Interactive = Interesting

With absolutely no doubt in my mind, I know that I am easily the biggest gamer in this entire college, let alone this class. I have played almost every game of significance released since the Nintendo 64 era, and even plenty from before then (nearly the entire Final Fantasy series, for example). I literally have a wardrobe filled with over 325 video games at home, and those don’t include the 100+ digitally-downloaded games that I own. Ever played Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES or Hotel Dusk: Room 215? I have. Enough said.

As such, it probably isn’t a very shocking statement when I say that I greatly prefer video games to books. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy books; reading 1984 bordered on a life-changing experience. However, I’ve always felt that video games and movies are more of an evolution of books rather than merely competing media. They (usually) combine the well-told plots and themes of literature with  audiovisual enhancements that enrich the overall experience, allowing them to transcend their text-based counterparts. Of course, central to the gameplay of most video games is the idea of combat. While this centrality of physical strife does slightly limit the subject matter of video games, it tends to provide an infinitely more engaging experience.

Case-in-point: Snow Crash. Sure, it was fun to read about Hiro’s incredible swordfighting skill, but reading about a fight and trying to mentally piece it together is just not as engaging as an actual interactive simulation of combat. In LOTRO, the outcome of any given fight is entirely dependent on my actions. Thus, it yields much more satisfaction to defeat an enemy by my own hand — knowing that had I acted differently, the fight would not have been won — than to attempt to visualize someone else fighting the battle for me. Sure, I may just be pressing a series of numbered buttons and not actually physically wielding a spear, but my button presses are still managed by a skill that I have developed. Combat in a video game is so immersive because, by presenting audiovisual feedback based on your input, the game is temporarily able to convince you that your button-pressing skill is actually real combat skill.

Think about it. After winning a fight in LOTRO, which thought is more likely to cross your mind: “Wow, I’m awesome at hitting buttons,” or “I’ve gotten really good at fighting”? When you approach an enemy, do you intend to kill him or to press a series of buttons in a timed manner which, with proper execution, will cause a certain number to be added to the value designated as “Experience Points”? Video games have mastered this art of subconsciously convincing the player that their prowess in combat is directly tied to the thoroughly unrelated skill of button-mashing. It really is the ultimate in “make-believe”. And, simply put, it works.

In Snow Crash, I cannot in any way affect the outcome of Hiro’s battles. The book does not provide me with a way to immediately act out the fights. Sure, my imagination is at work in constructing the conflict, but experiencing a semi-concrete form of the fight is definitely more involving and immersive than reading a text description of it. In this sense, I’m infinitely more absorbed in LOTRO’s battles than those found in Snow Crash, as I engage in the near-perfected illusion of actual interactive combat. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ll always prefer pretending to fight an enemy myself to imagining someone else fight the pretend battle for me.

-Billy Bunce

A New Breed of Hate

It’s 1992. You live in Los Angeles. The streets are filled with violence, murder, and widespread looting. Racial tensions have reached their boiling point, and racially-charged riots have broken out throughout the city. The news is filled with accounts of violence between Blacks, Whites, and Koreans. As most know, these events actually took place following the arrest of Rodney King, and scenes such us these were not uncommon throughout America. The inner-city was simply not an welcoming place to live in in early 90s America.

Look at the world through the eyes of Neal Stephenson.

t’s 1992. You live in Los Angeles. The streets are filled with violence, murder, and widespread looting. However, the cause of the violence is not racial tension. In the Los Angeles of Snow Crash, genetic race is no longer the source of deeply sown hatred. Racism as we know it no longer exists. Hiro Protagonist, the hero & protagonist, is a Japanese-American. His roommate is Russian. He works for the Italian Mafia. For all of these, race plays no factor in violence. The burbclaves, or suburbs, are the only places in which racism is tolerated in the least, as one burbclave is designated as “apartheid.” However, the residents in the burbclaves are portrayed as rich, lazy, stupid people. All of the teenage boys take steroids, everyone drives minivans, or “bimbo boxes” and care nothing about the outside world. It’s obvious that Neal Stevenson is sick of the racism prevalent in today’s world.

Racism as we know it is virtually nonexistent in Snow Crash. However, a new form has arisen to take its place. In Snow Crash, citizens are not identified as Black, or White, or Hispanic. Instead, they are identified by the company they serve, and these companies do not like each other one bit. People are identified as “citizens” of the Mafia, or the Clink, or the Hoosegow, or any other company they work for. They even have passports issued from their respective companies. It’s almost as if companies had filled the holes left by the absence of ethnic identity. However, this also seems to suggest that when one form of hatred and violence (in this case, racism), is gone, another will fill its place, always leaving us with some form of violence in the world. Snow Crash attempts to be very prophetic. Will this prediction prove true?

I, for one, think the answer lies in our hands.

-Matt Thumser

By the book, by the numbers.

by Breon Guarino

I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the Barrow-Downs recently in Lord of the Rings Online, slowly but surely working through the quests related to that area. Naturally, I don’t feel as though I’ve done anything to provoke such hostile responses from the taint and denizens native to the region, but without any sort of provocation besides their mechanical nature, they assail me to no avail. Lo, I have journeyed from afar, that with my strong heart and my fell blade, I might be considered more than a match for such paltry foes, that I might scalp them and claim their long-hidden treasures for my own! Surely these are no match for me, surely!

I know they aren’t a match for me; minutes, if not hours, of click-based combat have proven this to me. I’ve come to find myself not disillusioned, but removed from the comfort of immersion in the game environment. The same thrill of risk isn’t there anymore. I’ve started to fall into the trap of checking how many inventory slots I have open at any given moment, started knowing what loot I can drop without regard in favor of minerals, items, or simply more valuable loot. The rewards have started to become numbers in a shopkeeper’s ledger and silver pieces in my pocket. There is repetition now as I fall into the process of grinding out more experience.

In reading Snow Crash, however, I’ve been spared this. In a sense, as the seemingly more thorough immersion of the game decreases slowly due to lack of challenge, the book remains at the same enjoyable level of performance. It is engaging to me on a different level, a level that may need a workout after an hour of grinding through Barrow-wights like I was part of the Gutbuster Brigade. As I’m watching Hiro duel with the “Nipponese” businessman in The Black Sun, as I watch him running through evaluations of tactics in his mind,  I empathize with the violence of his bloodless dismemberment of his opponent. He is victorious; he has competed with passion in his competition. In my mind, I can see the action, and though I am removed to the position of spectator, I am somehow engaged by it. After all, there is safety in the crowd of observers, because an observer has no need to react beyond their own enjoyment of a quality piece of street theater. There exists some massive difference on a level I can only begin to grasp; as I read, I am rewarded with rewarding work, but in the game, I’ve become a worker towards a reward.

America the Checkerboard

The LA (and actually the whole world) of Snow Crash is a place where people are separate from each other. America is not so much a melting pot as it is a chess or checkerboard–once, people mixed, but now, they all have restrictions on where and how they can move. “…Hiro is black, or at least part black. Can’t take him into New South Africa. And because Y.T. is a Cauc, they can’t go to Metazania. (Stephenson, 83)” Even jobs have taken on the characteristics of traditional ethnic groups–Taxi drivers speak Taxilinga, and accept no one into their ranks who does not also speak it; and as Y.T. says, “…the longtime status of skateboarders as an oppressed ethnic group mean[t] that by now all of them [we]re escape artists to some degree. (Stephenson, 77)” In short, everyone in LA has an identity, based on their genes, jobs, skills, house (or lack thereof) and these things dictate who they speak to, where they can go, and how the Snow Crash drug affects them. Coming from Hawaii, I couldn’t really identify with his depiction of race; true separation of ethnicities is something that is hard to imagine on the island chain (though I will admit it was both a plausible and scary thought). I will say that skin color automatically identifies you as one of three things: Native (which really just means you COULD be native–Filipinos, Samoans, and Micronesians, for example, certainly didn’t colonize the place like the Hawaiians did), Asian (of which there are two classes–Islander Asians and FOBs, the Japanese tourists who are very, very easy to identify), or Haoli (aka, white. Haoli, which means foreigner, is often used to somewhat familiarly but condescendingly describe mainland culture, white tourists, and activities seen as ‘white’). These stereotypes are known everywhere and there are many jokes and assumptions that go along with them. More than once, I have been mistaken for a tourist when out shopping with my mother, even though I’ve lived on Oahu all my life, but it’s never bothered me; rather, I take it as part of the harmless Haoli stereotype. Races mix in Hawaii like they do nowhere else. Ask almost anyone what their race is, and they’ll give you a list that most likely encompasses at least three or four different ethnicities. It’s hard to explain, but back home, race is something that you’re proud of and yet doesn’t matter. “I’m Chinese/Samoan.” “I’m Hawaiian/Indian/French.” “I’m Okinawan/Irish/Korean.” We poke fun at each other’s ethnicities, with those identifications of skin color and race, but they’ve never gotten in the way of a friendship. The total segregation present in Snow Crash was a scary thought. If it was there, I wouldn’t know half the people I do, and even more of them would never have existed in the first place.

Gender depictions in Snow Crash seem a lot less scary. The two main female characters, Y.T. and Juanita, are very different women, and like today’s women, show that you can either accept or reject the notions society gives you about what you should be. Y.T. is very much a product of her society; she sees nothing morally wrong with the way men look at her, or even with the fact that Raven desires and sleeps with a 15 year old girl. She is a girl of the street and goes to jail, breaks out, escapes mad taxi drivers, and makes deliveries as a Kourier, navigating the world of the franchises with ease because that is her world–she was born into it and she embraced it. Juanita, on the other hand, has rejected the traditions now present in franchised-LA. She is a true and devout Catholic when the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates have turned Christianity into a franchised chain, complete with neon Elvises; and she is, in essence, her own person–working on Metaverse facial designs when no one else believed it would go anywhere, divorcing Da5id, despite his success, money, and power, and even discovering the Snow Crash plot–Juanita is her own person, thinking outside the box and using her knowledge and skills to save the world (if only “for a while”). I identify with both women–Juanita, strong, smart, independent, and Y.T., also strong, smart, and independent, but youthful, and headstrong where Juanita is wise and careful. They’re very different people, at different times in their lives, with different backgrounds and responses to the world they live in, but parts of them fit my image of myself; I think everyone can agree that we feel both influenced by society (like Y.T.), but that we also reject parts of it and stand apart (like Juanita). And they show that in Snow Crash, there are many paths you can take, no matter your sex.


LOTRO: Not Quite There Yet

by Theo Dentchev

Video games today are the closest thing we have to a commercially available virtual reality like that in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Lord of the Rings Online is in many ways quite similar to the Metaverse. You have an avatar, you can interact with other avatars of real people in real time, and you can even have houses in various neighborhoods. Of course, all of this is much more limited that in is in the Metaverse; your avatar is only customizable within the confines of the pre-made models and features (you can’t code your own), interactions with other players are much more limited in terms of facial expression and body language (sure you can type “lol” and your avatar will laugh, but your avatar can’t be made to mimic your real life body and face movements), and while you can change the furniture in your house you can’t do much about the structure of it.

And you can also fight. The true core of any game is the gameplay, with everything else, no matter how detailed or flushed out, being simply shiny accessories. In LOTRO, whatever else it may have in its vast universe, is at it’s core a PvE (player vs environment) game where the player fights all sorts of monsters in his various quests. The core of the Multiverse gameplay is to mimic real life, but without the limitations, but you can still have sword fights in it, thanks to some nifty code by Hiro Protagonist. In LOTRO you have a great deal of control over your avatar when fighting. I happen to be a champion, so I know a thing or two about virtual sword fighting. I can decide what kind of attacks my character will use and when. If I time it right I can fit in special attacks in between auto attacks, or I can have two special attacks in a row. I can heal, and I can run away (sort of).

But after reading Snow Crash I realize just how limited the gameplay really is. In the Metaverse skill is in part determined by how closely you can get your avatar to move the way you would in real life. In many ways it is like a fight in real life; you actually have to pay attention to how the other player is moving, and react accordingly by dodging, blocking, counter attacking. All of those are automated in LOTRO, determined by mathematical formulas and probability. In LOTRO you don’t even pay attention to the actions of your avatar or the enemy you are fighting. If you asked me to describe how a spider in LOTRO attacks I couldn’t do it. That’s because in LOTRO you’re just standing still face to face with your enemy, hacking away, and you’re paying much more attention to the health/power bars in the upper left, and the skill icons in you skill bar (whether they are available yet, or how much cool down time is left) than you are to the actual movements going on. Not to mention the fact that your movements don’t really have much of an effect anyway. I may have just used a special move that slashed my enemy four times, but the enemy will look just the same as it did before. In the Metaverse slashes actually have visible effects, such as severing the arm of an avatar from its body.

Reading Snow Crash makes me realize just how far off games like LOTRO are from achieving virtual reality, despite all the cosmetic similarities. And yet, there are similarities. If you compare LOTRO to early arcade games the difference is huge. We’re making strides, and who knows, maybe another twenty or thirty years from now we’ll have a Metaverse in Reality. In the meantime I’m going to go kill some spiders, and maybe I’ll pay a little more attention to the animations this time.

– TD

Detail Overload

Matt Almeida

Snow Crash and LOTRO both include sword and spear fighting, but the different depictions of fighting engage the reader in varying ways. Snow Crash is a book and therefore the action must all be described through words. Not only does Neal Stephenson describe the sword fighting but he goes beyond this with some of the most vivid depictions one can possibly create with words. Stephenson goes on and on about the actions taken as well as the results. He describes the action, its immediate aftermath along with all the details behind the two. He also goes further as he describes the fighters, often Hiro, and the thoughts going through their heads.

When Hiro kills the New South African Man in chapter 40, Stephenson first says “Hiro cuts his head off”(302).  At first the reader may be thinking this can’t possibly be the full description, and indeed it would not be a sufficient one. But rest assured Stephenson continues to not only give a sufficient description but one far beyond it. Stephenson even devotes a full paragraph to describing the blade passing through the man’s neck with ease. This description, although at times intriguing, takes away from the action and excitement of the fight.  A sword fight is supposed to be intense and immediate, and Stephenson completely loses these ideas in his stylistic and wordy descriptions. I suppose one could argue that Stephenson captures the art and style of sword fighting with his lengthy portrayals, but beyond that they do not do much good.

One thing that is most obvious in Stephenson’s sword fighting scenes is the attention he pays to blood, gore, and guts. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to be as gruesome and descriptive as possible. These descriptions add to the intensity and excitement of the fight. It certainly keeps the reader intrigued and entertained, but there comes a point when enough is enough. Initially, I found myself thinking “awesome” when reading about the blood spilling out of characters wounds, but after a while the bloody images were just unnecessary.  

On the other hand, although LOTRO presents a visual image of the fighting it is not nearly as descriptive as in Snow Crash. When fighting in the game, the player is very engaged as video games are an interactive experience. The player must control his or her character and attack enemies. To this extent the game engages the player. The action is very real and present on screen, but there is not much variation to it. There are only so many attacks or moves and the character can only perform these in so many ways. Also, enemies always die in the same boring manner. They go limp and collapse to the floor with very little variation. Unlike Snow Crash, there is no blood or gore shrouding the landscape. Killing a spider and watching him fall to the ground just isn’t quite as intriguing as cutting a man’s head off and watching his blood shoot out.  I guess the game designers weren’t brave enough to go for the mature game rating.

It would seem that neither LOTRO or Snow Crash find that balance between description and engagement. It is easy to get lost in Stephenson’s words but as a reader I often became unengaged by the excessive descriptions. LOTRO on the other hand may initially engage the gamer as well, but the lack of variance and greater detail makes the fighting become rather tedious and boring.

The Pen is Most Assuredly Mightier

Human beings have an instinctual fascination with violence.  We obsess over CSI, we can’t get enough UFC, and we revel in the murder mystery.  When it comes down to it, everyone loves a good fight.  Many different forms of entertainment media have adapted in an attempt to sate our unquenchable thirst for blood.  War is being waged all around us.

As I have stated in previous posts I grew up on the fantasy genre of literature.  Combat in fantasy novels is usually highly stylized and graceful.  Oftentimes these novels climax with an epic duel between two evenly matched foes.  Authors are capable of giving extremely detailed blow-by-blow descriptions, holding the reader on the edge of their seat.  In his 1992 novel Snow Crash, Neil Stephenson fails to disappoint.  Hiro Protagonist, self-proclaimed “greatest sword fighter in the world”, certainly gets himself into his fair share of thrilling combat situations.  Hiro dips, ducks, dodges, and dives, artfully avoiding his enemies blows.   He fights with a measured tranquility, carefully choosing his next move.     A sword fight becomes something cerebral, not so different from a game of chess.  While the reader may have some idea of who will reign victorious (come on… his name is Hiro Protagonist) the duel is still entertaining, each fight is completely unique.  The outcome is irrelevant to a certain extent; the fun is in imagining the battle.   The scale, speed, and style of combat are limited only by the author’s imagination.

In LOTRO the combat is not nearly as captivating.  Avatars move sluggishly through the gamespace, wildly hacking and slashing at nothing.  There are only two types of attack, melee and ranged, each with only a handful of unique animations.  As far as I can tell every single encounter follows the same course of events with little to no variability.  My elf hunter nocks and fires an arrow at an unassuming hostile creature.  The creature proceeds to charge the elf who draws an axe and hacks away, everything is automated.  During the close quarters portion it is unclear as to who is winning.  Neither combatant seems to react to the others actions; no attempts are made at blocking or countering attacks.  Neither combatant shows any signs of outward damage during the encounter, apparently you can repetitively slash a bear with an axe without drawing blood.  Out of the clear blue one of the combatants will fall to the ground…dead.  These battles are completely devoid of emotion (actually that’s not completely true, I am constantly afraid that I might die of boredom).  Ultimately combat in LOTRO is a numbers game based on an unknown algorithm, the digital version of a dice roll.  Now that I think about it, combat in LOTRO is not much different than a math class, it involves complex numbers and it puts me to sleep.

Zack Goldman