damonpackwood

Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Feature: Brandon Brown of thePeople Party

In Black Oakland Renaissance, Film on August 31, 2010 at 7:14 am

 

Heads up, everyone!

 

Danger Brain and Freshloveink are brewing up a multi-media project. This is how it came about: One day, MannyBlack and I were sitting on my steps (I live across the street from Lake Merritt) admiring the view after a great weekend of music, art, discussion and beautiful black people. So we asked ourselves, “Are we living in the middle of a Black Oakland Renaissance?” If so, “what is it? And “What does a Black Oakland Renaissance mean? How do other black people in Oakland feel about this?”

 

These questions started a long debate that sparked an idea. We decided to capture as much media as we could on black people in Oakland doing extraordinary, and in some cases beautifully ordinary, things.

 

The first person we talked to was Brandon Brown, one of the co-organizers of thePeople party. thePeople is one of the Bay Area’s hottest dance parties, housed right out of Oakland. Currently, at the New Parrish in downtown Oakland, they throw down once a month and feature some of the Bay Area’s freshest soul house music. If you haven’t been there – you’re missing out.

Periodically, I’ll be posting clips of what we’ve been hearing from Brandon and other folks right here on Danger Brain.

 

Let me know what you think.

Video Game added to a College Syllabus

In Education, video games on August 27, 2010 at 4:37 am

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Geez, why is Damon spending so much time writing about video games in his Danger Brain blog?” – consider this.

Brainy Gamer is reporting that Michael Abbot of Wabash College has added the brilliant video game, Portal to his syllabus for a Liberal Arts course. The course in question is called Enduring Questions.

Enduring Questions is a required freshman seminar offered during the spring semester. It is devoted to engaging students with fundamental questions of humanity from multiple perspectives and fostering a sense of community. Each section of the course includes a small group (approximately 15) of students who consider together classic and contemporary works from multiple disciplines. In so doing, students confront what it means to be human and how we understand ourselves, our relationships, and our world.

In addition to Gilgamesh, Aristotle’s Politics, Hamlet, Tao Te Ching, and the poetry of John Donne, Portal will be used – according to Abbott – for its strong connections to Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Now, I’m sure that’s a whole lot of reading that you may not be familiar with. But, that is not the point.

I use to work for a college preparatory program. During my second year I designed a Film and Social Justice summer course. The purpose was to use popular film to explore community issues with a small group of high school students. Honestly, it was one of the best classes I ever taught.

The next year I began designing a similar class using video games to explore community issues. Alas, it never happen. It was hard enough to convince my boss to let me teach the film class. But, a light bulb had definitely went off and hearing about this course. I was already convinced of the possibilities in using film and television to augment academic courses. Cinema was a great learning tool for me in college. It made subjects like Sociology, Women Studies and Black and Chicano Studies more accessible. Likewise, I had a professor who used graphic novels to teach Freud, Faust and Nietzche. However, using video games point to a multi-media focus; the use of film, television, social networking, video games and literature in the creation of a classroom curriculum. Now, that is exciting!

News of the Wabash College course comes just three days after NPR did a 30 minute show featuring author Tom Bissell and game developer Kellee Santiago called Video Games: The 21st Century’s Fine Arts Frontier. The purpose was to raise the question: “A well-rounded, erudite American could reasonably be expected to have read To Kill A Mockingbird and to have listened to some Miles Davis. But should “beat Red Dead Redemption” also be on that list?

That question and the ability to apply a short computer game to college level reading is the reason why I believe video games to be the most exciting visual medium right now. Its a field that is a product of our generation, an extension of cinema, and its growing in some very interesting areas.

Check out the links for the NPR show and the Brainy Gamer post (they talk more about how he convinced his colleagues to include Portal to the syllabus). It’s some very interesting stuff.

Indentured Servitude

In Education on August 24, 2010 at 12:42 am

Teaching Tolerance, A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is reporting that two labor contracting companies and several Louisiana school officials are being sued for human trafficking, racketeering and fraud.

What happen?

350 Filipino teachers, brought into this country to teach in Louisiana Public Schools, were duped into a system of indentured servitude.

They were first asked to pay a hefty fee for the privilege of working in the United States—a privilege they thought would bring them good-paying jobs. Once the fee was paid, they were dinged into paying more fees and taking out loans that kept them beholden to the labor contractors. If they refused, they’d be sent home and lose all the money they had already invested.

“We were herded into a path, a slowly constricting path, where the moment you feel the suspicion that something is not right, you’re already way past the point of no return,” said Ingrid Cruz, one of the Filipino teachers.

I read this article over a week ago but it continues to bother me. I see so many things wrong with this. As the article stated, the issue goes beyond exploitation.

Many of these teachers were recruited to fill positions at hard-to-staff  U.S. schools. Once they arrived they were often thrown into situations where they faced stressful language and cultural barriers. Many teachers were put in these untenable situations with no training or mentoring.

The article spends it’s time discussing the teachers and the H-1B guest worker program which are interesting and insightful. What it doesn’t discuss is the effect this has on the children of California, Louisiana, New York and Maryland. Why are the youth who need to best teachers getting teachers who are grossly unprepared to teach them? How does the impact the educational system and the growing debate for better “quality” teachers? What is the incentive to have such a program? Is this more cost efficient? How much do you pay a guest teacher vs a native teacher? Finally, considering America’s repulsive history of slavery how do we apply its very same principals to foreign workers in the name of our youth?

I don’t have a whole lot of commentary on this one. I generally disturbed by this. But, the article is an interesting read. You can check it out here.

Deathspank: A Notch on the Belt of Comedy Games

In video games on August 19, 2010 at 11:47 pm

First, let me say that Deathspank is well worth fifteen dollars.

So, buy it.

The latest game from lead developer Ron Gilbert, received a 79-80 from Metacritic that in my opinion say’s nothing about the quality of the game. Given the culture of aggregate scores, Metacritic, in my opinion, is no place for downloadable games.

Deathspank is a special title (I mean that both literally and figuratively). It’s the beginning of an onslaught of 2D and Top Down Games and it’s an important entry into a grossly under developed genre: comedy. Deathspank is a cheaply made, affordably priced downloadable comedy title that is robust in content. It may for all intents and purposes be the best way to release comedy titles that in turn could be the crack in the damn. It deserves to be discussed fairly and as much on it’s own merits as possible.

Personally, I think it deserves to by hyped until servers crash, not necessarily because it’s Bioshock good but it is a very important step in the right direction.

Briefly, Deathspank is about an adventurer of the same name who is the self proclaimed “Hero of the Downtrodden.” When the game begins our hero is on a quest to achieve something called “The Artifact” which looks like a strip of bacon. The plot is simple. It’s certainly not a highlight of the game and it isn’t supposed to be. The highlight of the game isn’t the plot but the absurdity of the story.

STORY

Story is what Deathspank nails. What the player encounters on his journey through the game is brilliantly absurd. An eight year-old retired adventurer with an ax lodged into his back. There’s a talking tree that comes off as a total stoner. Unicorns that defecate magic pooh. A leprechaun that wants to turn states evidence and a note in the magic forest that reads: “Snitches get stiches.” What the player encounters in this game is creative, witty and written – one would imagine – with a smirk on Ron Gilberts face.

VOICE ACTING & IMMERSION

However, as bizarre and thoroughly enjoyable the story is there were few instances where I laughed out loud. I remember asking myself why through the course of the game. Again, the writing is brilliant. What I discovered was I had issue with the voice acting. Though the voice actors do an adequate job of spitting out their lines there is little chemistry between they and Deathspank. It seemed as if the actors were recorded separately. When they speak it sounds like they are not speaking to each other. It ruins the immersion.

Voice actor Michael Dobson (the title character) has a deadpan style of humor that works great for a character that is essentially a parody of your everyday fantasy based adventurer. But, he spits out every line exactly the same throughout the entire game. The reason why this doesn’t work is the world they create in Deathspank is so absurd (and it grows more so as the game progresses) that for the central character to have little to no reaction is disorienting.

In this respect, Deathspank doesn’t sympathize with the experience of its player. It presents them with jokes but implies through the voice acting they are not funny. That I did, in fact, find them funny made it all the more confusing. Hothead Games should have taken a page from sitcom television. Watch most sitcom television shows and you’ll notice a joke is followed by the sound of applause. Even comedy movies use techniques to accentuate what’s funny: lighting, camera angle, sound, etc.

Sure, Deathspank gives you this funny world and it dares you to rummage through and find in it what you find funny. Some you might chuckle at and others you may not. That may work for a sandbox type game, like Grand Theft Auto. However, I think they may have done well to control the comedy in some instances throughout the game.

THE MENU

Much has been said about Deathspank’s cumbersome menu system. The biggest complaint is that managing your inventory becomes tedious. I personally didn’t thinks so. I’ve always felt that part of the fun of an RPG is sifting through your inventory, finding the right weapons and armor, throwing away what you don’t need for cash so you can buy more items. But, I don’t want to spend time beating a dead horse. Personally, I think the way Hothead treated the menu system was witty and funny. I only wish they would have given us more.

The fun thing about the menu system is the variety of silly weapons (a gun that fires chickens, a magical hammer with a boot at the end, and let us not forget about the names: Most Awesom-est Sword Ever) and the title characters animations when you equip them. Put a weapon in his hand and he may duck thinking it’ll go off or something. Equip him with certain armor and he’ll do a dance, even a few Michael Jackson moves. It adds a silly element to the game that is just plain fun.

My gripe: there wasn’t enough. By the second half of the game you’ve seen all the animations there are and the weapons don’t get more interesting until you get the final item (highlight of the game). It would have been cool to see the player rewarded for spending so much time in the menu with more silly animations and even dialogue.

The most recent Ratchet and Clank had a cool mechanic where the game would feature a cut scene every time you found a new weapon. It compelled me as a player to keep buying weapons. Ratchet, though fun, isn’t nearly as comical as Deathspank. Imagine what they could accomplish using this type of reward system. It was unfortunate. I found myself hoping to see something new in Deathspanks animations when I found weapons and armor but all I got was the same old same from the games first half.

TAKE IT HOME

Comedy is an interesting thing. It only has one barometer of success: it’s ability to make us laugh. The more people laugh the funnier it is. But, comedy is so subjective. One persons favorite comedian is another person’s irritating actor who has yet another movie out. But, I believe there is something to be said about a game that forces a smile on your face every time you pick up the controller. Most games don’t do this. As much as you might like games about sports and space marines they don’t make you grin from ear to ear for hours on end. Most games create excitement, tension, frustration, and sometimes anger. Horror titles scare us. Sports titles thrill us. How many games can you find which are silly in nature, games that don’t take themselves serious and are simply fun to play. I wasn’t necessarily laughing out loud throughout the entire game but I did smirk the whole way.

Small but significant nicks and bruises aside, Deathspank is good silly fun. It is a game that can’t possibly live up to any lofty expectations. The comedy genre needs more games under its belt before we’ll see a true gem. But, we need to keep ‘em coming. Hotheads Games’ distribution method should allow for more games [two days after I wrote this Double Fine announced their next game, Costume Quest, a comedy title that will be digitally distributed], more experimentation and hopefully more success. When this happens we’ll begin to see full retail comedy titles on store shelves. And, with luck, one of them will be a bona fide hit.

Editorial: The Influence of Video Games on Narrative, Part 1

In Film, video games on August 13, 2010 at 1:10 am

YESTERDAY’S STORIES

I’ve always been fascinated with stories. I have fond memories of Huckleberry Finn and Dr. Seuss books as a kid. They got me hooked. I was an introvert. I had a huge imagination, a sense of adventure but we often lived in tough neighborhoods. Hell, in the late 80’s when the crack epidemic started and the neighborhoods began to change I barely went outside. We moved a lot so I struggled with getting comfortable. We had a big family and I was the middle child, too young for my older brother and sister and too old for my younger sisters. Ergo, getting lost in stories was not only easy – it was necessary.

I graduated from Huck Finn to Choose Your Own Adventure Books. When they stopped printing them, I moved on to Stephen King and Roger Zelanzy. I spent weekend days in narrow comic shops and at night my uncle and I were at the movie theater. As I said, I spent a lot of time at home, so I was always in front of the television watching old movies and classic tv shows like Miami Vice, Knight Rider and black sitcoms from Sanford and Son to In Living Color.

Narrative was my thing. I’ve always been fascinated with how a good story can place you into another world. It can force you to empathize with something or someone that you never would otherwise. It can teach you things, not like a lecture from a classroom teacher but in a way that entertained you and made you feel engaged.

And then, I discovered video games.

I was in college working in a video store in the middle of a college town. During Christmas vacation, everybody went home but I stayed and kept the store open for the locals and folks like me who couldn’t go home for one reason or another (my first paragraph should be enough of an explanation why). I heard about a game machine called a PlayStation so I decided to rent one and a few games at a local Blockbuster. I rented Resident Evil and Final Fantasy 7. The next Christmas break, I rented another PlayStation and a game called Metal Gear Solid. Soon after, I wrote up a proposal to the owner of the store that he should get into the video game business, now! My reason: video games were going to be the movies of the 21st century.

You can check out The Influence of Video Games on Narrative, Part 2 here.

Editorial: The Influence of Video Games on Narrative, Part 2

In Film, video games on August 13, 2010 at 1:10 am

TODAY’S INCEPTION

At the time, those games were very popular amongst a niche group of people and today they still are, although video games as an industry are everywhere (computers, phones, social networking sites, etc). But, the influence of these games and the innovation they’ve brought to story telling is just starting to show. And, they are becoming a part of both present and future entertainment in ways that I’ll illustrate below.

Inception is currently one of the greatest examples. Although, it remains to be seen whether Christopher Nolan was directly influenced by computer entertainment, the gaming press have jumped all over this movie ever since it was released. Game journalist Stephen Totillo of Kotaku has written a few posts that stood out for me. He wrote his movie review of Inception the same way he reviews video games: describing what he loved and hated using gamer vocabulary (modding, boss battle, platforming). The reason was to illustrate how comfortable your typical gamer would be in a world that Roger Ebert called “wholly original, cut from new cloth.” Totilo even implies that the language most used to describe a video game may be best suited to describe Inception. His second piece, “Did Video Games Help Me Accept Inception’s Ending”, illustrates this point best. Without spoiling the ending, Inception offers the audience a finale with two possibilities. Whether you’ve seen it or not you’ve no doubt heard people pontificating about its ending. Everyone has an opinion vigorously backed up by scenes from the film.

However, implicit in Totilo’s essay is for a gamer both endings happen. In some video games the player is given choices that he or she knows in advance will impact the game’s ending. Take title inFamous, for example. You play as a bike messenger who got duped into delivering a bomb that not only levels his city but turns him into a guy with super powers (don’t laugh, Sony Pictures is working on the movie. You might be paying ten bucks for this in the near future). One of the major features in the game is to provide the player with choice between good decisions and bad decisions to determine what type of character you want this guy to be, a super hero or a villain. Through the course of a game like this, the player makes choices knowing full well what type of ending they’re going to get. Not the exact ending of course but a rough idea. According to Totilo, a gamer accepts the ending they got based on the choices they made. The same can be said of Inception. The movie is so open for interpretation that one makes their own decision of how it ended based on their interpretation of what they saw – very similar to a video game.

Inception may not have been influenced by video games but the language of video games has definitely brought a unique perspective to the conversation about its narrative. Art developer for upcoming “choice driven” game Deus Ex: Revolution, Jonathan Jacques Belletete says something that illustrates my point in an interview with Gamasutra:

[It] is all about the things you might miss. At first, to be honest, it was hard to convince the team [replace with Hollywood executives?] and say, “Yeah, you’re building this,” because they’d say, “Yeah, but the player [cue, audience?] might not see it.” It’s not about that.
What it’s about is the consequence of choice, letting them [the audience member] play [watch] the fantasy [movie] the way they want, letting them explore the maps [dreams?] and find creative ways to achieve their objectives [decide the ending?].
This is the heart of the experience.

You can check out The Influence of Video Games on Narrative, Part 3 here.

Editorial: The Influence of Video Games on Narrative, Part 3

In Film, video games on August 13, 2010 at 1:10 am

TOMORROW’S NEAR FUTURE

Inception shows us one possibility of how a movie’s narrative can be influenced by narrative lessons learned in video games and/or how discussion using traditional video game language can help one understand its experience and meaning. But, there are other people in the visual entertainment field who are looking closely at the narrative techniques of the gaming industry and applying them to their work.

Comic writer, Grant Morrison spoke about his new project Batman Inc with IGN at San Diego’s Comic Con, and he had an interesting outlook on traditional narrative structure:

Morrison: So many comics are still inspired by Hollywood movies… and by extension a kind of approach to narrative which dates back to Aristotle’s Poetics and the fundamentals of Greek Drama, almost two and a half thousand years ago.

Morrison distinctly draws a connection between literary fiction, Hollywood movies and comic books. He admits that each medium uses an age-old narrative structure. But, video games may possess a wrinkle in the fundamentals of Greek drama that can be exploited in (in his case) comic writing.

He continues:

It occurred to me, immersed in my 50th hour of Just Cause 2, how far beyond that silent audience, proscenium arch, here’s some well-paid ‘actor’ pretending to be someone else experience we’d gone and how very timidly other forms of storytelling entertainment had reacted to the challenge of the beast in their midst, this ultimate choose your own adventure playground that in some cases simulates ‘life’ and terrain so effectively it’s like actually like going on vacation (how many gamers know the geography of Silent Hill as well as their own town? Do streets and locations from Liberty City, Panau, or Saints Row, turn up in the dreams of other gamers like they do in mine? I’ll lay odds they do. These amazing virtual environments appear in my memories as real as Chicago or London. Paris, Venice, New Delhi, Jogjakarta or any of the non-CGI cities I’ve been to.

Finally:

Batman Inc. is an attempt to do a comic influenced by the storytelling structures, images, senses of scale, movement and perspective and so on that I’ve absorbed from games.

Like in Inception, Morrison is talking about an experience that a person who has played these types of games can fully understand. The word most commonly known to describe what he means when he talks about the geography of a game is immersion. Games that possess a strong sense of immersion compel the player to get lost in them akin to a book. The difference is a video game like Silent Hill or Just Cause 2 gives you objectives; it forces you to be an agent in the story. Your success or failure to complete these objectives is often dependent on how good you know the geography of this virtual world. In other words, the developers create an immersive world, and then force the player through the objectives to sink deeper into the game (much like the plot of Inception). It’s the sole reason why we call a good game “crack.”

Sure, Grant Morrison is a comic book writer and perhaps you won’t be reading any comic books anytime soon, but film director Jonathan Liebesman appears to have similar ideas for his Christmas season alien invasion film Battle: Los Angeles. Some of the techniques Liebesman uses in his action sequences were influenced by first person shooters, again a video game term to describe a game played from a first person perspective.

Just as a player’s perspective is shown in a first-person shooter video game, many of the action sequences are viewed from the perspective of the Marines who are tasked with defending Los Angeles. Director Jonathan Liebesman acknowledged the influence of video games during the panel and said, “It feels like Modern Warfare or Halo,” referring to two of the most popular video game franchises [LAT].

It remains to be seen if Liebesman will pull it off and more importantly if it will create for the audience a different sensation, one similar to the frantic panic stricken adrenaline rush of some of the best first person shooter games. However, the point is that other people are taking notice.

Whether you are a person who plays video games or not, you may soon experience its best ideas on how to build a narrative – ideas presented in movies, television, social media and literature that you do consume. If people working in more popular entertainment mediums (cinema, literature, music) can harness these lessons successfully, video games will have given us two things: more experiences similar to the one people are having in theaters today watching Inception and a language best fit to describe the experiences. And, a new language that could possibly challenge the language we’ve been using to describe literature and film for over two thousand years.

I stumbled into this by accident. I was in the minority 14 years ago sitting at home with a controller in my hand. But, it looks like lots of other people are starting to catch on.

The Nation Interviews Diane Ravitch

In Education on August 11, 2010 at 12:33 am

The Nation magazine has a short and sweet interview of Diane Ravitch seen here. Ravitch is the former Assistant Secretary of Education for George Bush, Sr. and former supporter of high stakes testing and No Child Left Behind. Since her tenure in office she has been one of the most outspoken persons against these educational policies including the policies of current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

[If you've been reading my posts often then I'm sure you're tired of me posting about who she is. Sorry].

I posted a lecture series from Bliptv before that featured Ravitch speaking at NYU. Although, her brief lecture was good it was hard to remember anything she said after being followed up by Lois Weiner (Professor in the College of Education at New Jersey City University) who absolutely killed it!

Ravitch gets much better screen time in this interview and the interviewer conducts a responsible interview.

Check it out.

Social Networking & On Line Games are In

In video games on August 6, 2010 at 12:32 am

Well, Star Trek has happen. The Computer Age is in full effect. We are getting that much closer to being cyborgs. The Nielsen Co. is reporting via SFGate that:

Americans are spending a quarter of their Internet time on Facebook or other social networking sites, while online video games have passed sending e-mail as the second most popular online activity.

I talked briefly about how the Video Game Industry is relevant in a previous post and although I was looking at it from a historical perspective, here goes more evidence. It’s interesting to note that social networking games played on Facebook like Farmville (created by San Francisco company Zynga Game Network) are being considered the new place to play video games, like a Playstation or XBox 360. When they talk about on-line games they are not solely talking about games like Madden or FIFA they are talking about the social networking sites.

But, shhhhh, don’t tell anyone. People might start freaking out once they realize the world in turning into a land of geeks.

And, they are one of them.

PUBLIC EDUCATION PANDEMONIUM!!!

In Education on August 5, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Concerns around education reform are escalating. There is a significant movement happening in the U.S., one that runs counter to the plans of our government. I’ve been paying special attention to this since 2007 after I attended an Education Conference in Chicago. I’ve come across some interesting debates, discussions, protests, and posts. What has impressed me the most is the diversity of the people who are against these policies. Folks are upset, and there numbers are indicative of the breath and depth of this country, the part that we tend to be quite proud of. This is the melting pot we talk about so much and it could develop into an issue that we all agree on despite our differences.

I’ll post and re-post a few examples below.

Take the U.S. Governing Board of the National Council of Churches, for example. In May they sent a passionately written letter to congress and the Obama administration denouncing the current education reform. You can check out my post on the NCC’s letter here.

Joining the NCC, seven leading Civil Rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, are calling out Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his education reform policies, according to Education Weekly. They also want the Secretary to reconsider some of his proposals including his over reliance on charter schools.

Want more? In March, Bliptv aired a lecture on school reform featuring, amongst other professionals, the former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush. Once a supporter of No Child Left Behind, Diane Ravitch has written many books speaking out against the high stakes testing focused education.

Tired of hearing about education reform? How about the people vs. Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne (seen below) and his plan to ban ethnic studies classes in public high schools under new law H.B. 2281. Education Weekly is reporting that Horne sent a letter to the superintendent of schools on Tuesday ordering all ethnic studies teachers to be video taped.

The teachers at Tucson High School in Arizona are none too happy with this development. I had the privilege of interviewing one of their ethnic studies teachers, Mr. Curtis Acosta, who was more informative about the objectives of the Raza Studies classes than was reported on CNN. Check it out here.

Primary and secondary schools are not the only thing people are voicing concerns over. I came across a blog entry from political science and peace studies professor, Harry Targ’s Diary of a Heartland Radical earlier the week. In it Harry expresses his displeasure with developments in higher education many of which have been absent from public debate. You have to read this one. Targ opened up the flood gates on issues such as salaries, tuition increase, the problem with having contractual obligations to Nike and Coca-Cola, and college access for under resourced youth.

People are upset. Teachers are speaking out. Parents and students are protesting. Even college professors and former government officials are coming forward and expressing their displeasure with the way our children’s education is being constricted into something unhealthy.

It’s Pandemonium, I tell you! But, it’s peaceful protest. It is democracy at work. It is proof that our country is not apathetic, after all. It shows that as obsessed as we are over the season finale of Lost, the departure of LeBron James from Cleveland, or the endless debate over the hidden meanings of summer movie Inception, we still care about the things that matter most.

And, that is beautiful.

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