I just finished a 26 page paper, and other thoughts.

So I just finished a 26 page paper that was a midterm for a course I am taking in public administration. And boy it feels... okay. There was an initial sense of accomplishment and pride upon completion of the paper, but then the thoughts started popping into my head. I just did a 26 page dissertation on methods of management  and Max Weber. Why? Don't get me wrong, I don't mind writing papers, but what does this paper prove? What does it show that I have learned? If anything, it shows that I am able to regurgitate information and form it into coherent statements that can be (semi) carefully constructed into what constitutes academic achievement. But strangely, I don't feel like I have achieved anything outside of conquering my crippling procrastination yet another time to trudge towards the finality that is my degree. And what does that thing mean anymore? I find myself in a stage of moratorium, somewhere between figuring out what I want to do with my life and the means which I will employ to that end. Is a college degree the ticket?  
We've been taught from an early age that education is the only way out, that it is the clear path to success. Now, college tuition rates have increased drastically in the last two decades and show no signs of slowing down. I have friends graduating from schools with four year degrees and $80,000 of debt. There's no hope of paying off that loan even in the next 35 years. My generation is the supposed future of America, yet we will be up to our necks in debt by the time we turn 25. We have molded ourselves to an age old formula of producing young adults with college educations that is over a century old now. Our current education system arose out of a need to produce workers quickly and efficiently to meet the demands of growing industrialism. Do we still need to keep pumping out what is the manufacturing equivalent of a processed product? The general consensus is that students belong to the workforce before they even enter it. And while I am sitting around trying to figure out what I want to do, I'm racking up bills! It's enough to drive one mad, you know... 
So, I want you to share your experience with the American education system (or any education system, my international breddrin).  
Also, what's the longest paper you've ever written? 

 What's this guy got to do with me?

Retailer-Specific Bonuses: Who's to Blame?

With the recent release of details on Rockstar's upcoming crime epic L.A. Noire, the omnipresent video game trope of having retailer-specific pre-order bonuses has far outgrown the stage of "irksome." If you haven't seen the list, go check out Brad Nicholson's article here. Basically, it is grossly disproportionate. Once again (as Brad points out), Gamestop has drawn the big straw and has a pretty substantial pre-order bonus, including several game-changing elements. Retailers like Target and Best Buy, on the other side of the spectrum, have been relegated t-shirts and in-game outfits, respectively. This is just getting out of hand. This trend is not only over-stayed its welcome, it is now alienating large portions of the video-game playing universe. It doesn't just suck, it is fundamentally wrong. I understand that these retailers are in business to make money, and that if they can entice you over to their store and get a few extra sales out of it, that's great. But when these practices result in stores offering the same game that have relatively different experiences coupled with them, that is bad. Retailer-exclusive missions? Collectibles? I know this may seem small, but the principle of the matter remains the same. And I am angry. And I am sure I am not alone. But, now the question: 
To whom do we point the finger? Who is to blame here? Is it the retailers pushing the developers/publishers for exclusive content to inflate sales numbers? Is it developers parsing out this content to select stores in order to collect compensation? Or is it, as is likely, a combination of the two? 
One thing is for sure: these companies profit, and we, the consumers, are punished.    


Violence in Video Games: The Morality of Choice

First off, I want to preface this post by telling you what this is not : this is not a blog about whether violent video games lead to violent personalities, or a rise in violent crime. Furthermore, this is not about whether violence should be a facet of our entertainment. This is about what we say about ourselves when we play violent video games, and what we condone when we make choices about our hobbies, our interests, and our actions.

I was playing Heavy Rain tonight (I have been going through my GOTY list), and I was playing the “Doc” chapter. For those of you not familiar with it, this particular portion of the game involves a young woman being drugged and strapped to an operating table where she will, presumably, be tortured by an evil doctor. I was playing along, and I got to the finale portion of the sequence, where our protagonist successful jams a rotating electric drill into the chest of her attacker, killing him.

It was at this moment that my sister decided to walk into the room, exclaiming in shock, “What the heck are you playing? I can't believe you're condoning such gratuitous violence!”

Now, I am not a violent person. However, I have been known to enjoy violent movies, books, television, and, of course, video games. This, I calmly explained to my sister, does not reflect my personality, or even that I condone violence in any way, shape, or form. It is for entertainment, and I can draw a distinct line between the realities of war, death, and violence, and the virtual realm of video games.

My sister (a psychology student) proceeds to tell me that I have been desensitized by my entertainment choices, and that I have no reaction to what I just bore witness to because I have surrounded myself by it for so long. Now, my sister does not partake in much violent behavior, let alone violent entertainment. Her extent of gaming is Wii Sports, and not much else. I try to explain to her that I don't play a game like Heavy Rain for the violent content at all, but rather I enjoy the story-telling, character development, and innovative game mechanics. She then throws this gem at me:

“If that's all you are looking for, then why can't you play a game that contains all those elements, but lacks the violence?”

And for a while, I was stumped. Why couldn't I play such a game? Do games like that exist? Now I won't verify the existence of such games, but I do enjoy media, whether it by film, book, or video game, that deal with mature themes. Their plots are often more interesting, and their characters are often more complex. Violence seems to be an arbitrary by-product of this. Not the overall focus.

To pose the question bluntly, why do we play violent video games?

I find that, personally, it is not because I enjoy the violence. I don't play games that deal exclusively in realistic violence (notice I said realistic, as opposed to cartoon, which I think we all can agree is absurd), and it is because I often find them one-dimensional. But a game like Heavy Rain is full of complex, mature themes, and violence just happens to be a means to that end. Heavy Rain is a murder-mystery that derives its greatness from its intricate plot, not its scenes of gore.

On the flip side, what are we saying about ourselves when we play violent video games? Are we endorsing violence? Not likely. But by purchasing that video game, we are encouraging the developer to make more like it. How conscientious are we as consumers? Do we passively absorb violence as “just a part of the experience”, or do we consider the message we send with such a purchase?

Now my sister, like much of the media, only focused on a small percentage of the actual game. She happened to walk in at a particularly violent portion of the experience, which does not accurately reflect the overall themes of the game. Perhaps if she had actually paused to consider all the different elements of the experience, she may have felt differently. Or perhaps not.

So, I'd like some feedback: 

  •  Why do we play violent video games?
  • Is violence just an accepted part of gaming, or can we have quality games that deal with mature characters and plots that don't also have violence?
  • To what extent do our interests reflect our values?
  • When we play violent video games, to what extent are we condoning violence?



No lemons on this list, folks, big or otherwise. Top 10 of 2010

1. Mass Effect 2

In my opinion, the top spot could not go to any other game. Mass Effect 2 is built upon a foundation of well executed elements that come together seamlessly in one of the best efforts from Bioware to date. Everything you could want is there: The story, the mechanics, the characters, the atmosphere; every facet is given such care and attention to detail, and the result is the best game of the year.

2. Red Dead Redemption

Eloquent story. Intuitive game play. Memorable characters. Everything is there, just like you would expect from veteran open-world developer Rockstar. This game takes the familiarity of a 3rd person open-world action game and plops it down into the less familiar setting of a Western.

3. Sid Meier's Civilization V

I am (almost) totally new to the Civilization series, and I never pictures myself as a turn-based strategy game player. However, after sinking 40 hours into this game, I must say that I am addicted. I don't have the best frame of reference of what the platonic turn-based strategy game "should" look like, but I think that may be a good thing. Even though I have no benchmark against which I can compare this, I still know a good game when I see one. And this, GiantBomb, is a good game. A very, very good game. The learning curve is short, the playing options are massive, and the fun factor is through the roof. Deserving of a spot on this list.

4. Super Meat Boy

I was late to the party when it came to Super Meat Boy. Not that I was vehemently against playing it, I just didn't... get it. It's a platformer, what could be so special? But Super Meat Boy is one of those titles you have to get your hands on and actually play in order to begin to see the amazing experience that it truly is. Beautifully simple, and (sometimes frustratingly) fun, this game deserves a spot on this list, if not for the brilliant soundtrack alone.

5. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

This game was hindered by its marketing somewhat, being pegged mainly for its multi-player mode. That is not to say that the immensely fun on-line multi-player is without merit, but the marketing focus took away from what is a solid expansion upon the story line within the Assassin's Creed universe. Add on top of that the same "knifin' dudes in the face" game play you have come to expect from the series, and you have got one solid game.

6. Heavy Rain

In a word: innovative. Yes, I have heard of Indigo Prophecy. However, this is the complete evolution of that game. This is what video game snobs refer to as "art", but I will not insult this game with such contrivances (or have I already?). Heavy Rain is one of those games that is not so much played as it is "experienced." At the root of this game is an ambitious focus on story-telling, and it is that focus that drives the game forward. It takes a lot of guts to shift focus so unapologetically towards the story, and Heavy Rain does this with such conviction that it cannot be faulted. A must play.

7. Bayonetta

It has been said, but it bears repeating: there should be more games like this. With an over-the-top, absurdly ridiculous model and style, Bayonetta takes all of your preconceived notions about Japanese-style action/adventure games and kindly asks it to go fuck itself. This game oozes gall.

8. Limbo

Perhaps a little short but some standards, but I will always take quality over quantity. I am a big fan of this game, and I love seeing small developers put out quality titles

9. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

Having been a fan of the Burnout series for years, I cannot express how happy I was when Criterion picked up this title for development. I am not a huge racing game player, but this game is so much fun that I had to put it on the list. The deep on-line modes will keep you immersed in the game for hours at a time. Plus, stuff blows up real good!

10. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Rounding out the bottom of the list is an action/adventure game released in Q4. This superbly animated retelling of the Chinese epic "Journey to the West" deserves a special place on this list because of its ability to blend solid action and a driving story line and splash it onto a post-apocalyptic setting.


Objective Truth

 The question of whether or not there is such a thing as objective truth or knowledge has long boggled the minds of men and women throughout human history. To make matters more complicated, there have developed several “lenses” through which the question may be examined. For instance, from an empirical standpoint, it seems pretty clear cut. Science, although not as adept at answering “why”, more often than not can come up with the answers to “how” things work. How do birds fly? How do lungs operate? How is a baby formed? These are all questions upon which science could and does explicate endlessly. So through the empirical lens, it would seem fair enough to say that there are indeed absolute truths to the world. However, if we look through an ethical lens, the answer becomes more opaque and not as easily interpreted. When is it okay to kill? Is it right to lie in order to protect someone? Is stealing okay if it is for survival purposes? These questions are much harder to answer, as it seems that everyone in a given sample of people could give any number of different answers.

If we learn things by experiencing them through our sensory capabilities (seeing, hearing, touching, etc.), then how can there be such a thing as objective truth? If someone were to tell me it was raining outside, but I was never to experience the fact for itself, how am I to know it was raining at all? This brings into the equation the idea of “belief”. I know that it was raining outside because I believe what the weatherman told me. In this mindset, knowledge can be seen as entailing that which is both true and believed. To continue from the previous example, it is true that it was raining outside, and, even though I did not experience it for myself, I know it to be true because I believe it to be true. The fact that it was raining is a conviction of truth based solely upon my willingness to believe it as such.

Objective truths are true everywhere, and at any time. For instance, it is accepted as truth that 1 + 2 = 3. Objective truths are not created, they are discovered. It is assumed that these truths have always existed, and will continue to exist throughout time. In this sense, there is such a thing as objective truth. As addressed earlier, empirical objectivity is more easily proven and more difficult to argue against. In terms of ethics, there are some objective truths, but to make an argument that there is an ultimate, absolute “right” and an ultimate, absolute “wrong” is in vain. Most world religions and cultures have some sort of rule that states that we must do unto others as we would have them do unto us, but not all religions and cultures believe that eating shellfish is impure or sinful. So it seems that the larger, more encompassing the idea, the easier it is to make a case for a single, objective truth.