Fluid Movement – Baltimore’s Best Water Ballet

Fluid Movement (2014-Present)

Co-Writer of the 2015 production, Goldblum: The Water Ballet

Reviews:

“Goldblum: The Water Ballet: What if we told you that there was a production that takes you through the mind of Jeff Goldblum in a spiritual retrospective of his acting career, from ‘Jurassic Park’ to ‘The Fly’ to ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’? What if we told you this production was a water ballet? In a potentially internet-breaking show (someone better put it on YouTube) performance art group Fluid Movement is making a dream you didn’t know you had come true. What a time to be alive.”

“Everyone knows and loves Jeff Goldblum, from his star turns in such films as The Big Chill, Earth Girls Are Easy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Fly, and Jurassic Park to his ever present persona in every corner of every television.

Ever wondered what it would be like to be inside his head? Well, this is the summer for you! Fluid Movement, Baltimore’s beloved performance art troupe, puts the “trippy” in trip with its 14th annual synchronized swim spectacle, “Goldblum: The Water Ballet,” which imagines a fictional Jeff Goldblum’s spiritual journey through his own acting career, in public pools with choreographed swimming and pounds of glitter”

Goldblum

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DIABLO 3

Diablo III & Psychological Reward

NOTE: In the next few days I’m going to put out a more readable PDF “Archive” version and make it all pretty. I just wanted to put this out as soon as I was done writing it for catharsis reasons.

Diablo III & Psychological Reward

By patching Diablo III, Blizzard has essentially created digital hardcore drugs. They’ve more or less dispensed with the extraneous narrative bullshit that most games pay obeisance to and given me pure loot heroin, straight-no-filter psychological gaming reward. The game is purposefully light on story, creative setting, dramatic tension, character development, and cinematography. It is instead a finely-tuned satisfaction-dispensing brain titillation machine.

I’ve always felt that videogames are more than just mindless entertainment, that they can communicate and offer digital environments that allow the player to engage with a world, a story, a theme, a set of characters, or an idea, glued together by the act of play. Play, and the psychological reward system we expect from it, define our expectations of what a “game” should be. Whether or not a videogame incorporates other narrative or cinematic features, we still expect a videogame to pose some sort of challenge or hoop to jump through in order to get the psychological rewards inherent to the act of play. Diablo, as a series, and in particular in its latest iteration, makes no apologies for taking the crack cocaine approach to gaming: get to the source of what makes you high, get rid of anything extraneous, and enhance the high in the process. The result is a stripped-down and streamlined version of the successful loot-based gameplay of Diablo and Diablo II. The third installation takes away many of the aforementioned hoops we come to expect and simplifies the process of extracting enjoyment. You mine psychological reward from the game just about as quickly and mind-numbingly easily as your character harvests sweet, glorious loot by culling hundreds of variously inept demonic soldiers.

Diablo II: Lord of Destruction is one of my all-time favorite games. I’ve plugged in countless hours both on- and offline and have taken scores of characters to both the loftiest heights of gear heaven and to the ignominious void of Hardcore permadeath. D2’s endgame content felt rewarding. Treasure hunting for specific items that suited specific character builds was my favorite way to play. D3 makes treasure hunting simpler and sleeker, but it doesn’t feel as deep, particularly since there is no character-building to speak of: you can completely change your character’s skillset (which requires no investment save the time it takes to level up) at any time and the only way to increase your stats, sans Paragon levels, is through the use of mostly generic equipment. Sure, bounties and rifts offer new ways to go about the treasure hunting process, but the core mechanic of killing ever-more-powerful enemies to acquire ever-more-powerful loot feels empty without the goal of building a personal character. Even after spending nearly a hundred hours with a character in D3, it still feels like a template, a mannikin on which to place your loot (the real source of power in the game), a carte blanche killing machine, ready to immediately put to use any combination of skills you feel like at the time. What was the point with this decision? Was it to save the gamer time? If so, why does a game maker want to save the player time, if the purpose of a game like one in the Diablo franchise is to spend time—and a lot of it—in-game? Blizzard killed off the character development, making loot the ends as well as the means of the game. It’s just this endless loot loop, with minimal interaction from the player. Since the player obtains powerful gear simply by spending time searching for it, my endgame experience essentially boiled down to getting loot to get more loot, which is, admittedly, what I originally wanted, but the absence of the synergy between loot and character development eliminates so much of the player’s involvement that the whole damn thing just feels like putting a model train in motion, one that mass-murders hellish hordes as it tears through the countryside, leaving lopped-off limbs and piles of unneeded magical trinkets in its path. If clicking your character through hordes of monsters is like watching your train go round the tracks, then item hunting becomes a process of simply finding parts to make your train go faster, kill harder, or change the aesthetic appeal of the blooms of exploding spells and plumes of your enemies’ blood. The much-maligned Auction House did spoil the item economy, but Blizzard’s eliminating the auction house and incorporating new loot mechanics revealed that the philosophical approach to the game was to enhance and streamline the looting experience to better capitalize on unfiltered psychological rewards. What remains of the developers’ fat-trimming is an astonishing mix of precise design, endless reward and mindless tedium.

After the abolishment of the Auction House and release of D3v2, I decided to give the game a second go with the new Loot 2.0 system, which promised to get back to Diablo’s core: collecting endless hoards of loot and making that loot-grab feel meaningful. I re-downloaded and installed the game, downloaded the patch and loaded my old “softcore” character—a level 60 barbarian— and started killing some goddamn demons.

— — — —

The summer after my freshman year in high school, I was uprooted from my hometown and temporarily crammed with my parents and two sisters into my grandparents’ house. That summer was mainly concerned with surfing the internet over the slow-even-for-its-time phone line internet connection and playing Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. Both these activities required the use of the home’s only phone line and I would have to play in the evenings after my family had gone to sleep and when nobody else was home, splitting my internet time between chatting with friends on AOL, finding slow-downloading pornography and playing D2. Fascinated as I was with the female body at age fifteen, D2 dominated my free time on the computer.

At first, it was a way to maintain a connection with the friends I moved away from. This had always been the main function of D2 for me. My friends and I would adventure together, mostly power-gaming each other up to level 99 and endlessly farming the secret cow level for goodies. The reward I sought from the game was mostly social, as it was a way to maintain some kind of connection with the people I knew from my hometown.

Limited access to the internet moved me further away from online play and towards the single-player experience, and this is when I really developed my love for the game’s mechanics. I was growing more distant from my old friends anyway, and I had developed new playing habits. Lacking online multiplayer for much of the time due to the mercurial nature of internet access over a single phone line, I plumbed the depths of single-player hardcore. Without my overleveled friends there to shower me with powerful equipment and lightning-fast leveling runs, I was left to fend for myself and crawl through the dungeons with whatever gear I could scrounge for myself. Expectations for character builds had to be tempered, as there was no guarantee of obtaining that ultra-rare piece of equipment that really brought a build together. Builds had to remain flexible, open to change upon finding useful pieces of equipment. Instead of relying on the built-up riches stashed in mule accounts or friends’ scraps, I was limited to what I found in that game and with that character. It felt much more like ‘me against the horde.’ Mistakes in character development or in being too impatient resulted in death, and in single-player hardcore that meant starting fresh each time, the only gain made being what I learned from that death and how I could change my strategy to make it further next time. At the end of the main campaign was the quest to become as powerful and rich as possible before dying. I was fascinated with the strategy involved in planning a character’s development and using whatever items I could find to make it as far as I could.

Playing was no longer a way to connect with friends, but a way to play with myself, much like the loaded-line-by-line titty pics I was looking up the rest of the time. It was a system I plugged into to entertain myself in a specific way, one which reliably gave psychological rewards to a shy kid who felt cut off from the familiar. What I wanted to get out of the game was fundamentally different than it was before. I was now interested in the gameplay itself, and was plugged in to the core mechanic of killing and growing, watching characters die and reformulating strategies. Killing and growing, slowly fleshing out my roster of battle-hardened characters through a combination of increased familiarity and expertise with tactics and a bit of luck in finding rare and powerful items.

Building characters became something of an obsession for me, and with each toon I built up, I was already formulating the next strategy, the next skill I would try to make use of. I faked sick or exaggerated my real illnesses not only to stay away from the unfamiliar environment of a new high school but to put “valuable” time into building out my characters. There were character building tools, note sheets, statistics calculators, a growing roster of decked-out heroes and an even larger graveyard of dead ones, lost to the abyss of permadeath. I was obsessed.

— — — —

Videogames utilize a psychological reward system which triggers happiness and feelings of accomplishment. This is why we can feel satisfied with virtual experiences that do not have a story or any sort of progression in player skill or strategy. The reward system taps into our psychological reward systems and dopamine receptors, givin’ you those good vibes (Karim & Chaudri). Diablo II has just enough strategizing and player involvement to make things personalized and interesting and offers varied gameplay experiences based on class, stat, skill and item selection, but not so much as to slow down the face-rolling nature of the game’s you-against-the-endless-horde combat system.

The system-intensive nature of Diablo III works to minimize the aspects of videogames borrowed from other media and maximize the aspects particular to videogames. Story and dialogue are minimised, while the progression and reward system (here, loot) is placed above all else. Every decision in the game’s design is made to enhance the reward system. The loot system that D3, and D2 before it, utilizes serves as an apt example for the reward systems that lie at the core of many videogames. D3 is less interested in expanding the stylistic and thematic territory of its medium and more interested in perfecting the core reward system and turning it into a reward-dispensing machine. Like minimalistic poetry, which strives to do away with canonistic and stylistic frills, Diablo III gets to the root of the mechanic that makes it special: variable psychological rewards which incrementally enhance the player’s ability to obtain yet more rewards. It eschews the borrowed traits of other art forms and champions the core reward system unique to games.

On the surface, Diablo III looks like it improves on the old formula: changeable skills allow you the ultimate in changing-as-you-go character flexibility; a gradual slope in difficulty makes it easier to get through the core gameplay; class-specific generated items make every piece of gear more helpful; no stat point allocation means you spend less time in menus and less chance to screw up a character with poor stat choices; sharable stashes mean that when your hardcore character fails and bites the permanent dust, you still keep the rewards of your time well-spent (gems, gold and equipment you found), giving you a more powerful armory for the next character. All of this contributes to a game that eliminates as much menu, narrative and cinematic time as possible and dedicates as much of the play time percentage as possible to the endless-clicking, horde-killing core psychological reward system: the loot.

— — — —

The 20th c. psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted experiments on reward using a device called an ‘operant conditioning chamber,’ aka a ‘Skinner Box.’ He found that animals, such as pigeons, would press a food-dispensing lever more often when there was only a chance of receiving a reward, and not as often when there was a guarantee to receive one. Designing the reward system of videogames is very much reliant on the timing and careful measurement of reward dispensation per player involvement. In a game like Diablo 3, this equates to “how many boss or level runs must I complete to get a reward (read: helpful loot)?” Experience points provide steady, linear growth and reward, as you are guaranteed to get experience for each enemy you kill, allowing your character to grow more powerful and gain new skills, independent of what the luck of the draw gives you in terms of found equipment. This guarantee of getting at least some reward keeps playing worthwhile, even if you are unlucky in the item roulette. The items are the big rewards though, as weapons and armor are far and away more useful than your character’s inherent stats and skills. The promise of a good item is what keeps the player in pigeon mode, pressing the lever continuously. You can go hours and hours finding nothing, but when you finally do find a useful, or at least valuable item, you’re suddenly ready to devote many more hours just so you can get a good drop again (Chumbley & Griffiths).

Videogames all revolve around some kind of reward system, and how videogames present those rewards and how the player must attain them provide the framework for how games function during play (Elliott et al). In RPGs and adventure games, the player defeats foes, solves puzzles and explores locations to advance a more-or-less linear narrative. The player is often rewarded with more powerful destructive capabilities (what would a game be without the testosterone-fueled killing?), but the overarching reward is the advancement of plot, culminating in a narrative conclusion. Other games, like platformers, fighters,  shooters and racing games, typically reward the player through gameplay itself, guiding them through new gameplay elements toward a mastery of the game’s mechanics and control schemes, coaching the player into performing more difficult tasks. Similarly, puzzle and strategy games reward players with learned skills, forging new neural pathways on the way towards mastery. The types, frequency and magnitude of rewards, and how they are attained by the player, are bound only by the game developers’ imagination and skill in execution. Of course, exceptions abound and most games, especially complex modern titles, combine several or many reward systems. One of the most popular trends now, as in sandbox games, is to allow the player to define their own rewards and paths to them within the nebulous boundaries of the game. The endless combinations and variations of reward systems are what keep us pigeons searching for more and different levers to press.

— — — —

When Diablo III released, I was again in a new place, this time Baltimore. I moved here to be with my girlfriend, who I met in Florida while we were graduate students. She was working five days a week and I was home alone a lot. I was ten years removed from my intensive Diablo II experience, where I was hidden away in my aunt’s old room, with her old Chicago Blackhawks memorabilia, the queen-sized water bed, the flickering CRTV and my battered Dell PC hooked up to a tragically slow phone line. I spent my time in much the same way as I did back then, though things were different. The internet was faster, online connectivity was uninterrupted; the pornography came much faster and in more desensitizing fashion, and so did the rewards offered by Diablo III.

— — — —

Diablo III uses a variable ratio reward schedule, which doles out rewards (loot) in random intervals, as opposed to a regularly-scheduled linear reward, like the experience bar which steadily advances as you kill monsters.

The use of variable ratio reward schedules in game design is often panned, however, for being “nefarious.” Detractors’ reasoning goes: if the game designers had chosen to use simple fixed reward schedules (where for each action there is a promised reward), the players would play a certain amount. With variable ratio reward schedules, the players are more active. Thus, the game designers are “tricking” the players into playing more than they really want to. via

I don’t think of the reward system as “nefarious,” but I did become unsettled by my experience (admittedly only after plugging in around 200 hours and having a good honest inner dialogue about what the fuck I was doing with my life). I realized through my experience with Diablo III that my relationship with Diablo and games like it is not like my relationship with other games, where I am engaged with story, characters, or a vivid world to explore. The most important thing for me in a Diablo game is the core mechanic of obtaining unique and valuable loot. D2 was far more incremental, randomly rewarding the player with some truly game-changing equipment; D3 streamlined the experience and made the growth more linear, turning the endless horde-killing into a fever pitch of a never-ending stream of smaller rewards. D2 cloaked the game mechanic in classic RPG character development and growth; D3 laid the reward system bare, the developers looking me in the face and telling me, “you don’t care about all that other shit. You want that loot, man! Well here it is, motherfucker, loot fuckin everywhwere!” And I was like, “shit, maybe you’re right.” Let’s not kid ourselves, Diablo 3 is for endlessly converting your free time directly into virtual items. It’s like a Coinstar machine where you insert your limited time on this world and get a little bit of direct brain stimulation in return. It’s a way to get at least some satisfaction in a life full of job applications, bills that don’t stop coming, and really fast internet porn. I continued playing Diablo III because I wanted to be a pigeon in a box.

D3 is interesting because of its stripped-down dedication to the reward system. There is very little fluff to the game, and it gets as close to a pure lever-pressing/reward-dispensing experience as it can. An engaging story sounds great, but in Diablo III’s case it would only serve to distract from its core mechanic. A great story would take time away from grinding for stats and loot. Like I said, it’s the crack cocaine approach to virtual reward dispensation, and it certainly helps you stop thinking about whatever may be happening outside the game, whether it be the stress of beginning to live with a girlfriend for the first time or the long list of emails piling up in your inbox that all begin with some variation of “We appreciate your application but…”

I dove completely into the endless om, the simultaneous sensory overload/deprivation that comes with hours-on-end concentration on a repetitive, remedial task. I helped encourage the shut-out-everything else experience by cutting the voices, music and ambient sound, since they distracted my pigeon brain from the shiny lever, instead electing to play some trancey music. I didn’t need an engaging atmosphere, characters or plot. They distract from me killing for loot, from seeing the loot, from picking it up… wearing it… wielding it…killing with it to get more loot. I only barely kept the sound effects on low volume so I could hear the sound of the loot dropping. If there was something I could do to smell it or taste it, I would have done that, too. My experience was like Scrooge McDuck diving into his vast hoard of gold and swimming around, except with the added bonus of consistently adding to my riches the more I swam around.

Qualities such as plot, dialogue, cinematography, script and voice acting are all qualities borrowed from other media, but the lever-pressing/reward-dispensing dynamic is unique to games. The player involvement, even though it may be as simple as pressing a lever, connects the audience to the material in a more direct way. D3 embraces this, focuses on it, amplifies it. The gameplay approaches meditation, albeit one of pure stimulation instead of relaxation and emptiness. The rewards make my brain vibrate at the right frequencies and they come at a fast and constant stream. For the time I was really into playing D3, that’s all there was. It all just flows and hums at an incredibly efficient pace with barely a bump in the road to distract me from my incessant clicking. Cinematics breaking up your game flow? Disable them. Dialogue pops up? Hell, buddy, just keep clicking THE SAME EXACT BUTTON you have been clicking for the last 3 goddamn hours and it will go away REAL quick. Then it’s back to killing monsters and collecting that sweet, phat l00t. Come on, pigeon boy, there’s loot out there and time’s a-wastin! CLICK CLICK CLICK!

— — — —

Story, cinematics, script and dialogue are all great, and they greatly expand what videogames are capable of, but what really lies at the core of a game and what sets them apart from other media is the reward system ingrained into each game’s philosophy and play experience. I spent countless hours in D2 doing Baal and Mephisto runs not because I thought they would help me defeat Diablo and save the world (I had already done that several hundred times) but because the experience itself, the process of playing, was incredibly rewarding. It never got old; it never felt like I didn’t need more loot or more powerful items. Why be satisfied with having enough nuclear power to fuck the world over just once when you can have enough to fuck it over several times? I felt lucky to find every piece of valuable gear that dropped, but more important than that, I felt rewarded. D3 brought a bit of that magic back, but ultimately I was unsettled.

Different videogames give different types of pleasures and rewards. This should be obvious, as videogames are subject to the same variances in opinion as other media. To me, though, Diablo gets to the root of a central mechanism specific to videogames,  a direct and visceral connection to the inherent reward system that every habitual gamer looks for, akin to gambling. Like gambling, every item drop contains a random chance at a reward of variable worth. Unlike gambling, the player never loses resources, never runs out of money, only gains and gains, the only resource lost being the player’s time. It’s a slot machine guaranteed to pay out with incrementally bigger rewards so long as you keep your pigeon-ass seated, pulling the lever time and time again. Many games offer some variation of this type of reward system, but rarely do I see it implemented as cleverly and in such a soulless manner as in Diablo III. A comparable game, World of Warcraft, is often the first title brought up in discussions of videogame addiction, which, interestingly enough, is also produced by our drug science pals, Blizzard.

Although I was fascinated with the efficiency of the game, it was unfulfilling. I played through a few characters in Hardcore mode until I finally reached max level with a Crusader, the new class in “Reaper of Souls.” Again, just as with the vanilla release, I stood on the precipice of an endless endgame. Vast piles of sweet, delicious loot lay ahead of me, as well as the promise of the crushed skulls of my foes beneath my crusader’s heavy boots. I wasn’t excited, though. The pure gaming/reward efficiency is what drove me away in the end. In D3, there is no penalty for investment in your character. Your entire success is down to simply inputting enough time to gather enough equipment to give you stat boosts so that you can get equipment with better stat boosts. This crossed some barrier for me. The non-permanence of my decisions and the lack of a way to define my character through gameplay, personal strategy or decision-making turned the game experience into bald-faced time-wasting repetition. After toying around with various skills that required no time to build up, gameplay lost its flavor. I could play the game, but the game rarely played with me; there was no push-pull relationship between player and game; the game was non-resistant in my search for reward. The game effectively took away the aspect of challenge, of play.

After taking a step back and looking at what I was doing, I failed to see the point. I really did start viewing the gameplay as a drug-like experience, just a way to get a fix. I thought, “Is this all videogames are to me? A quick psychological reward with no long-term benefit, no chance for reflection or thought? What am I getting out of this, besides a temporary escape? Is it even satisfying?” D3 was the beginning of a videogame-centric existential crisis where I began to question the validity and value of my favorite pastime. For the first time in my life, I began seriously considering the idea that videogames were empty, vapid experiences. Had the old people in my life been right all along? Was my uncle justified in taking away my cousin’s game systems when we were kids, declaring them “evil devil machines?” Is denouncing videogames a big personal step into a boring, shitty adulthood?

I believe in the value of play. I also believe in the value of videogames not just as a form of play but as communication, as art and as social medium. They can be narrative, artistic, visual, engaging, beautiful, emotional, but they always have that hook that keeps you coming back for more. Sometimes that hook, that challenge, is very small, minimized by the other elements of the game, but without it, the work fails to be a game, or at least it fails to be a fun one.

Diablo 3 feels very much like what is described by the labcoats of the world. It feels like a game stripped down to that addictive core. It’s almost like I-Dosing, where there is a direct connection between the digital signal coming out of your computer and into your brain, producing a chemical effect. It’s simplicity in the form and execution of the central concept of its genere, which is something to marvel at for its pure deliverance of stimulation, but there’s little humanistic essence to it, no subtle character behind the stilted dialogue or plot, no poetry in the cut-and-dry gameplay. Diablo 3 is in some ways an incredible game, one that does brilliantly what videogames are expected to do, what gamers look for in a game, but it fails to do more than that. I’m not going to say it fails to be ‘art,’ because that’s a damned silly discussion to start; it just fails to be more than pure unfiltered mental stimulation.

Even with my misgivings on how I play the game, I do still think that Diablo III is very fun, if not quite as deep as its predecessor. But I want to understand more about videogames and appreciate them on multiple levels rather than mindlessly clicking for a reward. For all the other literary, visual and cinematic facets of videogames, they are built from the system out, and that system relies on psychologically rewarding the player’s input to the gameplay experience, a contract between game and player. It’s why I seek games out and why I recently would periodically feel the need to put down Ulysses, a book I enjoyed on multiple and subtle levels, to play Fifa 13, a game I enjoy on one very specific and admittedly shallow level. But while D3 is a game that admittedly performs a specific function, videogames as a whole mean so much more to me. I’m not “over” videogames, and I don’t think of them as a negative in my life, and as much as the prospective demon summoner in all of us might like them to be, they are not devil machines. I feel videogames have contributed deeply to who I am and their influence will always be present, and there will probably always be a place for them in my life. I just don’t want to feel like a pigeon in a box.

 

Works Cited/Consulted & Further Reading

Chumbley, J., & Griffiths. “Affect and the computer game player: the effect of gender, personality, and game reinforcement structure on affective responses to computer game play.” Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 2006: 3, 308–316.

Elliott, Luther, et al. “The Contribution of Game Genre and Other Use Patterns to Problem Video Game Play Among Adult Video Gamers.” International Journal of Mental Health Addictions. 2012: 10.6, 948-969.

Granic, et al. “The Benefits of Playing Video Games.” American Psychologist. 2013: 66-78.

Hellman, et al. “Is There Such a Thing as Online Video Game Addiction? A Cross-Disciplinary Review.” Addiction Research and Theory. 2013: 21.2, 102-112.

Hilgard, et al. “Individual Differences in Motives, Preferences, and Pathology in Video Games: The Gaming Attitudes, Motives, and Experiences Scales (GAMES).” Front. Psychol. 2013.

Karim, Reef and Chaudhri. “Behavioral Addictions: An Overview.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 2012: 44.1. 5-17.

King, et al. “Video Game Structural Characteristics: A New Psychological Taxonomy.” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. 2009. doi:10.1007/s11469-009-9206-4

King, et al. “The Role of Structural Characteristics in Problematic Video Game Play: An Empirical Study.” International Journal of Mental Health Addiction. 2011. doi:10.1007/s11469-010-9289-y

Koepp, et al. “Evidence for Striatal Dopamine Release During a Video Game.” Nature. 1998. doi:10.1038/30498

Przybylski, et al. “Having to Versus Wanting to Play: Background and Consequences of Harmonious Versus Obsessive Engagement in Video Games. CyberPsychology and Behavior. 2009. doi:10.1089=cpb.2009.0083

Seidman, Max. “The Psychology of Rewards in Games.” Most Dangerous Game Design. http://www.mostdangerousgamedesign.com/2013/08/the-psychology-of-rewards-in-games.html

The Last Games List You’ll Ever Need

I am constantly making lists for just about everything I do, and my gaming habit is no exception. For most of my life, I have kept lists of the videogames I wanted to play. Any game that interested me, whether I played it for a while, or just read or heard about it, and whether or not I could play it with the hardware I had didn’t matter; these were simply lists of any game I would conceivably like to play in the future, figuring that at some point I’d get around to all of them, thus establishing a sort of library, a list of experiences I’ve had.
The fact that I used to sit in my room reading magazines or browse the internet dreaming up all the videogames I was going to play is some serious bored suburban white male privilege shit, but dream I did. Videogames fueled my imagination in much the same way books did and my head was always swimming with epic tales, magic and beautiful, impossible landscapes.

While I enjoy the act of play itself, part of my love of gaming was wondering about the experiences I could engage in, what vivid worlds there were yet for me to explore. These days it’s more about plain, boring reality, what with a full-time job and other goals and activities in my professional and social lives. In my youth the only thing preventing my gaming habits to becoming basically a full-time gig was school and the limited access I had to games due to being on a child’s salary. Now I have a full-time job, an apartment to take care of, and my parents refuse to move to Baltimore to do all my laundry and cooking so I have that to deal with too. And yet my list still grows, despite having a very limited amount of free time and still being on a child’s salary. Gaming has essentially become a source of anxiety for me. The list has gotten so long and my fear of missing out has begun to supersede my actual enjoyment of playing a game. I feel as if I no longer sit down to enjoy a game, but I frantically try to complete everything on my list, fearing whatever time I spent on one game was time I wasn’t spending with another, possibly better one. How am I supposed to go to my grave a complete human if I have not even played Braid yet? Huh?! Answer me that!

Especially in the last two console generations, there have been a lot of changes in the world of gaming which made my list of longed-for experiences expand greatly:

  • New emulation tools which allow gamers to play games from any console with a single machine, requiring much less investment and much more convenience than it would to buy all the separate systems.
  • A trend for expanding gaming experiences as much as possible to give customers the most “bang for their buck.”
  • Increased processing power and software development tools, which increased not only the breadth of what was technically possible in videogames, but also the ease and rate at which they can be produced
  • Expansion and development of the internet, which opened the door for:
    • More expansive online gaming
    • Extensive gaming communities, providing meta-gaming experience and thus more depth to a game’s experience
    • The coming-of-age of the independent game development community through online communities and digital sales venues like Good Old Games, Steam, XBox Live and the Playstation Network
    • Those same digital sales venues offering huge lists of games for affordable prices and immediate access

The overwhelming breadth of choice is a common issue in our society today, a by-product of the quick development of data networking and available access to different media and experiences. When everything is available to you, how do you choose what you spend your time with? And what is important about the things you <em>do</em> spend time with? With so much out there that you could never possibly experience all of it, how do you justify spending any extended amount of time on any one thing? These are difficult questions to deal with for a person with a completionist mentality, which was partly nurtured through my gaming habits…you ain’t shit until you get to level 99, collect the best weapons, beat all the side quests and hidden levels/monsters, mod the game so that every action is harder than passing a kidney stone and beat it with solo Cait Sith.

Now there are really good games coming out all the time, and just about everything you could want becomes available at some time or another through a Steam, GOG or Humble Bundle sale. Having access to basically any game I could possibly want was, I once would have thought, the dream. Isn’t this how I imagined my life going when I was a kid without any thoughts about how I would feed myself the next day? Wouldn’t I have considered having the capability to play almost any game I could ever want the perfect life? I used to lay in my bed staring at the ceiling and imagine the perfect immersive gaming setup. I thought of a large screen flush with my wall across from a host of comfy bean bag chairs, a secondary screen in the ceiling above my bed for late-night sessions and drawers of consoles, cartridges and controllers rolling out from hidden compartments in my walls like some “Hey Arnold!” shit. Videogames were a deeply personal experience for me, and I imagined myself in a private world where I would have the freedom to explore and experience all gaming had to offer.

Maybe it’s the ennui of everyday living; maybe my tastes have changed since I was a kid; or maybe it’s the fact that Death is giving each and every one of us the constant stare-down and I’m now thinking that maybe spending up to eight hours at a time holed up by myself in front of a screen is not the best way to spend my puny, short existence and that maybe I’ve wasted a lot of my time. At any rate, gaming just doesn’t feel the same anymore. Perhaps part of the reason is I’m becoming jaded with gaming, overly critical and rarely impressed. The main reason is that I’ve let gaming become a to-do list instead of the captivating experience it once was to me. I’ve moved from a gaming model based on depth, where I would spend many hours with a single game, to one based on breadth, where I’ve been trying to play as many as possible, ending up enjoying just about none of them.

Gaming used to spark my imagination and I would get carried away, lost in the worlds of the games I played, exploring everything there was to offer. Lately I have had a difficult time fully experiencing games. I constantly check my progress rates and evaluate if I’m “having enough fun” to justify spending as much time as I am on a certain game, worried that the next game on the list might be more worthy of my time. I also began asking myself if my gaming habit as a whole was worth it, or if it was something that I ought to outgrow at this point in my life. After all, surely there are more noble or useful ways I could be spending my time, I thought. Why not devote myself to studying, or creating art or music, or volunteering, or…anything, really? How much of my life, I started thinking, have I <em>wasted</em> on playing videogames?

So I’ve decided to explore my questions head-on through a writing project. I came up with a plan to play all the games that I still wanted to and write about every single one, using as a guiding light the questions I was asking myself about gaming:

  • Why are videogames special to me?
  • What makes videogames worth or not worth the time I spend on them?
  • What have I learned from gaming or how has it influenced me?
  • What, to me, makes a good game and what makes a bad one?

I created a file on my Google Drive entitled “The Last Games List You’ll Ever Need,” a decided contrast to the endless scores of lists I had before. This, I decided, was my master list, and I would either get through it or give up on gaming altogether.

I’m undertaking this project because I love gaming too much to let it become a source of frustration and self-loathing. I don’t want to simply decide that gaming was a poor use of my life and cut it out, because that would mean rejecting a huge part of myself. Videogames have shaped who I am, how I think, how I perceive the world. I don’t want to quit it, I want to understand it, and I want to know more about why I enjoy playing and what that means to me. I’m determined to let videogames open up my mind again.

– – – – –

It’s not likely that there will be any sort of regular updates, as some of these essays may be quite long and take a while to write, while others will be shorter. It also depends on my gaming progress.

Here is my in-progress list. Games can and will be added and removed along the way. Highlighted games are either undecided or considered for removal.

The Last Games List

How to “Drink in the High Life” – A Response to City Paper

I am not surprised that Andrew Zaleski and his friends were disappointed in their search for Miller’s High Life. To go seeking the high life is to walk in the opposite direction of the high life. You do not seek or find the high life. You simply stop and let it come to you, let it flow through you. And indeed Miller’s Higher Living, the champagne of beers, does flow through you; faster than water, even. Piss breaks must be taken often when one is living the high life. This is part of the experience. Accept it and move on.

The enjoyment of drinking Miller’s High Life can only come about when one is living the high life. To live the high life is to not seek the high life. The high life is a koan, a poem without meaning or interpretation. To put meaning and the form to the high life is to destroy it. There is no cause to the high life, no catalyst that can bring it about. This is the mistake that many make, thinking that Miller’s Higher Love will help one find or live the high life, or somehow bring about happiness. Miller’s Life On High does not cause the high life any more than champagne causes a wedding or an NBA championship. It does not cause or create, it merely is part of. One cannot do anything to achieve it or bring it about; the high life is simply there. It is only in ceasing to try to understand the high life that we can ever truly experience it. You cannot achieve the high life, you can only enter it. When one wishes to become part of the river, one does not create a river or attempt to call one to himself. He simply disrobes and enters the river, for it was there all along. And his small part of the river is all of the river, for when touches one part of existence he touches the whole of creation. When you enter the state of the high life, you realize that it has been there all along, has existed before time, even. For what is time and space to the existence of that which transcends existence? Just as champagne tastes the sweeter in victory or in celebration, so too does Miller’s Highest Life transcend its aluminium trappings when one is living the high life.

And so our erstwhile beer seekers from the City Paper go out in search of bliss. Like the man who travels the world over and who climbs the highest mountains of Tibet in search of spiritual bliss and descends with only disappointment at not finding what he seeks, so also do our heroes come away from their experience with a shattered view of Miller’s Elevated Life. Mr. Zaleski searched all throughout Baltimore for Miller’s Hoy Loyf and so it is not surprising that he was disappointed when he finally did obtain it. He and his friends found beer, but alas there was no high life contained within. When you do not seek the high life, the high life comes to you. When you do not expect beer, the champagne of beers comes to you.

Miller’s Highest Living Life is a Zen koan; it is an unanswered prayer; it is death and nothingness; it is all of creation. It is a way of living and it is a non-philosophy. It is beer, but at the same time it is less than, and more than, beer. It is the champagne of beers.

Controlling IP: Sharing Video Game Play

Sharing the experience of playing video games has always been one of the biggest parts of enjoying this relatively new media experience. As a child of the 90s, I grew up with video games as a part of my household, like many of my peers. Video games were actually a big part of forming personal relationships for me. Whenever there was a big new release, it was likely that at least one person we knew actually had the game. Going over to that friend’s house to check out the new game was a big event. Even if the game was single player, sharing was a large part of the enjoyment of video games. I would form new relationships through them. If I found out that someone I didn’t know much played the same game as me, or was a fan of a particular genre I enjoyed, we would instantly have something to talk about and through sharing our unique individual experiences about the common topic of conversation, we would have no end of material to talk about. Video games also provided an environment to develop friendships. Through playing video games, my childhood friends and I would always have something to do together.

Sharing a play experience of a new game or a game that a friend was unfamiliar with functioned in several different ways, all of them beneficial to the producer (the game company) as well as to the consumer (the gamer). Promotion, community, enhancement of experience, trial plays, publicity. Sharing a game experience essentially allows a consumer of the game to then become not only a producer of content, but a promoter for the game.

It is only natural, then, that as the internet becomes more ubiquitous and it is easier to share media, that we should utilize these materials in order to replicate the experience of sharing gaming. As our society becomes technologized so do our social and cultural practices. When someone uploads a “Let’s Play!” video they are not just sharing the game producer’s work, but they are sharing the work that they themselves have contributed as producer and performer. A video game by itself is just a pile of code. You can load up a video game, watch the pretty title sequences and the beautiful CG pre-rendered sequences that are such a big part of large-budget titles. After this, though, user interaction is required in order to experience the narrative. It is not optional, as some interactive medias are. A video game is nothing without the player. For as much content is created by the coders, artists, writers and producers of a game, without the player absolutely zero of their work ever even comes into existence without the player. If I create a painting or write a story, it will still exist as a physical piece of media, even if I hide it away in a box in my attic and never let anyone see it. A video game that is not played, though, does not exist at all, such is its level of dependency on user interaction. A painting must be viewed or a story read in order for it to become real for the audience. A video game, however, is not created, then experienced. It is created in simultaneity with the player’s experience of playing the game. If a gamer does not play a game or does not do a particular action that is coded in a game, it is not just a work that is not seen, it does not come into existence at all. It is code that is never run, in a sense, because every single instance of every player, every experience, even multiple playthroughs by the same player, are all unique. No two experiences, no two narratives, are ever exactly the same.

This sharing experience has been incorporated into the hardware, software and network infrastructure of the video game industry today and it is a very large part of the media form’s success and recent popularity. The recent boom of networked technologies and convergence with social networks and profiles has made accessing, playing and sharing video game experiences easier than ever.

A relatively new and popular way of sharing gaming experiences with others is through the creation of Let’s Play! videos, which are prolific on the internet. These videos serve many different functions, all of which were part of the way I used to share gaming experiences with my friends, huddled around a computer or a console and TV screen.

One function is simple entertainment. Many of these videos are humorous in nature and cater towards cracking jokes, lampooning or showcasing a bad game in a negative light, which makes a fun experience out of something that is intrinsically not fun (see Let’s Play! videos of such games as Superman 64 or E.T. on the Atari 2600) or providing broadcasts of competitive gaming.

Another is education. Let’s Play! videos can show a prospective buyer or someone who is merely curious about a game that they don’t know much about. Reading about a game can only tell you so much about what it is and what you can do in the game. Watching someone else’s experience gives you much more information on the actual gameplay, since you get visual and audible information from the game as well as commentary from the video creator, even if direct interactivity is missing. Let’s Play! videos are also a good way to find out how to play a game. I would have been completely lost on how to play Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings II were it not for Let’s Play! videos, due to the information overloading nature of the game. Textual guides simply were not doing it for me and just jumping in left me dizzy and completely confused. The act of watching someone play an hour or so of CKII gave me a much better idea of how I should proceed. Watching someone navigate the absolutely insane amount of windows, menus and sub-menus made a lot more sense than reading about them. Watching the Let’s Play! even made more sense to me than the tutorials included in the game. Whereas for me the tutorials compounded my information overload, the Let’s Play! video had more flow and thus I was able to understand the navigation of the menus and how they function in the context of a match.

Recently, Let’s Play! videos have been the subject of discussion in terms of copyright and even of legal action. From Joe Mullin’s article for ars technica:

It looks like LPers are the latest victims. A prolific LPer named Zack Scott took to Facebook yesterday to complain that several LPers had experienced takedowns of the videos including Nintendo games. A company fan like himself wasn’t the right target for automated takedowns, Scott complained, and he said he’d stop playing Nintendo games until the situation was straightened out. “It jeopardizes my channel’s copyright standing and the livelihood of all LPers,” he wrote.

Scott continues:

I got a Wii U at midnight when I already had one in the mail. I’ve been a Nintendo fan since the NES, and I’ve owned all of their systems… I think filing claims against LPers is backwards. Video games aren’t like movies or TV. Each play-through is a unique audiovisual experience. When I see a film that someone else is also watching, I don’t need to see it again. When I see a game that someone else is playing, I want to play that game for myself! Sure, there may be some people who watch games rather than play them, but are those people even gamers?

I would argue that Nintendo’s monetization of the LPers content is actually unfair use on their part. They are an intimate and necessary part of the creation process of the product and their activities are perfectly within their rights of free speech. Nintendo’s advertising takes advantage of the producers of content, falsely claiming that content to be its own. They own the code of the game, but that is only one part of the production of a gaming experience. They do not own the software or hardware I use to run the game, nor the technology I use to record and share my experience with others. They do not own the hardware and software you use to view and share with my experience, and they certainly don’t own the rights to my production of my own play experience. You can easily see how the convergence of media and technology, combined with user-generated content and voluntary consumer participation can complicate these types of situations. Who owns what content, if anyone? When one work of media (like a “Let’s Play!” video on Youtube) has so many different technologies and producers involved, who then is the owner of that work? And who has the right to share it? I don’t know who does “own” the content, but I am quite sure that the capitalist producer does not own my experience and my right to communicate it to others. To monetize on at least that portion of the gaming experience is more than capitalistic, it is fascistic; fascistic in the sense that it is using people’s speech and personal experience in order to control. The legal argument in defense of Nintendo and other producers is that they own the content, which they deem to be the video game that is being played. But that is not necessarily the only form of content involved. The other content is the specific playthrough of the person who uploaded the video, as well as the editing work and commentary that they did. The issue is multilayered and complicated, involving many different producers and it’s hard to tell where one producer’s work ends and the other’s begins, but I’m on the side that says the game producer (such as Nintendo)’s power of control should not extend vertically all the way down the line through the player’s experience and on to hundreds, if not thousands, of YouTube users viewing said experience.

Circle of Exploitation

Blood Contract

 

The NMPA recently released a statement concerning a lawsuit that was filed against Fullscreen. Ars Technica does a pretty good breakdown of the situation.

The idea of exploitation is always at the center of discussions over copyright, especially when social networks like Youtube get involved. What makes this situation especially complicated is the fact that the MCN (multi-channel network) Fullscreen is supposedly making a profit off of the Youtube users. So here is the chain of exploitation so far:

  1. Artist creates song. Record company exploits artist by owning copyright and squeezing every penny they can.
  2. Artist gets exploited again, this time by Fullscreen, because their song is covered on Youtube by someone else.
  3. Simultaneously, the Youtube cover bands are being exploited by Fullscreen.
  4. Fullscreen is also exploiting Youtube and the record company’s copyright.
  5. NMPA and record companies are looking to exploit their copyright holdings by suing Fullscreen.

All around, people are making a profit except for the people who are doing the actual work in creating and disseminating material: i.e. the artists who wrote the songs and those who covered the songs. There’s really no harm in Youtube covers, but this all gets very messy when you have a middleman like Fullscreen trying to make a profit off of the Youtube users.

This all bears an eery resemblance to patent trolling, where companies basically do nothing but sit on ideas until someone actually does something with them, or does something similar. The patent troll company then attempts to make profit from lawsuits, essentially profiting off someone else’s work. The NMPA and record execs probably aren’t really all that upset about groups like Fullscreen, as it allows them another way to profit off of the artists that they’re already sucking dry. Just when that single stops selling and the touring dies down and merch sales drop, they can sue some poor saps who were just trying to make a popular Youtube video.

So here again we see corporate exploitation of folk cultural practice. Music was always meant to be shared, carrying cultural information with it. It’s a major way in which culture is spread. We will continue to see issues like this as long as culture, business and networking technology persist in becoming more and more intertwined. There is no avoiding this. The way we share culture has always been tied to the way we share information and that has always been tied to the latest technology. Business also benefits from the same technology and right now big business is in information: networking, distributing and owning it. Unless we have a way of disentangling culture from business, this is just the way things are going to be. Crowd-sourcing, participatory labor, etc. are made very exploitable due to the way we all use the internet to share culture. First comes free and open culture, then comes the big-business clamp-down and the transfer from an open system to a closed one.

Hopefully in the future I will explore this in a more academic manner, once I finish Tim Wu’s The Master Switch. I’m getting a lot of ideas from that book and I think this line of thought will fit in well with the notes I’m taking from reading that.

Art, Advertisement and Star Worship Converging in the Media

Jay-Z’s recent release Magna Carta…Holy Grail was released after a lot of media-created hype and advertisement, from Hulu ads to a spot in the NBA finals, with Jay-Z behind the wheel for most of it. The release of the album itself embraced and took advantage of new media and technology. Jay-Z has always been a forward-thinking businessman, integrating his public image and his business portfolio into his art and vice-versa. Magna Carta is no different. The album comes hot off the heels of Jay-Z’s recent foray into NBA ownership, a partnership with basketball video game franchise NBA2k and the dissolution of said NBA team ownership in favor of creating a sports agency, not to mention the crazy amount of publicity his foray into Cuba garnered. The method of release for the album – to be released exclusively for owners of Samsung mobile devices before the general release – promised to change the way we consume advertisement and media. This release method is its own scary omen for the way major tech companies are taking over social media and pop art consumption, but perhaps that’s another blog post topic. All this combined with the traditional techniques of advertising in television and on the internet set up Magna Carta for great success.

Magna Carta was not Jay-Z selling out, it was supposed to be the culmination of everything he always tried and purported himself to be: “not a businessman…a business, man.” The album was to be the ultimate convergence of art, media, advertising and technology; a work with its finger on the pulse of our media/advertising/technology-driven society. Everything about Magna Carta, from its presentation to its content and its physical (or non-physical, depending on how you view it) form, screams “zeitgeist” for the “digital age.” So why is it a filure? Because while Jay did everything and more to make a modern-day album successful from the business side, he lost sight of what made him a force in the rap world to begin with: cultural relevance. Jay-Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail is a masterpiece in marketing and media convergence, truly visionary in its craft, but it overlooks the fact that in our modern society it is not just technology and economy that is connected, but culture as well. Detached from cultural significance and overstepping the line that separates treating the consumer like a source of income versus a fan and a listener, Magna Carta falls flat. The album shows that in a culture obsessed with consumption and intricately intertwined with media and advertising, quality and substance still does matter, even when a media and business genius like Jay-Z plays all of his cards right.

In terms of production, Magna Carta is very solid. While there’s nothing revolutionary about the sound, the beats are enjoyable, the sound tight and the album sounds cohesive. The album has a dark sound that meshes well with all the black-and-white photography that accompanied the album and the beats just sound fucking cool. The lyrics, however, are not among Jay-Z’s best work and at some points they just sound lazy. At some point, when you’re as successful as Jay-Z is, the posturing about how much money you have, how good you are, how you’re a legend, how respected you are, it doesn’t matter any more. It’s not interesting to hear. From new young artists it can be brazen and bold. From veterans who have been in the background of the scene it can be a reminder to the audience of who the fuck the rapper is. From from a mogul like Jay-Z, it just comes off sounding insincere and boring. Jay’s got one of the biggest names and biggest bank rolls in the game, he’s one of the longest-lasting and best-respected rappers ever and he’s got the girl that every other rapper who raps about girls wishes he had. Coming from a guy like Jay-Z, braggadoccio no longer means anything and it’s not exciting. Jay-Z should be bringing something else to the table and he in Magna Carta he just doesn’t do that.

The primary problem is that Jay-Z seems to be treating his own art – his music – in the same way that he treats other works of art: as pieces to be bought and sold as capital or as a showpiece for financial success. The single “Picasso Baby” is a good example for both of these effects. It’s Jay asserting his greatness through his fine art consumption while using the fine art as a stand in for his own art (“yeah I’m good, just check out all this art I have”). Yeah, Jay is good and he’s made some great art. But Magna Carta ain’t it and it’s not what the rap world needs from its most prominent elder statesman. Jay-Z and the work Magna Carta are obsessed with consumption and business from conception all through to release. Indeed, the Samsung-exclusive pre-release of the album is founded on the idea that the most important part of having something is just to have it, not to appreciate it or to enjoy it. The owners of a Samsung Galaxy got to have the album three days before anyone else. They got to enjoy a piece of art the same way Jay enjoys art: as a showpiece for one’s exclusivity.