Tag Archives: pop culture

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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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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Keep An Eye On Your Music

Stage presence and its effect on you!

Old habits die hard, isn’t that right? Well, it applies to this week’s post pretty well, for two reasons. The first, I’m falling back into comfortable territory by writing something music-related. Sorry readers, but I tried with “Learn By Fragging” and though it was fun to write, I’m going to wait a while longer before writing about gaming again.

The other old habit I’m talking about is my propensity towards listening to heavy metal. My musical tastes have matured way beyond my expectations and now my iTunes is filled with varying genres of rock and roll, jazz and jazz fusion, classical, folk; anything you can think of. I come by it honestly, too – I’ve never felt the need to ‘like’ something just to culture myself. But I somehow always find my way back to the shredders I worshiped in high school, though not because my tastes have devolved. After listening to some of those tracks again, I found something new.

My fixation of late came after stumbling upon a live performance of Ozzy’s “Bark at the Moon” on YouTube. It was the type of song I used to load up when I felt the need to head-bang or tune out my thoughts. I’m sure it would still have that effect if I were in the right state of mind, but after actually watching this performance I noticed something wholly different than aggression and torment (Ozzy’s transparent lyrics aside, of course) – I found energy, and positive energy at that.

I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. “Bark at the Moon” is a fast song with rhythm that never really lets up; the drums and bass are constantly driving the song forward. The guitar is also ever-present with its staccato chord progressions and dizzying solo passages. But just listening isn’t enough, and I have definitive proof:

Mr. Your-Body-Is-A-Wonderland John Mayer once experimented (see linked video) with musical “kinetics” by playing Van Halen’s “Panama” whilst standing in place, just to see how much it would rock. It didn’t. Aside from proving that he’s a moron, he demonstrated that motion and the quality of a live performance are directly related; one cannot go without the other, at least where bands are concerned.

Therein lies the gooey, happy center of this Ozzy song, and it isn’t that creepy bat-eating skeleton hovering in the middle of the stage. I like Ozzy, but he’s not the world’s greatest front man, and the onslaught of arthritis seems to have put an end to his on-stage antics. It’s the musicians he surrounds himself with that make up for it by throwing body and soul into their performances. These guys steal the show.

In the back we see Mike Bordin pounding out the beat on his drums like the song is never going to be played again. When the camera actually cuts to his face the intensity is really visible. Some might call that his metal face, but all I see is passion and focus. The same goes for Rob Trujillo (now of Metallica fame) – his body constantly swaying in time, his feet stomping on the stage when the heavy notes of the bridge hit; he is the perfect image of a musician connected to the circular experience of playing for a crowd. It might look metal, but the intention is to transfer his energy and passion to the crowd in a palpable way.

And how could I forget Zakk Wylde? Firstly, I have to say that his down-tuned version of the song really adds some crunchy weight that the original recording just didn’t have. The guitar here sounds bigger – but that’s technical stuff.  As far as performance goes, he adds an otherworldly touch to the scene on stage. He’s the image of a Norse warrior, leaning back with his guitar (in place of an axe, of course), made complete by his long blond hair and beard. He tosses his head back at those moments where the music hits a crescendo or changes suddenly, acting as a visual and quite visceral representation of the music for the audience.

Put these three together, and they completely counteract the effects of the black hole that is Ozzy Osbourne and his immobility. And if the shots of the audience are any evidence, they’ve done their jobs admirably.

Music is meant to be heard and felt no matter the setting, but the feeling needs to be multiplied for live performances. Technique and playing ability are all well and good, but if a musician can’t convey the passion in their music to an audience, then they’ve failed. Metal is a good example because of how visible that passion is, though even then it’s often easy to miss.

If you’re looking to give an old song new meaning, though – find a live performance on YouTube. Then listen with your eyes.

-Alex

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The Empire Strikes…second?

[Insert “First blog post!” type exclamation here.]

Cue the applause. I’ve finally placed my own foot inside the warm, wet and slippery world of digital media. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. I’ve been using what the Web 2.0 has to offer, to a certain degree, at least. I use RSS feeds to keep a steady stream of news filling my Firefox sidebar. I look up videos on YouTube to satiate desires for laughter, excitement, curiosity, musical fulfillment, etc. And now, at long last, I’m going to let the thoughts I have about things like news articles and YouTube videos, among other things, materialize onto a blog – this blog. Go figure.

Firstly, in response to what Vincent, my esteemed colleague, wrote in his post earlier today (and this is with the utmost sarcasm) – thank you, I am an upstanding gentleman. Secondly, I share in his discomfort with the term “blog”. The format itself isn’t all that new or unfamiliar, but it certainly does carry along with it certain negative connotations that I think we will attempt to avoid.

This isn’t a LiveJournal – we won’t be discussing who, within our personal circles, did or said what. We will not discuss personal feelings; feelings are for pussies, no offense intended. Of course, if personal feelings involve relevant subject matter – readers can expect that at some point I will gush over this guitar player or that.

That said, this is a place to criticize. This is a place where I can flex my writing muscles without fear, as Vinny put it, of constant submission and revision. That is something I can leave for my graduate writing workshop classes, where I’m allowed, and even encouraged to get high and mighty about craft, plot threads and stories about my drunken ex-roommates. Here, I can write some good old fashioned, in-your-face articles, posts, rants, criticisms, reviews – whatever you want to call them, for the sake of writing them. And if I’m lucky, you might even be entertained.

Tune in next time, when we begin the figurative pummeling (or perhaps praising) of something someone else likes.

~Alex

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