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“I’m Over Games” Not-Over-Games Honoree: Tom Bissell

Author of the fantastic Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell is the first IOG:NOG honoree. Mixing personal (sometimes very personal) narrative with insightful analysis of games as a participatory medium, he delivers a powerful collection of essays, each centered around a particular game and time in his life. Any reader with even a remote interest in games will be left breathless. Here is an excerpt from his most moving chapter, which inspired my own foray into GTAIV.

Bissell or his publicist made the fortunate miscalculation of putting his PSN ID on the back jacket of his book. Probably thousands of geeks friended him online. I thought so highly of his writing that I was one of them.

I can attest that he is still very much not over games, and therefore deserving of this honor. Congratulations to Tom Bissell on winning the first I’m Over Games “Noggie.”

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Domodedovo and Modern Warfare 2

Reports from several different sources about Russian TV linking the  “No Russian” level in MW2 and the Domodedovo tragedy have understandably irritated me. Here is my response to the video, which you can see here. It was first posted as a comment on Gamespot.

First of all, to the Russian fallen: Memory Eternal!

Secondly, the reporter weakens her own case by trying to add more evidence. The game itself is to blame, but then perhaps it could also be just watching clips of the game on YouTube. If the big fear of video games is that they can train people to kill by immersing them into the playable roles of killers–certainly suggested here–then the YouTube hedge discounts that perspective entirely in favor of yet another passive video violence outcry.

Finally, there is a major problem here with chronology and causal logic. The reporter claims that COD “mirrors” this tragedy, and one tagline (at 2:18) reads “Virtual Version of Domodedovo Nightmare Under Criticism.” In order to mirror something or be a version of something, that something needs to have already existed or to have already happened. So, which is the actual concern – CoD causing the bombing or being a distasteful “mirror” of it? The news crew wants to have it both ways, for maximum upsetting effect.

What bothers me is that people who don’t listen or read critically will take from this nonsense the same false “lesson” they took away from Columbine’s Doom scare.

I was pretty heated when I first wrote this, and I wasn’t alone. If you check around online, you’ll see just how defensive some gamers can be. That’s not always a bad thing, either, because even though I’ve always thought the segment from MW2 was absurd and inappropriate, this news broadcast isn’t much better.

Burnt rubber: blazing through GTA IV

Once again, my obsessiveness has caused me to miss the full extent of something special.

After fall finals, I had the chance to play a gem given to me by my brother last Christmas. But I scuffed that gem, and its value was greatly diminished by my own handling of it.

Fueled by an intense self-imposed pressure to “beat” the game before traveling on vacation, I played it on overdrive. I did only the necessary missions, in order, slicing at this vibrant open world with razor-sharp linear intensity. I left all of my “friend” characters hanging, annoyed at me for never calling them back regarding non-required fun. My Niko was a heartless, friendless, joyless jerk. Like the fattest Wisconsin tourist or most jaded Wall Street tycoon, I avoided the foot-on-the-pavement thrill of exploring this awe-inspiring city to skip ahead by taxi and save a little extra time and effort. As if reclining on the couch and pressing a button to high-jack a video game car could really be called “effort.”

I did beat the game before I left for vacation, but it was a hollow victory. Each prior iteration of the modern GTA has consumed me completely (just ask my college roommate). This one I tried to consume on my own terms, and wound up with a bitter, half-digested experience that was more disappointing because I came into it with so much appreciation for its open-world ideal.

I made play work, and it didn’t work. Lessons learned – speed kills and burnt rubber stinks.

Understanding Video Games: a proposal

Comics fans are probably aware of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993), the landmark text that explored the structural aspects of the comics form and provided the tools to think about how comics make meaning.

The most attractive aspect of McCloud’s book is the fact that it is presented in the medium about which it comments, in a tone simultaneously academic and accessible, providing self-referential examples of the concepts discussed: panels, the gutter, “closure,” color, line, etc. This unique introduction to the form and the language it provides has made it essential for academic discussions of comics–indeed, it has helped greatly to legitimize comics as a serious subject of study.

With McCloud as the inspiration, we need an Understanding Video Games.* We need a “text” one can play that explains and explores issues endemic to our medium: level design, saving, controls, goals/obstacles, etc. For the most accessibility, I see this as a computer / Flash game – or possibly a PSN/XBL download you can share with your family. Following McCloud’s lead, players would play through various “chapters” highlighting different essential aspects of the form. They don’t have to be well-known games, or previously released games at all, to illustrate. Of course, if this is going to be the definitive guide I want it to be, there will be quotations and references to important games, and a fair share of history.

Imagine if people who are skeptical of video games see what sort of decisions (and, indeed, artistry) are worked into the fabric of even the most apparently simple games. Think too about what it means to establish a framework for further academic discussion of games, and the mainstreaming of language to do so. Just imagine having something like this in a high school or college course as an introduction to the serious humanistic analysis of games.

McCloud knew that the best way to make people outside of the comics industry care about what he did was to explain it clearly in its native form. Designers and programmers, I’m looking at you. (I’ll write!)

*I am aware that a book of the same name already exists by Egenfeldt-Nielson, Smith, & Tosca. But you know what I mean!

Why casual gaming is hardcore gaming’s best friend

Typically, I don’t like to play so-called casual games. I had my honeymoon with the Wii, but I haven’t turned it on in months. But I’m glad they’re around, and I think more than anything else in recent memory, they are crucial to all kinds of gaming, especially hardcore. Here’s why.

Casual at full speed

It’s important to recognize that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are all now in agreement that casual gaming is–and must be–a significant chunk of the entertainment landscape they are willing to invest in. Whatever you think about the Wiimote, Move, or Kinect, these megacorporations are staking an enormous amount of capital and R&D to continue the “populist” movement in games pioneered by Guitar Hero and the Wii. They are saying with their money and products that they are behind its continuation, and rather like Blu-Ray or HDTV (and, in all likelihood, 3D), technological advances have become mainstream because the supply-side wills it as so, succeeding by convincing consumers that their particular type of advance is inevitable. Such appears to be the case with casual gaming. This would be shocking and sad to the majority of core gamers, except for a key point in the rollout of these new devices: I call it “supplementality.”

Casual gaming, as we know it now, is always supplemental in nature. As an enterprise it is designed to exist alongside core gaming (at least with the iterations now and soon to be available for PS3 and Xbox). Paraphrasing Kevin Butler’s E3 speech: if you and your friend each have a hot girlfriend, everyone wins. Fanboys are quick to deride Move and Kinect because they supposedly detract from the core gaming experience. The simple rejoinder is that you don’t have to play them, and core games with motion-sensing functionality can have the feature ignored entirely. It is supplemental. The more advanced response is that you should support such wand-waving nonsense because it is good for games–even your bloodthirsty FPS’s–to have as large and as diverse an audience as possible.

Worlds colliding, or a brave new world?

Not long ago, it was possible for people to claim they didn’t like video games. This made sense, and was understood implicitly. There was a general consensus about what video games were, even among their most strident supporters. Video games were loud, violent, or stupid, and often required a lot of hard-earned controller skill to play well. Now things are different, and the claim of not liking video games requires further explanation because there is no longer an understood idea of what video games are. Having poor hand-eye control is no longer an excuse, because some games (Wii Fit) don’t use your hands to play at all. Same with violence, graphics, noise, content, etc. 3-year olds play skateboard games on their mom’s iPhone. I may not have talked to someone from my high school class for a decade, but I know they’re busy gunning down thugs in Mafia Wars. A lot of people seem to be enjoying all types of games now. Games may no longer be a strictly (and almost entirely negatively) defined category, which has made them more difficult to dismiss outright. That’s the first step.

It’s our responsibility as gamers to get as many people into gaming as possible, as much as we may personally hate what they play. Think about it this way. Even now some people say they don’t like games. But who, even the most cold-hearted jerk you’ve ever met, would say they don’t like movies? Movies and games are not the same, I know, but the idea is that there is enough variety in the medium of film (genres, intended audiences, budgets, artistic aims, nudity/explosions) that it is near impossible to not like some kinds of movies. And if you like some kinds of movies, then you like “movies.” The same could and should be said about games. If you like Reach, you like games. If you like Kinectimals, you like games. If we can all say we like games in the same way we can all say we like movies, then video games–again, including the hardcore ones–have become a recognized and accepted aspect of pop culture. The Godfather and Mulan may be two very different movies, but viewers of either wouldn’t deny the other the status of being a real film. You may prefer The Godfather, or you may prefer Mulan, or your age may preclude you from watching one before the other, but either way you understand movies as all being under a big tent and your viewing based on personal preference, taste, experience, etc. Games and gaming should be the same. Once gaming gets wider recognition and interest from the pioneering advances of casual gaming, there will be enormous economic (and dare I say artistic?) incentive for developers to make all kinds of great games for all kinds of audiences, including hardcore ones.

Gaming, eat your vegetables. It’s good for you.

So spread the gospel of gaming if you ever want your favorite hobby to meet the kind of mass acceptance and mainstream cultural understanding that can really drive the medium foreward (and sideways, and anywhere else weird and interesting). This is starting to happen now, but games are not yet a recognized part of everyone’s life in the way movies are. Do your part as an ambassador for our beloved country. Scratch behind the ears of your EyePet with a niece, have a couple of beers and go Wii Bowling with your uncle, and even roll up your sleeves to help your girlriend plant crops in FarmVille. Gaming, like that virtual sorghum, can only grow from here.