The Seven Deadly Sins of Gaming

Where is the Jesus of gaming? Why don’t we have spiritual guides, telling us which games to play and how to play them? I don’t mean some moral, bible-beating bastard (in the literal sense) who runs around, telling us all that we suck because we game. I mean someone who knows the potentials of gaming, and is there to save us all. I have several candidates that could be our very own pixel-pushing prophets, but I’ll wait and see if they reveal themselves over the next few years.

I mean, the last thing that I want to be is the John the Baptist of gaming, outing the chosen one.

Actually, that’d be badass.

Anywho, the Seven Deadly Sins have been around for a long time in some form or another. In fact, you can easily trace the history all the way back to Greek times (where there were eight). The most famous and readily used version comes from Dante, who used the standard-at-the-time version.

While I don’t personally believe that these “deadly” sins will kill you, I do think that they will kill your enjoyment of games, as any one of them can get in the way of a pleasant experience. It is with that thought in mind that I offer my opinions of the Seven Deadly Sins of Gaming (note: all definitions were taken from the Oxford Online Dictionary).

Lust: [in singular] a passionate desire for something

Be it the new system, the new game, or the shiniest accessory, we are constantly fighting off the temptation for that-which-is-sexy. Now lust is usually talked about in regards to physical and sexual desire, but the word originally meant pleasure and desire. We’ve all been there. I can think of several times when my desire for a new game trumped most other things in my life. I just had to have it. Nothing else was going to get in my way.

Conversely, lust is often used in boob-jiggling physics and high-heeled heroines with short skirts and looooong jackets. It seems that many developers still think that gamers are made up of horny teenage boys who need to see boobs or cleavage every 3.4 seconds.

I would argue that bloodlust falls into this as well. When Bulletstorm was first announced, I remember thinking, “Oh shit, here come the ‘family-protection’ watchdogs.” And yes, they did get a Fox News article called, “Is Bulletstorm the Worst Video Game in the World?” But come on. Whoever wrote that article never played E.T. for the Atari 2600. Somewhat seriously, though, the blood and gore in that game was hypersensational to the point where it could be considered sexy.

The point is that the desire for the thing in the world or the thing in the game, when left uncontrolled, leads to immorality (either in actions or outlook). Passionate gamers, practicing their skills against others is one thing, reveling in destruction for the sake of destruction is probably another thing entirely.

yikes.

Gluttony: habitual greed or excess

This is me. Right here and right now, all cards on the table, I’m a gluttonous S.O.B. I found myself the other day getting a chubby at all the specials on Steam. And yeah, I finally for the first time in my 35 years on this planet have a pc that can actually play games on something other than Ultra Low settings. Maybe that’s part of the problem, but damn, Steam can make even a shitty game seem like a good idea.

If I just bought some games, though, that wouldn’t be a problem. The complication comes from the fact that I have 48 Steam games, 37 games on my PS3 hard drive, 16 on my 360, and about 23 Gbytes of apps backed up on my old Mac. Not listed are all of the discs that I have for the various systems. How many of those games do I regularly play?

Three. And one of them is a game I only play while pooping.

But I keep buying them, slowing down my hard drives, taking up space, making me hate myself for not playing, but if I do play, I usually get caught up, managing to look at the clock four hours later, and stressing out because I need to get to sleep. And the best cure for stress? Gaming.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Pavlovian stool softener

Greed: intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food

Ever met a ninja-looter? Ever been a ninja-looter? Even accidentally?

I remember grouping for an instance and having a two-handed axe drop that I had been grinding for over the weeks prior. What happened? The goddamn tank out-rolled me for it. When pressed on the issue of why a tank would roll for the two-handed axe (okay, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, bear with me), he said, “Tanks should get whatever we want.” And with that, he disbanded the group, basically flipping us off.

I get it. He’s assigned a value to a sword of ones and zeros, but I got super-pissed. I wanted it! I needed it! I mean, come on!

Hey, wait a second. I hated him for being greedy, but maybe I was projecting my own greed onto him and then judging it.

Nah, he was an asshole.

Sloth: [mass noun] reluctance to work or make an effort; laziness:

I once collected enough ashes to fill an Absolut bottle. Yes, I had help. My old roommate and I did nothing but game during our third year of college. Well, game and smoke cigarettes.

We had great games, though. Resident Evil, one of the first games to actually scare us was augmented with heavy doses of Tekken. During that process, we resorted to an extreme laziness (my GPA dropping instantly from a 3.67 to a 1.00) that could only be characterized by the word sloth. I mean, not only was our dorm co-ed, but our floors were co-ed. There were women (well, girls at the time probably) literally right across the hall! Seriously.

Not many of us actually play slothly, though. Our packs are organized, we have a map with little guide points on it, and we usually don’t turn on the game and have our avatars sit there, drooling. We get them working, making them do stuff or kill things or whatever. Sloth seeps out of our interaction with the game, and if we let it, we give our energy over to the game, leaving us a stinky pile of Mountain Dew and Twizzlers (and maybe ashes).

too easy

Wrath: extreme anger

I used to think that this was just me and my brother. When I got a little older, though, and started playing games with friends at their homes, I noticed that everyone got angry. Throwing controllers was a thing, and I remember standing up to step on my SNES, stopping just before my foot went through the sexy light grey and purple happiness machine.

Last month, when my mom was out visiting her grandson (seriously, if you want your mom to not give a shit about you, have kids.), and she asked if she should get an iPad because she had played Bejeweled on one of her friends’ iPads. I told her that it would be one expensive game if she did that. I downloaded a similar jewel game on her Android phone (seriously, Google. Where the hell is Bejeweled Blitz?). Five minutes later, there she was, cussing at her phone (granted, she’s a Sunday school teacher who thinks that “shit” is the F-word, but still).

Maybe wrath is universal, but if you compete when you play, the quickest way to lose focus is to get angry. Someone knife you from behind and then teabag you? The last thing you want to do is to get obsessed with vengeance on that person. That’s the way you get sniped.

Envy: [mass noun] a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck

A buddy of mine had the Gamecube, Xbox, and PS2 at the same time. I wanted them. I had a PS2, as I was still from the generation that believed that you picked a console and stuck with it. Years later, that same friend and I met up in an MMO, and he had this sick sword. All I could think was that I must have it. As I grinded for that sword, I remember going to bed exhausted one night, not because I had worked really hard at something difficult, but that I had gone in and run the same dungeon four times in one night.

It never dropped for me.

We’ve all had friends like that who seem to always get the best stuff. It doesn’t have to be the newest sword or anything—many times it’s just the new thing-that-you-don’t-have. It could be whatever—the new avatar shirt, the new pinball table, the new iPhone, the new Alienware pc, the new new new version of the same old old old system.

It drives us toward some stupid, pseudo-happiness where our stuff is the best—again, missing the point of why we game. Or at least, why some of us game.

Pride: a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of one’s close associates, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired

Okay, the funny thing is that the above definition actually hints at what can enable pride: achievements. We aren’t playing a game with scores a lot of the time. But scores are still there, they’ve just transformed into achievements.

As our achievements and gamer-scores go up, we get that constant pat on the back, letting us know that we are special little flowers of awesomeness. I’ve bitten on the fruit of pride before, as many of you have, and it tastes like chicken. A chicken sandwich where the bread is made of chicken and the meat is bacon and cheese.

It’s easy to justify our ego if we call it a sense of accomplishment or something, but many times, we do it because it makes us feel inherently better to have that thing that sets us apart from all the losers. It can be anything, from the new set of armor to the mythical 1000/1000 (mythical for some games, not these).

The thing is that while I’m guilty from time to time of all of these, it’s not the occasional dip into these sins that have been the center of attention for people like Dante. It was the obsession, the consuming nature of these sins that caused the problems.

For me, I sit down to play a game for a myriad of reasons. But any of these Deadly Sins can get in the way. I am a gamer glutton, and my shopping for games prevents me from playing. Lusting over blood-porn makes me overlook stale and shit gameplay, ignoring my desire for a challenge. Pride makes me think that I am somehow better than other gamers, clouding my cooperative nature. These obstacles in our path to gaming nirvana and peace are easily destroyed, but only if we take the time to be mindful about our gaming.

No more shitty games. No more support for tig-bittied warriors wearing barely anything while hacking ogres. No more mindless acceptance that games are only games. They can be so much more, but first, we need to wake up. And to do that, we must figure out how we allow ourselves to be manipulated by these emotional and mind-clouding “sins.” Then plug back in and see how awesome games can really be.

-bk

[originally posted here]

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Technology that Actually Helps

We get so caught up in the latest and greatest tech gadgets that it’s a good idea to revisit some of the applications of technology that actually help.

In earlier times, I was one of those hippies that pined for a time free of all the problems that technology bring. I played hippy music, listened to hippy music, and I danced like a hippy.

It was sometimes hard, though, to think like a hippy. Most hippies I knew at the time were luddites, cursing the evils of technology (never mind the fact that the music that we all listened to was encoded on compact discs and played through high fidelity speakers). I knew my grandfather, and he was around because of technology. Well, that and a will to live that surpassed his eight decades of smoking… But I digress.

Growing up in the 80’s, I was indoctrinated pretty heavily with techno-fetishization, craving the newest gaming system, the newest ways to listen to music, and a little later, with resolution on video displays. I wanted more more more, and I think a lot of us did. It was the American Dream to own a shitload of electronics.

Now it’s the new phone, the new tablet, the new television, the new interface, the new, the new, the new. We subtly turn into hipsters, craving that idealized and romanticized version of the OLD THING without really thinking about what that THING actually is.

Right now, the same technology causing others to rant is also being used for good. Research in developing countries is looking at how to help people live better lives, and that’s a very good thing. In the July/September issue of IEEE Pervasive Computing, the editors covered a wealth of research in other areas of the world not usually known for high technology. The results of some of the research is pretty inspiring.

Researchers from the University of Washington used sensors and mobile phones to track the habits of water collection in rural Ethiopia. Since so many people in rural areas like this have to travel rather large distances to gather water, the team tracked time and distance, looking for feasible ways of conducting more research that gathered increasingly accurate data, aiming to find ways to ease some of the incredibly long time spent getting water. Without going into too much of a meta-research argument (which is pointless to explain anyway), it’s incredibly encouraging to see this kind of work going on.

Research in Finland (referenced in the same issue) is hoping to use increasingly cheap mobile technology to assess the amount of social inclusion in primary and secondary schools. By using the data collected (keeping track of proximity between students, and possibly speech patterns as well), other researchers can start to fix problems of social exclusion, enhancing the ability of students in developing or isolated communities to focus on education.

Yes, these things can be viewed in a negative light (what are some of the unforeseen consequences of freeing up water-collection times, one of the truly social and ingrained cultural activities in those societies?), but I think that we can fairly easily fall into the trap of wondering too much about the negative and not enough about the positive. I’m not here to say that all technology is good all the time; I’m just here to say that maybe there’s a flip-side to the coin, and maybe, just maybe, that knowing both the positive and negative consequences of technology can help us know what to do with it.

A computer is a rock is a spear is a car is a pair of scissors.

It’s not that the thing is The Devil; it’s that devils and angels use the thing.

And until AI completely replaces us as a species, we still get to choose how and where  to apply technology’s power.

Vibrating Legs and Uncontrollable Twitching

A few months ago, my wife and I moved from our home of 11 years, and once again, I found myself in a brand new city with only remnants of contacts and friends-by-proxy.

This is not a sob story, though.

I have had the pleasure of living on both coasts, in small towns and big cities, and near friends and, well, away from them. I know people all over the place. Jersey, D.C., Atlanta (okay I know a lot of people in or near Atlanta), Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, New Zealand, Toronto, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, and even some people who frequent the South Pole. Seriously.

I stay in contact with a bunch of them (though not as often as we usually promise each other after a long phone call, but I digress), and I think that we take for granted that simple possibility.

Yeah yeah, I know that we’ve had phones for a long time. But I’m not just talking about, well, talking. I get to regularly see friends’ kids’ pictures, listen to my friends’ new music, and see their faces on a computer screen as we talk. If you stop and think about that for a second, it’s pretty amazing.

I think that we forget sometimes just how amazing these applications of technology really are. If it wasn’t for social networking, I probably wouldn’t have stayed friends with as many people as I have, nor would I be able to game with people who I don’t live near anymore. Those personal connections, even though geographically strained, are eased by the ability to beam information into space, where a satellite takes it and sends it back down to earth to someone a thousand miles away, milliseconds later.

Seriously. It’s crazy. I have a hard time wrapping my head around it, even though I spend most of my days editing research that make science fiction look out of date. Hell, I still have a hard time understanding how we get into half-ton hunks of metal and hurl ourselves down highways at a mile a minute (which is fast. Have you ever tried to run a mile in a minute?). And we get so isolated from the reality of what we’re doing in those hunks of metal, we try to do other things at the exact same time (as if maintaining present speed, velocity, and trajectory weren’t worthy enough goals).

I left the office today to run an errand, leaving my phone at my desk. Yes, I felt the ringer vibrate my legs. Yes, I got that uncontrollable twitching that comes from leaving my precious in the office. And I’m okay with that.

It’s my magic space-travelling information retrieval unit. And it helps me keep friends.

Where are all of the Spiritual Games?

Most of what I’m about to say rests on some fairly general assumptions.

  1. Humans have always wanted forms of entertainment.
  2. Technology has affected both the form and the function of that entertainment.
  3. Entertainment is a vehicle for scientific, mythical, and supernatural explanations of reality.
  4. Spirituality is not religion.

I’m a gamer. Of course, I’m too old and have too many responsibilities to actually game as much as I want to. Hell, if I had the chance, I’d probably do nothing else. But I still go to work, spend time with my kid, and try to lend a hand around the house. That said, I have about 30 minutes or so to game every night.

I sometimes loathe other gamers, and not just because they seem to be able to fit more gaming into their schedules. I loathe the stereotypical gamers who play too much instead of living life to the fullest (whatever that means).

Do I think that game developers and publishers like to put addictive, base-instinct-feeding components in games just for the sole purpose of driving dollars? Yes. Do I think that the education is vastly underprepared for the glut of gamers in public schools? Yes. Do I think that mindless and misguided media stories create a sense that this world is second rate, prompting the urge to escape into games? Yes. Do I think that gaming is at its pinnacle of creativity and expressiveness?

No.

Not by a long shot.

So much stuff is on the horizon. There are portable VR caves, 3D personal holographic displays, augmented reality gaming, and human-computer interfaces that rely on nothing but brainwaves.

Games are about to get all kinds of crazy.

As a kid who almost dropped out of school once because of an intense desire to game, I couldn’t imagine ever being scared of games. Now as an adult, my fears are rooted not from a concern that I won’t be able to game enough, but from a very real fear that it won’t be enough. It doesn’t matter how much you dress up that newfangled space-war game; it’s still basically cops and robbers. Yeah, there might be more blood, more alien guts, but it’s still a shitload of pew-pew-pew. But for some reason, it’s so much more than cops and robbers…

What’s missing?

I still believe that we can communicate something wholesome, something intrinsically connected to entertainment: spirituality. (Note: I didn’t say religion. Muuuuuuuch different thing there.) We need a Martin Luther, pinning a bunch of  theses around the entrance to EA’s corporate headquarters. We need that game that feels like one hand clapping. We need a Jesus of games.

Games are so much more than what we see. Perhaps there is something linked between competition and fighting, farming and well, farming. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with games in general. We need an experience that is so fundamentally different from other games that it goes with us, changing our own perception of the “real” world.

In my fragmented and pseudo-cynical mind, I can’t help but think that we need to map it all out, finding the patterns from the data so we can more easily see where the trends are taking us. If we moved from Pitfall to Super Mario to Stryder to Twisted Metal to Halo, what does that say about the narrative potential of games? What does that say about us?

And what, if any, are the moral messages that are being taught?

Over the next few weeks, I will delve into some of the issues around games and technology in general, hoping to shed some light on the potential downfalls and shining possibilities of our relationship with these areas.

Until tomorrow,

bk

New Media and Old Thoughts

source: photobucket

A while back, I posted this article about consumerism and its effect on the individual. I got a couple of personal email responses from it, one from a lady who wanted to talk about the link between consumerism and Warcraft.

I nodded my head as I read her email, responded with some thoughts, and that was that.

I’m not sure why I thought about that this morning; I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that my work schedule has been a little wonky lately, and I find myself doing more work in the morning, necessitating a much earlier bed time, which leaves me without my unwind time at night.

We love our entertainment. I’m kind of a nerd/junky when it comes to entertainment. I watch television shows with too much meta-commentary and backstory; I fiddle around on my wife’s Ipad; I record music in my makeshift studio; I play games online.

After all of that, I have about negative 2.3 hours left in the day. And I still need to sleep.

I used to be a Warcraft player, spending too much of my time running around a fake world. I hated myself pretty strongly for it, which wasn’t good, because I’d inevitably fall into a shame spiral, causing me to play more.

Yup, that's a version of me.

But one night, after an extended amount of playing, I went outside to smoke a cigarette (I don’t do that anymore, in case you’re offended by that; I’m just being honest and setting the mood). I was sitting on my deck, which I built the summer before, and I started thinking about how ridiculous playing an online game was.

I spent all of this time building virtual wealth, and all I had to show for it were memories of playing the game. I had nothing that translated over into the “real” world.

back when it meant something...

Nothing like the deck that I was sitting on.

But then I thought about how atoms are made up of so much empty space (forgive my inability to grasp quantum physics; I got a liberal arts education and can barely understand this PBS article on atoms and “empty” space), and realized that the deck that I was sitting on was only as real as I allowed it to be.

Sure, I could sit on it, but what it represented was something greater: backyard aesthetics. It gave our house a more comfortable and comforting presence, and transformed our get-togethers into full-blown social functions. I went from a house-buyer to a homeowner.

Warcraft became something else, too. It was a shared language, a social catalyst (in certain circles to be sure), fuel for creativity, and escape from the day’s monotony. Sure I abused the effects; it’s hard not to when you’re a nerd and feel emasculated by the world around you (I had a collection of huge swords, was muscled, and slayed demons every night for crying out loud).

Damn, it took me a long time to meander closer to something resembling a point…

Today we are inundated with tons of different options regarding how we choose to spend our “leftover” time, after our work and chores are done, before we begrudgingly head off to bed. I am excited about the possibilities that the future holds, as we figure out how best to utilize new technologies to tell stories, communicate with friends, and share our own visions of art, thought, and creativity.

But I am not so naive as to think that the future will be all bright and rosy, filled with digital unicorns, rainbow bridges, and money made of hugs.

source: NBC

I don’t believe that new technology is necessarily the harbinger of doom, nor do I think that it will be our singularity-infused savior. It’ll probably be a mixture of the two, considering that technology itself is merely technology, like smooth rocks and spears. It’s more important what you choose to do with the technology, rather than what the technology makes you do. And I think that the distinction is important to keep in mind.

I can just as easily use my car to drive someone to the hospital as I can use it to run someone over, making them go to the hospital. The car isn’t evil; it’s the driver that chooses to be evil or chooses to be good.

New technology-fueled narratives and journalism can be good, inspiring, and culturally important, or they could be ego-feeding escape pods, recycling old, classically-conditioned biological responses.

Maybe we should be demanding more from the creators in our world. Demanding complex characters, convoluted storylines, and new approaches to real problems (as opposed to the typical codependent problems faced by so many sitcom characters. Seriously, how did the Friends characters spend so much time at the coffee shop bitching about problems instead of working their jobs?).

That’s why I love Community. That’s why I miss Lost (well, the first five seasons of Lost). That’s why I love The Old Republic. That’s why I love The Atavist, O’Reilly Media, Boing Boing, Clay Shirky, Cha Meeno, The Digital Bindery, and so much more.

What do you love and why?

The sad story of Push Pop Press

Let me begin by saying that it’s a sad story for most of us; it’s not a sad story for Push Pop, nor is it a sad story for Facebook. I’m not really sure Facebook is capable of having a sad story these days. Even when people erupt over Facebook privacy concerns, somehow we all quiet down soon afterwards, content with our toys. Even Zuckster just tells you about all of the other people in the business stealing your information, trying to divert our attention. And we usually look over there (“Squirrel!”), forgetting what we were originally talking about.

I know that sounds a little harsh, but still.

Everyone is lamenting the death of the book these days. Everyone, meaning all the people who care about publishing. So I guess that means like 47 people in the world. Whatever. And there’s good stuff out there. There are tablets to reinvigorate storytelling (and no, I’m not going to link to Apple, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble. I mean, we all know who they are, right?), and there are platforms like the Atavist, helping publishers tell those new stories.

I love the Atavist stuff; I recently talked to them about working together for my future publishing projects, and while the terms weren’t mutually beneficial for the scope of my work, I still think that it’s some good stuff. I started thinking about a story I read a while back about Push Pop Press, who gave a pretty cool TED demo about their own publishing platform.

And so this morning I donned my interwebs spelunking gear and went searching for some prices for this platform that they were going to be releasing for publishers to help re-invigorate the industry.

Instead, they sold their platform to Facebook. Here‘s the release on Push Pop’s website. No biggie, right? Everybody’s gotta get paid; I can dig it.

But.

On the website, I noticed that Push Pop’s founders referred to Facebook as “the world’s largest book.” When I read that, I got up, went to the office, and started scrounging around for some Tums so I didn’t spew my breakfast all over the computer screen (and I share this desk with like seven other adjunct faculty members, so I didn’t want to be rude).

I thought Infinite Jest had to be one of the bigger books in the world. You know, besides the Bible. But there’s also this book, which apparently has 1460 pages, each of which is “three and a half feet wide, five feet tall and five inches thick.” So yeah, that’s pretty big.

Seriously, though: Facebook as the world’s largest book? Please. Only if the world’s largest book is a collection of what-we-eat-for-breakfast, funny looks our dogs make, and horrible pictures of us from when we were seventeen posted by that that girl from high school who we barely remembered but apparently has a helluva collection of pics of us with braces, gawky bone structures, and acne. But I digress.

The real concern in this story isn’t necessarily that the big guys bought up the fancy tech. It’s not that some really smart people who know their shit got paid. It’s that those of us who think that there is something valuable in working with books in all of its new potential forms wish the coming transition was going to be easy. Well it’s not.

I know nothing about making software and all that stuff, but maybe I need to start learning, because I don’t have the millions to wave at programmers, convincing them to let me use their knowledge to tell stories. All I got is way too much idealism. Mixed with some sadness at the thought of what could have been.

Oh Push Pop, we could have made some sweet, creative, and intellectual love together.