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The Re-Org October 8, 2007

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So I’ve been incredibly sporadic in blogging here and at my other blog. It’s time for a change.

I originally envisioned “faithgames” as a specific, topical blog that people could subscribe to or visit who were interested in just this one crossing of topics, and who would rather not read about other stuff I happen to be thinking about or working on. I thought, you know, maybe that would actually make for a wider audience or something.

This could’ve made sense if there were a group of people who wanted to contribute on this topic, but instead it’s been this fragment of what I’m thinking about and working on. Since I’m the only one blogging, it seems kind of counter productive to split up my thoughts into “this category that I can blog here about” and “this other category that I can blog somewhere else about”. And I don’t think the specialized-audience thing has really taken off anyway, judging by the blog’s stats.

So! For the time being, I’m putting this blog in stasis. Stuff I feel like writing will end up at http://joshg.wordpress.com, and I’ll possibly wrap in my scattered homepage contents at http://thoughtlost.org into that as well eventually. Or I’ll just make the thoughtlost.org domain an alias for my other wordpress site. Or something.

Anyway, if you’re an RSS type like myself, I encourage you to subscribe to the feed at joshg.wordpress.com in lieu of this one. It’ll continue to discuss games, game design, faith issues, as well as new media, art, poetry, programming, and whatever the heck else I end up wrapping into what I currently call my “profession”.

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NYT on Halo 3 used in evangelical youth programs October 8, 2007

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What a weird article.

Not once does anyone in the article ask the obvious question – “Why Halo?” If the violence of the game is a concern, why don’t they simply play something else? A church I used to attend had video games in their youth drop-in area, but they deliberately avoided M-rated titles. People still had lots of fun. This was in Canada, so the usual choice was a hockey game, but surely a football game would have the same effect south of the border. But I guess too many of us evangelicals have bought into the idea that we need to ride the hype bandwagons to be “relevant” to kids, instead of teaching them to step back and think critically. Bleah.

The repeated use of “Thou shalt not kill” was also just weird. Talk about what morals the game is passing on, or whether we should be exposing kids to more media violence. Don’t try to clumsily equate killing sci-fi aliens in a game with a literal act of murder. I guess it’s true that the game may be passing on morals and values which encourage violent response, but I don’t see that as a given. Are you even killing humans in Halo 3? I guess in deathmatch mode probably; I haven’t played a Halo game yet, I’ve been too distracted defending the intelligence. (No, TF2 probably shouldn’t be used in youth outreach programs either.)

I’m still a little muddled when it comes to how I want to respond to an article like this. Part of me wants to ask if this would be just as controversial if the youth group was being taken out for a game of laser tag* or paintball**, which are arguably more realistic experiences of gunfighting (especially paintball). I’ve taken in enough gamer culture over the years that it’s hard for me to drop the defensiveness that rises up when it feels like video games are being scapegoated.

But I do believe there are reasons why we should be concerned by what messages and values violent games are bringing to kids. I just don’t think that the outside-perspective analysis given by sources like this NYT article capture the depth of the issues.

For a better example of what I’d like to see more of, in Hartmut Gieselmann’s recent paper, “Ordinary Gamers – The Vanishing Violence in War Games and Its Influence on Male Gamers”:

But when you take a closer look at war games, you will realize that the violent scenes that are shown there are not nearly as gruesome as in fictional games featuring monsters and vampires.

…violence will only be recognized as entertaining for the gamer… when he (much more than 90 Percent of war gamers are male) can draw a strict line between the real world and the non real gaming world – otherwise he would be scared by what he sees and stop feeling comfortable.

…By just pointing at the most violent games, critics overlook that war games have a much greater impact on gamers’ opinions and their world views because they do not show the actual violence.

Which is more dangerous in the hands of our children – fantasy-setting violence which jars the senses, or toned down violence depicted in real-world settings which numbs us to the ugly reality of real warfare? (Answering “both” is fine; it’d be an improvement over most critics and watchdog groups who fixate only on the most bloody games.)

I clearly can’t end this in a way which wraps up my thoughts into a coherent conclusion, because I don’t yet have one. How about I just end off by saying, anyone who buys Halo 3 for a youth group and hands it uncritically to 12-year-olds that I know and care about will probably get a scowl and a talking-to from me. Grrr!
*which is awesome, by the way.

**which, when I played for the first time about four months ago, hurt like heck and left a still-visible mark on my body. Also the masks fog up in the first 30 seconds which is lame. My ideal solution: outdoor laser tag.

Loading… August 2, 2007

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Oh, and by the way there’s a new journal out from the Canadian Game Studies Association.  Loading… is a free-access journal with topics across the full range of game studies.  Just register a user name and log in and you’ll be able to give it a read.

I highly recommend Kevin Schut’s “Continuity and Discontinuity: An Experiment in Comparing Narratives Across Media” which looks at how mythically-styled narrative makes the transition to the medium of digital games.  I’ve spoken with Kevin lately, and his Media Ecology perspective on how mythic and spiritual topics change as they move into games has given me a better perspective on what I’ve sort of kind of been saying before – that getting meaningful faith and spirituality concepts into digital games can be really hard to do well given the nature of games themselves.

Getting it August 2, 2007

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A quick point to something I just dropped on my general game design blog which is somewhat relevant.

I’m still debating why I keep these things separate when I now have three or four different blogs and/or web spaces that I’m only touching once every month or three. I think if I can figure out how to just create separate news feeds for different topics, I’ll centralize all this faithgames / game design / poetry / whatever else stuff onto one website and just make sure it’s easy for you to ignore categories you don’t care about.

Alternately, I’m open to the possibility of making this a group blog and keeping it as a separate entity. If you’re interested or actively working in combining faith topics and games in some way that you feel like sharing with the world, feel free to drop me a note.

Designing for the tools on hand June 2, 2007

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Quick thought; I’ve often approached this from the perspective of looking for faith-related themes and trying to see how they can be expressed through the methods of game design.  But what about coming at it from the opposite direction as well?  Perhaps it’s equally important to begin by considering major elements of game design, and then explore how they relate to belief and religion and faith.

One off the top of my head is the idea of achievement.  Games, when designed well, are a powerful way to create a sense of achievement in the player.  With that as our starting point, what can we discover as we move towards expressing religious and spiritual thought?

For religions with an explicit sense of achievement through concepts such as reincarnation, there’s a strong and immediate connection.  However, for beliefs which de-emphasize achievement things can get tricky.  I believe there might be things worth deconstructing and exploring even there, though.

For example, say I start with an understanding of Christianity in which there is less emphasis on achievement when compared to sin and forgiveness which cannot be earned but only given as a gift.  Obviously at this point, a traditional game structure is going to have a hard time relating; games need a goal that you work towards, and nobody wants to play a game in which you simply ask, “Can I win now?” and the rules then say, “Okay!”  But is this an endpoint, or is this a conflict which can be explored?

Perhaps the expectation of achievement in a game can be used to shed light on the modern tendency to place notions of achievement within Christianity, despite what it teaches; for example, the expectation that only those who are some sort of spiritual “elite” will experience the miraculous, or the converse notion that a Christian claiming to experience something supernatural must inherently be claiming to be “more spiritual” than someone who doesn’t share that experience.

There might not be a lot there in that particular example, but I thought I’d get this posted somewhere so that I’m forced to remember to think about it later.  Reversing the design process is the key idea that I ought to remember to keep in mind, but I can’t stand writing about how something should be done without at least giving an example of what that could look like.

Vancouver IGS May 16, 2007

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Just a quick note to any who may be interested but aren’t checking both blogs I’m writing here, I wrote up a quick summary of my favorite parts of the Vancouver International Game Summit that happened a couple weeks ago.

I should probably just combine the two blogs at some point. I had it in my head to keep this blog specific to the theme and put general game design thoughts elsewhere. But since I post to the game design blog even less frequently than here I’m not sure how much anyone would even notice the change.

Critical Simulation stuff April 22, 2007

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I’ve been working my way through First Person, a collection of essays on new media, games, and related goodness. A chapter which I meant to blog about immediately after reading was Gonzalo Frasca’s “Videogames of the Oppressed“.

Unfortunately one point which he briefly mentioned got under my skin so deeply that I wanted to read his full thesis which this paper was based on before trying to respond. Since his thesis is, well, thesis-sized and my attention span is limited I haven’t gotten that far yet. So rather than nitpick on the ability of games to make moral statements, I’ll come back to that at some other time so that I can get on with the business of recommending the rest of the paper.

I love his concept of creating an open forum where people modify each other’s game designs as a method of communicating different points of view on a problem or situation. It would be great if someone would set up such a website, where games that were uploaded would have source included and allow people to upload modified games that would be referenced by the site to the original. On the other hand, aside from some of the cross-referencing features it’s possible that such a discussion forum could be created on an existing online community such as the art-focused CodeTree or the relatively open games portal Kongregate.

Anyway, if you’re interested in ideas of games as critical simulation, go give Frasca’s paper a read, and the rest of the section on Critical Simulation is worthwhile as well.

Gaming 101 for Parents March 21, 2007

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Last year I mentioned the book What Every Parent Needs To Know About Video Games by Richard Abanes. The sneak peek preview that the book’s website gave was enough to make me ready to recommend it. I recently picked up a copy and reading the whole book only makes my recommendation stronger.

Abanes is unashamedly writing this book from the perspective of an avid gamer, casually sharing some of his favorite gaming experiences. But while it’s easy to get caught up in what one loves about gaming and forget the negative, Abanes pulls no punches when it comes to describing the kind of games that parents should watch out for. The book does a well balanced job of covering the highs and lows of what a game can be.

In fact, “well balanced” describes so many aspects of this book that I’m liable to start sounding like a broken record. Abanes’ description of the ESRB rating system is thorough and he holds it up to other media rating systems such as movie ratings as one of the better systems out there. However, he also cautions parents that while the ESRB system is better than its peers in other media it’s still fallible and in his opinion has rated some games a bit on the low side. Abanes’ analysis of the issue of game legislation is dead on as well. He focuses attention on the poor wording of the proposed bills which undermines their usefulness, while acknowledging that clear-headed legislation which recognizes the value of the ESRB rating system could actually be helpful.

What I love about this book the most is that it’s clearly written by someone from my side of the gamer/non-gamer cultural divide. This isn’t someone who is scared by these newfangled videe-oh games trying to dig up research to uncover their dark secrets. This is a book by someone who knows the world of video gaming firsthand, has seen both the good and the bad and is letting parents know the whole picture. The book drives home the points which the thoughtful members of the gaming community have been pushing for years – that ratings are useful tools that parents need to take seriously, and that games can be everything from an inspiring thoughtful experience to lighthearted fun to gruesome and tasteless (like most any other form of expression).

In short, Richard Abanes has saved me from the nagging urge to write this book myself. Thank you!

Happy Hannukah! December 15, 2006

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What better way to celebrate eight days of gift-giving goodness than with a free game? Manifesto Games is giving away a free copy of The Shivah (which I reviewed last month), one copy for every day of Hannukah.

This is the part where I’d make a Hannukah joke, if I knew a good one.  But I can’t even tell a dreidl from, er, whatever else is associated with Hannukah.  (Feel free to share festive jokes in the comments, especially if you can explain them to me.)

Random updates November 30, 2006

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So, I did end up buying DEFCON, and it is in fact amazing. The atmosphere it creates through both visuals, and the spooky background music / sounds really reinforces the notion that the “game” you’re playing is incredibly detached from a very serious and horrific reality. When you launch a nuclear attack on an enemy city, you can hear muted sobs in the background. Very chilling. And yet, the game itself is very well-balanced and worth playing, especially playing multiplayer with friends.

Nothing else incredibly relevant has crossed my paths lately. I’ve been playing some World of Warcraft in my spare time, which certainly has “spiritual” elements in terms of the game’s fictional world. But frankly, it’s the usual hodge-podge of miscellaneous elements that you find in most generic fantasy. You’ve got the forces of The Light (paladins, good priests) vs. demonic and “shadow” stuff (evil priests, warlocks), you’ve got nature-worshipping druids, you’ve got your basic “neutral” magic, and probably some other elements I’m missing. The actual story is somewhat interesting, but to be honest it’s not that essential a part of the gameplay itself. There are some interesting highlights I’ve seen while playing it on and off over the last couple of years: a Tauren quest that tests your faith by having you jump off a cliff (with no promise that you’ll survive); the Blood Elf backstory, based in WoW and Warcraft 3, which presents magic use as a physical addiction; strange stories of the Undead fighting their corruption and valuing their remaining shreds of humanity. But mostly it’s just been good gameplay with a mild-to-nonexistant message.

Also, the maker of The Shivah, which I reviewed earlier, is now working on a new title being released by Wadjet Eye Games called The Blackwell Legacy.