Friday, August 29, 2014

Grown Ups VS Gaming - Part 3 of 4: Mature Misconceptions

This post is part three of a series beginning with this post.

"You're an adult and you still play video games? Get a life!"

"Get a life."  That short dismissive phrase is a common one spewed time and again towards adult gamers.  Said phrase is typically muttered towards older gamers by relatives, co-workers, even potential dating partners, when they discover the grown up who still plays video games.  It seems not uncommon for an adult who does not play video games to assume that another adult who does is doing so out of "not having a life".  It's like assuming that all a gamer ever does is play video games, which is entirely not possible, or said gamer would be dead.  In reality the "life" the non-gamer speaks of is the way in which the gamer is spending their free time in regards to entertainment.  But what is the "life" of a typical non-gamer then?  Just what does the average American adult spend their free time on?

The Big Bang Theory and Facebook.  I'm not kidding.  Here are some sources:

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Based on the evidence, the average American adult spends about 3 hours of free time each evening watching non-educational television whilst simultaneously browsing Facebook on their smartphone.  That is supposedly the accepted way for an adult to spend their free time.  It's ironic then that some adults would consider myself a 35 year old man as being a childish nerd by playing Ys Origin last night, instead of catching up on the shenanigans of fictional childish nerds on TV instead.

If you talk to adults who don't like video games, they often make consistent arguments as to why they think gaming is useless and childish.  Terms such as "brain rotting", "waste of time", "antisocial", "immature", and "useless" are thrown around often.  Some of those aspects certainly could apply in particular situations, but holistically speaking, they are not inclusively true of the entire medium.  Never mind that any of those terms could arguably be used against the average television show or Facebook post.  All the same, I'll explain my view as to why video games are not necessarily any of those negative things in general.

Are video games brain rotting?  An interactive medium that requires user feedback in order to be enjoyed... cerebrally detrimental?  Even in the simplest of video games, the brain is not going underutilized.  Rather the mind most constantly perceive problems and offer solutions to overcome then.  From something as simple as timing a Mario jump onto a Koopa, to concocting stratagems to defeat a massively challenging boss in a JRPG such as Etrian Odyssey.  After all, video games do not beat themselves, the brain does.  And the brain grows in power as such.  But don't take my word for, read up on the science: 1 | 2 | 3 The truth is, video gaming is actually useful exercise for your grey matter.  Especially if you're into the adventures of this capital chap.

Are video games a waste of time?  I hear this so often about the medium that I plan to do a detailed post about it soon, as the true answers are long.  But I'll keep it simple for now.  If you take time out during your day to devote to entertainment, than any form of entertainment has the potential for being "a waste of time".  Decrying any singular entertainment medium as more a waste of time than another is solely subjective, with no objective logical rational to back the claim.  Truly if you're watching fictional non-educational television for example, in no way is that less a waste of time than playing a fictional non-educational video game.  If you're reading a fantasy book, that's no less a "waste of time" than reading hundreds of pages of text in your average video game RPG.  Let's not forget that ultimately the very point of unwinding via entertainment is to "waste time" and relax in the first place.

Are video games antisocial?  It all depends.  Is someone playing a 3DS on a bus being more antisocial than someone else on that bus who's browsing on an iPhone?  Of course not.  Is a person playing a single player video game alone being any more antisocial than someone reading a book alone?  Have you ever heard of a reader being called antisocial?  And at least another person can watch someone play a single player video game, who wants to watch someone read a book?  I bet you've heard of the Wii.  Want to know why the Wii sold so well?  Because it made local multiplayer gaming easier than ever before.  Hence it had the best selling game of all time, hardly an antisocial experience.  From an online perspective, video games have never been more social with MMO franchises, hence the untold millions Blizzard has made from World Of Warcraft.  And let's not ignore the rising fervor for eSports, an entirely social collective.  The fact is video gaming offers the ability to be the most social medium, due to cooperative gameplay, and competitive gameplay.  And yes it can also be a nice bastion from the ruckus of reality.  But someone choosing to play a video game alone in their bedroom is being no more antisocial than someone listening to an album alone in their bedroom.  The medium of any given type entertainment is irrelevant, rather it's the physical isolation itself that's "antisocial" in nature.  Someone must choose to be antisocial on their own, their hobby doesn't define that for them.

Are video games immature?  That would assume all video games are made for kids.  That's not the case, hence the existence of ESRB ratings. Just as there are films made for kids or adults, there are games made as such.  In that regard video games are not inherently "immature" anymore than films, it's a fallacy to claim as such.  Perhaps a non-gaming grownup would consider the activity of mass slaughter in a title such as God Of War or Grand Theft Auto to be immature in nature.  But to label all of video gaming "immature" by citing games such as those, that is to ignore distinctly polar opposite games in the same medium.  I'm talking about higher brow stuff like Cosmology Of Kyoto or the wonderful works of Kheops Studio, let alone the astonishing output of CiNG. Or is it the very act of interacting with a video game itself that's the immature aspect?  That would mean that if I played chess in real life I was not being immature, yet if I played a chess video game instead I was being immature. Completely illogical.

Are video games useless?  Absolutely not.  I linked earlier to brain studies showing how video games can increase grey matter and improve dexterity.  They are used to train soldiersteach codingtrain pilots, even surgeons.  Sometimes games have unexpected uses, they even help keep thugs off the street, or out of your house.  The benefits of gaming go on, and on, and on.  And I haven't even mentioned how much money the video game industry is worth, and that's billions.  How can you call something that employs thousands of people across the world and feeds their families "useless"?  Not to mention the countless hours of entertainment the industry provides to the entire world on a daily basis.  Video games are about as useless as oxygen.

I hope in writing all this I've helped to shed some light on the hypocrisy of non-gaming adults' misconceptions about the medium.  Or at least provided some ammo the next time you may need to defend your favorite hobby.  The next time someone tells you to "get a life" about playing video games, you can tell them to "get educated" about them instead.  The good news is the entire civilized world's perspective of this medium is shifting over time.  There will come a day when those who think video games are children's play things will be the biased outliers, not in any way the norm.  And that day is coming sooner than they think.  In the next post in this series, I will elaborate upon this illustrious world to come.

This series is continued in this post.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The 5 Golden Rules Of Good Game Design

Today's post is an open letter to all game designers.

Making a good game is not easy.  I know this from experience and from playing plenty of bad games.  While there is no magic formula for making good games, there are simple rules to uphold that can alleviate common mistakes.  It doesn't matter how great your game's graphics are, if it has bad game design it's still a bad game.  By following some simple rules, you can avoid the common mistakes bad game designers employ.  And here are those simple rules:

The 5 Golden Rules Of Good Game Design:

1. Fun First
2. Keep The Controls Simple
3. Never Waste The Player's Time
4. Innovate Always
5. Don't Drag It Out

Yep, that's it.  If you do those five things, your game has a good chance of not being bad.  Now let's take a more detailed look as to why this all matters below.

1. Fun First
If you're making a pure aught video game, you are first and foremost creating a piece of interactive entertainment.  So if your piece of entertainment fails to be entertaining, it has failed its mission in life.  If I'm forcing myself to play your game, you did something wrong.  I should be missing sleep because of how fun your game is, not falling asleep because of how boring it plays.  I should never once think in my head "well maybe it will get better if I just keep going".  If your players ever think that, you screwed up.  Figure out the primary aspect of your game that is fun, and make sure the players are getting to do that fun thing as often as possible.  A game can also not be fun if it's simply too hard.  I appreciate a solid challenge, don't get me wrong.  But anytime you add something extra challenging to your game, ask yourself if it really makes the game any funner.  I promise you, players would rather have breezy fun than be tortured by a game designer's ego.  You better believe players know the difference between legit challenge and pure sadism.  Don't be boring, don't be punitive.  Always put the fun first, everything else comes second.  A game that is not fun is like a shiny car without wheels.  Pretty useless.

 2. Keep The Controls Simple
Take a look at the modern controller, the wireless DualShock 4 for example.  It's got 4 action buttons, 4 triggers, a Share button, an Options button, a PS button, two clickable analog sticks, a d-pad, integral three-axis gyroscope, a capacitive touch pad that also clicks inward as a button, a headphone jack, a USB port, vibration support, a mono speaker, and a light bar with three LEDs that illuminate in different colors that's compatible with both the PlayStation Camera and Project Morpheus.  This thing probably has other features I'm forgetting! WHY do we need such a complicated device to play games with?! It's because most modern game designers are terrible at creating intuitive simple controls.  If more game designers would bother with a simple concept called context sensitivity, we wouldn't need such a complicated controller fit for an octopus.  The same button that lets you shoot can also let you open a door, just make your game realize the situation the player is in.  Learn how to utilize a radial menu, it's perfect for an analog stick.  If your game has complex gameplay, integrate it with NUI methodsAnd please don't use every button on the controller just because it's there!  If I come back to your game after a week of not playing it, and I have forgotten how to control it, your controls are unintuitive and too complex.

3. Never Waste The Player's Time
I'm sure most of Ardent's readers have played a modern Zelda game by now.  And I'm sure every one of you have winced after the twentieth time you were told how many rupees a red rupee is worth.  There's no reason why modern Zelda games can't have an option in the menu to disable redundant messages.  The only reason is that the developers don't mind wasting your time.  Other games do this in their own ways.  We all love unskippable movies in our games we're forced to watch every time we fail, right?  NO.  No we don't.  And how many times have you had to replay an entire stage just to fight a boss that kills you in two hits?  Is there any reason why you can't just continue at the boss?  You've already proven you can beat the prior stage, it's not fun to do that over again.  It's just a waste of time.  Too bad the designers don't mind wasting your time.  It's just demeaning, belittling, and aggravating to play a game that treats your precious free time like it's worthless.  So if as a game designer you can't make a game challenging without it being terribly redundant, or needlessly punitive, then guess what?  You are a bad game designer, and your games don't deserve our free time, or our disposable income.  Listen up game designers, don't be like that!  Respect your players' precious time and they will respect your game in tow.  Lastly, progress should be saved at least every fifteen minutes in your game, full stop period.

4. Innovate Always
If you are a game designer, I sure hope you see games as an art form.  And if you do, you should always be looking for ways to further evolve it.  That doesn't mean that every new game you create must reach for the moon with its holistic forward thinking design.  Honestly if you work for a studio beholden to a large publisher, that's probably off the table already.  However, you can follow at least one simple idea.  Make sure your game does at least one new thing that no other game has done before.  I'll give you an example of this.  I played The 3rd Birthday on PSP, it was a third person cover shooter.  A genre that's a bit played out, for sure.  However, this game let you do something I had not seen before.  It let you ghost warp around the battlefield in real time, possessing your allies willy-nilly, adding a whole new frantic dynamic to the experience.  Because of that, what could have been a generic experience became something clever.  So strive for at least one unique twist with every game you design. You're doing the whole industry a favor when you do.

5. Don't Drag It Out
If you're in the gaming business, you've probably heard of How Long To Beat by now.  If not, well, it's a website that tracks how long games take to beat on average.  You might think at first this is something players want to track as a point of pride.  Look at how many hours I sunk into Skyrim or whatever.  The truth more often than not is the opposite.  People want to know how long it's going to take to beat a potential game out of anxiety.  I have seen time and again people on forums deny trying a new game simply because of how long it takes to beat.  So here's the big secret game designers; QUALITY NOT QUANTITY.  I understand you might have a suit breathing down your neck saying your next game needs to be 45 hours long because focus group demographics.  It's just not true.  Most players do not appreciate pointless exposition in game length.  Your players would rather have you invest those extra 20 hours of bloat extension, instead towards polishing 10 hours of awesomeness.  I promise no matter how wonderfully epic you think your game is, it does get boring if it drags on too long.  Protip: Always leave us wanting more, that way we'll actually buy the sequel.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Grown Ups VS Gaming - Part 2 of 4: Troubling Terminology

This post is part two of a series beginning with this post.

What if books were called paper scribbles?  And instead of reading books, you looked at them.  Thus instead of "reading a book", you called the activity looking at paper scribbles.  That's a rather demeaning way to describe the act of mentally digesting literature, no?  And what if films were called flashy pictures?  Does watching flashy pictures sound less distinguished than viewing a film? And what if music albums were called noise gimmicks?  In that case we never played a record, rather we spun noise gimmicks.  Now there's something a proper grown up would not do 'eh?  But luckily in all of those mediums, there exists classier terminology widely accepted culturally.  Too bad video games got a bad rap then.

Think about the name "video game" objectively.  Is that not a rather rote term for something as amazing as what it actually is?  The marriage of technology, multiple art forms, artificial reality, and actual interactivity... a brilliant cluster of potential.  Yet we commonly call this phenomenon simply a "video game".  Apparently a description that an unknown reporter coined for the magazine Vending Times during a Chicago tradeshow in 1971 (source).  Granted calling an unusual bit of technology a name based on its pure fundamentals was understandable... at that time. Unfortunately 43 years later this saddled name does not adequately encompass the scope of the medium today.  And yet we are still stuck with it culturally.  The medium therefore suffers the consequence of ignorance based on its illicit implication.  It's not the "video" part of course.  That just implies a picture in motion, fair enough.  It's the "game" part.

"Games are for children."  This is not an uncommon thought for a grown up to have.  Okay, sure, "ring around the rosy", "duck duck goose", "hide and go seek", "tag your it"... these are games that children commonly play.  As an adult, I don't find those activities very alluring.  It sounds about as fun as running around in the dirt kicking a ball.  Oh, sorry, that's soccer.  A game grown men are culturally allowed to play and are often paid millions of dollars to do so.  Honestly I don't have any problems with soccer.  But I do have a problem with any adult who has issues with other adults playing soccer video games.  Just because they're video games.  Yes it's hypocritical.  But in some folks' minds soccer is not merely a game see, because society leaves off the "game" part of its namesake conveniently.

So what's a better name for "video games"?  A common phrase I've seen in critic circles is interactive entertainment.  I agree that's a better description than "video game".  However, I don't particularly adhere to it either.  Primarily because it attributes the medium as being purely entertainment.  I don't deny a huge swath of the medium is geared towards that aspect, but it's hardly solely that.  Video games have long been used as training tools by the military and commercial pilots.  In that sense video games cease being entertainment, and are called simulators instead.  But we can't call the next Mario title a simulator.  Unless you're training to squash turtles and slide down questionable conduits.

What then are some better names for the term "video game"?  If you have some, leave me a comment below.  Personally, I'm fond of the descriptor "digital".  I can't offhand think of any electronic video game that isn't digital.  Continuing with that theme, digitals consist of programming code.  When this code executes, that's called "running the program".  So howabout instead of saying, "I'm going to play video games," instead you said, "I'm going to run digitals."  I think that sounds pretty badass and cyberpunky myself.

Whether or not you like my suggestion, I do hope you agree that "video games" as a descriptor of the medium is just outmoded.  It's a term that's overly simplistic and demeaning, if not outright archaic and slanderous.  Said nomenclature perpetuates the myth that video games are nothing but games amongst the culturally biased.  I strongly believe as a society we need to replace this term with one of greater breadth and relevance.  This could go a long way towards alleviating some of the prejudice and misconceptions non-gamers have towards gaming itself.  On the next Ardent post in this series, I'll talk about some of those misconceptions, explaining why they're both illogical and hypocritical.

This series is continued in this post.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Barely Marvelous (Review)

In 1996, Nintendo released a Super Famicom game entitled Marvelous: Mōhitotsu no Takarajima, which translates into English as Marvelous: Another Treasure Island.  This game harbors a lot of idiosyncrasies, not the least of which being it was the first game directed by Eiji Aonuma.  Also, this game runs on a modified The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past engine, and it shows.  Well if you've played any of Aonuma's Zelda titles, you can certainly recognize his influence here as well.  (There's time travel, sailing, even boats with dragon heads.)  Sadly at the time of this writing, Marvelous has not yet been released in English officially in the last 18 years.  However, there's a "mostly complete" English fan translation available.  I was able to play and complete Marvelous via SNES9X thanks to this, without needing a walkthrough.  Before I get on with the review let me tell you a few things concerning the translation all the same.

The translator/hacker "Tashi" did a great job, all things considered.  Unfortunately he wasn't able to complete the game's translation 100%, more like 90%.  The most significant issue is that graphics utilizing the Japanese language have not been altered, and remain in Japanese.  The above screenshot is an example of this, here's another one.  The good news is, almost all of the spoken dialogue in the game has been translated.  Unfortunately I ran into a few instances where this wasn't the case, such as:

However this was a very rare occurrence.  I have to commend Tashi for doing an overall bang-up job for a one man army approach.  I was able to finish the game and enjoyed a translation that felt mostly like something Nintendo would have localized themselves.  (Outside the occasional instance that is.)  Now let's get back to the actual game review.

Marvelous has a simple premise.  The game stars three young boys; Deon, Max, and Jack.  They along with their class and teacher Ms. Gina, have taken a field trip to visit a tropical island.  It just so happens that some pirates have visited this same island as well.  The pirates are there seeking out a fabled treasure called "Marvelous", supposedly hidden there long ago by one Captain Maverick.  This treasure is rumored to be guarded by unsolvable puzzles and vicious traps.  It doesn't take long before the boys and the pirates inadvertently cross paths, and Ms. Gina ends up being kidnapped by the ruffians.  The three boys decide to seek out and rescue their teacher, uncovering more and more of the mysteries surrounding "Marvelous" as they do.

Let's talk about the game design.  I've read a lot of people on the internet contrasting Marvelous with Zelda, claiming it has the same kind of gameplay.  No.  I do not believe that is an accurate description at all.  Marvelous does not play like Zelda, by and large it plays like an adventure game.  As in the oldschool Lucas Arts or Sierra sort of adventure games.  While it's true you move with a d-pad and use objects in real time, the puzzles are more akin to The Secret Of Monkey Island than the kind of stuff you'd see in Wind Waker.  You do in fact occasionally have real time combat, that's true.  There are even boss fights in the game.  You have life bars and can "die", but it's just not the focus.  These combat situations are very rare.  The truth is most of the time you are running around solving crazy puzzles or talking to NPCs for clues. 

As the boys you will find yourself exploring not one, but four different islands.  This is made possible by the acquisition of a ship, which you sail as the linear plot dictates.  Every island has its own themes, populace, and variety of puzzles.  The key word there is VARIETYMarvelous does a tremendously good job at continuously throwing new situations and puzzles at you.  It's a very rare occurrence to come across a puzzle that utilizes the same solution you've done before.  Typically these puzzles are solved using items the boys collect.  See the picture below for an example.

You probably noticed the 48 crystal looking things too.
These are "Luck Rocks", and are the currency of Marvelous.

You find Luck Rocks, and are rewarded them, throughout the game. You can use them to either bribe people or as a source of fuel for your ship. You rarely use Luck Rocks as puzzle solving elements though.  Rather each boy has their own individual items that only they can use for that.  Also each boy has their own inherent ability, such as Deon's small size for squeezing into areas that Max and Jack can't fit.  Sometimes you will need to split the boys up and have them work things out individually.  You can control all three boys independently across an island and swap between them on the fly using a radio.  Or call them back together as a group again using the whistles they carry.  Indeed as a group there's a special command called "Team Work", that causes all three boys to work together simultaneously.  All of these unique items and controls lead to some pretty devious puzzles towards the end.

Before we go any further with this review, I want to point out Marvelous's greatest strength.  Aside from sheer variety, this game has an awesome sense of humor.  It has been a long time since I found myself laughing out loud as often as I did playing Marvelous.  That's partly due to dialogue, but often due to the sheer insanity of the situations the boys often find themselves in.  I'm tempted to talk about a bunch of them, but I'd be doing the player a disservice.  I hate when reviews let loose with spoilers, so I'll just post a few images below instead.  Some of the solutions you come up with for puzzles are hilarious as well.

Taking a moment to talk about aesthetics, as you can see, graphically Marvelous is pretty good.  It's worth noting that at times Marvelous even utilizes the high resolution mode of the SNES/SFC.  But while Marvelous has consistently good art direction, it doesn't do much in the way of snazzy special effects such as Squaresoft was fond of back then.  For what it might lack in advanced graphical effects however, Marvelous does make up for it with a breezy feel good OST.  Here are a few examples of the tunes you'll hear: 1, 2, 3.  (That's not to say Marvelous doesn't have any ominous tunes for ominous moments.)

A puzzle game lives and dies by its puzzles though, and I'm happy to say Marvelous does a great job overall on that aspect.  I've already spoken about inventory items being used as a catalyst.  You might do something as simple as use a hammer to pound a nail.  But plenty of puzzles are based off abstract uses of everyday items.  This being a real time game, many puzzles are also based on your reflexes.  One example would be timing your grab right to steal an egg from some dung beetles. Or even kicking bushes to clear a path.  These action based puzzles start off pretty easy, but eventually get pretty tricky.  (You will hate the spider race, I promise.)  There are also situations that rely on combat alone, that you have to beat to continue. The worst puzzles are the ones that rely on luck to beat, and there's a few of those.  Helpfully there's a Navi-like bird you can summon for tips, at the cost of Luck Rocks.  He's helpful at times, but it doesn't always go so well.  Overall though, the vast majority of Marvelous's puzzles are well thought out and fun to solve.

Well so far Marvelous sounds like a pretty great game I'm sure.  And for the first 4/5ths of it, Marvelous is a GREAT game indeed.  Unfortunately the final part of Marvelous really stunk.  Whereas the first four acts consist of a constant barrage of ingenious puzzles, witty dialogue, and jokes galore... the last act is anything but that.  Instead of taking place on an island, the final area takes place in an ancient temple.  A temple that is designed to do nothing but piss you off big time.  I swear this last part of Marvelous feels like it was designed by a completely different person than the rest of the game.

Whereas before you were solving clever conundrums, suddenly you're relegated to something as rote as a slide puzzle.  You'll find yourself using multiple elevators to navigate a confusing labyrinth of floors.  You'll face pitfalls that do nothing but eat your time.  Treasure chests that don't work like the rest of the game's do.  Boring as can be, you'll be having to locate keys, and not just that, upgrade them.  Yes, you will have to upgrade a set of three keys no less than four times... just to agitate your bile I suppose.

The absolute worst thing of all is an invisible pitfall maze that involves a remote controlled robot.  You have to move this robot across an invisible floor, slowly trying to suss out a path.  Every time you hit a pitfall, the robot berates you and falls.  Then you have to go through the same conversation with it again each time you reinitialize it using a special item.  I cannot even begin to describe how utterly maddening and stupid this one "puzzle" was.  It was long enough and bad enough to almost make me quit the game at the very end.  All I can say is this final area of Marvelous felt rushed and halfhearted compared to the rest of the game.  A rotten cherry on top of an otherwise delicious sundae. And it didn't help either that the ending did little to wrap up the mystery surrounding this game's namesake.  You do find out what the "Marvelous" is... but not how Captain Maverick got it, or why he prized it so much.

Don't let my late game griping stop you though.  Overall this is still a fantastic Super Famicom entry that has aged remarkably well.  Truly Marvelous: Another Treasure Island is a totally unique experience with a lot of heart.  I honestly cannot think of any particular game that is a proper analog to this.  The majority of this game is actually quite fun and totally worth your time.  Best of all, you can tell its creators legitimately cared about crafting a game that would bring smiles to the faces of its players.
Ardent's score: 8 some kind of sexy gorillas outta 10

Let us end this review with the video "Marvelous" by my favorite DJ, Towa Tei.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Grown Ups VS Gaming - Part 1 of 4: Haunted History

Quiz Time

As an adult, how do you consider video games?

(A) - An excellent source of entertainment with artistic merit.
(B) - An excellent source of entertainment.
(C) - A waste of time.
(D) - Childish playthings that grown people should have nothing to do with.
(E) - All of the above.

If you answered A, congratulations, we're on the same page.  If you answered B, then you may find a future Ardent post about "games as art" interesting.  If you answered C, then you may find a future Ardent post about "what's the point of gaming" interesting.  If you answered D, then today's article (and its follow ups) are for you.  If you answered E, you're just being deliberately obstinate but I can admire that.
Honestly though, I have to assume people currently reading this blog are at least somewhat into video games, and are likely grown up.  But that doesn't mean they don't have some level of shame about it.  Even more likely, Ardent's readers know other adults who would think less of them if said adults knew about their gaming hobby. So why is it in this day and age video games don't have cultural immunity the likes of which books, movies, music, and other mediums enjoy?  I propose it's a matter of history, obsolete terminology, and perpetuated misconceptions.  The good news is, all of these problems will erode over time.  The bad news is, probably not before our children's grandchildren grow up.  Anyway, let's address the first issue that causes bias against gaming; history.
Now I'm not about to go into massive detail about the history of gaming.  (If you're interested in that, I'm sure you can find a dozen books about the subject on Amazon.)  I will go over some generalizations however.  For example, most folks know video games started off with very primitive things like Pong.   A game as simple as Pong or even Space Invaders only had a few key merits at their time.  One was technological, the other was mere spectacle, the last was simple fun.  The technological aspect attracted folks interested in how such things worked.  The spectacle aspect attracted even your grandmother, for a moment, and then she walked away.  The simple fun?  It attracted kids.  Anyone who's ever experienced a smiling five year old watch a Disney DVD for the 12th time knows young kids don't mind rote repetition.  That was what video gaming was like at first.  Technology, spectacle, and simple fun.  And these things set many precedents which affect the way the world sees video gaming even today.  But first let's see how they affected things then.

The technology attracted tech loving gurus who in turn took this new medium and got deep with it pretty quickly.  They created and enjoyed stuff like Beneath Apple Manor, Colossal Cave Adventure, and Akalabeth: World Of Doom.  The problem was that although these new games were complicated enough for adults to enjoy, they weren't easy to come across.  You would not find complex CRPGs in your local arcade.  So although there were sophisticated video games in the very beginning of this medium, they were obscure and ran on expensive equipment.  These were geek games for geeks by geeks.  And as amazing as these elder geek games were, being almost clandestine they did nothing to help the public image of gaming.  Your grandma still doesn't know Dungeon existed.

Granny does know what Pac-Man was though.  And that's because it was a huge part of the age of spectacle and simple fun, the golden age of the arcade.  There was a time where arcade cabinets could be found anywhere.  The pizza parlor, the gas station, roller rinks, movie theaters... I wouldn't doubt they were in the rest rooms of Las Vegas casinos at one time.  What this meant was average Joe had massive exposure to the spectacle of video games... but only in the sense of what they had to offer as simple fun.  A successful arcade game had to be instantly understandable to the player, in order to suck a few quarters down before they got bored and walked away.  Or in the kid's case, until the quarters ran out.

Perhaps it was the incessant nagging of kids for quarters from their parents to play these simple arcade games, that began to set a negative precedent.  This situation was made exponential by vendors pushing video game devices as being toys meant for children.  If you go back and look at ads in the early days of gaming, you'll notice the ads often push the "your kid loves this stuff" aspect hard.  Here are some examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5  And if the ad didn't push that aspect, it fell back to the spectacle stance.  Video games were falling from grace as a new medium into simply a lucrative fad increasingly targeting kids and their parents' money.  This toxic mixture of spectacle and simple fun didn't work out so well for the games industry back then, but that's a different story.

What matters today is that the precedent set in parents' heads during that time continues to trickle into our culture today.  "Video games are flashy spectacles that provide simple fun for children."  Many grown folks thought that then, for the same reason they think it now.  Ignorance of the medium and its complexity.  A lack of perspective about the potential of video games.  Well when someone dislikes something out of ignorance, that only perpetuates bias.  Thus a cultural bias in large enough quantity certainly can instill shame in those who defy it.  This bias began decades ago as a side effect, and manages to perpetuate to a noticeable degree even today.

All the same, a bad history is only the first problem video games have as a medium.  A following Ardent post in this series will address the second issue... the terminology itself.  Indeed, video games harbor a default juvenile slant simply due to being called video gamesThe rabbit hole goes deeper than that, but that's where we'll start to dig next.

This series is continued in this post.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nothing lamer than being called a "gamer"?

I've spent a ton of time on various gaming forums over the past 15 years.  During that time I've seen many reoccurring debated issues.  Some of these debates I plan to address here on Ardent in time to come.  Today's issue is a simple one, the use and application of the word "gamer" towards one who enjoys video games.  I'll get this out of the way off the bat; I am a "gamer" and I don't mind being called one.  Now you know my stance so let's get started.

Here's how I often see this argument laid out by a typical forum member:

"I don't like the word 'gamer' because it's a derogatory term that belittles people as being only that which they do.  You wouldn't call someone who reads books a "booker", or someone who watches movies a "movier".  So it's stupid to call a video game player a 'gamer'!"

Okay yes, you wouldn't call a reading enthusiast a "booker".  Rather society calls that person a "bookworm".  And you wouldn't call a movie lover a "movier", but society calls them a "film buff".  There was a time in my life when I was keenly into high tech audio, and I admit to having been an audiophile.  I'm sure you're getting the point.  Throughout our society we have many pet names for people who are very enthusiastic about defined things.  "Gamer" is nothing more or less than just another example of this cultural commonality.  This being the case, one has to ask one's self why some folks consider "gamer" to be a derogatory term.

Now I'm no psychologist, but I can only surmise this situation arises from insecurity.  If by some chance, even subconsciously, a video game player feels some level of shame about their hobby... then it's logical enough to deduce they wouldn't want to be openly associated with it.  Only someone who feels guilty about a behavior would be irrationally concerned about it diminishing their entirety merely by proxy's namesake.

Indeed I've read people say merely being called "gamer" supposedly distills their very being into one who only plays video games.  This makes no sense.  Does anyone really think a "gamer" does nothing else but game?  Of course not.  That's about as logical as thinking a plumber spends their entire waking life doing nothing but plumbing.  Silly thought, no?  So if a plumber doesn't mind being called a plumber, a gamer should feel the same way.

If a game player refuses to be called a "gamer" out of insecurity for their hobby, what then causes this insecurity?  I believe it goes back to the slowly corroding misconception that part of society still has for video gaming.  That some how, video games are for kids and adults shouldn't be playing them.  That would explain why an adult would feel shame for being called a gamer.  In the next few Ardent posts I plan to address the issue of being an "adult gamer".   I'll say that if you're an adult gamer you should not feel any shame whatsoever about it, and I'll even explain why.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Dispassion Of Diversity - Part II

This post is part II to this post.

Alright I promised I'd reveal my plan for fighting the "decision doldrums" when it comes to deciding what to play from a large library.  This strategy has worked well for me for quite a few years now, and that's largely because it's so simple.  It boils down to forced variety.  Forced variety not only keeps things fresh, but it also helps to narrow down your selections when the time comes.  Here's how force variety works for me:

Every time you play a new game, you play it on a different platform than the last, and in a different genre. 

Let's say I just finished a classic Playstation Japanese Role Playing Game.  What should my next game be?  I could play another PS1 JRPG, but that wouldn't feel as fresh as something entirely different.  So I opt instead to play a Wii game.  But I don't play a Wii JRPG, instead I go with a Wii platformer.  When that's done?  Howabout a Vita FPS or a DS adventure title or a PC flight sim?  This method of forced variety insures that every time I play a new game it feels fresh, and also narrows down my options when it's time to pick.  It's a simple strategy that has worked great for me since I've employed it.

Now whether my method will work for you, depends on your own gaming resources.  Personally I have a tremendous amount of games and platforms to choose from as a byproduct of decades of gaming enthusiasm.  But if you're a younger person, or not as much of a fervent collector, you may have only one or two platforms to choose from.  That's fine, because you can still mix up the genres each time you choose a new game.

Thus far we've relied on purposefully changing platform and/or genre with each new play choice. However, this method doesn't necessarily apply if you're a genre connoisseur.  And I know you folks exist.  Some people only play online FPS, or only visual novels, etc.  If that's how you roll, you'll need custom advice to meet your distinguished tastes.

Let's look at what a genre enthusiast can do to enforce variety then.  Mixing up the platforms is still a possibility.  An adventure game on the DS will feel different than an adventure game on PC, or one on Android, for example.  Consciously platform jumping will help, but if you don't have a lot of options in that realm, here's a different strategy.  Try mixing up the budget of the game.  Did you just finish an Xbox One AAA shooter?  Make your next shooter game one of an indie production then from the Xbox Live Arcade.  The juxtaposition of the budgets will make the experience feel fresher, and you can still stick to your favorite genre.

All of the above said, if you think enforced variety is just too much effort, there's one last easy trick I'll share.  It's called intended derived stochastic probabilities deployed via contextual established frames.  Yeah you're right, I totally made that up.  I'm merely talking about picking something random out to play, but with a twist.  So here's what you do next time you don't know what to play.  Take a glance across your library, and write down a dozen games you have a passing interest in playing.  Don't think too hard about it, just write down the first dozen or so that come to mind.  Then put those names in this box:
(If this link ever dies, there's plenty more like it on Google.)

Now let that site randomly choose one of those twenty-odd games out for you.  But, you must play whatever it chooses.  Don't second guess the whimsy of space time powers outside our contemplation.  If upon play the randomly chosen game sucks, just repeat the same process until you find one that sticks.  And keep up this process until you're done with the dozen you first chose.  When that list is exhausted, you can start a new dozen list.  (This also helps to whittle down the dreaded backlog.)

And that's it folks.  Enforced variety, or random choice... both methods work just fine.  They're easy as pie.  Next time your eyes glaze over staring at all your games, I hope these techniques help with your decision doldrums.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Dispassion Of Diversity - Part I

Stop me if this seems familiar...

You're feeling alright, feeling like you wanna game tonight.  Time to pick something out new to play.  You take a glance at your glorious racks of games and... your eyes just start to glaze over.  You rub them and sit down at your computer instead.  You bring up Steam and start scrolling down your massive list of summer-sale-begotten games... gonna pick something good to try... something new... something different... eyes... glazing... ove

I hear you, I stopped.

Why is it that the more games you have, the more you feel like you have nothing to play?  But when you were a kid, that was never a problem?  Back then you'd play the death out of the few games you managed to scrounge together into a makeshift library.  As a kid you would have KILLED to have the gargantuan collection of games you have now!  And yet now... you don't feel like playing any of them. Ugh.

So what's the deal here?  Do you not like games anymore?  Of course you do, you wouldn't keep buying them if that weren't the case.  Granted it's likely you buy more than you should due to a craving you developed during adolescence.  Back then when you wanted way more games then your parents would buy you.  More even then you could afford on your own with what money you could manage to accumulate at that age.  Yes perhaps it's true that the adult you is buying up games triple time, as a long term side effect of repressed gaming lust you had as a youth.  Subliminal revenge hoarding?  It's feasible.  And maybe it's part of the reason you have trouble picking out a new game to play.

The true problem is simply choice.  More specifically, the abundance of choice.  You have problems picking out what game to play, because you have too many games to play.  I understand this sounds somewhat illogical, so I'll explain with a thought experiment.

Let's say you were sitting at my dinner table and you were craving jelly beans.  So I place before you a cherry flavored one and a pineapple flavored one.  I say you can only have one of those jelly beans.  You take a quick glance and pick your favorite of the two.  Then I eat the other one.  You're happy now.  I'm happy now. You got your jelly bean fix and I get to giggle when the secret Ex-Lax kicks in.  Everybody wins.

(image source)
Now let's try the experiment a different way.  You're sitting at my table, jelly bean cravings engaged, and I produce not two jellybeans, but a hundred jelly beans.  Jelly beans of all shapes and sizes, colors and flavors, some have polka-dots, a few even have candy unicorns in them and squish out rainbows when you bite.  Oh the catch is, you can only have one.  Now choose one because we've got things to do like play video games.  Hurry up geez what's the problem just pick a damn jelly bean!

Five minutes passed.  At this point you either gave up on picking out a jelly bean and ate a banana instead, inherently loathing me for putting you in such a predicament.  Or you just ate one jelly bean at random which you weren't overly satisfied with, and inherently loath me for putting you in such a predicament.  Now I'm not even sure which bean even had the Ex-Lax this time so I had to flush them all down the commode.  Nobody wins.

I call this situation analysis paralysis.  Psychologists call it all sorts of things and that's their problem.  People have written articles about analysis paralysis a lot, such as this one.  A guy named Barry wrote a pretty good book about it.  (If you can't be bothered to read a book then here's a decent synopsis of said book.)  It all boils down to a simple truth.  People make quicker decisions and are more satisfied with their choices when they have less choices to choose from.  Less choices?  That's communist talk for a collector gamer!  I hear you.  But I'm not done depressing you yet, so shush up.

Do you, like myself, do your gaming in the evening?  Say, after a day of doing lots of other stuff like a job, chores, kids, obligations of all shapes and sizes?  Congratulations.  You are going to statistically have an even harder time choosing what game to play from your smorgasbord of shame.  The reason why is that the more tired you are, the more difficult it is to make a decision.  Psychologists call this effect decision fatigue, and that's not half bad so I'll go with that descriptor too.  The simple description is after a making lots and lots of decisions, it becomes harder and harder to make them.  Hence the further into the evening you make decisions, the more trouble you have doing so.

Ultimately as an adult gamer, with a huge collection of games, which you attempt to play in the evening, means you're practically scientifically predisposed to having a bad time picking out a game to play in the first place.  That was a really long sentence, so here's a quicker one:  You're screwed!

Okay you're not really screwed.  Not if you have a plan.  On the next Ardent post, I'll tell you my own plan.  The one that's helped me slay the analysis paralysis and decision fatigue monsters for many years now.  If these are problems you have also, maybe my plan will help you make your own plan for fighting the decision doldrums.

This series is continued in this post.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Time Out For Fun

(image source) 
Being a grown up gamer is not always easy.  Aside from a significant portion of the adult populace believing gaming is an immature pastime (a future post will address this), simply having time to play video games is challenging in and of itself.  Or is it?  I've often read on internet gaming forums over the years people saying something to this effect:

"I love video games but I just don't have time to play them."

If you are an adult who thinks something to the effect of the above sentence, this Ardent post is for you.

It's obvious as an adult that you don't have as much free time as you did as a kid. You don't have as much free time period.  What with a full time job, a full time relationship, a house to take care of, kids, and a bajillion responsibilities/obligations/chores to contend with.  I know this well, because I deal with all of those things as a grown up gamer myself.  Yet I also have time for video games on a very regular basis, and I'll get to why that is in a minute.  But I want to put out the real reason adults don't have "time" for gaming.  Let's look at what the average adult does with their free time.  According to the latest data of the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

"Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day), accounting for more than half of leisure time, on average, for those age 15 and over."

Funny that so many people have no time for gaming supposedly, but have almost 3 hours a day's worth of time for watching TV.   The truth is this situation has got nothing to do with time.  It has to do with energy.

Energy is what many adults actually don't have enough of when it comes to gaming.  One of the best things about video gaming is that it's an interactive hobby.  It's not passive most of the time.  That's a very important distinction versus watching TV.  You can lay on a couch and a movie will show itself to you, music will play itself to you, the internet asks only that you can click in its general direction.  Books at least require some thought processing, but are largely inactive versus video games.  Video games are the only entertainment medium that requires you invest real energy into it in order to enjoy it.

The point I'm making is that when you're tired, video games are certainly the most demanding pastime of the lot. And that's why many adults don't play video games despite being interested in them.  After a long day of work, kids, chores, etc. and it's finally time to unwind... the average adult is simply too tired to play an interactive video game.  They want to relax with something that just plays itself for them as they lay on the couch.  Hence Netflix's and Youtube's wild popularity right?  Yes despite not having the energy for gaming, the average adult still manages to stay up late watching TV.

Now I'll admit that I don't get as much sleep as I should.  On weeknights I average six hours of sleep.  But I'm not alone.  I've seen more and more studies showing that adults are not getting enough sleep.  Such as this one and that one .  So while some adults say they don't have time for gaming they are still staying up late for passive entertainment.  They have time for low energy activities.  So it stands to reason that if they had more energy could more people play a game as they say they wish to?

Let's go with that tangent next then.

I'll talk about how I get my energy.  First off I won't lie, caffeine is my friend.  It may be my enemy in the long run, but for now it's my friend.  But caffeine is not my only friend for fighting the evening energy slump.  Far more important are proper diet and regular exercise.  Nutritious food provides energy, that's a no-brainer.  Eat crap and you feel like crap.  Eat good stuff and you feel good.  It's as simple as that.  As for exercise, it's been proven again and again doing exercise increases your overall energy level. My favorite exercise is walking, for reasons, reasons, and reasons.  I eat well, exercise often, and indulge in caffeine a fair bit.  These are the things I do to increase my own energy for the evening.

But energy is only half the recipe for adult gaming success.  The other half is a gaming schedule.

Human beings are creatures of habit, we all know that.  Most of the time we associate habits with negative activities that we want to stop.   But we can also create positive habits that enforce our body's ability to want to do the same thing, at the same time, on a regular basis.  That's why I created a gaming schedule that I stick to.  Mine is 10pm-12:30am.  It starts at 10pm because by then the rest of the house is asleep (aside from a particularly insane cat). So unless I have a serious obligation in the way, come 10pm I'm playing a video game.  Come 12:30am I'm winding down for sleep.  This means I can get 15 hours of gaming time in a week, give or take.  Simply by sticking to a schedule and having the energy for it, I manage to be a responsible adult who still "has time" for gaming.

But let's say you're one of the few adults who actually value sleep.  Obviously a late night gaming schedule isn't going to work for you.  However, throughout the day you do take breaks, right?  I am sure if you examine your day you'll find times where you have 15 to 30 minutes of downtime in-between your responsibilities.  (If that's not true you have bigger problems in life than not being able to play video games.)  Well you're in luck then, because video gaming has never been more portable and convenient than it is now.  

Right now we have awesome handhelds such as the Nintendo 3DS and Sony Vita which provide outstanding value.  They are not insanely expensive and have excellent libraries to choose from.  And if for some reason you're too self conscious to be seen holding a handheld gaming platform in public, then your smartphone is there for you.  Whether you use Apple or Droid, there are plenty of excellent games to play on either platform that are easily managed in spurts of 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there.  (I beat the RPG Ravensword: Shadowlands in bits and pieces and had a great time.)  So while you might not have the time to play a console game for hours at a time like you did as a teenager, you do have this option.  Portable gaming is truly great, it's never been better than it is now.

So let's recap how to have "time" for playing games as an adult:

1. Work on increasing your energy levels.
2. Make a gaming schedule and stick to it.
3. Watch less TV, read less internet, play games instead.
4. Sacrifice sleep because you're probably doing that anyway. 
5. Play portables intermittently during the day, if you can't game for long at night.

That's really all there is to it.  Unless you've got three kids and you're working two jobs, I don't believe you if as an adult you say, "I love video games but I just don't have time to play them."  Because if you're not playing video games then you definitely don't love them.  You actually just love the nostalgia you have for them.

I'll end this post with relevant video from Devo: