Backlog, Schmacklog

September 14th, 2014

As recently as a month ago, I was making grand proclamations about how I was going to knuckle down and get my backlog under control. I was going to pare down that list bit by bit and eliminate it once and for all. That was a good idea, in theory, and I am still making progress toward that goal, but I very quickly came to a realization: No matter what I do, my backlog is probably never going to be zero.

And I’m okay with that.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m giving up and am going to let myself drown under an ever-growing pile of unfinished games. That would be crazy. But I did go through my backlog and I identified three kinds of games in there and my likeliness to get them finished as a good first step.

Type 1 – Games I got as a part of a bundle that I didn’t really want in the first place. There are way, way too many game bundles floating around on the Internet. Lots of these game bundles are ‘pay what you want’ with special plums if you pay over a certain dollar amount. The big problem is that you get a game that you want, that is maybe pretty good, and you also get four or five (or more) other games that you’ve never heard of, didn’t really want, and may never play. I have lots of these artificially inflating the number of games in my backlog, so it looks worse than it actually is. It’s tempting to get rid of a lot of these games, but since most of them are digital-only, I’m stuck with them.

Type 2 – Games that looked interesting or were recommended, but it turns out that I didn’t like. Games like 3D-Dot Game Heroes get moderately favorable reviews, and look interesting enough for a try (or were in the bargain bin), but on putting them in, it turns out that they’re just not very good. I’m sure that to someone somewhere these games are good, but I’m not going to waste my time slogging through them if I’m not having any fun doing it.

Type 3 – Games that are just too long. Probably until I either retire or hit the lottery, my time for playing games is limited, and even when I do get a chance to play, I may not be able to play in long stretches. Some weeks I can manage six or eight hours, and other weeks it’s a bit less (like zero). That time may not be in big chunks, either. Some days I might only have a few ten or twenty minute chunks of time that I can devote to a game, other days it might be two or three hours. If I can’t pick up a game and put it down after a few minutes, I may end up putting it down and coming back to it just after never. If a game takes 40 or more hours to complete, and I can work in 10 hours a week playing it, it’s still going to take me a month or so to get to the end.

What are the odds that I’m going to finish these up? Type 1 is very unlikely. I might play it once to see what it’s all about, or I might never look at it. I didn’t really want it in the first place, so these don’t count toward my backlog. I can write them off.

Type 2 games can also be written off. I’m not going to force myself to play something I didn’t like. If I gave it a try and didn’t like it enough to finish it, or at all, then I’m knocking it out of the backlog.

Type 3 games are an interesting category. Games that I liked, probably, but took so long to play that I just got tired of playing them every free evening for a month or more. These games I’d like to get back to, but the odds of me doing that are directly related to how long it’s been since I played it last. A game that I last played a month ago? There’s a decent chance I’ll give it another go in a couple of weeks after I’ve played something short to ‘cleanse my palate’, so to speak. Something I stopped playing in 2007 two consoles ago? Assuming I remember that I have a saved game, and the console is still hooked up to my television, I might play again. But, realistically, we can take these off the list, too, if they haven’t been played in the last year.

And, just like that, my backlog goes from insane and completely unmanageable to slightly off-kilter and kind of manageable.

It’s a start. I’ll take it.

Chasing Dreams

September 6th, 2014

Regardless how the last few entries to this site have appeared, I don’t usually like to be maudlin. But I wanted to touch on a subject that I’ve talked about before: the aim of this site, and where it goes from here. But that requires a brief history lesson.

I registered the domain name crummysocks.com on December 17, 2001 on a lark. I was in the midst of finals in college and we were learning all about web programming languages, scripting languages, databases, and lots of etc. I figured it would be fun to grab a domain name and do some of that for myself. At that time, services like Bust A Name didn’t really exist (or if they did, I didn’t know anything about them), so I drew inspiration from my surroundings, saw that I was wearing threadbare socks that day, found that crummysocks.com was available and registered it, put together an old computer in my kitchen running Debian GNU/Linux, downloaded PHP-Nuke, and boom, I had (more or less) had a website.

I didn’t really have much of a goal at first. I just wanted to learn about putting together a website, and I think that I’ve succeeded in that (plus lots of other things). But my goals were ever changing, and I could never fully dedicate myself to a concrete vision for a long enough length of time. I would even spin up a sister site for a while once an idea struck, but intereste tended to fall off for any of them after too long, which left me discouraged. I also tried lots of things with this site, most of which didn’t really pan out. Like that failed attempt at turning this site from a regular ol’ blog way back in ought-three, to doing gamy-style blog-posts-masquerading-as-news, for a few weeks in ’07, right after I finished my short stint in the video game industry.

Image showing an uptick in the numbers of articles written from June through July of 2007

That was a productive two months

Yes, a lot of this material was covered a couple of years ago, so I won’t really be retreading that old ground again, but this site is important to me. It’s one of the first things that I created that I actually stuck with and added to and experimented with and learned from. So, it’s not going to go away any time soon, but I have to seriously look at it and decide what I want to do with it, where I want to go, and if maybe something is holding me back.

At one time I wanted to be come a professional web-guy that talked about video games, technology, and various other techy-related-things, and I have made some half-hearted attempts to crowbar this site into that mold, but that didn’t happen. In fact, very few of the things I’ve done here have even been seen by more than a handful of people (with a couple of exceptions).

So, why does this site struggle to find anything to ‘stick’? I have a few theories, and a lot of data, but I’ve narrowed down a few reasons that might not be the whole reason, but are enough to give me pause:

  1. This site has struggled with its identity for nearly 13 years. I never really had much of a focus for it, and whenever I did think I had a great idea, I shunted it off to another site where it never really gained much traction, and this one suffered from neglect in the meantime.
  2. I don’t market my site enough. When I first registered this site, I would go around to computers on campus and navigate as many computers as I could to crummysocks.com, and leave the browsers there. I wouldn’t set it as their home page, but I would try to make it look like someone was browsing the site, lost track of time, and then just left the browser open to something I had written. It didn’t really work very well, but these days I might spend a half a day writing some article or another, and might give out a feeble, “Hey, I wrote something, check it out, I guess” on Twitter… and that’s it.
  3. It’s possible that the things I write here just aren’t that interesting to anyone but me. I don’t really have any hard statistics on how many people I have subscribed via RSS, but I’m pretty sure it’s not many. Any time I post something, I get a brief uptick in views, but little to no feedback. I might get a comment or two from a friend or family member (which is appreciated, mind), but content here doesn’t seem to get traction anywhere, which is concerning. That leads to frustration, which leads to a content drought, which leads to even fewer visits, etc.
  4. I admit it. Crummysocks is embarrassing to say. It was a cute flight of fancy when I was a struggling college student, but now, well, it’s kind of less cute. I don’t really think about it any more, until I am confirming some information over the phone with a real actual person. When they’re verifying my email address I can hear them trying to hold back the, “Crummy Socks? What on earth is that about?” in their voice, and then I’m embarrassed. I don’t even like telling people I know about the name of this site because it sounds kind of dumb any more.

I could go on and on, but I think there’s a lot of good takeaway here. I need to re-envision what it is I want for my website to be. It’s probably time to de-emphasize this site (hey, 13 years is a good run) and put my full effort behind something a little more… respectable, I guess?

Not that this site is going to go away any time soon. You don’t just work on something off and on for thirteen years and then just casually discard it like… something funny… that you casually discard. No, now is the time to focus. To take all of the things I’ve learned from my failures, creating a YouTube series, running a video game marathon, and all of the disparate things that I’ve learned to do, and put them all together to make… something.

Okay, I haven’t actually figured out what that thing is yet. But these weekly updates are to help me shake off some of the writer’s rust (that’s a thing, right), which is definitely a step in the direction that I want to go.

LAN Party Redux

August 31st, 2014

A little bit over a year ago, I wrote about how I was going to the first actual LAN party that I had been to in several years. My intention was to write a followup to that article after the event, but I kind of got sidetracked and didn’t actually remember to do that until right now.

In the older piece, I expressed some concern that LAN Parties might be a relic of a time when broadband internet access was something that was nigh unattainable, and online gaming was tough to organize. Now that broadband internet access is (relatively) cheap and (relatively) ubiquitous, tearing your computer down, driving 100 miles, setting it back up, playing video games constantly while taking breaks to sleep in your car, a LAN Party just seems like a solution for a problem that no longer exists.

So, I took my four days off work, tore down the computer, packed it up and drove to Louisville, KY to see whatever became of the LAN party where I spent so many of my weekends during my college years. And to my surprise, I learned that almost nothing had changed. I don’t mean that in any good way. I’m just going to run down a few of my recollections from the event:

  • There was a projector projecting mostly short videos on the wall with audio being piped over the house speakers. The videos being shown were mostly from the early 2000s, when I went last, with a few newish ones mixed in. One of the videos that got a lot of play was a kind of mean-spirited video where a young kid ran his mouth about his Unreal Tournament skills, and got ‘put in his place’ by one of the ‘pros’. I’m not going to link it here, but the footage from that video was recorded in March of 2002 and the video came about some time around that same time. We were reliving a moment of history that was only mildly interesting to a portion of the 200 people that attended 11 years prior. If any of those guys even attended, do any of them still think it’s funny?
  • There were very few LAN games being played. I figured as much in the leadup article to this one, where I speculated that most gaming was moving toward MMORPGs and Free To Play titles that you played over the Internet. Even Diablo III did away with LAN play that was a huge part of its predecessors. You play games while connected to the server on the Internet at all times. Period. To curb piracy, or stop resales, or whatever reason you want to subscribe to. So I had to look around to see if I found any games that people were playing that I could join. And I found lots of DOTA, lots of LoL, lots of MMORPGs of several flavors, lots of Team Fortress 2, and not a lot not being played offline. But that’s not too bad, we had a connection to the Internet2 backbone, and speeds were good, until people started showing up. And anyway, I could always hop in IRC to see what people were talking about and shoot the breeze for a bit during downtime
  • The IRC server was practically dead. I might be showing my age, but I spent a lot of time in college fooling around on IRC, or Internet Relay Chat for you whippersnappers out there. There were usually a few dozen people in IRC that were in the channels between games or taking a break or whatever, so you could talk about just about anything that you wanted: what was going on during a tournament, comment on the video playing, make requests for food or whatever you wanted. Basically, it was something to do that didn’t involve losing whatever game you were playing. Except that the IRC server was practically empty. There were a few people in there talking about what servers they had up on the network that were hosting games nobody was playing, or hosting files for trade (ahem), but very few actual people having very little conversation about just about anything. The biggest issue I saw was that some person was expressing some concern that there were naughty words in the chat, and that there were children present, so they shouldn’t be seeing that. The staff member poo-poohed these concerns by saying that the event was not and had never been family-friendly, and seemed to indicate that if parents had a problem with it, well maybe they shouldn’t have brought kids to the place in the first place, since it’s really not an event for them. I pointed out that not only were several of the attendants that had been coming for years old enough to have kids who, themselves, are old enough to come to the event now, but the organizer of the event, President LAN Party himself, had his kids in attendance, working the snack table. So, maybe considering making the event more family-friendly wouldn’t be an altogether bad thing. But that, of course, was not acceptable.

And so on, and so on. It turns out that I requested four days off of work and paid to attend for four days, but only stayed for about 36 hours. In those 36 hours, I played a lot of RIFT, I played a lot of Team Fortress 2 on the Internet, and I used the 100mb/100mb to download a lot of the titles in my Steam library that I had been putting off doing. I wanted to be able to say that the magic was still there, that the few hundred attendees that make the semiannual trek to keep the party going are keeping a piece of history alive. But what I found was a shell of a party. Going through the motions of the event that they’ve done a hundred times before. Every strand of cable is in place, and every mark is hit with expert timing. But the passion just isn’t there. The sense of community isn’t there. An event that needed to change with the times, but just didn’t. A time capsule that’s only been maintained in the very barest sense of the word that continues to exist just because it’s been going on this long, and maybe some people can’t imagine life without it (or they bought a lot of networking equipment that will go unused otherwise). Either way, I’m glad I went back to check on it. It reaffirmed that I may not have outgrown LAN Parties in general, but I’ve certainly grown away from this one.

I don’t have any gaming guilty pleasures

August 24th, 2014

Every once in a while, probably to foster discussion, I see a website or a twitter account ask what gaming guilty pleasures that I have, and my answer is always the same: I don’t have any.

So, what is a guilty pleasure, anyway? A guilty pleasure is something that you enjoy (game, music, movie, activity, whatever) that you feel guilty about liking, and maybe want other people to not know that you do.

That’s odd, right? It’s not just me, is it? You have a thing that you like, but you have to keep it a secret so that other people don’t find out about it, because if they do find out about you liking the thing, then they’re going to think you’re weird. Especially if they all dislike the thing. Then you’ll be the only one in the group that likes the thing that everyone else doesn’t.

Which is not that big of a deal.

Maybe it’s because I grew up at a time where video games weren’t as mainstream as they are today. It was a time where having an interest in computers and video games was something that weird outcasts did, so it didn’t really matter what I liked. The other outcasts and I would talk about whatever games we liked amongst ourselves, and that was pretty much that. We liked a lot of the same games, sure, but we also liked games that the others didn’t, or even that the others had never heard of. But that meant we had more games to try and like or not like as appropriate.

Or maybe it’s because I’m comfortable in forming my own opinions without worrying what other people are going to think. Especially on matters as trivial as the kind of entertainment I like. I realize that this might sound like I’m being preachy or like a chapter out of a self-help book, but I don’t have a problem telling people what kinds of games I like because my friends don’t mind if like something that they don’t. Sure, they might think it’s a little weird that I don’t like the newest Shootymans 3 game or whatever, but I think it’s just as weird that they do like it. Besides, with friends lists, always online consoles, and game collections and activity being on the public Internet, trying to hide a game you’re enjoying playing from your friends is borderline impossible:

Oh, look, I spent 12 hours playing Faerie Solitaire, or I played a video game based on professional wrestling on the Xbox 360, or I imported a cutesy puzzler from Japan to play on my PS3.

So, I’m going to continue on, liking what I want to, and disliking what I want to without feeling bad about it in the slightest or worrying about what other people might think of something as trivial as my preferred video games.

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.