A bit thick

Homer_simpson2 Apparently I'm a bit thick. I've been corresponding with a person who doesn't exist and promoting a blog that's really just a front for an ARG promotional scheme. You can read all about it here.

When I found out about it earlier today, I found myself sorting through a mix of reactions. As a lover of ARGs (I keep hoping somebody will seize the day with an iPhone-based trans-media game), I thought it was a brilliant little ruse. Contact a few bloggers, feign interest in their work, encourage them to check out your new blog. Voila!

I bought it hook, line, and sinker. What's more, I engaged in an exchange of emails with PixelVixen707, discussing voice acting in games, games as toys, Spore - all topics I was writing about at the time. These weren't dashed-off little messages. This was a genuine conversation with a person who told me she was passionate about games. When she mentioned she was just starting to talk up her blog, I read through some of her posts and wrote to offer her some positive feedback.

And the fact is, PixelVixen707 did some solid writing about games over on her pseudo-blog. When I linked to her here, I was in very good company. It turns out my blog pals Mitch Krpata and Chris Dahlen did the same. Regardless of the ruse, you can still find some interesting pieces on a range of topics. Somebody there knows a thing or two about games.

So okay, I got played, and I like games, and it's all in fun. Nobody was malicious or destructive. No harm, no foul. But at the risk of being a killjoy, I can't help but feel a bit peeved about it too. Someone took advantage of my willingness to be responsive and supportive of a new games blog, and I was apparently expected to read between the lines and sniff out the big joke.

Maybe I need to be more cynical, but I took the whole thing at face value and made an earnest effort to lend a hand, just as people like Leigh Alexander, Chris Dahlen, and N'Gai Croal did for me when I got started. Every blogger who maintains a separate full-time job - and that's pretty much all of us - will tell you the same thing. Time is incredibly precious. We have so little of it to spare.

I love writing The Brainy Gamer, reading other games blogs, and doing my share to nurture our burgeoning little community. But I must tell you it requires every bit of non-teaching time I can muster. I'm not complaining, honestly, because I love doing it. But I'm disappointed that PixelVixen707 never bothered to consider just how much that wasted time meant to me, and I'm not exactly thrilled about being tricked into promoting somebody's product either.

So to the folks at Smith and Tinker who perpetrated this alternate reality hoax, I say "Well played. Well played indeed." But next time, you may want to pick on somebody smarter. Jokes are never funny when you have to explain them.

Update: I'm satisfied by the cordial correspondence I've had with Rachael's "handlers" since this all blew up. I think they were trying something different, and they miscalculated a bit regarding how such an approach might affect those of us who invested ourselves in trying to help PixelVixen707. She seemed genuinely interested in some things I was writing about, and we exchanged some very pleasant emails about common interests. In the end, I think whoever wrote those emails and blog posts is for real in the sense of someone who cares about games and thoughtful conversation about them.

It's the meta part of it that got messed up, at least for me, but I'm happy with how we discussed it yesterday, and I bear no resentment or ill will. As I've written before, I like ARGs...but I think they probably work best when they're consensual, especially if I'm being asked to devote my time and energy to them.

Getting a Clu Clu

Nesclu_clu_landbox Iroquois Pliskin, who may have the coolest name in all the blogosphere, writes a blog called Versus CluClu Land. If you haven't bookmarked or added it to your feed reader yet - well, I'll just wait here a minute so you can address that oversight.....

Welcome back.

Iroquois mixes games criticism with a healthy dose of philosophy, which adds a fascinating and thoughtful dimension to his understanding of video games. He's only been at it for a month, and already he's getting well-deserved traction from Leigh Alexander, Mitch Krpata,  and Tycho at Penny Arcade.

This is enormously encouraging to me because it suggests that it's still possible for good writing about games to emerge from out of nowhere, purely on the strength and intellectual appeal of its content. With all the hundreds (thousands?) of game-related sites on the 'net, getting lost in the shuffle would seem to be inevitable without a PR machine at your side. Happily, Versus CluClu Land proves otherwise - despite being named after a bubble fish named Bubbles. ;-)

Iroquois recently commented on my post about Jim Gee's GLS presentation on games and the future of learning. Gee believes, among other things, that well-designed games possess an inherent potential for teaching kids to learn, especially when they provide emergent gameplay possibilities. You can read the post for details on what Gee means, but Iraqois believes we shouldn't ignore the dynamic relationship that arises between the player and the game designer. He drew my attention to a post on his blog that describes how this works:

We do not only learn rules during a game but also find out what these rules are for: our uptake of these rules is also the act of learning the design to which these rules are being put. The pleasure of video games, it seems to me, comes from our sense that we are collaborating in the realization of the designer's intentions by learning those rules. When she makes a game-world governed by certain rules, the designer is inviting a player to share an intention with her and participate in the realization of same end. Our appreciation of these rules is like the appreciation of nature in this way. We enjoy perceiving a world shaped by an intelligence towards a final end.

You can read the rest of Iroquois' essay Rules and Fun here. Excellent stuff.

Bloggers en fuego

032704blogger_2 I subscribe to a fair number of video game blogs, and I can't help noticing that many of my favorite writers seem to be firing on all cylinders these days, writing insightful posts on a variety of issues related to the medium we know and love.

Maybe the current lull in the game release schedule has given us a chance to stop and reflect a little. Or maybe we're simply all out of money and typing words on a screen is cheaper than buying more games. Whatever the reason, I'm certainly enjoying it, and I'm grateful for the many ways these writers help me think harder and more carefully about video games.

Here are a few of my recent favorites. I'm purposely omitting old standbys like Gamasutra  to focus on single-writer blogs. You may not agree with everything you read in these pieces, but they all provoke a considerable amount of thought.

  • In an essay titled "What's our mandate?" (and a follow-up post here) Leigh Alexander suggests that game writers and fans have a responsibility to consider games in the context of real-world issues:

Our industry burgeons and swells with money against the backdrop of larger social issues, and on forums everywhere, the majority of the vocal audience wants to know, "does it have multiplayer?" We want to know if the graphics suck or if there will be a sequel.

There is a crisis of conscience here.

Now, in love and war, in sin and grace, humanity's always loved its entertainment, and to place the burdens of the world even in that arena would never be my objective. But I just don't think the schism between our world and the real world needs always be so wide.

  • In "Just Call It A Game" Richard Terrell argues that Wii Fit ought to be classified as no less a game than any RPG or fighting game you can name:

For those who still think that WiiFit is the death of gaming, consider that WiiFit is more of a game than most current gen videogames. Taking the primary mechanic "move your body" WiiFit offers more than 40 different challenges with varying degrees of difficulty ... With each activity, the player uses one of the most complex machines on earth: the human body. In this way, WiiFit's mechanics become the mechanics of life reaching beyond the limits most videogames are trapped by.

While there is no gameplay behind making bushes and trees sway and rustle from gusts of wind, it makes the player feel in control and like he is directly affecting the world. I've never felt like I'm really directly affecting the world in Super Mario Bros. Instead, I directly affect the other inhabitants of the world, but not the world itself...

In LostWinds this changes the entire way of traversing and interacting with the world ... Every gust affects trees, enemies, fire, water, and even NPCs. The player truly feels as if he is directly affecting the world around him, something that is isn't found in the standard 2D platform game.

(For a dissenting view on LostWinds, check out Mitch Krpata's review in The Phoenix.)

Telling someone they should pay to see a movie is not the same thing as explaining why a movie is important culturally, or even what it adds to cinema. Yet the problem is mostly conceptual; video game critics need to recognize that they are not talking to consumers. Literary critics circumvent this dilemma because they usually have the privilege of assuming you’ve already read the book they’re discussing. There also isn’t much to discuss in terms of whether the reader actually liked the text or not. If you’re reading a thirty page essay on masculinity and feminine authority in Macbeth, it’s a pretty safe bet you already like the play ... The problem with game criticism, then, is that many of us are still subconsciously selling the game to people.

  • In "I was a teenage reaper" Michael "Sparky" Clarkson explains how game mechanics and game story come together in The World Ends With You:

The difficulty of combat, the tunability of the game system, and the intricacy of its rules makes it very clear that this will mostly appeal to core gamers. Yet the beneficial aspects of shutting off the DS enforce a schedule more familiar to casual players. The point of the game's story, however, is that keeping to yourself is the wrong way to live. By rewarding the player for turning the game off and hanging out with his (DS-owning) friends, The World Ends With You encourages the same behavior in the player's life that it is suggesting for Neku's. The mechanics are constructed to make the player's actions fit the theme.

One of the coolest things about The World Ends With You is the fact that the designers were not content to follow RPG conventions. It’s as if for every small aspect of the game, they thought to themselves: “How can we do this differently?” Indeed, the sheer number of interesting and strange mechanics they came up with is staggering. Don’t take my word for it, here’s a summarized spoiler-free list: ...

Most music theory nerds I know have a certain musical feature that really gets them excited — an unusual harmonic progression, a favorite chord, a particular rhythmic figure. For me, that feature is irregular meter. In my experience irregular meter is fairly uncommon in video game soundtracks, so I thought I’d collect what few examples I’ve come across here.

  • Finally, game designer Steve Gaynor's "Call To Arms 2008" asks all of us to create our own design ideas that challenge the status quo (so far, he has received 10 interesting proposals):

The challenge then is to express through interaction an experience that the player will find meaningful-- something novel, poignant, interesting, personal, or enlightening. As video game designers, we've explored a few forms of conflict with great fidelity: mostly direct and violent; mostly expressing the feeling of prevailing over one's rivals.

So, Fullbright proposes a public thought experiment; a decentralized game design symposium; a call for new takes on interactive expression.

I hope you enjoy these posts. If you find something you especially like, I encourage you to post a comment or subscribe to the blog feed. These are the best ways for us to know somebody out there cares. :-)

Link love

Heart_2I want to mention a few posts by other bloggers that extend (and greatly improve) on a few of my recent posts. I enjoy the work of these writers because they encourage critical thinking about video games, and they actively enrich the video game blog community by visiting other sites like mine and contributing comments and encouragement. And for many of us bloggers, it's really all about the conversation, isn't it?

I recently posted an essay on music and sound in the Legend of Zelda games. Dan Bruno over at Cruise Elroy has put his formal music training to good use by writing a terrific essay on Ocarina of Time's score and Koji Kondo's purposeful use of a limited set of tones.

My recent look at Starcraft's narrative made me especially keen to read L.B. Jeffries' satirical and dead-on-target Marxist analysis of Starcraft called The Zerg Through the Eyes of Marx. Very funny and uncomfortably close to home. ;-)

Manveer Heir over at Design Rampage has written a fine piece on the design lessons of No More Heroes. After my recent obsessive-compulsive series of posts on Suda 51's masterpiece, I hesitate to devote too much space this game (as if that were possible), but Manveer's essay says a number of things I wish I had been observant enough to notice myself.

I expressed my affection for Super Smash Bros. Brawl both here and on the podcast, so to demonstrate my broad-mindedness and tolerance for all points of view (Bad Michael: "Aw, do I gotta do this?" Good Michael: "Yes you do!") ;-)  my friend Mitch Krpata has posted an essay that explains why, in specific terms, Brawl is a terrible game. Mitch has some of the best post titles in the business, and this one is no exception: Overdrawn at the memory bank: the power of nostalgia in games.

Apropos of nothing I have written, Duncan over at Hit Self-Destruct has posted a very funny piece in which he demonstrates his newfound method of pitching a game idea to a publisher. It's called The Pitch, and I promise it will make you grin...and squirm in painful recognition of the dangers of PowerPoint in the wrong hands.

Finally, I have come to rely on Matthew at The Quixotic Engineer for gently nudging my musical sensibilities towards the 21st century. His most recent post (part of a series) called The Musical Box has filled my iPod with great new tunes and provided me a thin veneer of hip respectability.

Opting out of the snark

Sarahsilverman Game journalism has been under the microscope lately, and for good reason. Bloggers and professional journalists (I'm purposely avoiding the question of whether there's a distinction between the two) need to be concerned when our integrity is impugned, and the whole Jeff Gerstmann affair has troubling written all over it.

Despite all the hubbub, I'm not terribly concerned. It seems to me it's virtually impossible to get away with much nefariousness in the continually updated, interconnected world we're working in. A million eyes and ears are out there keeping watch (for better and worse), and even a slight alteration in a re-posted game review is immediately noted and compared to the original version stored on somebody's hard drive. It's telling that not even hyper-secretive Steve Jobs can prevent unofficial Apple blogs from revealing just about every new product before it's announced these days, despite his best efforts.

As far as game reviews go, I don't believe in objectivity, so I don't fret about them either. I can find dozens of reviews and forum discussions on just about every new game released, and I'm comfortable with the variety of viewpoints and perspectives I can find among them. Bloggers have essentially obviated the gatekeepers, and I believe we're all better off for it.

So, I'm not troubled by the stuff a lot of people are concerned about these days. What troubles me is the snark.

What's the snark? I define it as the persistently cynical, dismissive tone of many game blogs and their related podcasts. It's the de facto perspective that says everything sucks, basically, unless we can generally agree that it doesn't, at which point it will be acceptable to say it's cool. Detached derision is the standard-issue expression of thought, and genuine affection or sentiment rarely allowed.

I don't read many non-game-related blogs, so I don't know if the snark is specific to us, but I find it all very tiresome and dispiriting. I love playing video games. I love writing about them, even the ones that disappoint me. Video games make me smile. I'm not embarrassed about that. They make me feel joyful. It saddens me that so few blogs capture this feeling...or permit themselves to express it.  My guess is that most bloggers are no less enchanted by games than me, but they have chosen to adopt what Leigh Alexander calls "blogger tone -- cynicism, exaggeration and theatrics."

Too bad. As it often does, non-conformity suddenly looks a lot like conformity when you take a few steps back.

One of my readers recently observed that I too often overindulge in my enthusiasm. That may be true. I'm rapturous lately about Gitaroo Man, for example, and I often use this outlet and my podcast to express those sentiments (mixed, I hope, with some thoughtful analysis). I think I've been rather tough on certain games and designers as well, but it's never been my goal to tear down games or the people who make them, and I'm not terribly interested in writing angry blog posts about games I don't like.

I certainly don't intend to be a scold--and I could write columns on all the terrific game blogs I admire--but I wonder if we can be a bit more clever, a bit more positive (not Pollyanna), and do with a little less snark?

If, despite my plaintive plea, you decide to stick with the snark, at least try to elevate the form. See above photo for inspiration.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on dogs, these are a few of my favorite blogs

Musketeer_blogger_by_monstara One of the very best things about diving into the murky waters known as the blogosphere is the marvelous group of bloggers you bump into as you splash around trying to stay afloat. (How's that for stretching a metaphor past its limits?)

You already know about Kotaku, Joystiq, and the other uberblogs devoted to gaming. You may not, however, have come across some of the smaller game-focused sites that regularly produce cogent, thoughtful writing about the interactive medium we all know and love.

Here's a list of independent gaming blogs I follow regularly. All are well worth your time and support. If I've omitted one of your favorites (my list is by no means comprehensive), be sure to post a comment and I'll add it to the list.

  • Japanmanship - "JC Barnett is the nom de plume of a video games developer working and living in Japan."
  • Fullbright - "The progress diary of a video game level designer, and a place for my thoughts on games and game design."

  • Castle in the Air - "Castle in the Air is a place for me to collect thoughts on the games I love, or on anything else, for that matter. My head is in the clouds, so I might as well chatter about the palaces of giants I see there!"
  • The Artful Gamer - "in search of the poetic and lyrical in video games."

  • Gameology - "Commentary and resources for the game studies community."
  • Terra Nova - "a weblog about virtual worlds. Terra Nova authors include scholars and practitioners from a variety of disciplines."
  • Lesbian Gamers - "Gay gaming for girls."

  • Sexy Videogameland - "Game blather for the uncensored gamer. Sexy Videogameland is the blog of game writer Leigh Alexander" (personal blogger hero of The Brainy Gamer).
  • High Dynamic Range Lying - "HDRL is created, and maintained solely, by Nayan Ramachandran, an english teacher and freelance journalist living in the bustling town of Takarazuka Hyogo-ken, between Osaka and Kobe, in the Kansai Region of Japan."

  • Hit Self Destruct - "Video games, writing in" Duncan Fyfe.
  • Write the Game - "This is a blog that’s designed to help you understand games; the process of development, the sweat, toil and tears that get sunk into thirty seconds of action, and the tightrope line of success across the sea of failure."

Update: these blogs were suggested by readers:

Image courtesy of monstara at DeviantArt.