Archive for the 'Gaming' Category


Getting Back Into Magic

It was not my expectation that my Magic: The Gathering cards, circa 1994 – 2001, would be worth much in the future when I bought them.  Mostly, I played because my friends played, and because in addition to the competition aspect, there was that little gambling-type thrill when a pack of cards was opened.  Did it contain X cool card?  Would it be a foil1 card?  Could X cool card be the that last piece of a deck that would crush my opponents’ hopes and dreams?  The answer to these questions and others like them was mostly – no.  I didn’t buy the volume of cards or spend the kind of money on individual cards required to construct decks that would compete at tournaments other than the ones played at my kitchen table or my friend’s basement.  My friends and I did attend the odd tournament or two2, but we were “casuals”, who gave ourselves the dubious team name, Team Raging Bull Sligh. This name was the ultimate in inside jokes, because we never registered in a team tournament, so no one (except us) that played Magic could know about it to be amused3.
Anyway, in college, I spent less and less time playing.  During grad school, my cards sat somewhere in my parents’ house in a couple boxes.  Eventually, sometime around when my parents moved, the boxes were posted to me here on the west coast, where they sat unmolested until about May of this year.  Prompted by a conversation with an old friend, I decided to look into selling my cards, or at least the valuable ones.  Somehow, Magic: The Gathering is still a thing.  I say “somehow” because almost every other card game from the 90’s era isn’t published anymore, and the average card game seems to stick around for a few years and then dies out4.  So, I organized the cards, pulled out a few hundred that were worth something, and sold them for north of about a grand – a considerable and unforeseen profit on my initial “investment”.  Yay for hobbies.
So why is the title of this post “Getting Back into Magic”?  Well, the old friend I mentioned still plays a bit, and there’s an online version of the game now, so I figured, why not?  And it turns out there’s a reason the game has lasted this long: it’s a really good game.  Yes, there’s an upfront cost to getting into the game, and yes, the company that owns the game and publishes new sets of cards every few months has a clear motive for you, the player, to buy more and more cards.  Compared to other strategy card games, the cost is pretty average, but compared to something like go or chess, well, there is no comparison.  A more apt comparison would be to something like poker, where probability, in addition to skill, is a factor.  There, the cards are free (well, almost), and games can be played for free or for money.  Magic can also be played for free or for money, so why play the game where you pay for cards?
For me, it’s two things: deck building and interaction.  On the deck building side – because Magic has so many cards, there are a lot of different ways to build your 60 card deck.  Your opponent can build a completely different 60 card deck.  There’s strategy in picking cards that work well together in your own deck, and there’s a strategy in preparing for certain types of cards (or even specific cards) that might be in your opponent’s deck.  However, that is not the only strategy in the game.  Once you start playing, there’s the interaction between your deck and your opponent’s.  In something like poker, there’s a lot of skill in knowing when to fold, when to bet, how much to bet, how much to raise, how to bluff, etc, but you as a player have little ability to directly affect what your opponent is doing within the game itself.  Magic, on the other hand, is not only about your own strategy and when, how, and what to play during the game, but also about having cards that disrupt your opponent’s strategy.  Some cards counter others.  Some cards can’t be affected by other cards.  Some cards make other cards irrelevant or weaker.  Certain combinations of cards, when played in the proper order, can create infinite loops that lock out your opponent’s best cards or win you the game.  Some cards are designed to break up those infinite loops.  There’s even a bit of bluffing, feigning the possession of certain cards in your hand so that your opponent has to decide either to play around it or call your bluff.
At its best, Magic is the kind of game where, even when you’re losing5, you can sit back and admire the beauty of the thing that is beating you into submission.  Because new cards are added every few months and because there is a vast library of older sets of cards to pull from, the strategic landscape for deck building and gameplay is a crazy, kaleidascoping affair that tends to savage strategies that don’t evolve right along with the game itself.  Magic is 25 years old this year.  Here’s hoping for another 25.

1 Foil = shiny.  They looked cool, were worth than the non-shiny version of the same card, and could be traded to collectors for more useful cards.
2 Mostly “sealed deck” tournaments where everyone started with a randomized assortment of cards instead of bringing their own decks.  Perfect for cheap (er, frugal?) teen-aged players like me.
3 I will attempt to explain the joke succinctly: Sligh is a Magic deck type that originated in the mid-90’s.  It played a lot of aggressive, cheap cards (in terms of resource cost to play onto the board, not money).  Raging Bull would be a very suboptimal card to play in a Sligh-type deck.  Thus, the team name was at once a way to indicate that we knew something about the game but self-deprecating regarding our skill.  This was quite amusing, trust me on this.
4 For example, Guardians, a card game that I bought a little of back in the late 90’s, which was mostly known for its high-quality (as well as occasionally juvenile and/or titillating) artwork.
5 I may have experience in this aspect of the game that is both very broad and very deep.


Avoiding Graphing With Calculators

As anyone required to buy a graphing calculator for pre-calculus knows, those calculators’ second-most important function was to allow their owners to play games. I can honestly say that I did almost none of this because I was a good student1 and was too cheap to buy the data transfer cable for the TI-82.  However, I was definitely fascinated by my classmates’ ability to play Pong in the back of class.  Or at lunch.  Or in the hall.

Technology has of course continued its inexorable march since the days of my TI-82 usage (circa 1998)2, and now the proud owners of the TI-83/84 series of graphing calculators can play a version of Portal in the back of class.  For the uninitiated, Portal is a gaming classic that came out in 2007 and was published by Valve after Valve hired the group of students who wrote and coded the original ‘portal’ concept in 2005.  The player controls a protagonist who is “armed” with an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, which is a teleportation device that allows the player to place the entrance and exit points of the teleport.  This can lead to some entertaining physics – stepping through an entrance portal on the floor with the exit on the ceiling above causes the player to fall faster and faster and faster as the player goes through the floor up to the ceiling, falls to the floor again, back up to the ceiling, etc, etc.

Anyway, all this good, clean, thought-provoking fun is available to slacking TI-83 owners everywhere thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of one Alex Marcolina (handle: Builderboy2005) at UC – Santa Cruz.  I figure Builderboy2005 is going places in the future.  In addition to figuring out how to program the game, he managed to shove a 2-D version of Portal into the 24kB3 of user available RAM in the TI-83.  That’s efficient programming.

1 Or at least I was deferential to authority.  Must be all that the fluoride in the drinking water impurifying my precious bodily fluids.
2 What, you think those graphing calculators come in handy after pre-calculus/calculus?  Hahahahahaha.  No.  Or at least you can become a physicist without ever using one.  Of course, you just graduate to more complicated crutches like Mathematica and Matlab.
3 This massive pool of RAM was only recently surpassed by a cutting-edge desktop computing device called the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I.  In 1977.  Though you did need the optional expansion card interface to get the extra 32kB of RAM.  This thing also had the same processor as the TI-83, albeit at about a quarter of the TI-83’s blistering 6 MHz clock speed.  You have to love Texas Instruments’ business model.


Nuclear Fallout

My typical pattern in playing games is focus the vast majority of my ‘efforts’ on a single game at a time.  I am not one to flit from one game to the next unless I’ve picked a series of uninspiring ones, and that hasn’t happened for months, maybe years*.  Recently, my focus has rested on the game Fallout: New Vegas, which by my count is the fourth in the Fallout series (ignoring a few silly spin-offs).  For those who aren’t familiar with these, the setting is a world in which the Chinese and the Americans got into a war which ended with everyone pressing all the available Big Red Buttons. The games are set in post-apocalypse America, with the first two set in the western United States, the third taking you to the D.C. metro area, and the fourth taking you to its namesake and the surrounding hostile wasteland. I’ve played through the latter half of the series, and in both cases (Fallout 3 and New Vegas) found myself hooked.

This should come as no surprise to those that know the games and me. It’s science fiction, it’s action, it’s role-playing, and it’s a bit of dark humor from time to time.  This combination rates well with me.  Still, there are other games that have ticked most or all of those boxes but haven’t made it into my playlist.  I’ll spend the rest of this post trying to articulate what makes Fallout: New Vegas** special.

The thing that most distinguishes New Vegas/Fallout 3 in my mind is the sense of place that you get.  I’m not talking about realism here.  The plotline occurs some 200 years after the bombs fell and there’s still intact buildings with books, empty pop bottles, tin cans, and “pre-war” money stuffed in desk drawers or strewn across the floor***.  I’m talking about being transported to a place, no matter how fantastical the details are.  It’s a world where the mantle of the Scary Communistical Person was smoothly handed from the Soviets of the 20th century to the Red Chinese of the 21st century.  The build-a-bomb-shelter, school-children-duck-and-cover-under-your-desks, watch-out-for-labor-union-zealots kind of thinking from actual 1950’s America has run itself to the worst possible conclusion.  The backyard bomb shelter industry evolved into the Vault industry where a small town’s population of specially selected people were put into bomb-proof structures buried beneath the earth’s surface.  Propaganda posters.  Architecture.  Radio programs.  McCarthy-style “watch out for commie infiltrators” announcements on posters, employee computers, and old audio recordings.  All of it lifted from cold war America of reality and spun out to oblivion and beyond.  The bombs came raining down, and now, here your character and some other (sort of) lucky survivors are, wandering and living through the remnants of something that feels weirdly familiar.

This is helped along by the accuracy with which the game developers reproduce geographical details.  For a single example among many good ones, zoom in to the Las Vegas area on your favorite Internet map.  Follow Interstate 15 south and west until you see Jean Airport.  That, and the town of Goodsprings up Route 161 a few miles west, is in the game, albeit in bombed-out, post-apocalyptic form.  Now this type of detail is nice, though not terribly difficult to do…but they went one extra step: put the Jean Airport into your favorite search engine and you’ll get links to (1) A Wikipedia page, and (2) a page for Vegas Extreme Skydiving.  Both note that the Jean Airport is largely used for skydiving, glider rides, and hobbyist flying.  Wander down the road from Goodsprings in the game, and lo, there is a flat, bombed-out area that might have been an airport at some point and a shack that is the former headquarters of “Jean Skydiving”.  Awesome.  Again, not about realism****, but a sense of place and enough detail to give you a shiver if you’re aware of this little connection to pre-apocalypse reality.

There are a lot of other things I like about the game. The story is engaging. The characters, though a bit shallow in many cases, do the job adequately in all cases, and are exceptional in a few cases.  The world, in addition to being detailed, is vast.  …but the example of the Jean Airport encapsulates a big part***** of what I love about the game.  The developers had to know that there are precious few people that would ever notice that detail.  That they took the time to do it tells me (or at least implies to me) that the developers loved making the game as much as I love playing it.  That goes a long way.

So, hey, for those readers who are interested and haven’t played it, it’s not as if the game doesn’t have flaws.  There are balancing issues.  The game gets pretty easy in the late game stages.  If you play it longer than a half hour at a time, your chances of a crash-to-desktop are unusually high.  Still… If you like these RPG-type games, rush out and buy it this game right now******, or more realistically these days, open another browser window and buy a digital copy with a click or two.  Well worth it.

* I’m not really attributing this to any particular skill of mine.  There is just a deep backlog of good games out there for anyone who doesn’t play video games 24/7.  Or maybe I’m just easily entertained.
** Most of the following applies to Fallout 3 as well, but I’m trying to focus here.  We’ll see if I’m successful.
*** In fairness, at least these things are somewhat abandoned/dirty/rusty/cracked/rotted.
**** To illustrate, shortly after this your character will probably be attacked by bandits throwing dynamite and packing 9mm pistols.  Or giant mutated geckos.  Or both.
***** Another part I’m sure has something to do with the psychology of my month-long period of unsettled nervousness during 7th(?) grade after I saw Terminator 2 and did some subsequent reading and viewing about nuclear bombs. Now that I’ve grown up, post-apocalypse is fun!  Huh.  Maybe I was smarter when I was younger.
****** Right now.


Of Video Games, and the Women in Them

My wife recently alerted me to an article she read on Wired.  A woman named Anita Sarkeesian of the website Feminist Frequency launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise several thousand dollars to “…explore five common and recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games” via video documentaries.  The project lines up with her interest in depictions of females in pop ‘geek’ culture, judging from the content of her website and her master’s thesis.  A relatively long story short, the campaign attracted thousands of people to her website and Youtube channel, some percentage of whom left comments like “Tits or get the fuck out.” and “Get back in the kitchen, if you hate it go make your own games”.*  This type of behavior pissed off a lot of more reasonable people who went to the Kickstarter campaign and have donated $158,922 to date (original goal: $6,000).

So…all’s well that ends well?  After all, those idiots anonymously posting hateful comments about her gender, beliefs, possible Jewish heritage**, etc, didn’t get the last laugh.  Ms. Sarkeesian pocketed over $150K and goes about her business, albeit with financing far in excess of what she ever might have hoped for***.  And for that matter, it seems to me that you probably can’t go far on the Internet without attracting the trolls at some point along the way.  Particularly if you’ve ever expressed an opinion about anything.  Youtube videos that talk about politics or global warming tend to attract some real crazies.  Even in the relatively well-behaved forum environments of some tech websites that I read, there isn’t a single author who isn’t routinely accused of being biased or on the take or incompetent.  Still, I think the reaction to her project was exceptional in its viciousness.  In my mind, this is largely because the specific community that she wishes to examine, video games/gamers, has (1) a majority male population, (2) has a terrible reputation for this kind of thing****, (3) a broader reputation for being (sometimes very loudly and rudely) fickle, entitled, opinionated, and obsessive, and (4) contains at least a similar % of assholes compared the rest of the Internet population.  Typical then, that the members of point (4) reacted to nothing but the project outline and perhaps some vague inferences based on the content of her website.  If anything, criticism should come when the finished documentaries are presented to the world and not before.  But then, actually watching the videos, examining their data and conclusions, and then writing a reasoned critique might be difficult and time-consuming.  God forbid.

Anyway, here, I’ll demonstrate the technique in a passable manner:  Having read Ms. Sarkeesian’s master’s thesis entitled “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You:  Strong Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television”, I would like to make a few points regarding its content and conclusions.  First of all, I think the overall premise of the research, that strong female characters in sci-fi and fantasy television tend to be given their strength by possessing stereotypically masculine traits, is solid.  I think the clarity and cohesiveness of her argument would be better served by maintaining the narrow focus outlined early in the paper – in particular her discussion section really broadens out too much – but generally her original point is well-supported.*****

Second, a more specific series of assertions that she makes is first that strong female characters are underrepresented, also that women of color are more underrepresented, and finally that queer characters are even more underrepresented.  These are reasonable conclusions, though the latter two could easily be said on the male side of things as well.  It is definitely a problem in American television/movies at large, not just sci-fi and fantasy, that white, straight actors, writers, and directors predominate.

Finally, I’ll address Ms. Sarkeesian’s ‘research’ portion of her paper.  In fairness, I thought the paper as a whole was a well-written expository and argumentative essay…but the research portion was, in a word, disappointing.  I’ll let Ms. Sarkeesian set up the research portion herself:

…I noticed a scarcity of queer characters, representations of disability, and women of colour in television, and when they did appear they were more often villainized, demonized and killed than their white, straight, female counterparts. …I watched and thematically categorized the female characters in eleven prominent science fiction/fantasy television shows…  …I began by finding all the female characters who appeared on the show in three or more episodes, tracked their intersections of privilege, identified whether they were evil (and if so, whether they were eventually redeemed) and if, when and how they died. My results…corroborated my casual observations, that when women of colour and queer women are represented in television they die more often than white women.

This is technically an accurate statement based on her data, which is as follows.  Total female characters – 207, 43% dead.  White female characters – 153, 35% dead.  Women of color characters – 53, 36% dead.  Queer characters – 6, 50% dead.  The discrepancy between the total and the sum of the categories can be explained, I think, by the fact that some characters fall into more than one category.  However, anyone familiar with statistics should be cringing already when examining the validity of her claim.  Put simply, consider an ‘experiment’ where you flip a coin ten times and tally the number of heads.  The uncertainty in this measurement is plus or minus about two (the square root of the average number of heads one expects).  To extend the principle to this data set, if the writers for these shows were just completely random in determining whether or not a character died, the % of characters killed could vary significantly given the sample size that Ms. Sarkeesian considers.  If just one queer woman of color character found herself alive at the end of a television series instead of dead, it would invalidate Ms. Sarkeesian’s statement…a statistical knife edge, and definitely nothing on which to base a conclusion.

I guess the reason I go into such detail here is that really (really), I’d like Ms. Sarkeesian’s research regarding female video game characters to be successful.  I want to her to show the slack-jawed punks that left those messages on her Youtube channel that there is something to be worried about in how females are (typically) portrayed in video games.  Of course, they probably wouldn’t even watch her videos, so maybe I’d just better hope that whatever the outcome of her research, that it is good, statistically and logically sound, and inspires future video game writers to think just a bit before copy-pasting the last game’s generic damsel in distress****** into their current opus’ plotline.  I’m looking forward to the outcome.

* These are nowhere near the worst of them.

** No really, there was almost as much bile about this in those comments as there was about her appearance and gender.  Welcome to the Information Age.

*** Better be some sweet video documentaries.  Just saying.

**** For a related example, see the saga of Bioware’s Jennifer Hepler.

***** I would, however, argue against her use of Ellen Ripley as a character who is not a “fully complex female action hero”.  If Ripley is not one of these, there are none (of either gender).

****** Or for that matter, the last game’s badass female warrior who inexplicably wears armor that barely covers her breasts let alone vital organs.


Two Worlds

In video games, I have recently been gifted the “Epic Edition” of the 2007 PC/Xbox game, Two Worlds.  Yes, 2007.  Generally speaking (particularly if I am buying the game with my own small pile of cash), the games I play are over a year old.  This has many advantages, primary among them being the price, the stability of fully-patched game, and the ability of my outdated hardware to run the game.  Anyway, the game is a terrible, wonderful, no-good, steaming pile of very entertaining trash.  That’s my one-sentence review.  The language and voice-acting used in the game, a sort of stilted Ye Olde English, pretty much sums up the whole game: the delivery is not good, the script is not good, but the end-user experience runs somewhere between bemusement and hilarity.  Thumbs up.
Now I might, perchance, do some in-depth game reviews on this blog, but verily, this won’t be one of them.  Instead, I shall ask the question – why do I continue to play this game?  For instance, I could be playing Deus Ex, another elderly game that is sitting in my Steam library.  It is generally acknowledged to be a classic of modern(ish) gaming.  It has a 90 aggregate Metacritic score, which is excellent.  …and this is just one example.  I have several very fine games that I either haven’t started or haven’t played through to the end sitting only a double click away from me.  Add to this the fact that the time between waking up and falling asleep is limited, and has many important things other than video games occupying it, and forsooth, my motivation for playing Two Worlds should be near zero.  And yet, it is not.  Why?
There are undoubtedly neurological reasons for this behavior.  Radiolab’s most recent broadcast (“Stochasticity“) had a segment in it regarding the release of dopamine in the brain.  In context, it was discussing a woman who had developed an intense gambling addiction as a result of a Parkinson’s drug that essentially overstimulated dopamine release in her brain.  Apparently researchers have found that the human brain disproportionately weights (in terms of dopamine release and thus, warm, fuzzy, good feelings of satisfaction) unexpected rewards.  The evolutionary rationale is that if, for instance, you find a food source that you don’t expect, you should be biochemically encouraged to figure out why/how this reward came to you so that it will continue to arrive.  This extends obviously (and tragically, given the probabilities of reward) to gambling, but I think the principle extends to games like Two Worlds (or Diablo or many others).  These games feature an elaborate system of randomized loot (gold pieces, weapons, armor, etc) that can be used to improve one’s character.  Just like gambling (though admittedly with a positive result that is at once less tangible but more assured) the rewards are unpredictable.  A particularly shiny piece of armor drops randomly from a slain enemy, you pick it up, see what it is, and <snap> a warm, fuzzy feeling prevades your consciousness.
This all sounds, mayhaps, a bit insidious.  (The game is turning my own brain chemistry against me!  Soon I shall be powerless to resist its, er, power!)  However, though the mechanism I described is certainly present in Two Worlds, there must be other reasons.  After all, plenty of other games operate on a similar system of unexpected rewards.  So, other reasons to play…  There’s a mild social component – my friend Joe has also played through this ridiculous game, and there is, verily, entertainment in shared experience.  There’s the campy mode of speech and script.  There’s the story of a brother trying to rescue his kidnapped sister from evil-sounding and evil-looking hoodlums.  There’s wanting to finish something that one has started.  There’s being able to have your character wield an axe half as tall as himself in either hand and dispatch enemies while he says things like “Say hello to death!” and “Ahhhhh!”.  There’s then there’s, well, um, hmmm.  Mayhaps an analogy, with some setup, will suffice.
When I was in middle/high school, I spent some of my allowance on paperback science fiction and fantasy novels.  Not classics in the genre.  Classics by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Dick, Tolkien, and Lewis I could get at the library.  The ones I bought were almost all terribly written pulp: various Dungeons and Dragons branded novels, the novels of David Eddings, etc.  My Mom, who was at this point in my life probably hoping that I’d progress past the quality of writing that I’d come to enjoy back in second and third grade when devouring the Hardy Boys “mysteries”, gently pointed me towards finer literature.  I (mostly) ignored these attempts, and I still don’t read much fine literature, despite knowing that it’s good for me.  I’m sure you’re getting the analogy already, so I’ll go ahead and avoid comparing whatever won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction last year (no, not this year) to, say, Baldur’s Gate 2.  So there you are:  Two Worlds, the video game equivalent of a pulp fantasy novel.  You can probably even get it cheaper than what a paperback costs these days, so if you’ve got the time and inclination, enjoy and then feel a little guilty about it afterward.  Fare thee well, traveler!