Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The New American Spook Country

Both this essay and the TIE Fighter piece were written over the summer right after I finished my 2L year. I was looking for something to read and decided to plow through a few books on 9/11 politics in America, both the legal and fictional aspects. There aren't very many authors with the guts to write fiction about post-9/11 America and those that do tend to get bogged down in nationalism, paranoia, and worst of all, glorifying the past.

It was with great pleasure to discover that one of the few to really address the issue head on is William Gibson. He is one of my personal heroes for having both been born in my area of South Carolina and being raised in my favorite part of the South: Appalachia. What surprised me was that many of the techniques and motifs he used were distinctly Southern ones that were employed in second generation post-Civil War books. Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, there are dozens but the story mostly remains the same. The American South was a pretty f***ed up place before the Civil War. It was pretty f***ed up afterwards too. But the rapidness of that change left a mark that you can still see throughout the South.

What Gibson wrote about in Spook Country was America as a whole in such a state of flux. Our government tapping phone lines and detaining people without cause. The technology of the internet rendering the celebrity a moot issue. A music box being used to carry trade secrets. Advertising firms that care more about their product being a secret than fully known. Everything has changed, overnight it seems, and the void of a way of life destroyed is the source of this strange mixture of paranoia and fear.

It is still, in my opinion, the best book about 9/11 yet written.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jesper Juul's half-real

Out of all the books I've read thus far, I think Juul's half-real was the one that improved my understanding of games in a very tangible way. A lot of the metaphysical stuff is very interesting but it generally has more to do with metaphysics than it does video games. That is, video games are a useful tool for discussing ontology (it's the basically study of reality and how things relate) because of the way the simulacra reflects on the user, in reverse there are moments but there aren't really enough games engaging with the concept for it to be a viable approach yet.

Juul's book is concerned with charting different kinds of game design rules, particularly emergent vs linear structures. He's a coherent writer but there are a lot of graphs and because the book was coming together in 2004-2005 he doesn't have all the rich examples we have today. The book defined a lot of concepts I was always aware of but never really had a term for. Things like when a game explains how it works and when it doesn't, branching design trees, yada yada.

If you're a liberal arts major with no formal training in tech or games, this is a pretty good starting place.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Charting the Course

I've been doing a lot of thinking about my writing and what I want it to be in my life. When I think about Joyce's comment in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Daedalus explains that writing is "the mode of art whereby I express myself most freely", I find myself wondering about the necessities of that value. I have no doubts about the importance of writing to me, but I do wonder about the qualitative nature of what I produce. Take all these blog summaries of books by academics I've been producing. I understand what ontology and phemenology are, but I certainly couldn't give you a lecture on them or even really advance the theory work of people like Ian Bogost and Alexander Galloway. As I look at the revised version of the half-real post that is going up next week I'm reminded of an analogy Stephen King once used to describe himself. The deep and complex theoretical work I'm mucking about in is the equivalent of a steak dinner for your brain. I am a cheeseburger.

Actually, I think I'll give myself more credit, I'm a Philly Cheesesteak.

Such confessions are important for me to write as I reconcile myself with the legal profession(provided I can find a damn job) and the balance I am going to need between work and my wonderful hobby. I enjoy my particular brand of retrospective looks at older games and they are by far my most popular essays, but I have reservations about staking an entire career on it. Nor could I look someone in the eye and guarantee that all of the creative risks I engage with at Popmatters pan out, many of them flop in terms of page views. And yet I would not take back a single one.

Taking responsibility for my writing, taking the direction it moves in and ensuring that the expression always remains free, to me means making sure that I am always saying something that I actually want to write. It means avoiding being pigeonholed or getting stuck producing something because it is expected of me instead of actually being worth saying.

The blog sections at Popmatters are open to any writer on staff regardless of what category they work in. I'm also pushing through several Features that break away from video games. I highly doubt I'll ever quit writing about video games, they are far too fascinating, but it's best to establish now that as the months go by I intend to write about a wide variety of things.

For example, a fantastic bluegrass tribute album for Modest Mouse.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

ZA Critique: Left 4 Dead

This is my second stab at writing about a multiplayer game, but I mostly played it safe while I experiment with new approaches to these games. The Halo 3 piece managed to capture what I think could be described as the 'Social Slayer' or casual side to the game. The competitive players felt left out and were quite vocal about this in the comments. This left me with a curious puzzle: either find a multiplayer game that never really developed a competitive culture on par with Halo 3's or find a game whose competitive culture is so different from casual play as to be a totally different game. The purpose being to draw out the core elements that generate these variations without rehashing a game I've already covered.

Plus I still think shotty/sniper is bulls***.

Left 4 Dead offers a remarkable example of the first type: a game that immersed itself heavily in what Richard Bartle would refer to as the prime era of a multiplayer game. It hasn't yet been taken over by Aggressive or dominating players. Once that happens you basically get stagnation and then a cut-off of new players to the game, you just have the pros refining styles or the occasional killer player type who breaks the design. Due to the enforced team-based play of L4D, dominating styles are difficult to develop because you never know if the person you're with is up to par. It's a really interesting design and one I thought worked very well, albeit the game lacked the variety needed to keep the procedural zombies engaging.

Games control this problem with a variety of interesting solutions. Halo 3 always matches you with someone at your skill level and divides everyone by letting you pick between "I don't really care" (Social Slayer) and "I am become Ur" (Ranked Matches). The point is to make sure you've got people who are in the same ballpark in terms of what they want from the multiplayer experience.

Left 4 Dead works for precisely the opposite reason. Zombies, 4 random strangers, and trying to find enough commonality to survive to the end.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Essays on Algorithmic Culture

I've never really understood why critics devote large portions of time to name dropping someone only to tear apart their arguments. I figure it's some way to just give a shout-out to other people in your field, but since it mostly boils down to explaining how they're wrong I'm not sure why they would appreciate it. If the purpose is to actually debate with them, then it also goes against how I've been taught to argue. Time spent discussing your opponent's argument is time you should've spent building up your own, the only thing gained is getting the audience to think about what your opponent wants them to be contemplating. It's also uninformative, since the large paragraph spent explaining someone's theory will immediately be dismissed by the author in favor of the point they should've been making in the first place.

Which brings us to my approach to Galloway's book Essays on Algorithmic Culture and the decision to just go with the flow. I've been called out once or twice for my extreme dislike of comparing films to games and it's something I admit to. The fight is a cultural one, not just a theory discussion, and as a consequence a lot of what drives my argument is principle. When you've got David Jaffe wondering when someone will make the video game equivalent of American Beauty, it's time to put a stop to this nonsense.

I mean really, American Beauty is the standard now?

So I basically skipped the chapter where Galloway compares film technique to games and focused on his much more interesting approaches. I'm not totally sure where he falls in the game academic timeline, but his curious retro-fitting of film principles to video games to explain how they create meaning is really interesting. Contrasting game design over visuals and machine vs operator is an approach I've only seen done once or twice and it was refreshing to read his angle.

I'm still sticking with my Narrative and Game Design schtick, but that's just the English Major in me talking.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

How To Generate Comments On Your Blog

A very close friend of mine recently dropped out of law school and began work on his Masters Degree in Literary Studies. I was asking him how the transition was going and he explained that the biggest shift was just the attitude adjustment from the adversarial style of discourse. People just sort of talk and float ideas, voicing them in the group and letting others wrestle with them. As someone disagrees with a concept, another builds on it or takes it in a different direction. Since you are often dealing with abstract concepts being correct is not really a factor, expanding the scope of the discussion is favored and even necessary. In law school, you are trained to think of being wrong as a calculable factor in an argument and to minimize it. If the facts are on your side, argue those. If that fails, argue for applying the laws in question as intended by their creator. If that fails, wave your arms and shout.

These distinctions are important to understand the basic difference between making a statement versus generating a conversation. Michael Abbott’s Brainy Gamer gives us an interesting variety of essays to see both comment heavy and non-comment heavy pieces. Just looking at what’s recently been posted, the most comment heavy article is TCBAGS at 47 posts. The article ends with Abbott asking if anyone else has experienced a TCBAG, a ‘This Could Be a Game Syndrome’ moment where you pretend an activity in your life is a game. The lowest comment count is an announcement for the upcoming podcast series. Broader concepts like POV, Emergent Design, and enjoying simple games generate a range of about 30 comments while narrower focuses on individual games such as Devil Survivor or The Sims 3 fall into 20 or so. A post on Little King’s Story pulls into the 30 range while an essay on cinematography, which you could argue is a narrow field, falls into the 20’s. To contrast this sample, look at Leigh Alexander’s Sexy Video GameLand. A post on her write-up on the Hot Coffee lawsuit pulls in 16, a post on FF7’s music nets 24, while one on the viability of the FPS pulls 47. The FPS piece also ends with a question. A post on Shadow Complex and the Orson Scott Card issues nets 40 and ends on a similar note. A mirror post to an article on nostalgia pulls in 9.

Many of the articles I’ve referenced have repeat posters debating the issues raised in the essay. We’re also only looking at two blogs, chosen because they are examples of isolated audiences engaging with a single author and topic, instead of a broader webzine or forum. I think, perhaps, the pattern still applies even when dealing with larger audiences. Let’s look at a larger website like Destructoid. A post on worn-out archetypes in video games pulls in 120 comments. A post recommending an individual game generates 9. Chiptunes article gets 43, a newsbite on the Wii price cut 32, and a newsbite that Prototype will be appearing in Entourage pulls in 51.

Obviously asking a question at the end of your post tends to encourage people to speak up. Discussing an abstract or broad concept like zombies in games or quirky moments in life means more people will have personal experience and thus more likely to comment. The point of this post is to correct an odd assumption I see occasionally on Twitter and in other bloggers. The number of comments on your essay are not indicative of how popular you are or how many people are reading your work. I say this because my own work is a prime example of the distinction I made at the beginning of the post: I don’t leave many loose ends. As a consequence, I only get the occasional comment. Which is fine, I’m happy to chat with anyone, but it’s not something I actively seek out. This is just a personal decision about what I want to contribute to the video game discussion, I don't think any one method alone is superior.

What is important is to point out that if you really want people to talk on your blog, there are a variety of writing techniques that ought to generate a comment or two. I just wouldn’t confuse this with being a viable indicator of the quality of your work. Is the subject of your post narrow or broad? If it’s about an individual game, it’s unlikely that all your readers have played it and will have something to add. A refined game design concept is a bit broader but probably not as much as something as large and abstract as ‘Best Racing Game Ever’. One should also not confuse having a lot of comments on an essay as necessarily being a sign of success. You might’ve just pissed someone off.

Unfortunately, if I knew how to reliably attract more readers to your website and thus proportionally more comments, I’d be in a different line of work. The only advice I have for getting more readers is to ask yourself a question: what do you want to write about?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Misconceptions About the Female Avatar

Got a twofer for ya.

Michael Abbott invited me onto the Brainy Gamer Confab for a discussion about 2009. It's a refreshing variety of topics: EA's PR stunts, design trends, and the growing glut of games that continue to become formulaic without ever being bad. I was paired off with Ben Fritz and Nick LaLone and the result was a discussion about cultural trends more than any specific game concept. Fritz pondered why a well-received IP on the DS didn't sell while I ramble about a design pattern I noticed in DS & Wii FPS games that seems like a step backwards. LaLone capped this off with a question about innovation itself, where new ideas come from and how those can be produced. They're all very interesting chats that continue to make this podcast the best one on the internet. It was a huge honor to be invited on there.

The second is this week's BPM post, which engages with an assumption that people still make in games. There is a difference between our relationship with an attractive character that you are controlling instead of one you are looking at. You are sexualizing the player in this moment because they are projecting their identity into this avatar.

I'm not sure any blanket statement about how someone should feel about that will ever ring fully true. Some people enjoy it, some people don't care, and others think it's just a game. What I do think is that the oft-lambasted primary demographic of 18 to 35 year old heterosexual men are not overly fond of this. It conflicts with the nature of an empowerment fantasy, which I'm assuming is the chief selling point of being a giant space marine. Being an objectified sexual object, in this case a woman in a bikini etc., is mostly going to conflict with that activity.

I found a lab study that demonstrates this in action: a survey of men and women showed men did not prefer playing as a hypersexualized avatar. Oddly, women did, though there are outside explanations for that. I also bring in some Laura Mulvey to put all of this into perspective. Her work with film noir, films which are often similar to games because of how male-oriented they are, has helped me get a better grip on the cinematic techniques of the male empowerment fantasy.

Makes you wonder about something like Bayonetta, doesn't it?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pixel Vixen 707

I had the good fortune over the past two years to become friends with Rachael Webster and it ended up being one of the most interesting experiences I've ever had. To be honest, I think my interest in her picked up much more after I found out the whole website was an ARG. I'd never participated in one before and I decided I wanted to see how they worked.

Looking back, there was never really much to it. You just showed up and commented, bounced a few tweets, and she would bounce back. I never could spot if a different writer was at work, it was all Webster to me. The more I kept reading and interacting, the more I found myself not really caring about who was actually behind the other monitor. What does it matter on the internet? I could be a sixty year old Grandma from Kentucky, would you really stop reading my blog just because the source was not what the final product needed to be taken seriously?

That was the idea I built this retrospective around, the idea that identity is just something we use to justify our claims. Missing are the more personal moments I had with Webster, like receiving a thoughtful e-mail after I took a beating in a comments exchange. It was, without question, one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for me since I started blogging. A funny thing struck me during that exchange and I told her the same thing:

Sometimes...she seemed more real than most.

Applying Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics' to video games

Leigh Alexander made an interesting point in a piece calling for more creativity in the game's industry when she noted that most of them just borrow from the same basic sources. Sci-fi stuff, comic books, fantasy...the usual genre tropes. She pointed out that they needed to start borrowing from other sources to improve the state of games. I would add to that suggestion a tiny caveat: make sure you borrow ideas properly.

There is a craft to borrowing ideas from other mediums, particularly when you're applying them to something as odd as video games. You've got to spot what's useful and separate it from what isn't. Just look at cutscenes if you want to see the idea taken in the wrong direction: people trying to use elements from film without really thinking the process through. Tiny moments and vignettes are fine to give more complex feedback, but you're going to be in trouble if that's the only way your game is telling its story. The same applies to comics and knowing which elements are going to fit with games and which aren't.

You're also better off reading a trade manual or guide to creating another medium than just looking at the finished product. I play plenty of games, but I don't know a thing about the more complex design elements that must be factored in. It's not different for anything else. With that in mind, I read Understanding Comics with the goal of borrowing ideas from it that seemed the most useful. What I found was that McCloud's discussion on symbolism and abstract concepts was readily applicable while many of the narrative devices he writes about are not. How comics get you to project into a visual image is extremely useful to games but there are also plenty of differences.

Anywho, just thought I'd mix up the game academia series a bit.