All posts by misadventuresinambivalence

10. Wherein the Writer Grapples With the Intangible

Admittedly, I don’t know much of anything about music. Like technically speaking, I’m pretty ignorant. I love music, lots of different kinds of music-you know, like a human . But I can’t read it, I’ve never studied it for very long or very deeply, and my 2 year-old godson makes better music on his dad’s drum set than I do with the handful of guitar chords I know. What I do know is that music has been inextricably linked to powerful experiences in my memory. I know that it doesn’t take hearing more than a single note (for the sake of believability I’ll say two notes together, but it’s really one) for me to know when somebody in another room just changed the channel past Jurassic Park on TV (back when that used to happen, before they went and commoditized my whole childhood.) While many of these emotional ties are to real life experiences (“Lightning Crashes” by Live reminds me of camping in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens), a great number of them come from media (I once heard a jazz band drift into a cover of the X-Men cartoon theme song and I freaked out) and of those, a high percent are related to games. Thinking about it now, I should make a running playlist out of music from the Mega Man franchise because it always keeps my energy up. I’ve actually heard that music like it increases mental acuity and helps people focus but I’ve been unable to pin that down as having come from any legitimate research, as many sources I’ve read, like this one, go something like, “we all know that video game music is actually designed to keep you going and not distract you” but never corroborate that claim with anything more reliable than word of mouth and the presumed uniformity of our shared experience. While that sounds a little thin to me academically, I can’t deny identifying with the position. For any reader who has never played through say, Mega Man II, let me tell you- it’s really hard. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten it. More than that, I don’t think a coalition of my best and most trusted friends, gamers all, have ever beaten it- as children or adults. But we’ve played it, and played it for untold hours over a period of decades. The experience never changes and the levels are the same no matter what order you play them in, yet every time we take control of the unwieldily titular man-bot we are on the edge of our seats and laser-focused. How can this possibly be, that an experience that we’ve been sharing literally completely unaltered for about 25 years, still grips us as it did when we were small? The white-knuckled controller grip is the same, the full-body muscle tensing is the same, the creeping, deadly palm-sweating is the same. But why?  Why aren’t we bored? Sure it could be that we, seasoned veterans all, are hyper-conscious of the razor-thin margin of victory we can expect to achieve, and that one split second misstep, change in direction, hesitation, or miscalculated button pressure (collectively referred to as a “freak out” or not “having it”) is all it takes to turn a glorious triumph into a regrettable setback. But part of the reason we might care so much about the daunting victory conditions laid before us is the constantly surging, ever repeating 8-bit encouragement of the Mega Man score. Whether there is science behind this idea or my friends and I have an unnatural commitment to something we shouldn’t, the music from Mega Man always makes me feel like focusing up and moving fast, and this isn’t an isolated experience. The reality is that this is one of the lighter associations that exist between my memory and music in games.

It goes without saying that everyone’s emotional experience of a game is going to be different, if only subtly. It would be naive of me to assume tat everyone has the EXACT same emotional experience when playing a given game, even a given sequence with a game, so I will not try and represent my experience as universal, only mine. But I will not say that other players don’t, in all likelihood, have some emotional response to he gaming stimuli that I’m talking about. Because all but the oldest games (and I’m never talking about them) include music to some degree, many of those experiences will be linked to the game’s score or soundtrack. Other game scores and soundtracks can put a little pep in my step, or reach me emotionally on even an otherwise unremarkable day. There’s a sound, a little progression of just a few notes, that players of The Legend of Zelda know by heart and that to non-players it will do no good to describe. The music, which in the game world announces the discovery of a secret, thrills my heart. Whether in the original 8-bit (link) or as part of an orchestral arrangement (link), it arrests my attention whenever or wherever I hear it. When it announces the receipt of a text message on someone’s phone at school or in a cafe or on the subway, I’ll immediately scan the area, looking for the source like I’m snacking a crowd of strangers for the face of an old friend. It’s not something I think about; I’m not looking for someone in particular, but a kindred, a comrade. It just happens, and I only catch myself once I’ve already begun doing it. Unconsciously, subconsciously- however, to my ear it’s a call to adventure.

That game’s music provides or reinforces an emotional experience for a player is a given. Scores and soundtracks support and help develop plot lines and game themes, and have virtually since the beginning of console gaming. For the original Super Mario Bros., composer Koji Kondo wrote a handful of pieces using the Nintendo Entertainment System’s admittedly limited capabilities that nonetheless provided thematic texture and support for the vivid and distinct tones and situations that make up the variable progression of events and levels on our 2-D plumber-hero’s journey to save Princess Peach and the Mushroom Kingdom from the nefarious Bowser. The iconic Overworld Theme (link) that backs the bright and colorful “outside” worlds is cheerful and encouraging. The Underworld Theme that accompanies the game’s darker, foreboding dungeon levels is proportionately bass-heavy and ominous. And the funny thing about it is, even people who have been playing this game and others like it since their release in the 1980’s probably have never spared  a though for the music that has backed their many adventures over the years. I certainly haven’t. As I’ve said, it is alleged that game music has been written specifically to support focus and avoid distraction. So in a way, for the player to focus on it would be a failure for the composer. We must have forgotten about the endlessly repeating and technologically-limited scores of our favorite 8-bit games or they would have driven us (and our parents) crazy. However, that they supported game themes and emotional texture, that they were meant to at least, is simple fact. Music has for 30 years now been a vital layer of expression in the video game medium. Imagine playing SMB, if you can. Now imagine it without music. It’s weird, right? Something is missing. Without us even noticing it, game music has been shaping the resonant emotional experience we’ve been having with games for decades. As I say this, I know I’ve talked about acknowledging how much game music has effected me, but this was done reflectively. While I was consuming the product, having the experience, making the memory, I was unaware of just how great and impact these sounds would have. When I hear the score for The Legend of Zelda as an adult, I go looking for a horse to jump on, ready to be my best self and so good in the world, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing. Looking back, I felt that way when I heard the music while playing the game too, but I never thought about it applying to my real life. I guess it’s like a form of psychological conditioning, that hearing what to me is a call to adventure in a digital world has made me experience that stimulus as a call to adventure when I hear it in the real world.

Game music can direct gameplay and signify events, like when a dragon shows up in Skyrim or the clock is running down in Super Mario Bros., but the vast majority of the time game music is has a more indirect effect in that it effects the game’s tone or mood. The eerie, bluesy guitar-riff ambience of the score from The Last of Us evokes a world and characters that are familiar and relatable but at the same time frightening and unstable. By contrast, to beat a dead horse (sorry Epona), the score from The Legend of Zelda, with blaring horns and marshal tempo tell the player that they’re in for a grand adventure, and nothing over the horizon is too daunting to be overcome by courage and resourcefulness. I may be embellishing subjectively, but I believe the point stands up anyway.

How do you explain why music makes you feel what you feel? Why bother to try? It’s an arational emotional reaction to a subjective art. It always is. But for games it’s more than that. It ties back to an emotional experience, a moment of high tension and adrenaline and investment- to Kairi reaching across the growing void, telling you she knows that even across the endless disparate worlds, you’ll come back for her. To bursting out of Kokiri Forest and running free over Hyrule Field for the first time. Or if you like, to extend the example to film, to a young Luke Skywalker watching the binary suns set over the dunes, a long journey ahead. The music plays on you anyway, if you have an ear for orchestral music (not classical, right? That’s only Bach and Chopin, or something, if you’re fancy?), because that’s what it does. For game, the added layer of attachment comes from the suspension of disbelief that we didn’t actually participate in the moment. We remember the music as if from lived moments. As if we heard the music firsthand when we first laid eyes on Princess Zelda across the garden, when we ourselves drew our weapon to defeat Sephiroth. We forget we were in the TV room, the den, the rec room, the basement, and remember only the narrative moment, the white-knuckle grip, and the sweat creeping around our fingers. Or we remember happy times, with gathered friends, struggling to get through Quick Man’s stage in Mega Man II without getting blasted by those laser things. Taking turns, playing to our strengths by giving the controller to whoever was best at overcoming each obstacles. Endlessly repeating, the music ran behind all of that, adding texture and emotional attachment to our memory.

As I see it, music serves two functions in games. The first is directive. It signifies. It gives the player information, indicates a secret or prompts the player to take action. An example of this is the rewarding set of notes from the Zelda franchise that indicate you’ve discovered a secret. Other examples include the progression of notes from SMB right before the music speeds up that indicate to the player that 100 seconds are left on the clock, or the music the player hears in Skyrim when a dragon is looming near. All three of these examples tell the player something specific, and prompt them to act in gameplay: You’ve discovered a secret and you should investigate, time is running out and you have to cross the finish line, a powerful enemy is nearby and you need to prepare for an epic battle or run for your life. This third situation is actually an example of both the first function of music in games as well as the second, which is providing texture to the world and adding to the coherence and depth of the narrative and gameplay experience. In Skyrim, a dragon may appear at any time. A player might be guiding her avatar across the rugged terrain of the titular province hunting for rare mushrooms, approaching a new city, in the middle of an important mission, or already fighting any number of other creatures or people when the music shifts, indicating that a dragon is in the vicinity. It could be airborne, or on the far side of that hill in the distance, or attacking the city guard tower that you just left behind you. The instinct for the player is to stop and look around, and see where the threat is in relation to their avatar. In that way, the dragon music accomplishes the first objective of music- to direct. It tells the player something is happening and directs their action after. But it also provides the second purpose. The exciting score provides an epic sonic backdrop for a battle that is best described as mythical. The dragons in Skyrim are big- many times more massive than even the bulkiest orc a player can select as an avatar. Imagine like, if a train car grew wings and a tail and started breathing fire, and that would be not a bad comparison in terms of dimensions. As such, they are one of the more formidable types of opponent a player can come across. A battle with a dragon (which in the game are long-gone legends returned to life, visiting terror on the population on a grand scale) is meant to be a thrilling challenge, one that they player is by no means guaranteed to survive, especially early in the game. This music, then, that signals the arrival of the dragon also helps to set a tonal stage for the gameplay action to come. Depending on how far the player has gone along game’s main quest, it has been suggested that your avatar is the hero of prophecy, the only one who can end the dragon threat by absorbing the power of their very souls. The encounters extend this dramatic premise, and the score that accompanies them helps to support that feeling of uniqueness and excitement, of destiny and necessity, of duty and grandeur. This is a perfect example of the second function of music in games. The narrative moment that the developers are working to convey via visual design and gameplay is also carried in part by that moment’s soundtrack. In some cases this is easily done, like by licensing the original film score for use in a Star Wars game. It’s much easier to draw a fan into an exciting moment in gameplay when the music used is from an exciting moment in another well-loved piece of media that already exists. Who hasn’t wanted to be Luke Skywalker? When developers incorporate pieces of the film score into gameplay, they’re playing to the fan’s desire to live some of the exciting scenes from the film franchise. For us, living that moment absolutely means being backed by all of the horns and strings of that triumphant score, and when a game can deliver that, it can achieve a high degree of immersion and fan satisfaction.

Mar 2

I’m just going to post some notes here for tonight’s discussion.

This is from Miriam Posner’s syllabus website for her class “Selfies, Snapchat, & Cyberbullies”

“Our goal is to develop a vocabulary for talking about technological and cultural change that accommodates the diversity and contingency of human experience.”

What should students hope to take away from this class, and what are they working toward?

This is from the site for “The Selfie Course” from the Selfie Researchers Network

  • Selfie as discourse: Examples: What is the history (or histories) of the selfie? How do these histories map to contemporary media and scholarly discourses regarding self-representation, autobiography, photography, amateurism, branding, and/or celebrity?
  • Selfie as evidence: Examples: What are the epistemological ramifications of the selfie? How do selfies function as evidence that one attended an event, feels intimate with a partner, was battered in a parking lot, is willing to be ‘authentic’ with fans, or claims particular   standing in a social or political community? One uploaded, how do selfies become evidence of a different sort, subject to possibilities like ‘revenge porn’, data mining, or state surveillance?
  • Selfie as affect: Examples: What feelings do selfies elicit for those who produce, view, and/or circulate them? What are we to make of controversial genres like infant selfies, soldier selfies, selfies with homeless people, or selfies at funerals? How do these discourses about controversial selfies map to larger conversations about “audience numbness” and “empathy deficit” in media?
  •  Selfie as ethics: Examples: Who practices “empowering” selfie generation? Who does not? Who cannot? How do these questions map to larger issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion and geography? What responsibilities do those who circulate selfies of others have toward the original creator of the photo? What is the relationship between selfies and other forms of documentary photography, with regard to ethics?
  • Selfie as performance/presentation of self: While this aspect might be considered self-evident. We must pay attention to the tension between spontaneity and staging in the way that selfies serve as a performance and presentation of self in global and social media contexts. Also – when does the selfie as genre become a standard and format for staging authenticity in marketing and social activist campaigns across cultures? To what effect and what purpose?

This looks to me like a pretty good breakdown of the different ways to study selfies. All provocative questions. My question is, what value is this to academia, and in what discipline? Is this a direction for scholarship, or a topic to explore for the sake of ethics and being a human being?

Here are some other questions we might want to talk about.

  • Does the selfie cultural phenomenon, most popular in teens and young people, also encourage a culture of self-indulgence and prolonged adolescence? (Star Wars, Marvel, BuzzFeed, “frenemy”) If yes, could there be a correlative or causal relationship between this and the increasingly vitriolic and decreasingly intellectually rigorous nature of our dialogues regarding controversies, e.g. building a border wall?
  • Because selfies typically exist with very limited context, given the temporal nature of our very lives, is the selfie the next iteration of our attempt to document our experience and leave a mark on the word, or an inane squandering of our “one precious life?”
  • “Cam girl” as mentioned in article 3, is a term widely used to describe internet sex workers. We have no way of knowing what the circumstances are under which people do this, so we’ll just have to leave that alone. But assuming they’re not under duress, they’re exchanging content people want for monetary gain. Does this not fall at the extreme end of a sliding scale occupied by many people who might bristle at being compared to sex workers, who post things on the internet for audiences hoping to gain something of benefit to themselves, e.g. endorsements, notoriety, prizes, etc..
  • Selfies have been called a vital form of self expression. In a networked atmosphere, is it misleading to encourage individual posts that value centrality and primacy Was a way of participating in collaboration? When are these practices mutually exclusive and when do they work?
  • If we accept selfies as composition in the classroom, are they replacing other forms or adding to them? Let’s talk about those other forms.
  • Is a selfie not an intensely personal thing, more so than any form of expression we’ve used pedagogically before?
  • What is driving professors and institutions to explore this topic, and what field can most competently do so?
  • Is it fair to use selfies and other forms of digital media that students use for self expression as a classroom tool?

Consider the selfies below. Care to try to interpret them? Let’s talk about that. What’s happening in these photos? What are their contexts?


Feb 24

With Chapters 5 and 6, I feel like I finally got vindication for all my yelling about this book, as well as a glimpse into why it might actually be worthwhile after all. Below, a quote from Chapter 5.

None of the is rocket science. Indeed, Wales told me that most people learned on the playground most of what they need to know to be good Wikipedians.

This is what I’ve been frustratedly growling into the pages of this book for weeks, that I believe that so much of what we’ve been reading about should have been skills learned through life experience, and being a person and interacting with other people both for fun and profit. I also think that something crystalized for me while I was reading these chapters that has been bothering me this whole time. This book, and especially chapter five, is full of tips for how to use the internet, how to game twitter, how to develop your brand and expand your network- presumably for personal benefit but conceivably for profit- but it never suggests why. Why is the author advocating for people to learn these skills? To what end? The obvious answer is that it’s 2016 (it wasn’t when the book was written, mind) and that everything is online so it is to everyone’s individual good that they be competent and literate in using the internet. But that isn’t necessarily a good reason for everyone to learn about the politics of forums, the etiquette of sharing research on twitter, and the value of linking different groups of people together. Yes, it’s a benefit to everyone to be aware of what Facebook does with our information, and to be able to vet a website, but what about the other stuff? It looks like learning to network for networking’s sake. Why are we telling people to do this stuff? I’m not talking about practically, or what good it will do them. It might well help almost anyone in some way. But ethically, what is the point of this? What philosophy is backing up this enterprise? I think that’s why I’ve felt like a lot of what we’ve been talking about has been so empty. Because I haven’t detected anything behind it, underneath it, that makes it worthwhile. I’ve read a lot of this stuff as a pretty straight correlation to “how to be popular,” “how to get people to like you,” “how to ingratiate yourself to people in advance of the zombie apocalypse.”

It was only in Chapter 6 that I felt like the author came through with what I thought was a much-needed dose of humanity. The need for people to mind their Facebook privacy settings. The acknowledgment that his positions are (apparently widely) viewed as rosy and optimistic, that paywalls are dividing the free and open web, and the nefarious forces at work on the internet- from trolls to corporate entities to shady government initiatives- are formidable and many. These are things I needed to hear, because these are things I believe are integral to the fabric of the kind of digital networked life that Rheingold is advocating for. I do feel that the book stopped short of really digging into the issues of the internet’s corporate gatekeepers, like the the cable companies that have been working for a while to privilege internet access by speeding up or slowing down various connections. But I did see the author take a stand, and let the reader know that although all of these negatives are realities, that doesn’t seal our fate. That to keep a thing free people have to organize, to cooperate, to believe that it can stay free, and then we have a chance, and with that we have a point, a reason why anything in this books matters- because the internet is kind of a goddamn miracle, and if any of us have the slightest hope of preserving what’s good about it, we have to know how to use it. It’s a good message. I wish he’d lead with it.


9. Wherein the writer’s world is rent in two

I recently played through a game called Far Cry 4 on the PS3 with my brother. He and I would take turns completing missions and generally visiting carnage on the fictional kind of India-like nation of Kyrat. From early on, we’d run through enemy camps firing exploding arrows from the back of an elephant, lobbing grenades at armed convoys, and releasing caged tigers to exact vengeance on their captors. Our avatar became synonymous with Old Testament-style destruction. Flames and chaos followed his every mountain climb, ATV ride, and wing suit glide. He instantaneously learned how to operate a flame thrower, aim a throwing knife, and fly a hang glider. We would add our own elements of challenge to the game (which would we worried was becoming too easy) by eliminating conventional machine guns and shotguns from our inventory and instead relying on a simple bow, a cowboy six shooter, a sniper rifle and explosives.  Our reign of terror was largely unmitigated. It was a lot of fun. At a few points our rampage would overlap with the game’s scripted story, and we would experience these cut scenes in which one of the other characters (two leaders of a violent revolution to free their homeland from an insane despot) would tell us about the cause, and send us out to accomplish something.Their army was usually standing around, or getting into skirmishes in the woods. When something important was happening, they called us up and said we needed to do it. Our avatar, who until the game’s first scene was an unassuming civilian, had become the blunt instrument of the revolution. As there was no other option, and because fighting bad guys for the cause was just as good as fighting bad guys for the hell of it, we went along and completed the missions, saving the day for the rebels or striking down some dangerous enemy or taking a vital strategic point. As the game went on, our interactions with our comrades became more divisive, and soon each of the two characters were advocating against the agenda of the other. They told us we must choose between them. We didn’t always love the choices, but to go with the flow we decided to select the course of action we felt was closest to what we thought we would do. Then they told us we had to choose between blowing up an ancient temple and destroying a culture, or defending the temple and giving a teenage girl over to a life of forced religious service as the symbol of a goddess (whatever that means, and it sounds kind of sexual and creepy). We looked at each other and said, “Excuse me, rebels, but fuck you. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I’ve just blown up half this country. What if I don’t like either of those options? Why would I ever take orders from the likes of you, a bossy peasant?” I paraphrased a bit, but the point remains. These narrative directions beg the question- why would anyone with this talent for sheer destruction, who is so nigh-unkillable, ever go along with some half baked plan if he doesn’t want to? Why doesn’t the unhinged killing machine that is my avatar EVER seem to be calling the shots? This doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of how I’ve been playing this game. It’s disorienting, and it pushes against the player’s immersion in the otherwise beautiful and arresting reality of the game world. It wrecks the illusion, and calls the validity of the whole experience into question. It make you feel like, maybe this game is junk, because it hasn’t accounted for this vast chasm of what it’s asking me to do and what seems reasonable for me to expect in this moment.



Far Cry 4 is by no stretch of the imagination the first and only game to suffer from this misalignment. When we were younger, we didn’t notice it. There are some things we can do, and some things we can’t. Mario gets shorter when he gets hurt. OK. Samus can turn into a tiny ball and fit into unnaturally small places. Sure. But as we grew up, and the more we learned both from games and real life how to think critically, the more certain things started to stand out. In every iteration of the Legend of Zelda series that I’m familiar with, Link (the franchise’s hero) collects a menagerie of weapons and tools to help him through the menacing landscape and rescue the titular princess. Way back in the late 80’s, if you found the right bush, you could torch it to reveal a secret. Or if you bombed the right section of wall, or pushed the right boulder, the same. It was so exciting when I was a tiny child to find these secrets and explore them that I never thought twice about it, and if anybody else did they weren’t saying anything. By the third or so game though, with my age now in double digits, some things seemed a little… wrong. Why can I explode this section of wall but not the one right next to it? Could it be made of something different? Why would that happen? I’m not saying there has to be a secret passage behind every section of wall, but if I can blow up one part I should be able to blow up the rest, even if it’s just destruction that I’m causing. I would be lying if I truly attributed this stream of conscious to myself as a child. I still really didn’t question why one thing happened or didn’t, but there was a sense that something was just, off somehow. The pattern continued as video games and I aged alongside one another. Games got more complex, and more focused on delivering Hollywood-style narrative. In fact, since at least the advent of the Nintendo Entertainment System many games have done their best to faithfully reproduce actual Hollywood narratives reimagined as games. A great example of this type of game, in that it was an amazing game, is the N64 title Goldeneye, which always finds a place on everybody’s all-time favorites list. A terrible example is, as far as I know, any and every Harry Potter and the Fill-in-the-Magic-Blank game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a ravenous Harry Potter fan. In fact that’s probably why I hate the games so much- in addition to objectively being garbage, they also violently misuse a property and a world that has so much to offer.


The box art of N64’s Goldeneye features Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. The player then is asked to play through the game-version of the movie as Pierce Brosnan as Bond. The temptation to play through game scenes to recreate shot-for-shot film sequences is tempting, if not encouraged. To not do so is to step out of the narrative shoes, and to some extent make a mockery of the entire premise.

Actually, while the HP games are awful games, they make a really great example of what I’m trying to talk about here, which is the attempt and failure by developers to marry narrative with gameplay. The term I’v recently seen coined for this phenomenon is ludonarrative dissonance. Somebody cooked up the name to signify the discord between the experience of playing and the story being told by the game. To ground the term in real life, let’s turn, with a hilarious sense of irony, to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. These games were based on J.K. Rowling’s children’s books, and released (to my memory) to coincide with the release of the films based on the same. So, before the games are made, we’re already working with two layers of narrative. The initial text, and the filmmakers’ interpretation of that text. Then the game makers come along, and they are trying to make a game that more or less follows the events of these earlier narratives with the player in some degree of control of whether or not Harry and his friends and the world survive. In this case, narrative is inescapable. The player is funneled down the narrative path long ago carve out by the author of the novels. New ground is not going to be broken. However, the game makers must somehow suggest to the player that her participation here matters, otherwise why would she bother playing and not just watch the movie instead? So obstacles happen, and things have to be learned and overcome. The issue with this occurs when one of those obstacles runs counter to what the fan knows to be true about the rich narrative tapestry of which this game is a direct derivative product. It’s been a long time since I’ve played one, so this isn’t going to be a perfect example, but if a game late in the series tells the player that Harry must complete some task by using some silly spell he just learned, but the player (who has already been a reader AND a watcher) remembers the Harry knows a much stronger and better spell to solve the problem in front of him, then we’re running into ludonarrative dissonance. Why would he ever do X, which is ridiculous, why I’ve seen him do Y, which not only makes more sense but is what I would do, what I want to do? This is the question at the heart of this discussion. It boils down to, why would I ever do what you’re saying I must, when I’d rather do something else that I know is in my power? This isn’t your boss asking you to come in on Saturday. This is a game, and its supposed to be fun. There aren’t supposed to be obligations. Which I guess brings me back to Far Cry. When this game has shown me the many ways in which my character is not to be trifled with, why would I ever accept that he can be brow-beaten by either of a couple of morally bankrupt revolutionaries? I’ve seen him, directed him to take decisive action in the past, so where is his judgement and critical decision-making now? It’s possible, possible, that in this case, the character’s lack of critical thought is the point. It’s possible that Far Cry 4 is the pinnacle of subtlety and satire and self-awareness in gaming. It is possible that the character’s total lack of hesitation to join a revolution he has no knowledge of, to wield myriad weapons and take countless lives, are meant to be mirrored in the rigidity of the game’s later binary choices. Perhaps Far Cry 4 is an indictment, that calls out the player for accepting the earlier premise that a civilian can become a killing machine overnight while objecting to the later conceit that he would allow himself to be instructed so gruffly by his handlers. Maybe Far Cry is telling us thats somebody who could pick up and do that kind of things we’ve done throughout the course of the game would be incapable or uninterested in thinking out ethical issues on his own, and would be content to choose one side or another. That it doesn’t matter that we wouldn’t make either of these choices, because we shouldn’t be able to identify with this character at all, and if we do we have a larger problem. Perhaps Far Cry 4 is telling us that we in the larger world are too willing to consume without skepticism, without analysis, without a second thought for too many things, and maybe we need to take a long, hard look at what we’re willing to accept just because it’s offered to us as the right way, or the only way, or the truth. (We chose to blow up the temple to protect the girl, by the way. In case there was doubt. Gotta choose individual human life over collective culture, I say.)

But I doubt it. Although Far Cry 4 is made by Ubisoft, one of the big name game studios right now, it is asking a lot for a game marketed to sell millions of copies to pack in a philosophical treatise that most of its customers probably won’t even notice. Because of the all explosions. More likely, Far Cry 4 finds itself in the same mire that most games today experience; it’s trying to tell a complex and detailed story and give the player freedom at the same time. It’s just like the early 90s X-Men game that was so much fun, except the X-Men could only use their powers for a couple second before they ran out. The X-Men are mutants! Their powers are (in most cases) literally woven into the fabrics of their genes. They don’t run out, their powers are who they are. But for the sake of making a challenging game, or something, the developers put a little bar on the corner of the screen and when it ran out, you were out of powers until it filled up again. Anybody passingly familiar with the narrative backdrop knows that Cyclops would be pumped if he could drain his power gauge for a while and take off those silly sunglasses and look at Jean Grey with his own eyes, but that it could never happen because the dude can’t turn his powers off. So when in the game that gauge runs down to zero, the player who knows thinks, now what the hell is this? But at seven years old, you’re so psyched to be able to be Nightcrawler and teleport through stuff that you don’t even care you can only do it like 3 times- that was so cool!

So we’ve been experiencing ludonarrative dissonance in gaming for a long time, maybe since the beginning. And the thing is, as games get more and more complex, so does the issue, and the chasm grows wider. I could go on for a really long time about all the ways this appears in games. (When you’re playing Uncharted and you’ve JUST opened the long-sealed secret passage to an ancient secret place, and somehow the bad guys are already inside. Or when the place you’re in is collapsing or sinking or on fire, and the henchmen in addition to NEVER BEING AFRAID OF ANYTHING are still trying to kill you with their last breaths instead of running for their lives. What are they paying these henchmen? Can they really feel so strongly about their boss getting ahold of that jewel or scepter or whatever that they’re going to lay down their lives for it? Are their families compensated? Who would sign up for this job, and be so dedicated to it? Is it a religious thing? Are they on drugs?) Sorry for the long parenthetical. In these examples, unflappable, fervent henchmen are something of a gameplay requirement, to prevent the hero from just making a bee-line out of an exploding temple. The developers don’t want it to be too easy. But I’ve got to say, it can’t be that easy to run a straight line out of a crumbling city. If it is, couldn’t we just make it harder? Add more jumps and turns, instead of suicidally dedicated foot soldiers? But this perceived necessity clashes with the narrative course of the game, and the accepted reality and suspended disbelief of this world. Faced the choice between certain death while impeding me and running to safety, why on earth would an entry-level henchman take the first choice? Doesn’t it make more sense to get out of the sinking ship now, and try and drown me or shoot me or something later, when we’re both safely somewhere else?

Obviously, to explore examples further would be super digressive and I have plenty of material, so I hope what I’ve laid out so far has been sufficiently illuminating. I guess what we have to think about is why games are being made this way, and how to overcome this discord between two cornerstone elements of gaming. The first answer I think is easy. Games came after film, which came after literature, which came after epic poetry recitation, which came after primitive sculpture, which came after cave paintings. Games are made narrative-heavy because that’s how we as humans know how to communicate with each other. We tell stories; we’ve always told stories. We tell stories about heroes and trials and battles and good and evil. They excite us, and they inspire us. They make us strive to be better, and make us wish for opportunity, for adventure. Games have taken hold of those feelings, tapped into them, and offered a way to directly transpose the reader/viewer/listen of the epic tale onto the role of the hero in the story. It seems like a simple switch, but when a person with agency and consciousness is dropped into a scripted narrative, there must be an inherent clash. We are too prone to curiosity, to independence, to not at least try to do something other than what we’re told. The answer to the second question is not as easy. How do we tell someone they’re free in a world that must have boundaries as a consequence of the fact it was made by human hands? And how can we tell them a story without at least encouraging them to participate in a series of events? The answer might lie in fiction. For as long as video games have captured the popular imagination there has been fiction that has imagined what it would be like to be fully immersed in a game world. As far back as 1989, Captain N imagined a (cartoon) kid pulled into a world made of all of the popular games of the time. He joined the heroes of a handful of Nintendo games and defeated their villains, all while existing fully in this digital world. To my recollection, Nickelodeon had a game show with a similar premise, although I can’t remember what it was called at the moment. In 2016 we have shows (this time anime) like Sword Art Online that take the idea of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, like World of Warcraft), which are immersive environments on their own with economies and social circles, and imagines a near-future wherein technology has allowed for a device that connects the player’s whole consciousness to the game world. That is, the player would close his or her eyes, and open them standing in a field in a fictional world, feeling the wind and smelling the grass and tasting the food. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a 2011 novel along the same lines, where the world has gone digital and a device has been invented to immerse the user in a digital landscape that is free and to use and can be edited by anyone. In these worlds, especially in Sword Art Online, the possibility of “what the hell? I don’t want to do that, that’s not what I would do” is eliminated, because the totally sensory immersion, the freedom of choice and movement make it so that the player can do whatever he or she happens to feel like doing at the moment. This admittedly sci-fi conceit, interrupting brain signals to input digital sensory information and that sort of thing, may be a bit far off. Nonetheless, the principle of total player freedom is one that gaming has been making steps toward for some time. Ironically, we may never reach the full player freedom that we had in tabletop games before video games were invented. Back before I was born, nerds gathered as they still do to play Dungeons and Dragons. Although the mission might be under the dungeon master’s control, the players (I think, I’ve never actually played) are free to make any choice they like. They might not be all powerful, and their abilities depend on their characters skills and attributes, but they can attempt anything. Even if they fail, there can be no “that’s not what I would do,” because you choose what you would do. Just like in life, after you make your choice, there is nothing left but to see if it works or not. That to me seems pretty fundamentally fair. In sum, I think removing the technical limitations to players’ in game actions is going to be key to bridging the ludonarrative dissonance gap, although for as much as I’d love to be a game designer I’m admittedly no coder . When games were younger and simpler, we didn’t have to worry as much about the story and the world clashing with the player’s experience, because we hardly knew anything about either of those things. Super Mario Bros. has zero backstory, and it kicked off the most monetarily successful and international popular game franchise, period. The Legend of Zelda opens on one scrolling screen (like Star Wars) and after that the player seldom sees another typed word. And those games made people happy. Presumably, they inspired some of today’s designers to go into the field and to make games played  by millions today. So perhaps what needs to be done in the field is to look to move into the future by remembering the past. We had games that were good, fun and engaging, that didn’t have complex back stories or Hollywood plot lines. Maybe designers need to strive to make games— new, beautifully-rendered 21st century games— that can be fun and satisfying without leaning on the narrative as a necessity. Maybe for games to grow and change, some games need to stop pushing the player down a path, and just open the door on a world for her to explore and discover and delight in on her own. Maybe this way we can rediscover something that kindled a light and love in us such a long time ago, fired our spirits for an adventure, and started us on a lifetime of keeping our eyes open for secrets and treasure.

Feb 17

I regret that my last blog was so negative. I was going to talk about it. I’m not. This week’s Mozilla stuff was cool. I may have been defeating the purpose of the exercise, but I skimmed over all the stuff that involved instructions for educators and got right to messing with whatever the exercise was supposed to be. I don’t feel like I have any use for the other stuff at the moment, so I left it behind to interact with and assess the materials that Mozilla set up or linked to. Or I tried to. Actually, I was kind of frustrated that it wasn’t easier to skip the “for teachers” instructions, which was meta material in my view, and interact with whatever the product was, in some cases. But I guess that speaks to the target audience for this program. They’re trying to teach teachers how to teach the Internet, so the focus will be on teaching and not simply, “look at this,” which is what I was looking for. One thing that stood out was a game that “taught” kids to code by having them use HTML to help their cat avatar jump around the screen. That was a neat idea, although as I played through the demo I didn’t notice a lot of very specific instruction or like any context or anything for the children to be using one or two HTML tags. Maybe because it’s the demo. Maybe the full version is more complete.

I was also drawn to some of the activities addressing cyber security and personal privacy online. A lot of the stuff I saw regarded how to talk to students about these things, and the meanings of terms, and the importance of keeping things private sometimes and how being online doesn’t change that. I think that’s all really valuable stuff and I see why it exists and I think it’s important. Whether it should be a teacher’s job to teach these lessons I think is a separate issue, but I don’t believe it is in the heart of any real educator to leave a student or anyone adrift if they can help it, just because it’s not their job to help them. So good on you teachers, for trying to do what you can in a world that is doing it’s best to not help you out. That said, I skipped all the teacherly stuff to try and find the real information and experience. At one point I realized that while all of the activities we were using we optimized for use in Firefox, at least one required its use specifically. This was an activity that required using an extension. An extension that I would have gladly downloaded and used, but I was then and am now as I almost only am on Safari, and I’m not going to switch for one extension. The extension in question shows the user what websites are using cookies to track them and where they (the cookies) come from. And that’s probably really good to know, especially if you’re trying to keep track of that type of thing, which you probably should be. Whenever we talk (like we as humans in the 21st century) about information security and personal identifiers, revealing true information about ourselves, I think of this fantasy novel I read when I was like 14. It had to do with people and dragons, and this one lady for whatever reason could speak dragon, I think, and as such she was able to learn their names. Not like FireWing or whatever people were calling them, but their true names. And that gave her an incredible amount of power over them. I think when we get too loose about our information (and it’s hard not to be when [as I just found out when I changed my Cookies setting after reading about them] so many websites REQUIRE you to enable cookies) we leave the door open to all kinds of trouble that could give one sneaky, shitty person a tremendous amount of power over us. The more that is known about you, the easier you are to pin down. The easier you are to predict, anticipate, outsmart, and deceive. This is as true in the world as it is on the internet, and we would all do well to remain mindful of it.



Feb 10

I’m having a hard time writing, I think because I don’t know that I have that much to say, and I don’t want to be negative. I feel like a lot of the material in these chapters has been a mix of “I knew that already” and “so what.” The irony of reading a print book about how to be current with digital media is starting to grate on me. Beyond that, I think it’s just like I said last week: What we’re reading and talking about are just suggestions for how to be an adult, slightly adapted to the world of digital media and communication. It has me feeling like, if you can’t figure out how to behave with other people, online or in real life, then go sit in the corner and let the grownups handle things. I get that some people have varying degrees of familiarity and comfort with digital tools, and that it’s a book meant to help people “thrive online.” I guess I was just expecting something different. I read some other students’ blogs that had nice things to say. I don’t know, I just don’t feel that. I feel like all of this writing about how great Twitter is for getting people together, and I know it can be and has been, largely ignores any possible negative of the whole internet. I know in earlier chapters Rheingold talks about the dangers of being taken advantage of by a corporation online. I just feel like maybe its a little unbalanced. It’s very inspiring that the inventor of the internet didn’t want to own it, and that we evolved from apes through our ability to help each other and form relationships, and that there are online communities out there that support each other and do good in the world, though all but the third are perhaps irrelevant. But at the same time, Kim Kardashian has 40 MILLION followers on twitter. That’s over 40,200,000 individual accounts that are exposed to whatever she or her PR people decide to share at any given time. Even if a full million of them or more are bots and other junk or spam accounts, that’s still 39 million accounts. Which is 38,999,925 more than I have. 33 million more than Neil deGrasse Tyson. 31 million more than the pope. The reason that I’m yelling about that is, that I guess I’m frustrated. But also important is that the internet is not a rosy place. The internet is just the world transposed into digital space, and in the world people with money and fame influence others to their ends, whatever they are. Some are beneficial to the world, others are nefarious, others still and probably most are dumb. I don’t want to just complain. I guess I feel like coverage here is a little one-sided. I know it is mentioned at some point that there are trolls on the internet, and that some of the stuff on twitter is inane and mind-numbing. But that sidelong acknowledgement I don’t really feel is a sufficient representation, especially in the context of a guide for supposed neophytes to the internet and social media. I’m going to stop, because I don’t feel I’m doing a good job, and it’s possible that my attitude is contaminating this whole project and I don’t want to write a 2000 word screed sounding like a jerk.



8. Wherein the Writer Gets Fictionalized

As per Andre’s recommendation I dug into Walter Ong a bit recently, specifically “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” and I found a lot of the ideas he expresses there really apply to games. Most immediately- what other form of expression fictionalizes its audience, or forces them into a role, more than video games? None. Not opera, not poetry, not graffiti. Maybe performance art, but that varies and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually follow you home. A game (to some degree, usually) forces its audience into a role that the player then stays with for hours, days, sometimes months or longer. The player returns again and again to a table set for someone other than themselves— sometimes someone similar to themselves to some degree but always other— and the only way they can eat is to assume another (sometimes obscured) identity. And that’s supposed to be part of the fun. A big part in fact. Some games do this in different ways and a lot of styles of games do this to different degrees. It’s often but not always games designed to be more digestible to children and families that do the most to cast the player (please read: audience, reader) in a prescribed role. When the intro cinematic opens up on almost any Mario game lately, the player is greeted with a brief tale of what darkness has most recently rolled across the idyllic Mushroom Kingdom, and what nefarious deed the villain (usually but not ALWAYS Bowser) has committed that drives the heroes to struggle against him (I think it’s always a him) across dozens of levels and finally banish him from the land or whatever. Another recent Nintendo game called Hyrule Warriors collects a bunch of characters from the Legend of Zelda franchise and sticks them into a story along the same lines as the outline I just… outlined. This game adds the really pleasant voice of a lady narrator who updates the player on what’s happening in the story between playable missions, and I think that’s key as we (read: I) talk about fictionalizing the audience. This lady, whose voice I have to say is really well suited to telling stories, not only tells the player what events have come to pass since the last battle, but also how the characters feel. One of them must put her mission on hold, even though it is desperately important, because she has come upon a village beset by monsters. Another, we are told, is worried about her charge, the princess who has gone missing, and is crossing time and space to find her. And then, when the narration ends and the next mission begins, the player picks up control of those very characters. In this way, the game, or its way of communicating its story to the player, has cast the player in the role of the self sacrificing hero who cannot ignore a plea for help, or the devoted companion who will stop at nothing to rescue her friend. These stances are not negotiable. There is no option to not free the village or rescue the princess. These are gameplay mechanics that are a slightly different topic but also serve to irrevocably cast the player into a role through which she will digest whatever narrative or experience the game has to offer. Hyrule Warriors, from which these examples are taken, was released for the WiiU, successor to the Wii, both of which have long been held to be the family-friendly option in the gaming console market. It is worth repeating that these types of games are generally considered to be more child-friendly, which could be a function of their direct audience-role-casting narrative. These games offer sweeping tableaus and detailed maps and intricate mythologies and backstories that are made available to the player from the outset. These elements serve to further flesh out the game world and serve the function of immersing the player more deeply in that world, thereby deepening her commitment to the role she’s asked to play.


The above art for Hyrule Warriors reinforces the storybook paradigm of brave heroes and enchanted weapons that can only be wielded by the pure of heart.

Many other games offer almost none of this, but cast the player in a role nonetheless. Many games begin in the middle of an action sequence or an empty room, with little or no explanation of who the player is supposed to be or why they’re there. Over the course of the game, the player may  or may not learn more about the world or the avatar he is inhabiting, but that doesn’t eliminate the need to take on a role other than oneself. The situation of the game, whatever is happening to the player’s avatar or in the game world, is what creates the fictional role of audience, not necessarily directive narrative control. Even in an empty room with no clues the player takes on a role, if for no other reason than because the player is lounging comfortably somewhere in her home surrounded by her things, and not in fact in some desolate chamber. More than that, a game almost never (really never, but I say almost just in case) allows a player to explore the full range of option in game as he or she might in a real life scenario. For example, if I suddenly found myself locked in a blank room devoid of context and with no memory of how I arrived there, I probably wouldn’t calmly walk into each corner of the room at an even pace and search for items. And the kind of thing I would do isn’t necessarily going to be provided for by the designers coding the game. There might not be an option to “hit X to quietly freak out” or “rotate L3 to use a stern voice to trick somebody nearby into coming in here.” This is what really does the role-casting: when a player is forced, through choice, to behave like someone other than themselves in the interest of experiencing the game. And it’s something I’ve never heard anyone talk about before, and it happens in literally every game all the time, no matter what. You think sports games are exempt because they don’t tell stories? Who are you that you are controlling who is and isn’t on this team, and who plays when, and what they do? You’re either some kind of manager or coach, or the god of soccer, or SOMETHING, but the point is you’re not you. Same goes for strategy games, simulators of any kind, tower defense, even mobile phone puzzle games.

The premise that Ong is talking about in different ways throughout applies wholesale to games, as far as I know without exception. So is this something that game designers are aware of? Certainly great amounts of time and resources are (probably) dedicated to character development, and a large part of that work is usually in the player’s avatar. Some games let the player choose most of the characteristics of their avatar, and in those cases the role of the player is still strongly suggested if not dictated, but it is done environmentally or through interactions with other characters rather than learning about the player’s character. Even games like Skyrim, one of the features of which is a big world full of relative freedom of choice (including the choice to create and develop your own character) the player must assume the role of somebody cast into this wild world and forced to choose to take sides in a revolution or ignore that it’s even happening and collect flowers and animal hides instead (which is not a joke, you could actually play Skyrim like that if you wanted). It’s the same principle as the empty room with no clues. You’re now a person thrust intellectually into a situation in which you are not physically taking part and which is at least somewhat at odds with the details of your actually reality. You are not really fighting a dragon. You are not really commanding a Roman legion. You are not really piloting a 787. You’re hanging out at home, or at a friend’s place, or on the subway with a handheld console or your phone, or it would be cool if you were at one of those bars with arcade games in them. So whatever the circumstances, the game you’re playing is asking you to pretend that they’re something else, even if that game lets YOU tell IT who that someone else is going to be. But such a game still tells you a number of things, and thereby kind of subtly funnels its player into a sort of role.


A character traverses the vast and arresting wilderness of Skyrim on an unknown errand or for no reason at all.

To continue using Skyrim as an example, when the game informs you of the civil war between  occupying (but legally reigning) Imperials and the (racist and also maybe murderous) rebel Stormcloaks, it sets the player up to make one of a few choices, not just about what to do in the game, but who he is going to be in the game world. In the game’s very first scene the player has been captured and faces execution by the Imperials, who are executing known Stormcloaks and other undesirables. Your avatar’s impending execution is fortuitously interrupted, to the disbelief of everyone, by a dragon attacking the town, bringing chaos and fire and devastation. This scene sets up the two major narrative conflicts in the game. In the province of Skyrim there is a civil war on, and an ancient prophesy is coming to pass about the return of in indomitable race of dragons and the advent of the (you guessed it) one hero who was born to defeat them. SO, what we have here, immediately,  is a set of choices. In the first place, the Imperials tried to kill you, so you must decide whether to take revenge on them or not. If you do, it’s an easy choice to join the Stormcloaks faction and tear down the whole wretched establishment in retribution for their wrongdoing. On the other hand, once you escape, you could decide that the Stormcloaks aren’t such a legitimate organization after all, and you forgive the Imperials well enough that you’ll join them and crush this silly uprising and restore law and order to the region, which sorely needs it. HOWEVER, the dragon attack from the beginning of the game occurred right in the middle of this partisan squabbling, which strongly suggests that at least from the developers’ point of view, the threat posed by the dragons should supersede any squalid politic dealings between humans. The player is free to agree, and (spoilers) pursue her destiny to be the one to rid the land of dragons forever. The player could even do this while working with one of the factions. OR, the player could decide he’s not interested in the civil war, nor is he interested in singlehandedly taking on the ancient scourge of the dragons, and that he’d rather just, F off, and make potions or something. Why is the relevant? Because. Yes, the game asks you to choose how strong your character’s sword arm is, and how good he or she or it is at public speaking. But from the very outset it also asks you to choose what kind of person you want to be in this world. Are you a vengeful killing machine, a solemn keeper of laws, a legendary hero? Or are you uninterested in grandeur of any kind, and prefer quieter pursuits like magic, or murder, or getting married? Because of the nature of the game i.e. slaying dragons and casting spells in a world with almost no irreversible consequences, these questions aren’t really about who the player is as a person as much as they are who they player would like to play as in the game world. THUS with a subtle hand does this game and others like it necessitate the acceptance of a fictionalized self on the part of the player as a prerequisite to participating in the game.

The earlier question was, “to what extent are game designers aware of this?” I think they must be acutely aware of it, although they might or might not be familiar with Walter Ong. An essay in Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives talks about one iteration of the incredibly popular Call of Duty franchise wherein the player is asked, as part of a mission during which her avatar is under cover, to essentially participate in a terrorist attack (I’m gonna put a link in here but I have to find the one I want). The game offers an out, warning of disturbing material and allowing the player to skip the level if she chooses, which only underscores how deliberately the designers chose to put the player in a position that they knew would be uncomfortable if not fully reprehensible. This decision to force the player to bear witness, as a participant rather than a rescuing hero, to a scene bereft of glory or honor has had and will likely continue to have its merits and shortcomings debated for some time, and that’s not what I’m talking about here so I’m going to skip it. For now. What I mean to point out is the level of attention paid to the exact topic I’ve been scrawling about all this time: the role that the game imposes on the player. The move by this team to manipulate the player this way, so overtly, was controversial of course, but that was at least in part, in my estimation, due to the fact that this was an experiment. And a bold one at that, though perhaps misguided and maybe inhuman. Like psychopathic? Or bereft of empathy, I don’t know. But it was an experiment. Messing with the player’s role, drawing attention to it like that and switching it up, that isn’t something that happens often. Sure players can be made to use different avatars, but the player’s role remains the same. This was different, and I think part of the reason for the high energy of the backlash was that this was such a new attempt, and I believe it indicates kind of an unsophisticated understanding of this phenomenon. Not really on the part of the audience and the bloggers and the parents and congress and all that, but more on the part of the design team who waded into these waters. Though they may have bungled it a bit, they came across something pretty new, and shed light on an element of gaming that is pretty ubiquitous but I think inelegantly understood. So I think maybe that’s my point, the one I’ve been looking for for a couple thousand words now, that the fictionalization of the audience(reader/player) is something that is accepted in gaming completely, but it is only barely understood on a surface level. It’s understanding, and certainly its execution and employment, lack nuance, and perhaps this is one great untapped component of gaming that could revolutionize gameplay if it could be better understood and incorporated into the experience.

Feb 3

My first thought in reading the pieces for this week was that these are all strategies that everybody needs to apply to the rhetoric surrounding this upcoming election. The amount of unverified and unsupported claims and flat out bullshit spouted by not just the candidates but by tons of people in the media in staggering. I know who I’m thinking of, but that isn’t exactly the point here. More importantly in this context, what we’re talking about in general is the need for people to examine their sources. To think critically. Actually, what the combined list of readings for this week really points to, alarmingly, is the need for people to be reminded to think critically. Excuse me, sir? My colleagues and I in this field got together, and it’s looking like you’re out here just swallowing whole every single thing you see online. Please stop. I didn’t think that this habit of taking for granted that everything you see is true was a new thing. I thought it already had a name. I thought it was called being gullible. You might say that people of my general age grew up in a time when we got to mess around with computer and the internet and learn their ways, making us predisposed to have strong “bullshit detectors” and that would certainly be true. I spent way too much time on my family’s computer during my teenage years. Any computer really, wherever I could get time on one. My friends and my classmates and total strangers and I spent a lot of that time exploring. We directed each other to things of shared interest, conferred with one another with varying degrees of privacy, schemed and planned and chatted and speculated, and sometimes tried to trick each other. We’d use new or fake accounts to impersonate someone or invent a totally new identity, always to a different end but always inherently with the intent to deceive. Not in a scary murderer or catfish way, but as a way of play. The same way kids ask each other to join the PEN15 Club or ask them to pronounce I-C-U-P. Like a knock-knock joke or a jump scare. Setting up your friends, messing with them. Of course some people are worse than others and do and have used the internet and anonymity to do awful things, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m getting at is the need, as a navigator of this communication-scape, to evaluate everything that came your way. Every invitation, every declaration, (especially of love, those were dangerous [and mean]) every fact(oid). Everything. Because it could all be somebody else messing with you before the big reveal at school the next day. Over time, the skills, or not quite skills but ways of being (literacy is probably the right word) turned into something incomparably valuable in terms of living and working in a world that has turned increasingly toward digital networked everything. But this doesn’t mean that myself and all the animals I went to high school with should be the only people who know how to use the internet. All those little tricks that I mentioned before, the schoolyard games, happened before any of us knew anything about the internet, and for generation before that. Ever heard a joke about a guy having a bridge to sell you? The central premise here is gullibility. Somebody believing something, without credible evidence, that they shouldn’t. One of the readings mentioned the author’s daughter and a conversation (probably embellished from real life, if not entirely contrived for the purpose of making this exact point, mind you) about how the internet is different from a library book because it is unreliable. I would argue against that point. Maybe in a time when everyone had a sunnier impression of the world in general it was thought that people in publishing could be depended on to tell the truth without an angle. But even with the vetting process that we all hope (perhaps naively and largely with no actual evidence or experiential knowledge of our own [think about it]) goes into publishing a book, its a personally ill-conceived and distinctly unacademic strategy to believe everything you read in a book without corroborating even well-argued claims with other sources. Therefore, double checking to make sure the website you’re reading isn’t some new skill that I picked up because I lucked into being born in the 80s. It’s just the natural extension of a skill we’re all supposed to have learned in life to the realm of web publishing. Critical thinking and close reading and problem solving are all things we’re supposed to have been taught in school, and should have learned to apply to different situation in our lives. Granted, somebody who isn’t familiar with how websites work might not necessarily have the tools and the literacy to know how to go about vetting a source like that, and that is where the one reading from the editor is really useful. I’m sorry if this is getting a little ranty. Talking about detecting bullshit has really drawn out a lot of frustration I feel like every day of my life. I’m done now.



7. Wherein the Writer Learns to Bake

I have a cousin that I looked up to growing up. It was from he and his brother that I inherited a lot of hand-me-downs. Hockey equipment, clothes, toys, and on the best of days, video games. I played video games a lot growing up, in a lot of different settings, and the happiest of these was when I was sharing the experience with my cousins, who were until a certain age my best and closest friends. My cousin Mike, to whom I referred at the top there, is a few year older than me, so naturally to me more or less everything he ever did was cool. Fortunately for both of us it ended up that we had and have a lot of shared interests, one of which has always been video games. A year ago, maybe two, Mike told me about something he saw on the internet, and it gave him an idea. He had found some plans for building an old arcade-style game cabinet, but much more importantly, he had learned about a technology that would allow us to use this machine to play any and every game we had ever enjoyed from our earliest memories up through the turn of the millennium. Logistical concerns aside, I was on board.

The technologies Mike was talking about, as spoken about previously, are the Raspberry Pi (Model B) computer and the RetroPie software. The Raspberry Pi, pictured above, is not a computer as most people think of them. This little circuit board fits in the palm of the hand, and comes equipped with ports for power, audio, HDMI, (4) USB and an SD card reader. Much smaller than even the sleekest GameBoy I’ve ever had, the Pi can run all of my favorite childhood (and in fairness adolescent and possibly adult) games with nary a glitch and without ever needing a cool down break or a special touch or for somebody to blow on it. It must be said of the Raspberry Pi that this little computer has the versatility to be put to work on any number of projects, and can accomplish much nobler things for the world than letting me play Captain Skyhawk, but this is what I’m using the device for. To learn more about the Raspberry Pi and what it can do from the people behind it, go here. For our purposes, the USB ports are for connecting video game controllers, the HDMI port of course is used to connect the machine to a display (it’s amazing how good a 25 year old video game can look on a new HD TV), and the SD card slot holds the ever important brains of the operation: all the many 1000s of ROMs, and the operating system (OS) RetroPie.


The Raspberry Pi cannot operate without an SD card. The machine itself has processing power but no storage, so in order to use it, you must load an SD card with a compatible operating system of your choosing. In this case, RetroPie. RetroPie, the menu screen of which is seen above, is essentially a collection of emulators organized in a graphical interface. The emulators are presented on a side scrolling list, and when selected, each will offer the user the list of ROMs she has loaded onto the SD card that run through that particular emulator. In practice, it’s like having all of the game consoles you ever wanted available at the touch of a button, and every game you could ever think of ready to play at the touch of a second button. On a 32 gigabyte SD card, a user could load RetroPie alongside 800 Nintendo games, 700 Sega Genesis games, 900 Super Nintendo games, and hundreds of other games for other systems like Neo Geo, Atari, etc. and have access to all of them at any given time. As I believe I’m mentioned before, this is what 10 year old me would have called unlimited power. There are advertisements on the back of Nintendo Power magazine with a kid on a dark cyber mountain wearing a Power Glove while lightning strikes everything (or like, something like this) and as a little kid that seemed like that coolest thing in the world, and I imagine that having this machine is what being the kid in that advertisement scenario would have felt like.

So these are the components that make up this game-changing machine, and because this is kind of a maker project, assembly is required. Full disclosure- it was my cousin Mike who did all of the first and hardest work here. He more or less handed me a working device and gave me access to a simplified process of putting the pieces together and making it all go. Even so, I’m going to walk through the process of making one of these things from scratch as well as I can. Before anything else, you need the hardware. Mike made I list and I put in the order. He has been researching in his free time, so he figured out which power supply (essentially a cell phone charger) would be best, what size SD card we should use (32 GB to start) and picked a case (a simple black box). He also found the site that made retro console controllers (either refitted originals or REALLY good replicas) with USB plugs. We went with Super Nintendo controllers for our first round of testing. In truth, we had no idea if this project was going to work, and with two sets of everything this had already cost us like $90 each (I get paid minimum wage, don’t be snooty) so we didn’t want to buy a bunch of accessories that we might not be able to use. Spoiler alert: it worked great and we bought more controllers.

While we waited for the parts and for sometime before, Mike diligently googled the whole situation he had gotten us into to find out just how the machine worked, how to use the OS, and how to put the two together. A while before, we met and went down our greatest hits lists to make sure we downloaded all of our favorite games to put onto our SD cards. What we quickly found out after that was that our all time favorites list (excluding PS1 and N64 games both because of file size and functionality issues with the emulators) would take up just a few megabytes our 32 gigabyte cards. Our natural next step was to simply find the entire catalogue of games for all of the systems we played on as kids and just download them all. The ROM for the original Legend of Zelda is something like 14 KB. We could fit so many thousands upon thousands of copies of The Legend of Zelda on our new magic gaming computers that it was beyond comical. We started measuring later, larger games in terms of how many Zeldas could fit in their space. (A new PS4 game today? Like 200,000 Zeldas. Not joking.) The next task after downloading these entire libraries was to sift through them for the files we needed to move over to the Pi. Mike downloaded these huge batches of files that included things like foreign releases, fan-made games, read me files and things like that, so we had to find the actual game file for each ROM to put onto our SD cards. A great work of tedium, Mike compiled folders for each system and had them ready to go when we got the hardware. The next step, once we got our gear, was to get our SD cards loaded up with the OS and then filling them up with games. That took downloading a couple of programs to help us format the cards and get them ready for the Pi, again that Mike had to research online. The final step was to literally, physically put the pieces together, which entailed screwing our plastic cases into place around the tiny computers, sliding the SD cards into their tiny slots, plugging in all of the cords and seeing what would happen.

What happened was awesome. It worked exactly like it was supposed to. At first we only loaded some of the games, just to test it out, but there they all were. It was amazing. I forget which game we played the first night the Pis were working. I want to say it was a game called Monster in my Pocket, which was one of my childhood favorites but I had never owned it. As test cases go, this one was fantastic. The tension of a black screen broke as the game’s publisher’s information materialized and faded, and then with spooky 8 bit Nintendo music an image appears of a denim pocket on a black field, and something keeps trying to burst out of (I know, but we were children) when suddenly out from the top fly dozens of little monsters and the game’s logo. After that you’re a tiny vampire (or tiny Frankenstein[‘s monster I KNOW, GOD!] if you’re player two) running around suburban environments beating up other monsters to… some positive end. I know it’s ridiculous, and I can’t say why, but to this day I love that game. It was just so pleasing to play around with it again, like I’d done as a really little kid. This was a Nintendo game, so it came and went probably in the early nineties. By the time I was maybe ten Nintendo alone was already two major consoles beyond their original NES that I so enjoyed as a child. Lucky for me we weren’t rich, so I didn’t get the new consoles right away, if I got them at all. Still, it had been at least 15 years and probably a few more than that since I’d gotten my hand on this game and many like it. It was a happy reunion. And just like that, Mike and I were back to playing bizarre, 2D ridiculously hard games that we used to play together at birthday parties and after dark at family barbecues or when we’d get stuck at our grandmother’s house for too long and our parents took pity on us.

Now for like $70, after waiting 2 days for amazon I can make one of these things in about an hour. The files are saved and ready, I have the software- all I need is a place to plug in my computer. The fact that it has become so easy kind of takes away from the mystical quality the Pi once had. But in another way, learning more about this machine and how it works has brought me closer to a part of my childhood that was really important to me, and that otherwise I might not have been able to access in the same way maybe ever again. Right down to the feel of the controller in hand, this has been a genuine experience of revisiting a past that had for a time been off limits. It’s what I imagine it would be like if I could go back, now as an adult, to the house where I lived until i was 13 or so, and find it unchanged. Feel the texture of the plaster, see the coffee stain on that absurd salmon carpet, watch dust motes float through the sun beams cut up the the square panes of the window in my old bedroom. Smell the cold damp of the basement. That’s something that I’ll never get. Like unless the people who bought the house are real weird and have kept it exactly as we left it, that’s something I’ll never get. But I can hold a Nintendo controller and feel the plastic creak as I squeeze it, trying to urge Mega Man over a long jump, straining my own muscles and adrenaline to match, and I can remember how it was to sit in a group of my cousins and attack a game like that for an afternoon like our lives depended on it. So I feel like in a way, psychologically (I don’t know anything about psychology) by playing some of these old games, I can experience being back in that TV room with my cousins for a little while. At least I can remember how much fun we had. And in-game experiences call to mind real life circumstances, like who was there when we beat such and such a level, and things like that. If nothing else, the machine has helped me bond with my friend, and remember times when things were a little bit simpler for both of us, and I think that’s ok.

6. Wherein the Writer saves the game

One game designer interviewed for Tom Bissel’s collection of essays Extra Lives said of his work that he felt like he was writing his legacy in water. I though that was a remarkably poetic image and was impressed, but I also understood what was at the root of his concern. Video games, even popular titles and series, have a history of riotously nonstandard formats and radical changes in the span of only a few short years. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for example, was a machine that was the original home of many of the most memorable and popular game franchises in history. (It’s true that Mario got his start- kind of– in arcade games. We’re ignoring that asterisk here for simplicity’s sake.) These foundational games, these landmarks of the form and sometimes originators of genres existed only on plastic cartridges that could be read only by the port fitted in the NES. For most of the world, that means the only way to access these games- their visual design, music, gameplay mechanics, narratives, etc.- was and still is to dust off an NES, plug it in, dig up an old Ninja Gaiden cartridge, and say a brief prayer that your ancient console still remembers your touch well enough that it will work for you. By the way, that’s another thing. The NES (and the Sega Genesis, Super Nintend0, N64, etc.) were and are NOTORIOUSLY finicky. Even when they were not yet obsolete an in fact relatively new (within a period of five years let’s say) a bizarre, technical/superstitious ritual had to be observed to ensure both your system and the game you wanted to play would work when you wanted them to. The exact amount of pressure plugging in the wires, the exact amount of force inserting the game cartridge, the correct direction and number of times to blow on the electrical connectors to ward off interfering dust and malevolent spirits. This was an exercise from which no gamer was excluded in the era of cartridge gaming. So it was to the almost comically, certainly unreliable arms of these divinely capricious consoles that game designers offered their Mona Lisas, the best work they could do expressing the height of the technology available to them. And sometimes all they had to show for their diligence was a staticky green screen, until some toddler came along and spit on their masterpiece enough to get it to work.

Enter, then, in the 21st century, the ROM and emulator. Gaming technology has advanced as quickly if not quite a bit mores than the admittedly rapid pace of technology in general in the last several decades. A wristwatch in 2016 can do things it might have taken a whole room full of dedicated servers to do in 1996, or so my best memory of James Bond tells me. So then it comes as no surprise that the crowning achievements of technology in the early years of console gaming (circa 1985) can now be duplicated by a kid on his home computer between homework time and dinner. For the man who’s legacy was written in water, this is not as bleak as it may seem. With the type of processing power and storage space that comes with the average home computer today, it is a relatively simple task for them to duplicate, or emulate, the work done by the gaming consoles and cartridges of yesteryear. ROMs are more or less transliterated video game files, and emulators are pieces of software that allow your computer to run these ROMs as if you had taken an old Nintendo cartridge and somehow plugged it into the USB port. This means that anyone with a remotely new computer can play all of the old games he used to love, without relying on the clunky hardware to which they used to be bound. To further sweeten the deal, one day some charitable coder came along and designed an operation system called RetroPie, which would run on a tiny computer called the Raspberry Pi. The RetroPie OS collected emulators for a dozen or so game consoles like the NES and put them on one, easy to use menu. Once downloading the OS and installing it on a handy micro-SD card, all a nostalgic gamer would have to do would be to hit the internet and download the ROMs of all of her favorite games, load them up, and get playing. Thus, literally thousands of games, many of which are decades old and incredibly obscure, can now be made available to anyone with about $100 who isn’t overly nervous about copyright laws. Ironically, the advent of technology that the developer worried would wash away the record of his achievement like a new high score on an arcade game, has actually come around to save and maintain, if unofficially, the memory of his work. These collections can now be protected and curated as if by a museum, and they well should be.

Just like the printed word or the automobile, the video game is an example of a technology that was once privileged and has since entered a more common domain. And it has been this dissemination that has allowed for the preservation and continued cultural relevance of what would be called “classic” games. In essence, ROMs and emulators and their uses on the RaspberryPi  are just an example of porting. When a game is ported, it is adapted from its originally medium (say for example, a standalone arcade cabinet) to another (like an NES cartridge, or more contemporarily a downloadable file). This was and is done all the time with games, so this evolution is no different except that it’s all done entirely by fans and enthusiasts rather than the corporate owners of the games and IP. The fact that game companies did not make greater provisions to preserve and maintain their game libraries is kind of mind-boggling. Even now, as Nintendo and Sony and maybe Microsoft too have mined their IP vaults for old titles that they can make available for download through their online portals and reboot and make new for next gen console, there are plenty of games that would never again see the light of day if not for the Pi. Game companies are only going to dedicate resources to revamping and remaking games that they think they can sell or that fit their brand, and beyond that there are plenty of games that were own by companies that are now defunct, making the the legal legwork before making the game prohibitively difficult. Unfortunately, the Pi is only a grassroots movement in terms of preservation, so these disregarded games are only tentatively held.

My experience with getting to know the RaspberryPi, its joys and frustrations, I’ll document later. The simple fact that it exists, and that with my meager abilities I can manipulate it, is still surprising to me and as I will explore in another post, would in 1995 have simply overwhelmed my eight year old self with the sensation of unlimited power. As far as I know at the moment, it stands as the only nearly comprehensive method of vintage games preservation that is widely available.