“Someone to Watch Over Me: social spectatorship in games” on Nightmare Mode

Over the weekend, I had an essay published on the newly revamped Nightmare Mode. This site is working with a very impressive group of authors, and I’m very humbled to be able to contribute during the first week of their return.

So I hope you’ll take some time to check out “Someone to Watch Over Me: social spectatorship in games”. And while you’re there read some of the other insightful essays from Rachel Helps, Alois Wittwer, and others.

Sometimes it’s okay just to have a good time

A few months ago, I wrote about my decision to purchase a PlayStation 3, even though the device is ostensibly nearing the end of its development cycle. I’ve now had the console long enough to get a good amount of use out of it; after purchasing a few games, I was able to get complimentary access to the Sony’s PlayStation Plus subscription, which allows paying customers full access to a small library of premium games. So far I’ve been very pleased with the service, particularly because it seems to offer the best value for customers who are late purchasers of the console. Several games that I never had the chance to play before owning a PS3 are now available to me, but one in particular has made the Plus membership totally worth it.

While my general approach to writing about videogames has been to find the deeper value and meaning to games, there’s always going to be a place for a game that offers a truly entertaining experience. In the same way that I love Shakespeare, I can also love Harry Potter. I may not see in Harry Potter the same depth and complexity that Shakespeare presents so masterfully, but I still obtain a good deal of enjoyment from J. K. Rowlings’s wonderful world. The same is true for gaming; those of us seeking to encourage a more thoughtful and reflective approach to videogames still revel in the enjoyment of games that are pure fun. For me, I found such a game in Just Cause 2.

skydiving

Don’t worry, pulling your chute at the last second won’t hurt.

I’d never heard of JC2 until I started browsing the free games for PlayStation Plus members. And after playing through the opening tutorial mission, I put it aside for a few months. For some reason that first entry into the world didn’t fully communicate what the game had in store for me. Just last weekend, I decided to return and found myself being totally enthralled with the game’s approach to a sandbox, open-world combat game. The question of the role that cut-scenes and quicktime sequences should play in videogames crops up regularly in essays on games. Never before have I seen a game that so effectively shows how eschewing a cut-scene or quicktime approach to gaming set-pieces doesn’t prevent a game from offering great entertainment value. The best thing about JC2 is that it allows the player to stage and execute their own action sequences. Rather than instructing players what buttons to mash during an epic battle, à la God of War, players of JC2 can make their own epic set pieces come to life. All the tools (toys?) are in the game, it’s up to us to get them out and make some fun.

Since my focus is on writing about videogames, I’m going to simply describe the kind of thing I’m talking about. This is exactly what happened to me when playing the game last night–it was incredible.

I was taking heavy fire, so I ran to the highway and pulled a driver out of his jeep and went tearing down the road, trying to escape my attackers. Unfortunately, they were able to shoot out one of my tires, and my vehicle veered across the median into oncoming traffic. A small sedan was my first victim, we collided and my car went airborne, flipping end over end before rolling off an embankment and hitting a tree, which crashed to the ground. Miraculously, I was unharmed and the car was still operational! It was time for a new escape tactic. Across the highway, the mountains towered above the valley below; I took my jeep into the snowy terrain, heading directly for the cliff ahead. Flying off the edge, I bailed and threw open my parachute (always remember your parachute) and looked down as my jeep tumbled down, down, down into the jungle below, exploding in a magnificent ball of fire.

It was probably one of the most gratifying action sequences I’ve ever experienced in videogames. The grandeur and scale of this one encounter, amounting to only a few minutes of play, completely outweighed, in my mind, anything that any other set-piece or sandbox game has offered. A good player could probably entertain an entire audience of spectators with some incredible moments, all without even tackling the game’s primary missions. What fun!

The Unfinished Swan, Review at Gamechurch

Today my review of the new indie game, The Unfinished Swan, is available on Gamechurch.com. I’m still mulling over the significance of this game, which I think has some profound things to say about creativity and the arts. Needless to say, perhaps, I enjoyed it immensely, and want to go back and play it again multiple times. Like great literature, I think the best games reward and demand replaying.

To find out more, read my review at Gamechurch.

How Do I Structure My Child’s Video Gaming?

Many parents hold to the implicit understanding that video games are little more than a frivolous waste of time. Yesterday The Huffington Post reported on Jane McGonigal’s talk at the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference. McGonigal argued that video games should not be seen as essentially harmful to children, but she did not stop at simply returning video games to a neutral, okay-in-moderation, sort of argument. Indeed, according to the report, she argued that video games have demonstrative positive effects on the children who play them.

On one level, I find this kind of discussion to be largely positive. Part of technological progress involves the initial skepticism, slow acceptance, and eventual reification of particular artistic and creative forms. It happened with the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Novels were initially seen as a silly waste of time, appropriate only for weak-minded women, but this attitude shifted until novels came to be seen as one of the highest literary art forms. So I’m happy to see that an organization that is ostensibly unrelated to the world of video games, and therefore has no vested interest in promoting video games as valuable, is inviting a speaker like McGonigal.

And yet, when it comes to my own daughter, I find myself so easily reverting to the kind of problematic tactics that my parents used. Why can’t you play video games all day? Because it’s not good for you–it rots your brain and makes you lazy. Okay, so maybe I don’t use terms quite so harsh, but the temptation is certainly there. The problem, I’ve discovered, is in translating the values that McGonigal champions, and which I share, to my children in a way that also communicates restraint and moderation.

Right now we have our schedule set up so that she can only play on the weekends. This was the routine that I had growing up, and it seemed to work well. The problem that I’ve been having comes when it’s time to turn something off. Rose isn’t prone to huge temper tantrums, but she often expresses a palpable dissatisfaction with not being allowed to play for extended periods (more than 2 hours) of time. One thing we’ve considered is forcing her to only play for 30 minutes at a time, thereby breaking up the length of a single session. Ultimately, however, I would just like to make sure that she comes to see video games not as the ultimate leisure or entertainment activity, but one particularly enjoyable thing among many other interests. But often it seems like her entire focus throughout the week is honed in on those three days when she can play video games.

Perhaps the answer is to allow brief play sessions throughout the week–but I balk at the idea of using video games as a carrot for homework and the like. In the long run, I’m much more interested in my daughter developing a healthy and balanced attitude toward video games. I wonder what other kinds of restrictions or frameworks gaming parents have given their children. Am I the only one who suffers from a kind of latent anxiety that my devoted interest in video games will somehow mess up my kids? In any case, perhaps the most important thing is to remain connected to my daughter’s game playing, to be observant of how games impact her, and to be flexible with my rules on gaming. Still, striking a balance between healthy moderation, outright prohibition, and unrestricted permissiveness is proving to be more difficult than I expected.

Nintendo 64, Wii U, and Spreadsheets

By the time I was fourteen, I had yet to convince my parents to allow me to have a video game console. Yes, they had caved on the Game Boy years earlier, but a full system was another order of expenditure altogether. So during the Christmas season of 1996, just after the Nintendo 64 launched, my brother and I hatched a scheme to acquire this new piece of technology: we would pay for it ourselves, but as part of the bargain, we had to convince our parents to pay for a few games. We took this proposal to our father, who worked in plastics engineering and had a very systematic approach to these kinds of things, and he made us go back and put together a more formal presentation. In other words, we needed spreadsheets.

This is convincing, right?

So my brother and I hopped on the computer and put together a spreadsheet breaking down how much a Nintendo 64 cost, what each of us would contribute, and how much each of the games would cost. We also needed to affirm that the family’s household video game rules would remain in force (no gaming on school nights), but my father was quick to insert a dispensation for himself, allowing him to play when he liked (a privilege I only recall him exercising once). My parents relented and we were allowed to purchase the system.

The experience of being asked to develop a more professional (for a 14 year-old) approach to making a Christmas gift request has ruined my ability to ask for expensive gifts. Part of me thinks this is a good thing; my parents didn’t want their children to grow up thinking that pricey gifts were a standard part of Christmas. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if their approach was too effective, because I can’t help feeling that it’s somehow wrong to ask for nice things, particularly electronics.

So it was with great fear and trembling that I sent my mother-in-law an email a couple of weeks ago, not long after the Nintendo Wii U pricing announcement in New York.

As you may or may not know Nintendo is releasing a new console in November. The cost is $350, which I know is a sizable sum, but I’m interested in trying to get one for Christmas. There are few points on this that I’d like to mention. First, I can trade in our original Wii (that you gave me a few years back) for a $50 discount at GameStop; our Wii has served us well and still works perfectly. Second, I’d like to make the purchase myself today or tomorrow–with these kinds of product launches, supplies are limited and preordering is often necessary to guarantee getting a unit. So, if you and some other family members are interested, let me know. I would also be happy to put forward some money as well. I’m not very good at asking for big ticket items, so sorry if this sounds like a business proposal.

Notice the ridiculous enumeration of “points”? What an idiot. But in my stage of life (still working on a PhD in literature), the only way a new console comes into my life is either years after its debut or with the help of others. I think that I try to handle my anxiety that this is asking for too much by making the request sound more like a business proposal. But its got to be the most transparent veneer of all time for a straight-up Christmas present request.

My in-laws are wonderfully generous folks, and they said this was fine. But I won’t deny that a sense of guilt or maybe just presumption lingers. Where is the line between asking for something out of a genuine belief in someone’s generosity and a presumption of generosity that preys on others? While I’m delighted to have generous family members, I never want to slip into a pattern of presuming that my desires should be met out of others’ generosity. In some ways, then, perhaps my dad’s insistence on spreadsheets helped to attenuate that tendency. Although it may be a bit early to be writing posts on Christmas, perhaps the spreadsheets have helped to remind me that the generosity of gift-giving is only meant to point us to the infinite generosity represented in the Christmas story.

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