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I hate to inject too many personal anecdotes – music related, emotional, or otherwise – into these writings but what you are doing and how you are feeling at the time of reading and writing something I do believe affects how you intake the words pretty heavily, and I often feel this effect is understated, so I don’t want to diminish its power.

I almost always read and write to Sirius XM Radio – the Springsteen station – and as a result, my reading is guided by a thumping downbeat and often an Americana lyric of troubles in the heartland, described by a man and his band I used to like a lot, until 83 shows later and the obsession is far and above normal.

That said, as I read ‘Election,’ appropriately set in New Jersey, where Springsteen is from, and which forms the backdrop for nearly every song I listened to as I read, the school is readying to vote for class president.  This is of course unique and a niche environment, but like a few of the other stories, this story is as old as writing itself: it is about power, it is about loyalty, it is about emotional confusion, and the feeling of depth across many levels of life.  That’s what’s interesting – even the unique tenets of the story make it more tethered to the stereotypes of the few genres it fits within.  Just like Springsteen’s music – standard, average by classification and genre, but leagues above and beyond with lyrical ability, songwriting, composition, and that thing that sets both the records and the shows apart: performance. The book, then, is like a performance in that way.

There is a U.S. Presidential going on.  It’s 1992.  Springsteen was on his one and only tour (at that point) with a ‘different’ band.  It’s a detour from the norm; so is the book. 

Our character, Tracey, is like me at the elementary school and middle school age.  It’s what I tried and half-failed at in high school, and really, what I am now – she’s too ambitious for her own good, driven, a smart girl, that is not liked but likely largely misunderstood and largely for reasons that she doesn’t allow herself to be peered into – a key facet of many of these stories, and one which I hope to explore far further: Teachers, students, people in the classroom environment have difficulty opening up, particularly about deeper and emotional things, and this can be the strongest takeaway from a class, so this poses an inherent wall, an omnipresent barrier, that should be worked on and fixed. 

Tracey, for all her confusion, we learn has a heated sexual affair with her former teacher, and her mother serves as a character that could be in one of the more twisted Springsteen songs: she finds out and, of course, ruins the teachers marriage and career.  This is part of the Americana story – hope, faith, dreams, dreams rewarded, and as Bruce writes, ‘dreams thwarted.’  There has to be a downfall at some point.

 

Working all day in my daddy’s garage

Driving all night, chasing some mirage; Pretty soon, little girl, I’m gonna take charge

Former teacher Jim McAllister encourages his ‘pet’, a student named Paul Warren, to run.  

Well the dog’s on Main Street howl

‘Cause they understand

If I could take one moment, into my hand

Mr. I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man

And I believe in the Promised Land 

In turn, Paul’s outcast lesbian sister, Tammy, begins a full-throated effort and campaign to be school president in retaliation to her ex-girlfriend who is now dating Paul.   Our teacher, Mr. McAllister, loses his job as part of this mounted defense – and I hear Springsteen singing, “Man turns his back on his family, he ain’t no friend of mine.” This is a story about doing either what you believe is right and still losing for it, because that’s what our society has allowed.  Or it is, like several of the other songs in the catalog, open to more interpretation – what happens when our sense of right and wrong are both misguided and it is also society’s fault? If I’ve been told by teachers since I was four that stealing is okay, am I legally bound when I’m 16 to the law? To using that as a defense? What about as a 19 year old, with even stronger lessons put into me?

In 2012’s ‘Wrecking Ball,’ album, the statements in the songs ring bold and loud; they actually pose questions themselves.  The album’s leadoff single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” is really more of a question: Do we take care of our own? Do teachers in this book believe in helping kids, or are their heavier egos at play? Is that always a bad thing?

 

I’ve been knocking on the door that holds the throne

I’ve been looking for the map that leads me home

I’ve been stumbling on good hearts, turned to stone

The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone 

That road of intentions going dry is the perfect metaphor for this book, and for why it was smart to assign and read: The teacher has a role to play and when he or she doesn’t, or otherwise alters that role to significantly – good or bad – it alters factors in the otherwise stable environment that don’t allow the society to function ‘as planned’ around them.  Just ask Springsteen.

The guys who live on both sides of me play video games.  So when I refer to the Vernor’s Ginger Ale and cold pizza, I’m liable to go either direction to have access to both the games and their systems, but also to people who can explain to me what is going on.

So when the guys next door to me had only cheap beer on Friday night, I went the other way.  I played Gran Turismo, on their PlayStation device.  Last night, I went back to the cheap beer folks, to find them with more cheap beer, and pulled out my Vernor’s, and played MarioKart.  These people epitomize MarioKart.

After conversations with these folks, I learn that “Turismo” (as they call it, they think they’re so hip) is fundamentally based on a racing simulator genre. Players maneuver an automobile to compete against a sort of artificially intelligent driver or drivers on the various race tracks. The game uses two different modes: Arcade Mode and Simulation Mode. In the arcade mode, the player can freely choose the courses and vehicles they wish to use. Winning races unlocks additional cars and courses.

As the alternative given, simulation mode requires the player to earn different levels of driver’s licenses in order to qualify for events, and earn credits (money), trophies and prize cars by winning race championships. Credits can be used to purchase additional vehicles, and for parts and tuning.  Winning any given championship also unlocks a video and a few additional demonstration tracks.

Gran Turismo has the ability to alternate between 180 different types of cars and eleven different race tracks, with options added to their reverse versions. This provides a fresh perspective and fun and exciting ride each time.

MarioKart is quite different.  I’m told it’s a series, with different options out each time, but on this game system (I think it’s an XBOX, but I’m still not an expert), it seems as monotonous as monotonous can get.  I should add that I’m biased – these kids stay up until 3 and 4 in the morning, swearing and keeping us up in the four hours of sleep I’m trying to get, until they beat each other in MK.

From the conversations I had with these guys, I’m told that in the Mario Kart series, players compete in go-kart races, and they have the ability to control one of a selection of characters from the Mario video game series. One of the features of the series is the use of various power-up items obtained by driving into item boxes laid out on the course. These power-ups include mushrooms to give players an advantage in speed, a “boost,” Koopa Shells to be thrown at opponents, and banana peels that they are able to put on the track to delay opponents.  The type of weapon received from an item box is random and often influenced by the player’s position in the race.

I wish there was more to say about this game, but simplicity seems to be a key concept here.  I originally intended on comparing and contrasting the two video games, but they appear to have entirely different motives and strived goals: Gran Turismo offering tons of different routs and over 100 different cars, and MarioKart building off of a theme in political advertising known as predisposition.  In terms of effectiveness, I like the options and they may even be too much (!) in Gran Turismo, but I’d play it again.  I may or may not play MarioKart again, but I think the effective use of building on prior knowledge (for example, use of the characters in the Mario games) is very effective and well done.

For our class, building on professors, students, common figures (Mary Sue Coleman, common athletes, actors, politicians) could be a cool facet to a video game design.  Building upon this prior knowledge is a great tool for recruitment and retention – it catches your eye, and if done well, keeps it in.

 

For this week’s post, I ventured even further into previously unchartered territory, and played the increasingly popular (or it was when I stopped being cool 4 or 5 years ago), “Call of Duty, World at War.”

I once again went next door for Vernon’s Ginger Ale and cold pizza, because the neighbors know their video games far better than I ever could.  From what I am told, “World at War” is a game in the Call of Duty series, though this version features an increasingly more mature theme than its previous versions in the series. The game is what I’m told is “open-ended”, which gives the player multiple ways to complete objectives. Players fight alongside AI-controlled teammates. Friends, ‘teammates,’ or in my case, neighbors, are able to help during the game’s missions by providing cover fire, shooting down enemies, and clearing rooms for entry.

I’m told this is most similar to “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4.”

When I play the game single-player, I am able to control three different characters from a first-person perspective.  There are different types of characters and different abilities of each, but overall, I am of the belief that in any game of this sort (not just fighting / war games, but any in which the purpose is to teach a moral, ethical lesson, or prove a point, or in which the character could be somewhat believable – unlike a game like Pac Man), first-person is best. There are people who disagree with me, including those playing with me right now, but I like first-person.  I like it because in terms of mechanics and being realistic, it does the job; at least for me it works.

The plot, while complicated, taught me enough about history that I was inspired to start emailing history teachers from high school – in other words, it did its job.  When I noted ‘moral and ethical teachings’ above, half of you reading thought that was a joke, but there are lessons, including historical, and violent-leaning, to be learned.

The game story begins in Makin Island on the evening of August 17, 1942. Marine Private C. Miller watches the torture and execution of Private K. Pyle, a colleague in the Marines, by the Japanese. Within seconds (milliseconds appear on the television screen) before Miller’s execution, he is rescued by a squad of Marines, led by Corporal Roebuck and Sergeant Sullivan as they assault the island, replicating the Makin Island raid.

Through a variety of raids and series of battles, we are taken through the abovementioned controls and options, able to literally fight alongside members of this armed force. 

Overall, I think this game provides one of the best senses of reality across gaming, from what I’ve seen.  Again recognizing that I’m a novice, I would say that this provided me with even more realistic feelings than the sports games, such as FIFA, and some of the ‘free’ games that come with Wii (bowling, tennis, etc.) did.  I might be wrong, but the fact that you look around and are alongside not only ‘real people,’ but folks in an armed force we read about and discuss, worked.

If I was to be more talented, and I had taken the game design option for this class, this game would have taught me several key take-aways to implement in my own game: The first is that first-person perspective works.  The rest of the take-aways would have been that all ther mechanics and facets of game design should be tied to this perspective, allowing dialogue, visuals, options, player versions, and background music or noise to be tied to the fact that sitting in a living room playing a game like this one (assuming yours is similar or that realistic is what we’re aiming for) should be no different than putting three or four quarters in (does it still cost that?) at an arcade, in one of those actual simulators. 

Cheers to perspective shaping reality.

 

Fallout: New Vegas –

Borrowing a controller from my neighbors, along with 2010’s smash video game, “Fallout: New Vegas,” as well as a Vernor’s Ginger Ale (I don’t drink on week nights), I decided one wasn’t enough, I’m going to truly and genuinely try different games on different game systems across different genres.  If Springsteen says, “it takes a leap of faith to get things going,” then I’ve learned to take it – this class being no exception.

Players are given many options throughout the course of this game, something I think players seem to like, particularly given what I’ve seen from the opening few games I’ve tried, and from the many players I’ve now interacted with. 

An optional “Hardcore” mode delivers more realism and intensity into the gaming environment, which some players prefer.  It is interesting to me that, particularly given my limited knowledge of this industry and the graphics effects optional components I have now experienced, one of the most important things across each of these genres, game systems, and the games themselves is relevance.  A sports game, for example, is relevant to a sports-loving (in FIFA’s case, soccer-loving) audience because they have rpedisposition to the subject matter.  However, a broader audience enjoys playing FIFA because of the thematic elements – they enjoy multinational games (a subset FIFA thrives in, particularly ue to soccers’s international success as a sport in and of itself); they enjoy fast-paced environemnts, and most of all, they enjoy changing the clothes, the accents, and having control. 

Players love relevance because they love control.  If a game allowed every button on a remote to work and function during the course of game play, but allowed only one character every time to follow one course with one type of music and one option for game play, the game wouldn’t be exciting.

So when I played “Fallout: Las Vegas,” options were countless.  Fallout: New Vegas takes place during the year 2281, four years after the events of Fallout 3, and 204 years after the Great War of 2077, so I’m told by the guys I played with.

Futuristic gaming is another tough-to-handle element, but one which seems to be increasingly popular, and as a result, increasingly successful in that industry.  People like relevance, but they like imagination all in the same.  IN fact, somewhere between the two, a harmony exists which allows both elements to not only survive, but thrive.

In Old World Blues, one of the sub-theme games allowed in FO, the Courier unwittingly becomes a lab rat in a science experiment gone awry and discovers how some of the Mojave desert’s mutated creatures came to exist. Old World Blues takes place in the Pre-War research centers of Big Mountain, known within this region as “the Big Empty” or “Big MT” (where Father Elijah had found most of his equipment prior to Dead Money, another one of the games optional subsets).

Fallout taught me that this fictional reality, where we have gone one level beyond just ‘virtual,’ as we did in FIFA may sell with some audiences.  It was a bit of a leap too far for me, given my zero predisposition to these sorts of games, but I don’t regret learning how much options work for people.

FIFA worked because there were different music sets to choose from – there were different costumers, different themes, different colors, different countries, and different players with different skillsets. 

Fallout: New Vegas works because it allows players to determine just how MUCH they want to delve into this sort of fictional reality.  While I may not be a fan of straying too far from common knowledge and the type of reality I am used to, this made the game acceptable for someone like me with limited knowledge of this industry and these sorts of games. 

Therefore, what I normally would have given a D+ to is getting a B+/A- because of its options.  Options that allowed me to delve in just how far I want, to take however far a leap as I’d like.

FIFA 12 – XBOX 360 –

Despite having taken me almost two hours to learn and understand the various controls utilized by the FIFA video game, I was proud of myself for this being the first week I explored games beyond the ‘simple’ realm.  The first week I wrote about the business world of gaming and my limited knowledge, the second board games, and last week (third), some of the most basic games and their genres on sites like Addictinggames.com.

This week, it is more than time to step it up.  So, I will be candid and say that humbling as it may sound, my very first ACTUAL video game on a semi-modern game system, in this case XBOX 360, was the soccer-fueled FIFA 12. 

The interesting thing about this game and sports games in general is their ability to be casual, while at the same time combining many of the other genres which we have spoken about, discussed, and perused on this blog.

The fast paced nature of creating alternate and virtual realities is reflected in shooting and strategy games, in racing and fast-paced medieval-themed games, and it is certainly omnipresent in such games as some of the modern day sporting games of our generation. 

FIFA 12 features 29 licensed leagues from 22 countries. Twenty two different countries.  That is an astounding accomplishment, given that the last time I played a sports game, it was the black and white Gameboy’s NBA game which boasted in guerilla marketing campaigns that it contained a whole eight NBA teams.  (I also typed half of my papers in high school on a Smith/Corona typewriter – I never claimed to be normal.)

That being the case, and given that I’m not a sports fan and know hardly anything about soccer, I was enthralled by the video game.  A number of different national covers are used. Most of them depict either Manchester United front-man and England striker Wayne Rooney, along with Los Angeles Galaxy stars.  This usage of real-life people, including announcers and commentators lends a practicality that other games, including non-sports games could benefit from.

What do you think would be the result if a virtual reality game with specific and direct intent at provoking a social or political issue included narration or some form of audio track from a political or other prominent national figure?

Would a game carry more weight if it included heavy computer-generated animations, along with computer-generated score, and a generic or once again computer-generated voice; or would President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Clinton’s voice, along with less-pixelated images lend themselves to a more believable, and ultimately more successful video game?

In tying this sports game back into the loop, and into the larger narrative of these virtual reality games, particularly those with social or political intent, the fast-paced nature of a sports game which includes some of the biggest names, voices, and CHARACTERS in the industry serves itself to make the game even more fast-paced.  The game is successful not because, as critics have noted, ‘people like the sport, they like to watch, so they like this game,’ but because it lends itself to adding a dimension towards an already-familiar concept – an interesting ‘mechanisms’ in gaming.

I’m just proud I put down the black and white Gameboy, and actually tried.

 

Games for Change – Family of Heroes

For this game, I chose to play “Family of Heroes” on the website “Games for Change.”  “Family of Heroes” is an online role-playing training game whose site states that its bi-fold mission is “ to help families of returning veterans learn essential skills to manage common challenges in adjusting to post-deployment life” and also to “connect more veterans experiencing post-deployment stress with VA services.”

As we’ve seen with several social and political games, there are both educational / knowledge components, but also what I call a ‘referral’ component, where the game refers to external resources for a donation, more knowledge, furthering the motive, morals, and mission of the game; in this case, resources for returning veterans to receive a variety of different resources and services are directed in the game.

Having known little about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, this game accomplished it’s laid and spelled out missions and motives incredibly well.  If the last post got an A- to an A, this gets an A+ with extra credit for specifically and directly accomplishing a very admirable motive – to help veterans cope with struggles such as trauma when they return from war – an issue that has plagued soldiers for decades. 

Statistics such as “there are 900,000” veterans in the New York and New Jersey areas as of 2011 helped guide users and players such as me into understanding how broad of an issue this is – returning from war.

ACTUAL soldiers’ families are made into animated caricatures, which helps give a human quality to a game of a serious nature, in this case.  The ability to listen, either via computer-generated audio, or view on caption-aided text is great and adds to a broader audience, either because of environment while playing (I played in a loud café, for example), or for disability – an effective tactic employed here.

Arguments in this game had between the many computer-generated characters have several elements and each underscore the problems of PTS Disorder.  For example, two characters have an argument about not wanting to go to a family barbeque (the characters are a mother and a son, a returning vet from war), which turns into a conversation about the son wanting only to be alone. 

This eventually ends in a discussion of why – why he wants to be alone, and underscores not only feelings of solitude and desperation, but longing for things that don’t exist.  It is these very feelings that make PTSD an incredibly tough disorder to cope with.

Years ago, I saw friends of mine shot.  Staying on target and not landing in a personal narrative, I can say that each of the four of them survived, but two of four of them have incredibly serious PTSD.  As a result of this game, and it’s ‘resiliency training’ as it calls itself, I forwarded this to mutual friends, and SOME family members.  That should underscore its validity, its effectiveness, but most especially, its practicality.  Well done.

 

Everyone uses Google.  Even people who say they don’t use Google, use Google.  Google is now an accepted class at major universities – an accepted break from the course of study at everything from elementary to middle to certainly high schools.  As many people dislike Google for certain of their marketing and business strategies, and those people STILL use Google every single day.  It is unbelievable. 

On AddictingGames.com, a website I discovered through both friends’ recommendations and through the course CTools site for this class, there are many types of games.  These include puzzle, strategy, sports, and shooting, among many other genres, and levels of excitement, entertainment, and ease of play vary greatly from game to game – from the menial games which I would have generally played to complex games requiring intrinsic motivation and understanding of the mechanics involved, perhaps stemming from other, and external gaming.

I have to say – I am beyond glad I tried this game; it’s functionality, but more importantly, its practicality and pragmatic applications make it a worthwhile venture for everyone, gamers or not.  I think this raises a larger issue – if we talk about artificial realities and what games can tell us about political and social issues, and we have also discussed math and other ‘direct’ educational games (such as those with vocabulary and mathematics directly involved in the play of game), there is a third genre brought into play here:

Such a genre teaches lessons or life’s applications with less direct meaning.  In the case of this game, a question with AT LEAST two to three parts, such as “Due to an oversight in Congress, the state that joined the Union in 1803 didn’t officially become a state until what year?,” which was the first question I received.  In this case, Google itself opens up and users are prompted to search.  Upon beginning typing, Google search tips appear in an interstitial (that’s what it’s called in digital advertising; I assume the term is still relevant here) with search tips and hints – an incredibly innovative use of embedding knowledge and education into an entertaining game.

The game is powered by a program called Deja Google.  Research I conducted showed that DG is a program which ONLY returns results from before “A Google a Day” was created.  IN this way, the program times users, ensuring that search strategies and tactics employed are improved until not only are correct answers derived, but in less time – a strategy that can help everything from tasks to projects to essays to research to life.  Solid A for innovation here.