Category Archives: Family

Titanfall Beta

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The Titanfall Beta will end tonight and we will all have to wait a few weeks for the game to come out on March 11. It has proven to be a big hit with my friends and colleagues. It has fared well in the inevitable comparisons to the Call of Duty series. This should come as little surprise as the game’s developer, Respawn Entertainment, was the developer of the Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 editions of COD (as Infinity ward), two of the series’ best loved games.

Unlike COD and Battlefield in which users benefit enormously from past play and specific experience with maps, weapons and combat techniques, Titanfall is easy to pick up and quick to advance. As there is no prone position and no auto-aiming, there is little camping and no quick scoping. For those of us who enjoy a “run and gun” style of play, this is huge. The increased mobility, both two and three dimensionally especially when combined with the enhanced speed make for a fun and thoroughly engaging experience. Playing with my twelve-year old son is also a better experience than online multiplayer COD as the audience is not as openly rude if you happen to forget to mute everyone. Although the game is non-stop action and is as violent as any other FPS, the inclusion of the Titans and the style of gameplay somehow make the killing less ultra-realistic and somehow by proxy less horrific.

For an excellent in-depth discussion of the beta and the game, please visit Gamespot’s Titanfall: The Pros Weigh In

Zombies and Titans

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The new consoles have been out for two months now and the gaming audience that eagerly awaited the new batch of games has now completed them. We finished the single player campaigns in Call of Duty Ghosts and Battlefield 4. We sailed the seas as Edward Kenway and retired a happy family man in Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag. We help break up slave trafficking as Adewale in Freedom Cry. Sure, we are still playing though the racing leagues and leveling up in Forza 5 (over 50 now) and nearing time to prestige in COD (many already have long ago), but we need something new.

Forza Car packs help keep up the interest, especially when they include sexy Alfa Romeos and Maseratis from the sixties, but new tracks would be appreciated as well. The COD Onslaught expansion pack is also a welcome addition with not only four new maps but also the excellent new chapter for extinction mode as well as a new weapon. It is a little frustrating, however, that the new maps are not accessible in squads mode.

Every gamer that I speak with has the same question, “Where are the new games?” It seems as though there is a dearth of new titles, yet there are many available as you can see by the graphic at left.

A few of the titles that I am looking forward to most have been delayed including Tom Clancy’s The Division. Many of us are pinning our hopes on Titanfall, which I have heard is as good as we would hope. Apparently, Titanfall actually has dedicated servers, unlike other games that promised them and didn’t deliver. The multiplayer and extinction game modes in Call of Duty Ghosts are excellent but suffer from incredible lagging at times. The lagging in multiplayer is especially pronounced. If you are lucky to be on the favored side of the server you can have a great experience and usually do well in scoring. If you are on the less favored side, it is frustrating and repetitive. Apparently, the situation may have been made worse by an update to the game prior to the release of the Onslaught expansion pack.

And the situation is even worse if you are looking for a four-player family-oriented game. There are a few great four player games for the Xbox 360, many of which we enjoy whenever we play as a group. Castle Crashers, Bomberman, Mad Tracks and 3d Ultra Minigolf are some our favorites. We have not even needed to purchase more than two controllers for the Xbox One and it is not just due to the improved Kinect sensor – until now there was not a compelling game for more than two players (on one console). Plants Vs Zombies is a big hit in our house. We not only have the various versions of the game on Xbox 360 and more importantly on the iPads, but we also have plush and lots of it. Pea shooters, zombies, you name it.

As you can imagine then, we are looking forward to the release of Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare with great anticipation. It appears that the split screen mode exclusive to the Xbox One will only allow two players on a single console. As we only have a single Xbox One, this means that we will not be able to play this game with four people either.

Even sports games like NBA 2K14, Madden 25 and NHL 14 do not offer four player local split screen gameplay. There is a useful list of all four-player games available for the Xbox 360 at this Gamespot forum. I have not yet found such a list for the Xbox One console, but IGN does have a complete list of available games as well rumored games on their website.

Interface

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Happy New Year to all. I have been deeply nested in holiday and home for a month, playing games with family and friends. Over the holidays, we went skiing and tubing in Pennsylvania with another family and had a great time playing some old favorites and some “new” games. The house in which we stayed in had a pool table, which was thoroughly enjoyed by adults and children alike as was a “bar top” trivia game. The gaming system is called the Megatouch XL and this version hailed from 1995. It features a touchscreen CRT display and a color VGA display (although ours often dropped out to a faint blue color). The system has 20 or so games such as solitaire, poker, trivia, mah jong and even horse racing. Despite the fact that every child had their own tablet (and all of the adults had smart phones), everyone was drawn to this retro tech oddity. It wasn’t that the content was so good that we overlooked the poor graphics and sound — we genuinely enjoyed the quaintness of the experience. You might jump to the conclusion that this was us recalling fond memories of playing similar games in our youth, but the younger generation was even more drawn to it than the adults. Was it just the curiosity of it? Who knows, but my eldest wants us to acquire one for our home. They do take up considerable space, perhaps  Megatouch makes an app. In fact, they do, many of them.megatouchxl

Over the last few weeks I couldn’t help but notice the development of interpersonal skills while gaming. The holidays provide opportunities to get together and spend more time with your kids. My boys and I certainly played a wide variety of games, both digital and analog with other kids of various ages as well as adults. It didn’t really matter whether we played pool, dominoes, Chinese checkers or Call of Duty Ghosts or Forza 5 — it is always interesting to note the interactions between kids (and adults, too) while they play games. Perhaps the act of playing a game with a given set of rules allows people to let down their guard some and show their emotions in a less restricted way. Maybe we see their truer self.

It’s not always a matter of competition either. Some of the most volatile and contentious situations happen while my kids build worlds in Minecraft. Regardless of game type, the adults try to instill the right values concerning sportsmanship and fair play as well as the golden rule. Many adults see video games as out of their comfort zone and don’t necessarily apply the same coaching approach. In general, we were pleasantly surprised at how well everyone got along and the few incidents that occurred were all used as teachable moments.

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With regard to my own gaming, I have been almost exclusively focused on Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag and many of my comments while applicable to many of the new games are directed specially to AC4. I completed the main mission and have been wrapping up the various other activities such as the assassin’s contracts, diving missions and naval battles. After completing the main mission, I watched the credits, as I often do for the games I play. Once again I was amazed at the number of people who work on the large games. Black Flag has one of the longest credits that I have seen, perhaps the longest. To be honest, I quit out before they ended, but I saw enough to appreciate the scale of the operation. AC4 Black Flag, like many other games these days, was developed in many locations simultaneously, so it’s hard not to be a bit dumbstruck by the scale of the development. The size of the world and the amount of detail that is present in every location is staggering. I have always been a fan of large open-world games recently favorites include Red Dead Redemption, Far Cry 3, both Borderlands games as well as the other games in the Assassin’s Creed series.

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Beyond the shear size of the navigable world and the degree of detail involved in every piece of it, this game has so many other levels of interaction, each fun in its own way. The main mission with its various scripted sequences puts you in your own action film. The many assassination missions, including those where you help side characters through their storylines, provide for a rich experience at each location. Then there are the treasure maps, the chests, the Animus fragments, etc. There is no shortage of things to do. Part of what sets Assassin Creed games apart is their attention to historical detail. AC4 is no exception. On top of the fantastically detailed and period correct ships, weapons and clothing there are the sea shanties that your crew will sing while doing their work. I have accumulated over thirty of these. It is easy to forget the amount of time it takes people to research, produce and record these in addition to the main background music, which like all games in this series is really powerful and spot on in terms of feel and weight.

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Every game depends on the success of its user interface to provide the appropriate degree of control while not overloading the user. AC4 Black Flag, like many new games, features more interface types than was required in previous versions. The display that is ever-present while you walk through the towns or captain your ship is minimal and designed to be unobtrusive. This game is beautiful at sea and on land and features lush environments that would be spoiled by clunky menus and navigational aids. There are different menus for each type of shop and the various games within the game, each built from the same visual kit of parts as the main interface. These days, there are also smart phone and tablet apps that tie in directly to the console game each with their own interface that echoes the main game. The effort required to create and coordinate all of these graphic elements is both staggering and ever-increasing.

All this being said, the game is not perfect. I have found a few glitches such as cut scenes where the audio has dropped out or a new one that happened to me last night where during the boarding of an enemy galleon, my character somehow fell through the deck of the ship and was trapped inside the geometry of the hull. But considering the scale of the undertaking, I am nothing but impressed at the quality of the experience and as usual, I have learned a few things about the period in which the game takes place and it has sparked my desire to learn more about that time in history and the real characters. What more can you ask of any work of art let alone entertainment?

Lava Lobsters vs the Xbox One

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Now that both new gaming platforms are out and the dust has had a chance to settle, I would like to give my early impressions. While some are focusing on the PS4 outselling the Xbox One worldwide and on the various hardware issues both platforms have had, I have not experienced any hardware issues with our new Xbox One. In fact, we love just about everything about it. The voice command and greatly improved Kinect are both welcome additions. Thus far, I have played Call of Duty Ghosts, Forza 5, Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag and think that each is well worth adding to your collection.

The first thing you notice are the graphic improvements in every game. Each has its own style and focus and collectively do a good job of illustrating the capabilities of the new technology. The next generation of games such as Tom Clancy’s The Division and Titanfall will undoubtedly take the graphic development even further.

We installed our new Xbox One in our main TV room where we have been playing our Xbox 360 Slim. Both Xboxes are hooked into a surround sound amplifier and the FIOS signal is now passed through the Xbox One. We also have an older white Xbox 360 in the playroom next door. I have been wondering over the past few weeks how the systems would be used now and what my boys would prefer. Thus far, the 360s are still getting a decent amount of use thanks mostly to Minecraft and BattleBlock Theater, neither of which are currently available for the One. When we have had a chance to play together, which has not been that often with the holiday activities, we have concentrated on COD Ghosts. We really are enjoying the online Squads mode. It is perfect for playing with kids (and adults who just don’t need the language, general offensiveness and getting their asses kicked in the standard multiplayer mode).

On my own I have completed the COD Ghosts campaign and am well into the Battlefield 4 campaign. I have made solid progress in Forza 5 and am now at level eleven. I am deep into the world of Assassin’s Creed Black Flag and am really enjoying the experience. Except for a few minor control issues that are most likely more my own fault than that of the game, this latest installment is the best by far. The seamless transitions from land to sea and back, as well as the sheer fun of controlling your ship and fleet – including hunting and diving – it’s a deep and multi-layered world of pirate fun.

While I am very impressed by the graphics and improvements in the interface as well as in the handling and control overall, the most welcome improvement by far, is the load once and flip back and forth ability of the interface. With the previous system, the idea of jumping into a game for ten minutes or less was a bit of lie that we told ourselves. By the time the system booted and you logged in your now bloated player profile and then loaded the game, your ten minutes were now two. But you wanted to play your ten minutes anyway and that’s why you were late to whatever appointment you had.

No more of that. Now you walk into the room and say “Xbox On.” The system loads quickly, recognizes your face and loads your profile – a feature of which I never tire. Once you start the game and it loads, dropping out to the main menu and performing actions like watching television in a split window are instantaneous and at any point you can drop back into the game without the need to refresh or reload anything. This is a profound change to the way you can play and perhaps because it is less glamorous than other new features, has not received much press.

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My oldest son recently made a new friend who is not a gamer. Yes, there are some 12 year olds that don’t play any video games. He is not without his own obsession, however, and now my son has caught the same bug – fish and aquatic life. His new friend has ten or so salt water tanks with various species of fish. He is focused on his hobby and very knowledgeable. My son, being he sponge that he is, is absorbing all of the new information and diving in, if you will pardon the pun. He now has three tanks in his room, albeit all are fresh water. Two tanks have various goldfish and the third contains the Lava Lobster in the photo at the top of this post. The image below is one of the first two lobsters that he acquired. These were Mexican Mini Lobsters and unfortunately, both have passed. It is not due to a lack of effort as my son has pleasantly surprised me with his dedication and concern for the new biomes he has created.  The Xbox has little to fear of his losing interest. He is still playing games, but there is a balance developing and most surprisingly it is coming from within him

 

My Favorite Game

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The last two weeks I have been getting back in the groove with a few games that I overplayed and set aside. These include Call of Duty Black Ops 2, Assassin’s Creed 3 and Forza 4. Though all three of these have new versions coming out in a few weeks for the Xbox 360 and a bit later for the Xbox One, I am waiting for the new console, so I have about five more weeks to go.

I played a few rounds of Black Ops 2 and started feeling more comfortable again and my scores reflected it, but then the inevitable happened. During an online match I encountered two guys who apparently are very angry, racist and homophobic. They were, if nothing else, verbose and shared their opinions freely about everything and everyone they encountered. Typically, I mute the entire group, but this time had not and kept thinking that eventually these idiots would just tire out and shut up. No such luck. I cannot blame the game developers that their creations attract this kind of person, but it is a simple fact that other great game types do not.

I am sometimes asked if I have a favorite game and I have always replied that Forza would be my first choice and then add a list of other excellent games. Playing Forza the last two weeks I was reminded why I love it so much. There are many realistic racing games out there and some are quite good. I own many of them and have played them extensively. Although Forza offers one of, if not the most realistic driving “feel” for each vehicle, that is only part of what makes this game unique. The ability to collect, upgrade and paint your vehicles is more advanced and better integrated than any other driving game I have played. You don’t have to want to race every time you play Forza, you just need to want to be around cars. It is a chance to own, drive, tune and augment some of the greatest cars of all time. It is also a way to learn and to teach.

My three boys all love cars, and because of my interest in cars, my sons can identify most exotic makes when we see them on the road (a fact of which I am hugely proud). Years ago, one of my sons who was about six at the time, saw a sleek Granturismo Sport in the lane next to us and yelled “Look, Masirata!” That one is a keeper and I will much more gladly trade Maserati for “Masirata” than Porsche for “Porsh.” Recently, while driving locally, my oldest son asked the make of a car stopped at a traffic light. I told him that it was a De Tomaso Pantera. Not a car that one sees very often as over its twenty-year production run, only 7260 were made. That night I added the exact model we saw to my collection in Forza.  The accuracy of Forza in terms of the details of the car models and their distinct driving qualities allows the game to be a reference even for those that don’t yet know how to drive in real life.

I also enjoy being part of an international community that appreciates cars and car culture. Users have been posting custom and replica liveries, tunes and graphics for years and the collection is impressive. I have created a few of my own. My focus is taking a lesser known model and making a replica of an actual winning car. I have made a half dozen or so, the most popular of which is for the 1965 Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GTA Stradale. This livery was purchased 62 times over the last two years. This is hardly impressive as some designs are downloaded thousands of times yet I find it impressive that 62 people selected a design for Rafael Barrios’ n24 which won first in class and the overall win in the 1971 Premio Ciudad de Alcaniz. (See my reference materials here.) Not a well-known racer nor race, yet players sought it out and applied to their cars. These are my people.

Am I looking forward to the new games? You could say that. The new versions of all of the games look really impressive on the new consoles and certainly Forza 5 is no exception. I am glad to see that they have added and improved without losing what makes the game special. I am bit saddened to learn however, that my Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel will not work with the Xbox One and my Wheel Stand Pro will most likely not accept the new wheels. You can learn about the new wheels at the Forza website. I guess even virtual racing can get expensive, but from where I sit, it’s really all for educational purposes.

My Cousin Finny, Smartphones and Drive-Ins

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Yes, I’m getting older and it’s true that there was a drive-in theater not far from where I grew up and we did go a few times, but the heyday of the drive-in, the symbol of the baby-boomer’s car-centric teenage culture, was long over. Still, the car was what provided the freedom that made being a young adult fun. Most memories of my teenage years revolve around a car.

Admittedly I am a “car guy” and always have been, but I can completely understand those who feel that cars are just appliances to get you to where you need to be. The same can be said of clothing and food I suppose, but there are entire industries that exist only to provide haute couture and haute cuisine for those who want more.

Over the last year or so there has been much attention paid to the Generation Y’s apparent indifference to driving. There are many reasons for the feeling that cars do not represent what they did to previous generations.

Gen Y has been dubbed Gen N, as in Generation Neutral — which is the way some describe how millennials feel about car ownership. Studies have shown that fewer young adults have driver’s licenses, that this group  hates the traditional car-buying process more than other demographics, and that they prefer urban living and socializing online and therefore  have less need for cars.

The Great Debate: Do Millennials Really Want Cars, or Not? | By Brad Tuttle | Time

“That moment of realizing that you’re a grown-up — for my generation, that was when you got your driver’s license or car,” said Tony Dudzik, a senior policy analyst of the Frontier Group, a California-based think tank that has studied this phenomenon. “For young people now, that moment comes when you get your first cellphone.”

America’s Generation Y not driven to drive | By Deborah Zabarenko | Reuters

The economy is also a huge factor. Many young people face soaring tuition costs, and the money they’re earning in their part-time, summer and first jobs is going to pay for school and rent. Even if they can afford cars, insurance is expensive, and just getting a license can cost hundreds of dollars in driving instruction fees. 

Why Generation Y Sees No Need To Get Behind The Wheel | by Micheline Maynard | Forbes

In an effort to attract young people to cars, automakers have set up shop in Silicon Valley and are looking to the digital world as a way to lure them.

What the savvy people in the car business say is that they have to look outside their industry to learn — from cellphones, apps, computers and video games.

“We can make the car that’s becoming part of your digital life,” says Chuhee Lee, the deputy director at Volkswagen’s Electronic Research Lab in Belmont, Calif., a little town at the north end of Silicon Valley.

Volkswagen’s vision boils down to this: bring its cars into the digital world and make them an extension of all the services millennials already love.

“The car should be intelligent enough to interact with other intelligent systems around you, like a smartphone being very intelligent about … your schedule, trying to propose and make arrangements for you,” Lee says.

Lee describes turning your whole car into sort of a voice-activated system like Apple’s Siri. And GM’s (John) McFarland says his company, like VW, is working on cars that learn your habits — your schedules, destinations and radio stations. And, McFarland says, ideally, these cars get better with time.

“We think there’s opportunity to make it so that the day you drive it off the lot is the beginning, and you continue to personalize it and customize and add new content just like you do with a phone,” McFarland says.

To Attract Millennials, Automakers Look To Smartphones | Noah Nelson and Sonari Glinton | NPR

While I applaud the integration of many of today’s technologies into most parts of my life I recognize that sometimes advancement is in the eye of the beholder. I do not need a car that drives itself. I like the feeling of being in control and feeling the road. It is important that the tactile sensations of driving are not lost on the younger generations and what better way to lure them then with racing? I regularly play driving and racing games with my sons and their friends. Some of our favorites to play together are the Forza series, especially 3 and 4, Driver San Francisco and Midnight Club LA.

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This last week, we had Josefina or “Finny”, our fifteen year old cousin from the Czech Republic staying with us. She was drawn to our Xbox racing wheel and spent many hours driving, racing, crashing and having a good time. Whether smashing a Bugatti Veyron into the back wall of the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans in Forza 4 or clearing traffic amid the constant sound of breaking glass and crunching steel in Driver San Francisco, she thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  She tried to outrun the cops all over Los Angeles in Midnight Club LA and tried not to get hit by our various projectiles in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. We even tried motorcycles playing MotoGP 2006 and 2007. I was looking for the Prague track but I think that it is in a different game, so we settled on Brno. We took to off-road motorcycles and ATVs in MX vs ATV Alive and while we played we talked about driving. She has none of indifference displayed by teenagers in this country. She really made my day when she said that in America drivers seem to all prefer automatics. I reminded her that my car has a six speed manual and many of my friends still prefer them as well.

I guess that I have never realized how much of my day is spent thinking about cars. I was recently stunned to learn that Fox removed the Speed channel from my FIOS line up. I watched Speed more than any other channel and there is nothing to take its place. Although Fox has apparently stated that the majority of the racing content would remain on other Fox sports channels, every time that I have tuned in they have been showing football.

After visiting some of the more typical tourist attractions we thought that it would be fun to try go-cart racing at Pole Position, a local indoor track. A great time was had by all. Here is a short excerpt from one of the races. No, I do not have flesh-eating bacteria on my legs. I am recovering from sunburn.

We didn’t even get to try our slot cars. Next time I guess.

Playing with Your Crew

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One night last week while playing Tiny Tina’s new Borderlands 2 DLC, I asked my sister and a friend what I should blog about next. They suggested that my next topic should be our communal gaming. Why not? We have put in more effort to playing as a team lately and with my boys away at camp for a month, this seems the perfect time to review what team gaming means to me and to my friends.

As I have mentioned in the past, until recently, I have been concentrating on single player games a majority of the time. When my boys are asleep and I play whatever I like, this is what I did most often. I admit, I did play quite a bit of Call of Duty multiplayer but those were all deathmatch-style competitions as opposed to the coop games I am currently favoring. My team currently consists of my sister, an avid gamer to say the least, her daughter who is no lightweight by any measure, and a longtime friend of theirs who knows his way around COD like the best of them.

This team has been playing mainly Fuse and the two Borderlands games lately and having a great time. There is nothing quite like the comfort and ease of playing with regulars. I equate it to a bowling league or local softball team where everyone know everyone and the depth of the relationships only adds to the sense of team and camaraderie. My sister and her friend have been playing together for a long time and I am actually the new kid to the group. Their relationship is the kind of success story that is the antithesis of the irritating and often abusive contact that one frequently encounters when playing with unfiltered opponents online. The fact they became actual friends who spend time together offline — from their online contact is really nice to see, but also probably rare as the PlayStation Gran Turismo racer champions who get a chance to sit behind the wheel of a real race car. But it goes to show that just as some of those online drivers end up being quite good at driving real race cars, sometimes you can make a genuine friend from online gaming.

Online, the world of prejudice and stereotypes is as skewed and muted as often as it is amplified.  Just as some players say things in multiplayer games that they would never say to someone’s face, others let go of the differences between us physically and rely instead on the quality of the interaction with another person to determine whom they wish to play with again. Idealistic? Maybe a bit, but true nonetheless.

If you think this dynamic is only true in the gaming world, you’re wrong.

Finally accepting a friend’s offer to meet for drinks with a group of local regulars I asked him why he continued the efforts to assemble at this local bar. To paraphrase his answer, he said that it was obvious — to get a group of friends together who could disconnect from their daily responsibilities, unwind a bit and share some stories. Not one of these adult men were gamers but it seemed that they all knew about “joining a party” to “chat”. I am not trying to convince anyone with the benefits or shortcomings of the social aspects of multiplayer gaming, they seem self-explanatory and to those who do not play games, they seems equally distant and unimportant as the games. To those who use these technologies, the interaction between players, both inside and outside of the game themselves, is a integral element and will only increase as the new versions of the game consoles are sold later this year and bring new levels of potential player interaction with the integrated Kinect and picture-in-picture apps for example.

Longest Day of the Year

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Summer solstice. End of the school year. A time of transition. Today is the longest day of the year and marks the start of a change from the daily pattern that we follow during the school year to the less structured schedule of summer. It also marks an important change for my gaming habits and probably for many of you as well. My three sons all leave for sleepaway camp for a month.

The next month is full of outdoor activity, making new friends, reconnecting with old friends and trying new things. They swim in the pool and the lake, work in the wood shop (their favorite) and play various sports. The do not play any video games at all. A complete break. Not even games in their iPods.

Their departure means significant changes for our household as well. It’s quiet. Things stay clean and organized. It’s weird. Most parents look forward to having a break from their kids. You are not responsible for anyone but yourself. You can do what you like with your time. Yes, it’s great – for a very short time. You may think it strange, but I miss them almost immediately. I don’t miss the arguing and fighting or the significant mess they leave everywhere, that is for sure, but a large part of my enjoyment of gaming comes with sharing it with my kids.  Seeing the experiences through their eyes adds dimension and increases the fun. Sure, there are games that are meant for adults and I play those by myself or with adults, but the majority of games are intended for wide audiences and the overall experience is enhanced by the variety of reactions from the players of different ages.

The photo at the top of this post was taken a year or two ago from the hammock in my back yard. It is of a great sycamore tree that my boys referred to as the “Y Tree” due to its overall shape. This tree was very large. It had a trunk about five feet wide and rose to about seventy feet. It was the largest tree on my property and dwarfed all others around it. It is gone now. The strong winds of Superstorm Sandy caused a crack where the trunk divided and the tree experts said it was not wise to try to save it. As they took it down, the foreman showed me the crack and revealed that water had been seeping into the division for a long time and had rotted out the center of the tree. The storm had just sped up the process and really did us a favor by revealing the weakness.

Needless to say, the removal of the tree has completely changed the back yard. Where once there was mostly shade, now there is bright sun. The trees that surround the hole left by the missing branches will eventually start to extend and fill in the gap, but for now the most prominent element is what is missing.

For the next month while my kids are extending their branches I will be playing with my adult friends. Lately a few of us have formed a regular team and been playing coop games including Fuse and Borderlands 1 and 2. It is infinitely a more enjoyable experience to play in party of regulars than to jump into a public match. My sister and her daughter are part of this team. They have their own transition occurring now as her daughter graduates high school this weekend and looks forward to college life. And I thought a month without my boys was a change.

Rape Jokes, Sexism, Parenting and Gaming

I was alerted to an article by Rebecca Greenfield in The Atlantic Wire entitled “The Rape ‘Joke’ at Microsoft’s E3 Reveal Is a Bigger Deal Than Another Bad ‘Joke’” which alleges that:

“… a Microsoft presenter slipped an apparent rape reference into a Monday presentation at Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, the biggest video-game conference of the year. During a demo of Killer Instinct to drum up excitement for its new Xbox One, Microsoft brought out a man and a woman to battle it out on the big screen onstage in Los Angeles. In this scripted event the man, of course, kicks the woman’s ass at the fighting game. “I can’t even block correctly and you’re too fast,” she says, playing a video game like a girl. But even more problematic than those stereotypical gender roles was the part when her adversary said this: “Just let it happen. It will be over soon.” You know, like a rape: The audience chuckled. “Wow, you like this,” the man continues, as he beats the virtual woman. And the woman, much like someone being sexually assaulted, replies: “No, I don’t like this.”

The sentiment was echoed by Chenda Ngak at CBS in “E3 audience offended by “rape joke” at Microsoft Xbox One event“. While it is true that as Greenfield puts it, “Perhaps more than any segment of the technology industry, gamer culture has had its fair share of sexism problems…,” I am getting mixed reactions as to where this incident lands on that spectrum. The non-gamers I have shown this to report seeing at least the sexual innuendo – and were somewhat rocked by the “just let it happen” comment. But if you read the comments in reaction to the CBS piece, you will see that many readers do not seem to think this was a rape reference or even sexist. The one thing that is undoubtedly true: the players in this demo were not evenly matched – the man was one of the producers of the game, clearly more skilled at the fighting techniques and using a special controller and the woman was a Microsoft presenter with a standard controller and a totally different charge – to help highlight the extended features of the game. Let me know where you come out on this. Please cast your vote after watching the video.

But the overarching point is not lost. Traditionally, female characters wear skimpy clothing and feature exaggerated body parts to make them more alluring. In the past the industry put emphasis on strong male characters who were almost always the stars of the game. But I think it does the entire gaming world a huge disservice to pretend that things have not changed and that the rampant sexism of the past is present in most games today.

Yes, female characters still feature exaggerated bodies and often wear sexy outfits, but the male characters are equally exaggerated and unrealistic, representing a non-existent super male. Let’s face it, at least some gaming is about fantasy and stepping out of your life into a more exciting role for a time sells. No question, this was a male-dominated market at first, but the number of female gamers has increased steadily and now account for nearly half of the total market. Wikipedia has interesting further detail under the topic Women and video games.

Of course there are limits, and good taste and social responsibility dictate these, and today most of the huge game developers take great care in where they draw the lines. I applaud Bioware, for instance, for enabling players to create Mass Effect’s main character as a male or female and allowing the user to determine (for the most part) the character’s body type and style. Many games feature equally balanced male and female characters like the Borderlands games for example or the new Fuse, but these limit the customization available to varying degrees.

In any case, the look of the characters is only part of the equation, what happens to them conveys the most important message and there are plenty of games today that seem to seek a balanced approach and not send the messages that so many find offensive. Careful game selection is critical. This is especially true when you are a parent of young gamers. As a father of three young boys, all of whom play a wide variety of games, I make it a point to research each game and in many cases play the games with them. I often choose to play female characters part of the time which my sons don’t understand. As they are a still too young to have real interest in girls, their unanimous preference is to play only as male characters.

But only part of the gaming experience is controlled by the developers. The online community plays a huge role in shaping the experience. Much like the variety of people who make up the game companies, the online gaming community includes all sorts of people with varied degrees of education, experience and enlightenment. One does not need to look very far to find racism, homophobia and sexism. Unfortunately, these are the realities of our society and their presence in the gaming communities only shows how accurately the gaming world reflects today’s different cultures, in the United States and abroad.

The importance of sending the correct message about healthy relationships and how to treat all human beings does not come from video games, it comes from parents. What you say and how you react to things that your children see and hear while playing video games, or watching television or films greatly affects how they process that information.

You may question – why am I talking about this on Father’s Day? Because the day is not just about giving gifts to dad. As fathers, the greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to have and sustain healthy, mature relationships, built on respect and trust. I firmly believe that talking about the problem and educating about healthy relationships can reduce the violence and protect our children.

NO MORE_STACK_RGBYet, new data from a NO MORE survey (sponsored by the Avon Foundation for Women) shows that these conversations are not happening. Three out of 4 men in this country say they have NOT talked about domestic violence or sexual assault with their children. That is why I am supporting a new effort, called NO MORE, to break through the silence surrounding these problems and get men talking about the issue.

I recognize that starting this conversation is extremely difficult; knowing what to say may be even harder. That is why there are resources you can use to make the conversation meaningful. These include information from Loveisrespect.org, Futures Without Violence and Break the Cycle. Get resources on talking to sons about healthy masculinity from Men Can Stop Rape and A CALL TO MEN. You can learn more about these organizations and many others at www.nomore.org.

This Father’s Day, decide to make teaching your children about healthy relationships part of your mission as a father. Remind yourself that this is what it looks like to end domestic violence and sexual assault. It looks like everyday people, standing up and saying NO MORE. Join me, and teach your sons and daughters to do the same.

Please also see my earlier post about NO MORE and view the public service announcement.

You and Your Console(s)

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This is a big week in the gaming world. Yesterday, we learned much more about the upcoming Xbox One and the fantastic games that it will play. But that is not what this post is about. If you want to learn all about what is coming this November, there are multitudes of sites and blogs with recaps of the entire presentation. VG247Joystiq and The VideoGame Blog, for example all have extensive coverage. All of this talk of the new versions of the Xbox and PlayStation remind us of the importance of these platforms and the hardware that run the games that we play.

The photo above is not the happy occasion of unwrapping a new console, but the much sadder reality of sending a damaged unit to be repaired. I am not Xbox bashing or even complaining really. We have two Xbox consoles in our house and they get regular play every single day. Many days, they run hour after hour as my three sons play together or one after another and then run late into the night when I take over. This hardware takes a pounding and for the most part runs without much ado.

Having said that, I cannot recall the number of times that we have a Xbox repaired, it is either four or five times now. In the days of the original white Xbox 360, the red ring of death was the culprit several times and there is no question what you must do. There is also no warning typically, so the transition is abrupt. With the newer black Xbox 360 S model, our issues have been less absolute. The laser seems to go out of alignment and only reads parts of the discs correctly. The result is that the console can play installed games, be they Xbox Live arcade games or disc-based games installed on the hard drive where the disc is just read for confirmation and then stopped.  Unfortunately, no new games can be read and so the unit was sent for repair.

This is always an emotional time that reminds us of our deep connection with gaming. It also means that four of us need to share a single machine for three weeks. I am happy to report that the unit has been repaired and should be back this week and that no one was hurt in the process (although tempers may have gotten a bit heated a few times between the brothers). We are attached to our hardware not only because of the games that it enables us to play but because it defines us to the gaming world. Much like which car you drive gives the outside world a view (however inaccurate) into who you are or who you or who you wish to be, which gaming system you choose defines the gaming experience that you wish to be a part of.

At my house, we are strongly skewed towards Xbox, PCs and Ipads, but we have a GameCube as well. My sister has multiple Xboxes as well as PS3s as well as GameCube and Wii. There are few limits to the gaming experience at her house and her multi-system experience gives her a much broader view into the differences between the communities that play on each system. There is no doubt that the online communities are different as are the audiences that play the various popular games. But one thing all gamers have in common is the desire to have a comfortable and familiar environment in which to play. This environment is made up of the room, a favored chair, the console and peripherals, etc. Once you get your space outfitted it is always a bit unsettling to have part of it changed.

Come November, many game rooms will have a new console next to the existing one. There is no doubt that this will greatly expand the experience but for now I am just looking forward to having my 360 back.

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