Here’s Friday’s video (late — I told you they would be!). Hope you had a good Thanksgiving.
Archive for November, 2009
On December 6th, I’m going to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: finish Rock Band 2. I’ve played the game a whole lot — it’s one of my favorite games of all time, and not only have I put a ton of time into it, but I’m pretty good at it, too. Not virtuoso good, but good enough. At the very end of the game, once you’ve unlocked almost all the content, there’s a playlist that opens up called the Endless Setlist 2 — it’s basically every song on the game’s disc, all 84 songs, all played in a row. The ultimate reward of progression through the game. And on December 6th, I’m going to do it all — play every song in Rock Band 2, on the guitar, start to finish, on Expert. And you can watch.
I’m going to stream the whole thing online over on my Ustream page. This is a pretty common thing for marathon gamers — people can tune in and check out progress as it all goes on. As far as I can tell, it’ll take me around seven to eight hours to do all the songs, so I’m going to start up the stream around 11am PST on December 6th, 2009, and you’ll be able to watch me play until I finish the whole setlist. I will probably pause once during the whole deal to have some food and take a break, but I think there may be an achievement for not pausing, so maybe I’ll just go for it. Note that I’m not going for 100% notes or a full clear of everything; my goal is just to get through all the songs (and there are some tough ones) on Expert. Still no small task.
I’m also going to dedicate the playthrough to Azeroth United’s recent drive to help out Child’s Play. Azeroth United is a recently founded organization that’s designed to bring bloggers, podcasters, and other members of the World of Warcraft community together, and their first charity drive is going to support Child’s Play, a terrific charity that a lot of gamers are supporting. In fact, all this past week, there have been some guys playing a game live on the Internet to raise money for Child’s Play, and they’ve already put together over $100,000. My livestream won’t be anywhere near that big, but hopefully it will raise a little bit of money. Child’s Play is dedicated to delivering video games to hospitals for sick children to play, and if you want to donate to Azeroth United’s drive, you can head over to their homepage. They also have some excellent prizes too, so there’s a chance you could win something nice just for giving a little bit.
I’ll be talking more about Azeroth United and Child’s Play on the livestream, and you’ll have plenty of time to donate then as well (if, say, you want to at least see me play a few Weezer songs before giving any money). But mark your calendars: December 6th, 2009 at 11am PST, I’ll be running through the entire Endless Setlist of Rock Band 2 on Expert guitar to support Azeroth United and Child’s Play and their work. See you there.
Ars Technica is leading the charge against a group of game critics who participated in an Activision-run event for the recent Modern Warfare 2 release, in which Activision put a bunch of writers up in a hotel for a few days to play the game all the way through before it came out. For security’s sake, instead of just sending out copies of the game as many publishers do, they brought the game in on hard drives, took it home at the end of each day, and basically provided all of the equipment for the writers to play on. I didn’t actually go out to the event, but I know someone who did, and I talked somewhat at length with him about it, both before and after it happened. Ars has it right: PR people were there, but they didn’t hover or try to influence the game in any way. From what I can tell, it was basically just Activision’s easiest and most secure way to let people play the game early without it leaking out into the world.
Now, lots of people are yelling foul over this, claiming one of two things: one, that writers and reviewers would be unduly influenced by getting a few nights in a hotel for free to play the game, and two, that writers are playing the game in the wrong situation. Games are meant to be experienced, they say, in your home, and not by going out to a fancy hotel, getting waited on by PR folks, and playing the game on premium, provided systems.
But I think both accusations are out of line, if not actually disrespectful to the writers involved.
To the subject of PR influence: Impartiality is the job of the professional writer. Any writer that does let their opinions or insights be swayed by “gifts” (I’ll get to why there are quotes around that word in a second) like the two days Activision gave at the hotel with Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t deserve to be writing game reviews. Modern Warfare 2 is an excellent game, and we all know that not because some writers who got put up in a hotel for a few days wrote it — we know that because we bought the game, played it, and enjoyed it. If any writer willingly gave a good review to a bad game because he or she got free food or a free hotel stay from a publisher, we’d know it: we’d play the game, and we’d see that they were wrong. As I said, this was the best and easiest way for Activision to show off this game before release, and it’s a bad assumption to believe that any writer worth their salt would be wrongly influenced by what was given to them. If you don’t like what a writer writes about a game, or if you don’t agree with them, don’t read them. Trust me — writers who don’t get read lose their jobs, especially if they earn a reputation for not being impartial.
To the second accusation, that the way this game was played wasn’t ideal: you’re right. It wasn’t ideal. Not for Activision or for the writers. I haven’t reviewed many games professionally, but I have covered many events, both in and out of the games industry, and I will tell you that work is still work. If you’re doing your job, even at an event with a big spread laid out for you and nice game systems to try, it’s still a job. The writer I know who went to the Activision event had the same reaction I would have had: I wouldn’t have been happy to lose two days of my life just to go on the road and play this game. Sure, playing Modern Warfare 2 pre-release would be fun, and it’s nice to get away. But for most of the writers who really went there to professionally review the game, I can guarantee you that it wasn’t a walk in the park. Even they knew that rushing through the game in two days was not the ideal way to review it, and playing multiplayer on a LAN with developers was not the way to test it. And their reviews reflected that. That’s why I put quotes around the word “gift” earlier — for most gamers, going to these hotel rooms and vegging on the game would be a dream come true. But for the writers tasked with intelligently analyzing a game in that situation, it wasn’t necessarily a “gift” they enjoyed being given.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy going to press events — it’s one of the things I love most about being a writer (and one reason I moved out to LA, as there are many more events like that out here than elsewhere in the country). But if you’re committed to doing your job at any press event, you’re more worried about getting the right notes down, taking the right pictures, and talking to the right people than what kind of sushi they have laid out or whether you can take one of those gift bags home. Any writer who’s more interested in picking up swag than they are in picking up the story shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Am I saying that it’s OK for PR to give writers all kinds of gifts and that we should just trust them to do the right thing? Of course not — PR also has a responsibility to let writers do their jobs, and that means getting them objective information when they ask for it. And of course it’s up to writers to guarantee that their audience can believe what they say — Joystiq, the blog I write for occasionally, has made it very clear that they will not accept anything from publishers at all without a) revealing it, and/or b) giving it away to readers. And of course they did state at the end of their Modern Warfare 2 review that they had attended this Activision event. Of course I abide by that policy whenever working for Joystiq. Personally, I think the policy is pretty limiting (I’ve worked for other organizations that allow their writers to keep review items and other swag, and certainly many other publications do so without scandal), but it is the Joystiq policy nonetheless, and I do agree it’s definitely an admirable one. That’s the step they take to make sure that their readers can trust them, and though not all writers and publications go that far, certainly all writers and publications have a responsibility to the people who read them.
But this Activision event was a situation where both PR and the writers were doing the best that they could, under the given circumstances, to serve their readers. To suggest that writers were unduly influenced or that PR was attempting to tempt them with a free hotel stay is, in my humble opinion, out of line. Sure, maybe there were writers at the event who didn’t remain impartial. Maybe you played Modern Warfare 2 and were confused as to why critics loved it so much, and you think that a lot of the reviews you read were influenced by Activision’s event. In that case, I’d advise you to not believe those reviewers any more, and find some that you trust. But claiming that anyone attending this event is forced to lose their impartiality doesn’t give these professional writers nearly enough credit, and borders on disrespecting them and their ability.
A new episode of the podcast that looks at our wild and crazy modern world.
-DVR is TV’s new BFF. Apparently DVR technology actually helps ratings. Who knew? Not the networks.
-Last May, the Vatican finally agreed that yes, aliens might actually exist.
-Anonymous blogger Belle de Jour was outed this week as Dr. Brooke Magnanti. But this guy knew almost before anyone, and was even able to know when other people knew, thanks to a Google trick.
Finally, I interview Jim Munroe of No Media Kings about his work, especially on interactive fiction games. You can play through his latest game, Everybody Dies, over at his website. He also recommends Violet by Jeremy Freese (which I also played, and really, really enjoyed) and Savoir Faire by Emily Short. The Interactive Fiction Competition also has great picks, and Munroe recommends Play This Thing as a site keeping one eye on great IF.
Just in case you’re not a veteran of the genre, here’s a good quick guide to the conventions. I highly recommend you try at least one of the games — clear up an hour or two, sit down, and just try and see what happens.
Hey folks. So yes, as I said yesterday, I’m back to writing regularly on this site. The schedule will (hopefully) go like this: Monday through Friday, I will post something here on the site. That’s it. Notice I said I will “post something,” not necessarily write something. While a lot of it will be writing, I will do my best to get some pictures and/or audio up occasionally, because those kinds of things are always fun to mix things up.
And then on Fridays, I’m going to try to get some kind of video up — I have been meaning to practice making some videos for a long time (and have even bought some equipment to do so), but haven’t really had the chance. So this is me giving myself the chance: a new video here every Friday. Or Saturday morning, if I happen to run a little late.
I actually made a video today of me telling you about all of this, but seeing as it was just a video of me sitting in my apartment, and I haven’t actually shaved yet today, I couldn’t get it to go together in a way that didn’t look like I was extremely high. Which in and of itself is funny, but I figured that wasn’t a good first video impression to make.
So instead, here’s some footage that my brother and I made last summer. He makes an incredible shot that you will definitely believe is completely real, and then we’ll show you how we did it (it’s not real, but you will believe that it is because my filmmaking skills are incredible).
Also, yesterday was my brother’s birthday, so happy birthday, Daniel. I did an interview with him a long time ago that you can read here. I talked to him last night and he tells me that he is writing a book about how to deal with climate change, though it is apparently grant funded and meant for developing nations, so you probably wouldn’t want to read it anyway. But if he tells me you can get it somewhere, I will tell you how.
Since I last wrote regularly on this blog (and yes, if you haven’t noticed, I am writing regularly here again — more on that tomorrow), I have become a UFC fan. That is, I am a fan of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a sport in which grown men in not very much clothing get into a ring (an octagon, actually, though that’s mostly a marketing thing, not because it changes the game much) and tumble around until time runs out or one of them gives up or passes out. It’s not entirely my own fault — I had a friend back in Chicago who was really into it, and he got me into it. And I’m not a huge fan — I only know a few names of guys I like, and most of the others are just dudes fighting each other.
But it is pretty impressive once you figure it out — the guys train like crazy, the fights are very technical, and there are lots and lots of weird and interesting stories behind all of the guys and their fights. Periodically, they hold pay-per-view matches, where they have a series of fights, usually a few of them for titles or showcasing major fighters. And there’s one of those this weekend. Back in Chicago, I used to have a few friends who watched, so we usually bought the PPV ourselves and watched it in my apartment, but here in LA, I don’t know anyone else yet who’s interested.
I do plan to watch it, though — I’ll probably head out to a bar somewhere, grab a beer and maybe some food, and watch the fights. Before I do that, I figured I’d try my hand at a little fight analysis — run down the fights expected this weekend and see what I think of the fighters. You can find my picks below.
My picks for UFC 106
Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Griffin
This is the headliner of the night, and I’m looking forward to it. Griffin is coming off of a devastating loss to my favorite fighter, Anderson Silva, which he’s a little ashamed of, but no one can blame him for (Silva is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, and he’s like an alien in the ring — the organization hasn’t found anyone to match him with in terms of talent). That said, Griffin sounds like he’s angling for a victory, and the aging Ortiz is probably the guy to give it to him. Tito may pull out an unexpected win, but I think Forrest is still on his way up, and the Silva fight was just a setback.
Pick: Griffin in the second round.
Josh Koscheck vs. Anthony “Rumble” Johnson
I like Koscheck a lot — he’s a smart guy, and I don’t think he’s reached his limit yet in terms of what he can do. He can really turn on the knockout power when he’s on. That said, Rumble is a good fighter, too, and he’s got more of a name to make in this fight, I think. He’ll fight hard, but I think Koscheck is a little more experienced and will be able to withstand anything Rumble throws at him, even if it’s just long enough to land a good punch.
Pick: Koscheck in the first.
Phil Baroni vs. Amir Sadollah
Honestly, I really like Amir. My friend got me to watch the Ultimate Fighter, and the first season I watched was the one Amir won. Anyone who beat up CB Dollaway gets a plus in my book. That said, I don’t know that Amir has it in him to constantly win fights, and Baroni will be a tough one for him. I’ll be rooting for Amir, but I don’t think he’ll pull it off — I think he has too much fun being an on-camera host for UFC to actually win in the octagon.
Pick: Baroni by decision. Sorry, Amir.
Bowser Koopa vs. Mario “The Plumber” Mario
These two have a long history together — they’ve both headlined multiple fight nights and they’re two of the oldest fighters in the industry. Bowser’s got a lot of upper body strength for sure, and he’s got some crazy clown helicopters that he can use in the clinch or anytime he’s up against the wall. But Mario’s power is really in his legs, and his muay thai really lets him stomp his opponents when he times things just right. This will be an entertaining fight no matter what, but Bowser’s lost too many of these matches to pull this one off: look for Mario to bring down the flag at the end.
Pick: Mario in round 8-4.
Bruce “Batman” Wayne vs. Clark “Superman” Kent
Here’s another pair of fighters who have a long history together. I’ll tell you — in terms of physical prowess, you won’t find any other fighters in the UFC who have the kinds of talents that these guys have. Wayne’s training schedule is over the top insane, and Kent is just supernaturally gifted with stamina. When he gets near a yellow sun, you can practically see him shooting lazers from his eyes. But of the two, Wayne really understands that the UFC is an all-around sport, and he’s likely to fight in dirty ways that Kent won’t figure out until it’s too late. If he can get Kent in a clinch and break out a little dirty boxing, that’ll be Kent’s kryptonite.
Pick: Batman in three.
Jake “Cake” Sanderson vs. Robbie “Pie” Malone
Lots of people have been waiting for this one to finally be solved once and for all, especially with the all-important Thanksgiving season coming up. “Cake” Sanderson is definitely a powerhouse — he’s got some knockout chocolate power, and his sweet jiujitsu frosting is just icing on the… well, you know. But don’t count “Pie” out — he’s got an amazing assortment of fruits in his arsenal, and if needed, he can even put some meat and veggies in the mix and move out of dessert right into dinner. A lot of people will like “Cake” for sure — he’s always a crowd pleaser. But I think in the end, “Pie” will be the one walking away with the victory.
Pick: Pie. Unless Cake shows up in the form of something video game-related. Then all bets are off.
I meant to write something bigger tonight, but I just didn’t have it in me. Such, I guess, is life. But here are three quick things:
-I’m bummed that EA closed Pandemic, not just because a bunch of folks lost their jobs (though that’s reason enough), but also because the studio is right down the street from me here in LA and I went over to visit them a few weeks ago. They seemed to me like a studio work keeping open, even if you had to make some cuts — they regularly delivered quality games. They may not have been total AAA bestselling titles, but they were solid games that I believe were making enough money to justify themselves. Of course, the founders had already left, so who knows what else there is to the story. I will say, though, that I continue to be shocked that big companies have tons of money for new acquisitions while they’re closing down previous ones. I’ve never managed a corporation but that seems like a bad decision, or at least a symptom of bigger problems.
-I bought this book the other day because I felt like I needed a quick and interesting genre novel to read, and I like it so far. It doesn’t hurt, I’m kind of embarrassed to say, that it begins in a Fall harvest and I’m reading it in Fall. I like Fall a lot (even though it’s been 70 and sunny constantly here in LA, not a problem that I can or want to whine about, but there you go), and I like reading stories of wights and dark magical forests and mysterious travelers during the season. Don’t know why.
I am still working on A General Theory of Love, and it is still extremely fascinating, but it tends to be pretty clinical (more of a Summer book, in that sense, I think — go figure), and it’s sometimes depressing to be reading about love and emotion while in a new place and trying to make friends. Don’t pity me or anything, it just is. Sorry.
-Speaking of sorry, I was at the gym today and I sat down to use a certain machine (calf extensions, if you must know), and it turns out that I had stolen it from someone who was using it. He was doing multiple sets in multiple places and one of them was this machine, and I had interrupted him. “Never mind,” he said, apparently frustrated with me, “do your set.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know you were using it.” He walked away in a huff, and went to go lift a significant amount of weight elsewhere.
There was another guy next to us doing squats who witnessed this exchange, and he came over to me afterwards. “You don’t have to apologize for using an empty machine,” he told me. “You belong here just as much as we do.”
“No big deal,” I said, and it really wasn’t. “I don’t want to interrupt anybody.” I finished my few sets, and moved on to do some leg presses.
But it was a weird bit of — consolation? Advice? A few people have told me not to apologize so much before, and to tell the truth, I don’t think I do. “Sorry” can mean lots of things besides apologies, and even when I am apologizing for something that’s not really my fault, what’s the problem? Someone might as well take responsibility for it, and my life is good enough that I can probably handle a few more troubles. I don’t really have an issue with saying, “sorry.” Not that I go out of my way to be timid, but if you mess up, or if you play a part in some accident, better to step up, take possession, and apologize. That’s what I think.
I’m more worried about the “belong here just as much as we do” part. What was that all about?
I’m typing this on my iPhone, which will make it, in all my blogging experiences, the first post I’ve ever actually written on Apple’s mobile device. I’m writing on the phone because even though it’s very late as I write this (12:45am pacific time, which is ungodly late for those of you in the rest of the country), I am out in a diner, sitting by myself at the counter, waiting for some multigrain banana pancakes.
Why am I doing that? Good question. I asked myself the same thing as I drove here, as I walked in, sat down and took a place by myself. This might be a mistake, I thought. I probably shouldn’t be here — I should be home in bed, reading, or maybe catching up on the sleep I’ve been lacking lately. But no, I’m out, drinking coffee (I did at least order decaf — even though it’s pretty nuts to drink coffee without caffiene, I do at least want to sleep sometime tonight), and waiting for pancakes.
(long clauses are tough to do on the iPhone — it takes so long to type them that I forget where I was going. There are probably some spelling mistakes as well.)
So: why am I here? I think it partly has something to do with getting old. I’m not actually getting old — considering all the working out I’ve done lately, I’m actually in the best condition I’ve ever been. But I do feel myself getting older just the same. I don’t fight the same fights I used to, I do things like go home after a party instead of out to another party. And I feel myself losing my grip on something I always felt a part of: pop culture. I saw a music video today (that I can’t link here with this keyboard, but maybe you’ve seen it — Katy Perry was cavorting with two dudes who call themselves some nonsense like “3oh!3″ in front of a fountain), and I realized that I had no connection to it at all. It wasn’t even that I didn’t like it — I didn’t — it was more like it and I didn’t even exist in the same world. Why would we? Katy Perry and the two dudes looked out of the screen and said, “this isn’t for you, old man. Go back to the 90s.”
I did. But still, like being in this diner, I felt out of place.
I was once told that to be an interesting person, you have to lead an interesting life. And so, shunned by Katy Perry, I decided to do something interesting tonight, come out here, write this post, and order these pancakes. A little gesture against the world. You don’t need me? I’m coming anyway.
The pancakes just showed up. I’m trying a bite.
Wow. They’re good. Come to think of it, this place isn’t so bad. It’s cleared out mostly in the last 30 mins or so, it’s a little quieter, and the light’s dim and auburn. I don’t feel that alone, actually — now that I’ve had a little food. I kind of feel like I’ve snuck downstairs in a big house to sit at the kitchen counter and have a late night snack.
And man, these pancakes are good.
I think this worked out, actually. I got this post written, and it’s not too late. I can finish this plate, pay, and be home in time to get a good night’s sleep.
I’m not that old. I may not belong in a world with that Katy Perry video, but that doesn’t mean I don’t belong elsewhere. Like at this counter, tasting the warm center of these banana pancakes, sipping coffee, and listening to the voices echoing from the kitchen, the low hum of the chatter at the tables around me. My waitress, a girl with short red hair, just sat down for a moment at the other end of the counter and asked another server how his audition went the other day. That’s funny.
I think I like it here. I might even stay a while longer. These pancakes are probably worth taking the time.
(sent from my iPhone)
Left 4 Dead 2, a game where you fight zombies, is out today, and one of the big additions to the sequel is that you can now use melee weapons in addition to the firearms from the first game. There are quite a few different melee weapons in the mix (I never knew that thing was called a “tonfa”!), but Valve wasn’t able to use all of the ideas they had.
Unused Left 4 Dead 2 Melee Weapons
Shareevaradi (what do you mean you’ve never heard of the first part of the kolthari stage of the northern style of the Indian martial art of Kalarippayattu?)
Sai (Raphael is cool but crude)
Amphistaff (no seriously, go look at that — it’s an ALIEN SNAKE WIELDED AS A WEAPON)
Detached zombie arm (why are you hitting yourself?)
+5 Mace of Frost
Original Xbox controller
Rolled-up Left 4 Dead 2 boycott list
Like much of the Internet, I’ve been playing two different games a lot lately. Last week, I picked up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 a few days before it was supposed to release (my local neighborhood game store, who I just found and will happily frequent from now on — goodbye, Gamestop! — was selling it early), and played through the singleplayer portion of it in just a few days. About a week before that, I got Dragon Age: Origins and I am still playing through it (it’s much, much longer) on my PC. And both of these games have me thinking about self and the concept of agency, and how it’s used in modern video games.
Modern Warfare 2 is a first-person shooter game — you play as a modern day (or slightly futuristic — the central war in the story is between the United States and Russia, using current to theoretical technology) soldier, and all of the action is done in first-person view. You look through the screen and it’s as if you’re there, shooting all sorts of weapons at all sorts of foes, in all sorts of environments all over the world. There are lots of guns and sound effects and explosions, and the story is fast-paced and far reaching, like an episode of 24 with four or five Jack Bauers to go around. It’s a sequel to one of the best-selling games of all time, and so in many ways, it’s like an action movie sequel. I compared it to Terminator 2 on Twitter (bigger, better, and badder than the first), but it’s really an action movie sequel where you are the hero. Or heroes, as the case may be — you play a few different characters throughout the game, and while the view is always first-person (as if you’re looking through someone’s eyes, or inhabiting their brain), the situation bounces around quite a bit. One sequence you’re playing a British SAS type invading a winter fortress, the next you’re an American Private fighting an invading force.
Dragon Age: Origins, on the other hand, is a role-playing game. If Modern Warfare 2 is an action movie (and I just spent a paragraph telling you that it is), then Dragon Age is a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy novel — you choose to create a character of your own very early on, adjusting your avatar down to the finest details (how big and where does your nose sit, what race and caste do you come from), and then you raise that character up through a very long and very tangled classic fantasy story of elves and dwarves and evil magic and knightly good. While the action in Modern Warfare is understandably chaotic, the action is Dragon Age is pause-able at any time. Bioware, the company that designed Dragon Age, has a long background in creating Dungeons and Dragons settings, and so the combat in Dragon Age is fairly cerebral. Running in and shooting everything will likely get you killed. When you come upon a raving band of bad guys, you need to press the space bar, pause, and consider just what to do with your character and your companions next. Even outside of combat, Dragon Age is an endeavor of intelligence — almost everyone you meet in the game has a problem to be solved, and there are usually many different ways to solve them, limited only by your imagination (and whatever dialogue choices you are presented with).
And so both of these games have me thinking about agency. Agency is “the capacity of an agent to act in a world.” It’s the ability and effect you have over the choices you make — it’s a word and concept that comes up often in philosophy, usually when philosophers are asking themselves if we really control our actions or if we’re just a product of the world around us. Do you really like ice cream or are you just conditioned by the world around you to think that ice cream is good? As you can see from that link, it gets complicated (“The agent F’d with the intention of G’ing”), but the central question is: are we in control of what we do or are we limited by the world around us? Do we make choices because we want to make them or just because they’re the choices that we’re designed to make? (We’re stepping into The Matrix territory as well, but I’ll keep this limited to video games.)
In Dragon Age: Origins, you have what certainly seems like a great amount of agency. One early scenario in the game had me choosing whether or not to save a sick boy and prevent a greater danger. If I killed the boy, I’d prevent the danger, but then I’d have to kill a child. A little more research in-game had me finding out that there was a way to save the boy, if I sacrificed his mother instead. She was willing, but I was not — why should anyone innocent have to die? The game offered me up both of those conclusions (and they were actually both valid conclusions and would have had lasting effects on the game world), but I kept pressing — there had to be another way. Finally I was told that if I went and found a great mage’s help, he might be able to save the boy without losing the mother. I eventually found the mage, and though he sent me on another whole series of quests (including a few more tangled situations like this one), I eventually got his problem solved, sent him back to the boy and his mother, and he was able to save them both. That was my choice, and the brilliance of a huge role-playing game like Dragon Age is that I was able to make that decision. Even offered other scenarios by the game, I had the chance to push through, to find a third solution, and choose the one I wanted.
Just because I chose the solution where everyone lived doesn’t mean it was the “right” one for the game, either — you can play characters that are good or evil in Dragon Age (or in between), and as I said, either one of the three choices are actually valid in the game’s code. But I wasn’t limited to my choice, and as a result, I felt that I was really charging my own path, that I was choosing what I wanted to do rather than just what the game offered me.
Of course I wasn’t — I was still choosing from the limited options offered by the game. Maybe I could have brought the boy to the mage to save time, or maybe read a book and tried to cast a spell myself. Those weren’t presented to me. But still, even though I was limited by the world, I didn’t feel it. I felt as though I’d chosen to do my own thing. Simulated agency, we might call it.
In Modern Warfare 2, there’s a very famous level which offers up another moral choice of a kind. (This is a spoiler, though most people who want to play the game have already played it, and/or heard about what happens.) In one of the levels, one of the US soldier characters that you play is sent undercover with a group of Russian terrorists, and the level begins with you and a group of a few other terrorists walking with AK-47s out into a crowded airport. Everything is calm at first — no one notices that you and your “compatriots” (remember, you’re undercover with Russian bad guys who want to start a war between the US and Russia) are armed. But suddenly the guys you walked off the elevator with turn their guns towards a line of people trying to get through a baggage check, and open fire, point blank, on a group of unarmed civilians.
The airport turns into chaos. Screaming erupts everywhere, and the realistically-rendered civilians start panicking and falling over each other while the guys you’re with coldly and carefully shoot them down. You’re still playing the game — you are holding a gun in front of you, and you can move and do what you want. What do you do?
I knew the level was coming (I’d heard about it on the game blogs, and the game actually has a warning at the beginning that something like this will happen — you can skip the scene if you plan to be offended by it, as if anyone plans to be offended by something), and I was still a little shocked — the game’s audio and excellently designed and rendered visuals put me squarely in the persona of a guy with a gun in an airport being attacked by terrorists. Just to see what the game let me do, I did what I hoped I would in the same situation — I opened fire on the terrorists.
I killed one quickly, and the game ended. “You must not let your friends die!” the game told me (I don’t remember that verbatim, but it was something like that). Which was true — I wasn’t just me in an airport, I was a guy undercover in an airport, and while I personally would never agree to go on a mission that allowed the slaughter of civilians that appeared on the screen before me, I should still play the role. I’m acting in the game, I should play by its rules.
But I still couldn’t bring myself to shoot, even a pixelized representation of an unarmed civilian. It didn’t feel right, and I didn’t want such an image on my tv screen. So instead, I just followed my terrorist “companions” through the crowd, occasionally pointing my rifle menacingly (just in case they might start to suspect me), and secretly hating them for what they made me do for my virtual country.
Later in the level, a SWAT team appears, and at that point they actually started firing on us. I determined then that my need to live was more important than my morals (both in game and, though I’ve never been pressed but as I suspect, in real life), and fired on the SWAT team.
Unfortunately (and here’s the real spoiler), it was all in vain — at the end of the level, a cutscene has the leader of the terrorists shoot me dead, and it’s revealed that the Russians shot up the Russian airport because they want to blame the whole thing on me. I’m left, now a dead American soldier, alone in the middle of the massacre, and Russia, shocked that an American would kill so many people at their airport (despite the fact that I didn’t actually shoot anyone), goes to war with the US. In the end, the game probably should have let me shoot a terrorist. The other terrorists would have killed me and the same scenario would have gone down. But that’s not the way the game is programmed.
So. One the one side, Dragon Age. Where agency seems like a real thing (though it’s not), and it seems like almost any choice is open to the player, and almost any choice can be right. On the other side, Modern Warfare 2, where there’s really only one option, and it’s the “wrong” one. I like them both (besides that level, Modern Warfare 2 is a ton of unencumbered fun to play), but which is the way to go? Dragon Age, like a great novel, has you doing a lot of thinking outside the game: What will your character be next, what will happen with that woman that you met and her son, what was the “right” thing to do in that situation? But the airport level in Modern Warfare also had me thinking. There was a tradeoff there — I couldn’t choose what to do, and as a result, I got the cutscene ending and learned what was really happening in that airport. If I had shot a terrorist, and they had shot me and left me for dead right away, would the scene have been as powerful? Modern Warfare 2, for a number of reasons (I’m leaving out much of the genre differences between these two games — they both come from very long genre histories), trades the grayness of Dragon Age for an action movie payoff. Jack Bauer doesn’t have time to go with a third choice the way you have the chance to in Dragon Age, and Modern Warfare’s designers have removed your agency to tell their own story, not necessarily yours.
There’s another moment in Modern Warfare that had me thinking about choice and action that I’ll share with you. And actually, I’ll use an example from the first Modern Warfare game, just so it’s not as much of a spoiler, though there are similar situations in the second game. At the very end of the game, you’re lying on the ground, almost dead, with the final enemy walking toward you triumphant. Someone offscreen slides you a pistol with just a few rounds left in it, and in slow motion, John Woo-style action, you’ve got just a few seconds to lift the gun, aim it, and pull the trigger to finish off the bad guy and save the day.
This is a situation where you have no choice at all — the enemy is almost exactly in your sights, so you only have to move the stick to aim just a little bit and pull the controller’s trigger. If you wait too long, the game simply ends and offers you a “retry” option. In a game like Dragon Age, the enemy might engage you in conversation and ask you to join his side, giving you a chance to have great power at the cost of joining someone you don’t agree with. Or, you might even have the option to join him then, only to find a more peaceful solution later. That’s agency — the option to do what you want, limited though the “world” you’re in may be. But in Modern Warfare, you have no choice — it’s pull the trigger on the bad guy, or game over.
I toiled with the airport level, I really did. I saw the screaming people and the terrorists gunning them down, and I really tried to think of a way out of it, tried to figure out a solution, no matter how long it took or how hard it was, where no one had to die. That mage I found to save that kid in Dragon Age sent me on a long, long quest — I had to play a long time (like hours) through a lot of tough levels to get the mage’s help to choose the third solution and save both that kid and his mom, keeping anyone innocent from dying, but I did it. And if there was a way to do that in the airport level, I would have done it.
In the last scenario, though, where I was faced with a bad guy and holding a gun pointed right at him, with no agency at all, I didn’t think twice. I pulled the trigger, and won the game.
Once again, far too long has gone by without me writing to you, mikeschramm.com readers. I thought about writing something describing what I’ve learned since I’ve moved to Los Angeles so far, but then I figured that’d be harping on the point — it’s been a month since I moved out here now and I’ve probably tweeted about nothing more exciting since. Instead, I’ll just riff on a few things I’ve been thinking about lately. LA and my experiences here will likely come in the mix — sorry about that.
So I’ve been reading this book called A General Theory of Love lately (recommended to me by that psychologist I interviewed for WoW.com about game addiction), and last night I read about something called the visual cliff. I’ve actually heard about it before, as it’s a pretty famous psychological experiment, and it has a few connotations for how our minds develop in early life. But it’s super interesting, and in the context of what I’ve been thinking about lately, it has more meaning than ever.
The idea is that you have a “cliff” (a shelf of sorts) with the far side covered in clear plexiglass so that if you walked out off the cliff, instead of falling to your doom, you’d be standing on the plexiglass. The experiment is designed to test depth perception in different beings that we can’t just talk to — animals, babies, and so on. So they did this test with babies — made the babies climb out to the edge of the “cliff,” and of course the babies don’t know what plexiglass is, so they reach the cliff, look over it, and aren’t sure whether to step onward (into what might be empty space) or not.
How do they figure it out? They look to their parents. If they can find their mom’s face, they study it. And here’s where it gets weird: if mom is calm, the babies laugh and head right out on to the cliff, no problem. If mom is worried or frightened, the babies stop and cry and won’t climb out onto the glass.
There’s a lot happening there that makes psychologists stay up late at night. First is that the babies are actually using their emotional equipment to determine reality in the physical world — they’re not studying the cliff to determine whether it’s safe or not, they’re actually studying what mom thinks about the cliff and the situation. And second, and probably more amazing but less obvious, is that babies can realize what mom is thinking at all. Even without the development of language or the ability to walk, they know how to tune in on extremely subtle details in her expression and then deduce serious meaning from them. From a scrunched up brow and a bit lip on mom’s face, they are determining whether or not the ground they’re standing on is safe. As the book says, by merely looking at mom’s expression and then determining serious conclusions about what her inner state is like, they’re more or less reading minds. Even before they can read books, they’re reading emotions, and they trust that reading so much that they trust their life to it. It’s a kind of telepathy, a broadcasting of a wordless message, between two human beings.
The whole book is filled with that kind of stuff, stories about humans using subtle emotional cues to connect. And that’s been on my mind lately a lot — connecting with humans and how we do it, both in terms of intimate, relational connection and just in terms of general, human connection. I find myself in the weird situation of trying to connect with an entire city here — when I moved away from Chicago, I figured that I’d changed a lot in the past six years. It wouldn’t take long for me to settle back down, put some roots in just as I had in the other big city I moved to, and figure things out pretty quickly. But while yes, the mechanical parts of the move were actually much easier (I knew how to set up utilities and who to see about fixing up the paperwork and dotting Ts and crossing Is; wait…), it turns out, a month later, that the mental settling down takes time. More time than I expected. Whenever I stay inside for a long time (in my apartment, or at the gym or a movie theater, though I haven’t seen as many movies as I hope I would when I moved out yet), I tend to forget I’m actually in LA. I find myself feeling like I’m back in Chicago, and that walking outside will send me into a chilly, windy fall, not the sunny afternoons and cool evenings they have out here. It’s taking me a little while longer than I actually expected to make this place feel like it’s somewhere I belong.
And then there is, of course, the people. I’ve never been someone who’s good at making friends in the first place, but moving 2000 miles from anyone I know well has put the procedure of emotion and friend-making at the fore of my mind. I’m not desperate or lonely or anything — well, ok, maybe I am a little lonely, but it’s my own fault for completely uprooting myself, and fortunately I’m also the kind of person who knows how to entertain himself with computers and TV and video games, so it hasn’t been too bad. And I’m not sitting back and doing nothing — I’ve joined a bowling league, and checked out a church, and joined a new gym. But it has been quite a learning experience, reading about how our minds connect with each other in strange, unpredictable ways while at the same time experiencing the making of connections with the people I’m meeting for the first few times out here.
We are wacky creatures, human beings, and a person could study the human mind his or her whole life and still be mystified by some aspects of human behavior (I’ve been studying the people around me for all of my life, and I am continually mystified, in both good ways and bad, daily). And as globally connected as the world is lately, there are fascinating differences even from region to region that can separate us across gaps we didn’t even know existed.
Consider, finally, the first time it rained since I’d moved out here. I’d never actually seen rain in LA before — I didn’t know it existed out here, and as far as I know, it still doesn’t up in the hills. I lived out here for a few months during college and in that entire time, I saw a light misting that lasted about 15 minutes in the morning, and never saw a drop of anything fall from the sky again. But it does rain here, occasionally, for about one or two days out of the year. And I happened to be here for the first time on one of those days a few weeks ago.
Conan joked that it was chaos, but his jokes were actually founded in truth: the local blogs reported that during the first morning of rain, car accidents in the city rose by a measure of hundreds of percentage points. People stayed home from work. It wasn’t panic in that there was widespread looting and chaos, but people did freak out a little bit — people who live here are so accustomed to not dealing with weather of any kind that when they do, everyone kind of forgets all the other rules about how to live.
And here’s the really crazy thing: as you know from my last post, I’m from the midwest. I’ve lived through winters full of freezing temperatures and feet of snow and wind that threatened to pull your skin off. But because everyone around me was panicking — all of the Twitter folks were talking about it, it was all over the TV, and everyone had to deal with the rain in some way — I panicked a little too. I thought about driving to run some errands, and then decided that I should probably wait a day to go out on the road. I considered not going for a walk, not even thinking that I had an umbrella stored in the closet (and this was the kind of rain where I wouldn’t even bother with an umbrella had I seen it in Chicago).
I was being the baby. Well yeah, I was panicking over a few drops of water, a very babylike thing to do, but I mean I was being the visual cliff baby. Placed in a new environment, I was looking at the people around me to determine my reaction. And against all logic, I was seeing panic on the faces of others, and so I too, for no discernible reason, felt a little bit of panic. Some weird connection had developed between me and the people around me — not telepathy as such, but the common experience of being in the same place, and sharing the same reaction to something, of reading each other, and echoing that emotion. Like the little kid on the visual cliff, I saw rain falling, looked at the reactions of those around me, and without willing it so, recreated the same reaction in myself.
So that’s what I’m thinking about lately. Hope things are well with you, readers — thanks for all the good feedback on the Moto post a while back. I’ve been looking for good restaurants out here (in fact, I’ve been overwhelmed by looking for them — there’s so many to try I have no idea where to start). When I find something cool to write about for you, I will do so. Talk to you soon.
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