Procedural Gains? The Value of “Case of the Week” Television Shows

A long time ago, television was different.  Shows mainly focused on the weekly adventures of its characters, very rarely (if at all) connecting them in any meaningful way beyond the initial premise (i.e. “Gilligan’s Island”).  But nowadays we have shows like “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead” which have a single, continuous story going on throughout their episodes.  Television has changed quite a bit.  I wrote a bit about serialized storytelling in television shows a while back, where I basically said that it’s becoming more and more the standard for television shows.  But what about those “case of the week” shows?  You know, all those shows like the “Law and Order”s and the “NCIS”s and even that “CSI” show where it’s imperative that David Caruso put his sunglasses on at the end of each episode.

 

We have sunglasses! Repeat. we have sunglasses! ROLL CREDITS!

 

Well, these type of shows are still around.  “But,” you might be asking, “how are these shows surviving if serialized storytelling is becoming the norm?”  Well, some of them aren’t.  “CSI: Miami” has been off the air for about five years now.  But even so, “CSI: Maimi” went on for ten seasons and the original “NCIS” is still going (they’re on season fourteen as of this writing).  So how did they make it?  How are they still drawing an audience in the age of serialized storytelling?

Part of it has to do with the nature of broadcast television itself.  Since each episode airs at a specific time on a specific night, it’s sometimes difficult for viewers to keep up with an overarching story.  You can watch recent episodes of shows on digital streaming services like Hulu, but a lot of those require a monthly fee.  It’s just simpler to watch a show where each episode is its own story that doesn’t connect the other episodes.  And they’re sort of relaxing in a way.  I’ll admit that I watch some of them back to back when I go back to my parent’s house for a weekend, partially because I don’t have television at my apartment (I do have a handful of broadcast channels, but nothing on them interests me).

But even with this simpler nature, the streaming age is still marching on.  As more and more people gain access to these services and as the internet infrastructure in the United States and other countries gets stronger and stronger, these shows will lose that edge.  If you can watch a show anytime you want, that pressure to sit down and watch at a specific time disappears entirely.  And it seems that broadcast television is aware of that in some way.  More procedural shows have started injecting serialized elements into their DNA.  Lots of crime shows will have arcs that take place over multiple episodes.  A good example of this would be a main character suffering an injury in an episode and then the following episodes dealing with the fallout and limitations of that, all while they go about solving the crime of the week.

And this is something that procedural shows are very good at.  In serialized shows, we see characters always under pressure, always struggling against great odds.  But rarely do we get to see how they’d react to what they’d consider a normal situation.  Procedural shows are actually good at giving us glimpses into the normal lives of their characters, rather than using broad strokes like most serialized shows do.  It actually tells you a lot about a person when you see how they respond to a normal, everyday problem rather than an extreme one.

On the flip side, when serialized shows try something like this it often ends up feeling forced or it messes with the pacing.  A good example of this would be in season three of “Breaking Bad”.  There’s a segment that deals almost exclusively with domestic drama between Walter and Skyler.  And it’s just…boring.  There’s a lot of tension, but very little release.  It doesn’t really go anywhere and it just feels as though the writers were looking for a way to eat up time.  I mean the best moment from that section of the show is Walter bringing his family a pizza.

 

Incidentally, this scene was so popular that the show creator had to make a statement asking fans to stop throwing pizza on the roof of the Walter White house.

 

The strength of procedural shows lies in the myriad ways they can examine their characters.  “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did a wonderful job with the episodes focusing on Data, the resident android.  In a way, we got to know Data far better than any of the other characters on the Enterprise. which made him a fan-favorite from the series.  It would be a shame if we lost that power because television is growing more and more serialized.  That being said, it appears broadcast television has a ways to go before they can compete with the likes of “Breaking Bad”.  In particular, ABC seems to go through new shows like a hot knife through better.  Remember “Time After Time”, the show about H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper?  If you don’t, that’s okay.  It was cancelled after five episodes.  And this happens a lot with broadcast.  I mentioned once that I thought broadcast television was too focused on the plot twists instead of the characters.  And the advertising seems indicate that, with commercials focusing on “that twist you’ll never see coming”.

But progress inevitably continues.  And eventually, they’ll have to catch up…sooner or later.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Popularity and Controversy: “13 Reasons Why” and the Discussion Around Suicide

You’ve probably heard of the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why”, even if you haven’t actually watched it.  Controversy has surrounded it ever since it was released at the end of March.

For those who don’t know, “13 Reasons Why” centers around the suicide of a fictional high school student named Hannah Baker.  Following her suicide, her friend Clay receives a box of tapes, each with a message Hannah recorded before she died.  In the tapes, she lists the reasons why she committed suicide…or rather the people who drove her to it.  Since the show came out, there’s been a swirl of controversy surrounding it, as people have argued that the show glorifies the act of suicide.

 

 

Now, I’m going to add a disclaimer here: I’ve never actually watched the show myself.  So everything I’m about to say comes from that perspective.  Take that as you will.

“13 Reasons Why” was originally a book written by author Jay Asher, which released in 2007.  Asher himself recently spoke about the book and the show at the Twin Cities Teen Lit Convention in Minnesota.  According to an article on Fox 9’s website, critics have called the plot dangerous because it depicts high school counselors as unsympathetic to Hannah’s plight.  Asher himself says that he’s dealt with criticism ever since the book released and he believes the Netflix show is sparking discussion on an important and difficult issue.

“The only thing that bothers me, is when people try to shut down conversation about it.  To me, that is the most dangerous thing,” Asher is quoted as saying.

Some people even tried to have the book banned when it came out ten years ago.

There’s been a lot of talk about “13 Reasons Why” glorifying suicide, but not much talk on how it glorifies suicide.  Most of the news stories I see talk about how schools are warning parents about the show and encouraging them to have a discussion with their children.  This is all well and good, but I find it hard to believe that the show is somehow glorifying the act of suicide when it is so clearly a tragic story.  And when I watch the trailer I just don’t see the problem.  To glorify something means to represent it as admirable, and I don’t get the sense that it’s trying to make suicide look like the right thing to do.

It seems to me, as an outsider who isn’t really a part of the conversation, that a lot of people are jumping on the controversy bandwagon in an effort to appear socially conscious.  It reminds me of when people buy those ribbons or bumper stickers in support of some cause and proudly put them on display for everyone to see.  In the back of my mind I always wonder, “do they actually care about the issue?  Or is it just a status symbol for them?”  The same kind of thing could be happening with “13 Reasons Why”.  People go on about how it glorifies suicide but they don’t really explain how it does or why they think that.  Instead, many of them say “don’t let your kids watch the show” and just leave it at that.

And that is not a solution.

Here’s the thing: when you present something as “forbidden” to kids, it tends to entice them to find out more.  If you simply refuse to discuss something with a child, then it leaves them unprepared for it when it happens.  They won’t recognize the signs if one of their friends starts to contemplate killing themselves.  And if they don’t recognize the signs, then they can’t help.

Suicide isn’t easy to talk about.  That’s understandable.  But ignoring the subject does more harm than good.

Personally, I’m glad that “13 Reasons Why” has generated controversy.  Controversy can be good because it sometimes encourages discussion.

And discussion is important, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here and follow me on Twitter here.

The Woes of Broadcast Shows

To get started, let’s take a look at this promo for an episode of the show Designated Survivor:

 

 

Nothing unusual here right?  Just an average promo for a television show right?  Well that’s sort of my problem with it.

I stopped watching shows on broadcast television a long time ago (the last show I followed was Fringe, and that ended its run four years ago).  My issue is the kind of thing you see in the trailer.  Instead of actually giving us a clue as to what might happen next, it dwells on the “shocking” twist at the end of the mid-season finale.  “The shot that shocked the nation,” it proudly proclaims before going on to tease “who took the bullet?”  Because that’s the kind of hype these shows are built up on.  How many television show promos have you seen tease a plot twist you “won’t see coming”?

For another example, let’s take a look at the ABC series Scandal.  Scandal‘s main premise is about Olivia Pope, who is a “fixer”…that is, someone who gets rid of problems for people who can afford it (namely the rich and powerful).  Let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s summary of season one:

“Season 1 introduced Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the various members of her firm, as well as President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) and his chief of staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Season 1 focused on the lives of the team members, the relationship between Olivia and the President (her former employer), and the mystery surrounding Amanda Tanner’s (Liza Weil) involvement with the White House, among other cases the team solved.”

It doesn’t tell us much about what happens in season one, but it doesn’t need to.  Scandal clearly started out as a procedural type of show with some recurring elements.  I’ve never watched it myself, but that’s the impression I get from the summary.  For contrast, let’s take a look at season four’s summary:

“The first half of the season focuses on Jake’s arrest for the death of Jerry Grant after Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator. Rowan continues to try to make everyone believe Jake is guilty, which inspires Olivia to find out the truth for herself. After forcing Tom to reveal Rowan as his operator, Fitz, Jake, and Olivia make a plan to arrest Rowan. Unfortunately, the plan fails, causing Rowan to shut down B613 and start eliminating B613 agents. Olivia tries to kill Rowan when she confronts him, but he manages to flee. Abby is now the White House Press Secretary, and is struggling with gaining the respect of Cyrus and Fitz, because they choose to demean her by calling her “Red” instead of Abby. Later in the season, Abby finds herself stressed even more by the presence of her abusive ex-husband, who has been nominated for Virginia State Senator, and she enlists Leo Bergen to help ruin his campaign. Quinn has stayed in contact with both Abby and Huck, in addition to trying to find Olivia.”

Did you get that?  No?  Me neither.  It just sounds like a mess of different plot points.  And that’s not even the entire summary.

Now, to be fair, any show with an overarching plot can sound confusing if you just jump in four seasons deep.  But even so, Scandal‘s season four just sounds like it’s over-stuffed with plot elements.  Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator, but Rowan is the real operator!  They try to get Rowan arrested but the plan fails!  Meanwhile Abby has to deal with office sexism!

Even just watching the preview for the next episode of Designated Survivor gives you an idea of how quickly things can get out of hand.  Pro tip: if you’re only halfway through the first season of your political espionage thriller show, maybe don’t make the Vice President of the goddamn United States your bad guy.  Because honestly, where do you go from there?

And that’s my big problem.  It seems that network television spends most of its time trying to out-“OMG” the competition rather than producing good, solid content.

From 2004 to 2010, Lost demonstrated the potential of serialized television shows.  It wasn’t really until Lost that network television really started to shift in that direction.  The groundwork was laid by shows like X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it was Lost that really brought it all together.  Sure, the show was (and still is) mocked for not giving any real answers to its mysteries, but its strength lay in how fleshed out its characters were.  Over the course of six seasons, you got to know a lot about their lives…almost too much.  But Lost was also known for all the crazy plot twists that happened.  They were all the crazy “water-cooler moments” that people talked about the day after an episode premiered.  And it seems that’s what network television took note of, so now broadcast shows are just a race to get the biggest “OMG” water-cooler moment of the year.

I mean, it might actually be working.  For all the guff I gave Scandal‘s fourth season, it apparently has the highest Nielson ratings of all of them.  But the story is different for Designated Survivor.  On average, the ratings have been dropping ever since the premiere episode.  This plot twist obsessed mindset is not going to be sustainable forever.

One of the most talked about shows last year was Stranger Things, a show that was exclusively on Netflix.  Broadcast television has always had an edge because it’s free, at least in the sense that you don’t have to pay a bill every month to watch.  But as streaming becomes more prevalent and more affordable, broadcast TV might be on the way out.  Instead of having to wait and see what happens next episode, you can just click “next episode” (although you’ll still likely have to wait for new seasons to come out).

I talked about this a little bit when I spotlighted Person of Interest, but one of my major issues with broadcast television is that there’s so much filler content, even in shows that claim to be serialized.  And this is because broadcast networks are obsessed with ratings, which means that they give shows these twenty-odd episode seasons that they are required to fill up.  Now, obviously, it’s nearly impossible to make all those episodes about an over-arching plot without it quickly growing convoluted and incomprehensible, so most shows opt to have filler episodes surrounding the main story.  This is what Fringe did, and while I still very much enjoyed the show, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the show had been on a non-broadcast network or had been a streaming show.

This format isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s very stifling in a creative sense.  And unless broadcast television changes its ways, I don’t see much of a future for it in the age of on-demand streaming.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Spotlight: Person of Interest

Television is changing.  With the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, the way we watch our TV shows has shifted.  And now that these same streaming services have begun creating their own shows, the very format of a television show has changed as well.  The length of a television show season is usually around twenty-two episodes or thirteen episodes, depending on the network.  But with Netflix’s Stranger Things, we got a season that was only eight episodes long.  There’s more freedom now to create as short or as long a season as the creators need to or want to.  Shows on broadcast television networks, with their twenty-odd episodes in a season, are starting to feel outdated.

In a sense, you could consider Person of Interest to be a member of the “old guard”.  The show had its run on CBS, which meant that each season (with the exception of the fifth and final) was twenty-two to twenty-three episodes long.  Person of Interest is a procedural crime drama with a science-fiction flair and some spy thriller elements thrown in.  The premise of the show is as follows:

After the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, the United States government began looking into creating a system that would monitor the public at all times.  They wanted a system that could alert them of any potential terrorist attacks before they happen, giving them a chance to stop them.  Their system is created by a man named Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), but it comes with an unexpected side effect.  The machine sees not just potential terrorist acts, but crimes of an everyday nature as well, crimes involving ordinary men and women.  To deal with this, the machine is programmed to split them into two categories: relevant and irrelevant.

When the show opens in 2011, Finch approaches ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and offers him a job: help him track down the irrelevant numbers, figure out whether they are a victim or perpetrator, and stop whatever crime is about to happen.

That is the central conceit of the show.  Every week Finch and Reese receive a number (which equates to someone’s social security number), which leads them to a person.  They then do the work of finding that person and whatever it is they’ve gotten themselves involved with.  There is a greater plot thread in play, even during the initial seasons of the show, but it’s not very evident.  In fact, it’s not until near the end of the third season that a massive serialized arc takes shape.  If you’ve ever watched the show Fringe the format is pretty similar: procedural, standalone episodes detailing a “case of the week” and then the overarching episodes which impact the path the show takes as a whole.

The procedural aspect of the show is undoubtedly a product of the broadcast television format.  With twenty-odd episodes to make, it isn’t entirely possible to make them all about the main story, at least without making the main plot convoluted and overbearing.  This is the issue I expect most people to run into with this show, as it is the same issue I ran into later on when the main plot got to be really interesting.  There is a lot of filler in this show, episodes that have no real purpose whatsoever aside from being entertaining for that week.

Personally, I don’t mind procedural episodes that much as long as they’re well done, but I know that a lot of people get bored by them.  However, even when the show is at its most procedural, it is still a technically proficient one.  Gone are the days of X-Files, where one episode could be amazing and spellbinding, and then the next makes you question why you ever started watching the show in the first place.  At worst, the procedural episodes of Person of Interest can come across as bland and unoriginal.

And there are some really great procedural episodes in the show, ones that delve deeper into one of the characters.  For example, later on in the show there’s an episode that takes place almost entirely as one of the characters is dying from a gunshot wound.  At first, you don’t even know it either.  What you initially think is just a flashback to a conversation turns out to be a part of the character’s hallucination.  It’s a gripping episode and one of the show’s strongest in my opinion.  It goes to show that even procedural episodes can surprise you.

The show’s serial episodes are obviously what people are going to remember, and they are definitely riveting.  Initially, the show’s serial episodes focus on the nature of government surveillance, but later on the show’s science-fiction element takes center stage.  The show’s latter seasons focus on the power and dangers of artificial intelligence and grandiose reflections on the nature of humanity.  I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that one side believes humanity needs to be forcibly guided while the other side believes humanity deserves to make its own choices.

Most of my complaints with the show are minor, although I did have one thing that kept nagging at me.  At times, the show’s procedural nature was at odds with its serialized plot.  This became increasingly evident in one of the later seasons.  Without spoiling too much, the events of one of the season finales requires that the main characters essentially go underground and keep a low profile.  And the first episode of the next season goes to great lengths to make that point, with Reese being scolded for doing what he normally does because it could blow his cover.  However, after all that, some of the procedural episodes seem to pretend that this isn’t even a problem.  Some episodes do make a point of it, with a character saying something along the lines of “you can’t just go in there and do that, you’ll risk exposing your cover!”  But then other episodes have them running into a place, shooting it up, beating the crap out of dudes and the like, and there is apparently no consequence for it.  It created this weird disjunction that once I noticed it I couldn’t stop noticing it.  Maybe I’m just nit-picking, but it really bothered me after a while.  I guess I just wanted to see more of the main plot instead of random, case-of-the-week episodes.

My other complaints are very minor.  Some of the episodes, particularly early on in the show, have weird abrupt endings that seem out of place.  The “plot bubble” effect in the show is strong, meaning that main characters (even bad guys) miraculously escape from harm because their pursuers suddenly have terrible aim with their weapons.  It just seems strange that John Reese can kneecap people with perfect accuracy but at other times can’t even manage to hit the person at all.

My only other complaint has to do with one of the main antagonists of the show.  At the end of one of the seasons, there’s a plot twist that reveals that he was basically planning things for years, working towards things from a time before the show even started.  Which makes no sense when you think about the fact that he had another plan a season earlier which utterly failed.  So that would mean that he knew his plan would fail or at the very least that he had a secondary plan in place in case he failed, which makes even less sense because that would mean he created a terrorist group for no reason.  It’s one of those things where when you start thinking about it, the bad guy’s “brilliant plan” actually ends up seeming really dumb.

In the end though, Person of Interest is a show that is definitely worth watching.  It takes a very nuanced approach to its themes (for the most part), and is consistently well-written.  It’s also not afraid to experiment.  One of the later episodes takes place mostly in the mind of the machine itself as it hypothesizes scenarios in an attempt to find an escape plan for our heroes.  At one point, the machine realizes it’s running out of time, so it simplifies the simulation.  This leads to a bizarrely funny bit where the characters are walking around speaking in strange placeholder dialogue like “flirty greeting” or “general statement of mission success”.

Person of Interest manages to surprise many times throughout its run.  It’s an action-heavy show that’s fun to watch but also has a lot of depth to it.  And I must say that the series finale is one of the most immensely satisfying and powerful finales I have seen in a long time.  It’s definitely worth a watch.  And hey, it’s all streamable on Netflix.  Isn’t that convenient?

Now I’m going to get out of here before I start sounding like a spokesperson for Netflix…

 

Well thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Can’t Remember: The Amnesia Trope

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

You wake up in a dark room, lying face down on a cold stone floor.  You groan, your head feeling like it weighs ten times what it should.  Taking stock of your surroundings, you find that you can’t see much in the dim lighting of the candles lining the walls.  There’s a rickety looking wooden table in the middle, and what appears to be an old antique dresser with a mirror on top just across from it.  Pushing yourself up off the floor, you wince.  Your body aches more than it should.  With shaky steps, you make your way over to the mirror.  Even in the dim lighting, you can tell you’ve had better days.  Your eyes look tired and your face is covered in dirt.  Turning around, you spot an old wooden door just outside the reach of the candles’ light.  You walk over and push it open, the door making a loud creaking that echoes into the hallway beyond.  You can tell you’re in some kind of ancient castle.  One of the windows has broken, the wind of the storm rushing in and blowing the worn red curtains all about.  You take a step into the hallway.

Then another.

You blink.

And that’s when it hits you, you don’t remember anything.  Why you’re here, where this is, and even who you are…it’s all missing, as if someone reached inside your head and pulled them out one by one…

 

The amnesia trope is a very common staple in fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  People often malign the trope, saying it’s cheap or lazy.  And while I’ll agree that often the amnesia trope can be a sign of a writer who’s run out of ideas, there’s also a very simple reason the trope exists in the first place.

Because it’s an effective way to set up a mystery or driving goal for a character.

When someone in a television show, movie, video game, or what have you wakes up in a strange location without any recollection of why they’re there or even who they are, our innate curiosity is like “hmm this is interesting…I wonder what’s going on?”  Call it manipulative if you want, but it works.  It immediately draws us in because we can’t help ourselves.  We want to know more, we have to know more.  And amnesiacs in fiction tend to have far more interesting lives than their real-life counterparts.

Take The Bourne Identity for example.  In the beginning of the movie, the crew of a fishing ship fishes Matt Damon’s character out of the water during a harsh storm.  He’s been shot in the back multiple times.  There’s no identification on him aside from a strange device featuring the address of a bank in Zurich.  And it becomes quickly evident that he has combat training, as he manages to ambush one of the crew members and grab him by the throat.  It’s then that we learn that Damon’s character has no memory and has no idea who he is or where he is.  It’s a very effective opening that gives us a clear reason to get invested in the plot.

But the real reason Bourne Identity succeeds at gaining our interest is because they give us key interesting details about the character: the strange laser pointer device pointing to the Zurich bank, the gunshot wounds on his back, and his apparent combat prowess.  It’s not enough to just give a character amnesia.  The amnesia might draw in people initially, but unless they’re given some more details, that interest will wane very quickly.  This is especially true in modern fiction, because people have seen the amnesia trope used so often that a writer will have to do extra work to keep them invested.

While the amnesia trope is very common in thrillers and mysteries, I think more recently it has found a home in video games, particularly those of the horror variety.  Like before, amnesia is a good way to get people interested, but in video games it serves another important purpose.  In a game it’s crucial that the player identifies with the character they are playing as in some way.  Amnesia is a very useful tool in this sense, because it allows the player to jump in at a point where they have about as much information on their situation as the character in the story.  In this way, they are experiencing the mystery right along with the character.  If the main character suddenly got amnesia halfway through the game, it would just create this weird disconnect for the player and they would likely lose interest.

Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an example.  Our journey begins as the main character, Daniel, is stumbling through the halls of a castle struggling to maintain his memory.  The scene fades in and out of blackness as he makes his way through the stone corridors.  He recites off details about himself, but by the end of the intro he can barely manage to say his name.  He wakes up later on in the middle of a hallway, with nothing aside from a trail of pinkish fluid to follow.  As we go through the game, we slowly learn more about his predicament and how he ended up in this strange, haunting castle.  Because, like I said, the amnesia trope can be effective as long as a writer handles it with care.

In the end I think the amnesia trope has a bit of a unfair reputation.  Like anything, it can be overused, but just looking at the memory tropes page at TV Tropes shows you just how versatile it can be.  It pays to recognize that everything, even the most cliche of tropes, have their place in fiction.  And yes, that even includes demons, which I have very loudly complained about many times before.  But it’s a tricky balancing process.  You can give a character amnesia, but if you don’t give the character a compelling reason to have amnesia then the effect is lost on people.  I’m of the opinion that originality in stories is a little overrated.  As long as you can put a unique and interesting spin on a story, and do it well, then it really shouldn’t matter if your story is heavily inspired by one thing or another.  EVERYTHING is inspired by one thing or another.  All of fiction can have its roots traced back to the ancient tradition of oral storytelling.  True originality simply doesn’t exist.

A writer needs to be able to make use of all the tools in their toolbox, so to speak.

5 Statements About Video Games I Disagree With

Anybody who’s followed my blog probably knows that I’m a big fan of video games, with them being one of the primary ways I spend my free time.  Now, there’s a lot of different thoughts and ideas floating around out there about video games and how they relate to us.

Here are five of those thoughts that I disagree with.

 

5. Violent games are corrupting our youth

This is something I heard a lot when I was growing up.  Violent video games were desensitizing kids and making them more prone to commit violent acts.  And considering the brutal nature of games like Mortal Kombat (which made a name for itself solely on how gory and violent it was), the idea made a certain kind of sense.  So why do I disagree with it?  Two main reasons:

  1. Television shows and movies have plenty of violence, yet they don’t get nearly as much criticism.
  2. There is no scientific study or literature that conclusively shows that playing violent games leads to a higher chance of committing violent acts.

In regards to the first one, I understand that one of the primary concerns with video games is the interactive nature of it.  Instead of passively watching the main character shoot a few dozen dudes, you are actively participating.  But like I said with point number two, no study has ever proven anything beyond the fact that playing video games may lead to increased aggression.

The other main issue with scientific studies into violent games is that many of them are flawed.  I remember reading about a study that took place while I was in high school (around 2005 or so I believe).  Basically they had two groups of people, one playing Wolfenstein 3D and another playing Myst.  After about an hour or so of playtime, they brought these two groups together and gave them air horns.  What they found was that the group that played Wolfenstein 3D would honk the air horn for longer periods of time than the people who played Myst would.

I think you can already spot some of the flaws here.  This study took place in roughly 2005, which means that at that time, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had already been released the year before.  And even if the study took place before it, there were other Grand Theft Auto games they could have used.  So then, why did they choose two games that were released a decade earlier in the 1990’s?

The other issue is the air horns.  Using an air horn does not translate to intent to commit violent acts.  Now, you can’t take a group of people and hand them guns (because that would be really REALLY bad), but air horns do not strike me as a good metaphor for increased aggression.

And this is the problem with most studies into the subject.  They don’t have a good way of interpreting the effects of games because they usually study subjects in a one-off manner, having them play a game and then seeing how they act immediately after.  It doesn’t take into account other factors that could contribute to this alleged aggression increase.

Besides, the juvenile crime rate in the 1990’s was on the decline, which is the same decade that video games began their rise to prominence.  So there’s no solid evidence to support the idea that violent games cause more real life violence.

 

4. Video games are mindless entertainment

This is another one I heard when I was growing up.  And while it is true for certain games (the Call of Duty franchise comes to mind), there are plenty of games out there that are more than just “mindless”.

Myst is one of the games I had growing up that was anything but mindless.  There were no enemies to fight.  All you had were your wits to solve the many puzzles laid around the island and uncover more of its secrets.  In fact, I remember my brother actually had a notebook journal dedicated to writing down clues for the game.  But Myst is not the only game that serves as a counter to the mindless argument.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game I have yet to play, but one that I want to get around to at some point.  It’s a game about a soldier who goes to a far off country to deal with what seems like a normal mission.  But when he gets there, things start going Apocalypse Now, with the main character’s sanity slowly degrading throughout the story.  The game is supposed to feature some of the most interesting and complex moral choices of any game ever.  For example, there’s one scene where you’re tasked with shooting someone who’s running away.  Now the two choices are clear: shoot him or don’t.  But apparently, there’s a third choice to be made in there.  You can shoot at the person but miss on purpose, making it look like you were fulfilling your orders but allowing the man to live.  And the game doesn’t tell you that this exists.  You just find that out on your own.

There’s also Journey, a game where you play as a nameless, faceless figure wandering a surreal desert landscape.  But it’s more than just that.  Journey is also a bit of a social experiment in that as you wander through the game, occasionally another player will be inserted into your game.  You can’t talk to each other or communicate (aside from gestures I believe), and you can’t identify each other either.  You can only make the decision to work together or ignore each other.

 

Journey

Journey

 

There’s also Papa & Yo, a game about a boy and his monster friend which was an allegory for the creator’s experience with an alcoholic, abusive father.  There’s Neverending Nightmares, a psychological horror game in which the creator drew upon his own personal experiences with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to replicate a sense of bleakness in the game similar to what he felt in real life.  And there’s Gone Home, a game about a girl returning home and discovering all that has happened with her family in the year she’s been studying abroad.

So no, games are not just mindless entertainment.  They have plenty of potential to talk about complex and difficult subjects.

 

3. Games aren’t stories

This is one I ran into fairly recently, and is what inspired me to write this post.  It comes from a Cracked.com article entitled “4 Things Gamers Think Are Important (But Aren’t)”.  In the article, the writer talks about people who play games have come to expect movie-quality stories from their games.

From the article:

“The reason video games don’t have great stories is that they’re games. Games are different from stories. The first goal of a video game is always to be fun, but somewhere along the line, we decided that the only way to have games be taken seriously is to give them Serious Stories. So we decided to splice in cutscenes — whole chunks of the game in which instead of “playing,” we’re watching a CGI movie. This is the equivalent of playing chess with your friends, but taking five minutes before your turn to explain the motivation of your rook, and the tragic injury in his youth that prevents him from moving diagonally.”

Now, I get what he’s saying here.  Often the gameplay and the story of a video game can feel like they’re in separate worlds.  When the story world appears, control is usually taken away from the player as they watch a small movie within the game.  It creates this disconnect that sometimes hampers the experience of the game overall.  But while the author complains that calling the stories of games “stories” is simplistic, reductive thinking, I would argue that his reasoning is simplistic as well.

It is certainly true that many games with quote unquote “deep stories” tend to have their story sections get in the way of playing the game, but there are plenty of other ways games can tell a story.  For example, when two people who play games talk to each other, you’ll sometimes get these stories that start with “well this one time I was playing (insert game here) and this totally crazy thing happened”.  This is something fundamentally unique to the video game medium.  You don’t read a book and have some totally unexpected thing happen that didn’t happen to anyone else reading the book.  But in a video game, there is the potential to create events and stories that even the people making the game might not see coming.

I talked about a game called Salt in a recent post, and I think that serves as a good example of this.  Salt is all about the player’s journey.  There’s very little overarching story created by the developers (although that could change as it is still in development).  In the post I made a joke about how you could use the game’s journal feature to write a diary of a man going slowly insane.  But isn’t it cool that you are even allowed to do that?  You can literally tell your own story within the game, because it’s all about the things you discover and experience.  And considering that the world is procedurally generated, no two player’s experiences will be exactly the same.  They won’t discover the exact same island as each other (well, until they add multiplayer that is).

In short, games have story possibilities that no other medium has to date.

 

2. PC/Console gaming is superior

Oh boy, haven’t I heard this one more times than I can count.  In much the same way as rival sports teams have fans that will incessantly fight each other  over which team is better, video games have fans of formats that will fight each other over which is superior.

Let me get something out of the way.  For most of my life, I have been a console gamer (meaning that I played on things like the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and so on).  It’s what I grew up with, not to mention the fact that I prefer sitting back with a controller to being hunched over a keyboard and mouse.  Yes, I understand that keyboard and mouse is more precise.  Yes, I understand that PC games have better graphics than console games.  I just don’t care.

Now, I will admit that for the last few years I have used my desktop computer to play games far more often than I have consoles.  I bought an Xbox One a couple of years ago, but I barely use it these days.  There just aren’t enough interesting games coming out for it, not to mention that I can get more games for cheaper prices on my computer.  But in the end, I will always prefer the feel of a controller over the feel of a keyboard and mouse.  It’s just more relaxing to me.

Besides, isn’t personal preference what it all comes down to in the end?  Why are we gamers constantly fighting over this nonsense?  Just play what you want to play and be happy with that.  Arguing over which format is better just sounds pretentious.

And speaking of pretentious…

 

1. Games are/aren’t art

If you ask Google to define art, this is what you get:

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Do you see what the issue with this definition is?  It’s too nebulous.  It doesn’t have a clear definition for what can and can’t be considered art.

And that’s exactly the point.

Look, this might sound funny coming from someone who wants to write books, but I don’t care if video games are art or not.  It doesn’t matter to me.  Because regardless of everything else, I consider games to be a form of expression, art or not.  And besides, hasn’t it always been said that art is in the eye of the beholder?

Do you consider games to be art?  Good for you.

Do you consider games to not be art?  That’s fine too.  In a way, you’re both right.

To me, art has always been a matter of perspective.  The definition from Google talks about how art is appreciated for its beauty and emotional power, but these two things are incredibly subjective.  I can’t hold up a painting and say “this painting has emotional power” because for some people it might not have that power.  To some people it might seem boring or uninspired.  To others, it might even be deemed offensive or insulting.  The fact of the matter is that whenever I look at something I am seeing it through my own eyes, through my own experience.  And while I play Gone Home and see it as a touching, emotional experience, others play the game and see it as boring and stupid.

Trying to nail art down to a concrete, scientific definition ignores one of the fundamentally great things about being human: we are all different in our own unique ways.  We all have our own perspectives, our own experiences.  And we use these things to shape our own unique path through life, our own unique story.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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Advertising Gone Weird: The Strangeness That is Video Game Commercials

Before we start, I just want you to take a look at this ad.  No seriously, just watch it.  It’ll give you an idea of what’s to come.

 

 

Yes, that was an actual ad that ran on actual television for an actual game.  Pole Position was released in 1982 for the Atari 2600, so presumably the commercial came out around that same time.  It’s certainly bizarre, and if there’s a lesson to be learned from it, it’s that God can be a dick sometimes I guess?

But this isn’t the only television commercial for video games that goes absolutely batshit crazy.  Oh no…there’s plenty of them out there.  Like this one that Nintendo released in Australia and New Zealand.

 

 

Oh yes…it was a whole thing.  Not half a thing, not even a quarter of a thing, but a WHOLE thing.

Now, these two ads I personally never saw on TV, mostly because one, I don’t live in Australia or New Zealand.  And two, I wasn’t even born when these ads were released.  I found them much later on as part of a Cracked.com article talking about strange video game commercials.  And this weirdness was almost par for the course when it came to video game advertisements, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s.  A possible explanation for this was that the technology was still new, and game companies weren’t sure how to present it to a television audience.  It’s also possible that the people in charge of making the ads had no damn clue what video games were about and so just decided to give good old insanity a try when it came to marketing.

Speaking of insanity, check out this ad for the original Legend of Zelda.

 

 

“Now you’re playing with power”?  More like playing with powers beyond mere mortal comprehension.  Poor guy…doomed to forever scour a room searching for a princess that doesn’t exist…

Well I suppose it’s better than the nerd rap commercial they made.  Or is it?  I really don’t know.

In any case, it seems that advertisers had no clue how to market this new technology to people, so they went for the most attention-grabbing tactics they could find.  But were these ads effective?  I can’t really say.  I know that from my own personal experience, television ads for video games rarely, if at all, affected the games I would buy.  Word of mouth and the internet were far better predictors of the games I bought, along with what I read in the gaming magazines I was subscribed to.  Of course, my experience is merely anecdotal, but as far as I can tell the television ads were secondary to the whole thing.

But hey, this is all in the past right?  There’s no way they’re still doing this kind of thing in modern times…right?

Wait, what’s this?  An ad for the Playstation 3 about ten years ago?  Well there’s no way this could be weirder than-

 

 

…dear god what in the hell did I just witness?  Maybe it’s metaphorical.  Maybe it has metaphysical connotations.  Maybe it’s a musing on the frailty of human life and the terrifying power of the technology it can create.

Or maybe drugs.  Lots of drugs.  Yeah probably drugs.  I’m guessing drugs.

All joking aside, as strange as it might seem there is actually a logic behind these kind of ads.  Because they are not just relegated to the realm of video game marketing.  Have you ever seen an ad that just makes you scratch your head and ask “why would that make me want to buy their product?”  Then you know what I’m talking about.

Back in college I had a class where we talked about the different types of ads marketers will use to sell their products.  At one end of the spectrum you have the typical “problem solution” ads.  An example of this would be those cleaning product advertisements where someone spills something on their shirt, making a stain which is then solved by the appearance of a cleaning product which transforms their shirt into looking good as new.  You see the formula: there’s a problem (stain on the shirt), which is then counteracted by a solution (the cleaning product).  These are probably the most common ads you’ll see on television.

There are other types of ads out there, but in the interest of time we’ll skip to the other end of the spectrum.  These were described in my class as something like “attention ads”.  These ads, rather than straight up selling you a product, will do something to grab your attention.  Most of the time it’s done by being funny, showing something interesting, or in the case of the Playstation 3 ad, fueling unbridled terror in men’s hearts.

 

And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you...

And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you…

 

The purpose of these ads is not to convince you of the virtue of their product, but to make the ad itself stick into your brain.  These will cause you to remember the ad, and by association, the product with it.  And you know what?  It actually kind of works.  After all these years I can still remember the Playstation 3 baby doll ad but I’d be hard pressed to tell you about any of the Xbox 360 advertisements, which was the Playstation 3’s competitor at that time.  Now whether or not these tactics translate into sales I cannot say.  It’s well-known by now that the PS3 was outsold by the Xbox 360 for almost the entirety of that console generation, but that was largely due to a botched launch.  The PS3 was just too expensive, didn’t have many games worth playing, and the technology was just too awkward for game makers to develop for, which lead to consistent technical issues with their games.  The ads were certainly bizarre, but it’s highly doubtful they led to the failure of the system on any level.

In any case, these ads are fun to look back on as curious pieces of history in a way.  They stick with us, and even if they didn’t achieve their purpose, they’re still fascinating to watch.  At the very least, they provide us with some entertainment value.  Creativity is the spice of life after all.

Well thank you all for reading, and check back next Wednesday for another post.  Now, before I go, I leave you with one last video game ad.  So enjoy!

 

 

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