Thursday, February 22, 2007

Gamers ≠ Losers

The stereotype certainly exists, but I would have hoped that as those that grew up playing games became adults, the image of the loser gamer would disappear. Alas, my beloved hobby has a persistent image problem.

Just a silly little note in my really busy week: Leafing through this week's US Weekly (cover date March 5, 2007), I see a quote from sorta-famous person Gabrielle Union in the Loose Talk section. Sayeth Union:

I don't understand men that find much time for PlayStation. If you have bad credit but a great Madden score, clearly there are some priority issues.
It doesn't take a logician to see that someone who makes time for games is not the same as someone who can't be responsible for themselves or their personal finances, as Union implies.

Here's my retort, custom fit for the glossy set: I don't understand women that find that much time for primping. If you can't discuss the state of the modern American novel but have blindingly white teeth, clearly there are some priority issues.


Friday, February 16, 2007

The Dover Demon Returns?

Has there been a recent sighting of the Dover Demon? The Wikipedia entry for the beast has this simple statement in the “Recent Sightings” section:

Last seen saturday February 3rd, 2007 in Westwood, Mass. behind the parking lot at Xaverian Brothers High School.
That’s it. The lack of detail suggests to me that this could be part of some inside joking, maybe from kids at the school? Or their rivals? I have been looking for more info, checking Cryptomundo, googling, and I have found nothing else.

I have a special place in my heart among my beloved monsters for the Dover Demon. It has stuck with me since I first read about it as a child for two reasons: One, drawings of it are captivating. Two, since it was only seen a few times over a brief period, it hasn’t gathered a lot of crazy and conflicting related sightings and stories. The Dover Demon is pure, in a way. I can imagine the shock, horror, and fascination the witnesses must have felt if what they said they saw in 1977 is true. Of course, the lack of sightings over the years also suggests that there is no being running around the woods in Massachusetts. But a boy can dream.

(Here's a Boston Globe retrospective about the Dover Demon from last year.)

UPDATE: 2/17/07 Sometime between last night and this afternoon the reference to the Westwood sighting was edited out of Wikipedia. We'll have to wait and see if anything about it ever comes back. Until then, here's a screencap of the entry taken on 2/16.


Friday Freenis: Zombie Capping

As a Lovecraft fan and all-around supporter of putting bullets in zombie dome, I can't resist pointing out Deanimator, a flash game based on Lovecraft's story "Herbert West: Reanimator" (the game site includes a very nice compilation of the serialized story, available here). Put down the never-ending zombie onslaught with some well-placed blasts. This is definitely a short-play kinda game; you'll likely see most there is to see in a few minutes. But it is stylish and clearly aligned with the Axis of Good in the never-ending War on Zombies.

[Thanks to creator Bum Lee and the indispensable games site Jay is Games.]


Teen Murderer Not A Gamer?

Not long after I heard about the recent shooting in a Salt Lake City mall, I wondered how long it would be until someone blamed videogames. I heard teen shooter, and just took it for granted that the kid would have played games. I have been reading the Salt Lake City papers online ever since, waiting to see if anti-game hysteria would take hold.

Yet, the more information that is released about Sulejman Talovic, the clearer it becomes that games were likely not involved in this shooting. Rebecca Walsh, a columnist at the Salt Lake Tribune, on Wednesday made the first reference to a games connection I have seen, only to dismiss it as she discussed the kid's history as a Bosnian refugee. The excellent games blog Game Politics is following the story, and points to another article in the Tribune which declares that police searched Talovic's home but "did not take any computers or video games."

Walsh's column sites at least one instance of the anti-games perspective: the videogame-hating hysteric Jack Thompson emailed reporters with the clearly ahead-of-the-facts claim, "Salt Lake City Teen Probably Trained on Grand Theft Auto Video Game." Like many gamers, I am no fan of Thompson's, but I am struck by the fact that I expected the same thing. Unlike Thompson, though, I don't think violent games make murderers, but I do think that people who harbor violent fantasies (all of us) can find an outlet in games.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Self-Love On V-Day

Blogging's been a bit off this week. The reason: Oblivion. This game has me firmly in its clutches, and I have been electing to spend my free time there.

Until I can summon the will power to break free and return to the Aspidistra, I thought I'd engage in a little self-promotion. I've quietly started another blog called Games and Brains devoted to psychology and videogames. The new blog hasn't been a secret, really. You may have even found it by looking at my profile. But I wanted to see if I could get it off the ground before spreading the word. Now I know that I need at least a small audience to keep it going. I'm excited about Games and Brains; I find the focus refreshing and gratifying, although the Aspidistra will continue as a personal blog. I'm also serious about Games and Brains, and I could use help, so please email me any tips or resources you might come across in your web rambles. I hope you enjoy.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Friday Freenis: Mas Shmups

Last week, I linked to a real old-school space shooter. This week, I want to highlight a stylishly modern shmup called Titanion. The visuals, at least, have lots of modern polish, although the gameplay could have been found in an arcade in 1982.

It's like Rez meets Galaga. Shoot down hordes of "space insects," use your tractor beam to capture them and enhance your weapons, and trance out to some techno music. Or play the "modern" mode: you will lose the tractor beam but gain bullet hell. (Download this Windows-based game here.)


Thursday, February 08, 2007

If I Had A Trillion Dollars

Jeffrey Dinsmore points to an interesting essay at ABC news about the cost of the Iraq war that contextualizes the amount of money being spent on this war of discretion. Attaching a “conservative” estimate that places the total cost at $1 trillion, the essay offers some ways to understand that amount.

• At current rates, $1 trillion could fund the National Science Foundation for 170 years, or the Environmental Protection Agency for 130 years, or the Department of Homeland Security for 28 years.
• The U.S. Treasury could use $1 trillion to send a $3,000 check to every person, adult and child, in the country—or a $150 check to every person on the planet.
• If you could spend $1000 per second, it would take you almost 30 years to blow through $1 trillion.
• 1 trillion seconds is more than 31,688 years.

I don’t often get political or into details of my personal relationships on the blog, but recently I have been fuming about the cost of the Iraq war. The reason: anxiety about health care and child care. Keep reading if you are curious about the worries that keep Comstock awake at night.

My wife and I are expecting a baby at the end of June. We’re both educated and hard working people, yet we are very concerned about how we will pay for our child’s day care. The wife will take some time off, and I’d like to as well. But then we need to get back to work. We couldn’t really live in New York City on one income.

So, put the kid in day care, right? The only problem is that day care will cost almost as much as I make. Why should I spend 10-12 hours each day away from my new baby when I’ll only bring home around $500 a month after day-care costs? It makes more sense for me to do some freelance work from home, where I can also supply child care. (In our modern world, wifey is the primary bread winner.)

That may be an option we select, but it, too, has drawbacks apart from concerns about less income for the family. For example, what if the wife wants to find a new job, one with decent coworkers and a salary in line with her education and abilities? If I was freelancing, we would lose our health insurance until the company plan at the new job kicked in. As an adult in charge of myself, I am willing to risk a few months of no insurance, but I will not put my baby in that situation.

I would love to erase the Iraq war and put some of the money that we can obviously scrape together to use in national health care and childcare systems. I think it is shameful that, as a nation, we run from “socialized” health care or childcare, and yet we have no problem with socialized murder. Actually, the whole situation doesn’t make me fume, as I wrote above, as much as it makes me feel sad and powerless.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

When Theory Met RE

A most unusual paper on videogames is making the rounds, starting on Game Career Guide and eventually being broadcast to the masses at Kotaku. The content is not particularly remarkable game-wise: it is a look at horror franchise heavyweights Resident Evil and Silent Hill. No, the paper is unusual because it brings some dense, psychoanalytically-informed critical theory to bear on a medium which, as far as I know, has remained outside of a lot of such academic mincing.

The paper, Saving Ourselves: Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, by Marc Santos and Sarah White, analyzes the way that the Silent Hill games play on conventions established by the Resident Evil games. Unless you have Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis on your beside table, you might have trouble gleaning much more than that from the article. Try this on for size:

In Resident Evil, we defend symbolic order by killing monstrous zombies. Part of these games' terror stems from approaching that which challenges our own symbolic economies-the Real, the abject vilified maternal that threatens the paternal psychological structures upon which subjectivity is founded.
Does this mean the games are scary because shit jumps out at you? Because that’s where most of the terror comes from, honestly.

Okay, I joke. I don’t want to knock this paper too much because I love academic study of games. That, and I don’t really understand a lot of the content. Plus, I don’t think this paper is meant to inform gamers, seeing as how very few people have spent a lot of time with both Silent Hill and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. More likely, the paper is intended for the critical theory circles in which sentences like the above can be read with interest (and comprehension). From my (limited) vantage point, I can say that it is written with humor and affection, so I say more power to ‘em.


Monday, February 05, 2007

The Super Bowl, Monster Brawls, And Your Brain

This was my favorite of the Super Bowl ads. I've seen funnier/more interesting/more useful ads in my time, but this one had me smiling. I liked the giant monster and robot man-in-suit rumble. The music was fun. Oh, and it reflected my deep malaise and discomfort about the violence of the Iraq war.

Wait, no it didn't. Yet the New York Times today has a ridiculously over-reaching analysis of the Super Bowl commercials which claims just that. The headline says it all: "Super Bowl Ads of Cartoonish Violence, Perhaps Reflecting Toll of War." Every little hint of slapstick humor in last night's commercials is seen as embodying feelings about the war. Although the above ad seems most clearly aimed at a nerdy demographic of greasy dudes who like Grim Reaper and Godzilla, Stuart Elliott, the NYT writer, decides the ad was "reminiscent of a horror movie." Sure, if you're willing to massage the evidence to fit your preconceived conclusion.

Keep reading for a discussion of your brain on Super Bowl ads.

Here's a more interesting analysis of some Super Bowl ads: hook viewers up to a NMRI machine and see how their brains react to the different commercials. I'm not sure about the actual scientific relevance of this. I seriously doubt that you can read too much into these NMRI results. But I found it interesting that one ad that Elliott singled out for praise, a General Motors ad about a assembly line robot with mad Johnny-Five-is-alive stylee, elicited anxiety in viewers.

The researchers behind the NMRI study say people noticed the ad, but their brains showed fear. Particularly, the subjects has increased activity in their amygdala (a brain region associated with anxiety and fear). The researchers guess that the fear is related to people experiencing job anxiety and economic insecurity. Exactly. As I watched that ad with my brother, I said to him, "Remember when we were growing up around Detroit, and everyone was talking about how those robots were stealing people's jobs? Now we're supposed to empathize with them?"

Apparently, the Federline burger-flipping ad had the same effect. I didn't feel anxious watching that one, though. My amygdala must have been hypnotized by his insane flow.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Friday Freenis: Oldest School

Like I said, I have spaceships and laser weapons on the brain. So here’s the freenis, a Java version of one of the first-ever videogames, Spacewar, made from the original, early 1960s computer code.

Honestly, this game is not that much fun to play. It's pointless with one player, and even with two players crammed together over the keyboard, the appeal is short-lived.

But the game is incredibly important in the history of videogames. And here’s a little of that history for the young’uns:

Spacewar was created over 1961-2 on the campus of MIT. A group of young, rather nerdish men in the school's Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) put it together on what was then amazing high-technology: a computer called the Programmable Data Processor-1 that was about the size of an automobile. (The TMRC was one of the incubators of hacker culture; members coined the term "hack.") One member, Steve Russell, was inspired by the $120,000 computer to create an interactive game. With help and motivation from Alan Kotok, a senior TMRC member, Russell spent six months and 200 hours making a two-player game in which each player controlled a spaceship and fired torpedos at the other player's ship. Other members of the TMRC then added their hacks: Pete Sampson added a background of stars; Dan Edwards helped program a star in the foreground with gravity that influenced the movement of the ships. The final version was finished in 1962.

Some people cite a 1958 game called Tennis for Two as the first videogame. A digital version of tic-tac-toe called OXO or Naughts and Crosses from 1952 also sometimes gets a nod. I suppose it depends on which aspects of games the historian finds important.

(Much of the above information about Spacewar comes from Steven L. Kent's excellent history of videogaming, The Ultimate History of Video Games.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Like Lite-Brite, Only More Terror-ful

Does this scare you? It damn well shouldn't.

But officials in Boston were pretty much terrified when they saw some of these around their city. As soon as I saw a story about the Aqua Teen Hunger Force ad campaign/bomb scare on last night's news, I was tempted to post something about it because the whole situation is so flamboyantly stupid. But the blog has been weighing me down a bit recently. Fortunately, my good pal Jeffrey D. already gots the shit covered, and he covers it in a way that is probably at least 1.5 times wittier than I would have been, although I think I could have matched him for frustration with ignorant fools.


Wrapped Up In Shmups

Call me a nerd, but I've recently been thinking a lot about spaceships and futuristic laser weaponry. Specifically, I've been getting deep into shmups (short for shoot-em-ups, for my non-gaming readers). Within the past few weeks, five great doses of retro shmupping arrived on the Wii Virtual Console in the form of Gradius, Super Star Soldier, Soldier Blade, R-Type, and R-Type III.

I've downloaded four of them--I'm holding-off on Gradius because I played that game to death on the NES in 1986--and my love for this dying genre has been reinvigorated. Help me explore why after the jump.

Probably at its most simple level, the subject matter satisfies the science fiction fan in me. If your game, movie, story, whatever, has spaceships and flying robots in it, I'm going be at least a little interested.

Shmups also showcase a relatively simple play mechanic: shoot the enemy while avoiding their bullets and other obstacles. Plenty of today's complex games offer challenges and opportunities for mastery, but I think many shmups were more demanding specifically because they were constrained by a simple dynamic. If you can't engage a player with worlds to explore, they must be engaged with a challenge. As a result, shmups provide an intensely satisfying experience when a player feels they've mastered a game. Haters may complain about twitch gameplay and memorizing bullet patterns, but I find I can get into something like a trance state when I feel in the groove during a difficult shooter.

I think the simple play mechanic also allows shmups to achieve incredible style. Ikaruga is one of the most beautiful games ever. Personally, I like the tension and invention that arises when artists explore the constraints imposed by a particular genre or style. I can see this when I examine the evolution of shmups from single-screen versions (Space Invaders), through side-scrolling and top-down scrolling-screen games (R-Type, Star Soldier), finally to bullet-hell (Ikaruga), a scrolling-screen subgenre that I feel is the pinnacle of shmuppitude. (Ironically, I find I must watch someone else play a bullet-hell shmup to fully appreciate the beauty; when I play one it takes a special kind of focus--that trance-like state I mentioned--in which I lose a sense of the overall aesthetics.)

But the appeal of shmups goes a bit deeper for me. I open myself up to charges of pretentiousness here, but I detect a satisfying existentialist vibe at work in most shmups. One lone spaceship, journeying into dangerous, unfamiliar areas, beset by enemies, with no one else to rely on--I know life is not really so brutal, but the atmosphere of such games is appealing.

I wonder if younger gamers are able to appreciate a good shmup. If you grow up with 3D games and the more complete sense of freedom they can achieve, maybe a 2D scrolling game feels restrictive, or simply old-fashioned. Despite the discussion above, I know that nostalgia definitely plays into it for me. No other genre brings back sweet memories of weekend days spent in dingy arcades and snow-day afternoons in front of the home console like shmups. Sigh.