damonpackwood

Filling in the Gaps: 11/16/2010 – 1/20/2011

In video games on January 20, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Happy New Year everyone!

I’ve been away for a bit. The kid had to take a break from Danger Brain so I could wrap up a few things. Namely, applying for graduate school and taking the heinous Graduate Review Exam.

I haven’t been idle, however. My ear has been gently pressed to the cold stone of what’s what in education, gaming and such. Well, honestly I’ve payed more attention to gaming.

Way more actually!

Blame it on the GRE’s. Perhaps, applying to such rigorous programs as USC, Berkeley and UC Irvine took the academic interest out of me. Or, maybe I was suffering from a bad case of the shivers induced from the post-traumatic stress of applying to my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. Seriously, the graduate program application process is one of the most humiliating, stressful and circus-juggling acts I have ever experienced. During the process I just didn’t have it in my to dedicate any time reading or listening to anything that whiffed of education. But, gaming – whether intellectually stimulating or enthusiastic in nature – that was fun.

Towards the end of the year most of what you find in the press is relatively boring. The holiday’s are widely considered to be the video game season so, you expect most writers are playing games and perhaps writing less. Sure, you might see an ant hill of articles about someone’s “Game of the Year” or “Top 10 this and that, most of which are incredibly predictable and snooze inducing. But if you dig enough, you’ll find some interesting articles. Some are note-worthy and others – well I can’t wait to write a bit more about them.

However, articles about the best game’s of the year are not all bad. As a matter of fact, the best one you’ll read about the games of 2010 come from the fourth annual year-end Gaming Club from Slate.com. It was one of my favorite reads of December as Chris Suellentrop (columnist), John Lanchester (novelist/journalist), Seth Schissel (critic) and Tom Bissell (author) write an essay on their best game of the year then spend nine follow up posts debating about them. It is very similar to the best of the year discussions you’ll read on a vanilla site like Ign.com but this motley crew of wordsmiths write with a razor sharp command of what they want to say.

They write about games the way one would write about any legitimate piece of art and entertainment. They avoid the type of technical and/or geeky descriptions that make games seem like a secret guilty pleasure or a nerdy past time. Behind their, sometimes, heated arguments is the implication that games have something unique to say about life, something a lot of critics believe when they play but struggle to convey that belief when they write about it.

Other interesting articles worth mentioning? There were a couple of posts that came out of Bitmob.com that caught my eye

[They have a nice idea over there of opening up their site for people to submit articles and get them posted. Hopefully, this method will bring some diversity to a gaming journalism space that has the potential to be much sharper than the dull turkey knife that it is at the moment].

Alex R. Crock-Young mused about a possible disconnect between game critics and gamers after playing Pandemics, The Saboteur, a game he enjoyed and critics did not. It’s a simple piece and Crock-Young doesn’t go into much depth but it was nice to read a critic admit possible shortcoming in discussing games. His brief post implies there is more to the cake than the frosting.

Also, from Bitmob is Mobcast #83. I’ve always been a fan of Dan “The Shoe” Hsu. I read some of his work when he was writing for Electronic Game Monthly. I followed him pretty regularly when he was at 1up.com and was sad to see him leave. He came off as a solid game head to me. What stood out was his ability to talk about games intelligently without sounding like he was full of himself. He didn’t write from a place of disgust or anger as some folks strangely do in the gaming press. Sometimes their posts come off like taking cold showers before writing is a part of their training.

This is why I was terribly disappointed to hear him in his podcast – the aforementioned one in particular. One of the community members brought up a great subject about the dearth of ethnic diversity in video games. His response had the depth of a shallow water snorkler. He had more insight in the multiplayer of Call of Duty: Black Ops (Hey, why do you think there is such a lack of Latino American characters in video games despite their rather large world population? I don’t know but that exploding crossbow in COD: BO is cool!).

Dismiss the potentially controversial nature of the subject for a minute. The community member brought up a great topic! This is what podcasts discussion are made for. Regretfully, his reasons for the lack of “minorities in modern titles” were simple and far too nonchalant for such a brilliant topic for a podcast. But, kudos to the cat that brought it up (either Michael Pangelina and Larry LeBron). It gave me a great idea for a future blog post.

On a another note, Mobcast #82 featured a great socio-political discussion from Sid Shuman (Senior Social Media Specialist, Playstation Blog) about the popularity of zombies. He made some pretty sharp points. Though the other gents on the podcast with him were a tad more ignorant than skeptical (academic writing on what zombies symbolize are very old) I thought he did a good job of fending off their criticism and giving listeners something to think about.

As for Dan Hsu, when it comes to games he has an insight that I still love to read. Love! That guy knows a fun game when it hits him in the dome. I’d like to see him “take it there” on his Mobcast, though.

My last good read from Bitmob crew was from a profile written by community writer, Dennis Scimeca. On December 9th Bitmob published his fantastic article about Gerard Williams, the self proclaimed Hip Hop Gamer. Williams has been a controversial figure ever since he jumped onto the video game journalism scene. He’s black (I feel the need to mention this because I think it is relevant). He’s loud (this too). He’s infectiously enthusiastic, gimmicy, and arguably a PR savant. He is also wonderfully hood and I say that with much affection.

Scimeca really captured a balanced and unbiased portrait of Hip Hop. Not the best piece in the world. I thought he dodged the most controversial topics, but it was good. That’s why I was very disappointed with his follow up piece published on December 17th, What Defines Game Journalist. It was a nice idea for a topic. What does, in fact, make a games journalist? Unfortunately, it came off as a hit piece on Williams. One doesn’t need to read the post. His opinion was evident from the picture pasted underneath the title. Gerard Williams dressed in hip-hop and gamer gear, giving the camera the dual pointing finger.

And that was the problem with the piece. It was grossly opinionated, lacking the insight and professional charm of his profile. Furthermore, his argument revolves around and is limited by – Hip Hop Gamer. Sure, he spends a few words quoting Leigh Alexander and N’Gai Croal (both enthusiastic supporters of Williams) but he clumsily places quotes from them in his essay to illustrate his opinion that Williams is the pre-Lakers’ Ron Artest of gaming journalism. It’s a troubling read that – at best – misses a decent opportunity to discuss a huge section of the gaming press. This type of gaming journalism can be found on the hugely successful N4G.com, a site where Hip Hop Gamers notoriety grew along with a slew of other sensationalist internet personalities that curiously go unmentioned. At a ten minute glance, this type of press resemble the celebrity gossip and entertainment magazines hanging on the racks of a super market grocery line. I fail to see the difference between these sites and, say Entertainment Weekly. The article – at its worst – comes off as a tad elitist. And, I’m being polite.

Finally, game critic Ben Abraham made an interesting and thoroughly academic case for why video game criticism needs to move away from using overly technical analysis, the result of an industry filled with tech experts, and instead embrace alternatives such as “the earnest persuasion of our audience.” His ideas meld beautifully with my own thoughts around the limiting nature of video game discussion. Abrahams blog post is a good read not only for his views but for the views expressed in the links he gives to other blog posts, namely from the slap-in-the face that blogger Zach attempted in his post in defense of trolling.

So, what else did I get into between November 16th and today? Well, I read two great books, Malcolm Gladwells Outliers: The Story of Success. Do you still think Bill Gates was born with the rare and latent ability to be a genius mega-billionaire? Read the book. I also read the aforementioned Tom Bissell book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Bissell’s approach to discussing video games is clear, accessible and deeply personal. His insight into some of the most discussed games of the last five years (and some of my favorites) are mostly dead on, sometimes off the mark but just enough to make his explorations interesting. It is perhaps the best single piece of writing on video games that I’ve read all year.

I spent some time in Atlanta with my girl friend, eating on about ten pounds each and watching a bunch of movies. Tron: Legacy was terrible and disappointing, as I loved the original. But, I saw it in a downtown Atlanta at a theater with a full bar and open kitchen. That was cool. My girlfriend said True Grit “was a good yarn.” I thought it was a polite way of saying the movie was ok, but she was mostly correct.

The Fighter wasn’t quite Rocky and I knew the story of Mickey Ward coming into the theater. But, the acting! Watching Melissa Leo and Christian Bale is one of the best experiences you’ll have watching actors act in a 2010 movie. Particularly, Christian Bale because we’ve seen him act in so many movies before. Bale’s image is so recognizable and his acting so convincing that when you see him in the opening scene, before you have accepted that he is character Dicky Eklund, you might think that Bale’s life has taken a turn for the worse, that Bale, the actor, is now a crack fiend. It is a great and shocking experience.

Easily, the best movie I’ve seen in the theater since the summer was Black Swan. The film was such an acting and directorial standout for everyone involved. Darren Aronofsky’s decision to let the swan fly through different genres – psychological horror, Single White Female-ish thriller, the slasher/supernatural and good old drama – made the movie accessible and modern.

He keeps you guessing. He never lets you get comfortable. He occasionally makes you jump out of your seat in fright and laughter. In other words, he gives you the reason why we still throw down $11.00 on a ticket with $8.00 for parking and another $15.00 for soda, popcorn and a hot dog; something 99% of Hollywood filmmakers no longer remember how to do.

Finally, there are the games I’ve played around with over the last few weeks. Honestly, I didn’t touch any video games this fall. I was busy studying and this holiday line up was perhaps the worse in years. For the first time in years I skipped most of them. But, there were a couple of gems that I fell into. Besides playing the well produced crap that is Call of Duty: Black Ops and experiencing the nostalgia of The Sly Cooper Collection, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was a welcome surprise. It wasn’t better than developer Ninja Theory’s last game, Heavenly Sword and boy did it have its problems (camera, limited fighting mechanic, occasional disconnect between the story and the gameplay) but those characters and Ninja Theory’s take on the apocalypse was seductive.

The biggest surprise of the year for me was Metro 2033. I hope to spend some time talking about this title at a later date. A first person shooter/survival horror, Metro 2033 is inherently a Russian game. It is based on a Russian novel. Takes place in Russia. And, was developed by a Russian development house. It was poorly reviewed according to Metacritic but people are still talking about it including Tom Bissell, Joystiq, killscreenmagazine.com and THQ who are planning to publish another.

Why did I love it? Metro 2033 is perhaps the best example to date of aesthetic. That some games are made from different cultural lenses and should be reviewed, discussed and analyzed through that lense and not through our own expectation of what a game should be. I can’t wait to write more about this.

2011 is going to be exciting for the DB blog. I have some great ideas that I can’t wait to start pounding my fingertips on. Stay tuned.

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