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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Letters to the Internet

Dear Chaos Collage,

I’m so sorry I have neglected you for this long, but I simply could not find the time to write between my job, the fiction piece I am currently working on and the four hours of Street Fighter IV I play per day. Since we have so much to talk about I will do my best to keep this entry well organized and to the point, much like the wonderful entertainment section in my local newspaper.

I. Television

With Batman: The Brave and The Bold on mid season hiatus and new episodes of Battlestar Galactica a thing of the past, I have not been paying much attention to episodic fiction recently. What I have been watching (aside from wrestling) is the wonderful “reality” based programming on Spike TV. This includes such shows as Vice Cops Uncut (which is of course very cut), DEA and the new king of Discovery Channel style investigation, Deadliest Warrior. What historical investigation could be more satisfying than one focused on how adept different warriors from different eras would be at killing each other. Have you ever wondered how a Viking would fair against a Samurai? Me too! Finally, we have a resource to find out! What a relief.

II. Movies

…So, Drag Me to Hell comes out in May. Okay, so we aren’t in 2008 anymore and things have slowed down. I guess that writer’s strike finally hit cinemas. The aggravatingly disappointing Watchmen came as quite a downer, probably the first film I was truly disappointed with since before the release of Iron Man. Aside from a couple of decent comedies, it looks like things won’t be picking back up until the edge of June with Sam Raimi’s return to horror Drag Me To Hell. From there we have numerous films to look forward to such as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek and Quentin Tarantino’s long awaited Inglorious Basterds (I know how to spell, that’s just the name of the movie). With these films on the horizon and promises of Iron Man II, Green Lantern and Stallone’s The Expendables for 2010, I’m sure we can make it through The Revenge of the Fallen and The Rise of Cobra. In order to keep hope alive, I will provide a trailer to watch and enjoy.

III. Those Comic Books that rot your brain and/or turn you into a Commie.

Bruce Wayne is gone and it is all Grant Morrison’s fault. He’s not dead though, just gone for the time being. I will not spoil  his replacement for the following reasons A) I think this story will be better if its integrity is kept intact and B) I have no idea who his replacement will be. What I do know, without ruining it for the TPB crowd, is it seems like it won’t be Tim. On the other side of the DCU, the lead-up to Blackest Night is picking up and boy does it look like its going to be good. Geoff Johns’ events lack the rarely deserved self importance of Mark Millar’s or the progressively less satisfying introspection of Bendis’ big story work. Both Morrison and Johns posses the rare ability to not only create inventive plots for beloved characters, but to distill what made us love them in the first place. It is this difference that has defined the best of DC in recent months. That said, Marvel has perhaps the 3rd best writer for this, Ed Brubaker. Both Daredevil and Captain America have rarely missed a beat since his run began and the stories are far from small.  On the Mighty Marvel side, Norman Osborn has taken control of the United States and things are not pretty. I mean this in both a philosophical and editorial sense. Yes, great books that deal directly with the issue are coming out (Thunderbolts being the strongest at the moment, though I have a soft spot for the in-continuity Punisher) but there are way too many stunt books or books that are becoming stunt books (Bad Avengers, sorry I meant Dark Avengers, Mighty Avengers, New Avengers, Avengers: The Initiative, Dead Avengers, X-Avengers, Bad X-Avengers, X-Forcevengers, The Secret Avenger-Defenders, The Force Works Avengers, Two-Gun Kid and His Westvengers, Iron Man and The Reb-Bot Avengers, Rick Jones’ Rockin Avengers and of course Kevin Smith’s Late Avengers Annual). Okay, I made most of those up, but you get my point. Yes, events are made to be exploited but when you can’t even keep continuity between books referring to the same events, you really need to slow down. Take that sales department! On a happier note, all three of the IDW GI Joe books are a lot of fun and should counter act the damage the upcoming film may do to my brain. Dynamite’s current licensed properties and Ennis’ The Boys are still kicking monthly.

IV. Rasslin’

WWE’s Wrestlemania was worse than the next night’s Raw, TNA is a joke and ROH appears to be rotting from the inside. I unfortunately have very little to say aside from that. I am seriously disappointed in both the E and TNA’s inability to create great product with fantastic rosters. In happier news, it looks like there will be a new Hart Foundation on ECW.

V. Music

Typically I isolate an aspect of music or the music industry through an artistic lens, but for this entry I figured being more practical would be better. What I would like to note is the amazing amount and quality of live music hitting the New York/ New Jersey Area in the next few months. Aside from the big guns like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello hitting the road, the area (which is the home of both writers on this blog) will also be hosting such acts as Jenny Lewis (Music Hall of Williamsburg, June 9th), The Get Up Kids (Blender Theater, May 1st) on their reunion tour and hometown boys done good, The Hold Steady (Bowery Ballroom, June 8th & 9th-Music Hall of Williamsburg, June 10th and 11th). Even Green Day will be playing a theater show this spring (no, I don’t know when and I can’t get you tickets). In addition to these exciting travelin’ troubadours, local act The Neutron Drivers will be hitting the Big Apple’s famed Knitting Factory on April 30th. I hear there’s even a free sandwich and cheap beer for the die-hard early crowd.

Well, that’s it for now. Hopefully I will come up with some amazing insight for my next piece.

Love,

Vinny

Vinny’s Unrelated Video Post of the Week!

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We Apologize For The Delay

Dear Readers,

Due to an abundance of time-consuming offline activity, we here at Chaos Collage have been unable to sit ourselves down and get angry about anything. However, after a bit of a shotgun meeting last week, Vinny and I have agreed that we will resume our righteous rants as soon as possible.

Thanks for understanding.

-Alex

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Irony!

It’s been one of those days where I find myself slumped in front of the monitor. This widescreen, twenty-two inch Samsung behemoth is supposed to make things like blogging easier – it gives me more room to lay out work and organize windows so I don’t have to click back and forth between tasks. Yes, it should be a marvel of technology, but somehow it isn’t. Instead, I’m staring at two mostly blank Word documents, full-sized and side by side, with barely an idea passing through my mind. What used to be a potential twenty-two inches of pure productivity now seems a poster sized monument to writer’s block.

Frustration; mind-numbing boredom; a lack of fresh ideas – these are a writer’s worst enemies, so I don’t think I can fully blame the monitor for my troubles. I’ve stared at it for long enough, though, and come to one very big realization. I hate staring at it!

Modern technology is pervasive. I spend an inordinately large amount of time glued to some kind of screen every day. When I wake up in the morning, my waking urge is to open Firefox and check Google News for the day’s headlines, then use my handy extension Brief to keep up with my favorite RSS feeds. Whenever I’m in transit – whether by walking, subway, bus or train, I have an iPod plugged into my ears and a fixed gaze on the two-inch screen trying to decide if I’m feeling progressive enough for Yes or mellow enough for Brian Eno. On those weekends away from my main computer, that gaze is simply shifted to my smaller laptop screen. All that’s missing from this strikingly Orwellian nightmare is someone staring back at me on the other end (although that may already be the case).

Is it that scary, though? Part of me enjoys being wired into the world through computer screens. Take, for example, my awesome (read: better-than-yours) Samsung SyncMaster. It’s pretty to look at, takes up very little desk space, and is basically perfect for viewing anything: documents, images, video, and games – it all gets displayed in immaculate color. It has enough real estate to display full-sized documents and web pages side by side, with room left over for my IM client- all that, plus it’s clean and energy efficient.  Any item on this screen comes across so vibrantly that it’s become difficult to peel myself away from it.

As lost as I can get in the verdant greens of my desktop wallpaper, I also know what a double edged sword the display is. It is useful for my projects and hobbies, but sometimes I can barely see past its high walls and into the physical world. It’s dominating, and leaves me wondering what might be happening on the other side.

How many of us are stuck behind it? What happened to face-to-face conversation? What has the ‘civilized’ world come to when half our conversations now happen through Facebook and instant messaging? Are we so busy that going for a walk in the park once a week no longer fits into our schedules? Do we shun old friends because they haven’t texted us in forever? Earth still exists, and physical conversations still happen, but the convenience of technology has lessened the burden on our bodies, the burden that used to force us to pick up the newspaper every day, or go out and buy a book or a magazine. More often than not, our fingers are situated on a mouse and keyboard when we could be walking outside, enjoying the sensation of the bitter cold or the smell of the approaching spring. Technology hasn’t completely done away with personal interaction, it’s just cheapened it.

The internet, cell phones, and even television are all supposed to enhance our lives, making the things we’ve always done better in some way. They shouldn’t replace communication and relationships. Just to be clear – I’m not renouncing technology (though after a healthy dose of Battlestar, I often wonder if I should). I recognize how the web and its many facets keep families and friends in touch, and help tie the world together in a very real way. My gripe (which I place both on myself and on others) is that by allowing technology to encroach so much on our lives, we allow the precious little time we have with the living, natural world to slip away.

Now, for you Twitter-fiends who want everything in a nutshell, I’ll make my advice simple. Quit staring at your screen for a while. Go ride a fucking bike.

-Alex

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For Artists

In most occupations the question of responsibility is easily answered. A doctor must ensure the safety and health of their patients to the best of their ability. A scientist must pursue the physical truths of the universe with the greatest accuracy possible. A teacher must support their students in their pursuit of knowledge and provide the structure necessary to do so. Even with this seeming occupational clarity, there is one question which haunts some of us daily: What is the responsibility of the artist in the modern world? That condition of “modern” is very important to this piece; the rise of the internet has so drastically increased the world’s access to art that it cannot be ignored as a passing factor. What is the modern artist to do?

As with any piece such as this, I find it essential that I define our subject. In this case I would define an artist as a creator of entertainment or intellectual enrichment. This would include music, literature, graphic art, physical pieces and filmed pieces. Obviously quite a few specialties fall in between or are combinations of those qualifications, and they should be counted as well. What should not be counted is creativity in more practical professions. For example, there is a certain art to creating new medical equipment, a type of thought that innovates to serve directly. However, because its ultimate goal is to serve the health of the public and not to enrich intellectually, it is not part of this argument.

Amongst the few of us that have the mental disease that forces us to create instead of doing something more obviously useful to society, I have noticed a pattern. Artists are not only interested in their own area of work, but typically have very strong and educated opinions in other areas of art. This is evident throughout much of history as many great thinkers and artists have delved into other territory. Furthermore, most artists seem to have an attraction to philosophy and in turn, history and politics. This is completely logical as art uses all these things as a framework to deliver its message. While in earlier civilizations this was also linked to science and math, we have advanced far enough to separate the theoretical side of thought from that of direct scientific pursuit. Additionally, the modern artist has all of this information at their fingertips, making these varied artistic pursuits that much more complete.

For the purposes of this piece, I ask you to accept that artists in general are good at this type of theoretical thought. It is because we are good at it that we also enjoy it (ok, we enjoy it for other reasons too, but work with me). Though I am a writer and wish to do that for the rest of my life, I also invest quite a bit of time and thought in other forms of art without any promise or hope of turning that into an economic pursuit. That is a big factor in why Alex and I started this blog in the first place. This information is important and it must be preserved and spread. That is the first piece of the responsibility an artist holds.

Last Spring I attended a college radio conference and was treated to a lecture by Public Enemy front man Chuck D. While he told many stories and dispensed many opinions on the state of hip hop, he made two big points that have stuck with me. The first was that it is the responsibility of the artist to pursue information, you can’t expect to be handed anything and if you aren’t enthusiastic enough to put the effort in you should find something else to do with your life. The other was the responsibility of the artist to educate the public on that which they love. Specifically, he spoke on how the fall of the radio DJ has diminished the public’s knowledge of music. With no one to guide them to their next record, or perhaps the preceding record, most people simply do not put in the effort to find new music. In this case, artists are simply not being paid for their skills.

We all need to put food on the table, and one can certainly do so by creating art. Though even commercial art can be of great value to society, I believe the artist owes society something more than that. If we are equipped to think in a different way than most, it is our responsibility to provide these inquests to the general public. This responsibility should not only include our personal area of focus, but any other topics we are well versed in. Our skills may not seem to be needed on a daily basis, but they contribute in many important ways. Art often comments on the philosophical and political state of society. This adds another layer of responsibility; the artist must keep up on the overall state of the world, even beyond art. How could one effectively comment on a society that they don’t understand? Not that this would be a burden, as I stated prior this tends to be an area of interest for artists regardless.

This is not to say that those who are not artists have nothing to contribute, society would completely collapse without the more practically minded. A world populated by only artists would not be able to sustain itself for long. What I am saying is that the gift/curse an artist holds can be used to enrich the lives of the world. We are the stewards of free thought, it is our responsibility to preserve and enrich as many aspects of art as we can, because not everyone cares enough to do so.

Vinny’s unrelated video pick of the week!

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Lyrical Miracles

This is a companion piece to Alex’s last post and the first of many shorter, less prose based posts on here. I’ll save most of my words for this weeks big post. Without further ado,  here are my top 5 songs-lyrically speaking.

5. Jenny Lewis- Godspeed

I first started listening to Rilo Kiley because it was a band featuring the girl from “The Wizard” and Pinksy from “Salute Your Shorts”. I now  listen to Rilo Kiley (and Jenny Lewis in general) because I believe John Lennon whispers in Jenny’s ear as she sleeps. As with much of this list, Lewis’ strength is beauty in the simple but direct nature of her words.

4. David Bowie- Life on Mars?

In my opinion, this is Bowie at his best. Bowie combines his story telling ability with an otherworldly vocal, creating a masterpiece both musically and thematically. I am not sure how well this song would have worked if released by another artist, but it surely would pale in comparison to what we have.

3. Oasis- Don’t Look Back in Anger

I have a problem with songs I don’t really believe in, that may be what turns me away from metal and other genres which seem to exaggerate emotion without a pre-existing acknowledgment of the songs unreasonable nature. For me to love a song, I need to believe that the artist is trying to express something real in their music. While I have no idea what this song is about, I believe it’s about something.

2. John Lennon-Real Love

My absolute favorite love song. The fact that this went unreleased in Lennon’s life time is a sad reminder of what we lost.

1.  Bob Dylan-Positively 4th Street

The superior musical cousin of “Like A Rolling Stone”, “4th Street” is for anyone who has found themselves separating from people who once seemed like their friends. Though many vapid pop songs lay claim to the theme of moving on, this piece actually speaks to that emotion.

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Medicinal Music

If it wasn’t evident already, I’m not a huge fan of mainstream music. In a couple of my earlier posts, such as “If It’s Not On The Radio” and “The Mass Market Music Blues”, I discussed my general negativity towards cookie-cutter pop music, and why the artists the mass media doesn’t promote are probably better than the ones it does. All very interesting, right?

In any case, it didn’t allow much room for me to gush about what I like. And though I could talk about Zakk Wylde prancing around stage until I’m blue in the face, I think a little variety in post-types could add another dimension to the Chaos Collage. With that, I give you my first list!

Five instrumentals to un-funk your day!

Note: Links to all songs included – plus some extras!

5. Pink Floyd – Any Colour You Like

Believe it or not, I got into Pink Floyd by listening to Dream Theater. After ‘discovering’ progressive rock, I got my hands on all kinds of albums, some of them including bootlegs of Dream Theater concerts. One of those albums was a cover of “Dark Side of The Moon” in its entirety. They really managed to stay true to the original, even with the added embellishments on the synthesizer and guitar. Both versions have their charm, but what remains the same is the spacey, floating first half that transitions into a lilted guitar solo. By the end I always feel like my head has popped out from underwater and I’m taking in a fresh breath. Not too many songs can claim that.

Dream Theater’s Cover

4. Bela Fleck & The Flecktones – The Sinister Minister

There is little chance I’d know of or appreciate this tune if it weren’t for my beardless bass-playing ex-roommate. He just wouldn’t shut up about bassists like Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten, and eventually I found myself bobbing my head along to their smooth lines without even realizing it. “The Sinister Minister” is an odd, but endearing blend of instruments that sets an equally odd scene in my mind. The beginning of this reminds me of boredom – kicking around a can on a perfectly sunny afternoon. As the song picks up, that can is kicked into the wrong person’s yard – a person with no love of idle passers-by, and an affinity for shotguns. It gets my mind (and my legs) moving.

3. Bear McCreary – Black Market

Have I mentioned that I love the new Battlestar Galactica? Well, now that I have, I’ll also say that the show’s original score is probably the best I’ve ever heard on television. Composer Bear McCreary takes elements from various forms of ethnic music – Asian, Middle Eastern, Celtic, and so on, blending them into extremely exciting, dynamic pieces that add more to the show than I thought possible. “Black Market” is his take on what a rock song might sound like in the Battlestar universe. It certainly fits that bill, but the use of ethnic instruments allows the song to feel much farther away than it is. The haunting melody builds up into a distorted explosion of guitars, taking you for a journey before leaving you right back where it began. All this has happened before, and all this will happen again, indeed.

Black Market, Live Version

2. Paco De Lucia – Rio Ancho

If a type of music was capable of physically moving a person from a humdrum life to an idyllic spot somewhere along the ocean, flamenco would be it. This tune has a way of making me forget the cold weather and the endless concrete canyons outside my window. I think the music calls attention to itself, if only because it places complexity and accessibility side by side. Playing flamenco requires a lot of practice and even more natural talent, but I don’t think anyone needs a musical ear or an understanding of the culture around flamenco music to enjoy it. Also, where the first three songs all shift lower moods to higher ones, Rio Ancho stays consistent, reflecting its intent as a dance piece. Besides, what better way to escape a lousy mood than by going somewhere foreign?

1. Paul Gilbert – Radiator

Ah, Mr. Gilbert. For anyone that knows me, it’s probably no surprise that he found his way to the number one slot. “Radiator” is off of Paul’s first instrumental album Get Out Of My Yard, which catapulted him onto the stage with other great guitarists of our time, like Steve Vai and John Petrucci. I suppose I’m biased since I saw him play this in the flesh, but I’ve always loved the song for having true rock n’ roll attitude with an underscoring of hopeful sadness. There is a constant struggle between hoping and doing that sets this song apart from the others I’ve listed – the playing is raw and conflicted. Where the first four were escapist, this is more personal. Paul’s playing shifts these emotions around, not letting either one gain the upper hand until the solo section when the attitude takes over for good. The urge one gets at the end is simple – Wake up. Go. Do.

There you have it. Readers, feel free to list and/or suggest your own rainy day music!

-Alex

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