Games

Reality and Virtual Reality

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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