Misunderstanding: Popular Perception of Video Games

“Long ago, two races ruled over Earth: HUMANS and MONSTERS.  One day, war broke out between the two races.  After a long battle, the humans were victorious.  They sealed the monsters underground with a magic spell.  Many years later…”

The setup to indie darling Undertale is nothing new to people familiar with the genre of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs).  However, Undertale sets itself apart in that you are not forced to kill a single enemy in the game unless you want to.  Which is interesting, considering that video games are often dramatically decried as murder simulators.  It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it did in the late ’90s and early 2000’s, but every once in a while someone will hop up on a soapbox and shout to the sky about how video games are corrupting the youth.

See here’s the thing.  How can a game like Undertale even exist, if all video games are supposedly for is simulating violence and mayhem?  Why do these critics of the gaming medium not seem to acknowledge games like this?

I think the simple answer is that they just don’t know these games exist.

Part of the problem with the general discourse around video games is that it becomes locked in this exclusive club of gamers and video game journalists.  If you belong to either of these clubs, a game like Undertale pops up on your radar regardless of what you do.  At some point, you will hear about it because everyone starts talking about it.  And yet, people outside these circles will most likely just cock their heads sideways and utter a confused “huh” if the game ever crops up in conversation.

This is because while Undertale is loved by critics, it doesn’t have the reach that other games do.  When people outside the typical market hear about games, which ones get their attention?  The ones that sell the most.  The ones that are “popular”.  So namely games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, the ones that earn megabucks profits whenever they hit the scene.  And anyone familiar with either of those games knows that they are violent by nature.  So is it any wonder that the vast majority of non-gamers just don’t get it?

I’ve talked about Gone Home at length in a previous post, and I bring it up again here because it’s another example of a game that received great attention, but only within the restrictive group of gamers and game journalists.  In my opinion, it’s a wonderful game that prides curiosity and exploration over all else.  But then again, I’m a big fan of Myst and that sort of adventure gaming mindset.

But I digress.  Gone Home was a game that charmed many and irritated others.  It was even awarded “game of the year” by at least a couple of online outlets.  But again, outside of the immediate group of gamers and game critics, few know it exists.  Honestly, if I hadn’t written about it in my blog previously, I bet if I went up to my parents and asked them about the game, they would say they had never heard of it.  But why would they?  They don’t read gaming news.  They don’t peruse review sites for video games.

When it comes down to it, I believe games are a form of expression.  Just like movies.  Just like books.  Just like painting or any other such endeavor.  They have the capacity to evoke emotions, make you consider different ways of looking at the world, and they can even help improve your cognitive skills (science said so).  And in that sense, they should be allowed to explore all that they can do.  Unless someone can prove beyond even a shadow of a doubt that games are detrimental to society, we shouldn’t give in to fear just because we don’t understand them.  I’ve been steeped in gaming culture for a long time.  I’ve played games since I was very young.  I know how they work.  I’ve seen the different ways they can express worlds and stories.  But that’s just it.  I have history with the medium.  A lot of people out there don’t.  Their experiences with gaming often barely extend beyond Mario moves left to right on his quest to save the princess from Bowser.  Modern video games are a mystery to them.  Grand Theft Auto and other similar games just strike them as bizarre.

In much the same way that we don’t blame movies every time someone commits a horrible act inspired by the film, we shouldn’t blame games for every time a kid shoots up a school.  Because unless it affects all people the same way, causing them to go mad, then it stands to reason that there was something unique in the perpetrator’s case, something that caused him/her to go berserk.  And one way we could alleviate this is to spread gaming culture beyond this exclusive little club we have going on.  Show people that games don’t just have to be about big, tough guys with guns making things go boom.  Sometimes, a game can just be about a place, a time, a feeling.  They can be Gone Home, a game whose central premise is that you’re exploring a house, trying to piece together where everyone is.  They can be Undertale, a cutesy game about humans and monsters with bold moral choices.  They can also be the equivalent of a big, dumb action blockbuster.  The breadth of experiences they can provide should not be brought down by a simple misunderstanding and unfamiliarity with the medium.

Games like Undertale and Gone Home show that games aren’t just simple toys for entertainment.  They are stories.  They are worlds.  They are the culmination of hundreds of hours of hard work by people with a drive and passion (most of the time anyway).  They are a system of mechanics that come together to form something truly marvelous.  Even in Grand Theft Auto, a game more widely known for its emphasis on rampant violence and chaos, provides a stunning world that at times seems almost believable.  An absurd amount of time goes into crafting radio stations that you can listen to while you play, with talk radio shows that can have hours of content.  And it’s all in the service of the experience.

Because to me, that’s what games are in the end: an experience.  And experiences are meant to be shared and enjoyed…

 

Well that’s all I have this time.  Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post.  Have a wonderful week and a happy new year!

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What Christmas Means to Me

What is Christmas exactly?  Is it a day?  Is it an idea?  A thought?  A belief?  A feeling?

When I was a kid, Christmas was a lot about the presents.  I feel like for many kids it was the same.  We cared about the things.  We wanted the things.  We enjoyed unwrapping the things and the anticipation of what each would turn out to be.  A new video game?  A book?  Candy?  It was always exciting to see what your family thought would delight you.  In my family, we always had a large gathering with the relatives the weekend before or after Christmas, depending on what worked out the best.  We would then have the smaller gathering of just immediate family on Christmas Eve.  And then there was Christmas Day, filled with the excitement of seeing what Santa brought during the night.

But as I got older, the presents started to matter less and less.  I no longer cared as much about the things, especially once I got close to finishing high school.  Honestly I feel like the whole gifts thing gets overblown, especially by television ads.  Just the other day I saw this commercial that was all about the anticipation for Christmas Day, featuring a little girl and her family.  It was full of all these nice scenes of togetherness and the Christmas atmosphere of fun and love.  Then at the end?  The Wal-Mart logo appears.

And all I can think is “the only reason they made that ad was to get you to buy more things.”

The exercise of buying gifts is often a frustration in itself.  It’s sometimes hard to find the right gift for someone, especially if they don’t really have anything they want (I know I’ve been guilty of this many times).  And then, when you have multiple people to buy gifts for, you can become consumed by this idea that if you don’t spend the same amount of money on people, it somehow implies that you care less about one person than another, a notion that is constantly reinforced (intentionally or otherwise) by all the Christmas ads you are bombarded with.  You think “if I don’t buy enough of the things, people won’t like me as much and I’ll seem like a jerk.”

In a lot of ways I feel like Christmas became far too materialistic.  For me Christmas stopped being about the gifts a long time ago.  It stopped being about the things.  Instead, the only thing I really cared about on Christmas after a while is the feeling it invokes.  For some reason or another, Christmas cools the blood and makes us feel happy.  For just one day, we can forget all the hate and anger that fills the world and focus on the things that make us feel good.

Christmas isn’t about the presents.  Christmas isn’t about a religious messiah.  It’s about remembering all the lovely things in the world.  It’s about being together with your family, something I’ll get to do for the first time in a couple of years (I haven’t been able to spend Christmas Day with my family the past two years, due to my work schedule and where Christmas fell on the calendar).

So when you wake up on Christmas morning, look out your window and see the land covered in snow (or not, which is the more likely scenario this year), remember the things that bring you joy.  Think about the things that make you happy.  Don’t focus on all the bad in the world.  Don’t drown yourself in politics and debates.  Don’t worry about where you’re going to get the money to pay the bills.  Let all of that go for the day.  Just spend time having fun.  Read a good book.  Watch a movie.  Play some video games.  Far too often we get caught up in the busy world around us.  We get caught up in our work.  We get caught up in our responsibilities.  But for one day, we can let that all go.

This is what Christmas is to me: a day to relax, have fun, and spend time with the people you care about the most.

 

That’s all I have for this week.  I’ll be back next Wednesday with another post, but until then enjoy the holidays!

 

A Whole New Galaxy: The Enduring Appeal of Star Wars

So the new Star Wars movie comes out this Friday.  And naturally, I’m going to talk about it.  I mean I can’t just talk about politics and video games all the time can I?  Hmm…I wonder……

But in all seriousness, Star Wars might as well be the definition of a cultural phenomenon.  Even as a little kid I was aware of it, despite the fact that Return of the Jedi came out seven years before I was even born.  It’s one of those pop-culture pieces of entertainment that transcends the generational boundary.  Not everyone will understand video games.  Not everyone will understand rap music.  But almost everyone understands Star Wars.

Which then leads me to ask, why is Star Wars such a popular thing?  You could argue that the franchise isn’t particularly that original.  It borrows heavily from Westerns and Samurai movies.  Its influences include Flash Gordon and other pieces of fantastical science-fiction.  A lot of it could be argued to be merely cut-out tropes from other stories that preceded it.

But you know what?  That’s a moot point.  Art imitates art.  Everything has been inspired by something.  Even the old literature that we constantly reference were influenced by older folk tales and oral storytelling.  Truly original stories no longer exist in our modern world, which is perfectly fine.  We as humans enjoy the comfort of the familiar.

Some of you who have taken literature classes might have heard of something called the “monomyth”, otherwise known as “the hero’s journey”.  The concept was introduced by Joseph Campbell back in 1949.  Essentially the monomyth is a generic plot structure used by many stories.  It starts out with a hero who goes on an adventure.  The hero faces hardships and trials that train him to become a better version of himself.  Once his training is complete, the hero faces the climax or final battle.  After the battle is won, the hero returns home a changed person, with some kind of reward or greater understanding of himself and his place in the world.

The formula looks like this:

separation–initiation–return (taken from here)

It’s a brand of storytelling that we are all comfortable and familiar with.  It’s simple and enjoyable, a timeless classic.  And that’s pretty much what Star Wars is.  The stories (at least in the movies) are rather uncomplicated.  It’s a tale of good vs. evil, light vs. dark.  There isn’t much complexity in the way things play out, although the characters in the universe aren’t necessarily bound to their sides (as proven by Darth Vader in the end of Return of the Jedi).  But the lack of complexity is actually the franchise’s strong point.  It allows people to jump in and just enjoy a grand journey.  They don’t need to sit and dissect the movie forever to understand it, like with some more experimental indie ventures.  The moment you see the words “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”, you know what to expect.

So in a lot of ways, I’m not expecting to be too surprised by The Force Awakens.  I expect that I will enjoy it, that I will consider it to be at the very least a good movie, but I’m not expecting it to throw me any curveballs.  And that’s fine.  I don’t really want Star Wars to suddenly become this super brooding and deep meditation on human existence.  That’s not what it’s about.  Star Wars is about adventure.  It’s about action.  It’s about the journey of the characters in this fantastical universe filled with mystical meaning.

But most importantly, it’s about fun.  Star Wars is just a fun time to watch, which is partly why I never understood the constant fighting between Star Wars and Star Trek fans.  They are two very different types of stories.  Star Wars is an action epic whereas Star Trek is a slow-paced, more thoughtful type of science-fiction.  They’re not really fighting for the same space I would argue.  But they do both serve the same purpose, and that is escapism.

And in the end, isn’t that what storytelling is, a chance to escape the humdrum of the real world, a chance to immerse yourself in a place that you can never go?

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Tune in next Wednesday and as always, have a wonderful week!

-insert obligatory Star Wars reference here-

Bond, James Bond: Spectre and its Failed Identity

Warning: major spoilers for Spectre and the other Daniel Craig Bond movies follow.  If you have not watched them and don’t want the plots ruined, read no further.  You have been warned.

 

A couple of weekends ago, I went and saw the new James Bond film Spectre.  Going into it, I had the sneaking suspicion I wasn’t going to find it as thrilling or engaging as Skyfall, the movie before it.  For the most part, I was right.  But the issue with Spectre for me wasn’t just that it wasn’t well written or well paced.  There was a deeper thread going on that ends up being the root of many of the movie’s issues.

Spectre sees the return of long-standing Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a figure from the days when Sean Connery played Bond.  Blofeld is pretty much the iconic movie supervillain.  He’s one of the original guys who built a giant lair inside a volcano, and is one of the most parodied elements of spy fiction (the Austin Powers movies poke a lot of fun at that trope).  Leading up to the movie, I was interested to see what take they were going to have on the character in the more gritty reboot of Bond they had been working with for the past few movies.  It had already been revealed that Bond and Blofeld had a familial tie this time around, which was an intriguing twist on the formula.  So I was excited to see how it all panned out.

I can at least say the movie has a lot of great ideas in it.  It attempts to tie together all of the Daniel Craig movies in one big web, implicating Blofeld as the central mastermind behind all of the enemies Bond has had to face so far in the reboot.  This would have been a very cool story arc for the character.  There’s just one major problem.

None of it feels planned out in the slightest.

Back in the first couple of Craig movies, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, we had a shadowy organization in the form of Quantum.  A lot of people speculated that Quantum was the new Spectre and that the Daniel Craig movies were going to focus on his encounters with them.  But then in the end of Solace, Bond kills who we’re led to assume is the head of Quantum (at least I think he was…I was never able to follow much of that movie), which puts an end to the organization’s dealings.  In the next movie, Skyfall, we’re treated to a villain who has no visible ties to Quantum because the people behind the movie told us they were going in a new direction.

But then, psyche!  Apparently…

Turns out Silva (the villain in Skyfall) was connected all along!  But why…exactly?  There’s no real reason for him to be involved in any of it.  Skyfall felt like its own standalone story.  And that’s kind of how Bond movies always were, standalone adventures.  The franchise has always played it fast and loose with continuity.  Bond even gets married in one of the older films only to have his wife shot and killed in the film’s closing minutes.  But that event has little to no effect on the rest of the movies, aside from some occasional vague references to it (even Pierce Brosnan’s Bond makes reference to it at one point).

Anyways, back to Skyfall.  Silva’s character has one basic motivation: to get revenge on M for abandoning him.  You see, Silva was once an MI-6 agent.  He screwed up in the field, and like we hear will happen in so many spy stories, he was disavowed.  He was captured and tortured for a long time.  And no one came to save him.  The end result of all this is that once Silva got free from his captors, he despised M and MI-6, making it his ultimate goal to destroy them both.  Despite how ridiculous certain bits of his plan are (such as the inexplicably well-timed train bit), his motivation feels right.  It feels justified.  It feels deserved.

And then in Spectre we’re expected to believe that it was Blofeld pushing Silva along the whole time.  So apparently, according to this logic, Blofeld sets Silva up to be disavowed and tortured, which he somehow knows will end up in Silva concocting this insane plan to get revenge.  Now, I could buy Quantum being just another branch of Spectre.  That would make sense, as it is just another shadowy organization that seemed to be a nod to Spectre in the first place.  But Silva’s inclusion in all of it just feels so random and out of place.

This is what I think Spectre’s major problem is.  The payoff that the movie is selling to us doesn’t feel deserved.  Nothing in the past three movies leading up to Spectre showed any indication that Blofeld was involved in any way.  At least in the old Sean Connery movies, you would get glimpses of Blofeld behind the scenes.  Maybe you hardly ever saw his face, but you knew he was there.  Spectre feels like Blofeld just crops up out of the blue and says “hey James, you know all that crappy stuff you’ve gone through?  I was behind it all, because I hate you.  Daddy taught you how to ski so I killed him and made it look like an avalanche.”

That’s his actual motivation for doing everything.  His father spent too much time with James as a kid, so he killed him and spent the rest of his life trying to make James suffer.  It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

Maybe this wouldn’t seem so silly if we just had more time to understand Blofeld’s character.  But as it is, we see him for maybe twelve minutes out of the entire movie.  He is revealed to us in the first half of the movie through a tense meeting scene (although he’s named something else…he reveals that he took his mother’s maiden name to become Blofeld later on) and then he disappears until the film’s final act.  All in all, we’ve spent about five minutes with this character by the time he reveals his parental issues that drive his entire evil scheme.  It just doesn’t seem very believable.

And that’s the thing.  Daniel Craig’s movies were seemingly meant to be a bit more realistic, relying less on gadgets and more on pure physical prowess and smarts on Bond’s part.  After he meets Vesper in Casino Royale and is subsequently betrayed, it is implied that the incident has ruined Bond’s relationship with women from that point out.  And yet, in Spectre we see Bond romancing women the way he always did in the old movies and even falling in love with one of them later on.  It just doesn’t feel deserved because the movie is caught up on whether it wants to be an old Bond movie or a new one.  It tries to make things more gritty yet more fantastical, and ends up stuck in the middle somewhere.  The ridiculous parts of the movie don’t seem appropriate and the gritty aspects feel almost ham-fisted.  It’s a movie trying to be two different movies at once, yet succeeding at neither.

Bolfeld is the perfect exemplification of this.  In the old movies, he was just a megalomaniac who wanted to take over the world.  He wasn’t necessarily a sociopath.  He was just evil.  But in the new Bond, he’s not really that same man anymore.  All he seems bent on is destroying Bond.  Which then leads me to ask: why the whole secret organization bent on world domination?  Are we really expected to just believe that Blofeld went through all that trouble trying to take over the world just to get back at Bond?  Spectre as an organization feels like it’s just an afterthought, like Blofeld said “hey I guess we can do this whole global domination thing, but I really just want to screw with James for a while”.   The organization feels like it only exists because it has to exist, because that’s who Blofeld is in the old movies.  And that is Spectre‘s biggest failing.  It tries to break new ground with the franchise, but it’s also so caught up in being loyal to old source material that shouldn’t even matter anymore.

And the silly thing is, by the end of the movie Spectre as an organization has collapsed and Blofeld is in jail.  The character who pretty much haunts the background of many old Bond movies is taken care of in a single film in the new generation.  Spectre wants to tie everything together, but it also seems to want to contain the Blofeld arc to one movie.  The indecision on the part of the filmmakers to go one way or the other with the movie leaves us with a film that has all these different ideas that are never given a proper exploration.  Blofeld’s motivation is just a single line of dialogue that only serves to explain his hatred for Bond.  They never delve into their past and explore what that relationship was like.  It’s just an excuse for more explosions.

But hey, explosions are still cool right?

 

Well that’s all I have for you this time.  In the end, Spectre isn’t a bad movie (better than Quantum of Solace, that’s for sure).  But it certainly has its issues when you start looking too deep.  It’s an enjoyable film, just not up to par with some of Daniel Craig’s earlier outings as Bond.

Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

Hypocritical Bias: More on the Syrian Refugees

Roughly two and a half weeks ago Paris came under attack by terrorists.  In the space of one night, they killed over a hundred people.  And in the light of those attacks, the debate has been raging over what to do with the Syrian refugees that are fleeing their country in an attempt to get away from ISIS.  Now I already talked about this two weeks ago but it’s a topic that deserves talking about again.  But this time I want to delve into a more specific portion of the issue, and that’s the response here in the United States.

Now, there’s something to be said about being afraid.  It’s natural.  It’s completely fair.  Every human being experiences fear at some point in their life.  It’s one of the most instinctual emotions we have.  But what’s not fair are some of the arguments being used against these refugees and the ignorance that’s been on display.

First off, let’s talk about the process the refugees have to go through to become admitted refugees of the United States.  It doesn’t seem like the people who are constantly talking about this process actually understand how insanely rigorous it is.  The process forces them to go through about five or six different governmental organizations that are constantly fact-checking and gathering information to determine if said person is a threat to the country.  And that’s only if they’re recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (or UNHCR), which by the way ends up recommending less than one percent of the worldwide refugees who apply.  All in all, the process usually takes eighteen to twenty-four months.  That’s right, it can take up to two years after the process is started before a refugee gets resettled.

But you know what, don’t just take my word for it.  I’ll let John Oliver lay it all out for you.

And now, despite this incredibly in-depth process that already exists, Congress voted for even more strict regulations requiring the FBI director to sign off on each and every refugee.  Some prominent politicians have claimed that there’s no way to screen people or that there’s very little that goes into the vetting process.  This is plainly not true, which you can find out if you do any amount of research into the matter.  Frankly, it’s rather disturbing that the people in charge of this country’s future can be so ignorant.

But that’s not the only thing I want to talk about today.  There are a couple other arguments floating around that I want to mention.

The first of these arguments is something that goes like this: “why should we take care of a bunch of refugees when there’s so many homeless people/veterans living in poverty in our country?”  To begin with, the assertion that we as a country can only spend money on one issue at a time is absolutely ludicrous, especially when we spend something like seven hundred billion dollars on the Pentagon alone.  Seven hundred billion.  You’re going to tell me that we don’t have room in our budget to take care of refugees and the homeless?

But that’s not the worst part.  The worst part is that these very same people refused to do anything about the issue when it was tackled by the government before.  And you know why?

Because they didn’t want to raise taxes.

Because they believed that homeless people deserved to be homeless, that if they just “got a job” and worked harder they would live better lives.

And now they trot them out as some pathetic excuse to hide their xenophobia, because they don’t want to acknowledge their bias against Muslims.  “Hey look at me,” they seem to say.  “I’m being socially conscious by acknowledging other issues!”  No you’re not.  You’re just masking your own ignorant hypocrisy.  I don’t normally take such a hard stance on these subjects, but when people use the human beings they refused to help earlier as an excuse to not help another group of human beings, it starts to bring my blood to a furious boil.  There’s no shame in being afraid, but there’s plenty of shame in demonizing your fellow people.

But I don’t think it’s quite as absurd as comparing them to poisoned food.

Oh yeah, you heard me right.  People are comparing the refugees to bags or sacks of poisoned food.  “If I give you a sack of grapes,” they say, “and tell you that some of them are poisoned, what would you do with the sack?”  The implication is of course that you would throw the sack away and not even risk it.  This analogy can come in different forms (in the John Oliver video, he shows a clip of Mike Huckabee using the comparison, but with a bag of peanuts), but the end argument is the same: we shouldn’t risk taking in refugees because there might be a few terrorists among them.

First off, people are not grapes.  They are not peanuts.  I shouldn’t even have to say that, but there it is.  You don’t eat people (unless you’re a cannibal of course, in which case eww…just eww man…).

Secondly, of course you would throw out the damn bag of grapes if some are bad.  They’re grapes.  They’re expendable.  But we’re not talking about grapes.  We’re talking about people.  People with lives, families, dreams and aspirations.  They want to live.  Grapes don’t have dreams.  Grapes don’t even think.  They’re grapes for crying out loud.

My point is that we’re letting fear get the best of us (a point I made two weeks ago as well).  We need to listen to our hearts on this one.  There are people out there who need our help.  They’re living in a nightmarish place right now, a place they’re trying desperately to escape.  And do we really think that a terrorist is going to spend two years trying to get into the U.S. through the refugee process when getting a Visa is far easier?

So many of us live our lives in luxury, not having the remotest idea of what true strife is like.  Sure, our car breaks down or our budget might be a little tight one month, but we don’t all live in constant fear for our lives.  We aren’t forced to uproot our entire home and carry it on our backs, just for a slim chance at getting a better life.

In the end, it’s not how much power we have that matters, but how we use it.  Why don’t we use a little bit of it to help our fellow humans find a better way to live?

 

Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.