don't hate the game, or the player

November 5, 2008 under Gaming

I’m not an up-in-arms-over-every-little-thing sort of person, but when it comes to people blaming video games for everything wrong with society, that prompts me to search for my soap box. Lucky for you, I found it.

If you haven’t heard by now, Brandon Crisp, a 15 year-old from Barrie, ON, went missing a couple of weeks ago. He ran away from home after his parents took his Xbox 360 away because they felt he had been spending too much time playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. You can read all about it.

The media are blaming video games and their supposed addictive nature, citing them as the likely reason for Brandon’s disappearance. Like I’m sure that Pac-Man inspired many a person to gobble magic pills while listening to horrible repetitive music. Oh wait, I guess that’s what raves are for. But that’s besides the point. What the media, and specifically the writers who probably don’t have first-hand experience with gaming culture (yeah, I said “culture”), don’t realise is that gaming is (and always has been) an activity chock-full of social interaction. Back in my younger days, I frequented arcades where people would pump quarters into wooden cabinets and compete for the right to post their initials (or three-letter dirty words like “FUK”, “ASS” and “POO”) in the games’ high score rankings. We’d gather around the machines where someone was playing exceedingly awesomely, alternating between cheers and boos. The sights, sounds and smells might have been different, but it was totally not unlike a hockey arena or baseball diamond.

With the power of today’s computers and video game consoles, arcades are a relic of the past. However, the social interactions are now online. Xbox Live allows gamers to play with/against friends/strangers, which is essentially the same as the arcade experience without actually being there.

So when Brandon’s parents took away his Xbox 360, they took away one of his means to socialise. I don’t see how that is the fault of the video games. Even that, I don’t think, would be the underlying reason why Brandon would run away. I think the XBox 360 could be interchangeable with a cell phone or TV privileges and the result could possibly be the same. That being said, perhaps the blame heaped on video gaming is covering for inter-family reasons, and honestly, it’s really not our business. However, pointing the finger at video games is a lazy attempt to find a reason for Brandon’s disappearance when the problem might simply be of the human variety.

As an aside, Call of Duty 4 is rated M by the ESRB, which means that it should not be sold to those under the age of 17 without parental consent. Brandon’s 15 now, but CoD4 was released in 2007, when he was 14. Much like music, movies, TV, books and so on, I believe a parent should be informed about the type of media that their children consume and help them to be able to put it all in perspective.

All in all, hopefully Brandon returns home safely.

Update 11/6/2008: Brandon’s body was found in a field near his home: link

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point at what you want to die and make it dead

September 3, 2008 under Gaming, Nintendo, Wii

For whatever reason, I decided to fire up Half-Life 2 and play through it again this past weekend. I’m not sure why I did, since it’s been a long time since I’ve played an FPS on a PC. Sure enough, all of the things that make Valve a premiere game studio were there exactly as how I remembered them in HL2; smooth graphics, captivating story, top-notch gameplay, and so on. Yet something felt odd and out of place. For the first hour or so, it felt like I was playing with oven mitts on. The keyboard+mouse combo was foreign to me; I was spoiled by the Wii.

The fact that I own a Wii probably contributes to my lack of enthusiasm for PC gaming. Say what you will about its modest hardware specs when compared to the Xbox 360 or PS3, the Wii’s control scheme stands alone. No where else is this more evident than in FPS games. The goal behind FPSs is to make the gamer feel like they are the protagonist – not by viewing the action from above, the side, or over-the-shoulder – by viewing the game from the character’s perspective. An enemy’s attacking you? Shoot him by aiming your Wii remote at the enemy, much like a weapon in the real world, and pull the trigger. It’s natural (not the homicide part), intuitive and exhibits the behavior of our three-dimensional existence.

Let’s contrast this with the keyboard and mouse. While this control scheme – employed by countless FPSs on the PC – provides plenty of accuracy, it still feels like a game. You have to map three-dimensional ideas to a two-dimensional implementation. On a flat surface, you first move your hand along the x-axis to the position of the enemy and then along y-axis to the desired height (or in the reverse order). That seems more like Battleship to me. I shouldn’t knock the keyboard+mouse combo too much, it’s still better than using two analog sticks for aiming like the Xbox 360 and PS3 employ; they’re similar to those stuffed toy crane games that used to be found in arcades.

Jeff Atwood, who I regularly read on his Coding Horror blog and anticipate the launch of his StackOverflow project with Joel Spolsky, is a developer and writer that I respect. But I had to disagree with him couple of months ago when he said, via Twitter, that the Wii couldn’t be a serious gaming console. I replied to him and mentioned that Metroid Prime 3 was the best FPS experience I ever had, thanks to the control scheme and I was able to enjoy it from the comfort of my living room couch. Here’s the conversation: 1, 2, 3, and 4).

The only thing that irks me is that the Wii’s excellent control is not exploited in the way that it should be. There’s far too much shovelware and awful software available for the Wii at the moment, with the odd gem or two. But I think that will change with some promising new disc releases like The Conduit, Fatal Frame 4, Dead Rising : Chop Till You Drop and Mad World.

The Conduit

Fatal Frame 4

Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop

Mad World

Even though some upcoming WiiWare games like Alien Crush Returns and Mega Man 9 won’t highlight the Wii’s innovative control scheme, I’m still looking forward to them too 🙂

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