Monday, April 18, 2011

Games and Morality - Does It Matter?

Throughout my life, morality in media has been an issue. Well, somebody else's issue, not mine. When I was young, Jack Chick led a morality crusade against Dungeons & Dragons that struck terror into the hearts of parents of nerds everywhere. Later in life, it was heavy metal (the music, not the magazine. The magazine was responsible for something else but was fortunately below most parents' radars.) When I was in the army, Beavis and Butthead supposedly single handedly caused every act of juvinle delinquency in the country. These are just the well known scapegoats.

And then, starting with the Columbine tragedy, videogames stepped up to the plate. The shooters were fond of Doom and Quake, therefore first-person-shooters were responsible. Gamers still giggle over Cooper Lawrence's live tirade over the sexual content in Mass Effect when she was forced to admit that she never actually played the game. When she finally did, she admitted that the sexual content was less than what was seen on late-night television. Grand Theft Auto showed us that society is fine with beating hookers over the head with a two-by-four for cash, but showing puppet-looking sex with them would trigger the Apocalypse.

I recently played Fallout: New Vegas. It's a spin-off (rather than a sequel) of Fallout 3. If you click on the trailer, you can see it's full of limb-dismembering fun, set to toe-tapping tunes of the forties. But during game-play, you make choices. Every choice gives or takes away karma. You can be a hero or a villain. The difference with other games that allow you to play the bad guy (The GTA series for example.) is that characters in the game treat you accordingly. If you help people, Elvis impersonators will run up to you randomly, thank you for being kind, and give you gifts. If you've hurt and killed innocent people, passerbys will tell you to get the fuck out of their faces. As with Fallout 3, I have to admit that the effect works on me. Even though it's just a video game, my natural instinct is to do good. I've played it a second time as bad to see what the difference is, and I found that the guilt takes the fun away.

The same goes for the Bioshock series. There are "Little Sisters" whose bodies contain a life-force called Eve. You can either free them of it which gives you half the Eve, or kill them for the full content. Freeing them of it results in a thank you. Killing them results in agonized screams. It's just a game, but guess which one you're more likely to choose.

plays a wonderful psychological trick on you with its Weighted Companion Cube. It's just a box with a heart on it. That's all. It doesn't talk, it doesn't move, it's just a box like any other. However, you're told at the beginning of the level that it contains a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and you must protect it. Here's the kicker: At the end of the level, you can't progress unless you incinerate it. No screams of agony when you do, but GlaDOS (the antagonist) congratulates you, that of all the test subjects, you killed your Weighted Companion Cube the quickest. The guilt haunted me for... ok... five minutes, but still, it's just a box in a game. Why care at all?

I guess all in all it's not that hard to understand. People have become emotionally involved with characters in fiction for centuries - why should video games be any different? Portal 2 comes out tomorrow - I'll let you know how it messes with my mind.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"My bugs! My bugs! My bugs!"

As many before me have noted, Skynet will supposedly go online on April 19th, 2011 (according to Terminator 2.) Perhaps not coincidentally, Portal 2 will be released in the U.S. on that date as well. For those who don't know, I've been eagerly anticipating this for years. But although I badly want to run out and get it, part of me is very afraid.

There's a horrible trend in computer gaming to churn out titles without any testing. Players buy a title for $50 or more, and find it's full of bugs. Some of these bugs make the game almost completely unplayable. They go on websites and complain about the bugs. The manufacturers slowly release one or two patches to fix the problems. One example is Civilization V - it's been over six months since the game was released, and the multiplayer-hotseat function that was promised at launch STILL hasn't been patched in yet.

Fallout: New Vegas
is in a category all its own. It's a fun game that takes many many hours of gameplay to complete, it's creative, it's got great voice-talent and it's completely immersive. The only problem is that it's got more bugs than a whorehouse mattress (citation needed.) Some are merely annoying: I've had my companions disappear on me many times. (Go to Vault 22, and they'll magically appear on any floor but the first, no matter where in the game you lost them.) Others are more frustrating. I could not complete at least three quests because the computer simply did not know how to proceed. (I saved the cattle rancher's son from the cannibals, but the game would not acknowledge that, even with them standing next to each other. I saved the president of the NCR from assasination, but because I did not take care of the threats in a certain order, they all just stood around looking at each other. The Brotherhood of Steel attacked me in mid-mission for some reason... the list goes on and on.) It freezes many times - one caused me to get three parts of a red ring on my XBOX, heart thumpingly close to the horrifying Red Ring of Death (which basically turns your XBOX into a large footstool.)

OK, I could go on and on. The thing is, this is something PC users have had to put up with for years. The line was that everybody had different PC hardware (video and audio cards, etc.) therefore, every system was impossible to predict. As reasonable as that sounds, when consoles that could be connected to broadband internet were released, they magically suffered the same issues. For those who don't know, each brand of console has the exact same hardware (possibly different hard drive sizes, but that doesn't count.) To make a long story short, once game publishers realized that consoles too could download half-gig patches, they began releasing their games without any testing either, relying on patching to fix the bugs. I'm sorry, $50 is way too much to pay for me to be employed as your beta-tester.

So while I'm eagerly awaiting Portal 2, I'm afraid. I'm afraid it's going to be full of crashing bugs and glitches. Sort of takes the fun out of the anticipation, but I don't know why I worry. If there are bugs, I'm sure GlaDOS will fix them all. For science.


Monday, April 11, 2011

From the Jokes of Babes

I took a trip down to Washington DC this weekend. I had a great time with Carol and Jodi. We went out to lunch with Julianne. I saw some cherry trees in mid-blossom, and some Japanese people dancing on a stage that was sponsored by McDonald's. That and lots of Hello Kitty rip-off toys.

I also had dinner with two old friends Rick and Mandy, their kids and their two dogs. Anyway, the point of this whole setup is that at dinner, we traded jokes around the table. Their son, who is my daughter's age, told a lot of jokes that he made up himself. If you have kids in early elementary school, you know what I'm talking about. Jokes along the lines of, "Why did the cow cross the road? To talk to the pig!" They're not even "bad" (I love horrible jokes with a passion. What do you get if you cross an apple with a magic marker? An apple with an X on it,) but they're told with an abundance of confidence and enthusiasm. After delivery, the kids then crack up at their own jokes. It doesn't even matter if you laugh or not, they KNOW it's great material, and they got a million of 'em. Does anyone know where I can get me some of that?


Thursday, April 07, 2011

Procratsination, is making me late...

Sometimes I’m a horrible procrastinator. And there are so many ways out there to procrastinate! There’s my X-Box 360 (A good game like Fallout: New Vegas can keep me as entranced as a good book,) TV, books, movies, and now, a plethora of crap on the internet. I can waste so much time it’s not even funny.

The question is, why do we want to procrastinate? What is it in some of our programming that is geared toward wasting time? Does God (or some gestalt entity that we’re a part of, or the Master Control Program if life is all really just a computer simulation,) say “Ok, I don’t need you fornicating with my master plan right now... watch some videos of cats playing with string, kill a few zombies, or argue about things with some troll for a while...” So why aren’t our brains geared for achievement? Why do we fight it? I’ve always been fascinated about how sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. (Well I sure as hell can, at any rate.) I think this, if anything, could be used as an argument against evolution. Are you listening, Sarah Palin?

If anyone has any ideas, feel free to comment. Go on - if you’re going to procrastinate anyway, the least you can do is feed my ego.


Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Inception: A review of a review.

Catching up with the human race, I finallywatched Inception. It was fun, but honestly, I was expecting much more imagination from the dream sequences. Something along the lines of a Terry Gilliam (huzzah huzzah) film, or What Dreams May Come.

A friend of mine forwarded an article to me from Psychology Today about how silly the film is. I didn’t even like the film that much versus the hype (I give it a B+) but the article annoyed me. I'm just not sure what it’s trying to say. The guy who wrote it just seems annoyed and angry that people might question reality based on sci-fi / fantasy movies - another one of Us suffering from Arrogant Nerd Syndrome. There's a difference between believing and questioning. I'm surprised the article doesn't really deal with psychology, the writer just sort of lectures everyone else in the world but himself, and he seems to think we're all idiots.

The psychology of escapism is all there in the word escape. People's lives suck, they're overwhelmed, they have stress, they're miserable and unhappy and unfulfilled, and so they want out. They don't care about the science of it, they just want their shitty lives to be different, so they wish there was more than what there is. They want a do-over button. I admit I've felt that way many times myself, it's much easier than the work it takes to change things. I can believe in reality in my day to day life, but use my imagination to wonder what might be. Everything we experience is a model our brains make from our senses, but we know that there is so much more around us than our senses can detect (such as infra-red or radio waves) so why is it so impossible to believe there's more to the world than just what our senses can show us? No, we shouldn't live based on that possibility (I'm not going to deny my children health care because I think it will offend my imagined view of a deity who doesn't want competition in the healing department,) but we can still entertain it.

Let me clarify what I believe. Science is what theory can best be proven in repeatable conditions using the scientific method. If it does not meet those criteria, it is not science, should not be treated as such, and does not belong in a science class. People can believe whatever they like, as long as they don't insist that it is science, or that public school teachers should teach their improvable beliefs because they're "right." or "just a theory (but not a scientific theory) like anyone else's." But if it wasn't for someone trying imagine what might be, we wouldn't even have clubs, fire pits in caves, and tiger skins, we'd be using our fists and fingernails and dying of old age at thirty.

I can see his point that people who question reality are religious - I always found it hysterical that my parents were terrified about me getting too wrapped up in science fiction / horror / fantasy as a kid, but wanted me to believe that priests across the world can change - not represent, but actually change - a cardboard-tasting wafer and wine into the body and blood of God on a weekly basis. Believing in (insert your particular new age belief here) with the power to heal is a stupid and dangerous lie, my son - believe instead in the healing power of Holy Water from Lourdes...

Yes, as a semi-recovering ANS sufferer, I've done my share of annoyed bitching at unbelievable things in TV shows and movies. In the Dr Who episode "The Stolen Earth," the Daleks put twenty-seven planets (including Earth) close to each other. Wouldn't tidal forces cause sudden tidal waves, earthquakes and volcanoes? If Lois Lane fell 2 stories - much less the 20 or so she seems to in the first Superman movie before Superman caught her- especially if he was flying upward - wouldn't she just go splat all over his arms? OK I could go on and on, but you know... they're movies about aliens who can fly because our sun is yellow instead of red, or mutated green blobs in bumpy little tanks. We nerds like to act superior, but if the article writer is "constantly... fighting to suspend (his) disbelief," he needs to realize he's watching a sci-fi / fantasy thriller, not an episode of NOVA. 2001, A Space Odyssey was intended to be the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movie ever made - but it still had wormhole space travel, (off-camera) aliens, and a super-evolved space-fetus at the end. To sum up, I think the writer just needs to get over himself and get laid. Life is too short.