An Answer to: “Videogames or Life?”

This morning, I stumbled upon the blog of a future educator lambasting gamers:

“Why after all of these years do people depend on videogames?”

“These so called “gamers“, do not have a real social life.”

“The only interaction they get with people is between a headset.”

There’s plenty more, and you can read it for yourself here. I wrote a response that I’d like to share, because the comment I left is awaiting moderation, and likely won’t be approved.

I’ve been playing video games since I was five years old, starting with the Atari 2600. On the weekends, if I was lucky, my parents would rent a video game for me. I would always look through the art in the instruction booklets on the ride home, and it got me started with drawing.

In middle school and high school, I was in art classes. I was considered for several art programs throughout, and I graduated my senior year in an advanced placement course.

When I was in the fifth grade, I was pulled out of class to take a test. The proctor had a flip book of words and a stopwatch. She would turn the page, and I had to read the word aloud as quickly and as accurately as I could. The results of the test indicated that I was reading at the level of a high school junior, despite the fact that my parents always struggled to get me to read anything at all.

In my junior year, I tied for highest score in the school in our statewide writing examination.

I’ve had a tremendous imagination all my life. I can find stories, humor, and adventure in even the most mundane tasks. I’m rarely ever bored, and I find myself constantly dreaming up new worlds, characters and situations.

I have an insatiable hunger for learning. I often look into something that has piqued my interest and find myself in an entirely different subject hours later.

I’ve never been in a romantic relationship that didn’t last at least three years, and the friends I made during my formative years are still the very best I could ever ask for.

Now I’m an Intelligence Specialist in the United States Navy and working at the Pentagon.

You look at video games, and all you can see is noise and guns. What you don’t see is creative problem solving, critical thinking, moral choices, conflict resolution, relationship building, cause and effect, drama, comedy, tragedy, learning opportunities, fantastic stories, the rewards of overcoming adversity, attention to detail, music appreciation, understanding different perspectives, and more concepts and situations that run the gamut of all human experiences.

The fact that video games are played in front of a TV makes them no less impactful than literature, film, or any other medium.

Anything in excess is bad for you, and if you’re not putting these kinds of things into context for your children, then you are an example of bad parenting. That’s true of everything; not just video games.

If you don’t understand “so-called ‘gamers’” or video games in general, that’s fine. But passing judgement on the people who do is completely ignorant and unbecoming of someone looking to make a career of shaping young minds.

If I were in your shoes, I’d educate myself on video games to understand why they’re so appealing and how I could use them to relate to my students and enhance their learning.

But what do I know? I’m just a gamer.


A Question of Value

Yesterday, I was forced to make a critical decision.

With the transition from active duty military service to civilian college life looming on the horizon, money is tight. As a spoiled gamer used to having the latest and greatest on release date, it’s a grim and sobering reminder that money sucks and that we live in a cold and bitter world.

Life is hard.

That’s why I was ecstatic to find that I was sitting on $50-worth of Best Buy certificates. A new game! A fix! But which one? I’d played both the Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure and the Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance demos via the 3DS eShop, but I only played KH3D once whereas I found myself replaying the Rhythm Thief demo and loving it every time.

So that choice was clear! …At first. On my way to Best Buy, I realized that this may be the only game I get for some time. If Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy was any indication, I’d blast through Rhythm Thief in a single afternoon. Kingdom Hearts would probably last considerably longer.

I posted my seemingly insurmountable problem on Facebook before leaving.

It would turn out that I really didn’t have a choice, because my local Best Buy wasn’t carrying Rhythm Thief anyway. So, still conflicted and a bit disappointed, I grabbed a copy of Kingdom Hearts. My girlfriend fired-up a demo for Mario Tennis on the gigantic 3DS XL that I don’t need but still want for no valid reason while I wandered off in the games section for the hell of it. That’s when I noticed Little Big Planet Vita.

I hadn’t even considered it! I closed my eyes for a moment and dreamed of a time when I could have walked out of the store with all three games, back when the world made sense and the sun seemed brighter. I realized that LPB’s online features meant an endless supply of interesting levels to jump and swing through, but I still felt as though I would get more out of a story-driven RPG, and so I left with Kingdom Hearts. Also, because my girlfriend flipped a coin.

A few Facebook friends raised some great points on that post I left. “Rhythm Thief will sell out and not be reprinted,” one predicted, “KH3D will probably stick around long enough to see a price drop.”

He’s probably right about Rhythm Thief. Based on the comparatively low number of player reviews on the eShop, it’s probably a safe bet that copies aren’t flying off the shelves. Is that a testament to the quality of the game? Of course not. It does, after all, have five-out-of-five stars. But if the average consumer is in the same position I found myself in yesterday, it starts to become clear why niche genres and new IPs alike tend to struggle. Hell, Best Buy didn’t even bother to stock Rhythm Thief.

I always feel frustrated when a low-profile or niche game doesn’t get the attention I feel it deserves, and I would write it off as the result of gamers who were too “cool” or closed-minded to give it a chance. Of course, that’s a completely ignorant and elitist way to look at it; there’s a myriad of factors involved.

For me, and probably for many gamers, it was a question of value: The biggest bang for my buck.

I’ve heard the staffers on IGN’s Game Scoop podcast say “vote with your dollars” many times, implying that your purchases tell the industry what you want more or less of, but what happens when you can’t afford to vote more than once?

A Look Back at Gravity Rush

I really wanted to love Gravity Rush. The brief demo I played prior to release got me really pumped for what I believed would be the Vita’s first killer app.

The core gravity-shifting mechanic is a double-edged sword. The sense of speed, the animation, and the cinematic camera angles make for a thrilling experience while exploring, but in the heat of battle, things can get a little clunky and cumbersome. Enemies become difficult to track, getting into position to deliver an attack takes a bit too long and becomes frustrating when speedy enemies dash away just when you find the sweet spot, and Kat’s single aerial flying kick is lamentably the only weapon in her arsenal outside of the special attacks, which seems somewhat broken in a game where you spend most of your time falling (technically) through the sky. It certainly doesn’t ruin the experience, but I became painfully aware of it toward the end of the adventure.

At times, the world can feel like an empty lobby. There’s a lot of room to explore in Heckseville, but not a lot of incentive to do it. You’ll find bountiful amounts of crystals and occasionally come across a married couple who continually phase in and out of your reality like ghosts, and not much else. The NPCs that you can speak with change between missions and are marked on your map along with a decent amount of side missions (composed of only a handful of types). You’ll talk to a few NPCs, do a side-mission or two, and then engage the next chapter of the story. Once you’ve finished it, you’ll talk to the new NPCs, do some side missions…

The production values and fantastic art direction keep Gravity Rush from slipping into mediocrity. The sweeping score captures the action perfectly, and the environments are impressively detailed (though, the sections could stand to be a bit more visually distinct from each other) with park benches, NPCs milling about, and a lot of other great details. It’s a shame that your interaction with any of it is minimal.

There are no interiors to explore, though there are some interesting dreamlike environs to soar through. Throughout, I couldn’t help feel as though the game suffered for this. I could only imagine the kinds of dungeons and puzzles that could have taken advantage of the gravity shifting mechanic.

The ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel, and while I don’t think I’ll be playing through Gravity Rush again anytime soon, I’m eager to see what’s in store for Kat and her friends in the future.

A Numbers Game

I run a casual 24-member Illuminati cabal in The Secret World, and there has been a noticable drop in member activity since Guild Wars 2 went live. That’s just the nature of the MMORPG beast. But a long-time member voiced some concerns last night that got me wondering. We’ll call him Bancroft.

Bancroft and another member were discussing how excited they are for the upcoming 10-man New York raid due out this fall when Bancroft added, “If we can even get 10 people online at the same time”. He explained that he’s noticed less and less people online during weekday evenings and that Guild Wars 2 was the reason. He’s right: Five of our members play, and four more have shown an interest in joining them.

He went on to lament that he’d been looking through Chronicle, The Secret World’s stat-tracking service which takes a page from World of WarCraft’s Armory, and found that almost every cabal he came across only had 20 – 30 members. Bancroft’s point was that he feels too few people play The Secret World. He’s considering making the jump to Guild Wars 2.

Bancroft’s perception is that numbers are dropping, and it’s probably a product of the recent stream of bad news surrounding FUNCOM. The Secret World didn’t sell as well as they’d hoped it would, and there have been some significant layoffs to include lead designer Matt Bruusgaard. As a result of the shake-up, Issue #2, the latest content update, has been pushed back. Does this affect the morale of the players? Most definitely.

But why is it that the enjoyment players get out of MMORPGs seems to scale with the number of people playing? I can understand how potential players might use this as a basis to judge the value and quality of a title, but for someone who has been playing since closed beta and who sang its praises all the while to lose interest? Why?

Not to mention that groups in The Secret World are capped at five players. I run Nightmare dungeons, the game’s challenging end-game content, for hours every weekend with cabal members. Even now, it’s very rare that we need a pick-up player to fill a spot. If there were only 20 players in the entire game, what would that matter if you always found four others to group with? And if a game has 20 million players, would that matter when you can only play with four of them at a time?

Farewell, City of Heroes

I’ve been playing MMORPGs since Ultima Online. Until recently, nothing captured my interest and imagination like City of Heroes.

There have been few games, MMO or single-player, that really made me feel as though my character were an extension of myself. It’s all thanks primarily to the stellar and yet unmatched customization options the game was well-known for, but it went far beyond that.

Your hero was more than just looks; you’re character was a theme. Your powers, your costume, your aura – each piece invaluable in creating this persona.

The first few heroes I made felt like side-kicks, and even though I brought some of them into the 30s, I just couldn’t get over that. So I resolved to make a character who screamed hero. I remember spending hours on molding his body and designing his costume. I remember spending time at work thinking of the perfect biography.

I remember climbing to the roof of that Winn-Dixie the day the game came out, and reading the instruction booklet over lunch.

Eventually, I’d perfected my patriotic hero and called him Anthem (later renamed Anthem Aegis after a server transfer). The inspiration for his costume came from two of my favorite classic superheroes, Superman and Captain Marvel. I never made another hero after him.

Well, unless you count a brief stint in Champions Online.

That same sense of pride and uniqueness, I have never felt in a game since. In the end, I was:

The Courageous Unbreakable
Saved the World

And owner of some 570 badges at a time when there were only 600 to be had.

I did some searching and was able to find only one link to Anthem on City Info Tracker; a profile that I must have created on a whim and abandoned shortly after. It doesn’t have my badges listed, but there’s a screenshot and that biography I put so much heart into.

It’s too late now to download and play City of Heroes. The main website has been stripped of its sidebar, and any links in Google that lead to a download page direct you to Paragon’s farewell message. I wish I’d played more in the last three years or taken more screenshots (there have been a lot of new computers throughout), but I’ll always have the memories: Earning my cape, obtaining my aura, my first fight with Lusca, preventing a power plant meltdown, assailing the Rikti Mothership, fighting alongside Statesman, and countless others – those aren’t going anywhere.

So farewell to City of Heroes and to 2,649 hours on patrol.

Getting into The Last Story

I can’t seem to get lost in The Last Story.

Aside from Callista, who is kind of the cookie-cutter JRPG female lead so far, all of the characters have interesting personalities and quirks, and I’m eager to learn more about each of them.

The story has just started to flesh itself out; I can tell that things are about to get epic.

The combat is addictive and surprisingly tactical.

But the equipment system and summon circles have started to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

The prospect of leveling-up equipment is exciting. Upgrading the weapons and armor you find unlock new potential and abilities such as “Crit Chance +20%” and “x3 Slash Damage”. Eventually, items require components to upgrade them further, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

The problem I have is that dungeons, such as the ship I just fought my way through, have a limited number of enemies. If you want to grind for exp and items, you can use the summoning circle found in each locale to spawn a group of baddies.

But it’s the same group spawning in the same locations. Occasionally, you’ll summon a batch with higher HP who deal more damage, but it’s still very much the same fight.

In that same ship, Zael could kill the summoned skeletons with a single hit thanks to a weapon that inflicts additional damage on the undead.

Summon. Attack x6. Collect items. Summon. Attack x6. Collect items. Summon. Attack x6….

Unabashed grinding. It’s optional, sure, but what happens when the few groups of enemies scattered throughout the dungeons aren’t giving you enough experience to match the power of the bosses at the end? You’re going to have to do some grinding.

The environments have been almost completely linear so far. Why not throw in additional groups of enemies that you can only reach by exploring the intricacies of a dungeon?

The necessary items in equipment upgrades are clearly a way to prevent you from grinding these circles and breaking the game. You’ll quickly get to the point where the experience from summoned enemies does very little in advancing you to the next level; eventually it won’t be worth the time. So if a particular circle only brings you up to level 15 from, say, level 10, and the equipment you want to upgrade comes to a halt because you haven’t obtained the necessary items yet, why offer a way to grind if you’re going to bottleneck progress, anyway? Why not just run the numbers so that the battles you fight up to that particular point already put you at level 15?

It just seems a little lazy and unnecessary, but at such an early stage in the game, maybe I’m just missing something.