Drowning in the Details

blenderIt’s hard to remember when you’re running around inside a crazy realistic, yet ultimately unreal world, that everything you see is built with lines of code. And that all the code does is turn switches on and off.  Way down deep – it is still just ones and zeros.

Back in the beginning, when I was writing those lines of code in Basic on a Commodore Pet, I felt incredibly powerful knowing that I could tell the computer to turn a certain pixel on the screen ‘on’ with a single command. I understood exactly what that line of code did and how it worked.

Now, 35 years later, I’m building a 3d model of a kitchen cabinet. I’m still manipulating switches, but I don’t really know what all those switches do anymore.  There are too many layers between me and the ones and zeros, I can’t see how it all works as clearly as I used to.

While I love learning new things, there comes a point where I wonder why I bother.  If I’m not really understanding exactly how all this works, if I’m just blindly following the lessons of the tutorial, if I find myself sighing one more time when the tutorial says, “We don’t have time to go into the details now, but just click here to do this,” what’s the point?

It would be a lot easier and faster to just buy the 3d models I need for my project. This could be a whole ‘time vs money’ lesson – it would be much more efficient to spend my money on someone else’s work – they can make what I want in a tenth of the time – and I have lots code and animation stuff to do that I am already good at.  I don’t need to control every aspect of the project, it would be better to let go of some of the details.

But… at the moment, I have lots of time and no money.

And… I would love to say, in the end, I did it all myself.

Besides – who am I kidding – I’m a total control freak – which is why I’m working on this crazy project all by myself in the first place.

Alright – break over – time to get back to pushing pixels.

 

 

 

Muscle Memory

One of the signs of a good video game is how quickly you can forget you are using a controller or keyboard to move around in the game’s world. There is nothing like the immersive feeling of living inside the magic of a well rendered environment. I’m mostly thinking about 3D games, but I’m sure that people really into a 2D game, (think space invaders or pac-man – where all the movement is with in two dimensions, up/down & left/right,) also soon realize that the the thought, “go there” doesn’t include a specific command to a finger, you just go there.

It helps that most games use the same keys or buttons to make similar things happen. Such as moving forward. Usually on a keyboard you use the ‘W’ key to move forward.  On a controller, you push the left hand toggle forward.  Doesn’t matter who makes the game – if they want people to feel comfortable moving around in the world they’ll stick to what players already know.

But for people new to gaming, it is hard to remember what to push when. And that is, I think, what keeps a lot of people away from video games. If you didn’t learn when you were five, when your mind, in its most absorptive state, memorized a hundred new things a day without even trying, controlling an avatar for the first time can almost induce motion sickness.

women-with-goggles-riding-a-bikeBut in the end, it is just muscle memory. Like riding a bike. When you learn to ride a bike, or when you are back on one for the first time in a decade, it seems all you can do to just stay upright. Feet pedal, hands stear, spine balances. But soon, you are just riding. Your body just does it.

You just…  go. there.

Like everything else in life, riding a bike, controlling an avatar…  it takes practice to get to the point where you stop looking at your fingers and just enjoy the sights and sounds.

I wish there was a way that people who have never played in a 3D environment could experience the immersiveness of a beautiful game, without the steep learning curve. I think Virtual Reality will get us there eventually, but in the meantime, there are a lot of people missing out on the magic.

 

 

What was your first video game?

1024px-telegames-atari-pong
Wikipedia – The Sears Tele-Games Atari Pong console, released in 1975.

Mine was Pong. Yes, I’m that old. My dad was always into the latest gadgets. He probably bought it at Sears. I remember the knobs to move the paddles on the screen and the clunky switch that would turn the TV into a game.  This was all when I was about five or six I think. So, really, I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t such a thing as a game you could play on a screen.

And, for the purpose of this blog post, let’s be clear, a ‘Video Game’ is an interactive experience on a screen.  End of definition.  It is really just that simple. If you are so inclined, you can talk about your favorite genre of video game and tell me all about how it is the only real video game, but I will just laugh at you. Technically speaking, there is no difference between Candy Crush and Call of Duty.  They both are bits of code used to put graphics on a screen that you manipulate with your hands.

Whatever. Why do people argue about these things?  Why can’t we all just say how wonderful it is to live in a world where not only do video games exist, but we have the leisure time to play them?

I’m reasonably certain that everyone who reads this has, at one time or another, played a video game. Either in an arcade, or on a console or on the very screen where you are reading these words.  Yes, if you’ve played solitaire or minesweeper on a screen, then you have played a video game. They all count.

Now, for no other reason than I like to talk about it, I’m going to list my gamer history.  If you don’t know any of the stuff I’m talking about here, I feel bad for you.  You missed out on a lot of fun.

  • Pong was the gateway console game for me. The Atari 2600 was next, then the Nintendo Entertainment System, NES for short.
  • On the PC I started with text based adventures: Zork and Suspended (a terrifying game!) and Amnesia – never finished that one.  I played all the Sierra games, and Starflight – best game ever.
  • Then I had a long gap in time where I was surrounded by technophobes. Came back to PC games via Oblivion and WoW, and back to consoles when I bought a Wii – with the excuse that it could be used for exercise.
  • I went the microsoft route, xBox, xBox 360 and now xBox One. Loved the Fable series, and Skyrim. Loved riding the horses in Red Dead Redemption, though I never finished that one. Fallout 3 and 4…  Star Wars Battlefront… So many more.  And, I am not afraid to admit – Just Dance 3 and 4.
  • On PC – I have too many games in my Steam account to list, but I’ll mention Portal and Portal 2, Kerbal Space Program, and the latest favorite: No Man’s Sky.

Video games are such a core part of my personal history, I can’t imagine my life without them. And neither can you. Again – you have played games on your computer or your phone, I’m sure.  Maybe you had a Speak and Spell as a kid?  That counts too, even if it was only a glorified calculator – though, ET used it to phone home, didn’t he?

Anyway – my whole point is, even if you think you are not, you probably are a gamer.  It isn’t a separate part of the culture.  It’s like music.  Everyone listens to music. Some people get really, really passionate about it, others only turn on the radio while they’re driving – but no one would ever say, oh, music is something I never hear.

It just occured to me – using an ATM could fit into my definition as well.  And that’s a game you almost always win, isn’t it?

Video games are everywhere.

 

 

 

 

Lazy Thinking

Ok – so you might have heard of this woman already… Anita Sarkeesian is an über modern feminist and pop culture critic. Recently, she took on the gaming industry and the game boys fought back. They literally threatened to kill her, stalked her all over the internet and turned their harassment into a kind of social media game.

If you want to know more about the backlash you can watch this.

I had heard about her, and the game boys reaction, probably saw some snippet of her talking and wrote her off as an extremist not worth paying attention to. But in a moment of perverse, “This will hurt, but it will be good for me to watch something I don’t agree with,” I watched the first episode of her “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” series just to see what all the fuss was about.

Here’s the thing – The first half of the video made me roll my eyes and had my mouse hovering over the back button. But I forced myself to keep going to the end. And I am glad I did. It is at the end of the video – and at the end of all her videos – where she draws together all the points she’s made into a truly coherent statement. Full of truth and seriously thought-provoking.

She is truly brilliant. And fearless. She attacks beloved themes with scythe-like words and shows us the horrifying truth of the sexism that lurks beneath today’s media, whether you want to see it or not.

The conclusion I have drawn from watching her well researched and intelligently written videos is that we are lazy.

Lazy

All of us are using the same old mechanisms (the tropes and stereotypes) for storytelling over and over again because it is familiar and easy and socially acceptable. With a bit of effort on the part of writers and editors and artists we could create a world where a person’s gender doesn’t really enter into the story at all. Or where their gender adds to their character, instead of being a crutch, or something they have to rise above. We could use our massively creative brains and think of new plots and new character traits and new scenarios. We can do it.

And here is another conclusion I have drawn: Watch the whole thing before you judge. (again – lazy!) The beginnings of her videos are hard to watch. They really are, even now after I’ve watched so many. She attacks the things we love, shoving its flaws in our face. But just give her the benefit of the doubt, stay with her to the end and I promise she will change the way you view the world and make you think new thoughts.

To me, any chance I get to think about things in a new way is worth the effort.

Once you go Creative, why go back to Normal?

Both Sim City and Minecraft, and probably other games too, offer a ‘creative’ or ‘sandbox’ mode.  This means that the game turns off all the monsters and disasters and gives you unlimited access to materials. With all that potential wealth at your fingertips, why would people play any other way?

See all that dark brown ground - very bad pollution!
See all that dark brown ground – very bad pollution!

During my recent bout of Sim City playing, I at first resisted the urge to play in the sandbox.  I did manage to build a good city with a somewhat stable budget, but large problems loomed. The coal that made the city so much money was running out and the ground pollution caused by the mining and the trash was slowly seeping across the land towards my dwindling water supply. Random tornadoes and Godzilla had ruined important structures. ( I could go on detailing the various strategies to handle those problems – but I haven’t figured it all out yet.)

It got really frustrating, so I started a new city, this time in sandbox mode, and it was good.  Ah – the perfect city – clean energy, low taxes, lots of education for all those happy little sims.  Lovely.

So Pretty and Perfect
So Pretty and Perfect

Funny thing though…  I haven’t played since the day I built that city.

I haven’t played Minecraft in ages.  In Minecraft’s normal mode there are Creepers.  These monsters do nothing but chase after you and blow you up.  The explosion scatters all the precious materials that you have gathered around the area where you died, potentially losing them forever.  If you happen to be standing next to the awesome structure you’ve just spent hours building, they blow that up too.  All the other monsters in Minecraft I can deal with, but the Creepers freak me out.  So I play in creative mode and build sprawling manor houses or majestic castles, and then…  After a moment or two of admiring my work, I turn the game off.

It is hard to go back to normal mode, with its money problems and lack of resources after playing in creative mode.  But there is something about watching in horror as a tornado rips through the really expensive hospital you just plopped down (and, yes, Plop is the word they use in Sim City to place a structure on the ground – weirdos.)  that, while making you want to punch a hole in your monitor, also makes you want to keep playing, in an, “I’ll show you,,” sort of way.

It is the monsters that make the games interesting.  Games without challenges might be easy and stress free, but they’re not addictive.  They don’t wake you up in the middle of the night with a mind full of ideas on how to solve the latest crisis.  We’ve all got these gigantic, problem-solving brains – if we aren’t using them to solve problems, well, what’s the point?

Next time I play Sim City, I’ll go back to my original, troubled city and see what I can come up with to fix it.  The perfect sandbox city will hover in my memory as the goal for ‘reality,’ but I doubt I’ll ever play in it again. Perfect is Boring.

I’m a Gamer Woman, Dammit

One of my favorite places on the web to find help for the game (SWTOR) is Dulfy.net.  I guess the pink script of her logo should have tipped me off, but I did not realize at first that Dulfy is female.

assumed that a gamer blog would be run by someone male.

Why? Why, despite being a female gamer myself, do I too believe in the pimply, teenage boy gamer stereotype?

When my boyfriend and I pop over to the local pub to grab some sustenance after a long afternoon of laughing our asses off playing LA Noire, (that game makes me laugh more than any intentionally funny game ever could) we share the funny moments with our gaming friends there.  Those men (and they are all men) think my boyfriend is the luckiest man in the world. Why? Because not only do I not hate the games, or sigh and roll my eyes when he talks about them, I play them too.

All women are supposed to hate video games, not play them, according to the stereotype.

Am I being a bad representative of my gender when I say I don’t want to fight against these stereotypes?  Because of those stereotypes, I am considered unique, if not downright cool!

But maybe by even writing this I am dating myself.  Dulfy looks young in her picture.  Maybe the millennial girls play more video games than we generation X women?  Let’s do some research…

According to this report (read the whole thing – it is amazing!) by the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of a gamer is 37 and the gender split is almost even.  Now, this report includes all games, even silly phone apps and things like farmville – which I refuse to even look at, much less play.  But still, it means that the stereotype is going to die, and sooner than I would like.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, the only scifi/fantasy ‘thing’ my non-geek sister had any awareness of was Star Wars.  (And I think the only reason for that was her crush on Harrison Ford.)  She used to be the stereotype – sighing when her husband spent a night online with his Counter-Strike friends, but now she plays Minecraft and Rayman Origins with her kids and is writing an iOS game herself.  She knows all about Game of Thrones and Doctor Who and when Ender’s Game comes out in November, (starring Harrison Ford) she’ll probably go see it, despite never having heard of the book before now.  My point is, there is nothing inherently masculine in being a scifi fan or an online or console gamer anymore.

To my dearly beloved feminist friend who wants me to fight against these stereotypes, I say, No! I won’t do it.  They will fade away on their own as the next generation of women like Dulfy, who think nothing of their gender when posting online help to a previously male dominated gaming community, come into their own.  Too soon, aging female GenXer gamers like myself, who were once cool and unique, will look like idiots if they make a big deal about being a girl.  The gaming world will sigh and say, who cares what plumbing you have in RL*, what counts is the gear you bring against the next boss*.

*RL – Real Life
*boss – a non-player-character in a game that is very hard to defeat – usually signifies the end of a level or story-line.

The Game vs Real Life

Should I worry when the line between real life and a computer game seems to blur?

My boyfriend and I were walking along the street, chatting about this and that, when I saw a sign in a store window that contained the initialism, “GSI.”  Earlier that morning he and I were searching in the game world (SWTOR) for a GSI vendor.  In the game world, GSI stands for Galactic Standard Industries.  I have no idea what this real life version of those letters meant.

SWTOR Empire logo
Come to the dark side (Photo credit: Derringdos)

Here is what happened in my brain during the one second of seeing the sign:

  • Millisecond 1 – Eyes input visual of sign in store window
  • Millisecond 250 – Brain recognizes letters
  • Millisecond 500 – Oh, that is the place we need to get the next quest from
  • Millisecond 750 – Realization of what I just thought
  • Millisecond 1000 – Laughter

My boyfriend turned to me and asked why I was suddenly laughing so hard.  It took me a while to catch my breath enough to tell him, and of course he thought it was hysterical.

And then it happened again.

This time the game was Sim City, and the real life prompt was an abandoned building.  In Sim City it is good strategy to immediately bulldoze abandoned buildings to avoid creating homeless people and to maintain your tax revenue. Probably a good strategy in real life, but not nearly as easy to do:  I held up my hand in the direction of the real life building, moved my finger in a mouse clicking motion and said aloud, “bulldoze.”

English: Abandoned Building
Bulldoze in one click? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My boyfriend almost fell over, he was laughing so hard.  He is threatening to write the two events up on facebook.

I guess I just beat him to it.  But should I be worried?  Is this yet another sign that I am gaming too much, or is it just evidence of a healthy imagination?

What do you think?

My Occasional Obsessive Tendencies

English: Cropped by : Fourohfour, to remove ir...
If you don’t get the Cheetos reference, good for you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allow me to share with you my list of activities for the last five days:

Sleep – six hours a night
Eat – about two hours a day
Play Sim City – half of all the remaining time
Play SWTOR* – the other half of the remaining time

Is this obsessive behavior?

(A brief aside for any readers who are also gamers:

 SWTOR just released its first expansion last month and this past week was the first opportunity my boyfriend and I had to take our avatars from level 50 up to the new high level of 55. If any of you out there play SWTOR, let me know what you think of the new content.  I was not pleased.

Sim City does not deserve the negative hype it has received – I have had no troubles playing and the ‘traffic problem’ is not a problem if you lay out your city properly.  It is an amazing game.  I think because of my programming background I have a better understanding of how the ‘sims’ move and act.  I don’t expect them to behave like individuals.  They are simply code.  Sophisticated code, yes, but in the end, they are just 1s and 0s.  If you treat them as such, you won’t be disappointed when they don’t act they way you would in a real-life situation.  There are patterns to their behavior, and once you determine the pattern you can successfully manipulate it, and earn your simulated city millions of simulated dollars.)

You can call my five-day, almost non-stop gaming obsessive if you like.  And in a way it is.  But I wasn’t really neglecting anything.  I worked on a large project two weeks ago and I have another two weeks of work starting soon.  My boyfriend is applying to every single graphic artist job he can find out there.  So what is the harm?

I’ll tell you.  The harm is that, while I am sleeping, I am dreaming of the games. Even when I am doing other things, buying groceries, cooking a meal, taking a shower, I am always thinking about the games.  In my mind I am constantly strategizing, running ‘what if’ scenarios, and planning my next move. I can’t wait to finish up the things I have to do in order to get back to the games.

After a while it starts to hurt.  My mind churns and spins and focuses on this one thing for so long, it physically starts to ache.  Not like a headache, more like a strained muscle.

Thankfully, I am a strong-willed person.  When this sort of mind-ache starts I know what I have to do.  I have to stop playing so much.  I set an alarm clock up across the room to limit my playing time.  I call people on the phone and have long conversations about anything other than the game.  I find a good book and go into the other room, the one without a computer in it, to read.  And eventually, I will lose interest.

Next week I will be off somewhere working, and this will all fade away.  But for now, I am ending this post because my boyfriend and I need to kill an absurdly difficult droid thingy.  I dreamed last night of a new way to try it… wish us luck!

*

SWTOR – Star Wars,The Old Republic