Monday, January 16, 2012

The Last Update

As you may have noticed, in the last year or so I haven't given this space the attention I used to. The reason is quite simple: once I started freelance writing regularly during the week, finding the motivation on Friday to put together something of my own got increasingly difficult (in retrospect, Friday was not the best choice of days) and it became more like "Updated Every Saturday Afternoon" or "Updated Every Other Friday Because I Don't Have It in Me Right Now."

So I've decided that this blog's time is done. Now, notice that I didn't word it as "time to say goodbye." I fully intend to keep writing on my own, I've just got to do it without the strict weekly schedule. Anything I output now needs to be my best, not something quick I threw together at the last minute, and for that I'll need a new space with a less temporally-specific title. (Location of this new blog, the title of it, and what it will look like haven't been determined, but I'll post here when it's up, and on Twitter.)

Being good at something doesn't mean that it comes easy. I agonize over wordings, get hung up on little details, and want to walk away at the first sign of difficulty. For a long time I was also uneasy about seeing my name in print; an uncomfortable spotlight for someone who doesn't like being the center of attention. Writing here was the first step in getting over those problems (though the latter issue hit me again, I'll confess, when I started writing for Tested) and it has helped greatly.

Now I feel ready to do more, to step up my game and (force myself to) write things that show off what I'm capable of. Thank you for reading, for commenting, for finding anything I wrote worth remembering. Stick with me, I promise I've got more to say.*

*A lot of it is still going to be about video games. Sorry.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Since You Ask

Are video games art?

The answer I usually give is "I'm so tired of that question," which some might argue is no answer at all. But I respond that way because long ago I learned an important lesson about questions, and it goes like this:

"The question is not the question, the question is the questioner." In other words, answering a question is about more than simply providing a solution, it involves looking to what motivated it in the first place. "Games as art" has a lot to do with a generational gap, and the passing of creative torches, and no well-reasoned argument can make a dent in such large, emotional movements.

But if you're interested, here's what I think.

Are video games art? Well, let's first recognize that "art" is a word, and, like all words, it's meaning is a fluid, relative thing. You could pull down a dictionary from the shelf and find a listing for it, but dictionaries do not tell us what words *should* mean, they tell us how words are used among current speakers (and as such, they are regularly revised with the linguistic ebb and flow.)

So when you ask if games are "art," I need to know what you mean by that.

Are games a valid form of expression? Yeah, they are.

Can they make you feel things, can they make you cry? Can they move you, change the way you see the world,  give you new perspective on the events of your life? I'm here to tell you, on behalf of a generation that grew up with games in our homes, that they can.

And when you look back on your life, can games be an integral element that shaped who you are for the better? Yeah.

And if those things are not art, then what a stupid thing "art" must be. What a meaningless distinction, what a sad, unimportant little idea.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Pandora's Blocks

When you really break it down, wrapping paper represents a kind of psychological torture.

It's a perfect tease: allure and obstruction in a single device. At once, it indicates that this is a gift, something good that was bought with the intent of pleasing, while simultaneously acting as a barrier to that very thing. It inspires intrigue about what the contents could be,and holds the promise of something that will be yours-that is yours actually. By all rights, the tag on the outside secures this object of mystery as your property. You can take it, even carry it with you if you like.

But you can't open it.

If you open it, you're a bad person. To have that thing that's yours before an communally agreed upon time would make someone sad, the same person that chose to do this nice thing for you/force you into this trial of human will. And the icing on this cake, what we can now recognize as some sort of devilish butter cream, is the knowledge that wrapping paper is so easy, and so fun, to remove.*

*And sometimes then there are Legos.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Level of Investment

If you're going to be a gamer, you have to make peace with certain realities.

"I am going to manipulate this piece of plastic so that I can make an imaginary elf man kill imaginary monsters. And I'm choosing to believe that this represents an acceptable use of my leisure time."

This bargain becomes more difficult as you come to understand more about the underlying technology.

"I am going to inefficiently edit a save file using an elaborate visual interface."

But its even worse when the game has no noble hero, and no grand conflict. Games with stories are one thing; people have been getting overly invested in stories for a long time. But in a game like Animal Crossing, or Minecraft, even seasoned virtual puppeteers have difficulty reconciling their choice of hobbies.

"I am going to design and construct an imaginary farm, then meticulously harvest imaginary wheat, so I can then feed it to imaginary chickens* so they'll pretend to lay imaginary eggs. I am going to pretend to do something that is in all ways toil."

*What the hell is wrong with you stupid things? I've built you a huge pen, why do you insist on crowding into one tiny corner?

Friday, December 2, 2011


Simple question:

Well, okay, it's actually not a simple question. I'm just setting you up to think of it as a simple question so we can then hold it up to the light and find out whether or not it is so. Course, I probably shouldn't have told you that, since it kinda spoils the whole thing.

Sometimes I over analyze things, and have trouble getting to my point.


What is the world like? (the human world, not the natural world)

An individual's answer to that is a pretty telling marker of his personality. Is the world evil? Is it full of idiots? Is it just fine? Those are all divisive perspectives. But I think it's a mistake to mentally group people by their answer to that question. Many may stand in the same spot, and see the same thing, but more important is what direction led them there. Take, for instance, "The world is bad."

"The world is bad, and there's no hope for anyone."
"The world is bad, and that's why we're going to change it."
"The world is bad, but it'll be better once I'm in charge."
"The world is bad, so I'll make for me and mine a place that isn't."*

Same idea, vastly different implications. 

*We might call these Eeyore, Obama, Dr. Horrible, and Malcolm Reynolds.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Now that cellphones, and most especially smartphones, have become so common that they seem like a clumsy, halfhearted Borg assimilation plot, the full force of their resulting cultural shift is beginning to crash on the shores of the general public.

The marker that everyone points to is the generation of children, now old enough to understand the mechanisms that drive their world, who cannot grasp how a society might function without each person having constant access to worldwide communication. In time, however, I think you'll find that the more difficult concept to explain is this: there was a time, kids, when purchasing a new phone wasn't a gigantic ordeal.

Three major operating systems, several carriers, and hundreds of phones that range in price from zero dollars on-contract to "we priced it this much so that you'd never think of buying a phone not-on-contract" dollars. And the whole ecosystem is underlined by the (when you stop to think about it) super weird contract phenomenon itself: something like getting to purchase a car for 1/3 the price if you agree to only buy gas from one company for two years.*

So not only is the decision itself difficult, but there's a real sense that you'd better not screw it up-because otherwise you'll spend those two years kicking yourself and watching the great upgrade clock count down once again. Someday we'll mark time by our phone contracts, noting our distance from a big life event by what device we remember checking facebook on while it was happening.

*Don't tell anyone I said that, it might become real.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


I should really (read: I probably will never) create a list of the most important things I've read. Not the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, or anything "important" in a grand way, but the things that have stuck with me personally, popping up in my thoughts again and again, perhaps having a lasting impression on the way I think.

A surprising number of these writings will probably be about video games. Like this one!

In case you don't feel like investigating the whole thing, here's the short version. Among gamers, there's a subset that are enthusiasts for flight sims: highly accurate simulations of actual aircraft. And within that community, there's another subset that simulate air traffic controllers, using headsets to keep virtual pilots from crashing into one another. I should also mention that the air traffic software isn't a commercial product, but a fan-developed free add-on.

If the idea of people simulating another person's in-no-way-glamorous job in their leisure time sounds crazy*, then allow me to correct you: it actually isn't. It only sounds crazy because it's probably not you, or anyone you know. It is a sliver of a sliver of a chunk of society, but it's there. And that's why the post has stuck with me, it's a great example of how very broad the range of human experience is.

*I could never do this without insisting on using the crazy phonetic alphabet from the Hot Shots movies.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I don't know what you just said

For some reason, I've been thinking about Batman a lot lately.

Despite Christopher Nolan's best efforts to bring that universe into something resembling reality, there's no doubt that the villains are pretty ridiculous. However, as with Tolkien's Mt. Doom, those characters are now so well known that no one seems to notice how fairly stupid they are. I'll let you mentally run through the roster on your own, but here's a preview: one of them is a PENGUIN MAN.*

That being said, Batman's little circus of evil weirdos has taught me a lot about what makes a good villain. In terms of storytelling, the purpose of an enemy is to reveal the hero-to challenge the champion in interesting ways, force him to make interesting choices. The way you equip a good enemy to do that is by making him a foil for some virtue of the hero.

Riddler - Intellectual foil
Catwoman - Physical/Stealthy foil
Mr. Freeze - Technological foil
Scarecrow - Foil for Batman's use of fear
Joker - Foil for Batman's will, his capacity for taking actions that other people don't.

These enemies all do something that Batman does, but usually better, and that keeps Batman's abilities from seeming unstoppable, while also forcing him to use the rest of his arsenal in new ways.

*And another one is a ventriloquist. Yeah.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Pop Rally

Does it seem weird to anyone else that marching bands commonly play "Paint It Black" at sporting events? Isn't that song, which seems to be about consuming depression following the death of a lover, at an odd juxtaposition with "The Hey Song"*?

"I look inside myself and see my heart is black"

Ummmm, Go Team?!

"No colors anymore I want them to turn black"

Woo, Touchdown!

I guess you could argue the same about "The Imperial March" (aka, Darth Vader's theme), but that at least has an ominous, threatening vibe you might want to instill in your opponent. "Paint It Black" isn't threatening, though,  so unless your goal is to really bum the other side out I don't get it. Seems like when you're trying to rally a crowd, a song commonly used as the backdrop to Vietnam War movies shouldn't be your first choice.

*Fun fact: Some part of your mind is always listening to "The Hey Song," over and over.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Circular Arguments

I know you like candles. I like candles too. For their time they were a very effective technology that served us well. And I know that the prospect of light bulbs seems scary to you, and you don't trust new-fangled, high-tech solutions to problems you thought were already solved.

But just listen to me for a second.

I've been following this light bulb thing for a while, and using them for some time. So I'm in a good position to say that there's something to it all. And sooner or later, you're going to have to accept that they are better. And no matter how many light-bulb drawbacks you produce or how many arguments you make for the superiority of candles, it won't make a bit of difference.

I'm not saying your candles are going away completely, mind you. They certainly won't be our first choice for lighting needs, but they'll retain a certain place in our society. But if you really were to follow through on what you're saying now-that you'll never use light bulbs and only stick to candles-you're going to look like a crazy person in the long run. And that'll be appropriate, because you will be a crazy person.

Think of it this way. Used to we transported goods with wagons and horses. Then someone came up with railroads. And I'm sure that there was a certain amount of resistance to that too, from people who pointed out the expense of laying all that rail, how they didn't need to ship that fast, how cold and unromantic the rail cars were compared to a good, old fashioned wagon. But looking back, all that seems silly now. And it's clear that those detractors were fueled almost entirely by a fear of change.

So horde your candles if you want.* I'll won't even laugh when you grumpily accept the future, and enjoy it.

*Actually that's a good idea. Once they become a quaint anachronism the price will skyrocket, so long as you can make them smell like baked goods.