocaine and women wore those suits with really big shoulder pads. This was the time of the stock trader, and it is this time that the simple browser based game American Dream seeks to take the player back to. It has a simple enough goal: become a millionaire by playing the stock market.
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With the recent release of Dead Space 2, it is not surprising to find that my thoughts drift back to the first installment of the series and what about it made the experience worthwhile. From a narrative standpoint, it would be easy to write off Dead Space as “Resident Evil 4 in spaaaaace”, complete with parasitic organisms that seem to have been unleashed by crazy cultists. This might turn a lot of people off (forgetting that Dead Space controls better than any RE game I’ve come across, and I’m including the on-rails-shooters in this) because, well, hasn’t this all been done, before?
Well, yes it has. But has it been done this particular way? Probably not. Additionally, while the mechanics of Dead Space are familiar to anyone who has played a third person shooter in the last decade (I flatly refuse to acknowledge that the much ballyhooed dismemberment mechanic is all that different from learning to shoot zombies in the head), the setting and story (while equally familiar) serve as a platform for presenting a debate that runs throughout the game about posthumanism.
The usual BPM for this week got posted a bit earlier than usual, but you can check back here if you missed it.
As a substitute though, I thought I’d aggregate a few links to the growing discussion about video games that specifically target female gamers. An excellent post at Wired highlights some of the top contenders for most awkward thing to teach a young girl.
The games listed in the article vary in subject matter from using clothes and behavior to be accepted by the “Pretty Committee” to revolving around trying to get a boyfriend. Other titles only allow the female character to advance by purchasing clothes and jewelry. A similar post at Brainy Gamer summarizes the issue nicely:
Most video games for girls send a steady flow of narrow images and self-limiting notions about how to succeed in today’s culture. They reinforce all the worn-out essentialist tropes: be beautiful, be fashionable, be popular. If parents want to worry about the messages kids receive from video games, they should pay more attention to these.
Other than the inherent nature of the media a person playing these games are exposed to, it is hard to say what kind of effect these games may have. Craig A. Anderson, who is one of the psychologists arguing in favor of a connection between violence and video games, points out in a FAQ, “all games teach something, and that ‘something’ depends on what they require the player to practice.” Anderson is outlining how both positive and negative behavior is taught through games in that quote, but the potential for negative behavior outside of just the violence that he addresses is very real. A child who constantly acts out, achieving success through purchasing clothes and behaving how their friends want them to might be, absorbs some strange lessons.
These question are further complicated by the fact that these types of games aren’t even considered particularly popular in their target demographic. A post at Feminist Gamers points out that a survey at the Institute of Adolescent Health found that girls ranked Grand Theft Auto as their favorite game. It was followed closely by The Sims, which allows female characters to be or do just about anything. Considering that even the most violent games are just empowerment fantasies, it isn’t surprising that these can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of gender.
One of the ideas that Ian Bogost outlines in Unit Operations is that our relationship with games work as a sort of response to the game’s world. That is, we look at how the game is depicting reality and contrast that with our own perspective. The things that we can do in the game that conflict with how we believe the world works generates an emotional reaction. In a game like Grand Theft Auto, my reaction to stealing a car is one of excitement because I personally could never do that. There are moral reasons for this but also social concerns that intervene like law, friends, and concern for hurting another person by taking their car. It’s fun to do it in the game because of the conflict that the activity has with my perception that what I’m doing is not possible normally.
The issue with a child playing one of these games revolves around the question of which misconception about reality is easier to correct. An adult would reasonably be able to correct a twelve year old child’s misconceptions about violence seen in a video game. But a young girl believing that the best way to make friends is through buying clothes and being pretty might be more impactful.
Put another way, you might be better off with your kid playing Grand Theft Auto after all.
As anyone reading this blog probably knows, E3 has been going on all week in L.A. (which seems even farther away from Buffalo than usual these last few days), and as such, a barrage of game announcements and trailers for new product have been finding their way to the internets mere minutes after they are revealed to the Expo’s attendants. Of those trailers, there is one that I simply can’t shake after having seen it, and it’s this one:
Nintendo’s Wii Music
Wii Music is where it started, I think.
Somewhere along the way—sometime in the first year during which Wii Sports was starting to show up in retirement homes, schools, and libraries across the nation (not to mention more homes than any game, like, ever), Nintendo came up with a strategy to try and maintain their new constituency, an audience that defied easily-formed generalizations. Namely, they decided that it was in their best interest to not offend anybody with their first-party software.
Wii Music was derided, and rightly so, for being a joke of an entrance to the world of music. As a little toy for me and my kids to fire up when we were bored, it was fine, but even in that context, its replay value was terribly limited. The point of Wii Music was to be as inclusive as possible, to give anyone the opportunity to pantomime—and, in effect, “play”—any instrument pretty much immediately. “Playing” the violin was easy as moving the Wii remote like a bow, “playing” the drums involved flailing around with the Wii remote and nunchuck (and, optionally, the balance board), “playing” a trumpet involved holding the Wii remote up toward the player’s mouth and alternating the ‘1’ and ‘2’ buttons. It was all terribly easy to “master”, if “mastering” it was the goal, and those looking for some sort of challenge—some sort of game—were left disappointed.
It would have been easy to believe that this was some sort of one-off, a case of Nintendo’s pandering teaching a valuable lesson, but the recent beginnings of the coming flood of Fitness apps for the Nintendo systems is telling a different story:
Nintendo’s too nice.
Nintendo’s Wii Fit
Look at Wii Fit, the one that started it all. It starts off well enough, by measuring your weight and turning your Mii into a distorted, roly-poly version of itself if you’re in the overweight or obese categories, and it allows you to set a goal for yourself, to lose (or gain) however many pounds you like in a certain amount of time. And after that…what?
On my second day, I gained weight. Wii Fit was still being nice to me.
On my third day, ashamed as I am to say it, I gained a bit more weight. Wii Fit was still being nice to me.
On the fourth day, when I held constant to the previous day’s weight, Wii Fit‘s only admonition was the acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, I might not meet my weight loss goal. And then I was free to keep doing as many (or as few) of Wii Fit‘s “exercises” as I wanted.
Nintendo’s Personal Trainer: Walking
Personal Trainer: Walking, on the DS, suffers from the same problem. It sets a goal for you, records your progress, and is full of encouraging words. If you meet the daily goal (which starts at 3,000 steps, which is actually obscenely easy to reach if your ass hasn’t grown roots in your sofa yet), it says “hooray for you!” and your Mii does a little dance. If you miss the goal, the shortcoming is barely even acknowledged, and the game just moves on. The only penalty? A red stamp on your calendar instead of a green one and slower progress toward unlocking the little treasures in the game’s cutely-designed “Walk the World” and “Space Walk” (the latter of which owes a tip of the hat to Noby Noby Boy if I do say so myself) diversions. Other than that, it just moves on. No “what happened?” or “what the hell is wrong with you?” or “what, you didn’t even have it in you to pretend to want to get in shape today?” Just a “hey, whatever!” and the game goes on.
Now, these games are not meant as standalone weight-loss tools; I can respect that. They’re tools, guides to help you along the way, but not full-fledged plans. Fine. This seems all well and good until you start up with something like EA Sports Active, whose goal seems to be to kick you in the ass and get you into shape if it kills you.
Electronic Arts’ EA Sports Active
EA Sports Active will, on your first workout with it, very likely make you sweat, huff, and puff more than all of your “workouts” with Wii Fit combined. It places particular emphasis on the upper legs toward the beginning, building muscles that are going to make running long distances seem like much more feasible an activity. It does this by telling you it’s going to put you on a program based on your current weight, giving you a set of 20 or so workouts to do back-to-back, and making sure you do them in a manner that will maximize the return on your investment, as measured by muscle mass (not to mention the ache you’ll have the next day).
The point is that by not being afraid to crack the whip a bit, EA Sports Active feels like far more effective a “tool” toward fitness than Wii Fit‘s software component ever could. It offers a lesson that Nintendo might do well to learn: stop pandering to us. Most of us are mature enough to take a little criticism, to be offered a challenge. In fact, we crave a challenge, and without being challenged, all we’ll take your products for are disposable toys. While they’re very slick, very well-designed toys, they can’t help but leave a bad taste in our mouths when our expectations are so dramatically better fulfilled by third-party entries into the same arena.
Oh, and since I started the 30-day program in EA Sports Active? Four pounds down and counting.