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Gaming 101 for Parents March 21, 2007

Posted by joshg in General.
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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!

Thoughts from the Left Behind: EF demo January 6, 2007

Posted by joshg in Christianity, mainstream games, prayer.
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I’m back from a nice Christmas spent with family, and I finally tried out the Left Behind: Eternal Forces demo. I guess it felt like an obligation at this point to at least try it, but the demo didn’t seem to pull any surprises on my point of view.

The prayer mechanic worked as I’d heard, and I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a simple model of both prayer and the effects of prayer, which manages to convey some interesting messages. Units need to pray regularly to keep from falling away into neutrality, which expresses how a Christian needs to keep in active contact with God to maintain their faith. (I like this.) On the other hand, prayer never actually does anything external to the unit in question – ie. no healing prayer, no asking for divine intervention. Admittedly, this is hard to map into game rules without turning prayer into a magic-like guaranteed divine action.

(A whole lot more below the break.)

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Happy Hannukah! December 15, 2006

Posted by joshg in General.
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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.)

Left Behind pegged as **Violence!** December 14, 2006

Posted by joshg in Christianity, mainstream games, morality & ethics, violence.
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An article from USA Today sums up some of the controversy in Christian circles over Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

It’s hard to pick a quote when there’s so much verbal sniping going both ways, but my favorite has to be this one from The Tim LaHaye himself:

“These groups don’t attack other violent video games. Their real attack is on our theology,” says Tim LaHaye, co-author of the novels, who endorsed the game.

I think this is a case of him saying something true that implies something completely untrue. Give me a second and I’ll try to make that statement make sense.

Do these groups attack other violent video games? Well, let’s just assume that they don’t for now, although that’s probably not true of all the groups involved. Is their real attack on the Left Behind theology? Okay, sure. But does that mean that their real objection isn’t to the violence? Nay, says I. The issues of violence and theology aren’t independant here – the way that violence is used as part of gameplay is a theological message.

LeHaye has a good reason to try and deflect the notion that the objection to this game stems from the general issue of “Violent Video Games”. For some, it probably does, but the reason that Christian groups are placing this game higher on their moral agendas than, say, Dawn of War certainly isn’t because Left Behind is more violent. But the fact that this is an attack on theology certainly doesn’t mean that it can be brushed aside, thinking, “Oh, that’s one of those academic theological differences that Christians don’t agree on, anyway.”

The theological topic is incredibly relevant: when does our faith justify violence?

Don’t try and tell me that issue is purely academic in our world today. I’ll laugh.

Random updates November 30, 2006

Posted by joshg in General.
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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.

That Other Reality November 30, 2006

Posted by joshg in General.
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What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed is a tricky and surreal puzzle game (with an absolutely awesome name). You play, well, I’m not even sure what it is you’re playing as, but on one half of the screen you’re busily trying to sort out futuristic fast-food orders. On the other half, you’re an oddly abstract Japanese figure who floats about doing … something that’s explained in Japanese, which I can’t read, so drat. The stylistic differences between the two halves of the screen are very dramatic and intriguing.

What struck me as relevant about this game in terms of “faith games” is the way it simultaneously presents dual realities that overlap each other. You have two parallel mouse cursors, so any action in one reality automatically affects the other as well. However, the puzzles play some tricks with this, in that some controls which are set left-to-right in one reality will be top-bottom in the other. This way, you can choose from the two realities independantly. This also means that the solutions to the two puzzles are not simply identical, which is probably a good thing since then the differences would be superficial and meaningless from a gameplay perspective.

This is definitely a unique and interesting approach to representing overlapping realities, something that occurs in many religions in terms of intertwined physical and spiritual worlds. Something to keep in mind for any future faithgame-creators out there as a source of inspiration.

(via GameSetWatch)

Review of The Shivah November 2, 2006

Posted by joshg in indie games, Judaism, retro games.
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About a month ago, I mentioned The Shivah, an adventure game that deals strongly with issues of Judaism, and faith in general. (“deals strongly with issues”? Gah, I’ve written too many English essays lately!) To my surprise, Dave Gilbert left a comment offering a review copy, and I gladly took him up on it. The long and the short of it is that I got to play through the entirety of what is not only an excellent indie adventure game, but also one of the best examples of portraying faith through a game that I’ve ever seen.

So, a review (after the break)!

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Everybody Dies September 21, 2006

Posted by joshg in indie games, morality & ethics.
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Introversion Software, makers of the game Darwinia (which I’ve blogged about before), are about to release their newest game, DEFCON. You can find out more at the game’s website, http://www.everybody-dies.com.*

Inspired by the 1983 cult classic film, Wargames, DEFCON superbly evokes the tension, paranoia and suspicion of the Cold War era, playing on the fascinating aspects of psychological gameplay that occur during strategic nuclear warfare.

I’ve already preordered this one via Steam (hey, $5 off the $15 price if you preorder). It hooked me in pretty much instantly; the premise is excellent, the visual style is fantastic, the gameplay sounds like a lot of fun, and the trailer has just the right combination of hype, dry sarcasm, and disturbing imagery reminiscent of Cold War era propaganda.

DEFCON also brings to light some serious ethical questions, and I think Introversion makes it clear that they’re being deliberate in dragging these questions out into the open. The Steam forums for DEFCON have already had people asking questions like, is it right to play a game where your goal is to decimate your enemy’s civilian populations while hopefully only most of your civilians die in the process? Is this game, despite being a military simulation, giving an anti-war message?  Who has these nukes in real life, anyway, and can we trust them with such a horrific power?

There are nine more days to go before I can let you know how the game itself answers the questions it raises.  It’s fantastic to see a game come around that’s able to confront people with this kind of Hard Problem, and look to be a blast to play despite (or because of) it.

* Yes, I linked it twice, because an URL that awesome deserves to be emphasized.

A good overview of “Islamogames” September 19, 2006

Posted by joshg in indie games, Islam.
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1Up has an excellent article, reprinted from their affiliate magazine Computer Gaming World, on the world of (what they term) “Islamogames“.

Though relatively small, Islamogaming is also a diverse field, ranging from amateur projects by students, unabashed anti-Zionist propaganda produced by an internationally recognized terrorist organization, religious games produced to teach Islam to kids, and a set of more sober games designed to explore the complex realities of Middle Eastern history.

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The Rabbi, in the Library, with the Menorah September 16, 2006

Posted by joshg in indie games, Judaism.
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Quoting from the Manifesto Games writeup:

Rabbi Stone Has a Crisis of Faith

Before we go any farther, please notice the headline. When was the last time you heard a game described in remotely similar terms?

The Shivah is an old-style graphical adventure game by Davelgil Games. It’s your everyday “Rabbi questions his faith and becomes a murder suspect” sort of adventure game plot (which is to say, unlike pretty much any game plot ever).

If you’re an old-school PC gamer like myself, you’ll quickly be able to look past the dated graphics – in fact, they might even be a nostalgic throwback to the days of Lucasarts and Sierra adventures. And if you’re interested in works that explore the nature of faith, you’ll probably be hooked immediately by the game’s beginning. What other game opens with a film noir intro speech, follows it up with the Problem of Evil and a confession of lost faith, adds a dash of sarcastic dialogue and then throws in a murder investigation that includes a large donation to the Rabbi in the victim’s will (just in case the hero wasn’t conflicted enough for you yet)?

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