Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Video Games as Social Commentary

I am reminded time and time again, by people on the sites I visit, that video games should be treated like other established mediums.  That their depictions of violence, sexual content, and other subjects should be regarded the same as their movie, radio, and print brethren.

Yet time and again, we see video games come under fire the same things that have been presented in the media for centuries.  I won't go into detail, because people far more eloquent than I have already talked at length about it.  What I do want to talk about is what role can and should video games play in in relation to sensitive issues.

First off, to me, it's important to have a variety of people working on something that could be viewed as delicate.  You need as many different viewpoints to cover more of the spectrum of who you're trying to reach.  If you're going to write a story about rape, you damn well better not be a team of straight white males (that was an arbitrary distinction, relax).  having different perspectives gives you such a wealth of valuable information in order to fully realize how different groups react to different situations.

We'll touch back with that later, but I'd like to make my first point on the main subject here.  Bioware released Dragon Age 2 in March of 2011, and they quickly came under fire by some groups on the internet.

They were attacked because the character you played as, your custom made avatar, could be gay.

The following is a single post in an entire thread dedicated to this topic on Bioware's official forums.  Forums that the staff routinely check.

To summarize, in the case of Dragon Age 2, BioWare neglected their main demographic: The Straight Male Gamer.
I don’t think many would argue with the fact that the overwhelming majority of RPG gamers are indeed straight and male. Sure, there are a substantial amount of women who play video games, but they’re usually gamers who play games like The Sims, rather than games like Dragon Age. That’s not to say there isn’t a significant number of women who play Dragon Age and that BioWare should forgo the option of playing as a women altogether, but there should have been much more focus in on making sure us male gamers were happy.
Now immediately I’m sure that some male gamers are going to be like “YOU DON’T SPEAK FOR ME! I LOVE DRAGON AGE 2!”, but you have to understand, the Straight Male Gamer, cannot be just lumped into a single category.
Its ridiculous that I even have to use a term like Straight Male Gamer, when in the past I would only have to say fans, …”

To sum it up, this is why we can't have nice things.  Bioware, who has been one of the better game companies when it deals with more sensitive issues, is being ridiculed by an entitled group of gamers who think that an entire genre should be catered to them.

At this point, I'd like to point out that video games, as a medium, were originally designed to be a child's play thing, but has since evolved to accommodate players of all ages.  So why couldn't genre's evolve in the same way?  He says that the 'overwhelming majority' of RPG players are straight males, but has no statistics to back up his claim, apart from his small sample size of people surrounding him.  While gaming was predominately males at one point, the female gaming population has risen.  According to the Entertainment Software Association, 45% of gamers are women.   Following that up, the US Census Bureau's International Data Base has the global female population around 49%.  In one fell swoop, this man has marginalized three and a half billion people by saying that his group, and his group alone should be made happy.

Of course, that last statement is hyperbole, and of course, I'm detracting from my main issue to personally laugh at this guy's expense, but it brings me around to this.  How can non-gamers take video games as a legitimate medium for thoughtful discussion if we have people like this as ambassadors for video games?  It seems funny to say right now, but the biggest thing in the way of gaming being more inclusive to people of all creeds and lifestyles, is the fans of the games themselves.

I mean, maybe I'm looking in the wrong place, but I don't really see people in bookstores glaring as anyone walks through the doors.  I don't see anyone getting up in arms about a movie that depicts homosexuals.  It's a really strange phenomenon that games are almost handcuffed to being about fantastical things that aren't supposed to intersect with the real world social issues.  I do feel that there's a lot of room in this medium to grow and incorporate or teach us about different cultures or sensitive issues that may be too uncomfortable to talk about in person.  Even if you're not teaching outright, you can teach through subtlety and background events.  It's like having those different sexual orientation options in Bioware games.  It can teach people, who may have no interaction with homosexual people in his daily life, that people are the same regardless of their orientation.  Gay, straight, or neither, any of them can be heroic enough to save the universe.

I feel like the best way we can work on this is by adding more choices to our video games.  We need meaningful choices in our games, to see them have consequences.  I would love to see a game where how you interact with one person could affect how other people view you, based off hearsay, gossip, or overhearing the conversations.  The point of this is, when we play Video Games, it seems like we lose touch with reality in such a way, that we try to justify being a jerk in the game.  There are, of course, certain people who respond well to it, but I'd like to see your character's personality have that affect on other people.

If video games can make us care about other people, I feel like they've done their jobs.  I'm not saying that every game needs to be more conscious.  We need our games like Grand Theft Auto to be an escape, something where we can tune things out for awhile and relax.  I'd just like to see more games handle these issues like race, gender, sexuality, and even just tough decisions.  Just, games that make you feel things, that's what I want to see.

You may think I'm full of shit, and that's fine.  This article probably is all over the place content wise, but if you take anything from it, it's this.  I think games can be a great medium for exploring the human condition, and actually could be used to build empathy towards other people.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Board Game Corner: Epic Spell Wars Of The Battle Wizards: Duel At Mt. Skullzfyre

This is a real game.


This is most certainly a real thing.

First off, this game is not really a children's game.  While bright and colorful, the game also has some humorous, over-the-top gore involved.  In fact, the art style of this game is very reminiscent of the art style of the show SuperJail.  Continuing on with the whole "Not for children" thing, this is the first paragraph of the rules booklet.

Once upon a time, there was a world filled to the brim with radical magic.  And not pussy magic, like rabbits in hats or shit like that.  No, it was kick-ass magic, where one guy blows another guy's head off with like, a fireball or something!  You know, BALL-ROCKING MAGIC!
The background of the game goes on for a few more paragraphs, but you get the idea.  While yes, some would think this kind of violence and language is juvenile, well, they're probably right, but it's still presented in a way that made me laugh out loud while I read it.  A rule book for a game has never done that before.

The premise of this game is pretty simple... Construct a spell from cards in your hand, and kill the other players.

At the start of each round, each player draws to their hand limit, which is by default 8 cards.  They then set one, two, or three cards face down.  There are three main types of cards in this game that'll be in your hand: Source cards, Quality cards, and Delivery cards.  When you play your 'spell' of cards, you can only play up to one of each.  So a spell can contain an S, Q and D, or just a D, or any other type combination.

You play the D.

The turn order is determined like this: The player who played the fewest cards plays first.  Any people who've played the same number of cards determine the order by the number on the Delivery, in this image, 16.  That's your initiative.  If you don't play a Delivery, you have an initiative of 0.  A 0 of two cards though is still faster than an initiative 0 of three cards.

We'll take two example spell here from the internet...

Sir Lootzor's Mysterious Dragon-Horde.

Hagatha the Heifer's Crushazorian Godstorm.

This game sounds like it could be used to create a metal album...

Anyways, in these two examples, we see that all three cards share the same glyph typing.  The glyph is the symbol in the lower left hand corner.  So this means, that for each power roll, you get a die for each card that share a typing with it.  For for the Godstorm, you get the one minimum, and you get one for each of the other two cards.  If you flipped the delivery in the two spells, you'd only get one die per delivery, since no other cards in the spells share a typing with it.  Wit treasures, and added cards to spells through effects, the maximum number of dice you can roll on a power role is four.  

The cards are all designed so they  reasonably fit together design wise.  You always resolve from left to right as well.  Now before, when i mentioned initiative, I said that there's a way to get 0 initiative with your delivery, which is normally never the case.  There are cards though, that act as wildcards.  They're called Wild Magic cards.  They can take the part of a Source, Quality, or Delivery.  If used as a delivery, they're considered initiative 0.  What you do then, is reveal cards from the top of the deck until you reveal the part of your spell the Wild Magic is replacing.  Then resolve the spell as normal.  

The Sir Lootzor card above mentions treasures, so let's dive into those next.

Why yes that's a Shit Wand.  Yes, it IS terrifying in game.

So we're going to look at these three.  The middle one is actually pretty scary, despite it's name.  If you're playing with just one other person, it's pretty useless, since, well, once they die, the match is over.  But in a larger game, you could be adding +2, +4, +6, or even +8 to your power roles.  If you're rolling two dice or more, that's a guaranteed max damage or effect on your delivery.  Another important treasure type is the shoe category of treasures.  There's one shoe treasure for each glyph type (Arcane, Nature, Elemental, Dark, Illusion), and the shoe treasure acts like an extra glyph in all your spells.  This means, if you have the Dark shoes, and a spell of three Dark glyphs, you get 4 dice.  If you have a card that says "Deal 1 damage for each different glyph in your spell", it counts as an extra glyph, and thus extra damage.  The effects vary but almost every treasure is useful.  One of my favorite treasures gives all your spells +10 to initiative.  Now, the highest, naturally occurring, initiative is 20.  Normally, stronger spells have slower initiative scores, so having this treasure could jump your initiative 2 spell to an initiative 12 spell, which could mean the difference between you getting blasted and you wiping out a few pesky opponents.

The last card type is called the Dead Wizard Card.  These cards don't affect the current match, but the next one.  When you are killed, you draw one of these.  Each time a new round in the match starts, all the dead wizards draw another Dead Wizard Card.  The point of this is to give you a handicap for being killed.  The longer you've been dead, the more of these you accrue.  The effects of them are things like starting with more HP, drawing a treasure at the beginning of the next game, adding a Wild Magic Card to your hand... or even having nothing happen.  There are only a few cards that go into spells that let you draw Dead Wizard Cards, so they're usually reserved for the deceased.

When I play, normally we play to 3 wins before declaring a victor, but you could almost play this game as long as you felt like.

The game ran me $30 at retail at a local gaming store, and I got the above Hagatha spell as a promotional extra.

All in all, the game is tons of fun, and something that has a decent balance of skill and chance to keep it interesting.  If you have any more questions about it, feel free to leave a comment and I'll try to answer as best I can.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Deus Ex Effect

This post is going to be twofold.  First, it's going to be an in-progress review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  Following that, it's going to be a small expansion on one of the main themes in the game.

First off, I'm going to say that I'm a huge fan of the Deus Ex games I've played, those being the original, and now Human Revolution.

"What about..."  No.

Smarmy jabs at Invisible War aside, the series has always been great at a few things: Alternative paths through levels, options to fit a vast array of play styles, and absolutely nailing their setting.  

So, for the uninformed, the Deus Ex series is a hybrid First Person Shooter Role Playing Game.  The original released in 2000, and is a graphical mess by today's standards, but it was an ambitious game at the time.  When I play Deus Ex games, my first playthrough is always as a hacker who opts for non-lethal takedowns, and tries to stay out of view.  Granted, sometimes I fall on my face in the attempt, but you get the drift.  The main setting of the series is a dystopian future, where cybernetic augmentations are all the rage, and conspiracies are abound.  

The timeline goes Human Revolution > Deus Ex > Invisible War, so the prequel is what I'm in the midst of playing now.  

So far, what I like about the game is a few simple nods to how the technology will advance in the series.  In Deus Ex, all grenades can be tossed or thrown as normal, or they could be affixed to walls or floors and become mines.  In Human Revolution, the grenades have to be combined with a mine template in order to be used as a mine.  Second, we get to see the rise of augmentation in the series, as it played a plot point in the original.  In the original, you play a new type of Augmented soldier.  You are more biomechanical then mechanical.  By that I mean, you don't have gaudy metal limbs, and you look more human than machine.  Because of this, other members of the military organization, UNATCO, despise you because of it.  In fact, when you fight those two older edition cyborgs, you can defeat them using their deficiencies instead of in straight combat.  

The augmentations in Human Revolution are very obvious, yet they are extremely practical.  I don't the augments in Human Revolution are more advanced than the ones in Deus Ex, but I suppose some continuity issues must be accepted for gamplay changes over ten years.  

The biggest hiccup I've come across in this game has been the boss fights.  Now, in the original Deus Ex, there were usually some alternatives to figuring out how to beat the bosses, but in Human Revolution, the first Boss Fight I've come across was purely a single's combat with a huge mercenary with a giant assault rifle.  This forced me to do more cover shooting that normal, but this guy wasn't completely stupid.  He could throw 1, two, or even 3 grenades at once from his apparently inexhaustible supply of them.  Because of my habit for playing shadow-lurky, hacky, non-lethal takedowny character, I had some issue here.  It took me about 10 attempts to finally get a plan that worked (which was exploding gas barrel followed up by a few grenades), but getting around the room to get all that stuff was really difficult with his eagle eye.

Apart from that gripe, the game is absolutely absorbing.  I find myself reading emails that have no bearing on anything, I read some of the materials that are just lying around, like the newspapers and eBooks.  This does a great job of making the world feel lived in.  You see emails for maintenance work, or ones about inboxes being full.  You see actual employees wandering a building and carrying on work, and personal conversations.  It doesn't feel like people are spouting the same two lines over and over automatically.  

So that's the review portion of the game.  You should play it, if you're a fan of engrossing worlds and a fairly fun plot.

I really want to talk about human augmentation though.  Throughout the course of the game, you'll find people are split on the issue if human augmentation is either the next step of human evolution, or that it's an abomination to the natural order of things.  You can kind of see that happening in reality too, if augmentation technology advanced.  You can even see this a little bit today.

For example, in the last Summer Olympics, there was a sprinter who had prosthetic legs.  Oscar Pistorius had both of his legs amputated below the knees when he was a child.  The issue with him running with people who have natural legs, is that studies showed that his prosthetic legs provided an advantage to him over other runners.  His legs used less energy than a meaty limb would use, and part of that was attributed to less vertical movement when he ran.  You know when you run, your body bobs up and down a little, with the lifting and falling of your legs.  With his legs, he didn't have to use that extra energy, so his endurance went further.  

Now, some people supported him because he was this inspirational story that someone disabled and who suffered a tragedy when he was young is beating able bodied people.  Others feel like his running with other people isn't as impressive, because his limbs give an advantage.  Some people might even be worried that if people with prosthetic are allowed to use these technologies with non-augmented people, that it could lead to a slippery slope where people are cutting off their own limbs to get more efficient limbs for athletic competition.  

It's a fine line to draw, between how much of your performance is due to the person's skill, and how much is due to the technology.  This is a predominant issue in sports, but imagine it like this.  Imagine if you're working a data entry job, and you can type about 40 words per minute.  Somebody gets hired with a prosthetic hands that can type 90 words per minute.  If your typing speed is the sole basis for your performance, then you would be obsolete.  

I really can't say which is the right answer, because there's merits in both.  Do we make separate leagues for augmented athletes?  Do we prevent people with them from working certain jobs?  If we do that, will they be able to press discrimination issues?  if the augs aren't affordable enough many people to get them, then it just becomes another way for the rich to become more powerful, in a sense, than the poorer.  I'd like to hear some more opinions on this interesting topic, if anyone is willing to share.