I used to love video games

August 17th, 2014

Given the material on this website, you may be surprised to learn that I have a few bits of video-game-related clothing in my wardrobe. No, really. Occasionally, when I wear something that features something from the 80′s, I get the reaction of someone who seems to be around my age or a little bit older that goes something like, “Oh, Super Mario Bros! I used to love that game! I haven’t played it in forever!” I’ll sometimes ask these people if they still play video games, and usually I’ll get a blank stare, or they’ll get a little crestfallen and admit that they haven’t played a video game in years. If I prod a little deeper, I find that most people have the same common excuses: they don’t have the time they once did, they went off to school/work/military and never circled back around to playing games as a leisure activity, games are only for kids, so their kids play them, or something like that. But one woman who I talked to yesterday and seemed to be about my age gave a more honest answer that I don’t hear much anymore: she loved playing the NES, but all the new games are just too complicated.

I didn’t really get to dig into the nitty gritty of her position since it was just idle chitchat while we were standing in line, so I don’t really know all the particulars, but it’s not hard to see where she’s coming from. If you played some games as a kid and cut your teeth on something like the NES’s controller and then, many years later, remembered how much you liked playing a few games to pass the time, but the controllers now looked like the control panel of a nuclear submarine in comparison, then you might be put off even trying to use one. Or if you used to like games like Super Mario Bros that had some backstory, but it was largely inconsequential (go right, kill things, rescue princess) to games that have their own website, strategy guides, book series, and so on, and it’s easy to see that a lot of games have lost that ‘sit down and play for 30 minutes or so’ quality that a lot of those early games had.

To which you’d probably say, “Yeah, that’s true, games are more complicated now, but that means that they’re so much better! We have rich worlds with engaging characters, we have graphics that look so realistic that you can hardly tell if you’re watching live television or playing a game. Games are better now than they’ve ever been, and they’re only getting better!”.

And you wouldn’t be completely wrong. Even though the games industry is trying to emulate the movie industry with its products (which I’m not a fan of) a lot of games now are good. If you’re willing to take the time to play them, and given the length of some games these days, that’s not always easy. Also, you can’t just pick up a copy of, say, the latest Battlefield game and play something in Single Player for 15-20 minutes while you’re in between doing Grownup Stuff(tm). Heck, you might not even be able to learn how to work the controls to the game in 15-20 minutes, much less learn how to play something.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I think Nintendo was partially on the right track with the Wii. They catered to the market of people like my friend above. The people who used to play games, Nintendo game, but now games are too complicated for them. People who want an easy, pick-up-and-play experience that recaptures a piece of their youth. They’ve kind of misfired since then (which is another topic for another day), but the general idea was sound. Unfortunately, a lot of the people I talk to about the old games they played as a kid seem to be completely unaware that a lot of these games are available again, right now, without having to track down an old console (which is becoming difficult to do) and finessing it into working correctly. And if I do make them aware, they just kind of dismiss it for the usual reasons, and that’s the end of it.

That makes me sad that there are people out there who would probably enjoy playing a video game now and again, but don’t really know that there are games out there that they would like, or even that the games that they already like are likely still out there. That there are short, enjoyable, pick-up-and-play experiences to be had outside of Facebook. That the video game console doesn’t have to be a toy in the kids’ room that only they play, but it can be an entertainment device in the living room that everyone can enjoy at the same time. Or even something that the adults can enjoy while the kids are occupied with something else, or vice-versa. Instead, we have a stigma that games are for kids and immature manchildren, and anyone else who plays games is a weirdo. That’s been tough to shake, and I really would like for us to get past that. And, hey, comic book movies are box-office gold right now, and comic book lovers have been dealing with similar problems for years. So maybe there’s hope, yet.

Until then I’ll keep wearing my 80′s game tees to give lapsed gamers of my generation a bit of (hopefully) happy nostalgia.

I don’t like Minecraft

August 10th, 2014

Several years ago, in the early part of the decade now known as the 90′s, I got one of my first actual jobs: working in the hands-on sciency part of the local museum. In the very first hour of the very first day on the job, my boss at the time came to me and handed me a checklist of things I was to do that day and most days. He said to me something along the lines of, “I get the impression that you’re the kind of person that would benefit from having some structure.” Consequently, I spent the remainder of the summer doing the things on that list, day in and day out, as well as any other jobs that came up (we set up a couple of 486‘s to play Tetris over a serial link. It was totally rad). It was a great job for a middle-schooler, and one that I am glad to have had.

Fast forward to about 2010 and someone forwards me a link to a thing called ‘Minecraft‘. It’s a beta, but it’s totally a blast. People are having lots of fun with it, and Ican’tReallyExplainItYouHaveToPlayThisNOW. So, I checked it out, and I farted around with it for a while, but got really bored really quickly. There was a huge expanse of stuff there, stuff that I could take, I guess? I could take the stuff and either craft it into other stuff or maybe try to build things with it? When night time comes around there are things that try to kill me and/or destroy the things I made, but they kind of come out of nowhere. The interfaces for gathering and crafting are kind of a mess, and there aren’t really any directions or anything… and I’m dead. Well, that sure was an experience.

Then I kind of forgot about for a while. Until the game’s popularity absolutely exploded. I had to ask myself if this was the same game I played a few years ago, with the aimless gameplay, the chunky LEGO-ish sandbox that only has the barest of gameplay elements to it. And it was. Millions upon millions of people were buying this thing, but I gather that they’re not really buying it for its… erm… sparse gameplay. They’re buying it to use it as a construction kit to build stuff. And that’s great for them, and great for Minecraft. But I find that kind of thing incredibly boring. Not because I lack an imagination or anything, but when I play a video game, I like to do the best that I can, within the prescribed rules. I like to have a goal to achieve. Something to work toward. Handing me something like Minecraft where there’s no real goal (yes, I’m aware of the ‘Adventure Update’), but just ‘explore’ or ‘make your own fun’, then, well, you lose me. Not because I’m incapable of doing those things, but they’re not the kinds of things that I want out of a video game. I want my games to be structured activities. I want challenges to conquer, puzzles to solve, that kind of thing.

“But,” I hear you say, “you could just play around in sandbox mode and build stuff. You can give yourself infinite resources and build whatever you want, kind of like a big LEGO kit”. And, yes, I could do that, but I barely have the kind of time I want to dedicate to video games as it is. I can’t in good conscience dedicate the hundreds of hours that would be necessary to build anything more complicated than a one room hovel without neglecting absolutely everything else in my life that’s not work or sleep, and I’m not quite ready to do that yet. Plus, I’m kind of a lousy artist (even though I did play Mario Paint so much that I wore out the left mouse button and wore a smooth spot on my SNES Mouse Pad). But the main thing is that spending dozens or even hundreds of hours making a thing just gets to be too much like work, and I don’t usually want to feel like I’m working when I’m doing something to have fun. *Note, I said that I don’t want to feel like I’m doing work, I’ll still do things that look like work in my free time.

So, games like Minecraft, Terraria, and Proteus, giving me a box of tools and telling me to go do something, anything that I want to with it, just doesn’t do anything for me. I play a video game because I like playing video games. If I want to make a video game, well, I’ll just go do that instead.

Operation: Get Stuff Done

August 3rd, 2014

I’ve written on more than one occasion about how ponderously large my video game backlog has gotten. I would tell myself, “I’m saving up so I’ll have something to do when I retire.” Jokingly at first, and then semi-seriously. I kind of stopped saying that when I realized that the backlog had gotten so enormous that, at the rate I’m acquiring games today, even if I retired tomorrow, I might not be able to finish them all.

I mentioned before that a big reason that my backlog has almost taken on a life of its own has to do with the social component. Most of my friends and I have diverged in what kinds of video games we play, so there’s not as many things we can discuss about whatever game we’re playing, and there’s no friendly rivalry to see who can get all of the Gold Skulltulas first, or whatever.

But I think that’s only a part of the equation.

The second part is that there are just too many video games. There are so many video games coming out these days, and between the ludicrous number of bundles out there the wallet-destroying digital sales (Steam, Origin, GOG, etc.), it’s very easy, and sometimes very cheap, to quickly get so many games so quickly that the sheer number of the things hits you like a tidal wave. It looks daunting, but you can steel yourself. You know you can do this, you’ve been playing video games for years.

So you start trying to figure out what you want to play and analysis paralysis sets in. Do you want to play something relatively short, or do you want to play something that will take dozens of hours to complete? Which of these looks like it will be long enough, but not too long? Will I have time to play it around the times where I have to do Grown Up Stuff(tm)? Will I be able to put it down for a couple of days or even weeks and then be able to come back and remember where I was? What if it’s no good? The critics were all over the place with some of these games, what if I wasted my money on it? What if my instincts were right and I find that a game is actually good, in spite of the critical score. What if it was critically acclaimed, and I thought it was boring?

All of these whatifs were really slowing me down. I’ve been getting dragged down into analyzing the minutiae of my potential game experience and hemming and hawing about what game to play so much that instead of playing games, I’ve just been thinking about how nice it would be if I could play some of these games in my backlog, but I just don’t have time.

Or is that really true?

I wasn’t sure. I mean, I have more responsibilities now than I did when I was younger. I have a full time job, a house, I have to do my own laundry, buy and prepare my own food, maintain my own vehicle, and so on. But I’m not actively doing one of those things every moment of every day. For example, I do sleep on occasion. But what do I do with all of my time? Where does it go? I decided to find out by my typical method: overanalyzing the situation, to find out. And that means, making a chart.

Pretend there’s a chart here that shows what I’m likely to be doing at any given hour of the day.

The chart was interesting. It showed me that I have about 30 hours per week where I’m doing nothing in particular. It also showed me that even though I don’t have an 8-5 job any more, that I’ve still got my sleep schedule set up like I do. And that means that I’ve got a couple of hours that I’m spending idle every morning that I could be using for something besides sitting around waiting for time to go to work. I also have more time during the weekend than I originally thought, even though it’s pretty well scattershot through the day.

That’s encouraging.

That means that I do have time to get some game playing in, and I can slowly whittle down my backlog if I can manage to shoehorn it into the timeslots I have available. But, there’s another problem.

Motivation.

It’s weird to think that I would ever need to get myself mentally motivated to play video games, an activity that I have enjoyed for most of my life, but sometimes that motivation just isn’t there. I could play a game anyway, and see if that forces me to get motivated to play it more, but I don’t think I want to do that. Forcing myself to do something when I don’t really want to seems like a good way to sour me on the whole thing, which seems like a bad idea. But I can use that time to do other things related to games. I could update my blog (see the last few weeks’ worth of updates), I could read something, watch a video, create a video, and so on.

*A very important aside, I know that loss of interest in activities that you used to enjoy can be a possible sign of depression. I’m pretty sure that I don’t have that, but if you think you might, nothing I say in this article is going to help except this: I encourage you to find someone qualified to help with depression and they will help you. Depression is a serious issue, and not something that this article (or any other article on a crappy blog site) is qualified to help with.*

I also want to set some goals for myself so that I can revisit this post somewhere down the line and see if I’ve actually made any progress in whittling down the backlog. Feel free to follow along or add your own:

  • Play something for a few minutes every day.
    • Even if it’s something that I’ve played to death, playing something for a few minutes is going to keep my momentum going to tackle something bigger
  • Ignore the Backloggery
    • The Backloggery is great, but it’s a pain to remember to go update it when I buy something, when I finish something, when I 100% complete something, when I start playing something else, etc. etc. Plus, there are no penalties for failure, and no real reward for succeeding, either
  • Don’t go for 100% completion.
    • I wasn’t doing this much these days, anyway, but I need to avoid trudging through a game, trying to collect ant heads or whatever for some unlock or a trophy or something.
  • Don’t rush through the game, either
    • I’m weird, I know, but I hate rushing through a game the first time I play it. I like to soak in all the ambiance and immerse myself into it if I can.
  • Play one new game per month
    • This one is going to be tricky, and my not be sustainable. But the idea here is to at least try something in the backlog instead of letting it sit there and rot, especially if it’s one of the shorter games, to see if it’s even something that I’ll like. I’ve bought some duds before, and didn’t find out about it for over a year because it took me that long to get to them.
  • If a game is terrible, shelve it
    • This goes hand-in-hand with the above. If I try out the new game and it stinks, well, then I just won’t play it any more and I’ll move on to the next one. I don’t need to force myself to slog though it to the end, hoping it will get better. It might, but I don’t really want to waste my time not having fun now for promises of something that might be kind of fun later. I need to trust my instincts, if it’s not fun now it probably won’t be fun later, either.
  • Limit MMORPG time
    • MMORPGs are great, but they will sink and steal time like no other activity I know. And, since they never really end, there’s always something for you do to in them. I had to kill my World of Warcraft subscription a while back because that was all I was doing with my free time at the time. Now, since there are so many MMORPGs that are free to play, it’s incredibly easy to get lost running around a virtual world doing things for hours and hours without actually spending a dime. That’s almost worse than a paid subscription. A paid subscription makes you feel like you need to play something to get your money’s worth out of it, a free subscription is always there, waiting on you to have an hour or three to kill, and that can be dangerous.

Of course, these are only guidelines. Who knows if I can actually stick to them or not, but I won’t know if I don’t try. I’ll be refining them as I go on, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I don’t expect to ever have a backlog of zero unless I just sell all of my games and consoles (fat chance of that happening any time soon), but I can do more to get it pared down, it’s just going to take some work.

And, who’s afraid of a little work?

Building an accessible web

July 27th, 2014

Back when I was in the fifth grade (way back in the stone ages of 1990 or so) my class was visited my one of the families in my neighborhood to demonstrate how they used their computer. That doesn’t seem too unusual, even for 1990, but these folks were blind. They showed us how they set up passwords, wrote documents, and several other things (no Internet access at the time, so that was right out). I thought it was kind of interesting, but I admit that I never really gave it much of a thought after that. I don’t really want that to sound insensitive, I know people personally who need some kind of accessibility to do anything with their computer, but I tend to have an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue and don’t really give it much consideration.

However, that changed for me a bit a few months ago, when the place I work for hired a blind intern. Most workplaces are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, and one of the first things that I did was to connect this person’s laptop to our wireless network, by putting in our top-secret password. When I sat down at his laptop to do that, I wasn’t expecting to hear his screen reader reading every bit of text on the screen at a dizzying pace, including the text that I was putting into the password box (see here). I was briefly intrigued by it, since I had never had direct experience with a screen reader before. The intern turned out to be pretty self-sufficient, so I didn’t really have much to do with his computer after that, and, again, I kind of put the experience to the back of my head.

Until I started using a text-based browser more to help me tear through my newsfeeds more quickly. I then started remembering back on those experiences, and how computers and the Internet are wonderful tools, if you’re in possession of the full compliment of senses. Heck, even if you’re missing one or more senses, you can pretty easily get a lot of utility out of the Internet and the absolutely enormous wealth of information out there. Unless, one of those senses you’re missing is sight. The World Wide Web is made better by contributions from everyone, even people I don’t agree with (maybe even especially from people I don’t agree with), but it has evolved into a highly visual medium. For a number of people, that means that there’s a lot of content on the Internet (which is becoming a dominant form of information interchange) that is tough or impossible for them to get to.

This is kind of a problem, because we’re cramming so much functionality into your web browser that web apps and web pages are kind of replacing traditional desktop programs for a lot of things (for better or worse). And that means that if you’re one of the six million or so people in the US with some kind of visual impairment, you may have a tough time getting to the content.

This presents kind of a problem for web designers. Several of the web designers I know like to use the latest technologies to make their pages visually striking, or dynamic in some way, which is fine. Great, even. They want to show off their artistic and designer chops, and that’s something that I can appreciate. However, when you get down to the crux of the matter, web pages are all about the content. Content that attracts clicks and drives that ad-revenue. So, why would you ever want to put your content in a place where someone couldn’t get at it? There are a couple of reasons that I see mentioned. Mostly that designing websites for accessibility is hard, and that designers can’t design new whiz-bang sites using new technologies if they’re being held back by having to use a text-based browser to check for screen reader support.

Those are valid concerns, but I have two suggestions for anyone who really wants to make their content available to the widest possible audience:

  1. If you really want to know what your web page looks like to a screen reader, download, install, and try to use an actual screen reader instead of trying to fake it by doing a spot-check in Lynx or something similar
  2. Check out the W3′s page on graceful degradation, and embrace it. This may come as a shock, but sometimes computers don’t work like we want them to. Links fail, elements don’t load, and your content is stranded, hiding behind some bit of javascript to load that may or may not be coming. Heck, some people even turn off fancy stuff like scripting and cookies for all kinds of reasons, and if your page doesn’t load properly, they may never come back

Now, if you stuck around this long, you might be asking yourself, “what does this have to do with video games?”. A lot, actually. Even though visually-impaired people don’t really play video games. Oh, wait, they totally do.

Most video games have a huge visual component, there’s no arguing about that. So, a lot of video game “news” sites will fill up their firehose of content with pictures, videos, and the like (besides, a ‘news story’ about a screen shot, is not news). Those can’t really be conveyed in a text-browser or a screen reader, so we’ll discount the posts that are just a screen shot or a video clip or a couple of lame reaction gif images. But the other posts. The ones with the letters and numbers. The thing that most of us are interested in: the text. Those are the ones that I’m mostly interested in. That’s what, if nothing else on the page loads, I should still be able to see. If your page can’t manage that, then I may not come back, and if I do, I probably won’t disable my ad-blocker.

Really, instead of focusing on the fact that you’re building a feature (accessibility) into your site that only a few people have a need for, instead, I would like to see more sites make their content available to anyone who wants to consume it, whether it’s people who have an accessibility issue, or if it’s just a whack job like me who decided to browse with everything but text turned off. Because, hey, we’re all in this thing together.

Text on the Internet

July 21st, 2014

Some time ago (last month, in fact) I mentioned about checking out an old technology that doesn’t see much use these days: Gopher. That was a fun history lesson, and I like that there is still content regularly being put into Gopherspace daily (although, clearly not in any kind of volume compared to its heyday). While I was researching how I could access Gopherspace, I came across one of the browsers that I used to use regularly, Lynx, still has Gopher support.

Using Lynx to browse the Crummysocks blog mirror via the Obsolete Cartridge Technology Gopher Hole

Using Lynx to browse the Crummysocks blog mirror via the Obsolete Cartridge Technology Gopher Hole

This was a pleasant surprise. I know a lot of people use Lynx or another text browser as little more than a curiosity. They fire it up and look at the odd page or two, or maybe they only use it when they’ve screwed up their video driver and need to download a fresh copy. I admit, those are the main two uses I’ve had for Lynx since I got broadband Internet.

Prior to that, and, indeed, prior to even the blazing speed of 56K modems, my first experiences on the Internet were with something much slower. Slow enough that browsing to practically any page on the Internet took several minutes at best. You had to really want to see that content. But, my Internet access account came with something that very few of my Internet access accounts since have had: a shell account.

The shell account was pretty great. I could connect to my service provider with my modem, which was slow when downloading graphics, sounds, and movie clips, but more than speedy enough to download (you guessed it) plain text faster than I could read it. My ISP also had installed on their server Pine that I could use to check my email and Lynx that I could use to connect to the World Wide Web. And, since this server was connected to my service provider’s internet connection, I could download web pages and get to the important stuff, the content, faster than ever.

Sure, I didn’t have those fancy graphics and such, but that was a small price to pay to be able to consume information much more quickly than I could before. But, technology marched on, and connections eventually got faster. Fast enough that visiting a page that maybe took three or four minutes to load now maybe only took one or two. And then less than one minute. Then less than 30 seconds. Then so quickly that they were done downloading and rendering practically before I was done pressing the button telling my browser to go there.

This was great, since I could download and read things faster than ever. But that also meant that feature creep started showing up. Big time. Since practically everyone on the Internet had faster access speeds, it is only natural that we don’t have to design pages to work for dial-up speeds any more. And that means that we can put lots of pictures and sounds and things on sites.

But why stop there? We can design our own unique interface, we can change how the browser looks and behaves, we can have actual artists design pages so that they don’t look like some weirdo with an HTML primer just slapped a few elements together and called it a webpage. We can make pages interactive, dynamic, semantec, other things, probably. And, we don’t have to be constrained by image size or color depth, we can generate rich multimedia experiences for each and every one of our viewers. It’s exciting!

And all of those things are exciting, and can be useful. But, as the kids say, at the end of the day, most of the time, what I’m looking for on the Internet is text. Text to read, process, and understand so that I can learn something, and a lot of times those extra things are either get in the way or are just distracting me from my main goal: to read, process, and understand content so that I can learn something.

When I rediscovered Lynx and found that it not only had Gopher support, but that it was still actively maintained and developed, I thought that it might be fun to try and make Lynx my main browser. Or, at least, a browser that I use more often than ‘almost never’. To do that, I faced a couple of challenges.

Challenge 1: My RSS Reader

Up until very recently, I never did much with RSS readers. I figured if I wanted to see what a site was doing, I would just, you know, go to that site occasionally. But, when Google Reader shut down, several of my friends lamented its passing, and that got me thinking I should maybe give this RSS thing a try. So, I downloaded a copy of Tiny Tiny RSS, which appears to be a good product with a jackass for a project manager. So, I’ve been meaning to move away from TTRSS as a newsreader. I figured, if Lynx, a text-based web browser, is still under active development, surely there are other command line utilities out there that might be able to do something as simple as reading a newsfeed right?

Right.

The thing I chose was something called Newsbeuter. Newsbeuter is a reader that is stupidly easy to set up and configure, has lots of options, can automatically refresh feeds at whatever interval I want, and it looks like this:

Using Newsbeuter to check out some Steam sale or other

Using Newsbeuter to check out some Steam sale or other

Now, isn’t that beautiful?

I have all of the relevant information that I need in an easily digestible form. There are lots of keyboard shortcuts (too many to go into here), so if I want to open the article, I can hit ‘o’ and it opens in my current web browser (Lynx, natch), if I want to go to my next unread article, I just hit ‘n’, if I want to mail the article to someone, I can just… er… hm.

Challenge 2: My email client

For a while, I’ve been using Gmail hosting for most of my email needs, it’s good, but if you try to do much with your email from a text-based browser, it may not work well, especially if you have two-factor authentication turned on (and I hope that you do). Also, Pine was discontinued quite some time ago, so that’s not really an option, either.

Enter Mutt.

Mutt is a capable email client that has so many features that I’d have a hard time listing them all here (so I won’t). And, with a little fiddling, can even be made to talk to gmail.

How lovely.

Just pretend that there’s a picture of my email here.

Putting it all together.

So now I have a text-based web browser, a text-based email reader, and a text-based RSS reader. All I needed to do was to install OpenSSH on my server, configure a couple of ports on my router, download a program to connect with. It works great, but starting and stopping programs is kind of a pain, especially if I want to pop over to read some email and then pop right back to my RSS reader, or if I want to open up a website that’s not in one of my RSS feeds to look something up.

That’s where GNU Screen comes in. GNU Screen lets me have multiple ‘windows’ open at once, lets me switch between them with a keystroke, and lets me detach my session so I can reconnect back to it later. It’s perfect for this kind of application.

I’ve been using this set up for about two weeks, and it’s working well for me. I’ve hit a few snags, mostly having to do with accessibility, which we’ll go over next time, but, over all, this setup works better for me. I can quickly tear through my newsreader to find things that are relevant to my interests. I can drill down to the meat of the articles I want to read and get out without getting distracted by all of the window dressing (sorry web designers). I don’t get pulled into any terrible and pointless comment battles unless I really want to (I have to be interested enough in the story to open it in a web browser that supports Javascript, I can’t just keep scrolling until I accidentally end up in Commentland(tm)). And, perhaps best of all, I don’t have to worry about installing an ad-blocker and being called a thief because I won’t see the ads anyway (unless they’re text-based, sorry advertisers), and most of the tracking pixels aren’t even fetched, so it’s harder to track what I’m doing on the Internet.

Really, the biggest downside is that a lot of websites aren’t built with accessibility in mind, which turns out to be kind of an annoyance to me, but turns into a larger problem when you consider people who have conditions or circumstances that require accessible websites, and not just nutjobs like me who do things in weird ways. This is a problem that we’ll delve into next time.

Gamers are generally okay people.

July 13th, 2014

I want to talk about some topics that I normally don’t discuss on this site, but before I do, I do want to make a few things perfectly clear:

  • Sexism is a real problem, not just in video games, but in every facet of life.
  • Racism, likewise, is a real-life problem.
  • Gender and sexual identity are deeply personal issues, and can be extremely complicated.
  • Neither I, nor anyone else, has any right or ability to tell you what should and should not offend you. All I can do is offer an opinion from my point of view, and it’s up to you to agree or disagree.

Please, refer to that list up there frequently as we go through the discussion today. I’m going to try and touch on a lot of topics that are a lot heavier than what I usually go over here, and I’m going to do it as objectively as I can, but the main point that I want to make today is: gamers are generally OK people.

If you go to Google right now and check, there are millions of pages out there that will tell you that gamers are horrible people.

Google Search that shows 70 million results for gamers are terrible people

70 million articles can’t be wrong!

They’re racist, they’re sexist (usually misogynist), they’re manchildren living in their parents’ basements (or college dorm rooms). They’re slovenly behemoths shoveling Cheetos into their gaping maws with their permanently-stained orange hands, washing it down their throats with a cocktail of Red Bull and Mountain Dew, and only pausing long enough to screech crumb-filled epithets into their headsets at the poor schlub on the other end of the match. That schlub is frequently a games-blogger. A no nonsense professionalgames journalist‘ who plays games, not necessarily for fun, but because it’s part of their job. A person waist-deep in the gaming culture who occasionally takes time of their day to remind the community, the very community that makes up their audience, the very community that the author depends on to make a living, that they’re terrible people.

That does sound like a problem, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong: death threats, rape threats, threats of bodily harm, and the like are never okay.

But before we go much further, I want to look at a few numbers:

There are currently about 318 million people in the United States, and of those, roughly 58% of them play video games, and 45% of those are female. That means that right now, today, of the 184,440,000 people who admit to playing video games: about 82,998,000 are female gamers and about 101,442,000 are male, of all ages. That’s an incredibly important set of figures.

That means that something like Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, one of the poster children for video games that spawn abhorrent behavior, which sold 26.5 Million copies… only captured about 14% of the market.

Or something like Mass Effect 3, which had an ending that was so poorly received, that it had gamers up in arms with torches and pitchforks, ready to descend on Bioware headquarters and do horrible things, sold 1.85 million copies, which is less than one percent of the total game players in the US.

So, what am I getting at? Where is all of this leading?

Clickbait.

No, really.

Most of the blogs, magazines, web series, and etc. that cover video games are profit-seeking entities. The primary goal of a profit-seeking entity is to, you guessed it, maximize profit. Sure, they may provide a good or a service that you want, and those plums can be very nice, but those are all means to an end: revenue (usually ad revenue). With the staggering amount of websites now on the Internet and the absolutely insane amount of content generated every minute of every day, it’s increasingly difficult to get your voice heard by shouting into the void. So, you rely on one of the oldest axioms in media: “If it bleeds, it leads“.

The media loves a good firestorm, and is not above stoking the coals or stirring the pot, or just glorifying being a jackass to get the most potential clicks/views out of any story they can. The media is not stupid. It knows that controversy, fear-mongering, and sensationalism get viewers/listeners/clicks/whatever. More whatever means more ad revenue, and more ad revenue means that the media outlet can pay its bills, hire content creators to ply their trade full time.

I get that.

And it’s no great secret that ad revenue for virtually every media outlet is vanishingly small. But that’s how practically all of these megablogs on the Internet work: The sites exist only to deliver ads. The content is secondary, and only exists to show you more ads and generate more revenue. Anyone that tries to tell you otherwise is either delusional or works full-time for an ad-supported entity. *By the way, I’m much more likely to put up with some nonintrusive ads if you provide me with something that I find useful and you ask nicely, but trying to guilt me into doing it won’t happen.

So, where does that leave us?

The takeaway I want everyone reading this article (both of you) is that:

  1. It would be very nice if the media stopped equating the abhorrent behavior of 14% of the video gamer community as representative of all of us (we also mustn’t lose sight of the fact that a small percentage of a large number, can still be an objectively large number). I realize that’s not likely to happen, but can we at least stop feeding the trolls? Once we do that, we might actually discover that most gamers are actually okay people, and once that happens, we might actually be able to have a real discussion.
  2. Sexism, misogyny, rape, racism, and gender identity are real issues that deserve real attention and thoughtful discussion. They shouldn’t be trivialized and used as a way to boost pageviews/clicks/ad revenue on a slow news day (or any other news day) or to build a personal brand. And they certainly shouldn’t be used as talking points to try and sell you something. These issues are more complicated than can be dissected in an occasional blog entry/video/podcast
  3. Your favorite ad-supported website exists solely to show you ads to generate ad revenue. If something even mildly controversial pops up on your favorite site and contains language that entices you to click (“…and you won’t believe what happens next!”), it’s probably there to try and generate a spike in pageviews (which equals ad dollars), and you can bet that it will continue showing up every so often to boost views/revenues. Controversy creates cash, after all.

These are all important issues, and I can’t tell you what to make of them. Use your own brain, come to your own conclusions. Consider opposing viewpoints and learn more about the issue whenever and wherever you can and be flexible enough to change your stance if you find you had some misconceptions. Don’t let the vocal minority color your perceptions of the whole community, don’t feed the trolls. Always, always, be mindful of articles trying to sensationalize something to get a rise out of you, they’re primarily concerned with clicks, ads, and eyeballs (as long as you clicked on it and looked at an ad, they don’t care about you, personally, any more). And, above all, don’t be a passive observer. Take action, participate in communities, champion ideas you feel strongly about, and help make the world a better place.

So, what’s new

June 18th, 2014

Well, yeah, it’s been a while, sorry about that.

My last post was kind of a downer, and I made it sound like I would never make another entry again because I was so disgusted with video games, the internet, and myself. I didn’t mean for it to sound that way, but then a few days off became a few weeks, and that spiraled into months, and, well, you know how those things go.

I’m still here, doing my thing, but not writing about it a whole lot.

That’s not strictly true, I’ve gotten a bunch of articles started, but only half-completed, and then deleted. This little site turns 10 years old this year, and I started to think that maybe I’ve said all I wanted to say. But I don’t think that’s it. I just haven’t been inspired by much lately.

That’s a weird statement to make, really. Video games and computers/the Internet are bigger than they’ve ever been, which is great, but also, really boring. Maybe now that I’m getting a few years older and my tastes are getting more refined, I’m finding the monotonous grey slurry of so-called ‘entertainment’ less palatable than I used to. We are hot off the heels of one of the biggest gaming events of the year, and for the first time in a long time, I can truthfully say that there was so little announced at the show that I was genuinely interested in, that I’ve already forgotten most of it. The kitschy fun stuff that I still love to play is still out there, I just have to work harder to find it.

And then there’s the Internet.

It used to be reasonably useful, but it’s shifting to the blogs, Top X Lists, clickbaity ‘articles’, infographics, and social media. Clicking around and discovering things used to be exciting and fun, but now if it doesn’t show up in my newsreader or a Google search, it doesn’t exist (and anything I click on, I just read the one article, and never go back). I honestly can’t remember the last time I discovered a site by one method or another and then went back more than once. The Internet is absolutely enormous, and I visit the same dozen or so sites every single day. I’m in a rut, and I don’t like it down here.

I know exciting, interesting, and fun stuff is still out there on the Internet, but just like with video games, I just need to look harder to find it.

And that brings me to Gopher. Gopher is one of the many methods on the Internet to distribute information, and it competed with (and actually lost to) HTTP. You can read about gopher and why it’s still relevant. Installing a Gopher client onto my computer is exciting to me. I can visit sites that maybe don’t have as much eyecandy, or popularity, or a comments page. I can visit repositories of information put up because the people genuinely love the technology and the subject matter, and who aren’t necessarily worrying about driving traffic to their site by resorting to clickbait.

I also have installed a Gopher server at gopher://obsolete.cartridge.technology (also available via http://obsolete.cartridge.technology:70 to do… well, something with. I haven’t really decided what I’m going to put up there, and this site isn’t going away any time soon. But there are so many protocols and networks on the Internet that I just plain forget to use, that I need to actually take the time to check them out. For the first time in a really long time, I’m genuinely excited about exploring the Internet, and I’d say that’s a very good thing.

My Love/Hate Relationship With Video Games Part 3 – Myself

September 30th, 2013

This is part 3 of my Love/Hate Relationship with Video Games series. If you haven’t already, I suggest you read Part 1 and Part 2 first, so we’re all on the same page. Don’t worry, this article isn’t going anywhere. Probably.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve liked video games for as long as I can remember. Since the first time I was able to operate a joystick to make the character on the screen do what I wanted was magical. From then on, I wanted to experience more. I wanted to explore these virtual worlds and experience as many of these virtual stories as I could. I also wanted to absorb every shred of ancillary information I could find about the games I loved, canon or not. My passion for video games was so intense that even after I cut my left thumb on a jigsaw in shop class (in the Summer of 1992), I spent the next couple of weeks playing through Super Castlevania IV in spite of the agony, which left me with a pretty nice scar as a trophy.

Cutting my thumb open on a jigsaw is not enough to keep me from Super Castlevania IV

Cutting my thumb open on a jigsaw is not enough to keep me from Super Castlevania IV

This helped me out in a few different ways. We moved around a lot when I was younger, and by the time I graduated high school, I had gone to seven different schools. That meant that I was the new guy. A lot. And, as the new guy, I would usually hang out in the back of the class until I could find another kid who liked video games, and then try to make something happen. That mostly worked (not counting that one guy who decided to surreptitiously show me his wiener in the middle of math class (that actually happened)). But being a video game geek through the 1980s and 1990s was tough. I got a lot of grief from people because I might bring a copy of Nintendo Power to read before class started, or I might write a poem about a controller, or someone might start talking to me in shop class out of sheer boredom and make stuff up about games just to see how gullible I was (“Dude, you can totally shoot the dog in Duck Hunt and get a million points!” “If you go over the top of the screen in World 1-4 of Super Mario Bros., like, up by the score, you can totally skip straight to the end.” And so on), or because the other video game geek and I would talk quiz each other about some new game during homeroom, or any number of things. The point is, liking video games was still weird, and if you liked games, you were weird, and if you were weird, chances are, you got bullied.

Now, I don’t tell you all of this for your sympathy (not because I think I’m better than that). But I do think that it’s important to know where I’m coming from so that I can better paint a picture of where I’m going. I could talk about problems I had in my childhood all day, but most of that has nothing to do with video games, and isn’t really on the table today. That’s a part of my life that is behind me that I’ve dealt with and moved on from.

Once I graduated from the public school system and entered college where I didn’t have to deal with bullies and people who just didn’t like me for whatever reason, my whole worldview changed. As long as my work got done, I was free to like whatever geeky thing I wanted to, and nobody cared. I was even able to keep in contact with the few people I knew from public school that also liked video games. We could talk to each other at length (via X-Mail or AIM, or even on the telephone) about the latest and greatest games.

And it was great.

Around this time, I also discovered that LAN Parties were a thing, a place where I could get together with a few dozen people who were just like me (more or less), and we could play games, talk about games, and generally do whatever geeky thing we wanted to for two days or so and nobody cared.

And it was great.

I also started hanging out on my Friday and Saturday nights at one (or more) of the local arcades (back when those were a thing), making friends with all of the other people who hung out at arcades. We played arcade games and Lazer Tag, sometimes all night long, and nobody cared.

And it was great.

All of these things were great because it wasn’t just me experiencing them on my own. We had a community where we could share experiences with the games we were playing together, games we played on our own, and games we were looking forward to.

In short, we socialized. We shared our experiences and enhanced our enjoyment of whatever games we happened to play, and maybe convinced other people who had similar tastes to try out something that they otherwise might not have looked twice at.

But, some things started to happen all about the same time. Home consoles achieved graphical fidelity that matched or exceeded arcade games, and, with the enhanced penetration of broadband, you could find your favorite competitive game and play against an actual person somewhere in the world any time, day or night, from the comfort of your own house. Rendering the big selling points to going to an arcade in the first place moot, and arcades began their slow decline into irrelevance.

Computer games migrated to an increasingly-interconnected model where you either had to be online to play them at all or maybe just for multiplayer. But, again, with current penetration of broadband being what it is, you can find someone somewhere in the world that will play whatever game with you, any time, day or night. You can even buy, download, install, and play through a game without ever interacting with another actual human. It’s great!

Erm, sort of.

Don’t get me wrong. Video games are great. But it’s also great to be able to discuss them with someone. This applies to just about every form of entertainment, too. Saw a great movie? You want to tell someone about it. Read a great book? You want to tell someone about it. Heard a great new song? You want to tell someone about it.

But I’m at a point in my video-game-playing life where my video game tastes have diverged from the tastes of most of my remaining video-game-playing friends. Since the types of games we play don’t overlap much, we don’t usually have much to discuss. Secondly, I do a lot of my gaming alone, mostly due to the fact that I currently live alone, and, since a lot of my friends have gotten married and had kids while I haven’t, means, a lot of the time, we have even less to discuss. So, even on the off-chance that one of my friends is playing a game that we would both be interested in, they usually opt to play it with their significant other or their child, which is perfectly understandable, but that also means that if we want to play through something that I will end up either being the third wheel, or one of us will have already completed a portion of the game and want to speed through the parts that the other hasn’t already played through.

All of that is a long way of saying that: when I’m playing something new, I usually don’t have anyone around that I can share the experience with.

I think that’s why my backlog is so large. I still see and buy games that I want to play as often as I ever did, but without someone or a group of someones to share the experience with, my motivation to actually play through them has all but evaporated. I’ve taken a few steps to work around that with this very website (and a few others) along with the ‘Basscomm and (someone) play (something)‘ series over on Youtube. Which is a great start, but I need to keep moving. I need to keep sharing, keep participating, and keep my sense of wonder and, above all, keep having fun. I don’t need to force myself to play more games and just kind of hope that I’ll get over whatever it is that’s keeping me from making a dent in my backlog (that never works). I don’t need to chase and devour the flavor-of-the-week game as soon as it comes out. I don’t need to comb through mountains of news that isn’t really news and discuss every non-article to death. I don’t need to spend all my time reminiscing about how good things were during bygone days (even though they sometimes weren’t all that good). I need to figure out what it is that’s holding me back, realize that the way I used to do things may not work anymore, and figure out what I need to do to change what doesn’t really work into what does work. Video games have evolved significantly in the last 30 years, and there’s no reason that I can’t make some changes and meet them halfway.

I think I can manage that.

My love/hate relationship with video games part 2 – The Media

September 22nd, 2013

Welcome to part two of my series exploring my relationship with video games. Part one is available here. I’ll wait while you get up to speed, and you can join me in the next paragraph.

Writing is hard. Maybe I should qualify that a little bit: writing things is easy, any schmuck can go to his local library, access a computer, and start up a blog for the low price of free. And just like that, you’re a blogger. No requirements, experience, or anything required other than being able to remember a password. The barriers to entry are the lowest they’ve ever been to be able to write about whatever pops into your head and present it before a worldwide audience. It’s actually kind of ridiculous. But actually getting someone, anyone, to read what you wrote? That’s the hard part. No matter how good your writing is (or how good you think your writing is), unless you get an audience for it, you’ll be just about as effective sitting at a rest stop in the middle of Arkansas, writing your articles in a spiral notebook, crumpling them up and throwing them at anyone that happens to walk by, and hoping that they’ll be interested enough to read what you threw.

So, you take the advice of the Old Guard that have been where you are now. The people who started out with nothing, grew it into a publishing empire, and get paid to do what you’ve wanted to do since you could hold a pencil: they get paid to play and write about video games. You write what you know. But you find that, since you’re not already in the news business, you don’t really know all that much that nobody else already knows, and what you do know has already been reported on by everyone. But, I mean, people already do that, right? Any major news story is going to be reported by everyone, so you can just use their same stories, slap a veneer of your own couple of sentences of commentary, and you’ve got a news article. Keep doing that all day every day and you have yourself a news site.

Kind of.

Creating something original that’s consistently great (or at least good) is hard, and the people who are truly great at it can make it look easy. So easy that people will see something successful, and immediately emulate it, maybe changing one or two details to ‘make it their own’ (“Everybody loves nostalgia, right? So how about we make a video series talking about some old games, but the hook is that the guy talking about them is furious. All the time. It’ll be hilarious!”). The problem is: it sometimes works. We eventually get to the point where (in this case) video game news spread across dozens of big sites and hundreds (maybe thousands) of smaller sites becomes a homogenized grey mass, with the occasional original piece thrown in for color. That’s just a fancy way of saying that the bulk of most video game news sites are interchangable, so why would I bother visiting more than one? For the original content? Nope. If Kotaku posts something interesting, Destructoid will mention it. If Joystiq posts something worth reading, the MTV Multiplayer blog has you covered.

That’s not new, I have some experience in the news industry, and it’s how news reporting has works. It’s understandable, really. There are only so many hours in a day, and if you had to personally research and vet everything that you posted, you’d only get two or three stories a day done, maximum. The world of video games is bigger than it’s ever been, and yet practically the only place you can find coverage of the industry is on the Internet. And on the Internet, for better or worse, coverage == blogs.

Blogs are interesting. They are (usually) easier to update than a static site, they can be updated any time by anyone without having to figure out how to upload a few new .html documents via FTP, and are good for things like a personal diary or, yes, even news coverage. In fact, that you’ll be hard pressed to find a site covering video game that isn’t a blog.

So many blogs

So many blogs

Why is that? Because it works. Why does it work? Well, for me, that’s trickier.

I grew up reading computer and video game magazines like BYTE and Compute!, and eventually stuff like the How to Win at Nintendo Games series, Nintendo Power, EGM, and the occasional GamePro. All of those are defunct now (although EGM has been revived, apparently), but before they left, they impressed one thing on me: people who write about video games (even when what’s getting written is aimed at a child) have a certain style. They would sometimes use words I didn’t know, which was totally fine, they’re professional writers, after all, I could glean the meaning or go research what the thing meant, which was great. It slyly made me learn something I would have never learned on my own while I was learning about something I wanted to know. It reminds me of a quote by Stan Lee (you know, the comic book guy (no, not that Comic Book Guy)):

“People thought (comics) were just for very, very young children or semi-literate adults; nobody had any respect for comics,” Lee said. “Little by little — and I’d like to think Marvel had something to do with that — I started using stories that had college-level vocabulary. I would use whatever word is apt in a sentence. If I would use like — oh, I don’t know — ‘misanthropic,’ let’s say, I’d go ahead and use it. I figured if the kids didn’t know what it meant, they’d get it by osmosis, by the use of the sentence. If they had to go to the dictionary and look it up, that wasn’t the worst thing that could happen.”

Which just a lot of words to say that these early writers started covering an unfamiliar medium using conventional media, and didn’t dumb down their writing for the masses. Things were a little stuffy, sure. But I loved it anyway. I always loved how the books and magazines I got my hands on felt like the writer was having fun exploring each of the games or programs he was covering. It’s like I had a relative who worked at the game factory, got the game a couple months early, and was excitedly telling me all about it.

Coverage of video games nowadays typically bucks all of that.

Sure, they put on the veneer of ‘hey, we like video games as much as you do, you should come let us tell you all about them (please visit our sponsors and click our ads)’. And that may be true, on a strictly personal level. The individual authors might actually love video games, but I do sometimes wonder (playing a lot of games is not necessarily the same as loving games). Regardless, the way old media covers news just doesn’t work well for video games, now that the Internet is a thing. Print and broadcast media are just animated corpses who don’t know they’re dead, and will continue shambling on until their viewership dies and that recurring subscription drawing directly from their checking account that they forgot about setting up in 1998 finally stops. Besides, websites are easier to update, can get information to more people more quickly, can be corrected in real-time if errors are discovered, and so on. Which is all true. And video games are a unique product, they combine elements of books, theater, music, art, mime, imagination, interactivity, and so on into a multimedia product that stands alone.

Websites are uniquely positioned to cover video games precisely because games and websites can both be a multimedia experience. We can get an image, hear a sample of a song, see the game in action. We can vicariously experience every facet of the game itself without actually playing the game. That’s huge.

But this is the Age of the Internet. We want more. So news sites get lots more screenshots and preview videos, because those are easy enough to get and to distribute to everyone.

But we want more.

So they track down concept art, game play trailers, and developers will sometimes cobble together ARGs to increase awareness of games. It’s a little more work, but you can’t start the hype machine too early, right?

But we want more.

So sites start to bug developers to give out any morsel of information about whatever they’re working on. We scour twitter and other social media pages for anything even resembling news, because game developers can’t have normal lives on social media, they have to answer questions about their games constantly, we obsessively check the trademark office to see if something’s been registered that might possibly be the title of a game a developer might be working on now or in the future, or not at all. It’s all filler, of course, but you have to put up something to take up the time between the Good Stuff(tm), right?

But we want more.

There isn’t much more in the official channels, so sites will start posting rumors, water-cooler talk, and what few unique pieces might come from other sites that you don’t visit (so you don’t have to sully your fingers by going there yourself, you see). It’s filler that gets put up between the filler we mentioned above. If we don’t have something new up for our readers every time they refresh the page, then they might look at another website for a few seconds, and that means that we’ve failed.

But we want more.

It’s New Games Journalism, and I’ve grown to hate it.

I realized a while ago that blogging can be a form of journalism, if done right, but a lot of the blogs just don’t do it right. They update so often and many of the articles have so little actual content, that I gradually began to tune them out in favor of the actual original pieces. The news and original reviews that I was coming to the site in the first place to see began to get more and more unpalatable. In an earlier article, I called it Nerd Pride or Nerd Arrogance, but I think it’s more accurate to call it Nerd Hubris. I pick on Destructoid a lot for this, because they’re one of the worst offenders (“We’re so awesome that you should visit our site and love us because we’re so awesome and edgy, and we’re also attention junkies, just like you would be if you were awesome like we are”). Other sites are more subtle, but the subtext of a lot of the articles is the same.

And I don’t have to like it. I could try to change the status quo. To buck the trend of those already bucking the trend, and try to at least start my own site, covering things the way I want them to be covered. Without all the navel-gazing, the hip-edginess, the firehose of constant updates in favor of longer, more researched pieces, and so on.

But I can’t.

I don’t have the time, the energy, or the connections to do anything like that full-time. I could throw away my current career and try to get a job at one of these places, you know, try to change them from the inside. But:

  1. If the hiring managers from one of those sites reads this article, I’m pretty sure they won’t want to hire me. Don’t want any trouble-starters, you know. Even though starting trouble and bucking the system is what they do
  2. For the less edgy sites, my lifelong passion for video games, and the nearly 12 years I’ve spent documenting is is completely worthless, as far as writing experience goes (believe me, I’ve applied to every site mentioned here, on and off since at least 2004)

So, am I bitter, angry, antagonistic, or some other negative adjective? No, not any more. I just have to change where I get my news. Once I stopped going to websites with writing styles I didn’t like that were covering games I didn’t care about, I started to feel a lot better about video games as a whole. And, yes, it’s true that I don’t usually know when the new Gears of Duty is coming out. Or obsess over every instance of a game developer losing his mind. But instead I have a lot more time to play the games I buy rather than obsessing over every detail of their inception, production, and release, then moving on to the next one as soon as they come out. I can enjoy video games on my terms. I’m not under constant pressure to get the new, hot thing, and I can appreciate games as more than an ephemeral experience.

And that’s really what it’s all about anyway.

My love/hate relationship with video games – Part 1 – The Games

September 15th, 2013

I find myself in an odd place these days. No, not Indiana, although that is fairly weird.

No, I find myself in the position of someone who used to love video games, and eventually got to a point where they don’t excite him much any more. So he begins to wonder if he really still likes video games or if he’s just clinging to something far after it ceased being interesting in the hopes that by sheer force of will he can make it interesting again.

See? Weird.

This has been gnawing at me since at least the last E3, and probably before. I watched the Microsoft and the Sony keynote presentations and felt… nothing much (Nintendo didn’t even have a keynote at E3 this year, and that should have been a giant, throbbing clue to me).

And why not?

That’s tougher to answer, and while I stuck it in my head to percolate over the next several months, I began to realize that E3 as a whole hasn’t really featured much that I found interesting in several years. The show no longer gets me excited. Not only that, but games that get the most press at the event don’t even register as a blip on my radar. Video games media (such as it is) can’t possibly cover everything, I get that (but when they update 30 or more times per day, I kind of wonder how they don’t), so they logically have to pick and choose what they think that their readership will be interested in. Again, I get that. You have to give your audience what they want so they keep coming back and generating those sweet, sweet page views (and ad revenue).

But what a lot of these sites were covering (both during E3 and the rest of the year) stopped being interesting to me. As a result (partially because of the games they cover, but also partly due to the attitudes of most bloggers, er, games journalists, which we’ll delve into in a later article), I stopped visiting practically every video-game website I used to spend hours upon hours going to, and withdrew almost completely from just about every game community I was even peripherally involved in, even this very site, the site that I had put together on a whim between classes while I was slogging through college. The site that was originally set up to document my love of video games started to languish. I started to unconsciously become convinced that video games as a whole had largely passed me by. They moved on into the future while I was stuck in the past lamenting how things were so much better during the Nintendo 64/Playstation/Dreamcast days.

Why did I think things were better then? Was it because they actually were better or was I remembering things through my own personal fog (note – “Ew.”) and focusing on the good while ignoring the bad?

I have been chewing on this conundrum for a long time, and it’s been incredibly frustrating that I just couldn’t put a finger on it.

So I just kind of let those feelings continue to fester in the back of my mind, always doubting that I truly still enjoyed video games, forcing myself to play the occasional game that everyone told me was great, but I couldn’t get into. even though I picked up the odd title here or there, and moved on with my life. I’d built a wall of old-school games and whatever nostalgia I had left to insulate me from the World of Videogames ™ at large. It was comfortable in there, and I could take a peek outside once in a while to see if the industry was still chugging along without me. It was. I no longer had a finger on the pulse of what was going on from day to day (or from hour to hour), so I could see everything from a kind-of detached viewpoint, mutter to myself that, “Yep, still don’t like it”, and move back into my hidey-hole.

And I reflected.

I reflected on what got me here. Why I liked video games in the first place. One of my earliest video game memories is playing Super Pac-Man in some local dive, which would have been around 30 years ago (yikes). I loved it. Nothing about the game was based in anything resembling reality (except maybe the food items), and I was able to briefly live vicariously through a character to do something completely impossible in a surreal world. That’s huge. For the price of a quarter I gained the ability to enter the imagination of someone else and do things that either couldn’t happen in real life, or that would get me killed if I tried. And I loved it all. Practically every video game I played offered something unique, and I wanted to keep going to the next game to see what else there was to see, hear, or experience.

Recently, while I was waxing nostalgic, I rediscovered the blog of John Kricfalusi (autoplay sound warning), and began re-reading through the archives. It might sound like a weird thing for a guy like me to do that since a lot of his posts are geared toward cartoon art and design and I’m not much of an artist. But I like old cartoons, and cartoons have a lot in common with video games – besides, it’s fun to take a peek behind the curtain to see how things get made, it’s why I occasionally watch a woodworking show even though I can barely build a shelf. Even though most of John’s posts aren’t really directed to non-cartoonists like me, there’s a lot to be gained from reading about the subject from a guy who clearly loves the medium and wants anyone involved in the process of making cartoons to be better. One post in particular had a passage that really stood out for me:

Why do bland characters exist in the first place?

What is the purpose of characters with no distinctive traits?

I have a theory that I don’t totally believe. Most animated features want to outspend the competition. The films are built on special effects, spectacle, details, crowds and a showing off of how much money they can burn. With that kind of story maybe strong characters would distract the audience from the impressive flying money.

Maybe the film makers think you need a central character with no distinctive traits so that you can piggy back him through the movie and experience the expensive special effects, wobbly cameras and spectacle through him.

You project your personality onto the blank slate and go on a roller coaster ride.

I personally think that is a rotten excuse to have a bland character and to tell you the truth I doubt that’s what the makers of these pictures have in mind.

Why are there blands then if it’s not on purpose? Because the cartoon makers don’t actually think about what they are doing or why. They just do it by rote. I doubt they even realize these characters are bland. They just have watched so many Disney, Bluth and Pixar movies growing up, that they automatically absorb the stock formulas and repeat them robotically when they get their chance to make a film.

If we replace ‘film’ or ‘cartoon’ with ‘video game’ and ‘Disney, Bluth, and Pixar’ with companies like Blizzard, Valve, and Bungie, then we can start extrapolating an interesting conclusion: most video games no longer offer a unique experience. They just take what’s worked before, stitch together bits of plot or characters with traits that have been successful before, changing up a few details just enough that it’s superficially different (so we can increment the sequel counter), and shove it to market. It’s like a lot of games get made by starting with a checklist of things all games need to have and going through the motions to add them.

Once that happens you have a game that is technically sound, but doesn’t actually have any life in it. Take this scene from Gears of War 2, for example. It’s like someone went down the checklist of ‘things to go into an action game’ and made sure they ticked all the boxes:

  • Conflict
  • Loose cannon character runs in and saves the day
  • One-liner
  • Guns
  • Explosions
  • Everything is brown

And the characters? For all the realism they were supposedly going for, the characters look like marionettes. Nothing weighs anything (take a look at the first creature Cole flips over his head, the gun doesn’t even slow down when it gets several hundred pounds on it, and everyone waves those guns around like they’re made of cardboard instead of metal). None of them react to the situation or even each other in a way that I would expect them to. They sound like they just read their lines off a script one at a time in separate rooms and the only direction they got was ‘bland disinterest’. Cole goes from being up on a balcony overlooking the other characters and using a speaking voice (‘In the flesh, baby’), then he breaks through a wall and yells, then he drops down to almost a whisper. Marcus is completely monotone and moves like someone spent a lot of money on motion-capture and wanted to make sure that they got their money’s worth (check out how he starts waggling his head around and shifting his weight back and forth when he says ‘Roger, Control’).

It’s a combination of the Uncanny Valley, game making by rote, and good ol’ sloppiness.

Once I made these realizations, and really started to think about what I was seeing (and reviling), the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, and it all crystallized:

I still love video games, so long as they bring something unique and fun to the table (which is why I’m intrigued by the growing Indie developer scene). What I don’t like is a game made from stitched-together tropes developed by rote based on what worked before, but changing one or two details (okay, you guys, we’re going to make a game where you run around and shoot people, but this time, instead of people, they’re giant bugs, and it’s in space, on a planet that looks like Earth, but isn’t). Games that are a copy (sorry, ‘inspired by’) of a copy of a copy that become so far removed from what inspired them in the first place that they’re parodies of themselves and they don’t even realize it. Games who have stories that are nothing but an elaborate setup for whatever Cool Thing(tm) to happen at the end. Games that are made purely to drive profits.

That’s what I can’t stand.

I can hardly believe that so many people who claim to like video games accept the current state of some of the games the Machine puts out to be good or even great, when they’re clearly mediocre. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with mediocre games, or even liking them, but pretending that they’re great does the industry as a whole a huge disservice.

We can do better.