The Place of Video Games During Finals Season

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. What should be a wonderful and beautiful time of Christmas music and holiday cheer is spoiled by the crushing realization that we all have a lot of work to do before we can enjoy the seasonal cheer. I find the behavior of many people very interesting during this time of year. Some folks seem to maintain a quasi-cheery attitude, knowing that they’ve done this before and they’ll do it again. To them, worrying only doubles the pain, so what’s the point of getting too wrapped up in your studies? On the other hand, some people are quite open about how much they’re struggling. It’s some kind of odd coping mechanism, I think. This (false) dichotomy, though, has shown me one rather interesting thing about the use of video games during this time of the year.

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A very retro Christmas to all

For the “chiller” group, as I will call them, they keep most of their habits the same, in terms of leisure. Sure, they’ll devote more time than usual to their studies, but they still find time to game, watch some Netflix, or go to the gym. I think this group tends to do better in the long run. Go ahead, search if it’s better to take breaks while studying, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find some good data that suggests we do better sectioning off our work in to chunks, rather than punishing our brain for 8 hours straight. Even my pre-med roommate finds time to play some mobile games in between his intense biology slides. I’m certainly not saying that you should devote this weekend to beating every side quest of Skyrim (ha), but it might not be the worst thing to knock out one.

To all you “thrillers” who lock yourselves in Stevenson for 12 hours on the weekend, only emerging for food and water, take some time during this final season and try out some sort of quick breaks. Even if it’s to check social media or listen to a few songs, try giving your brain a break to synthesize everything that it’s taken in. I was once like you, I had a lot of internal guilt to overcome when I would enjoy some leisure time. I told myself that I was wasting time that I would need to work. Give it a shot, though. I think you’ll be surprised at how much stronger your work will be when your brain isn’t a heaping pile of mush.

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Troll Culture

Like most of you, I cannot get this election off of my mind. I have not been able to focus and write these blogs like I usually do without glancing at my social media every five minutes to see if some new, terrible act has been committed in his name. There is also a part of me that still wants to believe that this cannot be happening, and, despite this dread, I cannot help but know that it is insignificant compared to the legitimate fear that is felt by my black, Muslim, LGBTQIA+, immigrant, Latinx, etc. friends. This lack of focus lead me to conclude that I have to write on something related to the election, but also related to video games.

Enter the troll. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, think of I-r0k from Ready, Player One. They are someone who enters the online community and intentionally stirs up trouble or negativity in a variety of ways, only to sit back and enjoy people’s reactions. They can be innocent and fun, like the infamous Ken M. of Facebook. His comments are often briliiant in their stupidity, and, admittedly, it is a little fun to see people fall for the bait and “feed” him, only leading to more laughs.

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However, there are certainly parts of the internet that are less friendly, and, here, there are much worse people with little regard for social customs or common decency. I would rather not include a picture of some of those comments, as they are incredibly hate-filled, ignorant, and generally unfunny. These sorts of trolls either believe in the validity of their racist, homophobic, misogyny, etc., or do not care enough about these issues to see the impact of their words.

Given this election, I expect that the online community is in for an increase in the number of these sorts of trolls. How do we respond? Do we “feed” the troll and oppose their hateful words? As someone of privilege, I see that words have power, and this is the response that I want to take, but online arguments are extremely unproductive. I’m still very much confused, and there are much larger issues ahead as well. Would love to hear y’alls thoughts.

 

I Really Hope Mobile Gaming is Not the Future

I usually have a short attention span with games. Unless something really snags my attention early on, I leave it after a few hours of playing. Because of that, console or computer games can be a big commitment for me. I do my research, I watch game play videos, I read reviews, all to make sure that I wont be sinking $30-$60 on a product that I’m going to put down a few days after buying it. the hectic schedule of college doesn’t make this process easier, but it’s my tried and true way of finding games that I enjoy.

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Copyright Clash of Clans

Enter my issue with mobile gaming. I loved it when it started. I could drop a small fee of often $.99 or a bit more and have access to some classic concepts and games like Angry Birds or a pocket-sized Civilization game. It was easy to get a quick gaming fix between classes or while “on the go.” I also didn’t feel such a threat of not falling in love with a game either, as the costs are so small that it really doesn’t matter, and it’s pretty easy for me to rationalize spending a buck on even five hours of entertainment.

This all changed with the invention of “free” games like Clash of Clans, Mobile Strike, and Game of War that seem to dominate in grossed money and advertisements. I got in to some of these games pretty enthusiastically. It didn’t cost anything to try, and I loved some of the strategic concepts and settings of the games. I mean just look at this ridiculous commercial for Game of War. The budget for something like this from a mobile game is absurd.

 

All these games have the same problems though. They’re just barely fun enough to keep people interested, and they all involve waiting as the main way of playing the game. Upgrading buildings and units eventually takes weeks! However, players can pay real money in order to speed up this process, often separating the players in to two groups: one’s who don’t care enough to pay, and those who do. What’s even more troubling is that they seem to play in to people’s addictive personalities. Playing these games feels like a trip to a slot machine in some ways, with the frequent level ups, random rewards, and “check-ins” that reward you simply for playing the game repetitively.

I’m pretty good about not falling for these tricks, despite my personality type very much being the one that these sorts of games are meant to entice. It’s really concerning to see the top grossing app list dominated by these games, because we know that many people can rationalize paying $.99….but then do it a LOT more than once. With all this money being made, I can’t really blame the developers, but couldn’t these games at least be a little more…fun? Have a little more staying power? I’ve noticed myself literally spending a few weeks on one of these games before bouncing to another setting, another iteration of the same concept. It’s frustrating. There’s still a lot of great games being made for our phones and tablets, but I wonder how much creativity and brain power is going towards perpetuating these cheap imitations that capitalize on people’s impulsive behaviors. I hesitate to say that I want a game genre to die out, but I really think a lot of the potential for mobile gaming is being wasted on some of these base attempts to recreate an online gambling culture.

What do you think about “free” mobile gaming? Please leave a comment!

That Dragon, Cancer, and the Role of Crowd Funding

Even a quick glance at the home page for That Dragon, Cancer reveals the origins of the game. While originally a small-time endeavor, many donations through Kickstarter, a crowd funding website, allowed the game to achieve the style and recognition that we see today. It’s not surprising, then, to see the home page for the game littered with messages giving thanks to those who have donated and multiple options for more people to buy the game. There are also links to the corresponding documentary and soundtrack. All of this may seem to some like monetizing a terrible event, but I think we can view all of this as some sort of coping mechanism, and a sincere desire for parents to share their story with anyone wanting to sympathize.

What I find really interesting about this entire process is what this could mean for the future of some indie game developers. To a genre of gaming that inherently struggles more with funding than the big producers, could the sort of crowd funding exhibited by That Dragon, Cancer become a new venue for success? The critical acclaim might indicate so, but we should be mindful of some of the issues facing future games that decide to try this method, especially if they employ the same sort of gameplay as That Dragon, Cancer.

In game, notes like these were created by those who donated to the game’s creation.

Though the route to success for That Dragon, Cancer may not be indicative of any trend, if there are future games looking to find funding in this way, they must be mindful of legal challenges to some past crowd funded endeavors. According to Kickstarter’s Wikipedia page, some of their recently funded projects have run in to issues over copyright, fake contributors, and even rights to certain aspects of the product once it has been funded.

That DragonCancer, also allows for people to experience much of the game without actually buying it. The game’s page mentions that there are several “Let’s Play” videos for the game that allow viewers to watch someone else play the game and experience much of the action themselves. This particular game suffers more from this aspect than most, I think, since the actual action of playing the game is rather barren, and someone could get a lot of the narrative and metaphorical impact simply from watching someone else. Future producers will have to make some sort of choice in this matter, knowing that some will donate to their cause, but others may find alternative routes to experience the game play.

What do you all think? Will we see more games attempt funding through Kickstarter or other sites? What sort of issues might arise?

Cavafy’s “Ithaca” and The Video Game Arms Race

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Don’t get caught up in this damn World of Warcraft arms race,” he told me. “You’ll only lose sight of why you enjoy the game in the first place.”

He was referring to the fact that in World of Warcraft, a game that we played together when I was younger, the developers constantly released new, awesome material that required your constant attention and dedication in order to master. A lot of this came in the form of high end “gear,” or equipment that would grant bonuses to a player’s abilities. Once you got towards the end of the new content, you might get diminishing returns on your investment in terms of stats, but it was still noticeable, and a lot of players still grind out countless hours for the sake of becoming a tiny bit stronger. I was one of those players.

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Though my old account has long since been deleted, this is some of the stuff I was working with. You tend to have a lot of free time when you get grounded as a teenager, and oh lord could WoW use every bit of it. There was a never-ending stream of items, equipment, skills and mounts to obtain and master. I’d spend a lot of time going through the same dungeons and events over and over in the hopes of getting some gear that I hadn’t gotten yet, half for my own abilities in the game and half for pride.

My dad would notice my reaction when I’d lose some sort of achievement that I wanted, and he’d usually get on me for not enjoying the game itself. You know, cuz that’s kinda the point of a game. I’d spend most of the time that I played with my dad looking forward to simply getting loot, losing track of what was most valuable about that time with my dad.

One of our favorite dungeons was called Karazhan; it was an old castle filled with all sorts of magic creatures and haunting spirits who held strong items and fun challenges.

This is but one of them, as our heroes attempt to defeat the actors in the play. The play changes between three random options, and in this one they try to defeat the Big Bad Wolf as he spontaneously chases random members of their party, who are designated as “Little Red Riding Hood,” all the while screaming “Come here little girl!”

Totally fun, right? I missed out on a lot of the pure enjoyment of the game because I was too concerned with the end result. Another good example comes from the final boss of Ulduar, an ancient Dwarven city dedicated to the mystical Titans who created this world.

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Besides the innovative combat, the stunning location and graphics, and the numerous challenges present for players, Ulduar offers some of the most expansive and immersive lore that I’ve ever encountered as a gamer. Hours of gameplay must be dedicated to reach this point, and we are given a lot of incredible story line along the way that culminates in our showdown with Yogg-Saron. This encounter is both extremely challenging and totally fun, but I spent most of this time worrying about what loot he was going to drop.

Had I not, I might have enjoyed the game as it was meant to be played. I couldn’t tell you now all the stuff that my characters possessed in this game, or even how much time I spent acquiring it. However, I can’t describe the nostalgia that I got when looking up videos to put in this blog. Each of them brought back individual memories with my dad, or they reminded me of how much fun I had immersing myself in one of the great games of our time.

This is all to say that we should take the message of Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to heart, especially in gaming. If we start to stress too much about the end goals of the game, or keep chasing minor achievements and a minuscule leg up on other players, then we start to lose the reason that we play games like this in the first place.

New Clarity in Memory: How Braid Forces Us to Wade Through the Past

Our initial experience in the world of Braid may leave us with an impression of simplicity and straight-forwardness. We move to the right of the screen, like most platformers, and are greeted with a scenic backdrop and the promise of challenging levels and puzzles to solve. This sense changes as soon as we begin opening books and piecing together puzzles. As with any memory that we have, Tim’s memories become more convoluted and complicated the more that we delve in to them, and what seemed simple on the surface soon becomes an intertwined drama of perceptions of the past.

The first books that greet us in the game appear basic enough. Tim has made a mistake. Tim must rescue a princess from a monster. Tim’s memories have become muddled since he lost the princess.

As the books become less about exposition, they delve in to philosophical questions about romance, forgiveness, memory, and trust. It is easy to write off some of these notes as precursors of the powers that Tim will gain, but we should not be so hasty. Sure, one of the first books may tell us that we will be “rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake,” and this plays in well with Tim’s initial abilities to play back time, but there is much more at play here.

Each of these books gives us a small piece of Tim’s past, and, as we complete the puzzles, we are shown even more. This allows the player to construct his or her own narrative from the very basic pieces of the story that we are given. Players will move through the game with their own conception of how the narrative will play out, but as more books are unlocked, we are constantly challenged to redefine and reexamine the past that we have created in our heads.

For instance, our conception of the princess is entirely shaped by Tim’s interactions with the books, and the more he reveals about his idea of the princess, the more we are asked to redefine our own interpretation. Because of this, it is entirely reasonable for a player to revisit old levels and books to incorporate our new understanding with what we thought we had a hold on.

This sort of storytelling is very much unique to this sort of medium. While other styles of art have the potential for the viewer to return to older points to make sense of the present, the books in Tim’s world serve as constant pieces of the narrative that have to be returned to and pondered over, much like our own human memories, in order to be completely understood.

This effect is compounded by the player’s ability, in many instances, to completely skip any conflict in levels and move on, undeterred by the past. In order to fully complete the game though, we are forced to continually return to past levels and revisit the narrative from new perspectives. Many levels cannot be beat until later pieces of the puzzle have been acquired, asking the player to run past the sets of books many times and contemplate how all of the information fits together.

The answer to this question, is in the title. Memory in Braid is an overlapping and tangled blend of reality and perception that the player and subject must traverse, constantly learning new information only to the realization that it disproves what we took for granted. Past thoughts and new information overlap and twists together throughout the narrative, weaving the sort of  story structure that is only possible in this format. Much like our own memories, the more we revisit and reexamine the pieces of information in Braid, the more convoluted and intertwined the narrative becomes, and we realize how much individual recollections are influenced by perception rather than reality.