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Playing with Your Crew

the crew

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.

The Stigma of Gaming

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I am sure that many of you adult gamers out there have had the experience of bringing up the topic of gaming in a discussion with another adult and having them politely (or otherwise) dismiss you as a childish loser. I can’t defend all gaming or all gamers, but this wholesale dismissal strikes me as blatant ignorance. Yet most adults outside the gaming industry share the opinion that gaming is something that children and teens spend their time on and adults who are intent on not looking silly should avoid.

I believe that many things help form this opinion. These include the reality of teen and other gamers who spend inordinate amounts of time playing and often obsessing about a specific game or gaming in general. Parents and other adults just have no interest in hearing about the gamer’s achievements and advancements. That is somewhat to be expected. Much like someone going on and on about a television series that you don’t watch, there is only so much that you wish to hear.

But with gaming there is more to the disinterest which sometimes edges on disgust. Although almost everyone plays games of some sort whether it be crossword puzzles, Sudoku, Scrabble or chess. These are socially acceptable games. They are seen as broadening the mind and certainly not a waste of time. Other games, especially first-person shooters suffer a much worse evaluation. This is especially irritating as most of the critics have never played the games that they criticize. I do not expect non-gamers to jump into an online deathmatch to help form their opinion but perhaps they might see their actions in a different light if they likened it to someone who has never seen an opera dismissing it as snobby and irrelevant.

There is another side of it as well. Much like the old “Age/Fear of Computers” chart jokes of the recent past, age makes a big difference in the opinions concerning gaming. Younger adults tend to be more knowledgeable and have more video gaming experience than older adults. The fact that they have played some video games in the past leads many to be more accepting of the genre in general. A parallel to the different music types throughout the generations could be drawn. Rock and Roll, Punk, Rap, once edgy are all now more than accepted, they are the mainstream. Just as those of a “certain age” (or those younger who think like their older counterparts) who feel it necessary to not understand their computers or their smart phones, there are those who distance themselves from gaming. You know these people. They are your coworkers who refuse to “get” anything beyond word processors, email and spreadsheets lest they be pigeonholed into actually using the applications. In the past there was a time when these fears were justified. Architects who knew CAD were destined to perform these duties for those senior designers that could not be bothered to learn the new technology for example. But those days are gone and proficiency with today’s tools is no longer optional.

I believe that gaming knowledge and gaming industry knowledge is growing in social pertinence much akin to television, music and literature. The average person knows quite a bit about these mediums as well as their artists, actors, directors and producers. Again, age plays a big role in the depth of experience that the average person has with gaming and this plays a significant role in their attitude towards it. But it is my hope that the pendulum swings quickly so as not to leave behind a generation. Perhaps they will be swayed by the dizzying amount of profit that many of today’s games successes earn. From what start as simple apps grow industries. From some franchises grow empires. Not all will last and fashions and technologies change, but the trend is undisputable. Video games are taking over and swallowing much of Hollywood’s thunder and much of actual Hollywood.

Maybe the day that we broach the subject of video gaming and get the “that’s nice for you” look will be over soon. If you have ever experienced what I am describing, I encourage you all to share your stories here.

The Multiplayer Experience

L1020022-1000The world of gaming is vast and offers a different experience depending on the type of game you play and with whom you play. There are so many fantastic single player games that are well-written and beautifully scripted that one can easily spend all of their time being the star of their own action film. But multiplayer games offer a different level of excitement and interaction.

I am a fan of the single player modes of the blockbuster series like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect and Far Cry. I nearly always play the single player first, although I play the multiplayer modes before finishing the single player experience. There are games such as Battlefield and especially Call of Duty, where diving into multiplayer sessions becomes a daily event. This was also true for me with Mass Effect 3 for a while, but as much as I love them, for some reason not with Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry.

Racing games are another situation completely. As I have mentioned in the past, I am an avid player of the Forza, Grid and Dirt series and even try my best at F1. In each of these, I spend countless hours playing both the single player and then the multiplayer aspects of the games. Forza definitely excels in this arena with the most robust and interesting variety of race types and locations in my opinion. I have also played many of the Need for Speed games although I always prefer the driving feel of the cars in Forza and the Codemasters games. The racing game you play decides much of the type of experience you can expect. The Codemasters games (Dirt, Grid, F1) are very popular with European and Australian audiences and it is often difficult to find enough players at times that someone on the East Coast of the U.S. may want to play. The intensity level of the competitors also ranges widely from game to game. Some games have loyal and dedicated followers who know the tracks and cars so well that newcomers will find it frustrating. I have also found that the level of sportsmanship you can expect to find varies greatly.

L1020027-1000Civility is also something that varies greatly from game to game. I play Facebook Scrabble with a dozen or so strangers at a time. Some of these players have been playing a non-stop series of games with me for years now. A few have proven to be the most polite and thoughtful people with the highest degree of sportsmanship that one can find. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the small-minded, bigoted and homophobic players that dominate the world of Call of Duty. As much as I enjoy this game, it seems to attract people, especially males, who seem to think it clever and amusing to display behaviors that on the street would get their asses kicked. Some sport in-game logos that refer to the N word and contain various homosexual put downs. The comments made by players in this game particularly almost always require me to mute players that I do not know. It is a sad realization of the stereotypes that non-gamers have of the gaming world. My sister is an avid gamer and owns all of the major consoles. She maintains that the Playstation audience is better behaved and less offensive than that of the Xbox community, even within the same game. I understand that the Xbox community is considerably larger and it makes sense that it attracts all types of players, but it is a sad fact that people (of all ages by the way) act this way in public.

There have been many times when neighborhood kids or family members drop in and we decide to all play a game together. This typically leads us to the realization that there are not many games that allow for three or four players on the same Xbox. There are arcade games, many of which are turn-based that allow for four players on the same box, but the total that allow for four on a screen are much less. We often play Castle CrashersSonic & SEGA All Star Racing or play a round of local combat training in Call of Duty. We used to play the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games often, but over time the guitar controllers have all become faulty. It is a shame because “getting the band back together” was really fun. Maybe it’s time to buy some new controllers.

If you know of great multiplayer games that allow for three or more players on the same Xbox, please let me know using the form below. If you have favorite multiplayer games (or games with multiplayer modes) that I have not mentioned, please send me your thoughts and I will follow up in the coming weeks. All comments welcome.

Drive

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Last week I attended a party for a friend’s birthday and had a conversation with another friend with whom I had not spoken for some time. During that conversation, I asked him how his work was going and he described a recent occurrence with some of his employees where he felt that he was taken advantage of and went on to explain how he handled the situation. He grew his business from the ground up and has had to endure some hardships and disappointments. He explained that it was his inner drive that saw him through. I realized that this point has come up quite a bit lately in my life, both in terms of my own drive and that of my friends and family. I thought it a good idea to discuss what it means in life and what it means in gaming.

Games are all about achievement. Whether the goal is to reach the top, drive the fastest or kill the most enemies, games require players to be committed to the mission in order to win. Some players take this very seriously and spend untold hours playing and replaying to get the highest score, reach the highest plateau, etc. Check the scoreboards on any game and you will see that whatever your achievements, there are players worldwide who are vastly superior and have the high scores to prove it. Many will quickly denounce these people as losers who obviously have nothing better to do with their lives than play games. They must not have girlfriends or wives or families or even real jobs. To spend this kind of time playing any game is unhealthy. What kind of person prestiges ten times in Call of Duty? What I find amusing is that if that person were playing tennis or football or swimming and achieved a similar rank we would applaud their dedication. Their commitment would be seen as something to live up to instead of be embarrassed by.

Drive in life is not that different. We all have friends that we could label as having little drive and we see them as a bit sad. How can they expect to get anywhere in life with so little effort on their parts? Many of us probably have friends whose drive has propelled them to lofty heights in the business world or within whatever sphere they may be involved. We traditionally think of them as specially gifted and set them as examples to live up to. There are certainly many cases, however, where an individual’s drive is unhealthy and destructive to themselves and those around them. We do not applaud the serial killer who hunts his victims for years while evading capture yet it must take considerable personal drive, however insane, to keep their actions undercover and moving forward. So when is drive healthy and when is it not? We don’t have to go to extremes to see the difference either. At the gym you can see people who take it all too far, work out to extremes and think that they look great. To the rest of us they look a bit freakish. Even those with healthy drive need to find balance in their lives – need to balance the needs of their career and their family, need to find balance between commitment to their work and their personal views, etc.

As I have mentioned in the past, I am a huge Formula 1 fan. This last weekend, the second race of the 2013 season, the Malaysian Grand Prix, was held in Kuala Lampur. The winner was Sebastian Vettel, which may not come as much of a surprise to those who follow the sport and know the talent of the young German who is the current world champion and has won the title the last three years. But it is how he won that mars the victory and his career. Here is a quote from Joe Saward’s brilliant F1 blog (http://joesaward.wordpress.com/)

Sebastian Vettel has probably not read much of William Shakespeare. Perhaps he should have done. If he had, he might have known about Mark Anthony’s celebrated speech at Julius Caesar’s funeral, which relates that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”.

So let it be with Vettel. Sebastian is a highly intelligent and hugely talented racer and until Sunday the worst one could say about him was that he did not give enough away much about his real character, and thus came across as rather bland, despite the odd petulant outburst. He has made some mistakes in his career, but he was never really unsporting in his behaviour. He seemed an honourable man. After Malaysia there is no doubt at all that he is willing to go beyond the acceptable to win races.

What happened is a good example of drive gone awry. The Red Bull Racing team was leading the race with Vettel in second place behind his teammate, Mark Webber. In F1, there are two championships to be won, the driver’s and the constructors. The constructor’s championship is won by the team that earns the most points over the race season. In order to accomplish this, they need to have both of the team’s cars finish as high in the order as possible. F1 is a complicated sport with many rules and technological aspects to juggle. Tire degradation is a key factor as is the fact that cars must finish with at least one liter of fuel or they are disqualified. Because of this fact, the Red Bull Racing team management ordered both drivers to stay in position, in effect giving the victory to Webber. Vettel brazenly disobeyed this order and took on his teammate and eventually took the lead and won the race. At the end, over the radio was heard from the pits “Good job, Seb. Looks like you wanted it bad enough. Still you’ve got some explaining to do.”

After the race, Vettel explained that he had not heard the order to turn the engines down, but few believe it. He apologized to Webber, who was clearly angry and is currently considering his position within the team. His anger clear in his post-race interview when he said “After the last stop the team told me that the race was over and we turned the engines down and go to the end. The team made their decision. Seb made his own decision and he will have protection as usual.” Vettel’s actions not only created further tension between the teammates, but also undermined the authority of the team management, which undoubtedly will not go without further action.

Drive is critical, yet balance is key. It is said that power is nothing without control. So perhaps drive is nothing without balance. I have been considering my own position lately and wondering whether my drive to succeed in gaming is greater than my drive to succeed in my career. Perhaps games fulfill the void that my ego feels towards my moderate career accomplishments. I am not sure if those who are at the top of their game in business, for instance, feel any less of an impulse to beat opponents in other spheres, or perhaps they feel it even more so due to their success.

My wife is one of those who achieves the balance between work and family admirably. She manages to excel in her career while never doing so at the expense of her commitment to her children or her husband. I am not just saying that to keep in her good graces (although it should help). Her parents made sure that they instilled a strong urge to excel in all she does and she is doing the same for her children (with my blessing and help). I asked my wife to review this post before I pushed it live and she thought that I was being too hard on myself.

So before you think that I am one of those underachievers who spends way too much time playing games like COD Black Ops 2, please keep in mind that I have only prestiged four times. 😉

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