Monthly Archives: January 2015

Opinion – A vision for the future of video games

Let’s all sing Kumbaya and eat nachos!

Video game culture is currently undergoing an identity crises with predictably ugly results.  The battle lines are drawn between the Purists and Social Justice Warriors (SJWs).  Purists see themselves as defenders of the old ways of gaming, and largely reject the social and artistic development that surrounds games.  They wish to preserve video game culture as it was in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s, and see games as “just games”.  The SJWs seek to embrace the notion of games as art and argue they have an obligation to broaden their appeal beyond the traditional bastions of white, male gamers.  SJWs see games as deliverers of messages, not just receptacles of fun.  In this article, I hope to set out my own vision of the future of video game culture.  One that I see as founded on inclusivity and the power of shared interests.

For many gamers who grew up in the 80s and 90s, video games were a beleaguered standard that we loved and defended against societal misunderstanding.  Gamers were classified as “nerds” and our contributions were seen as infantile.  Many of the socially inept among us used video games as a shelter to explore new lands and meet wonderful people without having to interact with social rules we did not understand.  We formed groups of people for whom video games were our shared language and passion.  The school scene may not have understood or liked us, but we had access to worlds they could only dream of.

That time has passed.  Video games can still be a refuge for the isolated and outcasts, but are also accepted and played by much of society.  Some cling to the notion of separation as a source of their identity, but this is now a choice.  Even though the outcast space has diminished, video games can and should be a welcoming culture that seeks to share its love.  Games have diversified to the point that a myriad of audiences can find characters and worlds that they relate to.  There is something for just about everyone.  We should seek to bring others in to both enhance their lives and to enrich gaming culture with a more diverse set of actors.  We should turn gaming culture into a place that defies social exclusion and welcomes those who seek it.  We should never penalize someone for their lack of knowledge or enthusiasm.  We should not degrade those who are different.  We should seek to show others why we love games so much and how the culture as a place for them.

I recently went to MAGfest (Great time, everyone should go) and saw this in action.  I went to see my roommate play in the Triforce Quartet (They are also awesome.  You should love them.) and was joined by my girlfriend, my old roommate/friend, and his fiancé.  Playing to stereotypes, neither of the significant others were gamers nor played many games.  They peaked at Atari 2600.  They are not part of the gaming crowd.  That being said, when my old roommate and I glommed on to an old arcade machine, they went off on their own and found a Pacman cabinet.  They didn’t play long or do well (Ed – I have been informed they got to the third level and, therefore, “did pretty good”), but they had fun.  In the midst of a convention that seemed alien and a culture that was profoundly odd, they found a 35 year old game and had fun with it.  They talked about how they played and shared a bonding moment.  That’s what video games can do.  They can make you forget your troubles, join with others, and enjoy the moment.  It was awesome.

I reject the notion that gamer culture should remain static or that the notion of gamer culture is dead.  Video games culture, like most cultures, changes over time to incorporate new thoughts and (hopefully) new peoples.  I want gamers to continue to embrace the old notion that video games can be a shelter that brings us together.  I want us to recognize that the strongest power our culture has is to find a place for everyone.  And, while we’re doing it, I want us to have fun.

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Opinion – Approaches to Gaming

Observations made behind duck blind.

One of the things I have learned about gaming is that others don’t approach games like I do.  As much as I’d like to believe the world is as obsessed with my favorite hobby as I am, the reality is that very few people closely identify with gaming.  Furthermore, among those that do, they often don’t do it my way.  This article is an attempt to categorize the various approaches I have seen.  For the record, no one approach is better than any other.

Grazer – A grazer enjoys of a large number of games on a fairly superficial level.  Grazers are more concerned about a wide variety of experiences rather than focusing on a particular game or even genre.  New and unique experiences matter more than the development of a concept and heavy skill games, such as those that populate the esports world, aren’t given additional weight due to their depth.  That’s not to say that a grazer doesn’t hone in on a game now and then; it’s just that they aren’t interested in learning a single game as their primary gaming experience.

Disciple – The opposite of the grazer, the disciple plays only a few games, but plays them rigorously.  A disciple wants to know a game inside-out and is willing to devote considerable time to achieving mastery over the game’s many systems.  Disciples gravitate towards high skill games with a heavy focus on gameplay over story or atmosphere.  In fact, the aesthetic qualities of a game can annoy the disciple if those qualities get in the way of gameplay.  Disciples also value game progression as a personal attribute by choosing to see improvement as measured in their own skill rather through story.

Social gamer – The social gamer views video games primarily through the lens of interacting with friends.  For the social gamer, the game acts as a medium through which friends are gathered, stories are shared, and achievements are earned.  The quality of the game is only important insofar as it facilitates that social engagement.  A social gamer certainly wants a fun game, but they may be more swayed by the game that all their friends are playing rather than the game they’ll enjoy most individually.

Nostalgia gamer – Some of the games of the past are excellent and the nostalgia gamer knows it.  They remember the heyday of Mario, Sonic, or [enter favorite game character here] and seek to recapture the magic of a bygone time.  The nostalgia gamer seeks out experiences like the games they fondly remember and strongly values remakes and spiritual successors.  In some situations, the nostalgia gamer may condemn the whole of the modern games scene as degenerate for not reflecting past glories.  As such, the nostalgia gamer is rarely plugged into the most recent developments and likely to drop out of games entirely should the industry stop producing games just like the ones they remember.

Highlander – Highlanders have found their one game or series.  Some odd confluence of events has brought together all their ideal gaming qualities into one perfect package.  A highlander may also seek mastery like a disciple, but they could just as easily be a casual player who happened upon a game that really connected with them.  Highlanders aren’t connected to the gaming world because they really aren’t interested in games beyond their favorite.  In the end, there can be only one game for a highlander.

Observer – Observers know of games, but only through the gamers in their life.  They acknowledge games as a thing and have a few talking points on the topic, but they have decided that games are not for them.  This is not to say that an observer never plays games.  On the contrary, they can occasionally be enticed into a round or two of what their friends are playing.  The difference is that observers have no additional interest.  Video games are things others do, not observers.

There are, of course, many other ways people approach games.  Furthermore, none of these categories are exclusive and they all allow for gamers who switch between them or follow multiple patterns at different times.  Though incomplete, this list shows how varied people’s approaches to games are.  It also suggests that the traditional dichotomy between “casual” and “hardcore” gamers misses considerable nuances.  Gamers look at games beyond just the number of hours they’re willing to invest and the kind of games they play.  Developers, critics, and fans should all appreciate and embrace that diversity.

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Opinion – Cheating and the social contract

Cheaters never prosper…except when they do….which is often.

Most players object to cheating.  Whether through a hack, exploit, or a code, most players object to the idea that their opponent is getting an advantage over them that the game does not allow.  We often see gamers objecting to cheating in single player games as well.  This is interesting as mods or previously agreed upon buffs are generally considered acceptable or even laudable.  The contradiction begs the question, what about cheating do players object too?

One of the most commonly made arguments is that cheating violates the intentions of the developers by affording an advantage they didn’t include in the game.  As this thinking goes, the game is sacrosanct and the developers are the final arbiter of what the experience should be.  With the age of patches and mods, that seems obviously wrong.  Developers are constantly updating their own programs, including basic gameplay changes. Even if they aren’t, the game’s fanbase is.  Mods can extend the life of a game considerably by adding new features, content, or addressing old problems.  In their actions, neither the fans nor the developers consider the initial game sacred.  So what’s the problem with cheating?

The problem is that cheating can violate the social contract between players.  Players pick up a game with the expectation that their opponents are playing with the same benefits and limitations as the game allows.  This forms a basic social contract that allows each player to judge their skill relative to their opponent.  If both players have an equal playing ground, then presumably the best will win.  In addition to skills testing, the denial of cheating appeals to a sense of fairness.  It forces each player to operate under the same constraints and therefore acquire achievements (be they ranking, speed of run, praise, etc) using the same tools.  Players who acquire the achievement with an unearned or granted advantage both achieve a status they have not earned and undermine the value of the achievement for others.  If enough players cheat, then other players cannot trust the achievement, and it becomes worthless.  This is particularly problematic in tournaments where players and viewers need to reasonably expect that what they’re seeing is the result of player skill and not cheat assisted.

The same contract can extend to single player games.  At first blush, cheating in a single player game effects no one.  After all, there are no other players playing said game and therefore no one else relying on the cheater’s input to determine the value of their own achievement.  The problem with this line of thinking is that single player experiences are often shared.  We don’t just play games, we share our stories.  We talk about the awesome things we’ve seen and the amazing things we’ve accomplished.  When someone cheats, particularly if they don’t acknowledge it, they make the comparison less valid.  They attempt to high jack an achievement they didn’t earn and bask in the glory of friend’s praise without the effort.

I’ll give you an example.  In my youth I played Baldur’s Gate 2 concurrently with a friend.  We both got stuck at a dragon until he told me one day that he’d beaten it!  It was easy!  He sat me down and I watched as he took his party, hid in a corner, and attacked the dragon.  The dragon’s AI couldn’t figure out how to get to the corner so it flailed about helplessly as it slowly died to arrows.  My friend was very proud and sought credit for “killing the dragon”, but that wasn’t really the achievement we discussed earlier.  Yes, the dragon died, but he didn’t actually face it.  He didn’t overcome the challenge of the dragon.  He found an exploit, used it, and took down one of the games hardest enemies without having to deal with the parts that made it hard.  Our social contract that conferred praise onto whoever beat the dragon was cheapened by his inclusion of methods that removed the challenge.

This is not to say that cheating is bad.  Also long as all relevant players are on board, cheating can be a great way to enjoy a game.  The problem with cheating is the value established on achievement between players.  When cheating is used to undermine achievements, be they compared skillsets or shared milestones, it breaches the social contract that establishes a hypothetical shared value on certain in game actions.  Without that social contract, the social and comparative parts of the gaming experience mean less and, assuming total breakdown, may be no fun at all.

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Opinion – Wrapping up 2014

Arbitrary rankings for goodness!

2014 has been a bad year for video games.  From the controversy surrounding the Gamergate issue to the rash of overhyped games that failed to deliver, it’s hard to see this year as anything but a failure.  Still, there have been some successes.  In this article, I’ll go through my most disappointing game, but I’ll also highlight three games that show what the year could have been.  Let’s hope 2015 is better.

Most Disappointing Game – Civilization: Beyond Earth

This was a crowded field.  From the disappointing games I played like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Farcry 4 to the others I mostly heard about like Destiny or Assassin’s Creed: Unity, 2014 was chock full of over promises and underdelivering.  Even then, one game stood below the rest.  Civilization: Beyond Earth.  I initially met the announcement of a Firaxis developed space Civilization game with a sense of joy and excitement.  We hadn’t seen a proper successor to Alpha Centauri ever and the premier turn based strategy development house was taking it on!  Unfortunately, the final product proved to be an extension of Civilization’s flaws rather than a proper development of the concept.  Firaxis failed to infuse the game with the story or the strategic depth of its spiritual predecessor.  Even without the comparison, Civilization: Beyond Earth was just a soulless game without much to recommend it.  There were certainly worse games this year, but few failed to live up to their potential like this game.

Best Surprise – Hearthstone

Blizzard Entertainment is one of the most public and successful developers, so it’s hard to say that anything they do is a real surprise.  That being said, a deep, complex collectable card game is incredibly difficult to make and Blizzard had no background in it.  Even without the experience, Blizzard created a fantastic experience in Hearthstone that only the beta players really saw coming.  From the variety of strategies to the slick interface, Hearthstone is the digital successor to Magic: The Gathering.  To be sure, the game has a ways to go.  Blizzard has a great deal of design space to explore, I’m not convinced it has a grasp on how to build cards for arena, and it doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy for rolling out new cards.  That being said, the base game is fantastic and accessible.  We now know that Blizzard has the chops to put together a compelling card game.  The question is whether it has the ability to maintain it.

Best Updates – Crusader Kings 2: Rajas of India, Charlemagne, and Way of Life

Any who have played Crusader Kings 2, know of the game’s ridiculous depth.  Even the vanilla version allows a player to control thousands of Christian leaders across almost 400 years of history.  Had developer Paradox walked away from their 2012 hit, it would have remained a great game.  What makes it truly one of the best is Paradox’s continued commitment to updating and improving CK2.  This year, we saw releases that expanded the world to India, introduced a story line around the Carolingian kings, and created an RPG-lite system for character development.  Paradox made an already deep game even deeper this year and shows no signs of slowing down.  If you haven’t had a chance to play this game, overcome its (admittedly, vicious) learning curve and dive into one of the best strategy titles available.

Game of the Year – Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s telling that my best game of the year is also a heavily flawed one.  DA:I suffers from a number of bugs, odd pacing issues, and a generally uninteresting cast.  Even with its problems, it still provide the most compelling experience of the year.  DA:I is effectively two games.  It combines open world exploration with a dedicated scripted story line with the challenging, complex choices that we’ve come to expect from the Dragon Age series.  More than any game of the year and most games made, DA:I provides a clear sense of the world the player is inhabiting and the people who live in it.  The history, culture, and society are all center stage and intricately woven into the gameplay.  It’s telling that, as much as the first Dragon Age frustrates me, DA:I has tempted me to go back, endure that frustration, and truly make the story my own.

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