Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Just one more time...

Apollo: [Apollo is reading fan mail] Mary Anne, you listen to this. "You didn't beat nobody and anybody who knows boxing knows the fight was fixed." This one came from London. "You call yourself the champ? You're a fake! The fight was a fake. Go kill yourself!"
Apollo’s Wife: Wouldn't you rather play with the children than read hate mail?
Apollo: "How much did you get to carry that bum for 15 rounds? You are a disgrace to your people."
Apollo’s wife: Why can't you ignore it?
Apollo: Are you serious?
[Tosses the mail away in anger]

We hate losing! We hate it! It kills our pride to work our butts off and be “good” at something and then lose. I will never forget losing a playoff football game in high school. I still get frustrated thinking about random loses in my life real games, video games, even board games. It kills us. When we lose we want to do nothing more than prove that we can win. On the flip side nothing makes us want to continue more than winning. If we win we are on a streak, we got the magic touch. Nothing and nobody can bring us down.

Another way games feed the flesh is by making it easy to keep going. You sign on, you enter a match, you win. Awesome! One more time! You will all fall by my hand! Just hit the next match button (or in some cases do nothing at all and you are cycled back into match preparations). 15 minutes to an hour later…you lose. What?!? How could this happen? I don’t lose! This is my game (a statement too many players make without considering the fact that tens of thousands of people play the game)! Oh man, it is time for some serious payback. You play again, the cycle continues. Pair this gaming pride with the ‘bonuses’ we talked about in the last post and you have a formula that caters to pride.

Take in stride friends. Give yourselves a time limit or a set number of matches and stick to it. This will help with both topics. Don’t get sucked in.

Heads up: next few posts are going to be a bit lighter. System breakdowns and my first Family Game Profile. See you next time.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Feeding the Flesh...Why Gamers Keep Playing

"I just gave everybody what they wanted."

"Since when have people known what they want?"

What does it mean to feed the flesh? At our core we are creatures who strive to please ourselves. Despite the fact that we were created to glory in God our nature is to please ourselves and that is sin. Many video game companies are working very hard to figure how to appeal to that side of who we are. Though they do not realize it, they are working to help us indulge in a very sinful activity that inflates our pride. Below I will present you with the first of three ways that the current gaming climate feeds our flesh, but first kind of a sad proof of what I am talking about.

My friend and mentor has talked at length about a young member of his family and how he worries for the young man. “He plays Call of Duty.” He tells me. “And on a recent vacation to a rural area the young man told his family all he wanted was two days to play the game then he would do whatever his family wanted to do.” The concern on his face was very real. “I don’t even know. I can’t imagine doing much of anything for two days. Is there anything he could do for that long?" My answer, sadly, is “Yes.”

Video games are a changing market. Companies used to create long single player stories and add a smaller multiplayer component to encourage a little extra play. That has changed with the advent of the internet. Now that a large number of players can almost instantly connect online the story or main game is typically created shorter and a greater emphasis is placed on the multiplayer game. This is the online competitive or cooperative mode where you join a group of anywhere from four to sixty-four other players to play versions of the game that are designed for competition. The hook here is that the game is different and familiar every time you play. There are several things about this environment that feed the flesh.

First, the current games feed the flesh by rewarding the player for continued play. Who doesn’t like getting rewards for the things that they do? As players complete their matches or games they are given a level of experience for playing. This total is usually higher if you win, but none the less you are rewarded. As the player’s level rises they are given prizes in the game. These can change the appearance of a character or give them new abilities. Higher levels, of course, give you better stuff. Naturally, better stuff is a badge of honor. A way of saying “Look how good I am, I have pink armor with battle damage.” …I wish I was making that up, but a higher level bonus in Uncharted was a fat version of the main character. Most games display your level proudly for you and opponents online. All of this works to make a player feel a sense of accomplishment. This feeling is a bit fake though, as many others are doing the same thing, but more on that later. By rewarding the player with items it creates benchmarks for the player to strive for all the time. This encourages players to reach for the next goal.

This leads to the next point…but that will have to wait.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Shift in Acceptability

So, it has been a while and for those of you who know me, you know it has been a roller coaster. But I am back with a lot to say.

Where to next?

How about change?

In reality people like Josh and I are one of the first generations to experience games since childhood. I was five years old when my parents bought us a Nintendo Entertainment System. My elementary years were filled with hours of enjoyment of games like Super Mario Brothers and Tecmo Bowl. This gave way to the Super Nintendo which wowed me with Donkey Kong Country and of course the introduction to my favorite gaming series of all time and the reason that I buy all things Nintendo: Mario Kart. This led to the Nintendo 64, the Sega Dreamcast (Yeah, I went there), the Nintendo GameCube and now the Nintendo Wii. That’s 25 years of video gaming. When we were kids we dreamed of what we thought would make cool games. Some young players dreamed of games where a whole platoon of soldiers went into battle side by side battling enemies in giant fire fights. Others would imagine themselves as a lone warrior wielding magical weapons that would lay waste to gigantic monsters. Sports fans wanted in depth controls and realistic environments. As these dreamers grew up some eventually went on to make the games that they day dreamed about as kids. Games have matured. They have gotten older with those of us who grew up playing them. The features are more real, the graphics are mind blowing and many of the stories are attempting to replicate the movies with interactive sequences mixed in.

This is pretty drastic shift. The truth is as our culture grows more tolerant and generations play more games like Call of Duty, Halo, Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed it will become more acceptable to a younger audience that desperately needs the opportunity to be children to play games for older gamers. Today’s children have opportunities to enjoy updated versions of games like Super Mario Bros, the Legend of Zelda and even Pac Man. They are given the chance to have new experiences like the Lego games and Little Big Planet. However,the more I listen to what kids are saying the less I hear them talk about the family oriented stuff and more about rated T and M games. They don’t see people playing games like Mario and Little Big Planet, they see older siblings and parents who play Call of Duty. Naturally, that is what they will want to play as well. This is leading to a shift in acceptable playing age. If games like Halo and Assissin’s Creed are acceptable for this group of youngsters what will they grow up to make? Scary thought, huh?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

What is a (video) game? Part 3

"Fozzy, take the next left at the fork in the road."

"A fork in the road."
"I don't believe this."
I have already pointed out that a large number of video games are predominantly single player in nature. Even the multiplayer aspects of most games is an illusion as you are still sitting by yourself playing against other players who are at their own houses…by themselves. This leads to a lot of ME time. Now your average game player falls into one of two categories: student or employee. Students fall into K-12 or college student. Employees are typically married or not. The reality is that work is not easy (God gave men that when Adam fell in Genesis) and school ask a lot of young minds or at least it should. Work, whether it is our education or our occupation, is hard and we people like our diversions. However, as our amusement costs us time our diversions cost us relationships.

Let me put it to you this way. After busy mornings and full days of work we are left with about four hours in the evening. If you choose to play a game what are you diverting yourself from? You might convince yourself that you are blowing off steam from a hard day on the job or a stressful day in class but the reality is you aren’t there anymore. By jumping into a game by yourself and blowing a few people away in order to reach the next level or class you are neglecting someone real. It may be your parents, your siblings, your spouse or your children. It may be the opportunity to meet new people. It might just be spending time with God. None the less you are neglecting real opportunity for a fictional experience. In many ways these are people who you have a limited time to get to know. There are times when I am sad I didn’t get to know my brother and sister better when we were younger. I never feel like I talk to my parents enough. Shamefully, there were several nights in my marriage where I rushed my wife off to bed or encouraged her to read so I could get an hour of Uncharted in. Thankfully, my daughter time is her time and I have come around to being less of a moron about games. Is there a relationship you neglect because of your diversions? Who takes the hit when earning more experience or reaching the next level takes precedence over people who care about you?

Monday, February 21, 2011

What is a (video) game? Part 2

Amusement = Time

During my time owning a PlayStation 3 I played some really well made games. Little Big Planet, Uncharted, ModNation Racers, inFamous and NCAA Football come to mind. Each of these games were amusing in their own ways. Little Big Planet and ModNation allow players to first enjoy the main game then turn their attentions toward using a pretty advanced tool set to create their own content. Uncharted and infamous both offered very good, very testosterone driven experiences that kept a Teen rating. Finally, NCAA Football allows you to join 11 other players online to go through the college season together to crown a national champion. Very exciting for average college football fan. Each of these were very good games that I would not be ashamed for someone to see in my library, but what is the cost of amusement? Kathleen, Brittney and I put a lot of hours into playing Little Big Planet collecting all of the “stuff”. In that same time I created two levels and tampered with a third. The two completed levels took nearly 10 hours each. Doing so was really cool, but that was all me, by myself. As were Uncharted 1 and 2 (20ish hours per game), Infamous (15ish hours), your average virtual football game takes an hour…a season is 13 games…multiple seasons…you can gauge for yourself. Any way you cut it that is a lot of ME time. What is the price of amusement? It isn’t the cost of a game. It is the time lost.

Thing is I am not what the gaming community would call “hardcore”. I don’t play the “core” games like Madden and Call of Duty. These are games that many gamers drop millions of dollars into every year and play until they are blue in the face. To give you an idea of what this looks like Activision, makers of Call of Duty: Black Ops, announced in November of 2010 that the game grossed 650 million dollars in five days of sale in the United States and United Kingdom alone. At $60 a pop that is roughly 10.83 million people picking up the game in the first five days. On December 27, 2010 the company announced that players had logged 600 million hours playing online. For my mathematicians out there that is 68,493 years. The game had been out for just over a month. These games are specifically designed to encourage more and more of the buyer’s time. Research goes into how to get players to continue to play and it works. I heard one account recently of a teenage boy who, prior to owning an X-Box 360 and Call of Duty, his mother had to fight with him to get out of bed in the morning. However, when he received the machine and game as a gift he would get up early so that he could get a few online matches in before going to school. No joke. To make it easier on the annual Madden player you can complete your leagues NFL Draft using a computer or even a smart phone, this way you are not inconvenienced by real life. When it comes to games, amusement takes time and companies are working around the clock to figure out how to get more of it. When you look back at your life and count the hours will you have amused yourself to death? Moreover, will you allow you children to?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What is a (video) game? Part 1

Webster defines a game as an activity engaged in for diversion or amusement. Keep that in mind.

In doing research for this post I can tell you there is a history of nerdiness that follows video games that I will spare you. What I want to point out is that throughout history most games have required two or more players. Most sports, card games, board/trinket games and to a lesser extent brain teasers (riddles were actually listed as a game in one document I read) require at least two participants. Certainly there are exceptions, but that isn’t the point. Prior to 1970 a bulk of what we would consider games required more than one person to be involved. What happened in 1970…my older readers probably know: Arcades happened. Every article I read referred to the 1970’s as the ‘golden age’ of arcade games. What once was a haven for pinball machines (which have a history that dates back to the 15th Century, believe it or not) was overrun by electronic games like Pac Man, Space Invaders and Asteroids. Sure you could compete for high scores, but it was really the advent of one person staring at a screen for the purpose of isolated amusement. This gave way to home consoles which later reduced the arcades to novelty. It is with the home console that my point begins to take shape. With early game consoles the technology was limited so most games were designed and created for one player at a time. This became the norm and is still very true. A majority of video games created today are designed with a single player focus.

This brings me back to the definition. There are three key words: activity, amusement and diversion. Let's begin with activity. We are doing something when we play games. However, I would argue that there are not many video games that challenge people all that much mentally (games like Brain Age and Professor Layton are exceptions). Most games are designed around a simple, fun premise. Josh told me once that the Halo development team had a goal to design the most fun thirty seconds a player could possibly have and then repeat it over and over again. That would certainly seem to be the premise of most games. The formula does not ask much of the player. In addition, with even fewer exceptions are there games that actively challenge players physically. Perhaps that is why games like Wii Fit, Just Dance and Rock Band have been such great successes with a female audience that is concerned about being active. Generally speaking, the activity of gaming is one that encourages relaxation. In our busy world that can't hurt...can it?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Mission Statement

Gaming in its self is not bad or wrong. Like athletics, art or music, video games are an outlet that people can go to in order to experience something different. You may enjoy music, but you do not have the money or flexibility of schedule to master playing an instrument or start a band. A game like Rock Band exist for you and your friends. You may like sports but your body is not able to keep up with your competitive nature (translation: not everyone gets to continue playing the sport they enjoy). Games like Madden, NCAA Football, NBA 2K or NHL are there for you. Gaming, like most things, can be a nice outlet or even a good way to get the family together to do something that involves interaction.

The problem lies with our nature. It is my intension in using this meager website to bring to light the wrong doings we, as a culture, have committed in idolizing games and to a much greater extent ourselves. Through this idolization of the gaming culture have, in fact, hurt the family structure in that we have wrongful ideas of what games are and should be. Once that ground work is layed, my goal is to identify the ways families can use games in a positive manner, shine a light on games (good and bad) and ultimately encourage families to focus on what matters: knowing, loving and leading families towards God.

If you are not a God fearing person, I encourage you to stick around. You may be surprised at what you hear.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Something to say...

It is no secret that I am a follower of the blog-o-sphere. I read my wife’s, the Maggi two + Daniel and Keegan’s all regularly. However, despite my best efforts, to this point I could not bring myself to do it. I would start with an idea and the truth is I just don’t think I am all that important. I love Christ, but many smarter than I have paved, repaved and built freeways on that topic that would blow anything I would say away (see desiringgod.org/blog). I would write about the latest gaming news and my opinions, but it takes too much effort and people put in more time than I have (GoNintendo.com is my favorite for that). Lately, though, something in me has begun to change. Something that has always been there is starting to fester. It started when I was working at GameStop in 2001. I made the decision to become a teacher and I began to learn about children and how they function. In Bowling Green they place a large importance on families and supporting them through education. Working at GameStop I would see what families that played together looked like. My own fondest memories of video games are those that involve my Dad, wife and I playing Mario Kart together. I would also see the families that still viewed games the way most families view a Fisher Price toy or the latest action figure craze. Those families would not hesitate to purchase their eight year-olds games that were designed specifically for 18 year olds to keep them happy. It was and is the most infuriating thing about that job.

Recently, I had a one year stint with the PlayStation 3, leaving Nintendo games behind for the first time since I was five. In that year I went through a lot personally and professionally. Gaming was always a constant. I grew a relationship with my brother playing football games. I had a great time creating levels in Little Big Planet and I really enjoyed playing Uncharted (the most movie-like experience I have ever played). However, there was something missing…Kathleen. While she enjoyed the occasional romp into Little Big Planet the PlayStation 3 is not very conducive to playing together, nor is the catalog one that she found tantalizing. During our early days of courtship and eventually our marriage Kathleen and I had always enjoyed playing together; of note Mario Kart, Pikmin 2, and Mario Golf. The PlayStation had nothing that interested her. This led to me finding time to play on my own or cutting into family time to play. Both had consequences, neither of which was worth it. On a few occasions Kathleen would mention in passing missing playing Mario games or wishing we still had the Wii. Then during a sermon on marriage Pastor Nick made a comment that really hit the nail on the head for me. “When in becoming one flesh is there supposed to be me time?” Boom! What am I doing? Why am I taking time from my marriage to play games alone? On that day I traded in the PS3 and all my stuff to get the Wii (again) and since that day my wife and I have once again found ourselves laughing and having a great time playing games together.

That is when this idea started forming and God has cultivated it. I do have something to say. Gaming, which is not bad in and of itself, is unraveling and in a lot of ways affecting family life in a very negative way. It is not the first medium to do so, but it is the one that I know the most about. So please join me as I share with you what I have to say.