Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Game For The Religious And Ignorant

The real-time strategy game based on the Left Behind books has been generating interest on the web for some time and it is finally out. When I first heard about this game, I was willing to keep an open-ish mind. I love plenty of games that draw their stories from crazy, nonsense mythology (Legend of Zelda, God of War), so why not dig on some crazy Christian myths?

Well, Gamespot has a review up, and they suggest a good reason not to play the game: it sucks. I can't say I'm shocked. But I was a bit surprised to see that the game delivers some totally ignorant, intelligent-design-friendly nonsense. Check out this screenshot from the Gamespot review. I guess if you are willing to entertain the idea that the Rapture is possible, well, all bets are off when it comes to a reasoned, rational understanding of the world.

Could this be the first game that I would never want my children to play?

[UPDATE: In order to reduce the smugness level of this post a bit, I thought I'd point out that some Christian groups oppose the Left Behind game because it "mangles biblical prophecy and promotes religious intolerance and violence," according to this story from the Florida Times-Union.]


Third Is The New Black

Nintendo dominated my childhood. Atari was my first love, but Nintendo swept me away to new, vibrant game worlds. I’m still a little sad that a Nintendo console is not at the top of the videogame pile. Although I gots love for all the systems, I guess I have a little bit of a fanboy lurking within.

In this week’s New Yorker (12/4/06), James Surowiecki devotes his Financial Page column to Nintendo’s lucrative spot at third place in the console “wars”. The essay, “In Praise of Third Place,” declares Nintendo a “cool third-party candidate” in the console contest. So what does that mean for Wii?

Surowiecki sees Sony and Microsoft as being locked in a “classic arms race” for more sublime graphics and more non-game functionality like next-gen video, a race that Nintendo has dropped out of. Sony loses something like $250 on every PS3 it sells due to the expensive super-technology inside, while Nintendo, apparently, makes money on the Wii.

The question for me is: what will the gamers gravitate to, better graphics or innovative controls? Because where the gamers go, so do the games. More dreck, sure, but more good games, as well. Can the Wii pull something like that off? Surowiecki writes:

Nintendo knew that it could not compete with Microsoft and Sony in the quest to build the ultimate home-entertainment device. So it decided, with the Wii, to play a different game entirely. Some pundits are now speculating, ironically, that the simplicity of the Wii may make it a huge hit.
After the Gamecube, I’m a little skeptical about the huge hit. But the DS has been great, so I have my fingers crossed.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Monsters Of Nostalgia

Friends and regular readers of The Aspidistra (I really think those categories are completely overlapping) will know I have a strong nostalgic streak and I love monsters. Can I possibly describe the pangs of sweet nostalgia this website elicits? Scores of wonderful monster toys from the '60s through the '90s. My brother and I owned more than a few from the '70s and '80s.

I'll try to compile a list of those I either had or played with when I was little and put it in the comments. Readers are invited to do the same.

[via boingboing]


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Sky Was Not Falling

Andrew Revkin, a science reporter at the New York Times, writes about a new analysis of the recovery of ocean life following the Permo-Triassic extinction 251 million years ago. This extinction is often called the “Great Dying” because more species winked out then than in any of the other great extinctions that have walloped life on Earth. As Revkin writes in his lede:

At least five mass extinctions, most presumably caused by asteroids that struck the earth, have transformed global ecology in the half-billion years since the emergence of multicelled life, lopping entire branches from the evolutionary tree and causing others to flourish.
The problem is, apart from the end-Cretaceous extinction that killed the dinosaurs, no mass extinction has lots of evidence to support an impact-killer theory. In fact, in the case of the Great Dying, the impact theory is more of a minority opinion, albeit one with some very vocal supporters. I’m surprised that a reporter like Revkin would gloss over this. I have NEVER seen it suggested anywhere nor talked to any evolutionary biologist or geologist that felt most mass extinctions were related to asteroids. Many are willing to entertain the hypothesis, but acknowledge that the data don’t support it.


Monday, November 27, 2006

New York Mag: No Wii For You!

I’ve told myself that I should stop looking at New York Magazine just as I have stopped looking at, but as you’ll see, I can’t yet kick the habit. Well, this week’s issue (November 27th) offers the annual Gift List, helpful tips for what rich New Yorkers can give to other rich New Yorkers for Christmas.

Teens should be given the Playstation 3 (good luck finding one!) the magazine declares. And husbands/boyfriends should get the Xbox 360—hey, New York, you made the same recommendation last year. Yet the Wii is nowhere in sight. I suppose that’s better than seeing it on the gift ideas for a child page (that space is reserved for a $500-$800 stuffed horse, natch).


Midway's Quest For "Better Games"

It is always interesting for me, a videogame guy who approaches the medium almost entirely as a player, to get a peek behind the glowing screen and see the business gears turning. Today’s New York Times has an article about game maker Midway and Sumner Redstone, a billionaire investor who owns a majority of Midway’s stock.

Apparently, Redstone has been holding the shares tightly even as Midway’s share prices have been falling. As many a gamer could tell you, apart from Mortal Kombat, Midway doesn’t have a lot going on. (That said, I did enjoy The Suffering.)

I wonder if the business reporter consults with gamers or the Times’s game writers when working on such a story. Most of the discussion of videogames in this piece seems reasonable to me. But surely a gamer would challenge this assertion: “We are focusing on fewer and better games, and we have positioned ourselves very well for the next cycle,” Shari Redstone, vice-chairman of Midway and Sumner’s daughter, told the Times. So what are these “better games”? The Times reports:

So far this year, Midway has introduced Mortal Kombat: Armageddon and it is set to introduce Happy Feet, based on the new Warner Brothers movie.

Coincidentally, I was just reading’s comparison of console launch games last night. Guess which game sits alone, stinking at the bottom of the launch-game barrel. It’s Happy Feet, the Wii’s worst launch game, and one of the worst launch games of all time, according to 1UP’s analysis. Maybe it will sell due to the movie tie-in—and according to the article, this seems to be the real core of Midway’s overall strategy—but the game still looks like typical licensed garbage.

Here’s my business strategy for Midway: make fun games.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Wii Impressions

I've only been Wii-ing for three days, but I've checked out most of the features. These, my friends, are my impressions:

Overall, I think the Wii is going to be a very nice system. The set-up was easy. The games have been fun. The controller is striking and it works better than I had begun to fear. This post is a bit long, but I wanted to get it all out in one go. Please read on.

Getting the Wii up and running was simple, as might be expected from a Nintendo product. The unit is slim, roughly the size of the re-designed PS2, and can be positioned horizontally or vertically. The infrared sensor bar is the one noticeably unique element in the system set-up. The bar sits either just below or just above the TV screen. It works in conjunction with the Wii-remote in triangulating the position of a pointer or crosshairs on screen.

When I first fired up the Wii, I was impressed with how responsive and accurate the pointer was. The Wii-remote is used to navigate the system's main menu screens, using a little hand with a pointing finger. Moving the Wii-remote moves the hand, and the controls are very responsive: even little things like rotating the remote causes the hand to turn. Overall, at least in menu navigation, the controls felt tight and right-on.

The Wii interface takes the form of different "channels." The first channel is dedicated to whichever game is in the Wii. Another channel houses the Miis, cutesy little characters or avatars that users create, use in some games (like Wii Sports), and share with other gamers. There is a calendar/planner channel and a digital photos channel that I expect will get very little use from me. There is also an online Wii shopping channel, which is where virtual console game are purchased, and online weather and news channels, although these last two won't be operational until late December. Each virtual console game that is purchased also occupies a new channel.

Clicking the pointer on a game channel starts that game. I'll just briefly touch on the games:

Wii Sports is fun but a bit too simple. Clearly, it is meant to demonstrate the motion sensitive controller, and it has an aroma of the tech demo about it. That said, bowling with the Wii-remote works really well. On my first play-through I bowled a 129 (it wasn't as easy for me as the oddly negative pro-Wii writer at Slate suggested), which is about as good as I can manage in real life, too. Golf, baseball, and tennis were rather fun, but many aspects of play, like the running controls, were taken over by the computer. This diminishes how deeply I can really get into these games. So far, boxing has felt a bit unresponsive and wonky, because I naturally try to punch faster than the game allows and the motion-sensing feels out of touch with my motions. That said, each sport has a training mode which can deliver a short-but-sweet blast of fun, like the bowling training in which you hurl the ball at a wide-ass lane with 91 pins. Wii Sports is sure to please casual gamers and even non-gamers, though from my perspective hard-core types are likely to want more from a sports title.

The only other Wii game I have now is Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I'm about 5 hours in at this point. The game seems solid and unmistakably Zelda-ish. If you've played any Zelda game since Ocarina of Time, which this game resembles in some ways, you will be very familiar with the style of play. I feel like I am only scraping at the surface of Twilight Princess, I've explored just a small piece of the game world, and I've read it takes upwards of 40 hours to finish. So far I'm having a great time, and enjoying the Wii controls more than I expected. Like many Wii games, this Zelda uses the Wii-remote and the nunchuck attachment, which consists of a motion-sensing controller (with a thumbstick and two triggers) for the left hand that connects to the Wii-remote via a cable (hence the name). Shaking and swinging the controllers to make Link swing his sword feels very natural. Likewise, aiming the slingshot with the Wii-remote is easy, and the crosshairs feel fluid and responsive to movements in the remote. I must say I expected less. Twilight Princess was born as a Gamecube game, and some reviewers have felt that the Wii controls seem tacked-on. For the most part, I disagree: from my perspective, the controls felt natural and took good advantage of the motion sensing. My only gripe is that the most powerful attacks come from locking on to a target with one button and pressing another button, with no use of the motion controls at all. When I play, I am almost inclined to use less powerful attacks that use the motion controls because swinging the Wii-remote to make Link deliver a sword slash really is fun and more immersive than pushing buttons.

Just a short note about graphics: as you've likely heard, the Wii graphics are nothing special. At least for the games I have, they are not much above the Gamecube. The lighting and water effects look really nice, true, but the characters are still blocky, lines are a bit jaggy, and some textures are muddy. To be completely honest, this saddens and worries me a bit. I'm not a big graphics whore, but I must admit I enjoy the eye candy some, and seeing what the Xbox 360 and PS3 can do leaves me envious. I worry because, although the Wii clearly has a lot of casual gamer appeal, producers will need to keep putting out fun and innovative titles to keep the system interesting to serious gamers--they can't rely on sweet graphics to carry the weight--and this is a tall order. Of course, I also think this is exactly what designers should do all the time, but my years as a gamer have taught me that interesting, unique, well-designed games are rare.

With that said, I've must say I really love the simple, dated graphics and old-school gameplay of the Wii Virtual Console. There are something like 13 games from the NES, SNES, Genesis, Tubografx 16, and Nintendo 64 available for purchase online right now, and the list will expand as time goes on. So far, I've bought Solomon's Key for the NES and Bomberman '93 for the Turbografx. I'm waiting on Gunstar Heroes for the Genesis, which was supposed to be available at launch but hasn't shown up yet. From the two I have, I can say that these games look and play just about exactly like the originals. I was psyched and a bit surprised to see Solomon's Key on the games list. That was one of my favorite NES games, but I think it was less popular than Gyromite. It is an odd choice for a launch game, but I am grateful.

I think the virtual console has a lot of potential. I'm not sure how much young or casual gamers will get into it, but for a gaming fogey like me, the VC will likely be a big $$$ sink. Right now, I am looking forward to Super Metroid for the SNES, Devil's Crush for the Turbografx 16, and Excitebike 64 for the N64. I'm sure I'll encounter all sorts of games I haven't thought about in a while, and I expect a fair number of impulse purchases to take place. Nevertheless, I think the pricing on the VC is to high. Right now, games are around $5 for NES, $6 for some Turbografx 16, $8 for Genesis and SNES, and $10 for N64. Sure, those prices are fine if you just want a couple games. But I want dozens of these games, and I find the prices to be just outside of impulse range, particularly for the Genesis, SNES, and N64. Most of these games are available online for free if you have an emulator. I'm willing to play by the rules and purchase them, but I expect a good, and by good I mean cheap, price. I would like to see top prices around $3 NES, $4 Turbografx, Genesis, and SNES, and $5 N64. And assorted cheap-ass games ($1 or less) would also be appreciated. Maybe this will happen eventually when the market is more saturated. Right now, though, $8 for Altered Beast is crazy; maybe I would plunk down $2 for nostalgia's sake. (An aside: I see no reason that new, original games should be excluded from the VC. I would love to see some new games in the old style. And look how popular Geometry Wars is.)

To (finally) sum up: I have mostly good things to say about the Wii. The controls work better than I was beginning to fear, although they haven't been really tested for me yet, which will probably happen when a compelling first-person shooter comes out. The graphics are nothing special, and for me this means developers have to work extra hard to come up with unique games. I hope it is a challenge they rise to, rather than seeing the Wii as a casual-gamer junk heap that they can throw any half-baked game onto because the audience is not discerning. It would be nice if Nintendo beefed-up the online functionality, but I don't think Nintendo totally gets this yet, so I expect it to be only half-realized like on the DS. Finally, the virtual console is solid, and I hope it grows into a vibrant, nostalgia-heavy marketplace (with some new games mixed in).

So far, I am quite smitten by my new friend. I hope this crush can grow into a full-blown love affair, and there is no reason as yet to think that it won't.


Friday, November 24, 2006

After PS3 Hate Comes Wii Love

Seth Schiesel, the games writer at the New York Times, ripped the PS3 a bit last week. Today he reviewed the Wii, and was much more positive about the console. Sure, he admits, the hard-core gamer is likely to still be focused on the Xbox 360 or the PS3. But Schiesel enjoys the pick-up-and-play sensibility of the Wii, which led to--and this approach seems to be becoming a game-reviewer cliche--EVEN HIS MOM playing the Wii. To sum up his review: "over all the system left a big smile on my face."

I'll just say that I generally agree with his impressions. I'm not going to get into my take on the Wii just yet. But I'll put up a long-ish post this weekend after I've gotten in a bit more play time.

[UPDATE: The Wii beats the PS3 in a friends-test from the Washington Post.]


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An Early Visit From Santa

Look what is in my house right now! Yay!

I'm glad I live near the Nintendo World Store, where the Wii is in relative abundance. I got lots of holiday obligations, but I plan on getting some impressions up over Thanksgiving weekend. Stay tuned and we can hopefully answer some of the criticisms that I addressed yesterday.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Premature Wii-jaculations

The disappointed press has its say again. This time the self-consciously oppositional Slate hates on Wii.

I'm down with the criticisms. Certainly it is a little painful to see the fawning coverage of the launch of these consoles. They are consumer products, after all, not the second coming.

Yet from the start of this Slate piece, I have to question the author's ability to offer fair criticism. "I'll admit it—I was in love with the Nintendo Wii long before we'd ever met," writes Erik Sofge. Yet when he gets a chance to meet-up in real life, like an internet dater after a flirtatious email build-up, reality lets him down.

I get that way too, sometimes. I build up high expectations and when they aren't met I feel very negative. Yet in these situations, the negativity is related to fantasies, not reality. It's a very human reaction. But it is a problem for critics, since unmet high expectations shouldn't count against something.

Still, Sofge's criticism has me worried. "The ugly truth is that the Wii's already-legendary motion-detection system doesn't work very well," he writes. Specifically, he has trouble aiming in-game crosshairs with the motion-detecting controls. Playing first-person shooters was one of the things I was most looking forward to with the Wii-mote. I knew the new Metroid for the Wii would have the same old lock-on feature of the Gamecube's Metroid Prime games. I worried: maybe the Wii-mote is not as accurate as had been suggested. This Slate piece seems to validate that fear.

Slate is running this as a pro/con sorta thing, so they also have a more positive review from Chris Suellentrop. This dude is glowing, even though he doesn't have exclusively great things to say about existing Wii titles like Wii Sports and the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It seems his excitement and positive feelings are pinned on how much he expects to love Wii games in the future. High expectations, as we have seen, have a way of not being met.

(Okay, no more cutesy Wii-related post titles for a while.)


Monday, November 20, 2006

Poo Poo on Playstation 3

As I recently posted, I've been having lustful thoughts about the PS3. Maybe this is partly due to how scarce the thing will be over the next few months. But the games look gorgeous. And Sony has such a massive base from the first two Playstations that I expect PS3 will also become the dominant system of this generation, which means the best games selection.

So I was surprised to read this bluntly negative review of the new Playstation in the New York Times this morning. There was a fair amount of grumbling when the PS2 dropped five years ago, and it eventually evolved into a great system. Maybe the PS3 will just need some time. In any case, I am sure I won't be getting one until well into next year at the earliest.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Happy Birthday Aspy!

The Aspidistra is one year old today! Check out the first post. Have I lived up to my promises? Actually, if you browse the archives you'll see that, in early December 2005, The Aspidistra went to sleep and didn't wake up until June 2006, when it really got crackin'.

Still, this is the real birthday. What else has happened on November 17? Check this shit: Martin Barre, guitarist for Jethro Tull, was born in 1946. John Glascock, bassist for Jethro Tull in the late '70s, died in 1979.

It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just something that happened. This cannot be one of those things. This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can't. This was not just a matter of chance.



Wii-mote creates Wii-motions?

Um, maybe you heard the Playstation 3 launches today. I know the local news was all over the “story.” On my TV I saw hundreds of young men standing in line all night in the rain to probably not get the console, since Sony is shipping an underwhelming 400,000 to North America.

I doubt the Nintendo Wii, which launches on Sunday, will generate the same sorts of scenes. The Wii will have 1,000,000 units available at launch, with maybe 1.4 million through the end of the year.

Still, I have to admit those sexy PS3 graphics have had me lusting after the rarer machine, even though I’m a big Nintendo fan and I’m looking forward to the Wii-mote. Friends like Jeff have been coveting a Wii for a little while, but for me I didn’t really start to get cravings until I read this unusual essay by Jonah Lehrer on Seed about the increased emotional resonance from Wii games. (This is the first Wii review I have read that quotes William James.) I knew the Wii was supposed to increase immersion, but I had mainly thought of this to mean plain-old excitement, simple stimulation. But now, as I ponder whether a Wii will really create more emotional gaming, I find I want one a lot more. Oh, and it also costs less than half of what the PS3 costs. Goddamn Sony.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dog Humps Cat, Cogs Born?

C'mon. What the hell is this doing on Reuters? Sure, it's a cute picture: a cat between two puppies.

But read the caption. The owner claims that those puppies are really half-cat, born after a dog humped that cat. Not possible. At least the caption uses scare quotes to say that the owner "claims" those are the offspring of a dog-cat mating. Still, I'm surprised Reuters gave it any play. I can't understand why a geneticist would even bother testing this. Those are either cats that just happen to look dog-like, or puppies that are mixed in with a cat litter. Those two animals can't hybridize.

Oh, here's another cool interspecies-fucking story, with a super twist: dude FUCKED A DEAD DEER!

You may need to register, so if you don't want to bother, here's the nut from the Duluth News Tribune:

Bryan James Hathaway, 20, of Superior faces a misdemeanor charge of sexual gratification with an animal. He is accused of having sex with a dead deer he saw beside Stinson Avenue on Oct. 11.

A motion filed last week by his attorney, public defender Fredric Anderson, argued that because the deer was dead, it was not considered an animal and the charge should be dismissed.

[Thanks, Carlin!]


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Videogame Snob? Moi?

My amigo Jeff, keeper of the eponymous and often hilarious, sent me an interesting question yesterday. Are there such things as video game snobs? he asked. My first response was, Of course, and I am one! But then I thought about it some more, pondered an example he gave, and realized it is a more complex question than it first seemed.

Jeff wondered if liking Katamari Damacy, a quirky and original game, as well as liking Ratchet and Clank (Part Whatever), a fun but perhaps hackneyed platformer, indicated that snobbery, here understood as considering one’s tastes as superior to someone else’s, didn’t work for games. Maybe other elements of games, like how much fun they are, contributed a new variable to an old equation, and rendered a common style of criticism and connoisseurship obsolete.

Do you want to know more?

A snob, or course, is not just someone who would say some games are better than others. A snob would say despite the fact that many people think X is a good game, it is really bad and their tastes are poor.

The clearest case in which to examine this sort of snobbery is when a game that is critically lambasted ends up a big seller. 50 Cent Bulletproof is generally considered to be crap. Yet it sold more than a million copies. Here, critics and many gamers are at odds, and to suggest that the masses who bought the game have skewed and poor criteria for judging games seems justified to me. People bought the game because they think 50 Cent is cool.

Call it snobbery if you like, but it is an inevitable result given that a portion of the game audience (reviewers, hard core gamers, etc.) plays lots of games and devotes lots of thought to games while a much larger portion of the audience doesn’t play as many games and just wants a kick. Put simply, a big part of the audience is unschooled and naïve, and they will have different criteria than critics to judge a game. I am a game snob when it is defined this way; I think naïve opinions are inferior.

But it gets trickier when you begin to explore the different genres and traditions in which games exist, and here Jeff’s example of Ratchet and Clank seems apt. Certainly, there are game formulas that work well. I consider these the videogame equivalent of Michael Bay’s movie The Rock. I wouldn’t argue that The Rock is a great cinematic achievement, but I loved it when I saw it in the theater. It performed its genre duties in an exciting and entertaining manner, and I enjoyed what I first thought would be formulaic garbage.

Lots of games fit in this category. They might be polished, like New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, but critics could make a fair argument that the Mario formula is too overdone to truly produce anything great. I’m talking about more than the fact that we gamers have put Mario through his paces many times before. I think the genre has deep problems, like the mindless collection of coins, that were fine solutions to the problem of making an interesting game in a previous console generation, but ripe for critical analysis now.

Still, I enjoyed New Super Mario Bros. because I am a fan of 2-D platformers. Here, I think the concept of fun and play enters into the critical equation and changes the way I, at least, evaluate games. Another good example comes from sequels (I’m talking about you, Guitar Hero II). I don’t mind sequels that do the same as the original in games as much as I do in movies. Good gameplay can go a long way towards erasing some of the critical scorn that might come from the lack of originality.

Critics do argue that originality is a legitimate demand, of course. I just think most gamers don’t listen and don’t agree because of their limited experience. So a break between the critics and the majority of the buying population develops and leads to accusations of snobbery.

As a seasoned gamer, I put a high value on originality. I’m usually willing to overlook problematic gameplay in favor new concepts. So here I will admit to being a partial snob. But for me, damning a solid game because it is formulaic or derivative is going too far. The interactivity of games increases my tolerance for things I’ve seen, thought, and felt before, and I don’t indulge in the snobbery I might if I was evaluating something that wasn’t a videogame. After GTA III and Vice City, San Andreas didn’t blow me away, but it is still a great way to spend a weekend afternoon.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Has Freud Really Fallen?

Writer Denyse O'Leary, a specialist in religiously-motivated critiques of established science, has started a new blog, the awkwardly titled Mindful Hack. She had recently teamed with William Dembski on Uncommon Descent, the blogospheric home of Dembski's religiously-motivated attack on evolutionary biology. Her new blog promises the same quality "science journalism" in the realm of neuroscience.

O'Leary's first post is a premature celebration of the "fall" of Sigmund Freud. Creationists love to group Freud, Darwin, and Marx as some imaginary super-team of materialists. According to their logic, Marx and Freud have been discredited, and Darwin will soon join them. Any educated, reasonable person would of course object to this. Darwin is unimpeachable today. Furthermore, although every nominally Marxist country is truly a mess, Karl Marx the political philosopher is by no means discredited. And certainly Sigmund Freud is alive and kicking in the world of psychology. Please read on.

Freud-haters love to point to excesses that have been committed in his name, things like the recovered memory movement, and gleefully declare Freud is dead. The problem is, they are simply wrong. I know plenty of working psychologists, both in hospitals and private practice, who trace their theoretical orientation directly to Freud.

Of course, many of Freud's theories have been changed over time. He even tinkered with his ideas over his lifetime. Personally, I feel like Freud erred in being too explicit in his theories. He really felt like he was coming up with a universal science of the self. Most psychologists now consider things like penis envy to be silly elaborations of Freud's own fixations.

Yet Freud laid the foundation for a theory of personality that has yet to be surpassed. Does anyone really doubt that our emotional reactions to people and situations come from a mess of internal conflicts, some of which we are unaware of at the time? Does anyone doubt that infants approach the world and in particular their parents with a tangle of needs and desires, and that their early experiences with having these desires met or not met create expectations--again, many of which are unconscious--that shape a personality for life? These are contributions from Freud's thinking.

Psychology, practiced as such, is not a science as much as a working philosophy based on a practical understanding of the brain, namely that any process of mind is rooted in the biological brain and what happens to it. Religious people, of course, hate this because it conflicts with their absolutely unsupportable belief in god-given spirit. So, like O'Leary, they latch on to straw-men arguments, blaming Freud for excesses like the satanic-abuse/recovered memories hysteria (which, ironically, was very popular in populations suffering from the god delusion).

I wonder: do religious types have any viable alternative theory about how personalities form and develop? And would those believers in the immaterial spirit really be happy if neuroscience, the real academic challenge to Freud, were to replace social/developmental approaches with a more genetically-based one?


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Sounds of Space

Forbidden Planet has been called the greatest of the 1950s-era sci-fi movies. By Pauline Kael, no less. It is a sentiment with which I agree. But one of the things I always found most appealing about the movie was the music. The entire soundtrack was created on electronic instruments by married composers Louis and Bebe Barron. It is a masterpiece of bloops, bleeps, and squeals. "We were delighted to hear people tell us that the tonalities in Forbidden Planet remind them of what their dreams sound like," the composers write in the liner notes to the soundtrack.

Sadly, electronic avant-garde music of this sort never really caught on. Mucho props to Scar Stuff, an excellent blog run by a fellow named Jason, for making more space-age sounds from the past available to fans. Check out Music For Robots, a record from 1964 that features electronic soundscapes in the same tradition as Forbidden Planet. The first track is a spoken-word essay about robots. But the second track, Tone Tales from Tomorrow, is the good stuff, the 40-year-old sound of the future. Some days I like to listen to this and the Forbidden Planet soundtrack as I gaze out of the window on the commuter train. It makes the dull and familiar commute feel like a fantastic voyage.

[UPDATE: Check out the real sounds of space here. Some sound remarkably like the sounds of the space-age imagination above, like this one from Saturn's radio emissions.]

[via boingboing]


Monday, November 06, 2006

1000th Visitor

The Aspidistra got its 1000th visitor yesterday. I’m quite pleased, although this number must be taken with a couple heaping spoonfuls of salt. First, I didn’t put my sitemeter counter up right away and I also lost a week when I was updating the layout. Second, and more importantly, like the self-googling guy that I am, I check my blog a lot and rack up visits that way. I have this crazy hope that someday I’ll get enough traffic that my visits will be overwhelmed by hits from others, but until then I just have to live with the knowledge that my count is noticeably inflated.

Still, this is the best way to count, so I’ll happily take number 1000. I’m also happy to report that this wasn’t a webcrawler bot. This was a person brought here from a google search for “religious idiots.” Here's the relevant post. I take some pride in the fact that that term brought them here. I’m no friend of religion. Expand the post for the sitemeter data.

Here’s a link to the info. Or just read the excerpt below. They didn't stay long, but what the hey. I'll take what I can get.

Domain Name (Commercial)
ISP America Online
Continent: Europe
Country: United Kingdom
Language English (United Kingdom)
Operating System Microsoft WinXP
Browser Firefox
Time of Visit Nov 5 2006 10:19:34 am
Last Page View Nov 5 2006 10:19:34 am
Visit Length 0 seconds
Page Views 1
Referring URL
Search Engine
Search Words religious idiots
Visit Entry Page http://theaspidistra...eligious-idiots.html
Visit Exit Page http://theaspidistra...eligious-idiots.html
Visitor's Time Nov 5 2006 3:19:34 pm
Visit Number 1,000


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Will Wright in New Yorker

Last week, after I mentioned Harper's and the Atlantic giving serious coverage to games, I wondered where the New Yorker was. Well, I should have just waited a few days, because this week's issue of the New Yorker has a profile of Will Wright centered around his new game, Spore.

You can read the article online here, so I'm not going to do a summary, but I did want to discuss a couple points of the profile that I found interesting. Expand, if you please.

First, the story covers some of the same topics as the Harper's serious games discussion, namely what role games can serve in education. John Seabrook, the author, explains how Wright showed him an email from a concerned professor. The professor writes:

Most of us are in agreement that this younger generation--raised on video games--has learned to be reactive, instead of active, and worse, they have lost their imaginative abilities and creativity because the games provide all the images, sounds, and possible outcomes for them.

Wright, of course, disagrees. He sees games as potentially more useful learning tools than the traditional lectures-and-schoolbooks model. He says:
I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success and failure, games are better at preparing you. The education system is going to realize this sooner or later. It's starting. Teachers are entering the system who grew up playing games. They are going to want to engage with the kids using games.

I think Wright is correct here and the professor sounds like a stodgy old grump. I don't have that professor's teaching experience to tell me what games do to imagination, but I have my own life experience, an experience that has been filled with videogames but is not lacking for imagination or creative endeavors.

I might also point to people like Wright, who live lives suffused with games but show the creativity to produce new and exciting things all the time. But I notice that Seabrook puts Wright in a strange category here, and by implication Seabrook seems to side with the grumpoid professor. Wright grew up before games, Seabrook points out a couple times. For example:
The enormous success of The Sims means that children today can grow up without having the hands-on model-making experiences that Wright enjoyed as a child, and that inspired him to make games in the first place.

So Wright didn't start off his life playing videogames--they didn't exist yet, after all--but that doesn't mean he has found the only path into making creative games. The implication is that model-making and play in the real world inspired Wright, yet the products of his inspiration will rob today's kids of the same thing. Bullshit, I say. I was a child of the videogame age. I had an Atari by the age of five and a NES at age 10 or 11. But I still played outside, built castles with bricks, played tag, had fantasy wars in the woods, played with action figures, and all the other imaginative games of a typical late '70s and '80s suburban childhood.

Otherwise, I thought the article was quite good. What I found particularly interesting was Seabrook's distinction between Wright's fascination with games and play, and a more stereotypical version of a creative type as being an author of grand ideas.
Wright is not a visionary, in the sense that he is not the author of a world view; he tailors his ideas according to the technical parameters of the simulation and the logic of games.

This sounded harsh to me at first, like Seabrook was saying that Wright should not be celebrated like Zola or Joyce, creative figures Seabrook name-drops at the beginning of the article. Maybe that is indeed what Seabrook intended.

But a bit later in the profile, this vision of Wright seems more nuanced.
When I asked Wright about Second Life, he said, "I think what you're going to see now on Second Life is people who will start to develop games--someone will invite other people to kick a soccer ball around, and it will go from there."

After this, I began to see how even if you granted Seabrook his point about visionary status, there was still something really great about Wright's world view. The guy really loves games. There's something about that that strikes me as very pure and admirable. Maybe he doesn't go on about the philosophical or psychological features of online life, but he sees ways to create games where people are and encourages people to explore and interact in those game spaces. I might just be interested in checking Second Life out if there was something like that there.