Category Archives: Gaming

You’re Only as Worthless as the Games You Play

or Learn By Fragging: Part II

Like books, television and movies, games have become an excellent way (if they’re done properly) to convey complex ideas and develop useful skills. But how can a kid explain to their nagging parents that a game actually does something beneficial for them? The prevailing notion (among parents/naysayers/disinterested politicians) is that most games lack social and intellectual value. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Why shouldn’t games teach as well as entertain? To explore this idea a bit, I’ll break games down into a few basic, popular genres and discuss some of their more practical and intellectual implications.

First Person Shooter: Since the release of Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, and later Doom, the FPS genre has become an important staple in gaming. Originally they were nothing more than run n’ gun marathons with very little in the way of plot; one was basically told that for whatever reason, an unholy army of the night was running wild, and it was up to you, the player, to wipe out every last pig-man.

Of course, as technology progressed, so did the complexity of the games, and the basic plots were replaced by well written and appropriately paced stories. Through games like Call of Duty (and its many sequels), we’ve managed to catch believable glimpses of World War II, frantically moving from cover to cover and dealing with the deaths of some very convincing characters. BioShock’s dystopian city Rapture was a playground for cautionary tales about genetic therapy, mind control and what happens when rich people are allowed to do whatever they want. Story has replaced what used to be games that only threw ever-more-difficult waves of monsters at you.

There are also team-based games like Counter-Strike, the Battlefield series, Left 4 Dead, that all encourage, and in many cases require players to communicate and work together in order to have the most fun with the game. If effective cooperation isn’t one of the most important aspects of being human, I don’t know what is. Yes – we can get all that from a game.

Role Playing: I wasn’t officially introduced to RPG’s until a friend of mine started playing Final Fantasy VII, and after getting a taste of the story, I was hooked. My father asked me once what the fun of essentially playing through a book was, and at the time I couldn’t come up with a good answer. Now, though, it’s much clearer. If shooters are interactive movies, that makes RPG’s interactive novels. They’re designed to be longer, more intricate, with more characters and more dialogue.

A good RPG gives players the option to make decisions that impact the way characters react to them, and ultimately the way the game’s story plays out. The actual story content in an RPG takes on a big role, whereas many shooters can get away with delivering their message, but being short and overly driven by special effects.

Take the original Knights of the Old Republic, for example. BioWare captured the essence of Star Wars in a game that takes longer to play through than it would to watch all six movies. The characters are fleshed out in painstaking detail. Side-quests reward the player for delving deeper into the story and the overarching tale is so compelling that I wished it never ended. Even if the game is just another Star Wars story, it’s still a good story, with all the trappings of self discovery and the individual’s battle between light and dark.

Open-ended RPG’s like Oblivion are also important. It offers many quest lines, allowing the player the freedom to decide what kind of person they want to be. They can answer the question, “What would I be like as an evil mage?” or “What would the life of an honorable thief be like?”. Sure, these questions will only be answered in relation to the game, but the fact that the game is open enough to allow players that kind of latitude in decision-making shows that some games do, in fact, challenge us to think.

Strategy: I’ll discuss two types here: real time and turn based. While many titles have strived to provide the player with compelling stories (ala Starcraft and every hammy cut-scene from the Command & Conquer series), the meat comes from thinking through a situation.

Unfortunately, single-player campaigns in RTS games tend to be short and the missions predictable. This leaves skirmish modes and multiplayer to make up for the lack of game play, and though RTS’s should be applauded for letting the player create his or her own strategy, competitive matches end up being won by the person with the best, fastest build-order and the quickest clicks – not thinking on one’s feet. Some have taken steps towards fixing this problem, like last year’s Sins of a Solar Empire, which added empire-building elements and slowed the pace of the game to make strategy, rather than rushing, the necessity.

Turn-based strategy titles, however, have always been the ultimate thinker’s game. Sid Meier’s Civilization series gives players the opportunity to lead many of the Earth’s greatest nations from the Stone Age all the way to modern times. The player makes all the decisions here: when, where, why and how to build a city, raise an army, declare war, sue for peace, make/break alliances, and so on. And though it doesn’t teach history, a recent article on Kotaku suggests that its value is in “understanding the dynamics of history.”

Tell that to your parents, kids, and you might win your gaming habit some credibility.

Honorable Mention

Sports – I don’t think sports games really have anything they can “teach” us, especially when picking up a basketball and playing outside way more worth the effort. However, a good sports title embodies the spirit of competition, and if played with friends is almost always fun and exciting (memories of late-night NHL 98’ abound), and when played in teams, can foster an environment of cooperation and coordination, at least on a small scale.

Dishonorable Mention:

Author’s Note: Due to popular sentiment against the tone of this section, please note: I recognize the fun aspect of “Guitar Hero”-type games and their social connotations. This is only a counter-point to the rest of the piece. The point: some games have something we can take away on an intellectual or cultural level; other games are just fun – which is fine. It’s also meant jokingly, as I mistakenly thought the “Dishonorable Mention” title would convey. If you are offended or surprised, I apologize in advance. You have been warned.

Rhythm – Ah, the so-called rhythm genre. On the one hand are games like Dance Dance Revolution, which at the very least requires players to stand up, stomp their feet and raise their heart rate. Exercise is important, and if DDR can get kids off their lazy bums, it’s a good thing.

Then we come to Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Don’t get me wrong – I love rock music and I think having a good sense of rhythm is important – if you intend to use it. Rhythm is important for dancers, musicians, and having sex. I have a feeling that most Guitar Hero nerds are doing none of that.

Really – it’s just song after song of clicking buttons and flipping a picking switch. Oh, you got the highest score? Great. Does that mean you can shred like Kirk Hammet? No. Does it mean you’re making millions of dollars? No. Does it mean you have any real musical talent or understanding? No. It means you can push buttons, hit drum pads or sing (probably off key) at just the right time.

Want to feel special? Pick up a real instrument.

-Alex

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Learn By Fragging

Online gaming can make you a less self-centered douche!

Since Vinny and I began this little ‘project’, all of my posts have dealt with my observations and feelings on music – i.e. what I like, what I don’t; where I think popular music is going, and so on. That’s all well and good, but a comment on my last post (Paul Picks Up The Pieces) reminded me that I’ve got plenty more to say about our multifaceted 21st century culture. As such, I will stick with something I know – something cozy and close to my heart: the endless killing fields of multiplayer online gaming.

Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of squeezing the trigger on a plastic light gun, vainly attempting to kill ducks flying across the small screen in my bedroom. My hand/eye coordination in those days was pretty atrocious, so when I actually took one of the quacking bastards out it was cause for celebration. For the time, it was a blast, but the limitation was how solitary my joy was.

The problem: single player games rewarded you with an ending and games with a 2-4 person multiplayer mode usually had you competing against the other players for a high score. Plus, it didn’t extend farther than one room and one television screen. Mario and Luigi could take turns doing ‘shrooms and making passes at the princess, or if you were cool enough to have friends, you could get a 4-player game of Goldeneye going in your living room. You’d play a few rounds, make fun of the dorky kid who constantly blew himself up with the rocket launcher, then have to stop playing because Mom asked you to explain why Jimmy was in the corner crying. (Who the hell invited him anyway?) When it was game over, you compared scores, and that was it.

Now, a couple decades later, games have skyrocketed in terms of content and complexity, but there’s still one ultimate goal that developers strive to give the player: the feeling of validation one gets after a job well done. That can be accompanied by the gnawing pain of defeat when one’s performance wasn’t up to par – but then, what would games teach us if we always won?

The big difference in 21st century gaming is that a game’s “ending” or getting the best score are no longer the primary points of validation. They’re still part of it, but the most important focus of modern gaming is that feeling you get after capturing the last flag with your squad of 12 through the use of combined arms and superior teamwork. Games have always been goal oriented, but now instead of the Doom one-man-army approach, there’s the Day Of Defeat U.S. Army approach. Gaming is no longer just an escape. If you play from the right perspective, it can be an exercise in humanity.

For simplicity’s sake (and because I have the most experience with them), I’ll only discuss online FPS-type (First Person Shooter) games. To be clear, I will say that many single-player shooters should absolutely be praised for their ability to tell stories, create suspense, and just be fun, but replaying the same campaign over and over will never be as fun as playing on a server full of human players with human advantages and human flaws.

For instance, Half-Life 2 was an excellent piece of gaming and storytelling. HL2: Deathmatch is the multiplayer component of the game, and while it has the expected fragfest-type game play, none of them hold a candle to Counter-Strike’s objective based play, or Day Of Defeat’s territorial tug of war.

I suppose a counter argument might be that circle-strafing a few newbs and racking up kills is a fun way to blow off some steam, but I can’t see how that feeling could last for very long. It’s just point-click, point-click, and repeat. Is it therapeutic? Maybe. But is it mentally satisfying? No.

Where is the tactical depth? Where is the communication? Where’s the suspense of trying to desperately defend the last flag and turn the game around? Racking up kills just doesn’t hold up against a game where relying on your teammates is the path to victory (though playing with a good team and losing anyway is rewarding in a certain way, too.)

I see it every time I log onto a DoD server: one person is the machine gunner, suppressing the enemy team, another is a rifleman picking off targets from long-range, while a third is assaulting a position and capping a flag. Now and then there’s the guy who runs off by himself, trying to be a hero, but his inability to be a team player puts everyone but the enemy at a disadvantage.

Okay, so maybe you’re still wondering what the hell I’m getting at. Yes, I prefer online FPS games where cooperation is paramount to success. But, there is actually an underlying social/cultural importance. (What? Games are culturally relevant?!)

Co-op online gaming is challenging a generation of people to work with players they don’t know and wouldn’t necessarily associate with in pursuit of a common goal. Sure, the goal may be artificial, but the underlying lesson is that “pwning” (while sometimes fun) is much less important than having the ability to effectively think, communicate and work with other people.

So, next time you see a teammate shooting at Nazi’s, be a friend – give him some covering fire.

-Alex

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