Zelda could do three old things to excite me again. Yep, it's a list!

I've been playing Zelda video games on and off for a decade now. Between Minish Cap, Wind Waker, Ocarina of Time, the NES original, A Link to the Past, Majora's Mask, and Skyward Sword, I have had countless hours of fun and enjoyment out the franchise. I enjoy the fantasy trappings of the series, being prone to bouts of Dungeons & Dragons, and damned if you can't count on each entry to present you with some impressive visuals and music. The relative merits of individual entries into the franchise will be debated until we forget how to debate as a species, and the lovely Zelda titles for the CDi are a blight on this planet's history, but you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who could flatly deny the impact of the series on gaming culture. Hell, the case could be made that Zelda (well, Link specifically) is on a short list of characters that people outside of gaming could recognize in a lineup, alongside Pac-Mac and Mario.

That said, in listening to Jonathan Holmes talk a big recently and coupled with criticisms leveled by Giant Bomb sfaff, I've been reflecting on where the series has been going since Ocarina of Time. That's a good game, maybe one of the best ever, but there's such a hushed reverence for it at present that Nintendo seems terrified of poking the formula too much. Rightly so, maybe; every 3D Zelda since OoT has inevitably had a fair number of critics upset with what largely amount to changes in the Ocarina formula either structurally (Majora's Mask), tonally (Twilight Princess), or visually (Wind Waker). The tock to that collective tick was the reaction to Skyward Sword, in my view the most Ocarina-esque console entry in the series after 1998. That game winds up being too formulaic and linear for most, and did so in a manner that often left players feeling patronized and cheated out of actual discoveries. I'm sure somebody complained about the game's presentation as well, but they're out of their mind.

What I'm getting at is hearing Nintendo's top minds being aware that the series could use a shakeup is very encouraging. New ideas and new people on a beloved franchise can be a magical thing. Think of the team that produced Super Mario 3D Land and how young they are. However, I'm convinced that there are plenty of good ideas to be rediscovered within Zelda canon, ideas that could profoundly shake up the Ocarina template and lay the groundwork for a game that will surprise fans and critics.

1. Do something unprecedented with the visuals.

A decade hence, my understanding is that original detractors have come to see Wind Waker for the beautiful piece of art that it is. Eiji Aonuma took a huge stylistic leap from the N64 titles, opting for a bright color palette and chibi modelling for characters. It worked, and the fact that you can play the original today and still be impressed is a testament to the idea that good art direction will always endure over graphical prowess (I hate how that makes me sound like a luddite that didn't build his own PC). Whether or not the fan reaction alone pushed the Zelda franchise into a far more conservative visual direction is an interesting topic, but the result is the same regardless. Twilight Princess is some fantasy-ass fantasy, with a dose of Mesoamerican cyber-eldtric weirdness sprinkled in for flair. The visuals are solid, sure, but the style is probably the least risky of any post-Ocarina release. Skyward Sword is, if anything, a very good blending of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess tendencies. Painterly visuals make the whole game look a bit like a Van Gogh work, and at 480p it was nothing to shake a stick at.

What I would like to see is something I cannot imagine in my head as being the style of a Zelda game, again. I want Nintendo, a company in a concerning sales position at present, to take a huge risk on the next Zelda like the did with The Wind Waker. The way I see it, they're really screwed no matter what they do if all they will do after an announcement is listen to Twitter: people demanding hyper-realism will be upset at anything, people demanding strong art will nitpick individual color choices, and most people will just complain about how any change has "ruined" Zelda for them. In all likelihood, the reaction to the style of the game will be the loudest at the outset. With just that in mind, I am most interested to see this. Everything else below could be drip fed over months.

2. Allow for dungeons to be tackled in a less linear order.

Here's a very old idea. I've been replaying the original Legend of Zelda on the Virtual Console lately. It's game where a man in a cave hands you a sword, tells you that it's dangerous to go outside alone, and then you proceed to do just that. Where are you going? You don't know! When you find something, how do you interact with it. Can you interact with it? The game literally throws you to the wolves (or moblins, or octoroks) with only the instruction to find Triforce pieces (unless you skipped the introduction, which is entirely possible!) and an old man in a cave. And when you come upon a dungeon or a shop in the overworld, is it where you are "supposed" to go? The way to find out is to enter and see if you can handle all of the challenges presented with the tools you have. If yes, maybe.

Rather than being led by the nose from one location to the next, The Legend of Zelda was a fantastic early example of emergent gameplay. You set yourself a goal (go north and east today), and went after it. Discoveries were made, often daisychaining into new abilities and the discoveries those allowed, and eventually you were able to put together all eight pieces of the Triforce. Whether you did things in some predetermined right order (which may or may not exist; I honestly don't know) was beside the point if you enjoyed the adventure. Granted that the story expectations of gaming in general have gone up considerably since 1987, in no small part due to this very franchise, I would love a game where a major element was the sort of "stranger in a strange land" narrative where you've got to leave a familiar setting to a new destination and do it alone. Maybe have a discreet set of visuals for your starting point and the world in which you will explore. But most importantly, let me get out there and mix it up without having to go through a checklist of Forest Dungeon/Fire Dungeon/Water Dungeon/Desert Dungeon/Plot-relevant element Dungeon in my head.

3. Get rid of the Navi analogs.

Skyward Sword is a good game, a beautiful game that Wii owners should strongly consider purchasing. The copy with the included soundtrack specifically is a wonderful 25th anniversary present to Zelda fans. It just sucks that the only part of the game I really hated is one that is present throughout, the disembodied spirit named Fi. She acts as Navi does in Ocarina, only with the added disc space for extra dialog and smugness. Again, think back to the original entry into the series. Remember discovering how you could burn bushes? Wasn't that incredible? Suddenly the entire world became that much more interesting because the potential for new discoveries on each map screen went up exponentially. It was a great moment. Now imagine if, upon picking up the candles, a patronizing blue woman appeared and told you that 92 percent of things around you might be flammable. This is Fi's character and role throughout Skyward Sword. She has her moments, and it ends on a good note, but at times you'll wish you could just turn the damn thing off in an options menu.

Nintendo had already come up with a better solution in the past. Remember The King of Red Lions in Wind Waker? There was a helper character who had clearly defined limits. You could come to him for some tips on how to proceed, but you needed to be at your ship to do so. This worked out nicely most of the time, because confusion came mostly from not knowing where to sail next. You'd arrive at your destination, leave the ship, and voila! The training wheels are off! Nobody asking you to listen every twelve seconds. Nobody pointing out arbitrary probabilities. Nobody doing...whatever Midna does in Twilight Princess. That's a great compromise as you have the best of both worlds. It's also worth pointing out that Navi was originally a targeting contrivance for a new control scheme, provided with a (crap) character as what probably amounts to an afterthought. Prior to the franchise entering the third dimension, the game was about your own problem solving. You could talk to NPCs for hints, or call the Nintendo Helpline, but otherwise it was an adventure into the unknown where you learned the rules of the world as you proceeded through it.

I guess that's really what I want again. I want a world that is new and confusing, but which follows a set of logic that can be used to explore and eventually uncover its secrets. I want to think on my feet again, not be told the answers to problems I will never have because I have a brain capable of basic problem solving skills. I want a game that finally steps out of the long shadow cast by Ocarina of Time and proves to anyone in doubt that The Legend of Zelda's best days are not behind it, a horrible presupposition which has infected almost every Zelda game since.

Also, I could go for an eight piece Triforce again. How awesome would that be?

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Yo dawg I heard you liked blogs, so I linked to a blog on a blog!

I started a project to watch fifty films this year. All of them were nominated for Best Picture but failed to win. I'm going to work my way back in time to 1962 over the next year, and blog about each film. The gig is called Almost Oscars, and you can catch it all right here. The first entry is on Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, a movie that good Screened seemed to enjoy a bit. Maybe somebody will enjoy this as much as I am.

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Out of the closet: I am "that Linux guy."

I love computers. They have actively enriched my life by keeping me in contact with friends after repeated moves across the country, and their need for continuous preventative maintenance has kept me gainfully employed since 2008. Some of my strongest memories of elementary school are playing Math Blaster on what was probably an Apple II. My family’s first computer was a Packard Bell PC pre-bundled with Windows 95, and I remember my best friend’s older brother showing me how to find that Weezer video and get Hover! running. There was also the traumatic day when my mother flipped out on me for moving the entire taskbar to the left side of the screen and locking it there. When my eight-year-old self showed her how to unlock the thing and move it around, I had my first taste of something like hidden knowledge. I had skills that some people did not have, and would not bother to learn (often for good reason; I know former diplomats who struggle with overhead projectors, to say nothing of differing between POP3 and IMAP email protocols).

The wrinkle in all of this was I was a Windows purist. My sixteenth birthday present, a Sony PC with an ATI Radeon x700 and 2GB RAM (baller) was an XP machine that lasted me from high school through my first year of undergrad. That was about the time I got a job doing IT for the university, which had managed to sequester Vista to maybe ten out of maybe fifteen hundred systems, so by the end I had some basic knowledge of the Windows Registry, Active Directory, driver compatibility issues, and other enterprise IT nonsense to compliment my own desire to have a PC that could run the newest Total War games reliably (which eventually led to me grabbing a sick x1300 card). My first laptop was a desktop replacement-ish Toshiba with a 17” display, and it ran Vista well enough. Then came the day when I hit some manner of recurring BSOD scenario and I had thrown my recovery media into a fire (it was a Vista disk). What was I to do?

“Why don’t you just try Linux?” asked one of my comp sci friends.

“Hmm,” said I.

Thus began my steady evolution into “that guy.” That guy who complains about GUIs and is looking at working on compiling his own kernel. That guy who is beginning to look down upon Steam after their latest EULA as having become a little too nakedly a DRM scheme. That guy whose problems with Windows 8 (and his Windows Phone 7) are not with the interface, but with the closed source philosophical stances they would represent. That guy who, during his annual reimaging process for his own PC (Core i5 2500K, 3.3GHz, 8GB DDR3 RAM, AMD RadeonHD x5770), left a 200GB partition to run the next LTS Ubuntu distro when it dropped.

I am trying to be a Linux gamer. This is a thing that is now more easily done than Linus Torvalds could have dared to dream back when “linux” was a humble ftp file name. Between open source recreations of classics like UFO: Enemy Unknown and Quake III: Arena, Desura, the Humble Indie Bundles, and recent announcements by Valve that Steam itself will soon be coming to my favorite operating system, the options have grown significantly from fast-and-loose Java versions of Minesweeper. I will openly admit that I still boot into Windows 7 to play games that in all likelihood will never come to Linux (Skyrim, XCOM, and the last chapter of Space Marine come immediately to mind). But lately I’ve been drawn to different experiences. Specifically, I’ve found the process of being ground to dust by a game, and having to surmount actual challenges, to be as rewarding (if not more so) than the hundreds and hundreds of hours I’ve spent playing Elder Scrolls games. The three punch combo of Super Meat Boy, FTL, and Jamestown, my needs are pretty much covered. Hell, add Dungeons of Dredmor from Desura and you’ve got an incredible amount of gameplay there for a handful of change (assuming you’ve got access to gold dollars).

What the hell is the point of all of this? I want to write reviews here that reflect my experience with playing the games available to Linux users. I would like to do an Extra Life stream where I play nothing but games that run in Linux. I want to communicate that just because I have elected to use a free, open source operating system does not mean I intend to pirate and steal well-made games whose creators deserve a buck. Don’t take my word for it; look at every Humble Indie Bundle to date and you will see Linux users willing to pay roughly twice as much as Windows users, on average, for the same bundle of games. Linux gamers are a very real demographic, one that developers like Valve are wisely beginning to notice. Others would be wise to do the same, as we won’t be going anywhere (though some of us will maintain a blasphemous dual-boot scenario indefinitely).

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Hate local business? Buy everything from Amazon.

My friend and associate Kevin Knodell just published a piece on the closure of Comic Book Inc. in Tacoma. I will confess to never having gone to the shop in question, mostly from my lack of interest in comic books. However, I look at the closing of any independent business with a pain in my gut.

At one point during my time in Parkland, I went out shopping with a new group of Dungeons & Dragons players to my favorite local business, The Game Matrix in Lakewood. It’s a one-stop shop for everything from Warhammer miniatures pants and LARPing supplies, to family board games and copies of The Dead Gentlemen’s hit film The Gamers II: Dorkness Rising. Their selection is astounding, and they’re willing to order anything they don’t have. I’ve not once had a bad customer experience there, and the folks who come in to play war games and run D&D sessions are polite and informative. They’ve even got a soda machine that sells cans of Mountain Dew for fifty cents. Regardless, one of these new players was looking for a fairly specific miniature, pre-painted if possible. They had a pewter, unpainted version of a tiefling druid-ish mini, but they wanted something like a reasonable price for it. The player’s response to the clerk was, “Well, that’s a little expensive. I think I’ll just order this on Amazon instead.”

This was the moment, friends, where I started to think very seriously about Amazon. It also made me wonder about my friendship with the person in question, but that’s for my therapist.

For starters, I can think of no worse of an insult to a person than to say, in effect, that your livelihood is not worthy enough of a thing for me to spend money in your shop. This is not far removed from wishing them deprivation and hunger, for it is the suggestion that their shop is not a worthwhile place. Without their shop, they’ve lost their job. Granted, one person’s business on a ten dollar item might not be enough to bring down an institution. It would take a spectacular amount of lost sales, by a competitor who could compete at such a volume that they could undercut the meager margins on a ten dollar miniature to make that sale. It would also take a generation or two to become more or less indoctrinated and addicted to the experience provided by this competition, to the point where they begin to base most of their purchasing patterns around the outlet. And that, friends, is why Amazon is terrifying to me.

Buying the Pathfinder Core Rulebook is a $50 proposition, plus sales tax. It’s not a cheap book, but then again it is the only book you’d really need to play the game (past a Monster Manual for the DM; and no YOU DON’T NEED THOSE SPLATBOOKS AAAHHHH). That $50 purchase is a commitment to some, perhaps even more to a cash-strapped high school or college student, but its purchase should be seen as something of a rite of passage. The new gamer is taken to their local Mecca, the gaming shop, walked through the halls of endless supplements and Salvatore novels, and handed their new tome. They learn the shopkeeper’s name, and check the nearby corkboard of index cards for any games starting in the area. It can be this great experience, interacting with people and interfacing with tactile items.

Amazon.com cheapens the experience, literally, by offering the same book for $31.50. They’ll go a step further and ship it to your door in two days if you’re a college student. Imagine the convenience of never having to deal with another human being while you get into a hobby whose main conceit is that you must deal with other human beings. Think of the time you could save not being exposed to other games that you might be more inclined to pick up. Add that to the gas you’ll save when your book shows up in an over-large cardboard box, wrapped in plastic bubble wrap or filled with styrofoam, and you’ve got one hell of a deal.

The gloves are off. I see Amazon as one of the most damaging forces arrayed against small, independently owned business. One could counter-claim that the recession is the real killer of businesses, but I would propose that it only fuels the fire beneath them. When I was in college and my income was significantly less, I would look at a $20 savings as the simplest of choices. And that was for admittedly frivolous things; for absolute needs like my textbooks, the choice was even more obvious. Why spend money that I need not spend, I would reason. Me first, I would reason. These guys would give me free deliveries, occasionally next day, on the same item I would pay significantly more for at the local bookstore. I was not the only undergraduate student of modest means in 2008. I feel I can safely say that there are millions of people who look at the value proposition of Amazon (and other online retailers) versus their neighbors, and shrift their neighbors.

The real exception I made to the standing Amazon policy was in used books, which I pursued voraciously at a few fine local shops (Tacoma Book Center and Park Avenue Books mostly, with some trips to Half Price Books after I learned of its existence). I applied the same spendthrift logic to these used shop excursions, but there was also the notion that local businesses were worth the effort to sustain. Over time, I fell deeply in love with the Tacoma Book Center in particular. Their selection is astounding, and they will hunt down and order materials that they don’t have in stock. I would bring in stacks of old books, willing to accept that I would be able to trade them all for maybe one or two “new” titles, and accepted this on the notion that this is a business that lives on selling books for more than what they spent to buy them. I, in turn, clear their inventory space for new books and more sales. It all started to feel very organic, like I was cleaning the teeth of a whale or something. Symbiotic relationships and whathaveyou. Furthermore, I could actually find better deals there than I could from private sellers through Amazon. I wasn’t having to cut my own throat to keep them in business, which was fine by me.

When I think about CBI closing, I think about my own local comic book store, The Dreaming. I chose the apartment I did based in part on the fact that I can basically crawl to The Dreaming in under a minute. It’s an extension of my apartment to me, a library full of Lovecraft statues and New World of Darkness core books (plus those mysterious comic book things). They host tabletop gaming sessions several nights a week, and are now doing Magic twice a week (borrowing space from the Scum of the Earth Church next door). On Free Comic Book Day, the owners placed out a dozen boxes full of used comics (most in plastic) for anybody to grab. They’re providing an outlet and a creative space for a host of nerd folk like myself, and to keep that space in existence I make a conscious decision to purchase what I can from them. When they didn’t have a copy of The Killing Joke, I ordered it through them. Did it take longer than three days? Yes. Did I spend more money than if I had ordered it on Amazon? Yes. Did I help put food in the mouth of the awesome owner? Yes. To me, that will forevermore be the difference.

I’ve had the argument thrown at me that Seattle residents should not be so concerned with giving money to Amazon, as it is in fact a local business. That’s right, jerkoff. It’s a local corporation with branch offices, warehouses in multiple states, and international outlets. Buying your Janet Evanovich novel of the month from them is the moral equivalent of buying it from a human being with a name and a family, who runs a shop a few blocks from where you work. Amazon needs the money, you see. The economy’s in a bad way, and Amazon’s not quite sure how it’s going to pay its medical bills next month. It would love to have enough financial stability to someday take the whole Amazon family on a vacation to Vancouver, but right now it is having enough trouble paying off its student loans and providing for its kids, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.cn. It wouldn’t be having such a hard time if those smug, caviar-drinking small business owners weren’t cutting into their profit margins. #occupymainstreet

Stop buying things from Amazon. Find a local business that will sell you the same item, pay a little extra, and form a relationship with another person. Keep your local storefronts occupied, and keep your neighbors fed. Live in a world where a person can own a small business and make a living, and not be ground into poverty by an impossibly big competitor. If nothing else about this article struck you at all, I would hope this does: be aware of the relationship between your spending habits and their effect on your neighborhood.

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On the didactic value of video games, part two

The last post I did in this series concluded with something of a rant, the point of which was that you can learn from video games if you give it a shot. Yes, these things are crafted first and foremost to be enjoyable, but you can take away quite a bit from some of the more ingenious ones.

Ask most of the people in the know and they’ll agree that if you aren’t gaming on a PC, you’re getting some sort of watered down experience. Games developed for a personal computer are generally more complex as the range of input options is vastly increased over that of a two-handed controller tethered to what amounts to an underpowered computer wired to your television (i.e. a console). A mouse and keyboard are tools near universally understood by now, given that you’re reading this on a computer and your grandmother probably emailed you this morning. Furthermore, the gaming culture stereotype persists that PC gamers are generally more intelligent than console users, who tend to fall into the frat boy, dorm room demographic.

"Sorry, what was that? I can't hear you over the sound of my golden locks flowing in the wind."

In short, the PC is where it is at, particularly if you’re trying to learn something. I’ll provide two examples, bearing in mind that I’m an East Asian historian.

SHOGUN: TOTAL WAR

(Creative Assembly, 2000)

What a game! I struggle to write objectively about this one as it was probably, more than anything else, the one thing that got me interested in history. To think the game is ten years old now makes me feel pretty old as well. Sigh

Shogun is set during Sengoku Jidai, Japan’s medieval counterpart to the Chinese Warring States period. In the game’s main campaign mode, you select one of several clans vying for control of Japan. You are then left to manage this state, from the ground up. Manage the economy, send diplomatic envoys to rival daimyo, use spies and geishas to gather intelligence, deploy ninjas to conduct assassinations of generals, curb the influence of Portuguese traders spreading Christianity with their guns, conscript armies, and conquer lands through capture of key enemy fortifications. All of this is in your hands.

Two separate interfaces are used to interact with the game’s representation of medieval Japan. The one you’ll spend a lot of time staring at is a beautiful hand-painted map of Japan.

Soldiers are represented in a style vaguely reminiscent of Risk; each is given a token on the board, and armies are assembled by combining units of foot soldiers, archers and horse-mounted warriors into one unit. Spies and watchtowers enable you to see into neighboring territory, so you’ll be aware enough if your neighbor is amassing troops at your doorstep. And inevitably, you will be fighting in this game. Bismarck would have been a big fan of this one, as a lot of blood and iron were involved in my dozens of conquests of Japan.

In spite of notoriously bad strategic AI since the series’ inception, each entry has shined for its continuously improving battle interface. When armies square off, all comparisons with Risk are cast aside in favor of giving you real-time control of your army. Hundreds (thousands, if you had the system to handle it!) of individual soldiers facing off with arrows flying, cavalry seeking to outflank your lines, and a multitude of other tactical decisions to be made on the fly. INTENSE.

As if that weren’t enough, the introductory video contains footage taken from the 1985 Akira Kurosawa masterpiece “Ran,” ninja assassination attempts rewarded you with cinematics that were either kickass (if the attempt succeeded) or hilarious (if it failed), and you could get advice from an old samurai in your own personal frickin’ throneroom. This game had everything. It’s dated to the point of probably having problems with 64bit operating systems, looks like a joke compared to the most modest flash game these days, and is fairly difficult to find (outside of this excellent bundle deal!), but this one still looks great through the rose-tinted shades of memory.

“That’s all great, but what can we learn from this?” Well, how about the frustrations of managing an agricultural-based economy at a period where you constantly need to pool manpower to defend territory from your primary agricultural labor force? Perhaps something about allocating limited resources for development of a small state while ensuring that your army is well fed? The role of subterfuge in statecraft, perhaps in the creation of a dominant historical narrative? Maybe even something about Japanese xenophobia against western nations, via your interactions with Dutch and Portuguese traders? Hell, even in the screenshot above you can learn some geography for free.

“But surely you’re among the minority. I mean, this is just a piece of software, right?” Tell that to the good people at Total War Center, where hundreds of PC nerds work tirelessly researching period histories to craft mods for Shogun and its successors. I’ve been involved in one or two mods for Rome that never came to fruition, and half the reason I left was I couldn’t foot the bill of being a designer/historian. These guys often do both, and they do both exceptionally well, doing a lot to repair buggy AI and otherwise extend the life of these incredible games.

And speaking of incredible games with fanatical fan bases…

CIVILIZATION IV

(Firaxis Games, 2005)

This is an absolute Jesus of a game. I was a latecomer to the Civilization franchise (which has been around since 1990), jumping in at the point when Civilization III was available for about $20 and Civ IV hadn’t been released yet. Even compared to the relatively cerebral fare of the Total War series, there was a fairly steep barrier to entry to Civ III that took me a month or two to overcome. Then I moved to Texas and turned into a rock star blah blah blah and didn’t game that much for a little while.

Civilization IV, which became the game it is today after two large expansions and litany of game balancing patches, refines many of the experiences found in its predecessor and does so with unparalleled panache. Starting a new campaign of Civ IV is like starting a cocaine habit, only you’ve already paid for a lifetime supply of the junk and there’s no nasty nosebleeds (just insomnia-induced headaches). Long-time fans of the series will tell you best that this game is an absolute time sink; I personally had a hard time balancing the second semester of junior year with a particularly engaging game as the Vikings. Days pass by like mere seconds during this game’s high points, and if you don’t believe me, try playing it on a trans-Pacific flight.

“What do you actually do in this game?” You begin as the leader of one of several dozen civilizations (ranging from the Americans to the Koreans, from the Mali Empire to the Aztecs) and are challenged by His Holiness, Sid Meier to build an empire to withstand the tests of time. Your civilization builds cities, gathers scarce resources, researches new technologies (from The Wheel to The Internet and everything in between), conducts diplomacy and trade with neighbors, fields armies to capture resources and crush Montezuma (let’s face it, it’s kill or be killed with that bastard), spread culture, founds religions, and adopts the State Property civic as soon as possible (best civic IMHO). Factor in population control of individual cities, the occasional barbarian invasion, and the prospect of Gandhi with nukes, and you’ve got yourself a real winner here.

Where does learning come? In a word, everywhere. For all practical purposes, every single element of Civ IV is explained in great detail in the Civilopedia, an in-game Wiki that describes everything from the differences between sailing ships to the origins of religions. And that’s only the deliberately-crafted informative portion of the game. This game hammers home lessons about the role of inflation in bringing down governments (as often the most effective means of combating is a revolution and the subsequent turn or two of anarchy), the means by which Europeans came to dominate so much of the last two-hundred years of history (research gunpowder first and you will be in position to steamroll your feudal adversaries), and the extent to which history is built upon control of resources like land, food and (recently) fossil fuels.

I was playing a game using the “Rhys and Fall of Civilization” mod (excellent and distributed with the final build of the game) as Japan a few months ago. After clearing the islands of barbarians and more or less maximizing the use of available land, I began to explore the rest of Asia.

Japan, as you can see (and probably already knew) is not exactly huge, and you eventually will reach a limit of horizontal and vertical growth (i.e. no more food can be milked from the land, no more land to conquer). There are also few natural resources on the island that cannot be obtained elsewhere, and (upon researching the requisite technologies), it becomes apparent that Japan lacks any fossil fuels.

Next door, however, the Korean peninsula is only a stone’s throw away and provides land, resources and (eventually) desperately-needed coal. From there, China’s riches beacon.

I’ve studied World War II in Asia for a few years, done a dearth of reading on the topic, and yet it was Civilization IV, a video game, that helped me more than years of study to understand the motives of the Japanese in their expansion. In a word, economics. The only way to “win” this particular game (beyond peace-mongering means like culture or science) was to expand into China. Here I sat with Japan in the 17th century, building up an invasion force to seize cities on the Chinese coast before they could build up enough strength to counterattack, when suddenly it clicked. “OH,” I said aloud.

“Oh,” indeed. This is only the most profound example on hand; there have been dozens of instances like this one where I’ve come to understand history a little better through this incredible game. I would go so far as to posit the following: you could, with minimal difficulty, incorporate Civilization IV into the classroom as an instructor to demonstrate a few things. Hell, I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to say that this could easily be made into homework for a social studies course. Go ahead and challenge me on this.

“Alright, so there are a few examples of fairly dense, historically-based games that might have some didactic merit to them. So what? Most people are just going to play Call of Duty anyway, and how are they supposed to learn from that?“. Well, I’ll tell you how. Next time.

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Regarding North Carolina

A lot of my close and not-so-close liberal friends seem pretty flabbergasted today. Turns out the state of North Carolina has voted on an amendment to its state constitution that would define the only valid marriages in the state as those between one man and one woman. This vote has passed by a fairly large majority, 61% to 39% as of this post.

The outrage! The shock! It’s pretty incredible how something like this could actually exist. But never fear, friends! Jeff is here to help ease the shock, and to make sense of these things for you in light of other fairly shocking things. I’ve prepared a short list of other tough topics that we’re all going to have to accept as reality before we can actually get shit done. Without further ado, here’s Jeff’s List of Five Very Surprising Things.

1. Fucking Heliocentrism

Posited as early as the third century BCE, this theory would later be reinforced by the findings of Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler. It holds that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of the goddamn solar system (which was probably named thus in light of these shocking discoveries).

2. Fucking Gravity

Allegorically discovered when Sir Isaac Newton observed an apple falling from a tree, this insanity posits that objects are attracted by a force proportionate to their masses. Some would go so far as to posit that there exists a relationship between electro-magnetism and gravity. Shocking!

3. Fucking Subatomic Particles

Turns out, based on decades of exhaustive research spent bent over microscopes, that we are in fact random associations of matter arranged just so that we’ve got hearts and brains. Those individual components have observable individual components, the atoms, are composed of subatomic particles. Hell, those subatomic particles are theoretically composed of all manner of component pieces that folks at the LHC would like to understand better.

4. Fucking Pringles

Originally proposed in 1968, Pringles are food-like bent discs made of something like potatoes, salt, and grease from old women and cats. Scientists who ate the first Pringles made two startling conclusions: firstly, that once you popped open the large dolphin in which they were formed originally, it was hard to stop the Pringles from bleeding out; and secondly, that it would be better to store these “chips” in a large cylindrical tube to prevent people from eating them. The tube idea, and the first unofficial motto of Pringles, LLC, have stuck around to this day.

5. The Fucking Constitution

Go ahead and cry, Washington. Really, go ahead. It solves nothing. On the other hand, go ahead and gloat. We deserve some gloating. We passed our gay marriage legalization bill, and are on the right site of history. Just be sure that when you’re out gloating, you say thanks to my Constitutionalist brother. You see, friends, the same piece of the Constitution that enabled us to do the right thing has just been used in North Carolina to do the wrong thing. And the best part? It doesn’t care. The Constitution is concerned only with the forms and procedures, and could give a shit about you. No really, it doesn’t care about you. The first Americans who read the Constitution noticed this fairly large hole, and the result was the Bill of Rights. Until there is an amendment added to the Constitution of the United States that makes a final and legally binding decision on fifty states and 300 million plus citizens, the status quo of individual states deciding for themselves how to handle domestic partnerships and marriage will stand.

“So let’s change the Constitution!” I’m with you, but I must ask a question. Given the population of this country and how close the last elections have been, do you think a majority of voting citizens would vote in support of “gay marriage” amendment (I use quotes because the wording of this amendment would need to be fairly broad so as to include a more nuanced understanding of gender and provide wholesale the same rights and privileges afforded to heterosexual married couples)? I have my doubts. That might be skepticism, but it’s also realistic. Do you know how long it takes to get the wheels of a Constitutional plebiscite going in this country? If brought to bare, and then this amendment fails to gain a popular majority, do you know how long it will take to get another one up? There is no precedent for this, but my guess is “a long fucking time.”

The current arrangement allows some of my friends to be lawfully wed in the very near future. We did this as Washingtonians and should be proud of it. We stand with Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Washington D.C. on the right side of history. As for the rest of the country? Let them make awful decisions and be dicks. Let them live in the stone age. They are entitled to do so right now, and I see that as a good thing. I believe firmly in democracy, even when the results are off. A majority of North Carolinian voters have made an adult decision, and it should be respected as such. However, it is a shit decision. If the end product of that decision is that Washington State will become a new home to a few lovely queer couples, I welcome them with open arms.

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On the didactic value of video games, part one

(This was written about two years ago while I was studying abroad in China)

Throughout my academic career, I've had to introduce myself over and over again to new groups of people. I realize people feign interest in me (as I do them) but sometimes they’ll go out of their way, like a journalist who remembers halfway through an interview that she’s paid to ask questions, try to uncover something deeper about me.These conversations are fun and can go a number of ways. But when people ask me why I’m interested in history, the conversation generally does one of two things.

OPTION 1

Stranger: How did you get interested in history?

Jeff: Video games. I started playing Shogun: Total War when I was about twelve and loved it.

Stranger: (snidely) Video games, eh? That’s really dumb. I don’t play those, I’m a serious person.

OPTION 2

Stranger: What got you interested in history in the first place?

Jeff: Video games, actually. I found this game called Shogun: Total War when I was about twelve and I learned a lot from it about medieval Japan.

Stranger: (polite but confused) Oh! Interesting…yeah.

Seriously, people? Video games! Like they’re some sort of esoteric, unheard of entertainment medium at this point. It’s two thousand and goddamn twelve, ladies and gents. Our species has been “gaming” for thousands of years and we’ve had the technology to take those games and throw them onto television screens now since the Carter years, if not earlier. And in that period, the medium has grown in complexity and sophistication. It has faced the same social hurdles that have been jumped by the written word, the song, the surreal painting, the photograph, the silent film, the talking film, television, comic books, and the pornographic industry. And, trust me, the medium isn’t going to recede into the twilight anytime soon. In all likelihood, it will continue to grow.

How can games be used? Clearly they can be used in an educational setting. My generation and the one before it were in love with a wonderful bit of “edutainment” called The Oregon Trail (available here as abandonware), though you’ll need to do a little software wrangling to get it working if I remember correctly). This game had fricking everything: math problems, basic economics, reading for clues as to which strategy would guarantee your family’s survival, ethical dilemmas (“Jimmy has dysentery! Should we slow down and all starve, or press on and lose him to save the family?”), logistics management, period-appropriate music, geography, hunting (!), and gravestones to mark your prior defeats along the trail. GameSpot did a special feature on The Oregon Trail in their Greatest Games of All Time section several years ago, and it does better justice to this fairly incredible monument to the didactic value of gaming than I could.

“But Jeff, The Oregon Trail was designed specifically to be used be educators to instruct students about a specific period in American history! There are thousands of video games; how are all of them supposed to be of educational merit?”

My honest answer to this sort of question is, “If you’re a shallow dumbass who isn’t able to see the relative merits of all things, there might be nothing to take away from anything at all, much less video games. But if you’re willing to dig a bit, you can learn from anything. You can learn from Ikea furniture, a roll of toilet paper, or from the schizophrenic old man who digs through the garbage outside of your dorm, much less something which took a hundred people ten thousand man hours to complete.” All of this is a matter of perspective, and my perspective is that of a life-long learner. I don’t understand how you could go through life not starving for further knowledge about everything, seeking to improve yourself endlessly. It’s not like anybody (or anything) is going to do it for you.

To be continued...

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The Onboard NIC Crew, Episode 8: ArbyQuest

NOTE: This is copy pasta from our actual blog.

On this crisp, clear edition of the Onboard NIC Crew, we get directly to the bottom of Mobile World Congress (not Conference), attempt to comprehend the mindflaying insanity that is a Start Button-less Windows OS, and debut the exciting new feature, "What's That App?" Lauren also returns after a long and lonely exile to lure away Sean and Auston, like a succubus, to a local Arby's. There's also a bit where Jeff bought a Gameboy Micro, and was then cut off when gremlins carried him away from his computer and gave him a stern talking to about wasting his money. It got crazy. Hell, considering how generally incompetent the management is, it's amazing that you're even reading this.

Impressed by our chops? Like us on the iTunes, or the Facebook! Wanna tell us we suck and stuff? Yell at us on the Twitter (@onboardnic), or write us an email like a senior citizen (onboardniccrew@gmail.com). We love listener questions, especially dumb ones!

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