Blog Archives

The Calm Before the Storm

Bordelands 1000OK, its true. I have been a bit obsessed with Borderlands and Borderlands 2 and although they are fantastic games, I must admit that one cannot survive on badassitude alone. Mind you I am not stopping until my current character, the Mechromancer, is at least level 50. I have already played the Siren and Commando to levels 40 and 35. But I need something else. So why not play Grid 2? I have made it through four seasons and the game difficulty level certainly has stepped up. The competition online is always fun as well. I was really enjoying World of Tanks until the beta servers had issues last week and the game came to a screeching halt. It is back online now but all settings were reset and progress erased. And yes, there are several game apps that still keep my engaged, The Simpsons Tapped Out and the new Plants vs Zombies 2, not to mention Scrabble of which I am a true devotee. But it’s not the same.

But we all see the big wave coming. The new consoles, whichever you choose or especially if you get both, will start a spending tsunami as it will be difficult to decide where to spend your money first.

I have preordered an Xbox One, so my game selections are all for this console. Call of Duty Ghosts, Battlefield 4, Forza 5 and Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag are all must-haves, since I have played almost every iteration of those games and they are amongst my favorites. Certainly there are many advantages and improvements that the new consoles are touting and that game developers are all exploring to make full use of the new technology. Each game has so many improvements that you really need to visit each one’s website and learn more.

Yeah, I can’t wait to try out the enhanced character customization in the new Call of Duty and look forward to advances like the dual focus scopes, but what I am happiest about are the dedicated servers that hopefully will do away with issues that plague the current game. This new one really does look good.

Battlefield 4 has many new features including the new Commander Mode which allows players to oversee and support their team from a console, tablet or PC. The environments are so rich and complex and the level of multiplayer combat that can be achieved is staggering. I also welcome the Battlefield series’ dedication to be more realistic than its competition, although I must admit that the inherent difficulty that accompanies this realism is not always something I wish to take on. Then there are the destructible environments or what they call “Levolution” which allow players to dramatically change the playable space by destroying skyscrapers and splitting aircraft carriers.

I have spent more time playing games in the Forza series than any other and as a true car lover I am getting Forza 5 on day one. Apart from being a driving simulator, probably still the best one too, this game allows you to be a part of car culture in ways that no other even seriously tries. I love both the Grid and Dirt series, but they do not feature the ability to collect and augment your car collection. Where else can I see a car in a film or on the street and run home and recreate it exactly on the Xbox? Or buy a design that someone else posted? Where else can I see the detailed interiors and exteriors of the world’s most expensive and exclusive cars? And with the level of detail available using the new console, this game will be even better. Adding the Spa Francochamps track and bringing back Laguna Seca prove that Turn 10 knows its audience. Throw in the Top Gear exclusives for insight and humor and the Forzavista mode for pure car photography that borders pornography and there is no way that car lovers can NOT buy this game. Plus the reveal trailer shows racing through Prague. Did I mention that I was born there?

I have played all of the Assassin’s Creed games and thoroughly enjoyed each. My personal favorite being Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood mainly for its amazing locations and for Ezio Auditore, of course, who many believe is the strongest of all of the series’ characters. Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag features seamless transitions between ship and walk/run modes which results in much smoother gameplay. The new environments take full advantage of the new consoles graphic capabilities. The attention to historical detail, a mainstay of the series and what make it so unique, is illustrated in everything from the characters to their weapons and clothing, the towns and islands and the ships. Much like reading a good novel, playing a game in this series always encourages me to learn more about that point in history. I can think of no other game that can make that claim.

Now for me, playing those four games is a given, but one of the games I am most eager to try is Tom Clancy’s The Division. The plot line of The Division may be familiar but the execution seems to be top-notch. The trailers that have been presented thus far show this to be another strong contender in the now crowded open-world RPG sandbox arena. The graphics look fabulous as does the attention to environmental detail. The ability for players to join in and play together in various ways and from various devices, similar to Battlefield 4’s Commander Mode, is also enticing. The user interface is beautiful as is the way players gain information from the environment. Add to that the destructible environments, impressive lighting and particle systems and the ability to run through a post-apocalyptic New York City and you have another game that I must have on day one.

And I haven’t even mentioned TitanfallDestiny or Ryse, all of which look amazing. I will save those for another post. You know what we really need? Borderlands 3. Do I really have to wait until 2015?

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.

Why and What We Play

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There are times when I don’t feel like playing games. There, I said it. But these times quickly pass. There is a good reason why we try to make everything in life a bit more game-like — it’s just more fun that way. Today, we gamers have an impressive array of choices of what type of game to play. There are excellent, stand-out games in just about every category. What we play and when has quite a bit to do with the player’s mood as well as other factors such as how much time is available for play. There are times when we are all charged up and want to drive 200 m.p.h. or take on the whole world in combat. Other times, we are in a more of a quiet mood or feeling a bit down. On a separate note, if you want to learn more about gaming’s role with depression, please watch “Video Games vs Depression” by Danny O’Dwyer on Gamespot. It is educational and makes some interesting observations.

Many factors go into the decision of how we spend our free time. If I have a few minutes to kill while I am waiting for something, for example, I might reach for my iPad or iPhone and play some Facebook Scrabble or The Simpsons Tapped Out. (Yes, I am a little obsessed with these two lately.) But if I have more time and am looking for a more immersive experience I sit in front of my Xbox. As I have mentioned in the past, I very much enjoy the single player modes of a wide variety of game types. Many times when I play this is my first choice. There are so many variations of these single player modes that there is almost no reason to look elsewhere. But limiting your play to single player modes ultimately makes you feel a bit antisocial.

Several of my friends and family members play online multiplayer games nearly exclusively and lately I have been joining in. The difference between playing with strangers and being in a party is night and day. It also typically effects what game you play. Often when I play  Call of Duty Black Ops 2, I play with strangers and usually due to the inane and irritating nature of the chatter, I mute the entire group. Lately, I have found myself with much less interest in leveling up in COD and it is not just due to the ever-increasing lag and tricks, both legal and hacked, that it seems so many players are resorting to these days. There are many reasons why we often focus on a single game for a while until we inevitably burn out on it and move to something else. Personally, my default has always been to play alone due to restrictions in time and interruptions that would ruin a time-sensitive, non-pause-friendly game experience like COD deathmatch.

L1020091-1000Over the last few weeks, I have been playing more with others on Xbox live, especially in parties. Surprisingly, it has not been in COD, but more co-operative games like Borderlands 2 and Left for Dead. Playing with family and friends is a completely different experience than playing with strangers. There is the opportunity for discussions about games or any other subject with people close to you with whom you too often let time just slip by. The connection of party gaming provides a very different type of space where casual conversation can occur naturally. With the reveal of the additional functionality of the new Xbox One, this sphere should become even more immersive. I am definitely looking forward to the addition of Skype and having a Kinect back on my system. I moved our Kinect to the second Xbox as that room had more space to take full advantage of the device and now have to resort to using headphones while playing in parties. I have had many issues with my headphones over the years. Currently, my Turtle Beach EarForce X42s add an irritating echo to anything I say. Others in my party sound fine and do not hear my echo but the result sours the experience. If anyone knows how to correct this problem, please tell me. The Turtle Beach website indicates that this is typically due to issues with the cable or the controller jack. As this happens with any controller, I can only assume that I will be taking these back for a new pair as well.

We have had two Xboxes for a while. We bought our first white Xbox 360 in 2006. Over the years, we have had the red ring of death three times and had each repaired or replaced. The last time it happened was approximately when the new black version of the Xbox debuted and I took the opportunity to purchase a second console. With three boys playing different games, this has proven to be a good investment. Over the past seven years, we have retired two controllers and purchased a few specialty controllers and replaced nearly all of the batteries. This is to be expected as batteries have a limited lifespan and it is hard to complain about replacing controllers that get daily use for four or five years. We definitely got our money’s worth.

Headphones have proven to be a different story. I have purchased all of the headphones that we use from BestBuy and I was lucky to be smart enough at the time to spring for the Black Tie Purchase Protection plan which allows you to swap for the same or equivalent product should you have any issues. This has proven to be invaluable as I have returned three or four pairs of headphones, just about once a year for the last several years. I have had different models from different manufacturers, all of which were highly rated by several sources. Ultimately, every pair developed some irritating problem, often with the microphones. Have you all had similar problems? If you have a solid set of headphones to recommend, please pass it on. I would be very grateful.

One last thing — I just read that the new Xbox One will not be backwardly compatible. While I can understand that the new core architecture doesn’t allow for the playing of Xbox 360 games, it seems more than a little ironic that the new system will replace your cable box and Bluray player, but not your existing game console.

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