Feb 3

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My first thought in reading the pieces for this week was that these are all strategies that everybody needs to apply to the rhetoric surrounding this upcoming election. The amount of unverified and unsupported claims and flat out bullshit spouted by not just the candidates but by tons of people in the media in staggering. I know who I’m thinking of, but that isn’t exactly the point here. More importantly in this context, what we’re talking about in general is the need for people to examine their sources. To think critically. Actually, what the combined list of readings for this week really points to, alarmingly, is the need for people to be reminded to think critically. Excuse me, sir? My colleagues and I in this field got together, and it’s looking like you’re out here just swallowing whole every single thing you see online. Please stop. I didn’t think that this habit of taking for granted that everything you see is true was a new thing. I thought it already had a name. I thought it was called being gullible. You might say that people of my general age grew up in a time when we got to mess around with computer and the internet and learn their ways, making us predisposed to have strong “bullshit detectors” and that would certainly be true. I spent way too much time on my family’s computer during my teenage years. Any computer really, wherever I could get time on one. My friends and my classmates and total strangers and I spent a lot of that time exploring. We directed each other to things of shared interest, conferred with one another with varying degrees of privacy, schemed and planned and chatted and speculated, and sometimes tried to trick each other. We’d use new or fake accounts to impersonate someone or invent a totally new identity, always to a different end but always inherently with the intent to deceive. Not in a scary murderer or catfish way, but as a way of play. The same way kids ask each other to join the PEN15 Club or ask them to pronounce I-C-U-P. Like a knock-knock joke or a jump scare. Setting up your friends, messing with them. Of course some people are worse than others and do and have used the internet and anonymity to do awful things, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m getting at is the need, as a navigator of this communication-scape, to evaluate everything that came your way. Every invitation, every declaration, (especially of love, those were dangerous [and mean]) every fact(oid). Everything. Because it could all be somebody else messing with you before the big reveal at school the next day. Over time, the skills, or not quite skills but ways of being (literacy is probably the right word) turned into something incomparably valuable in terms of living and working in a world that has turned increasingly toward digital networked everything. But this doesn’t mean that myself and all the animals I went to high school with should be the only people who know how to use the internet. All those little tricks that I mentioned before, the schoolyard games, happened before any of us knew anything about the internet, and for generation before that. Ever heard a joke about a guy having a bridge to sell you? The central premise here is gullibility. Somebody believing something, without credible evidence, that they shouldn’t. One of the readings mentioned the author’s daughter and a conversation (probably embellished from real life, if not entirely contrived for the purpose of making this exact point, mind you) about how the internet is different from a library book because it is unreliable. I would argue against that point. Maybe in a time when everyone had a sunnier impression of the world in general it was thought that people in publishing could be depended on to tell the truth without an angle. But even with the vetting process that we all hope (perhaps naively and largely with no actual evidence or experiential knowledge of our own [think about it]) goes into publishing a book, its a personally ill-conceived and distinctly unacademic strategy to believe everything you read in a book without corroborating even well-argued claims with other sources. Therefore, double checking to make sure the website you’re reading isn’t some new skill that I picked up because I lucked into being born in the 80s. It’s just the natural extension of a skill we’re all supposed to have learned in life to the realm of web publishing. Critical thinking and close reading and problem solving are all things we’re supposed to have been taught in school, and should have learned to apply to different situation in our lives. Granted, somebody who isn’t familiar with how websites work might not necessarily have the tools and the literacy to know how to go about vetting a source like that, and that is where the one reading from the Salon.com editor is really useful. I’m sorry if this is getting a little ranty. Talking about detecting bullshit has really drawn out a lot of frustration I feel like every day of my life. I’m done now.

 

-Matt

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7. Wherein the Writer Learns to Bake

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I have a cousin that I looked up to growing up. It was from he and his brother that I inherited a lot of hand-me-downs. Hockey equipment, clothes, toys, and on the best of days, video games. I played video games a lot growing up, in a lot of different settings, and the happiest of these was when I was sharing the experience with my cousins, who were until a certain age my best and closest friends. My cousin Mike, to whom I referred at the top there, is a few year older than me, so naturally to me more or less everything he ever did was cool. Fortunately for both of us it ended up that we had and have a lot of shared interests, one of which has always been video games. A year ago, maybe two, Mike told me about something he saw on the internet, and it gave him an idea. He had found some plans for building an old arcade-style game cabinet, but much more importantly, he had learned about a technology that would allow us to use this machine to play any and every game we had ever enjoyed from our earliest memories up through the turn of the millennium. Logistical concerns aside, I was on board.

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6. Wherein the Writer saves the game

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One game designer interviewed for Tom Bissel’s collection of essays Extra Lives said of his work that he felt like he was writing his legacy in water. I though that was a remarkably poetic image and was impressed, but I also understood what was at the root of his concern. Video games, even popular titles and series, have a history of riotously nonstandard formats and radical changes in the span of only a few short years. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for example, was a machine that was the original home of many of the most memorable and popular game franchises in history. (It’s true that Mario got his start- kind of– in arcade games. We’re ignoring that asterisk here for simplicity’s sake.) These foundational games, these landmarks of the form and sometimes originators of genres existed only on plastic cartridges that could be read only by the port fitted in the NES. For most of the world, that means the only way to access these games- their visual design, music, gameplay mechanics, narratives, etc.- was and still is to dust off an NES, plug it in, dig up an old Ninja Gaiden cartridge, and say a brief prayer that your ancient console still remembers your touch well enough that it will work for you. By the way, that’s another thing. The NES (and the Sega Genesis, Super Nintend0, N64, etc.) were and are NOTORIOUSLY finicky. Even when they were not yet obsolete an in fact relatively new (within a period of five years let’s say) a bizarre, technical/superstitious ritual had to be observed to ensure both your system and the game you wanted to play would work when you wanted them to. The exact amount of pressure plugging in the wires, the exact amount of force inserting the game cartridge, the correct direction and number of times to blow on the electrical connectors to ward off interfering dust and malevolent spirits. This was an exercise from which no gamer was excluded in the era of cartridge gaming. So it was to the almost comically, certainly unreliable arms of these divinely capricious consoles that game designers offered their Mona Lisas, the best work they could do expressing the height of the technology available to them. And sometimes all they had to show for their diligence was a staticky green screen, until some toddler came along and spit on their masterpiece enough to get it to work.

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5. Wherein the Writer Seriously Falters

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It’s been a tough few months. Experiencing very real and non-video game death, again, as well as a selection of the special snags, mires and quandaries that a person’s ongoing life can bring has kept my heart and mind far away from the individual tasks and broader thought that compose the larger pursuit of my Master’s thesis. In keeping with those feelings, a somewhat frustrated and dissatisfied essay follows.

 

I’m feeling like this isn’t something I want to do anymore. Like in the grand scheme, it seems like a lot of what we’re doing here is just bullshitting each other. Like we in this field, and possibly we in most or all of academia. Theoretically bullshitting each other- which I think is probably worse. An M.A. in Speculative, Hypothetical Bullshit Studies for me please, and I’ll jump in the workforce as a… Comp adjunct? And just keep the ball rolling. Maybe if I get lucky I’ll land a gig as a consultant or creative director, another pair of titles that don’t really, definitively mean anything. But I’ll make enough money in those positions to be able to afford to have some kids to whom I can teach the value of compromise.

My therapist has not so subtly reminded me that because I’ve grown accustomed to finding success with limited effort, I have a tendency to get really down and despondent, and sometimes even bail on stuff when I’m not getting it right away. Tell that to my ex-girlfriends, am I right? (I feel like that’s a joke for a persona other than mine.) I’ve sunk too much time and energy and put too much of myself into this pursuit to really think about walking away from it now. And I feel that there is value in obtaining and having a Master’s degree. So I will not be torpedoing this operation. Though I really could I’m not going to bail. Instead, I’m going to rally. Unfortunately, I’m coming to feel that this work that I am committed to finishing is not going to be the transformative, insightful, life-altering, culminating piece of my formal education that I had hoped it would be. I wanted this to be a thing that I made with my heart, that came from somewhere good inside me, that used the good parts of my head and my heart to create something that was both good and mine and that I could be proud of and feel confident in. Now I’m feeling like it’s just going to be something I write with my hands, using only the little get-out-of-trouble-quick part of my brain, and it will be adequate, and it might even be good, but when it’s done I won’t care about it (I might not even care about it while I’m working on it) and it won’t help me understand myself or what I want any better, and it won’t help me enjoy my life or appreciate it all, and it won’t open any doors or lead me in new, challenging, fulfilling directions that I can feel good about. It might get me some kind of job, so that will be ok. But it’s not not depressing. I really wanted to write about games because I have so loved gaming and certain games and game worlds and experiences. But so far I haven’t loved writing this way. It’s felt like a task, not a labor of love.

I’ve been told before that I have talent as a writer, although my feelings about the act of writing are ambivalent. I think I enjoy it, I enjoy being good at it, but I don’t always enjoy doing it. Working on my thesis lately has felt like the kind of writing I don’t enjoy: laborious and stressful and obligatory and not growing organically in a way that I’m excited about.

 

What followed after were my thoughts on switching the focus of my thesis to a piece on the performative nature of social media, identifying that behavior’s roots in traditional human interactions and explicating the uniqueness of it’s iteration on the internet, as well as juxtaposing my own social media presence with the psychological and emotional truth of my actual lived experience. It sounds like a great idea to me, but I don’t think I’m going to do it. I’m feeling a little better about my games project and the overall state of things since I first wrote this post a week or two ago. By no means do I feel solid and confident, but I at least entertain the possibility that my work could come out as something really positive.

4. Wherein the Writer Hears His Jam

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Did you hear that?  Listen to it. I’ll wait.

OK, now? OK. That music, for me- it’s hard to explain. It’s just a piece of music, probably simple as far as classical compositions go. I don’t know, I’m not a music person. I’m talking about my relationship with this piece of music, but not JUST this piece of music, and I mean that on levels. No, its not just this piece of music, its the emotional life that this music has tied into in stages over years. But more literally I mean it isn’t even literally this piece of music. It’s a whole collection of music that sound like this. Variations on these themes, rendered at every stage of complexity- from 8-bit sound files to a single guitar, so a full symphony orchestra accompanied by a choir. All forms of this piece of music thrill me, and it’s not because “it’s such a good song.” How could it be? It’s not even a song. Listening to this admittedly subdued iteration of this theme music brings out in me a feeling of importance, or urgency. I want to get up and do something. I want to run. In every version no matter how simple, this music feels like the beginning of an adventure. It’s tied to being called to adventure, to action. It reminds me of a quiet room and free time, and a dark screen, and then it’s like a wormhole into another dimension, an explosion, a tornado into technicolor. In a medium where we can’t smell anything, the sound, this music is our most immediate sensory companion. And it runs right into us like its being injected into our veins and it feel like it’s flowing so fast. Like flying. Like you’re a different person. In an instant suspended disbelief becomes full immersion, and its not so unbelievable that you can be the hero you want to be. Just like that, you’re in the world, you’re taking up the quest. And the music, as the first part of your experience, is your portal to that, and it stays with you for the whole experience. Exploring the world, meeting important characters, fighting the battles, beating the game, the music is part of the fabric of it all, and weaves it all together. And it doesn’t matter how simple or complex it is, the point is that it’s incredibly evocative. Hearing even a chord, a note, at any time can pull a player out of their lived and into a memory of a moment they may have lived a dozen times. It has the ability to take you from sitting on the subway to saving a princess and a world in an instant, because somebody’s phone rang. The feeling is, it’s time to go. Get up, it’s time to be who you are now. For reference for the uninitiated, the above symphonic arrangement, the passion and power that begot it and exists within it, comes from the below. Valuable, for contrast.

3. Wherein the Writer Explores the Field

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Steven Kent- The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to  Pokemon and Beyond
Tristan Donovan- Replay: The History of Video Games
Espen J. Aarseth- Cybertext
Walter Ong- Orality and Literacy
Eric Zimmerman- Gaming Literacy
Hazel Newlevant- Chainmail Bikini
Anastasia Salter- What is Your Quest?
Ernest Cline- Ready Player One
James Gee- What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning  and Literacy
Jane McGonigal- Super Better
                            Why I Love Bees
                            A Real Little Game
David Sheff- Game Over
Tom Bissel- Extra Lives
Eric Zimmerman & Katie Salen- Rules of Play
Nick Fortugno & Eric Zimmerman- Learning to Play to Learn
Mitch Resnick- Scratch
Above is a list of possible sources about games, gaming literacy, and learning. Within the list is a mix of traditional scholarship and less formal writing from memoir to fiction. I don’t know that all of it will have value, but each piece on the list ties to some element that has been part of the discussion of my thesis. The emotional experience of gaming, how it may have enriched my life and understanding of the world, how gaming can be involved in education, even programming.  I’m not positive that all of these sources will make it into my lit review, but from my point of view now, each of them seems like they may have something to offer. Additionally, each source that is useful I will mine for other material, be it academic research or other sources of inspiration involving gaming. One thing that is missing from this list is an adequate treatment of the Raspberry Pi. While my search returned many results, the vast majority were how-to guides and videos, which I do not feel are relevant at this point. However should I need to reference materials like this, they’re very easy to find, so I’m not really worried about losing them. So I have a lot of reading to do, but I’m looking forward to it.

2. Wherein the Writer Doubts the Cause

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From the beginning, every time I think about writing about video games, I have a difficult time taking myself seriously. I feel, and have felt, that everything I have to say on the topic is juvenile or shallow or undeveloped or obvious. For example, the realization that games offer me escapism and that that escapism is part of why I like them so much. I have had such a strong desire to focus my work in this area that I so enjoy, that so delights me, but every time I’ve lifted my pen to do so I’ve been plagued by this feeling of being unprofessional, trite, and childish. And in a way, I feel like petulant child, insisting on writing on a topic that increasingly seems impractical and pursuing a path rife with obstacles. So, convincing myself that I deserve to try and write in an area that I want, and to give myself the time to figure out what that means precisely has been the challenging first step.

I was compelled initially to try and write a very traditional research paper. This was in part so that I could fit in academically, but also part for me, that I might be able to finally say in concrete terms whatever it was I had to say about the games that have played a part in my life. The question of whether it was valuable to write about games didn’t cross my mind until later. I know that much writing, scholarly, popular, personal and otherwise, is done every day. I want to contribute to, even stand out in that discourse somehow. But what I have struggled with is determining and refining what I have to say. My first thing I think to write is always, “games are great!” “Ocarina of Time is the best game ever made!” “Kingdom Hearts STILL makes me cry!” I just want to shout about all the things that excite me about gaming. All the awesome stuff I’ve done in game worlds. All the wonders I’ve discovered, all the riches I’ve amassed, all the lives I’ve saved, and taken. Even when I’m not in the game worlds, it’s all so exciting to me. And I just want to gush about it. I’m holding back gushing about it now, a bit. And I think in order to develop my thesis I have to work through that in some way, to get to what I might say that might really contribute. Because when I’m gushing like that, that’s when I think that what I’m saying doesn’t matter. I’m just excited about something that I like, and I want to talk about it. So I’ve been discouraged when I’ve been trying to brainstorm and I keep asking myself, “why do I like video games so much?” And my answer is, “they’re so much fun. They’re freeing, they’re inspiring, they’re riveting. Saving the princess, saving the world, earning the sacred sword and defeating the forces of evil- how could I not like video games? How could I not love them?” And while I do feel strongly about that emotional entreaty, it has been difficult to refine that sentiment into a thesis. So I’ve kind of floundered. I think the thing to do at this point is to just start writing about my actual experience with games, rather than circling the subject in an approximate way, and maybe something good will come out of that.