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I got Experienced

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If you enjoy thoughtful conversation about games, I hope you're a regular listener to the Experience Points podcast. Every week, Scott Juster and Jorge Albor zero-in on a games related topic and apply their special brand of scrutiny, analysis, and humor. It's a great show hosted by two whip smart guys who know how to stay on-topic. 

So it was a special privilege to visit the EXP 'cast for a conversation with Scott and Jorge this week. We discuss my recent post on JRPGs, why we play (or don't play) JRPGs, and why Xenoblade Chronicles may be a pinnacle game for the genre.

You can listen to the show here. Better yet, subscribe!

My thanks to Scott and Jorge for the invitation and convivial conversation.


About the podcast...

PodcastBefore discussing my own show, a quick heads-up on a couple of other ‘casts I enjoy. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the erudite gents over at A Jumps B Shoots. They host one of my favorite games-focused podcasts, so I was delighted to join them for TWO shows. We discuss authorship, auteurism, aspirational play, and aesthetics broadly defined. In other words, we dig pretty deep, but Matt, Steve, and Rich keep it accessible and entertaining from beginning to end. You can listen to the first show here and the second show here.

I also made a guest appearance on the GameCritics After Dark show along with my friend Jeffrey Matulef discussing Skyward Sword and the Zelda franchise generally. It’s a lively conversation, and I thank Richard and Mike (both decidedly not fans of the latest Zelda game) for giving Jeffrey and me a chance to have our say. You can download the episode here.

So, on to my own show, the Brainy Gamer Podcast. If you’re a listener you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t released an episode lately, so I thought I’d offer an explanation and share a few things I’ve been thinking about.

A funny thing happened on my way to recording an end-of-year favorites of 2011 show. I took a look around the games podcast space and noticed that everybody and his brother, sister, mother-in-law, and second-cousin had released a best-of-2011 show. Recently I’ve harbored a concern about my show, and it’s this: I don’t think I’m adding enough value to the general conversation about games to make my show worth doing, at least as it’s currently configured. Given that I could listen to, literally, a dozen good podcasts with smart people (and, frankly, three times as many mediocre shows) all rounding up the best games of ‘11, why throw another me-too show onto the pile?

This connects to my larger concern that games podcasts mostly all sound the same: a few knowledgeable folks engaging in friendly banter about games. A “whatcha been playin’” segment is typically followed by a more focused segment on a particular game or two. A gaming-related issue may be explored. A special guest may appear. But basically - and I include my own show - it often seems like we’re all producing variations of the same format.

When I launched my podcast back in ‘07, I saw a need for a show devoted to “thoughtful conversation” about games. When I look around me now, I see many podcasts doing just that, and doing it well. The two I mentioned above, of course, but also Big Red Potion, Experience Points, Gamers With Jobs, Three Moves Ahead, and others I follow regularly.

I want to continue producing my show, but I think it’s time to reformat it. I’m drawn to the idea of a podcast that focuses each episode on a single person (or occasionally a creative duo) and explores his or her work, ideas, influences, etc. I can imagine a fascinating gallery of designers, composers, animators, writers, actors, critics, producers, etc. - each person a collection of experiences worth exploring in depth. I’m imagining a one-on-one Charlie Rose-style interview format that gives me time to discuss a wide range of topics with guests, but remain focused on the work, the unique personalities, and the individual stories of each.

I’d love some constructive feedback on this idea. If you like it, dislike it, or have suggestions for refinement, please leave a comment and let me know. I’ve always enjoyed recording my podcasts, even when my schedule makes it difficult to produce them. I’m eager to continue, but I need a stronger sense that they’re worthwhile and add value to the broader conversation about games. I think it’s time for a reboot. What do you think?


Miscellanea

MiscellaneousI’m happy to report on a few things I’ve been up to lately. If you follow my work here on BG, maybe you’ll be interested in checking them out.

I was recently invited to be the first guest on a new podcast called Second Quest, hosted by Eric Brasure. Second Quest is a website devoted to “critical discussion about issues of interest to the videogame community.” The new show is a reboot of an older ‘cast called Cartridge Blowers, which ran regularly since 2009.

Eric and I discuss a wide range of topics related to games, and if you listen, you’ll quickly discover what I discovered during the interview: Eric does his homework. I enjoyed the conversation, and I’m grateful to Eric for inviting me on the show. You can listen to it here.

This week I’m also chatting about the Games of 2011 in Slate Magazine’ 5th annual Gaming Club. I’m joined by three terrific writers I admire: Chris Suellentrop, Tom Bissell, and Charlie Yu. We’re exchanging essays over the course of three days in a conversational format, doing our best to address issues as they emerge. I’m big fan of previous editions of the Gaming Club, so I’m honored to be included this year. You can jump in and read at any point in the conversation, but I recommend starting at the beginning. You can find Slate’s Gaming Club here.

Finally, I’m preparing to record my annual “Favorites of the Year” podcast. Stay tuned for an all-star gala confab featuring some familiar voices and a few new ones too. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Happy holidays, everyone. Thanks for reading Brainy Gamer!


A few things...

Indiecade  Lend me a tenor  Poster2


I want to apologize to regular readers for my meager output here lately. Several factors have converged to temporarily restrict my writing time and freedom to play many games. The start of the school year always pinches a bit, but this year I'm also staging the first theater production, so I'm teaching during the day and directing at night.

Happily, I can announce a couple of games-related projects I've been working on too. In a couple of weeks, I'll attend IndieCade one of my favorite events of the year. It's a terrific festival of independent games with a lively conference attached. This year I will speak, along with the unfailingly erudite Simon Ferrari, at a "Well Played" session in which Simon and I present two IndieCade finalist games and explain why we believe they merit special attention. We're slated for Friday, October 7, from 1:00pm - 2:00pm at the Ivy Substation.

Other speakers at IndieCade this year include Daniel Benmergui, Jon Blow, Brandon Boyer, Terry Cavanagh, Mary Flanagan, Nick Fortugno, Tracy Fullerton, Rod Humble, Robin Hunicke, Rich Lemarchand, Jane Pinckard, Adam Saltsman, Nathan Vella, Jamin Warren, and Eric Zimmerman, among others. You can find the full conference schedule here and the list of finalist games here.

Then on October 10, I'll deliver the opening address at a Game Symposium hosted by DePauw University called "Ethical Inquiry Through Video Game Play and Design." The next day Peter Molyneux will present a keynote address, and various papers and panels will be delivered as well. You can find the full conference program here.

And, in case you're interested, my production of Lend Me a Tenor opens September 28 and runs through October 1 at 8:00pm each evening in the Fine Arts Center at Wabash College. Tickets are free.

So, while these "distractions" may have temporarily curtailed my work here, I'll soon have a few things to show for my absence, and maybe one or two of them will be worth seeing. :-) As always, thanks for reading Brainy Gamer...and happy gaming!


Crime of opportunity

Burglar_bill__small__91dn Last week thieves broke into our house while we were sleeping, entering through an unlocked window in our living room. According to the detective assigned to our case, they knew what they wanted. They took my PS3 and Xbox 360 (and corresponding controllers), my Macbook computer, and approximately fifty games. 

They ignored our flat-screen TV, stereo system, a 3DS in a case sitting next to the Macbook, and my Wii with controllers nearby. Feel free to joke about 'left-behind hardware' in the comments section. I'm ready for some levity. :-)

The detective called this a "crime of opportunity," which he explained as a crime committed without planning or premeditation. A perpetrator discovers he has a chance to act and seizes it, in most cases taking advantage of the owner's carelessness.

Word to the wise: a Beatles Rock Band drum set in clear view just inside an unlocked window has 'crime of opportunity' written all over it. 

We assume such things don't happen in small-town Indiana where I live, but they do. After a couple of sleepless nights wondering if they might return, I began to focus on something far more positive and, it turns out, longlasting.

When I tweeted that we'd been robbed, I received well over a hundred responses - replies, direct messages and emails from online friends - nearly all of whom I've never met, expressing concern and offering me and my family encouragement. Several shared their own theft stories and reminded me that our safety far outweighs a list of missing stuff.

Gamers (and I use that term broadly to include anyone who enjoys games) are routinely depicted in our culture as antisocial, self-absorbed indviduals who lack empathic impulses. Violent games have desensitized us to the pain and suffering of others, and we simply don't take time to reach out to one another like our parents and grandparents learned to do. We start flamewars and issue homophobic epithets to strangers through our headsets. Gamers aren't very nice, and we prove it in all sorts of ugly ways.

Except when we don't. I've walked away from this unnerving experience with an unexpected feeling of hope - a reinvigorated sense of faith in the community of gamers I'm part of here and elsewhere. Kindness and generosity aren't difficult to find in these parts, especially when you're in a tough situation and need a little support.

The next time you hear somebody paint this community with a broad ugly brush, consider mentioning a few more nuanced portraits:

  • Somebody asked me for a list of games I lost to see if she could send me a replacement or two. "I can't afford to buy you new ones, but I have a few games on my shelf I'd happily send if you need them."

  • Somebody sent me a detailed set of instructions for tracking my PS3 through Sony's theft response system.

  • Somebody shared his own experience with a break-in while his family slept upstairs. He cautioned me that such an event can be more traumatizing than we might expect, and he was right.

  • Somebody reminded me to feel compassion for the people who did this. They are likely suffering in ways we often neglect to consider, and he was right.

  • Somebody offered to organize a collection to raise money to replace the games I lost.

  • Dozens of people went out of their ways to simply say they were sorry to hear what happened. I read every one and shared them all with my wife. Wonderful and welcome gestures for which we're grateful.

One more related and lovely anecdote. Last night I turned on a PS3 from school and logged onto PSN. Within seconds a text message arrived on my phone from a dear friend: "You get a new ps3? Bc yr online and i want to make sure its not yr burglar."

I think 'crime of opportunity' describes what happened to us perfectly. The break-in provided an ironic opportunity for me to experience something good and pure about another community I inhabit. Both places have their dark sides, but I live in both, buoyed by people with gentle spirits and kind hearts.


Break time

Break-time2

Hi everyone. I'm taking a little time off for vacation and travel with my family. It's a working break, though, as I'm attending the Games for Change Festival in New York City. I guess you can call that work. Okay, maybe not. :-)

I'm jotting down notes on the sessions I attend and will return soon with a post or two on the festival. I cover several game-related events each year, but this one is like no other. It's a fascinating assortment of gamers, developers, policy-makers, NGOs, teachers, and business leaders - basically a bunch of people from disparate walks of life, gathered to talk about games. Former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore delivered the keynote yesterday, and I'll have a few thoughts on what he said.

In the meantime, I'm hosting a collective playthrough of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and enjoying the terrific conversation that's unfolding. If you'd like to join us, we'd love to have you. Head over the Vintage Game Club and jump in.

Finally, Brainy Gamer will reach 4 million pageviews very soon. That's small potatoes for a site like Kotaku or Joystiq, but for a single-author cubbyhole blog like mine, it's a big deal. I can't possibly convey how grateful I am for your willingness to come here, read my work, and occasionally join in the discussion. It means the world to me. Thank you.

Happy gaming!


The Ocarina Noob Project

Zelda1148-610

We routinely discuss The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as if we've all been there, done that - but I have a feeling many of us haven't. When I mentioned it recently in conversation with students, all of them had heard of OoT, but only two had actually played it. Which got me thinking.

With the remastered 3DS version due in a few days - and 2011 marking The Legend of Zelda's 25th anniversary - what better time to host a collective playthrough of arguably the greatest game of al time? What better time to invite folks who've never played OoT (or players who'd like to experience it again with fresh eyes) to play and discuss the game with others on their first ride?

So I've decided to host a playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and welcome OoT noobs with open arms. I'll organize the discussion to be newcomer-friendly, and I'll ask veterans of the game to approach it as if for the first time. I realize this may seem a little silly, but I believe there's great value in taking a fresh look at an older game and purposefully encountering it anew.

OoT is available on several platforms: the original Nintendo 64 version, a Gamecube port, a Virtual Console port, and the new 3DS version, which I can tell you is a stunning remastering of the original, sure to become the definitive version of the game. Keza MacDonald's review at Eurogamer captures my sentiments exactly, and it's a terrific read. Is the new version worth buying a 3DS for? Given the historical impact of OoT and the brilliant treatment it receives on the device, I gotta say yes. YMMV.

I'll extract parts of our conversation and post them here as we go along. OoT has received a lot of critical attention over the years, but I want to explore how this 13-year-old game is received among current players accustomed to contemporary games.

If you're a newcomer to Ocarina of Time, I hope you'll join me. If you're a veteran willing to play along with a "noob-mind," I hope you'll jump in too. Post your thoughts or simply lurk in the shadows. Whatever works for you. Here are the details:

Where: Vintage Game Club (a forum I founded a few years ago with my pals David Carlton and Dan Bruno)

When: Playthrough begins Monday, June 20th.

All are welcome. Happy gaming! 


Back tomorrow

FINALEXAM Hey everyone. I apologize for not posting since early last week. It's final exam time here, so I'm swamped with grading. Students hate finals, but lemme tell ya, I'd rather write 'em than grade 'em.

I haven't stopped gaming, though. Confession: I play while proctoring my exams, which inspires my students to hate me even more! Hah!

I'll return tomorrow with a post about a cube, a potato, and a woman with a spring in her step. Big mystery, eh?

Thanks for your patience. Happy gaming!


The robot cometh

Savetherobot Precisely three years ago today, I interviewed Chris Dahlen on my podcast. I had never met or spoken to him before - heck, I was still figuring out how to do a decent interview back then - so I was surprised and delighted that he agreed to do the show. 

We spoke for an hour and covered a wide range of topics. Chris was charming and thoughtful, and I remember feeling happy about how well we hit if off. We said goodbye, I logged off Skype, and it suddenly hit me: I had forgotten to hit the record button. Our entire conversation was lost.

I had small meltdown, and my wife said, "Why not just call him back?" I said I felt humiliated, but she insisted, so I rang up Chris again on Skype and explained my screw-up. "No problem. Let's do it again," he replied. And so we did.

And so began my friendship with Chris Dahlen and my continuing high regard for his work as a writer, editor, and family man. No one has done more than Chris to advance the cause of thoughtful writing about games, and no one is more respected among his peers. Nice guys don't always finish last.

Today I'm delighted to note that Chris is visiting Wabash College as this year's McGregor Visiting Artist and Scholar in the Humanities. He will visit a variety of classes; meet with students and faculty; and deliver a presentation on professional writing and the challenges of launching a new magazine (Kill Screen) aimed at an audience that supposedly isn't intererested in reading or thinking hard. 

If you happen to live in the vicinity, you're welcome to attend two events open to the public. One is a conversation about the graphic novel Watchmen with students in my Enduring Questions course. The other is Chris's noontime presentation. Here are the details:

  • Watchmen discussion - 11:20am, Wednesday, April 20, Fine Arts Center
  • Public presentation - 12:00pm, Thursday, April 21, Center Hall 216 (lunch served)

A campus map is available here. Directions to Wabash (located in Crawfordsville, Indiana) can be found here. All are welcome.

Since most of you live nowhere near me, I'll post a recording (audio for sure, possibly video) of Chris's talk later this week. 


About the podcast

Recording I want to apologize to llsteners of the BG podcast for my sporadic release schedule over the last year.

When I began the show in '07 I recorded an episode every two weeks. I was on a sabbatical from teaching, so it was easy for me to maintain such a routine. When my sabbatical ended, I shfted to a monthly show, with an occasional flurry of confab episodes and year-end roundups.

Lately, my teaching and administrative work have grown more demanding, and parenting a running, climbing, "why"-asking child turns out to be far more time-consuming than caring for a baby who sleeps 15 hours a day. At the moment, I'm also in production for a play I'm directing, so time is an incredibly precious commodity these days.

Happily, I've been able to sustain my writing here - not out of a sense of duty or obligation, but because I love it so much. Like many of you, I think about games all the time. For me, writing is thinking, so posting essays here feels like a natural thing to do. It helps that I've learned to write any time, anywhere, which comes in handy when your kid decides to rise and shine at 4:00am.

I'll continue recording podcasts, of course, and I look forward to many more conversations with smart, interesting people. But I've reconciled myself to the reality that I'll make them when I can and not beat myself up for failing to maintain a regular schedule. I'm prone to dragging guilt around with me when I fall short of my goals, so I suppose I'm writing this now to help release myself from that self-imposed burden.

As always, thanks for reading and listening. Happy gaming!


Holiday hiatus

Hiatus Happy holidays, everyone. I'm taking a little time off to relax, spend some time with family, and make a dent in this pile of unplayed games on my shelf.

I wish all of you a joyful holiday season and a happy new year. Thanks for all you've done to make 2010 so much fun for me, and thank you for reading Brainy Gamer.

Happy Gaming!

Best,
Michael


Headed to IndieCade

Logo_menu_indiecade I'm on my way to Los Angeles for IndieCade, a festival and conference the LA Times calls "the video game industry's Sundance." It's three days of presentations, panel discussions, and informal conversations featuring indie game makers, industry pros, journalists, and critics.

IndieCade is highlighted by one special event that distinguishes it from other indie game gatherings: the Game Walk. Here's how the festival organizers describe it:

Spend the weekend wandering in and out of galleries and cafés throughout downtown Culver City, playing games and meeting game creators. The crowned jewel of the festival, 32 finalist games will be installed for hands-on gameplay at multiple gallery locations, as well as many other games and gameplay experiences at more than a dozen locations. Plan to spend many hours engaged in riveting gameplay. The Game Walk is FREE and open to the public.

I was initially interested in IndieCade, but hesitant to make the cross-country trek. The impressive list of games piqued my interest, but it was the Game Walk that sealed the deal for me. Strolling through galleries and cafés playing games and meeting their creators? I'm on that like a duck on a junebug.

Stay tuned. I'll report here on the games I play and people I meet at IndieCade. In the meantime, you can learn more about the festival here, and peruse the full schedule here.

Happy gaming!