Monday, September 2, 2013

The Worst and Most-Profound Thing in Gaming

Obviously, he's for the Horde
Scrolling through my Twitter feed the other day, I happened upon a tweet from Mr. Adam Holisky (@AdamHolisky), managing editor of WoW Insider. He was taking questions for the website's "The Queue" feature, a daily Q&A column. Having just enjoyed a conversation with a friend about the history of video gaming, I thought it would be great to take the conversation to the WoW collective.

I asked:

"What's the worst moment in video game history? Or, the most profound?"

My friend and I were talking about the near-perfection that is Final Fantasy VII. We mused about how Nintendo hilariously and tragically blew their licensing contract with Squaresoft, and how ironic it was that the game was released on the Sony Playstation, the system that was to be the Super Nintendo CD. We wondered if Square-Enix will ever get it's head on straight and re-release the game with updated visuals and music and how readily we would take it all in all over again. He laughed about our freshman year at college, when he "accidentally" deleted my FFVII save point as we raced to see who could beat the game first. I described the memory as "one of my low points" in gaming. I jokingly threatened him with shower-room violence at one point, even. He didn't think that was very funny.

It was that conversation that sparked the question I asked Adam. I thought it was a good one, and so did he.

Holisky dropped the question into his article a few days ago. His answers, along with the 327 or so in the comments section, reference events that impacted the video game industry as a whole or that were far more intimate, involving a player's personal experience and perception of grander. The read is entertaining and thought-provoking, and got me thinking about what my own opinion and answer would be.

Is it Nintendo's poor decision to axe Sony's development of the Super Nintendo CD? That decision did eventually lead to the release and rise of the Sony Playstation, Microsoft's entrance into the console market with the Xbox, Sega's departure, redefined gaming's landscape, breadth and scope and a total restructuring of the industry's use of memory and general hardware. To say Nintendo's decision was "monumentally-awful" is an understatement.

Squaresoft's decision to jump ship in the wake of Nintendo's blunder is pretty impactful, too. It sent a clear message to console makers, defining a developer's role and driving power in the marketplace. It also gave the proverbial finger to Nintendo and their (other awful) decision to stick with game cartridges when optical drives were becoming the medium of choice for software manufacturers.

And what about Final Fantasy VII, all by itself? It was the first title to use full-motion computer-generated cut-scenes embedded within the gameplay and thus completely changed the way games are made and played. And the story, characters, and the score - oh man, they were damn near perfect.

Squaresoft's masterpiece, Final Fantasy VII
A number of other items or events came to mind, too. The Super Nintendo's controller, in some way, inspired the design of almost every video game controller to follow. The Internet and hardware progress brought high-quality graphics and co-op play home, essentially killing the arcade scene. Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider introduced us to epic 3D console gaming. Ultima, EverQuest and Warcraft gave millions upon millions a home within a home.

Needless to say, I was highly uncommitted to an opinion, if not a little confused. So, as I so often do when I have a problem to solve, I turned to my friend alcohol to help me relax and think. I popped open a vanilla belgian stout and got to thinking about it. And man, did it take me back.

I began playing video games as a toddler in the early 1980s. My cousin had an Atari 2600 that I played so hard, I swear I dreamed in poorly-processed 8-bit graphics for the years that followed. That Christmas, I tore open a shiny new Nintendo Entertainment System - a gift from my parents, complete with R.O.B. and the Zapper light gun. Many games followed: Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Kung-Fu, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Contra, Ikari Warriors, etc. I slayed dragons, saved princesses, the world, and more impressive still, knocked out Mike Tyson on my 7th birthday. My cousin with the Atari was there, and he was super jealous.

I was a gamer in the purest sense, and if you stuck around outside my living room window long enough, you would indeed hear me roar.

As I grew out of the NES and on to other platforms throughout my formative years, the cycle continued. New systems. New games. More money. More time. Naturally, my parents became increasingly bombarded with the "don'ts" from concerned family, friends and even my pediatrician and the American Medical Association. These comments included things like "don't let him just sit there, he'll get fat!" and "don't give him that much T.V. time, it'll rot his brains!" And of course, there was the always-awful "don't let him play video games, because he'll kick the dog, punch the pregnant lady in the ovaries, rob the adult video store, steal grandma's pearls, start fights at school and put a horse's head in your bed!"

Scorpion's Fatality, Mortal Kombat
Okay, not that last one, but there was worry that, as a gamer, I would devolve into an unsocialized, inattentive, and violent member of society. And not just me, but everyone who played video games and were exposed to things like Mortal Kombat's fatalities, Counter-Strike's "headshots" and pretty much everything in any Grand Theft Auto game every made. The thinking being that the instant gratification and feedback reinforcement presented in video games results in a negative impact on attention span and increased impulsivity, and where viewing and engaging fantasy violence increases ones incidence of violent behavior.

That perspective, quite simply, is not accurate. That's not how the human psyche works. Our brains are far more complex than what simplistic theories give us credit for - they completely ignore all other variables that impact behavior. These include upbringing, personality, culture, socio-economic status, baseline mood, history, etc. And in thinking about this inaccuracy, it hit me: THAT is the worst thing to have happened in video game history. And by "thing," I mean any and every moment when a gamer is demonized - when video games are cited when attempting to explain an individual's awful, illegal and even homicidal behavior.

This happened with every major media-covered massacre within the last 20 years, including Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, the theater in Aurora, Colorado, and last year's mass shooting in Norway. While investigating the latter, specific attention was given the murder's gaming habits: he played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 "for practice" and World of Warcraft for 16 hours a day.

From a psychological perspective, this avenue is ridiculous. All the talk of impulsivity and violence among the gaming populace is based on conjecture and anecdotal evidence. Put another way, there is no scientific evidence that supports the hypothesis that video games have a direct, positive correlation with real-world violent behavior. A professional in the field recently stated as much, as do many who reacted to the investigation in Norway. Simply stated, there is no definitive link between video games and real-life violence. Period. Shower-room threats, maybe. Actual, physical, real-world violence? No.

And people are starting to get that.

Looks like that kid up top went to medical school - well played
As gaming and "gamers" proliferate through mediums such as iPhones and mobile Android devices (which could themselves be on a "most profound" list), a greater understanding of gaming culture has emerged. Players who play Call of Duty do not aspire to rampage. Farmville players still buy their carrots at their local supermarket. And instead of focusing on the potentially negative impact exposure to fantasy violence may bring, researchers are keying in on the benefits video gaming can produce. For example, recent research tied surgeon skills to their gaming habits, stating that the "best surgeons play video games," operating more quickly and with fewer errors than their non-gaming counterparts. Other research presents the connection between video gaming and increased critical-thinking skills, creativity, and collaboration. Even Forbes has got in on the action, discussing video gaming and intellect.

And this change of perspective - this wonderful realization that video gaming has so much more to offer and in stark contrast to the demonization it has fallen victim to over the years - is quite possibly the most-profound thing that has happened to the industry. Personally, I always knew it counted for something, and my parents must have, too. As a gamer that experienced success, my confidence and self-esteem was boosted along with my critical thinking and creativity. I came home with many friends, a solid GPA and a clean record - I have always given gaming credit. It's nice to see that science agrees.

I, for one, have never been more proud to put my gamer tag on display. I hope the same for you.

Game on, friends.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Therapy Thursday - When Married to WoW

"Mawage is weally hawd."

The other day, I met a good friend and Warcraft addict at a local coffee shop where he asked me an incredibly philosophical question. He is a Masters student in Psychology, and like many other modern philosophers of the cognitive arts, he tends to over-think things. It takes a cup o' joe and pointless conversation to calm his thoughts - the sign of an espresso addict. After 36 oz of delicious, caramelous and caffeinated goodness, he asked:

"How do you do it?"

We had just finished discussing his friend's infatuation with Ke$ha, so naturally, I vomited a little.

"Marriage," he said. "The same person, the same thing, every day. How do you do it?"

After immediately replaying the famous "mawage" scene from "The Princess Bride" in my mind, I sat and thought about it. I took a slow sip from my coffee cup and internally reminisced of the 17-year affair that my wife calls "our journey together." Vacations, late-night discussions, movie dates, play dates, working together and eventually having children and starting the whole process all over again but with the pitter-patter of little feet that constantly keeps us on the move - the two of us have always done our best to keep things fresh, try something new. There is something very nice about taking a risk with someone you know will always be there, which is why we tend to do it so often. I smiled at the thought.

"I don't," I answered.

The look of befuddlement on his face quickly turned into Fear. I had just shaken a core foundation of his belief system and he was trying to decide what to say next. Like many players I have encountered in the battlegrounds that I scorched so quickly they didn't know what hit them, he was ironically frozen in his response (I must have it glyphed). So, I decided to clarify.

I said, "I don't ... we don't ... do the same thing every day." I knew he understood the message when his faced contorted as if to respond to passing gas - he had relaxed but was still receptive so I carried on. "It's what makes being with the same person a perpetually-new and amazing adventure every single day, for the rest of my life."

That's how I do it. And not just in my marriage, but in everything else I do in my daily real life. I surprise my wife with something new daily. I eat something I have never tried for breakfast, lunch and dinner whenever possible. I take on different projects at work regularly. I catch up with old buddies and make new friends. I take my family on vacations to different destinations. I try my best to make every day "a brand new" day in the most literal of sense of the word. And it works.

And really, it makes sense that it does. As biological organisms, we become tolerant of stimuli that we are exposed to on a consistent basis, requiring either greater exposure to said stimuli or exposure to a new stimulus to achieve the same desirable effect. Put a different way, doing things the same way over and over again tends to make us feel less and less excited over time. Things get boring, less exciting, and we tend to search for something new to fill the void, or in the case of many illicit substances, use more.

This applies to relationships, too, and a lack of insight into the aforementioned mechanics helps explain why the divorce rate in America is ridiculously high. Instead of maintaining excitement for each other, complacent husbands and wives develop a tolerance for one another. The "magic" disappears and one will undoubtedly blame the other. Throw in financial stress, overtime at work, a less-than-active sex life and the hottie throwing looks from across the hall and you have yourself a recipe for a divorce and a new and exciting drug, at least for now. Sadly, this one also comes with spousal and/or child support payments. Congratulations.

This interaction is the same in practically everything that we do and is obvious for us gamers in our marriage to Blizzard and World of Warcraft. As the divorce rate between players and developers continues to increase (as evidenced by decreasing subscription numbers), there is no doubt that the "magic" is disappearing. Players are blaming developers for reusing the same-old formula for leveling, boss encounters, dailies and handing out rewards like candy in a context that has us doing the same old thing day after day. Developers struggle to make adjustments to rekindle the fire but do not deviate from the simple formula that sees us engaging in the same way day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year. The players are frustrated, and considering League of Legends' ballooning numbers, she's the little family-breaker winking from across the hall. She's free-to-play, though. Congratulations.

I guess that what I'm trying to say in all of this is that maintaining happiness and a healthy, balanced lifestyle takes work. It requires active participation and changing things up to prevent tolerance and burn-out. For us husbands, it's about finding new ways to engage our relationship with our wives and kids. For you wives, it's about finding new ways to do the same for your men. The same is true for husbands of husbands and wives of wives. For us gamers and WoWaholics, it's about finding new ways to play the game. For the developers, it's about providing us with something new and fresh to fall in love with all over again.

That, my friends, is how to do it. And it totally 'locks... err... rocks.

I suggest you try it, too.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Little Bit Locky

The Warlock Cometh, and Fast.