Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

I just wish I knew where Hitler got that power-armor from.

Like many males of my generation, I have been known to play a videogame or two. Well, more accurately, I have been known to play a game or two a week, and possibly subscribe to a magazine about videogames. It's just one of those things that's pretty common anymore, and we can probably expect it to become more common as time goes by.

As a side note: This may actually be something of a problem in certain cases. My mother used to teach 1st grade and once had a child who would zone out in class. This, by itself, was not all that strange. What was strange was the series of hand movements he would make while zoned. The entire situation was confusing since, besides this behavior, he didn't exhibit any of the classic signs of autism or other similar disorders. Eventually she realized, and confirmed via the boy, that he was playing Nintendo in his head. The hand movements were essentially replicas of what his fingers would be doing on the controller if he were actually playing.

I started gaming back in the days of Pac-Man, Zork, Moria, and other more or less plot-less games and gradually moved up as the technology improved. Eventually I discovered games that allowed me to play against other humans. These were some of the most enjoyable games I played- owing to the fact that any human opponent was immeasurably more cunning than any computer opponent. Of course, that being said, at the time playing against someone else usually meant you called them ahead of time, set up the game, and then used modems to directly connect your computers. There was no public internet when I started down the dark path of gaming. This, in turn, meant that anyone you played a game with was someone you already knew (We'll ignore small exceptions, like "TradeWars" on the old WWIV BBSes. God, but I miss TradeWars some days...) which made the gaming experience merely an extension of the friendship or acquaintence relation.

Since then times have changed. Now, many games come pre-packaged with an online component. It is as easy as hitting a few buttons to go on the internet, find one or more opponents, and play a game against actual humans. You might think this would be an ideal situation for gamers like me. You would, however, be wrong.

Perhaps it's my ever increasing age, but I find that more and more I simply cannot stand the utter fucktards that populate online gaming. It isn't the crudity, I can handle crudity. Hell, my online handle refers simultaneously to weather patterns and certain biological functions, and could charitably be described as "disturbing." It isn't even the lack of coordination in team games, although that can certainly be frustrating. Here's a tip to all you Warthog-lovin flag-runners out there: the DRIVER gets the damned flag. See, if the driver goes, the gunner can lay down suppressive fire with that big f-ing mini-gun. If we do it the other way, I'm just sitting out here in a car that can't shoot back. About all I have to use on the bad-guys is harsh language. Good luck, asshole, because I'll be a crater by the time you get the flag. But I digress. I think what makes it so gawdawful is that in online games other people... well... talk to you.

I don't mean that they strike up conversations, I mean that they constantly bombard other players with a stream of pointless verbage that makes me want to find them and kill them just to watch them die. Sometimes this is just annoying. Other times, you may be treated to a running argument between what I can only assume are pre-pubescent boys that have watched far too many R-rated movies. Don't get me wrong, I swear a lot (and believe it or not, I swear quite a bit less NOW than I used to) but when I've been killed by another player, it really seems unnecessary to call them a, "goddamn gay-ass faggort." Whatever the hell that means, I'm not really too clear. No, no, we're not just talking about judicious use of profanity here. We're talking about a frequency and fluency of obscenity that could make the creators of South Park blush.
This doesn't even take into account the fact that these tykes are speaking in a way that might fairly be described as "ass-ramming the rules of English grammar." As if that wasn't enough, let me additionally assure you that the rhetorical skills of these individuals are rivaled by the average talking parrot.

As a side note: I just want to digress here for a moment and tell a story that should give you an idea what I'm talking about. Back in the day I attended a high school out of district. This school maintained special programs for academically-successful engineering-oriented students, and for the "educatably mentally handicapped." I leave it to you to decide which program I was a member of. In any case, this meant that morning and afternoon I'd spend more than an hour on the bus going to and from school. On this bus with me were two students in the EMH program, one named Jeremy and the other named _____. (Meaning, of course, that we never figured out what her name was.) Now, Jeremy and _____ would often have arguments, sometimes for the majority of our time on the bus. This didn't mean they ever came to blows, however, as these arguments would quickly reach a stable state. Specifically, _____ would get angry and would throw out the zinger, "Eat a tarantula!" This was, apparently, an intolerable insult, so Jeremy would be forced to respond with the most powerful comeback in his arsenal, "Eat a shrimp!" None of us could figure out how this was supposed to put ____ in her place, seeing as how people routinely pay money for the priviledge of eating shrimp, but that isn't the point. ____ having been insulted would, of course, respond, but by this point she either had forgotten the earlier stage of the argument or was out of ideas and would thus just yell "Eat a tarantula!" again. Jeremy, being in the same boat, would respond again with "Eat a shrimp!" And so, the circle of life continued. I don't bring this up to make fun of people with certain handicaps, but if you imagine something like the above taking place, only with a substantial amount of profanity added in, you might start to understand what online gaming is like.

So, it's safe to say that my participation in online gaming is self-limiting. The guys over at Penny Arcade are, if anything, understating things. Esepcially when they talk about the racial slurs.

If online gaming is out, though, that means I'm stuck with offline gaming, and that brings us to the real point of this post. (Insofar as any of my posts actually have a point, that is...) I've been thinking a lot lately about narratives and storytelling.

No, seriously, hear me out. In the beginning I think it was appropriate to refer to video games as "games," meaning a sort of amusement that is otherwise fairly meaningless. Over time, however, I'm beginning to think they belong more completely in the realm of stories.

Think for a moment about what storytelling was in the dim days of antiquity. Before reading and writing existed, before literacy was common, stories were part of an oral tradition. They were learned and passed down, through retelling, from generation to generation. This meant that the stories themselves were a living part of the culture, adapting as they were told, and memorized and retold. Moreover, if we think about an elder telling the tale of a great hero to the youths of a village, or a poet reciting an epic before a Spartan lord, or even a wandering Troubadour singing tales of love and chivalry in a tavern, do we really believe that these tales were static from telling to telling? Hardly. The broad outlines would remain the same, but the details, the emphasis, the moral might change according to the audience and their reaction. Story tellers are renowned for their memory, and rightly so, but perhaps they should also be recalled as the original improv artists, whose true skill was not merely in recalling the story, but in adapting it for the audience as necessary.

The rise of new forms of storytelling, such as novels or movies, represented an advance in fiction in certain ways, but they also removed its interactive qualities. Stories became, for lack of a better term, dead things. A novel doesn't change from reader to reader the way an oral-tradition does from audience to audience. A movie is the same set of images regardless of who watches it.

Now we come to video games which have become considerably more than just amusements. In the days of "Pong" there was no story, there were only two rectangles volleying a ball. As games have evolved, however, they have begun to acquire stories, themes, and even ideas. There can be little doubt that this is the case, given that court battles have been raging for some months now over whether or not video games qualify for protection as speech. Certainly the plot and ideas may be poor or, dare I say, crappy, but the quality of a story has never been a factor in determining if it is, in fact, a story.

The ironic thing about all this is that video games may not seem like storytelling to us because they don't resemble movies and novels. Yet, in that games are broadly similar experiences that differ in details according to the audience, are they not more similar to the oral traditions that began the human love affair with fiction? In a very real sense, video games provide a successor to the minstrels of old, spinning out tales that are at once universal and specific. We do not recognize games as stories because our concept of what a story is has become bound up in the medium through which it is told. We have grown so accustomed to the static medium of the page or the screen that we have been reluctant to recognize the story staring us in the face. It is, thus, colossally amusing that the narrative form of the future is merely a new take on the narrative form of the past.

You might say, "So what?" Sure, fine, games are narratives. What's the big deal? Well, the big deal is that if games are MORE than just silly amusements, if they are a channel through which we can convey information and ideas, that opens the door to a new era of human expression. Sure, right now many, many games are emotionally shallow and logically absurd, but that's the equivalent of a drunk scrawling a limerick on a bathroom wall. That poetry and rhyme can be used to produce ribaldry does not mean that they are incapable of producing something moving, powerful, even illuminating about the human condition, in the hands of a Maya Angelou. If games truly are a medium for storytelling, then there are numerous reasons to take them seriously.

As humans, we should take them seriously because their potential for teaching and exploring the human condition may be vast. Psychologists argue that recall of information improves as more sensory modes are engaged- so reading something and listening to a lecture on the subject should enable better recall than either alone. Think about what this means for games that involve visual stimuli, auditory information, and a degree of interactivity that makes the player feel physically present in the gameworld. Such a set of characteristics might provide powerful means for teaching. Certainly the United States Army thinks so- it has produced both America's Army, a game meant to introduce civilians to the weapons, tactics, and career paths of the military (presumably in the process bolstering recruitment), and Full-Spectrum Warrior, a game they intend to distribute to rec-rooms in bases throughout the world to teach squad-level tactics and urban combat skills. Certainly these games are militaristic, but that's no reason why games cannot teach other things. Much as comic books began as violent escapism, and eventually developed into powerful mediums for teaching evolution or exploring conflict in the middle east, games can mature from violent fluff into something truly valuable.

Watching games is also potentially important sociologically. How often do we have the chance to witness the emergence of new forms of storytelling? The standards that govern this medium are being generated now, the norms that will come to be accepted are being fought over as we speak. If we miss this opportunity to witness the birth of a new set of cultural understandings, later generations of sociologists will surely curse us for it.

So how are these stories being told? What are the parameters of this new approach? How is it evolving?

Well, if you want to know that, you'd best check back in tomorrow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may be interested in checking out Grand Text Auto, a blog about computer-mediated art. The authors pay a lot of attention to narratives in games.

I used to run a WWIV BBS. Oh, the nostalgia! Last year, some old friends of mine put together a telnet-accessible TW server, but it just wasn't the same.

- Alan

Tuesday, September 14, 2004 10:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if we can run Halo on the department subnet.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004 6:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, if the driver leaves, its really really easy to toss a grenade into the jeep and kill the gunner. Much better for the gunner to jump and the driver to pick him up on the other side.

Sunday, July 17, 2005 6:00:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Actually, if the driver leaves, its really really easy to toss a grenade into the jeep and kill the gunner. Much better for the gunner to jump and the driver to pick him up on the other side.

I see your point, and have seen both techniques, but which one works better seems to depend a great deal on the mix of individuals in the game. Good argument, though.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005 3:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

actually, the drive cant carry the flag, and neither can the gunner so you would need a 3rd passenger.

Thursday, June 30, 2011 4:08:00 PM  

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