Dad and I packed up last night and were pulling our travel bags down the sidewalk towards the metro at first light. The train from Paris to London by way of the Chunnel starts in Gare du Nord (North Station) and is about an hour and a half through the channel tunnel. I’ve ferried the other way, but never gone under the channel. If ever there was a “belly of the beast” moment before an adventure, then the Chunnel is a great one. (note to self: start a novel this way!) I was surprised how quickly we moved through the darkness and emerged out into the English countryside. I suppose that’s why they call it a high-speed train, eh? No white cliffs of Dover to see on this trip.
We “alighted” at king’s cross, an oversight on my part because I thought we were going to Victoria and hadn’t really planned well. The irony was that while I’d never expected to have internet on my phone in Europe, I’d been surprised to have it in Paris as a part of my service, and when I got to London it was so slow that I couldn’t use it right away. How quickly we adapt to the (digital) crutches we are given. It was all a lesson there which resulted in some walking, a tube ride (the underground), and finally a bus to oxford, all with luggage in tow, and by the time we walked from high street to Keble college (key-bull) we were exhausted, though not jet-lagged. There is something to be said for building margins of error and flexibility into one’s plans.
We were put up in Keble’s “new” building by which I mean the 1970’s glass tower that is the deBreyne building. They call the attached college bar “the spaceship” if that is any indication of the stark aesthetic contrast to the rest of the white trim and red brick castling of the rest of the college. A great room nonetheless, and even the bathroom was only a few steps from every door, with one for every two boarders. No AC of course, but then, that’s England!
Thanks to social media and a reboot of my phone, I was able to invite the ad-hoc group to Lebanese, but did not actually meet up with any till later, where I met my first classmates face to face: Jason & Dan at the “Lamb and Flag Pub”, the “back up” meeting place of the inklings as I understand it. For us though, it was the eagle and child across St. Giles that became our backup, since the “Lamb and Flag” had closed its grill already. Since the policy is to get a table number before ordering, we three ended up meeting some strangers and sitting in the very corner the inklings were purported to have spent their time by the fire (if the signage is to be trusted,) and struck up a grand conversation about what cultural apologetics is, why it matters, and how we knew each other so well despite having just “met” moments ago.
Perhaps technology is not such a crutch after all? When used to make real human connections it enables. When relied upon to stand in for real human thought it merely becomes enabling.
It seems only fitting to begin numbering as the Europeans number the floors, and if the metaphor holds then this week will lead to higher learning and understanding of the inklings, the medieval world, and of oxford’s role in apologetics generally. It is two days until the first itinerary meet-up, so I am calling these “day -x” the proverbial basement entries. Indeed, this trip began well before the class started, in that dad and I went to Paris, France first. This was meaningful for me in a few ways, first that dad would take me on what he calls his “last trip” overseas, that mom would defer to me for that companionship, that I was able to finally return to Paris after seventeen years, and that I was finally able to see the Louvre, a personal high to visit with dad, since it was closed and they were on strike in June of 1999 when I was there the first time and I recorded in those journals eating in the café and shopping at the gift shop then going back to wash socks in the hotel sink.
(Note: These images are from my 1999 France journal - I was twenty three.)
Yet, there is a subdued sadness to this (part of the) trip for me so far. I have seen over the last four days a level of fear and paranoia in the French that has seemingly pushed aside the pride and excitement about their country I remember from my first trips and also recorded in those 1999 journals that “…you would think that the French invented Christianity, or at least that they seem to think they do!” – yet this time there was much that was fenced off, shut down, and generally under guard by highly armed and militarized police men and army, I suppose due to the Paris attacks that happened this year around the city. There is a national identity that has shifted away from Catholicism and history and pride in being French, and instead a population shift and an internationalization of Paris (at least?) That I can feel. Four days was enough in the “basement’ of Paris. I’m sad for France.
(Author’s Note: the attacks I referred to here were the coordinated November terror attacks on Paris, but it was actually different things that had caused the long-term three-month security watch Dad and I caught the tail end of. It’s worth noting that our first day in France we learned of the police shootings in Dallas, and after leaving Paris the van driver terror attack occurred in nice, and the Baton Rouge shootings came to light literally while we flew home. I’m sad for the world. How badly we nations need Christ!)
I am going to Europe again, and as I have before, I am journaling my travels. What I have not done before is to post these pages on the internet, but that is perhaps in part due to the fact that originally my travel journals were written by my twenty-something year old self in the late nineties, and certain blogging technologies were not what they are today. Also, my first trips to Italy, England, France, and Spain were in the context of art history tours for credit through Hardin Simmons, and so it stands to reason that the journals taken down during that time had a similar function to this one, namely of being part of an assignment. This does not diminish the value of the work in any way, rather it facilitates it, as I seriously doubt I would have taken the time to write this at all otherwise.
This book has come home. I purchased it in the street fair the last day of my last trip in Oxford in July, 2013. My plan is to scan and upload these tiny pages, hopefully my scribbles are legible enough by the magical boxes we call computers, that I will not be forced to transcribe by retyping it, but either way, I prefer to keep the book in my pocket and the pen handy. I have my clipboard for lecture notes, and my phone for photos, so with these four tools I should be set to record this adventure into apologetics on this, what will be my third trip to my favorite city in the world (having beaten out Barcelona by some measure) – Oxford, England.
(Author’s Note: I was able to scan and convert the handwritten entries without retyping – a digital Warnie if you will - but have edited for spelling, paragraph breaks, and other transcription errors where needed after the fact. I’m embedding various images and drawings as I see fit into these posts, and may attach the full image version of my handwritten entries as a PDF download eventually if I have time someday.)
It has a dork side and a bright side and it binds the universe together. I'm of course talking about Star Wars fandom and the millions of recent speculation posts! I suppose I need to shout [SPOILER!] and #SPEC or else I might violate social taboos, but this blog isn't really about any of them specifically, though I'll mention a few, so you've been warned, though I have to say that "in my day" we knew the difference between spoilers and spec. Also, get off my lawn! Oh, and also I know who Ren is. Read on!
I've been amused and interested for many years over fandom as it relates to mega properties, but there is only one Star Wars. It is king, There is no hype like Star Wars Hype, and as I've said before, there is a special kind of love for something that requires hating it. It applies to D&D, Star Wars, and poor Mr. Lucas. There is perhaps no better examination in farce of the series than "
Mr. Plinkitt's" at Red Letter Media, which is literally longer than the first film, and is a serious take on the films as told by an unreliable character. Sort of like Steven Colbert if he was homicidal and rabid, or Jon Stewart. Now, with the new film, and the 3.5 trailers (as of this moment if you include the international one) and all the toys, and the various "leaks," peeks, and freaks creating weird images like this one on the right. Cylo Ren is Luke!?! I... I mean Luke's son!... I mean his failed apprentice!... I mean his nephew! I mean... the twin brother of Fen! I mean... Oh., uh I dunno. Thing. Mole evidence is hard to argue with.
Ok, so here's the deal. There seem to be two camps on this stuff.
1) Spoilers suck!: This is the fingers-in-the-ears-camp. I respect this, because it represents the desire of people to experience a pure unbiased and unspoiled low-expectation version of a film. This is how I experienced Stargate the first time, and it resulted in over a decade of entertainment for me, in what was for a long time my favorite franchise. (Perhaps it still is - in my heart - but SG1 didn't age well.)
2) Spoilers rock!: This is the camp that wants to piece the film and all of its revelations before the the thing is even in its final edit. I think there is probably infinite diversity in infinite combinations here, but I'd identify two camps: a) the ones who enjoy the hype and enjoy the ride, disappointment be darned! b) rabid fanboy (and girl) "Enthusiastic" fans who actually contribute content. (This was a linchpin element in my Dissertation if you care.)
Given this, I'm fairly sure that we can summarize the fan action right now as everyone is enjoying the hype in their own way, and we should respect that.
Ok, so that brings me back to one of the big speculations... Who is Kylo Ren? Well, I know. I actually really know. And the first thing is that everybody with a theory is right. And also wrong. And also possibly right. Because the thing of it is, Kylo is us. He's the fan-base.
Consider the facts. There are as many tee-shirts with Vader's face on them as Luke's. Vader is the villain we loved. The one we grew up with. The one we wanted to be. The original story arc for Vader is fall and redemption. It is about father-son relationships and the nature of the dark side. It is the story that we, now many of us fathers, went to see with our fathers. (I saw Jedi with my dad. I remember it well.) Wipe cut to today. This guy with a homemade malfunctioning one-off light-saber seems to be collecting Vader memorabilia. He's going to "finish what Vader started," yet he's the bad guy. Apparently a Sith wannabe, of the order of the knights of Ren. His true identity is irrelevant right now - because he's you. He's me. He's the fan who turned against Lucas, went dark side, and said a bad thing, or thought a bad thing about some aspect of Star Wars.
Maybe it was the prequels, Jar Jar, midichlorians, or the "special editions" or that "Han shot first," but we all did it. We all were tempted by the dark side of the force. And we did it out of passion. We turned our love into hate. And we pushed Lucas away. So much so that he sold the company to Disney. This isn't bad, but we are now looking to J.J. Abrams to "save the franchise," restore the hope, bring back the magic... and a LOT of work has been put into doing that, from clever deception to teasers, to emphasis on practical effects that aren't CG.
So, wherever the story goes, and whatever happens to Kylo Ren, whomever he turns out to be... (and by my money it's Skywalker blood,) just remember - we are him. He is we. Just as Luke was Lucas, Wesley Crusher was Roddenberry, and every good story needs a villain we can love, hate, and possibly even redeem.
Most of my friends (social media or otherwise) now know that ‘the Doc’ has gone back to school. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is being a full-time-dad has freed up my brain and an appreciation for a healthy nap schedule, but the primary reason is that I’ve wanted a second Master’s degree like this one for a long time. I looked for years, studying it on my own, but didn’t find a proper program that fit me until recently. Plus, I really think that by studying the material, it will help me with a number of projects I’m working on, not the least of which is my historical fiction novel series. I’m four weeks into my studies, and so far so good!
“But Doc…?” I hear you say, “What are you studying?”
This is usually followed by an awkward pause on my end. I assure you, though, it has nothing to do with you or with embarrassment on my part. I just have yet to figure out how to respond without setting you up for a lame and obligatory joke.
“I’m studying Cultural Apologetics.” I say. It is now your turn for the awkward pause while you pretend to know what that is supposed to mean, or if I made it up for fun to mess with your head.
I’ve heard all the funny (and not so funny) responses now. From the obvious “What are you apologizing for?” to the more clever “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!” It’s just that “Apologetics” is not a word we use that way in common speech. Tricky stuff.
I even tried to head my more notoriously punny friends off by saying “Apologetics, …and I make no excuses for it!” but that that is usually followed by something clever like “Ah, I see, but are you willing to defend your position on the matter?” and groans and chuckles are had.
But stick with me here. Apologetics is a neat field. One definition of the form is: “reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.” Given that the word derives from the Greek "apologia," which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense, this makes sense. Long ago I first studied Plato’s Apology of Socrates as a freshman in community college and it spoke to me in funny ways (and not just because it is all Greek to me). The Apology is not a confession of guilt in the way we might think, but a rationalization of thoughts regarding the actions that Socrates was tried and sentenced to death for, namely: not recognizing the gods recognized by the state, inventing new deities, and corrupting the youth of Athens. He was kind of like a modern rock star. Socrates was very metal. So, Plato simply is recounting of the speech Socrates supposedly made at the trial before drinking poison. (Metal!) Thus, via The Apology, Socrates attempted to defend himself and his conduct--certainly not to apologize for it!
There are a number of Christian Apologetics programs out there, but I struggled to find one that was right for me, and not stuffy and boring. I’ve read a lot of Apologetics essays and texts over the years, some of my favorites have to do with Theistic Evolution, Noah’s Flood, and Moses and the Israelites (or should I say the Egyptians?), but the program I’m in now out of Houston Baptist University is a little different than most.
1) First off, it is a distance learning program built around the notion that “Most people don’t live in Houston.” As someone who considers Houston to be the edge of "the mission field" (along with Miami and most of Canada,) I am glad for this distinction. If you live in Houston, rest assured, I pray for you often.
2) It is an Apologetics Masters of ARTS (MAA), which is a distinction I am quite fond of. My undergrad degrees in English and Art via Education are Bachelors of Arts, where the alternative was a Bachelors of Science, with the difference being two semesters of a language degree. The BA is a more advanced degree, and the MA is a better fit for me, so there you have it. (And that’s no BS.)
3) The program has electives that represent multiple tracks. One can take a more traditional Apologetics approach, but I’m going the Cultural Apologetics route. Essentially I’m getting a biblical studies degree patty wrapped in a juicy Humanities bun. (Or is it the other way around? Whatever, pass the scriptural catchup please?) Since my Ph.D is in Humanities: Aesthetic Studies, this is a perfect way to get my foot in the door with my first “Bible Degree.”
This semester, I’m essentially taking a creative writing course, a philosophy of religion course, and a film and art history course, all within the context of Biblical Apologetics. I’ve honestly not been this excited to read my textbooks since my undergrad days, and not only are St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of Damascus on the curriculum, but so are Beowulf, Lewis, Tolkien, and Winnie the Pooh!
So, it stands to reason that some of the subject matter in this blog will change. Don’t worry, I didn’t rip up the M.Ed, or burn the Ph.D, and I’m still a transmedia, interactive story, and video game guy, (check out backward-compatible.com and youtube.com/LABventures if you don’t believe me!), so that’s not going away any time soon. I’m merely grafting a new perspective on to my work, and cranking away at my studies, my writing, my hobbies, and of course my one-year-old has center stage right now with his progress towards walking and talking.
So, yea, life is good. I’m busy, but I’m having a blast, and I’m not going to apologize for it!
***LABventures knows the builder genre, so I'm pleased by this very fun game! Highly recommended you give it a try. Special thanks to Playful for the early access codes for us to do this review! play to appear soon at https://www.youtube.com/user/LABventures***
As has been noted in the STEAM forums, his game is not MC, but you will find much that you love there, and much more that you didn't know you wanted! Try to forget what you know, and embrace that this is not a fantasy zombie crafting & building game, but rather a sci-fi tech-tree style building game. Also, just ignore the in-game currency purchase option for now, you don't need it to play and it is really just to speed stuff up that comes out pretty quickly anyway if you are a little patient.
NOTABLE COOL STUFF THAT WORKED FOR US
***The 'mining' tool that is permanently on your arm is the first clue that you are going to be doing sciency tech-driven stuff. If punching trees and storing 64 cubic meters of stuff in your pants ini other games never quite sat right then no worries - narratively you are using your portable teleportation device to store the patterns in your arm bands and thus not really carrying it around at all. Huzzah!
***The interface is very intuitive, and since you will only need 'basic crafting' for a little while, having it on a separate tab works.
***One of the best parts about the game is that the early explorative notions about 'what do I do with this?' is strong here, and you should get that initial rush you haven't felt in a long time unless you are into MC mods like AG Skies, or FTB. The learning curve is gradual though, and the game seems quite balanced, so don't panic if you hate or fear those kinds of mods.
***For example, you don't have to stumble to find and make patterns of sticks and stones on a 3x3 grid to make stuff, you just need to have the stuff available, and the right technology (like a crafting bench or extractor) and new options will appear! Crafting takes time to process though - so BE PATIENT. (Also this is where the game credits which can be purchased with micro-transactions come in, so you'd better learn to love this time-based crafting mechanic.) If you think about it, you've likely spent many hours of game time standing by a furnace waiting for something to cook or crafting a few thousand pick-axes and shovels in 'other games' - which you do NOT have to do in this game. The workload is simply shifted - it's all good!
***Always having a default weapon that you switch to with tab is also a huge win, and it really makes two-handed work seem as significant as two handedness in Skyrim, or when Bioshock 2 let you have plasmids AND weapons at the same time.
STUFF THAT DIDN'T WORK FOR US (BARRIERS)
***We were able to craft most of the early things very quickly, but some of the early items' needed like the 'wooden battery pack' were not intuitive until we realized that the tool for mining could be upgraded. Since every item has a (usually humorous) description, it seems like the early crafting should have built-in clues for what to do like "usable to upgrade your hand thingy!" or whatever. Once we figured out we actually needed a battery pack to upgrade, it also took a minute (and a happy accident of shift-clicking) to install it, and suddenly I could mine stone - a fundamental ingredient for other early stuff!
***Tied to this is that not everything is completely consistent unto the world. Mushrooms for example come in different types, and while the red ones grow on the dirt, the brown ones we needed are a texture 'in' the dirt (ie they are dirt) and I searched for a long time before figuring out that it's actually a REALLY common resource! This is critical, since it's a fundamental ingredient early on, and my game stalled for quite a while till that was solved and I stopped looking for something growing ON the ground.
***the extractor is a tad harder to navigate than other things. it boils down to the fact that your resources display but the output doesn't unless selected, reverse of the other crafting recipes in game.
***Jumping and falling took some getting used to for some reason. The jump is higher or faster than we were used to or something, and we confirmed that even though jumping feels like 'Chell from Portal,' falling from a great height is still a great way to die when trying to 'shift' crouch to the edge of a cliff. Turns out that's been mapped to 'c' now, and is a toggle that doesn't have to be held down. (Jury is still out on this, but leaning towards I don't like it since you have to turn it off again. That's two button clicks instead of one for those counting at home. Yes, I know it means you don't have to hold it down - but maybe I like to hold it down so I know what setting I'm in.); Also the right click (place block) does not repeat, that is - it won't place another block after the first one without clicking again. For those who have literally placed millions of blocks such as myself, this is a bit daunting since I see my click rate going up. Try nerd-poling up and you instantly see what I mean when you go exactly one block up and find yourself jumping like a fool then getting killed.
***Small stuff matters, so here's a few nitpicks: We couldn't get the wooden gates to open (server chat response was "there's a wooden gate?" - lol!); reach is 2 blocks not 3 as in others making wall building in a line slower; not sure if this is design or what, but killing a pigsy from even one block above means he can't hit you back.
SUGGESTIONS FOR ADDITIONS MOVING FORWARD
*Some patterns (like wood) would do well if placement was based on orientation since currently all wood planks point the same direction on top. Long a pet peeve of mine in other games.
*A "Craft All" button would be amazing! (Also the Queue is painfully short!)
*I'm not really sure how recipes and inventory are organized, but nothing stays in one place. I find that that block I thought I had is not where I thought it was, and everything keeps shifting. A toggle to turn these sorts of things on/off, and say toggle the c-button's function would go a LONG way. Heck, while you're at it just do a whole key-mapper function! I want my SHIFT key back.
THE (POTENTIAL) DEAL BREAKER
We get that a 'real-time wait' mechanic and 'inventory-based 'tech-tree' style recipe crafting' has been traded for the old MC 3x3 grid and trial and error and wasting hours crafting stone picks. We get that this game is playable without a wiki or a buddy helping and has good flow theory implemented (look it up). We also get the micro-transactions and that's how Playful will make money! We get that these payments are optional and those who buy this game now get early access plus 400 in-game credits (worth it!). We get that some people will want to pay to win...
My fear -- my worry -- my deep concern -- (AND NOTE THIS IS PURE SPECULATION!!!) is that the more advanced crafting will TAKE SOOOOO LONG... that the only realistic option is to pay to complete the crafting, and that the pricing on it COULD be so high that it becomes unplayable and non-viable at that point. If that happens, then I'm done and a very sad person. Dear Playful: DON'T PUNISH US FOR SUCCESS PLEASE! :-D
17. What are some common mistakes that you see from students who take your classes?
The most common mistake I see in my classes is a lack of time budgeting. I do my best to give really detailed syllabi, assignment expectations, and other information on my website courseblogs which I'm convinced is more than most professors, yet I still often see final projects that reek of poor planning and the 'night before' syndrome. I think this is probably due to a combination of overconfidence and underestimation of the work involved, and I believe that the best skill that my students can learn is the ability to break assignments down into meaningful chunks in order to plan out and do the research and planning required for the assignment. This is especially true in research papers and design documents and the like. I have gotten to the point now, where after grading literally thousands of assignments, I can glance at a work an know how much time a student spent in the planning phase. This is detrimental in the industry, and I hire only students who have demonstrated their ability to plan well. Also, I know that these same students are the ones who are most successful in the industry, while others experience multiple lay-offs and do not last in their jobs.
18. What games in both the past or present do you believe have had the greatest impact on the game industry?
That's an enormous question, but I think that so long as we don't assume there is a connection between 'impact' and 'good' then we can say with certainty that the big games that are making the money like GTA V and Assassin's Creed are doing very well despite some gameplay problems (AC3 was pretty universally panned but did very well anyway as did the well-received AC IV - which was renamed to sell better despite being an AC3 series prequel technically) That said, I think the most impactful games right now are in fact the so-called 'indie' titles which are experimenting with new forms. I'd cite 'Thomas was Alone' which used narration instead of graphics to create a great story, or anything from Tell Tale like the ongoing 'Walking Dead' which is using player data to create new content for their story by heavy data mining from the online enabled game. Services like PSN and the iStore have changed the way we game, and thus are changing the industry from the inside out.
Well this is an opinion, surely, but I remember when Prince of Persia: Sands of Time came out it changed the way I think of gameplay. One of the highly innovative things about it was the adaptive difficulty built into the game. as a result, anyone could play and feel comfortably challenged by the game. What most people don't realize is that many games just build this right in. I think that the Fallout Series has much to teach us, and 3 is another example of how adaptive difficulty was implemented perfectly well. So my answer is that any game that adjusts gameplay or procedurally adapts to the user is worth keeping an eye on, and will have the greatest impact.
19. What is one of the most important lessons you have learned on some of your previous projects?
Design by committee doesn't work. Having a creative director or head designer is the key to projects. Every member of the team also needs to have a clear idea of what their role is. I've been on teams where I didn't know my role, or who was in charge, and the creativity literally stopped in those moments until someone stepped up and took charge. This sort of problem is never seen in the industry on effective teams, even teams of hundreds know the chain of command, and we still can recognize the creative director and "style" of big games like Bioshock or Brutal Legend as a specific person -- in this case Levine and Schafer.
20. What games should any person interested in game design play at least once?
Yes. --- What I mean by this is that I don't really agree with the assumption that there is a seminal list. If someone wanted to become an FPS expert, then they really need to play lots of FPS's like DOOM, Quake III, Borderlands and Medal of Honor. If someone wants to be an adventure game expert then they would need to hit some of the best in that genre like AC, Tomb Raider, Portal, and so forth. RPGs? The list is massive starting (at least!) with the old 3/4 isometrics like Baldur's Gate and culminating in Skyrim and Fallout -- but the point is that you are the sum of the games you have played. I know I am. I hate JRPGs. I get bored with massive world games (though do love them for a time), and though I'm good at FPS's I really have no great love of them, though I did enjoy Borderlands for some reason. What I obsess over (nowadays - its different from when I was younger) is the AC series, anything with high levels of interactive story, and until last year Minecraft at perhaps an unhealthy level, but which I will happily be getting back into for professional reasons again soon. Ask another professor and you'll get a different answer, but I look at it the same way as any other Humanities field. I've read Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Dickens - but I haven't read ALL of Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Dickens. (I have, however, read all of Rex Stout, Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, and am working on the most recent by Stephen Lawhead, but that's a different matter.) Same principle.
21. What do you believe is the best way for someone to get their foot in the door in the game design industry?
Design games. I'm not being silly, I'm being very serious. There are tools available to you now to create games. Be it gamemaker or UDK or others, there is a massive toolset and community available to tap into. Even if you just start by building an adventure map in Minecraft or Skyrim mod then putting it on the forums for feedback and fixes, you should be designing NOW,making NOW, and 'publishing' NOW just like any artist. Build that portfolio, and in combination with that ATEC degree you are working on you will stand out over the other candidates on hiring day. Applying that time management mentioned before an you will will have a paved path to success!
Every year my wife and I watch the Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition trilogy on bluray to bring in the New Year. You know the version – it’s the one that people make fun of for being too long, except for those who don’t and are thus made fun of for having nothing better to do than sit through twelve (yes twelve) hours of movie content – though typically not all at once. As for us, we make sure that every year we have nothing better to do than to watch it all at once, and so far we have succeeded in exactly that - straight through from about 10 am till 10 pm, usually on January 1 for about six years running now. We now have it down to a science, having evolved with the technology from DVDs to bigger screens and so forth. We turn off the phones, ignore the email, (hide the ipads!,) cook enough porridge and meat pies or something equally Hobbitty to cover all seven meals for the day, and actually just simply WATCH the movies together.
What’s interesting about this particular method is that we now agree that it keeps getting better every year. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and asking myself why this is? Is it just because I know it better each time? If so then why am I not bored of it? Is it because the movie is just so wonderful? If so, then why not marathon Harry Potter or Star Wars as I consider those tales to be just as wonderful. Is it because I forget parts? On the contrary, we've gotten pretty good at the Trivial Persuit LotR Movie Trilogy Edition and can cite fun facts like who the five riders were to battle the Uruk-hai then ride out to meet Gandalf at daybreak on the fifth day of the battle at Helm’s Deep, or which of the Hobbits is the ‘tall one’ – so I don’t think we are forgetting too much. On the contrary I put forward that it is in fact the knowing that makes the experience worthwhile.
I teach my students at the University of Texas at Dallas that throughout human history we have told tales that seem to fit certain patterns. Unlikely reluctant heroes with supernatural gifts have taken up the call to adventure in order to gain/destroy the boon on behalf his people, only to face trials beyond belief, grow in the process, face their greatest fears against loss and death, and typically make the ultimate sacrifice in order to defeat evil, then returning home via a magical flight/rebirth saving the world and restoring normalcy. Luke/Harry/Frodo all fit this pattern as to countless others from Neo to Jesus Christ. Joseph Campbell called this the Hero’s Journey. Kal Bashir calls it Monomyth. Others (Like my colleague Frank Turner) have simply called it Epic. Whatever the moniker, the idea of a created world in which we can journey, tell stories, or even play (D&D anyone?) is to me most interesting because we know the ending.
The Lord of the Rings franchise is a great example of this, and perhaps one of greatest (albeit somewhat meta) moments of the films to me is when Sam and Frodo discuss this very thing within the context of their journey:
SAMWISE: “I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring.’ And they’ll say ‘Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad?’ ‘Yes my boy, the most famousest of Hobbits. And that’s saying a lot!’”
FRODO: “You’ve left out one of the chief characters – Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten very far without him, now would he?”
This rings true to me in a deep way going back to the ancient stories we still tell. It’s the prerogative of every child to interrupt and ask questions of the storyteller. Like young Fred Savage's character asking the grandfather in Princess Bride “Grampa! Grampa! [...] "Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end, somebody's got to do it! Is it Inigo? Who?" we all have a deep desire to know how the ancient tales come out in the end, and we think we know how they should, even before we really actually do. But is that right? How can we even resolve a non-linear chaotic storytelling method with a monomythic sensibility? Read on.
So maybe it’s my years as a High School English teacher poking through, but let’s take Beowulf as a convenient example. When the Old English bards travelled the land and told the story, we should not make the mistake of thinking they told it in order, the same way each time, or even the same way twice, always adapting the details to the audience and the immediate atmosphere. In fact, there is strong scholarship to suggest that in those days stories were as interactive to that audience as video games are now to those of us who experience those stories, we just don’t have the cultural context to understand it. The truth is that the only reason we believe Beowulf (or any epic) is linear is because some anonymous weirdo wrote it down despite all common sensibility. Ignoring for the moment the various translations from Old English, the irony is that we have Beowulf at all only because when we moved past the oral tradition into print tradition, that particular written version is what survived the middle ages to be discovered later on – but there is a hypothetical parallel that can help us understand this: Imagine if evidence of every video game disappeared tomorrow, but for one – let us say the “best”- LET’S PLAY video which somehow survived this culling. This theoretical precious and valuable video evidence of the one playthrough of the game would be to us as Beowulf is in fact. Instantly canonized as the linear and immutable definitive version of the otherwise interactive game experience we can no longer play.
There is no coincidence there if Beowulf feels like a character from Middle Earth. As a professor of language and histories, Tolkien (weirdo that he was) literally set out to create a believable (albeit fictional) mythological history of the Britons like that which was presumably lost during the many conquests of that land across the ages. His use of epic forms, and retelling of the old tales in a recognizable pattern was great story told expertly. Peter Jackson and company knew this despite what the Tolkien estate may think. Just watch the making-of specials (There’s about 54 hours of that!) and you will see the fanatical passion there, and the process of translation/adaptation applied to these masterpieces. It is why I watch these films every year. It gives me perspective with but .003% of my year sacrificed to the cause, and reminds me of all that has happened in this last go-round the sun. Most importantly it challenges me to interact with the media I love and teach at a higher level of appreciation for the choices being made by artists/writers, storytellers/bards, and audience members/players – for fundamentally there is always a choice being made by one or all of these – and that my friends is where the heart of storytelling lays – in the choices made.
So until next year the Lord of the Rings films will go back on the shelf. They will not change, but we will have changed, and thus the viewing will be different, better, and wonderful yet again.
Happy New Year, everybody!
(Want more on New Orality and video games? -- check this out!:
Hey you! Yea you - the student reading this -- want to write about stuff like this? Then sign up for ATEC 3353 "Game Studies" in the Fall at the University of Texas at Dallas and you can! These questions were asked of me just last week by a very astute and interested student for an assignment given in the ATEC "Intro" class. Enjoy!
13. Do you think violent video games influence people to behave violently in the real world?
No, and I'll kill anybody who says differently. -- Ok, so yea that's an attempt at humor, but the reality is a little more complicated. If you are asking do I think video games influence behavior then yes they absolutely do. This is because (some) video games are a part of narrative media, and story media is intended to elicit an emotional response. That's the point of a novel, movie, TV show, or yes - video game. If a game isn't eliciting an emotional response - whether that be a strong or a weak one is sort of irrelevant - then it isn't a very well written game. I would say the same thing about a bad novel or movie. Elysium comes to mind actually. So yea, games influence our behavior - I remember when Tetris first came out. I went through more AA Gameboy batteries than any teen has a right to, and when I wasn't actually playing it I saw imaginary tetrad blocks falling in the negative space of the furniture around me. Same with the games with story - I obsessed over Fallout 1 and 2. Even missed a few college classes. But I never thought about and certainly never acted on killing anybody or behaving violently, so I would have to side with the studies that seem to overwhelmingly show that those who act out on violent games have a bigger problem to begin with. It is an old urban legend that killers have a copy of Catcher in the Rye in their house. This could mean something, or it could just be that it is one of the best selling and most widely distributed novels in America. I know of no study which has concluded that the creepy and popular Dexter series (TV and books) has measurably increased instances of serial killers. So by and large no - I don't think that the influence that violent games have on well-adjusted adults (who are above the age limits described by the ESRB) is significant enough to matter. We only get upset about it because it's an interactive media form you realize. Not that I'd buy any of that for any kid of mine mind you - regardless of the media form.
14. What positive/negative effects do you think video games and video game culture has on society?
Tons! Games are cultural rhetoric, open culture, cultural resistance, and cultural environment. This means that games give culture vocabulary and elements that enrich and inform it. It is itself a micro-culture that can be entered and influenced by individuals and the masses including other elements of pop-culture, it provides push back on this same broad culture through criticism and commentary as does any other media form, and it provides a place for gamers to exist and form that micro-culture that is native to them. Nowadays the gamer culture has even fragmented into numerous sub-genres which exist only to give particular types of gamers a place to exist - and the reality is that game culture itself is bigger than video games be that RPGs, Larps, or Board --- just to name a few! Games reflect and transform culture! Salen says: “Games are always played somewhere, by someone, for some reason or another. They exist in other words, in a context, a surrounding cultural milieu. The ‘magic circle’ is an environment for play, the space in which the rules take on special meaning. But the magic circle itself exists within an environment, the greater sphere of culture at large.” I love and agree with this quote wholeheartedly. The other side of this coin is that games do promote violence and sex just like all the other media forms. Defining “child-safe” content therefore becomes extremely important! Fortunately the ESRB does its job, even if some percentage of parents don't. Game addiction and the debate surrounding it, political interest, influence, and advertisement in video games are all very real -- though the reality is that most of these issues are surrounded in misconceptions & ignorance, and the greatest challenge for us as game scholars is to combat this with intelligent, level-headed, and informed education and data.
15. Is there a specific video game that you think has changed the public's perception on video game violence?
GTA is the classic "troublemaker", though much of the hubbub has died down about it - in my opinion ironically since this most recent one (V) had all the graphic naughty bits in it. The reality is that the idea that games are for kids, and/or a toy is an old idea that is fading as the average age (37) of gamers goes up by about one year per year. -- that is to say my age. This is because my generation never stopped playing, and never stopped aging. Soon that will hit about 40 and plateau just because more kids will be born and the demographics will top out as my generation gets even older then eventually dies off in 35 years or so, but it is folly to think that "adult" themed games won't continue to be released. NYPD Blue Changed the way we view network TV and introduced the TV ratings system - and suddenly TV MA shows started cropping up all over. I think we have hit that threshold with video games too and soon the AO rating will not be as uncommon (there are about 35 games with that rating) and perhaps we will even see stores willing to carry them. Who knows really, but I think Rockstar has done as much to promote the public's perception of game violence as any game company, and GTA was the flagship for it -- though if I had to choose one that personally influenced me it was the understated Manhunt game and its botched sequel which caved to ratings and "censored" the kill sequences so as to make the dramatic moment of the horrible "what have I done?" that the first one gives the player into a comedic farce that is not worth playing. I still have an uncomfortable feeling about playing Manhunt 1 and that was what they wanted I believe. An alternate answer to your question -- Bully which was billed by the media as a "Columbine Simulator!" before release, when in reality it was just a great little game about a boarding school and how a troubled kid becomes popular and learns to take control of his life by bridging all the cliques and learning to fit in. Neat.
16. What do you think the future of video game culture holds? Do you think it can continue its rampant growth?
Yes games will continue to grow, but perhaps not as we now think of them! Myths abound about games. They are not bigger than the movies (ticket sales yes - but not Hollywood), some are most certainly art when looked at individually and not as a genre, and while games will most certainly change and adapt to the market (Mafia Wars is not the same as Medal of Honor and never will be) it will remain the only media form with this high level of interactivity (active agency) and therefore isn't going anywhere soon. Games are becoming more real-world. Gamification is a big industry for the future. I think that Jesse Schell's vision of the future at Dice 2010 (His gamepocolypse speech http://www.g4tv.com/videos/44277/DICE-2010-Design-Outside-the-Box-Presentation/) is a pretty good prediction as is Jane McGonigal's that games will become the vocabulary of change in the world (http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html?quote=667) but in all I think the most important question is going to be - now that we have a generation of game-savvy gamers with literacy for gaming and who want more gamification in their lives -- what are we the designers going to do about it? More on that later perhaps!
Ignoring for the moment the new twist on the 'naughty bits' in Grand Theft Auto V, I want to state that it was basically more of the same. Now this is not a bad thing necessarily. There is lots of money to be made off of 'more of the same.' In fact, that is how Rockstar has made a bazillion dollars (estimated) off of the franchise - and to lay into the point mostly because I can, that's sort of the definition of franchise.
So then why pick on the game at all? Well I could talk about how when I was younger I was less sophisticated, or how when graphics were less refined than today it forced us to look deeper into games or something like that, but I'd really just rather compare GTA V to Vice City. There are a number of reasons why I loved Vice City, not the least of which is that the game was set in Florida in the 80's and I was a kid in the 80's who called Florida home. Special kind of nostalgia there. But there's more to it than that.
You see, Tommy Vercetti was the protagonist of VC and was the sort of character who steals your heart then your wallet, sort of like George Clooney in Ocean's 11, Sean Connery in James Bond, or Timothy Hutton in Leverage. He was the first GTA character to speak, and the first with a real personality. Arguments of agency aside, this was my guy. This was in the days where 'regaining your health in the car' was rude but off screen and the music was good. Not one single character in the GTA franchise since has been relatable or anything short than an anti-social sociopath, not even Michael De Santa despite the heavy speculation. I miss my Tommy.
Yes I'm showing my bias, and I get that these are crooks and all, but it doesn't change the fact that I've been waiting for GTA IV: Vice City for years and they have skipped right on past that particular remake. Vice City is arguably the most heavily themed Grand Theft Auto game, taking influences from a wide range of classic 1980s movies, television series and music. This was great. The setting was story waiting to happen, and the world richer with pop references than any other game in the franchise!
This is what V (and IV for that matter) was lacking to me. I freely admit that I made it to mission 3 and quit. If you've played you can probably guess why. That's not to say I didn't spend about 8 hours in the game. Some of it was in online mode and some of it not (more on that later) but I did the thing you do in GTA. I drove around, stole cars, drove around more, stole planes and such, and drove/flew really fast and died. Then I quit. More of the same. No compelling characters or story pulling me into the narrative, and certainly no Tommy. Oh well.
Adam L. Brackin, Ph.D - Doc to his friends - is an independent media consultant, writer, and sometimes professor. His teaching and research interests include: Social Media, Transmedia, & ARG, all forms of non-linear & interactive narrative, story mechanics models, and video game studies & design.