Saturday, February 15, 2014

Not a "Real" Gamer

It's amazing how easy a trap it is to fall into, really.

As a working parent of a 6-month-old, there's always something to do. I pick her up from daycare on my way home from work, and my evenings are a maelstrom of dinner time and bath time and bed time and cleanup and setup for the next morning, when my alarm will go off at 5:59 and I will do it all over again. And as many other parents of young children before me have learned, the first thing to go is the idle time. Hobbies aren't gone forever, but they're on the back burner for a while.

Last night I was about to lament, "I haven't played a video game in months." The problem is, that lament is false in every way.

I got a 3DS for Christmas. A purple one. I love it to pieces. Not a day has gone by since the morning of December 25th that I haven't picked it up.

When my husband gave it to me, he also got me Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies, and a few days later I bought myself Animal Crossing: New Leaf.*

I've been prancing around my town fishing, planting trees, and talking to the neighbors every day for six weeks. But I haven't played a video game in ages.

I've been working my way through a soap opera of ridiculous cases in a somewhat unhinged version of the Japanese justice system for a month. But I haven't played a video game in ages.

I've been playing games on my phone--Candy Crush Saga among them, I reluctantly admit, but also loads of Triple Town and Plants vs Zombies 2--with my free hand while holding the baby to nurse with the other every single day for six months. But I haven't played a video game in ages.

Despite knowing exactly what the pitfalls are, despite analyzing this problem for a hobby and onetime for a living, despite thinking of myself as a person who works really hard to be open and inclusive with gaming, I've fallen into the trap.

Not a big-budget AAA game that you play with a controller? It's not a "real" game.

Something women play with one free hand while wrangling the kid with the other? It's not a "real" game.

It's so insidious. The culture sneaks up on you so easily. And while I watched my husband finish his personal-canon Mass Effect trilogy replay in the evenings, I sat and stewed and lamented that I don't appear to be a gamer anymore... while holding my 3DS in my hand.

Maybe I'm not a gamer. I probably never was. I probably never will be again. But whether I'm bouncing around waiting for Dragon Age: Inquisition, or whether I'm defending my brains from zombies column by column, I'm playing games.

And if I can't remember that for myself, I sure as hell can't expect the broader culture to remember it for me.

* 1048-9696-0755. I still haven't visited other towns or had visitors to mine. Feel free to leave yours in the comments, or to DM/e-mail it to me. ;)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Game of Life: No Cheat Codes Available

> N
You are in the NURSERY.
> look
There is a CRIB here. You hear a PURRING SOUND.
> i
You are carrying a BABY.
> put baby in crib
You cannot put the baby in the crib.
> examine crib
There is a CAT in the crib. It is purring in its sleep.
> remove cat from crib
There is an INDIGNANT CAT on your feet.
> put baby in crib
You are in the NURSERY. There is a CRIB here. There is a BABY in the CRIB. There is an INDIGNANT CAT that gives your ankle an annoyed nibble.

At a ripe old four weeks of age, our daughter is too young for games of any kind.  Peek-a-boo doesn't quite take when you've only barely learned to focus on anything, and as she hasn't yet figured out the whole "hands" thing, toys are still a bit of a non-starter.  (Though we are getting there quickly, on both counts.)

For me, on the other hand, my whole life has become something of a game.  It's an endless one, and the kind that's more perversely difficult than it is entertaining.  It's a series of puzzles, a sequence of boss fights where the rules keep changing every time you think you've mastered a skill.

There are definite elements of Tetris. If I put the support pillow *here* and the blanket *there* and the baby *just like this* then I can hold all the things at once... at least until I have to open the door.

Sometimes it's a racing game (perhaps the Rainbow Road track from Mario Kart). If I find a pacifier, and prop it in *just so*, then I can race to the bathroom and back and beat the clock, returning to scoop her up before she notices she's been left alone and cries.

Mainly, though, I've started thinking of my daily life in terms of the clear meters of The Sims. How hungry am I? How badly do I need to pee? Have I slept in the last three days? Showered this week? She is napping for thirty minutes -- which meters are the most urgent? I'll handle those first.

Guybrush, meanwhile, has decided he is all about the escort missions.

In this time of profound upheaval, I find myself turning to games with clear rules for a touchstone of sanity.  A half-hour a day of Civ V (which is easy to play one-handed, while holding or nursing an infant) keeps me feeling human in the same way that Law and Order marathons (my background noise, of late) find me getting alienated and detached.  It is hard to stay in and of the world while parenting a newborn.  For me, much of my world has been gaming.  And if Alexander the Great is unpredictable (he isn't; the bastard will always backstab during a declaration of friendship, if you have land he wants), he's got nothing on a baby -- a baby who is, at this moment, apparently bound and determined to punch herself in the face as much as possible.

Parenting is not a game, of course.  If it were, there would be cheat codes or hacks available.  I could increase time or decrease the need for sleep, increase money and space or decrease need for food.  Mainly, though, if I could only have one cheat code right now I think I would use "decrease_newborn_gas."  Then she wouldn't wake herself up all the time from farting, and everyone would be a lot happier.  Or at least better-rested, which in the end adds up to the same thing.

If someone could just tweak the collision plane on the crib so the cat can't get in, though, that would help for now.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Blogger Life Update: Explanation of Hiatus

Readers will notice that posting has been extremely light and sporadic this year.  It's not that I've lost interest in games, or in writing.  It's that I've gained this:

Her name is Miranda Claire Cox.  I spent all of 2013 (and a little bit of 2012) growing her from scratch and she joined the world at 7:49 a.m. on Thursday, August 15.

The combination of pregnancy and finding and settling into a new job took up the bulk of my physical and mental energy over the past six months.  And the combination of recovering from (an unexpectedly surgical) birth and learning who this little person is (and how to keep her fed) is taking up all of my mental and physical energy now.

I do plan to return to sharing my thoughts on games and gaming.  There's a lot going on to investigate, question, and think about.  A new console generation is coming in a couple of months, and that changes the commercial landscape.  There's more than ever going on in art, experimental, non-commercial, and indie gaming.  And frankly, parenthood in general and motherhood in particular are changing my focus and perspective.  The dadification of games and Boobjam in particular have my attention.  I know plenty of men in gaming and writing with kids, but almost no women with kids, and there are reasons for that.  There are systems and narratives and prejudices that need poking into, and I plan to keep poking into them.

But not this week, or this month, or probably the month after.  This time's for my family, which I now have, and that is an incredible feeling.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

How Microsoft Actively Chose to Cut their Customer Base, or: a Parable of Cousins

I have these cousins.  Or, rather, my husband has these cousins, but, y'know, family through marriage.

So.  There are these cousins: three kids, teenagers.  Good kids, and I like spending time with their parents, too.  Their dad really likes video games.  The girls really like video games.  The family has a Wii and definitely gets heavy use out of it, playing the hell out of every game that they buy.  Whenever we all get together at the beach in the summer, the girls love playing whatever we've brought and last year we talked Mass Effect with their father.  This year, the oldest came to visit and stay with us for a few days and my husband and I sent her home with a burned disc full of our favorites from GOG, for her and for the rest of her family.

Because here's the thing about this family: they live in a rural area.  A really rural area.  Their internet service is satellite-only, and it's got a cap of 5 gb per month.  5 gb, for two adults and three teenagers, in 2013.  And even without the cap, the speed doesn't support streaming much of anything and since it's satellite, a good rainstorm can knock their service out.

These cousins are a middle-class American family of five, and Microsoft is emphatically rejecting their money or the idea that they could ever be an audience worth courting.

"Because every Xbox One owner has a broadband connection..."

This is how Microsoft desperately tries to clarify their stance on whether the Xbox One is always-on or not.  Those are their own words.  "Because every Xbox One owner has a broadband connection."

It's not that Microsoft doesn't understand that plenty of people in the US and worldwide don't actually have reliable broadband connections.  It's that they don't give a damn.  If your connection isn't reliable, then by default, you are not an Xbox One owner.

It's almost a relief how clear and cavalier Microsoft is being about this, in fact.  If you have concerns about this system, that's okay with them: they do not want your money, your business, or your patronage.  They do not value you as a potential consumer of their goods, and they do not care if you are aware of their contempt.

It's good to know, I suppose.

Of course, American broadband infrastructure is notoriously spotty and challenging.  For the first two years my husband and I lived together, our connection was unstable and prone to fits of going at dial-up speeds or simply dropping out altogether.  Comcast eventually fixed the wiring and solved the problem, but this was not long ago or far away.  This was 2008-2009, in metro Washington, DC.  The nation's capital.

Yes, our internet service was fixed and now works as well as we pay for it to.  And yet Comcast can throttle service to our whole building anytime they want, if my media-savvy neighbors and I appear to be sucking down too much of their precious bandwidth.  So it goes, in densely populated areas: a thinly-shared resource can mean rationing.

And all this, of course, does not even make mention of our global neighbors, and how tricky heavy reliance on high-bandwidth internet connections can be in such tiny countries as Australia and Canada.  Nobody in those places wants to play Xbox games, right?

The always-on, fully global web really is the wave of the future.  I won't fight it (though I might tie an onion to my belt and tell you all to get off my lawn) but the truth of the matter is, we're still not there yet.  Tiny pockets of us are, and Microsoft is doing the best they can to erect stockades around those pockets and hanging handwritten signs over the gates that say "go away."  It is certainly their right do do so.  But contemptuously driving away groups of people who could spend their money with you strikes me as an incredibly bad idea in an ever-tighter and more crowded entertainment market.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Guest Post: On Xbox One and Television

Your Critic's partner is usually silent on the blog; he prefers it that way.  In light of the recent Xbox One reveal announcement, however, he has asked for the platform to provide a guest post with some industry expertise, and I am more than happy to provide it.  And so, I am pleased to present a look at how Microsoft's approach to television and cable is somewhat misguided and out of date, by Matt Cox. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Antichamber, Unhealthy Relationships, and putting Mass Effect in the Smithsonian (again).

Back in December, I got an e-mail that made my day.  It was an editor for Smithsonian Magazine, asking if I'd be interested in taking on a short piece looking at the use of film noir style lighting in video games.

The finished piece is indeed very short (I could definitely write a few thousand more words on the topic) but I had a great deal of fun writing it and my editor was excellent to work with.  It's in print on newsstands today, in the March 2013 issue, or available online.

My picture is on the Contributors page for the issue and everything.  Next to Jane F*cking Goodall.  I'll probably be pleased with this for quite some time to come.

(And yes, that's the piece that inspired my meditation on light in ME3.)

In other work I am pleased with, I have been doing some light contributing to Gameological, who are also a delight to work with and a fount of patience.  I pitched in to the Valentine's Day Inventory of Unhealthy Relationships in games (guys guys guys there are so many) and I got to review Antichamber, which is a delicious mindscrew of a game.  I found its logic best explained in the language of the dreamer

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Another Day, Another Press Conference

This isn't even about the PlayStation 4 at all, actually.  My opinion on that is currently irrelevant: it seems like a PC circa 2011, only it can't also run productivity software.  It'll be six months before the details that matter are available for me to form a strong opinion.  We'll probably end up with one in the house in 2014.  That is neither here nor there.

This is about the press conference at which Sony announced the PlayStation 4.

Sony's big problem: diversity.  The vast majority of presenters on-stage were white men, a huge percentage of whom were even sporting the same haircut and glasses.  The exceptions were a small handful of Japanese businessmen.  Naturally, the circles I hang out in on Twitter took exception to this.  When Patricia Hernandez gave it a mention on Kotaku, the predictable troglodytes crawled out of the woodwork to leave nasty comments.

One jerk, though, nailed the actual problem without even realizing he had.  In trying to explain why everything Patricia wrote was an invalid complaint, he said: "The reason there were no women on-stage is because the presidents and developers who happened to develop the software being presented happened to be male. It is not part of some sexist agenda, it just so happens that the people behind the creation of the content being presented happened to be men."


This is, in fact, exactly the problem. There are no women in leadership at Sony and, if there are, SCE does not feel comfortable bringing them into presentations or the public eye.  In fact, I can't recall ever seeing a woman executive presenting for Sony, despite the fact that many of their best game franchises and studios have very high-ranking women making them. So why, in 2013, is Sony still so resistant to having women in its top echelons?  I refuse to believe that, worldwide and especially in the Americas, there are no competent female executives -- except for that the systems that generate executives continue to favor a very narrow spectrum of men.

I have no love for Microsoft or for the 360, but during their major press conferences at E3 and so on, they almost always have women on stage at some point, even if they are generally presenting non-gaming, non-"core," family-friendly tools and features.

I am sure that most of the men on stage were perfectly lovely fellows.  But the narrowness of that particular slice of humanity really hit home when one came on stage to introduce what was later revealed to be a new inFamous game.  "In 1999, I got tear gassed at a protest," he began his story, which went on to feed in to the current era of paranoia.  The cops, it turns out, aren't always 100% good.


You don't say.

I'm sure there is no population out there who could have told you that.  Every day.  For the last century.

The statement was not ill-intentioned; far from it.  It was naive, and came from a place of privilege, from one very specific outlook.  It was a statement from a guy born into a population that doesn't routinely have trouble with cops, TO a population that doesn't routinely have trouble with cops.

And that's the kind of statement that comes out of a really, really narrow outlook.  When everyone looks the same and shares the same life experiences, nobody's going to introduce a new perspective into a presentation.  So you get more of the same, designed for the same people, even as the audience gets continually more diverse in every way.

What happens next?  I guess that's up to Microsoft, and we find out at E3.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

I am not a racecar; I am not a man.

Kill Screen posted a single quotation today, and it struck me quite deeply.  From a Monopoly expert:

"It's very seldom that you see a player not care about what token represents them on the game board."

That's it. One sentence. And that sentence is about, quite literally, Monopoly game pieces.  And yet, in a certain way, it's one of the most revealing and useful things I've ever seen written about games.

The speaker, Monopoly expert Philip Orbanes, is right, of course.  Any of us who has ever played the game, particularly in childhood, knows the ritual.

"I call the thimble!"
"Dibs on the dog!"
"The racecar is mine!"
(Nobody ever wants the iron.)

The game world of Monopoly is in some ways as abstract as they come.  Its colorful painted squares represent streets, avenues, neighborhoods; they represent socioeconomic strata and an insurmountable class and economic system.  Those little pewter-toned chunks of daily life we steer in circles 'round the board are our avatars, representing us as we navigate this world.  Even in a system this abstract, avatar representation matters.

In video games, avatars run the gamut from completely abstract, as in Lim or Thomas Was Alone, to compulsively detailed, as in every AAA game of every year for the better part of two decades.  When those avatars are compulsively detailed, they are almost always white men.

It's like living in a world where the only Monopoly token one is allowed to choose is the racecar.  I don't want to be the racecar.  I took the racecar because it was the only option given to me, after everyone else involved had their say first, and decided my outlook didn't matter.

The story of the racecar has gotten boring.  I don't care how well-written a profile is; I am tired of the story of the man who wanted to find a girlfriend.  I don't care how well-written the supporting or alternate cast is; I am tired of them not being front and center.  I don't care about all of the daddy issues that show up in every damn game; I want a dramatic story about mothers.  Or women.  Or anything new at all, really.

Box art: Halo 4; Mass Effect 3; BioShock Infinite

Everyone seems to understand, instinctively, that it's okay to have strong feelings about your Monopoly piece.  From a young age, we got passionate about the dog, or the car, or the shoe (but never the iron), and that was all right.  So why does similar passion about digital avatars create such a hue and cry?  If you say you are tired of the slate of straight white men, you are a whiner.  You do not understand that "sex sells."  You are a troublemaker.  You are a "feminist bitch" and worse.

I am not a racecar.

I am not a man.

I am tired.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

I don't have a game of the year.  In the same way that multiple games left profound and lasting influences on me in 2011, several have likewise done so in 2012--Journey, Mass Effect 3, and The Walking Dead among them.

So instead of writing any kind of GOTY post, I will instead direct readers to Sparky Clarkson's The Year of the Games roundup, a collection to which I and nearly a dozen of my colleagues and peers contributed.  It's been a fascinating year, as the big-budget, AAA games wrap up franchises and stall out, waiting on a new console generation, and as indie and avant-garde-inspired gaming well and truly comes into its own.

Likewise, Critical Distance has once again rounded up their must-read highlights of the year, and they are indeed pieces that should be read.

And as for me?  Well.  I had many, many beginnings in 2012, and some endings too.  I look forward to seeing what games inspire me to write too much in 2013.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Surprising Moral Clarity of Mass Effect 3

I've been working on a commissioned feature about film noir lighting in video games.  Without going into what I'm writing in that essay, my very first thought was: "Oh, that's easy. I've played Mass Effect 2."

It's Blade Runner! It's Double Indemnity! No, wait: it's Thane!

ME2 casts Shepard in an ambiguous moral position.  Not only does the paragon/renegade problem carry over from the first game, but its effects are amplified dramatically.  With interrupts added to the game--sudden, one-click decision points that add to Shepard's paragon or renegade scores--as well as charm and intimidate keying to reputation, rather than to skill points, the question of Shepard's soul begins to matter more.

As well, she is in a more tenuous position with regards to, well, everything.  Now employed by the shadowy Illusive Man, she is working for Cerberus, known from the first game only as a terrorist organization.  The crew she assembles around her is full of misfits, exiles, and murders who, if we're lucky, mostly turn out to have hearts of gold, or at least good intentions.

Of course, we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads.

The essay in question will be running in early 2013, and I have been asked to make it current, to tie it to one or more big 2012 releases.  Knowing how strongly Mass Effect 2 relies on the conventions of film noir and neo-noir, I thought that my sprawling, ludicrous collection (1800+) of Mass Effect 3 screenshots would lend me the perfect inspiration.

I was wrong.

With only a handful of exceptions (as in the shuttle, above), Shepard's lighting in Mass Effect 3 is surprisingly clear and unambiguous.  Even when she is in a visually dark location, the lighting spares her.  Shadows fall around her, but not on her; even her companions are largely of the light.

As the game itself gets darker, in every possible sense of the word, the ambiguity becomes stripped away from the Normandy and its passengers just as it becomes stripped away from the plot.  Yes, every decision has consequences, and the strings of three games' worth of choices bear out in many meaningful ways.  But even while that matters, the time for ambiguity is, simply, behind Shepard and behind us.

By ME3, the reapers are here. They are destroying worlds, cultures, civilizations, life... everything.  There is no question of "sides," of "morality."  Respect her (paragon) or fear her (renegade), Shepard is our hero and the hero's time is now.

In fact, the more I browse my enormous gallery of images, the more I feel like Mass Effect 3 is lit with a series of spotlights.  Where Mass Effect 2 threw diagonal shadows around the place to create effect, ME3 is doing everything it can with framing, light, and color to highlight our heroes, fighting to the end in a darkened world.

Sometimes that world is darkened a little too literally.
Indeed, even in an area and on a mission where moral ambiguity and character confusion could easily have been added, the game avoids that construction.  I am speaking of a point somewhere near the end of Act 2 (relatively speaking) where the asari Council representative has summoned Shepard, to impart a secret and necessary piece of information.

The asari's motives and goals are unclear.  She could be honest; she could be dishonest.  Shepard's reaction is unclear: the player can be angry or resigned.  The conversation takes place in an office, where light and posing could easily have conveyed ambiguity and confusion.  Instead, the conversation is brightly lit, with all the whites the Citadel presidium has to offer.  The greatest distance the scene ever creates comes through framing one shot on the other side of a window, hinting at a sense of voyeurism and eavesdropping.

You know, if you had mentioned this BEFORE your planet was invaded, that would have been helpful.
By the time the Shepard's saga reaches its third and final game, that which is... well, is.  Most of the questions and mysteries are removed from the story, and the moral ambiguity of our players along with.  This is not a game for introducing new characters, or questioning their motives; this is a time to revisit the consequences of the stories we already told, and resolving the fates of characters we already know.

Even knowing that, though, I was surprised at how strongly the visuals bear that out.  Subconsciously, they of course reinforced that message the entire time I was playing.  That's what visual language does.

There is also, of course, an exception.  Or in fact, a pair of exceptions.  The Leviathan and Omega DLC add-ons each provide dozens of examples of moral ambiguity and character confusion conveyed through noir-like use of light and shadow.  And it makes sense: these are the segments of game that introduce new characters and new concepts that stand slightly to the side of the hero's straightforward quest for war resources.  Aria, Nyreen, and even the Leviathan itself are all moral wildcards when they are introduced, standing aside from Shepard's binary perspective, and so the lighting lets us stand in Shepard's shoes for a little while, uncertain about who we have just met.