Monday, December 18, 2017

I used to be Andrew Carnegie... and now I live in a van.

Back in 2014, I wrote about how Animal Crossing: New Leaf was basically an Andrew Carnegie simulator: capitalism as perfection, and how to become a magnanimous millionaire.

Now, in 2017, I wrote for Zam about how I find Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp perhaps a better metaphor of how capitalism screws us all over than it meant to be.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Reality, rebooted

We're in an era of endless reboots and sequels.

At their worst, they're artless, pointless; form without function, retelling an old story without understanding what made earlier versions worth hearing, and without adding anything worthwhile. (Star Trek Into Darkness, I'm looking at you.)

At their best, though, sequels and reboots are a chance for a new generation to take an old story and say why it still matters, to point to certain aspects and say, "Hey, this is a thing of relevance to us."

And right now, Star Wars is there.

When The Force Awakens came out in 2015, the most common criticism was, "This is just a remake of A New Hope." The Empire was already beaten, critics said; why was the First Order a thing? Why rehash this same old fight, in this same old way, against a same old foe,  just with a new generation of heroes?

But if there is anything that the two years between Episode VII and Episode VIII have taught us, it is this: Wars do not stay won on their own.

Ideology resurges. If you don't fight the Nazis in every generation, they get new clothes and come back, with allies in places they should not be.

Star Wars ended up being accidentally prescient. But it will not be the last popular art of this era to have to engage with that idea. It is the challenge of our culture, right now, and it will continue to emerge in all the stories that were started this year, and that will not see the light of day for months or years to come.

Maybe sometimes we have sequels for a reason.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On Civilization

I wrote an entire post about Civilization VI, over the past few days. It started with observations about the theme music, "Sogno di Volare," and went from there, about what is or isn't disappointing about the game.

I can't write that post, anymore. I've got it saved. Maybe, another day.

Here's the video, anyway, because why not.

I wrote a lot of other things about the song, musically, and then I wrote:

The song is so earnest. It's absolutely refreshing in a way, after more than a decade of irony-based, cynical, and occasionally nihilist culture being dominant -- but it also leaves out what makes the task of simulating all of human civilization itself so interesting and daunting.

And I said that for all that Civ tries so, so hard to mount a global approach, deliberately seeking out non-Western, non-colonial civs and non-white, non-male leaders to head them... the game is still very profoundly an American one, with an American outlook towards what civilization itself should be and is.

It is the march of progress, of science, of commerce and war, and the nexus where those meet. It is the forward, upward momentum of technology and social progress, inevitable even if you aren't leading the pack.

I wrote that all during the first week of November, before the U.S. election. That election has since transpired, and everyone in the world knows what happened.

America just made a series of interesting decisions, and chose to go backwards and take the world along with. Yes, the world -- because a huge percentage of the planet is buying our blue jeans and listening to our pop music. We've had the cultural victory in the bag for decades, and nothing that happens within our borders stays within our borders.

And culture is the hole. It is this -- that ability to go backward, to regress, to be done in not by external forces but by the competing tides of movement and counter-movement within your own society -- that is missing from Civilization.

The map on my screen is a sterile world, where social forces have no sway and rational economic ones are the only ones modeled. I have, in four games (three won, one lost) and twenty hours, already come to find it profoundly unsatisfying.

A war, in Civ, is always against external forces. It is a neighbor who wants land, a conquering force that wants your natural resources, a religious zealot who will convert by force.

Civ cannot account for the fact that within your real civ, people look, think, and act differently from each other, and may, too, come to war within their own country.

Progress is not inevitable. It is hard, ugly work, and it always comes with regression as its twin.

The two are inseparable. For every reformation, there is a counter-reformation. For every revolution, a counter-revolution. For every black president, someone literally endorsed by the Klan and actual, non-metaphorical Nazis.

Maybe if we made a computer model of the world, we could see how it turns out and convince ourselves there's a way. But it wouldn't be a "game" anymore.

I am not sure I would find it any more satisfying to find my play civilization suddenly regressing or entering a civil war with itself, to be honest. If that's where Civilization went, I think I would find myself spending more time in hero's journeys, where the dragons might be present but can always be beaten.

Truth be told, I might need to go home today and do that anyway; I am not above escapism, and we all have to care for our mental health in our own ways. Watching disaster unfold in real-time around me is hard enough.

Because right now, there are at least 50 million people out there who don't seem to understand that the actual course of human civilization -- the real one, the real thing, where people live and breathe and eat and fuck and shit and die and want and hope and despair -- is not a game. That it is not a set of interesting choices and well-sculpted tiles. That a "game over" doesn't mean you reset; it means extinction.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Interlude: Only A Girl

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. When she was about six, she walked to the video rental store down the street and came home with a VHS of a movie called The Empire Strikes Back.

"I got Star Wars," she said to her mom and dad.

"Oh, Empire?" they said. "You go ahead and watch it honey, but we don't feel like it right now."

So she did. And she fell in love.

By bedtime, she wanted to be Han Solo -- only, a girl.

She was a nerdy kid, consuming books and movies as fast as she could get her hands on them. Star Wars was an early love, but neither the first nor the last.

She had always wanted to be Robin Hood (ooh de lally!) -- only, a girl.

A few years later, still a kid, she wanted to be Taran of Caer Dallben -- only, a girl.

She wanted to be Captain Jean-Luc Picard -- only, a girl.

She wanted to be Indiana Jones -- only, a girl.

She wanted to be Aragorn -- only, a girl.

She even kind of wanted to be Captain Jack Sparrow -- only, a girl.

Still, the world moved on apace and "genre" fiction, will it or not, had to come along with. Dragged kicking and screaming, sometimes, but still.

She grew up. By her late twenties, finally, she got to be Commander Shepard -- who, as far as she was concerned, was only ever a girl.

And in her thirties, she had a baby: a daughter. And two years after that, someone made a new Star Wars movie, and she went to see it.

And the hero was a woman named Rey: not "only" a girl. A badass. A main character. A self-saving woman with a staff and a brain and the power and will to use both.

And the woman's heart was glad, for the little girl she had been, and doubly so for the one she was raising. Who, if she could help it, would never be "only a girl."

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Music of Dragon Age, And What It Actually Says

Come in! Have a seat, and let's talk about music. Specifically, the music of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which is beautiful and fun and lovely and very helpful, and which is also heavily recycled and manages to undermine the game it is meant to support in tons of small and large ways.

This conversation has BIG FAT SPOILERS for basically everything that ever happens in the Dragon Age series, across all games to date.

(It is also a very long post with a whole pile of embedded video. Fair warning.) 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why I Play

 There is always something worth finding if you go to the farthest edges of the map.

I don’t like to play mages or wizards.

I do enjoy being an archer, a sniper, or an assassin sneaking through shadows.

I value loyalty less than I value compassion.

I naturally gravitate toward diplomacy and the resolution of conflict.

I worry less about threats to me than I do about threats to the people I love.

I will rewrite the goddamned laws of spacetime itself if I have to, to save them.

It is not where I go that matters.

It is how I feel for having been there.

 I was asked why I play, and this was my answer.

I play games, and here is what I have learned:
The X button on a PlayStation controller is at the bottom.
Underwater levels are always kind of a pain.
There is always something worth finding if you go to the farthest edges of the map.
I don’t like to play mages or wizards.
I do enjoy being an archer, a sniper, or an assassin sneaking through shadows.
I value loyalty less than I value compassion.
I naturally gravitate toward diplomacy and the resolution of conflict.
I worry less about threats to me than I do about threats to the people I love.
I will rewrite the goddamned laws of spacetime itself if I have to, to save them.
It is not where I go that matters.
It is how I feel for having been there.
- See more at:
I play games, and here is what I have learned:
The X button on a PlayStation controller is at the bottom.
Underwater levels are always kind of a pain.
There is always something worth finding if you go to the farthest edges of the map.
I don’t like to play mages or wizards.
I do enjoy being an archer, a sniper, or an assassin sneaking through shadows.
I value loyalty less than I value compassion.
I naturally gravitate toward diplomacy and the resolution of conflict.
I worry less about threats to me than I do about threats to the people I love.
I will rewrite the goddamned laws of spacetime itself if I have to, to save them.
It is not where I go that matters.
It is how I feel for having been there.
- See more at:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Age of the Dragons, Part III: The Epic of Ser Cullen

I said on Twitter, as I played through Dragon Age: Inquisition, that I was developing a theory.

The best representative of the player, I mused, isn't actually the Inquisitor, the player character. The best representative of the player is, in fact, their advisor Cullen.

And now I will try to explain.

The rest of this post contains big fat unmarked spoilers about basically every game BioWare has released since 2007. You have been warned.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I Am Andrew Carnegie


I surveyed the land, then built my home exactly where I pleased: just far enough away from the railroad station and center of government, but close enough to them for easy access. Right on the river, with a nice view. Knocked down some old-growth trees and local flora to do it, but the land was mine to command.

Then I expanded the mansion, until the gaudy gold-plated curiosity became the centerpiece of the town.

I put down sidewalks where I wished, then razed them, then put them somewhere else. I added landscaping, cut down trees, planted strange and foreign orchards in their stead. I financed the expansion of a museum, then filled it from my own personal collections of art, antiquities, and hunting trophies.

Eventually, I built monuments to the greatness I had achieved, and even made clear my full ownership over everyone and everything I surveyed by redesigning the town hall to my satisfaction.

I exist to build, to buy, to expand. To be is to consume: I partake solely of the natural resources; I clean out the shops. I spend and save and spend and resell and give, strategically, knowing I will receive tokens in return.

I rule: not through election, but through the power of my pocketbook. The world is mine to command, because I have wealth and privilege. But I must do so lightly, and with compassion. With great wealth comes great responsibility, and my fortune is not for me alone. I spend it helping to better the lot of the working classes, to add art and music to our town. I pay for renovations, and bring in public goods and services.

In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Nintendo has created the perfect capitalism simulator. Or perhaps a simulator of capitalism as perfection. It is the ideal game for the 19th century.

I rule the town of Villains -- or properly, I suppose, New Villains. The first is but a rust-belt ruin waiting hopelessly for young blood that will never come, languishing away without industry or income on an Animal Crossing: Wild World cartridge I misplaced in 2012.

For 243 days, I have dominated. I have built a paradise of unfettered but benevolent capitalism, one fruit, fish, and bug at a time.

I am Andrew Carnegie.

I am John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt.

I am that which founded and which underlies the 20th and 21st centuries, both for good and for ill.


I believe in public art.

DC is a woefully impersonalized city. Planned and regulated from the start, and required to support its residents without any support for them, it lacks in personality.

But it still has a soul.

Its soul is money and greed and power and craven climbing but sometimes, sometimes, its soul sings.

There was a jazz trumpeter, a good one, busking his heart out at the Metro station this morning.

It's 2014. I pay for my morning coffee with my phone. I never have cash.

I found my reserve parking meter quarters, put them into his case, and used them to hold down a $1 bill that kept trying to fly away.

He couldn’t chase it. He was playing.

There are many buskers. I need to carry more cash.


I support somewhere between 5 and 10 people on Patreon. I forget how many. The number just keeps going up anyway. I will continue to do so for as long as I have a salary and budget with room for discretionary spending. I am duty-bound to pass along my privilege and good fortune where I can.

I hate Patreon.

I hate deciding which of my talented friends and peers deserves $2 for hard work well-done and which of them deserves $0.50. I hate deciding that I shouldn’t support friends who are popular, because I have less-popular friends who need the money more. I cringe at the thought that anyone might feel they owe me anything in their work, or that they owe me any work at all.

I would like to buy a magazine. When I buy a magazine I do not have to decide what percentage of my $5 goes to the cover story and what percentage goes to two other shorter but no less important features and what percentage goes to opinion columnists and what percentage goes to photographers and artists and editors and layout artists and and and and and.

The magazines aren’t on Patreon.

They’re on Kickstarter. Same problem. Different tools.

I hand over my credit card number. If people whose work I believe in are going to be forced to busk hat in hand, when the world won’t pay them honest salaries for honest (so raw, so honest, so good) work, then by god I will be their patron.

At least I don’t need cash.


A pop culture journalist writing about the events of the past terrible month wrote to me this week to ask why I left gaming journalism.

In the course of conversation, I told him that one of the things “they” never tell you when you’re growing up is that leaving a job can be every bit as much of a relief, if not more so, than getting one.

My reasons were deeply personal and somewhat accidental.

My reasons were completely impersonal and utterly systemic.

I’m not sure my reasons matter.


The fight destroys careers and lives and jobs.

The fight is for careers and lives and jobs.


I am not Andrew Carnegie. But his is the role I play.

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.