Thursday, September 30, 2010
I need to start keeping better track of my video games. The ones that I haven't lent out to people and forgotten about are tossed in stacked plastic bins along with the old CDs I'm too embarrassed to leave sitting around in plain view, books I haven't room for on my shelf, back issues of Mad and Inquest, and other miscallaneous crap that has too much sentimental value to be tossed out, but too little of any other sort of value to take up space anywhere else. Finding any game I've owned prior to 2006 can sometimes be an hour-long undertaking. In most cases it would probably be a lot more timely and cost-efficient (when you reach a certain age you realize that there is ultimately little distinction between the two) to count what I'm looking for as lost and order a used copy on eBay for five bucks.
Yesterday I was searching the bins for Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain (because I've discovered that the reading public doesn't give two damns about anything I write unless it pertains to video games) and came across a book I hadn't thought about in a number of years: Nothing But the Truth, a young adult novel by Avi. It has been nearly fifteen years since my first and only reading of it. I was a lot younger and more inattentive then, and I only read it to meet my summer reading quota, so I remembered very few specific details until I picked it up and started flipping through it.
Nothing But the Truth is a god damned brilliant book.
As I'm typing this, it comes to my attention that a film based on the book was released in 2008. I'm not sure how much of a splash it caused, or how many people are familiar with the premise or the plot. If this is old news, just go ahead and direct your browser towards another page. (Which you will be inclined to do anyway, as this post has nothing to do with SquareSoft games.)
The plot (narrated almost entirely by way of conversational excerpts) in a nutshell: an underperforming, pain-in-the-ass public high school school student has a rough working relationship with one of his English teachers. He performs poorly in class, she comes down on him for it, and he resents her for it. Fairly common scenario.
A daily homeroom ritual in this particular school is the playing of the national anthem. One morning, just to get on the teacher's nerves, this kid hums along the song. HMM-HMM-HMM-HMMMM-HMMMMMM HMMMMMMM!! The teacher punishes him for violating the school's policy of maintaining silence during the anthem and being a pain in the ass. Hoping to find a way of getting transferred out of her class, he tells his parents that his crazy teacher suspended him for singing the "Star Spangled Banner."
This is the proverbial flap of the butterfly wing. A national shitstorm ensues. The local media picks up the story. School board members and ambitious small-time politicians grandstand the issue. It makes headlines across the country: STUDENT EXPELLED FOR SINGING THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER. PATRIOTS SHOULD BE OUTRAGED. Every voice of sanity is drowned out in a cacophonous whirlwind of sensationalism. By the time the student starts feeling remorse -- after all, he's just ruined his teacher's career and life for no good reason at all -- he is absolutely powerless to put the brakes to the machine and can only watch it play out.
Nothing But the Truth was written in 1991, a decade after CNN ushered in the era of 24-hour news and its inevitable consequences upon public discourse. It is equally -- if not more -- relevant today than it was twenty years ago. There is no way Avi could have possibly foreseen the advent of pundit-governed journalism and that perpetual engine of vacuous hype and misinformation, the Internet. Revisiting Nothing But the Truth in the context of today's media climate (and increasingly nationalistic political climate) is rather unnerving. I suspect what Avi characterizes as an irregularity -- a perfect storm of circumstances -- is lately becoming the norm rather than the exception. Scary stuff.
So. Do yourself a favor and check it out. (Shall I demean us both with the assurance that it is a fast and easy read?)
Sunday, September 26, 2010
I have spent a god damn lot of time playing, thinking, and writing about video games. This is not news. Since I practically grew up on them, the habit never struck me as anything other than natural, reasonable, and harmless. But lately I am beginning to wonder.
My experience with games went something like this:
I was born in Washington, D.C. My parents lived in Columbia, Maryland. In the basement of their townhouse was an Atari 2600. Every now and then I would get my hands on a joystick and play a game of Ms. Pac-Man or Megamania, but I do not recall either of them developing into an all-devouring preoccupation. (My being two years old might have been a factor.)
I learned to read at an early age. When I was three years old, my parents got me a picture book about volcanoes. I could not tell right from left, but likely knew more about the Mount St. Helens eruption than at least half of today's U.S. population.
Some months later, my parents got me a children's astronomy book. I could not tie my shoes, but could tell you about the choking density of Venus's atmosphere, identify the Galilean satellites and describe the most prominent characteristics of each, and knew about Uranus’s titled rotational axis.
Some months after that, my parents bought me a picture book about dinosaurs. At age four I was aware of the distinction between the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods and could give examples of the dinosaurs that lived during each of them, though I am sure I mispronounced their names.
When I was five years old, my parents bought me a Nintendo Entertainment System. On Christmas day I chose to foul my undergarments rather than take a five-minute break from Duck Hunt to use the toilet.
So much for an interest in reality.
One particularly interesting aspect of the video game phenomenon is their continuing presence in the lives and minds of the generation that was first exposed to them. I remember seeing all kinds of toys in my friends' rooms and basements. Ninja Turtles action figures. Nerf weapons. Archie comic books. Skip-its. Hungry Hungry Hippos. Mighty Max playsets. Hot Wheels race tracks.
As the Mario generation (which, for the sake of convenience, we will describe as gamers born between 1980 and 1990) aged, it is unlikely that most of them continued building massive Lego fortresses and staging epic cross-universal showdowns between their G.I. Joe and X-Men action figures into their teens and twenties. But the video game consoles remained constant. I would be interested in learning the statistics of console owners who stopped playing video games altogether once they began, but in my personal experience, I have known very few Nintendo or Super Nintendo owners who have eliminated video games from their lives after playing them consistently for a time. In almost all cases, the video game console was the one childhood toy that never got put away. When the Nintendo got old, the Super Nintendo replaced it. When the Super Nintendo got old, it was replaced by the Sony Playstation. When the Sony Playstation got old, it was replaced by the Dreamcast, the Xbox, and the Playstation 2.
What we have now is a not insignificant slice of the populace whose most consuming interest during its developmental years was video games. A large multinational subculture today describes themselves as "gamers" and talks of the wider "gaming community." Growing up as a gamer myself, it did not seem unusual to me that I and my peers might decide that the characteristic that most defined us as human beings was the time we spent by ourselves in front of a television screen with a controller in our hands. (Do you suppose there were groups of adolescent television enthusiasts who referred to themselves as "watchers" during the 1950s and 60s?)
But lately I am starting consider what this actually means. The proliferation of video games is a phenomenon that has not been examined thoroughly or honestly enough as of yet, though progress is being made.
I am not suggesting that life should not be pleasurable. I am not saying that children should spend every hour of their lives being dragged by the wrist between school, piano lessons, SAT prep courses, and soccer practice. Nor am I saying there is anything wrong with a professional or student returning home after an exhausting day and unwinding with a game of Halo or Persona. (I myself have been very partial to Hydorah as of late.)
When I was "studying" at a summer university program in Japan several years ago, one lecturer discussed the need for societal "pressure valves." Living and working in any nation exerts a certain degree of stress on the populace; and Japan in particular, owing to its work ethic, corporate structure, and deru kugi-wa utareru culture. What I got out of this lecture is that if Japan were to suddenly enact a zero-tolerance ban on video games, pornography, and alcohol, their famously-low violent crimes rate would immediately spike upwards. (Please do not ask for specifics. I was very hungover and my notes are terrible.)
The point is, video games serve a practical function in society. They are a mollifier. When the overworked, underpaid, and resentful Borders employee comes home and shoots people in Call of Duty, he is releasing tension that might otherwise manifest itself in his professional and social life. He is less likely to take out his existential frustrations on customers or coworkers, march into a crowded McDonalds with an uzi, or drive a dynamite-packed SUV into a government building. (Though video games have occasionally been suspected of encouraging violence in younger and more impressionable players, the reverse is almost certainly true for adults.)
This is certainly relevant to the broader "New Media and Society" issue, but we will not be looking at the Big Picture today.
One aspect of the Mario generation that strikes me in particular is the amount of intellectual and academic energy it expends towards coming to a deeper -- in some cases transcendent -- understanding of video games: what they are, what they mean, and how better ones can be made. It has created a large body of music and art rooted in video game tropes and aesthetics. It has begun reading games through the lenses of critical theory. Some very interesting and meritorious work has been produced, but one must bear in mind that it indicates a generation (or two) whose creative and intellectual focus has been riveted on their toys. If as many people spent as much time waxing Aristotelian about Parker Brothers board games, it might seem somewhat absurd.
The "are video games art?" question has become a very hot topic over the last decade or so. Gamers become absolutely livid at the suggestion that their distraction of choice is not worthy of being counted as valuable as the more established and "higher" distractions, such as books or film. I think a lot of the people wrapped up in this debate are missing the point. I subscribe to the classic (and increasingly unpopular) view that the substantiality of the content being delivered is more important than the means by which it is delivered. There are a lot of very intelligent and artfully-designed video games, and there are a lot of really fucking stupid books and movies. If I had to weigh the artistic merits of Secret of Mana and The Da Vinci Code, I would say the overall advantage goes to the one about the kid who travels from place to place by getting shot out of a cannon.
But I do not believe video games have yet produced anything that clears the bar set by the greatest works of film and literature. (They probably should not be expected to, but for now let us assume they should.)
My personal "high art or low art?" litmus test is a question of lasting influence. If we look at my bookshelf, I can pull out a couple dozen books, open them up, and point to specific chapters and passages that have actually changed my life. After reading and considering them, my perspective was altered to such an extent that I had to subsequently alter my behavior. As far as I am concerned, that is the distinction. "Low" art keeps a person occupied. "High" art effects a transformation.
(Of course, this is all subjective. In the first Superman film, Lex Luthor says: "some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe." But I suspect War and Peace has facilitated exponentially more revelatory experiences than a Dubble Bubble wrapper, or Space Invaders for that matter.)
I can think of very few video games that, in my personal experience, fall under this definition of "high art." I have great times playing games, but rarely walk away with much else to show for the experience and time spent. Not that I am complaining; I do not play video games to enrich myself. I play them to entertain myself.
What worries me is the suspicion that fewer and fewer people are able to tell the difference.
I sometimes worry that video games are being given a kind of eminence they do not entirely deserve, or are earning it for the wrong reasons. They are very nice, fun, designed by incredibly clever and creative people, and admirably fulfill their function as another mollifier for the masses. But do they have any value beyond that?
Rather than drag this out any longer, I will just wrap this up with a question that occurred to me recently:
One of my favorite parts in the SNES game Chrono Trigger is the Fiona's Villa sidequest. In 1000 A.D., you pass through a stretch of barren desert on the Zenan continent. Traveling back to 600 A.D., you visit the same area and come across a dying forest, which a young woman named Fiona is struggling to save. With a little elbow grease and some help from the dutiful Robo, you defeat the subterranean monsters decimating the landscape and assist Fiona in replanting it. Returning to 1000 A.D., you find that a thriving forest has replaced the desert, and a shrine built in honor of Fiona and Robo rests on the site of her old villa.
Chrono Trigger fans hold a special place in their hearts for this quest. It is a lovely lesson in how acts of righteousness and kindness can trigger far-reaching and lasting changes in the world.
But I wonder: of all the people who played and praised this sequence -- and judging by sales data, we can assume at least 2.36 million human beings on planet Earth have played Chrono Trigger at some point in their lives -- which do you suppose the greater number of them are more likely to have done later on:
1.) Gone outside and planted a tree themselves?
2.) Sat indoors and played another RPG?
Sunday, September 19, 2010
We have a very thorough and detailed set of regulations regarding drinking and driving in place precisely because alcohol is a legal drug. When you have a populace whose adult members are free to consume a depressant that induces dizziness, impairs judgment, and severely inhibits coordination, it becomes an imperative of public safety that legislative steps are taken to dissuade and punish people for operating motor vehicles under the influence of said depressant. Thus, we have unambiguous laws establishing a threshold on what constitutes “drunk driving” and equip law enforcement officers with the tools and methods for determining whether motorists fall within that threshold.
Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, no such regulations for driving under the influence of THC exist. The laws and circumstances vary from state to state, but for the most part, if a United States police officer pulls you over and suspects from your bleary eyes and suppressed smirk that you might be driving stoned, there is very little he can do unless he finds drugs on your person or in your vehicle, compels you to admit to having abused an illegal euphoriant, or fails you on a field sobriety test (which is unlikely, provided he is not particularly vindictive and you are not naturally uncoordinated). Unless you were violating some other traffic law when he pulled you over (and unless he has a personal vendetta against you and/or a lot of time on his hands), all he can do is give you a warning and send you on your way.
If marijuana were legalized, our lawmakers would immediately draft a set of laws governing precisely what constitutes “stoned driving.” Some enterprising chemists would devise and effective on-the-spot test for recent cannabis use (the new laws would create an urgent incentive for them to do so) that would soon become as commonplace as the breathalyzer device. If a motorist were suspected of getting behind the wheel stoned, he would be tested on the spot and subjected to the appropriate penalties should the results turn out positive.
This would be unfortunate. Marijuana is one of the best and most pleasurable drugs, and few of its pleasures can match that of driving under its influence.
Let me make one thing clear: I do not advocate smoking and driving under every circumstance. It is certainly possible to be too stoned to drive; getting behind the wheel after puffing on a joint and getting behind the wheel after taking gravity bong rips are two entirely different situations. The contrast is as stark as that between having a glass of wine and a glass of whiskey. Moreover, I do not advocate nor recommend smoking and driving in an urban or suburban setting. Such environments present the motorist with a perpetual slew of challenges: traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, frequent turns, frequent stops, crowded roadways, and so on. The motorist, by getting behind the wheel, tacitly acknowledges that he is responsible for perceiving and reacting appropriately to these obstacles, and that great penalties (including public and personal shame) will be assessed should he fail to do so. He should be aware that although his state of mind may change, his responsibility does not.
An experienced pot smoker knows that, contrary to popular belief, he is capable of performing just about any task while stoned as well as he can sober. It only takes a much more focused effort to do so. The intelligent and responsible smoker also understands that this effort, coupled with the effects of the drug, will cause him a considerable amount of stress he might have easily foregone by choosing not to surreptitiously smoke a joint during rush hour on Main Street, USA or in downtown Manhattan. Therefore, smoking and driving in such settings is against the better interests of the smoker’s pleasure at best and of public safety at worst. The savvy smoker would be well-advised to abstain for the time.
Highway driving is another matter entirely. Despite the higher speeds (and increased risk of fatality should something go awry), operating a motor vehicle on the Interstate only demands about three of the motorist:
1.) Keeping his foot on the gas pedal and his car in the lane.
2.) Maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front of him.
3.) Keeping his eyes on the road and remaining conscious.
Driving on the highway consists mostly of sitting in one place and staring straight ahead for several hours. Marijuana is a drug that makes doing precisely this a source of great pleasure for the user, and does not inhibit his capacity to perform any of the aforementioned three tasks.
Not only is the highway pot smoker having a better time, but very likely safer than the sober driver. We will turn later to scientific findings of the impact of THC on driving performance, but for now, let us rely on observation and common sense.
Imagine yourself on the Garden State Parkway. A Corvette tears past at 90 miles an hour, weaving through traffic and cutting off other vehicles. Its driver can be glimpsed sucking down his Starbucks latte and shouting into a Bluetooth at his secretary, stock broker, or bond officer. He is clearly not stoned. He is stone-cold sober, and he is a danger to himself and everyone with whom he shares the road.
The pot smoker, on the other hand, is more likely to be in the vehicle that never leaves the far right lane and coasts along at 10 mph below the speed limit. He will maintain a safe distance from the car in front of him, because accelerating and changing lanes is a bother to him, and he does not wish to draw attention to himself by tailgating. He feels compelled to check his mirrors every thirty to ninety seconds (perhaps owing to the mild paranoia associated with THC). The highway motorist on pot is unhurried, cautious, and mindful of his surroundings, and, because of his relaxed state, patient and considerate towards other drivers. Would that every motorist in America demonstrated such safe and responsible behavior on our highways.
But what if some unexpected disaster occurs? Imagine a truck flipping over or a drunk driver crossing the divider and hurtling into oncoming traffic. Will the stoned driver not be at a disadvantage?
I am inclined to believe he is not. For one thing, he will likely be driving at a much slower speed than his clear-headed counterparts, which already puts him in far less danger. He will also be somewhat more vigilant – under the influence of THC, details become more vivid, and even the slightest change in one’s surroundings becomes a potential cause for alarm. At any rate, there is no reason why a stoned driver’s reaction to a sudden hazard should differ from that of a sober driver.
The results of a recent study on THC’s effects upon driving arrive at a similar conclusion:
During the study, some subjects were given actual marijuana cigarettes, and some were given a placebo, with neither the investigator nor the subject knowing which they had smoked. Another administrator kept track of who was given which type of cigarette.
The marijuana was supplied by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the University of Mississippi, the only legal source of the drug in the U.S.
Subjects drove a high-tech simulator that was very realistic, said Beth Anderson, an investigator in the study. "It was an actual car with parts replaced by computers."
Participants then drove down a simulated country road for 15 minutes, first in an "uneventful" simulation, and then in collision-avoidance and distracted-driving simulations, the study states.
In the collision-avoidance portion, drivers reacted to simulated events such as another driver entering an intersection illegally, a changing traffic light, and a dog running into the road.
The researchers found no signifcant difference between the study groups in the collision-avoidance tests.
During the distracted-driving segment, participants solved "mental math" problems while driving, Anderson said. Subjects answered aloud simple math problems that were provided by a recording.
Speed and steering variability, as well as the number of errors made in the math portion of the test, were used to determine how impaired subjects were, according to Anderson.
"The study didn't find a lot of impairment," Anderson said. "[Subjects] slowed down. It looked like they were trying to compensate. Compensation would only take you so far."
Beth Anderson, an investigator in this study, apparently suffers from cognitive dissonance as she reports these findings. (They likely were not what she expected or wanted them to be.)
For instance, researchers noted that in the distracted-driving tests, "participants under the influence of marijuana failed to benefit from prior [driving] experience … as evidenced by a decrease in speed and a failure to show expected practice effects."
"The results do not imply that it is safe to drive under the influence of marijuana, especially because we know people aren't just smoking marijuana," Anderson said. "They do it while drinking. They do this when others are in the car, listening to music, talking on cellphones or texting. These behaviors distract drivers and are even more dangerous when someone has been using marijuana."
The study suggests that the greatest danger of driving under the influence of THC is an increased susceptibility to distraction. This is true, and it is why smoking and driving on a busy street in a city or town is not recommended. But one would be hard pressed to find anything very distracting on the Jersey Turnpike or the stretch of Route 80 between Omaha and Salt Lake City. Roads such as these can cause great stress to a motorist for their lack of distractions. Or they may simply put the motorist in a state of profound boredom – and boredom leads to inattentiveness, and inattentiveness leads to accidents.
Anderson’s second reservation is an irrelevant and intentionally misleading argument. “We know people aren’t just smoking marijuana,” she says. Do we? What if they are just smoking marijuana?
If a person is willing to get behind the wheel on alcohol or painkillers, or take their eyes off the road for thirty seconds in order to send a text message or update their Facebook status, marijuana should be the least of anyone’s worries. These people are idiots. A puff on a joint might make one silly, but it does not make him stupid. That would be a pre-existing condition.
I suppose I have nothing left to say on this topic for now. It is Sunday afternoon, and I am going to start a fire under the power lines and read about Socrates.
Monday, September 13, 2010
I recall an arc in the comic strip Doonesbury in which journalist Rick Redburn was laid off from the Washington Post and forced to salvage his journalism career by taking up blogging – a continuing source of professional ignominy and personal shame for him.
I suppose I can relate. I've got a novel that a hundred publishers and agents don't want to touch, a sprite comic I lost interest in a year ago (four years after the rest of the world), and am at this point probably most well-known for a series of silly reviews about a certain video game series. My back is to the wall. What's left but a belated entry onto the already-congested blog scene?
I'm aware that it's poor form to begin a blog with an "okay hi guys I have a blog now" post, but I'm afraid I don't have anything planned or prepared. Why don't I just slap my hands against the keyboard for a few minutes and see what I come up with?
So. Yesterday – which just happened to be September 11 – I drove into Manhattan to visit my friend James, a lifelong NYC resident. I found him on Broome street while I roved about searching for a parking space in SoHo. He wasn't hard to miss. James is a very boisterous and big fellow, and today he was strutting about in a New York Yankees shirt and waving around a miniature American flag, shouting WAKKA WAKKA every ninety seconds or so.
He was on his way home from the Ground Zero protests. From what he saw, the demonstrators were penned into four separate camps: the Yea Mosque group, the Nay Mosque group, the 9/11 Was an Inside Job group, and the Abortion Is Murder group. Unnerving signs: commemorating the last time in recent memory that America came together by demonstrating how taut its seams are stretched today.
"What do you do when your populace is divided into diametrically opposed camps who refuse to compromise or even engage with the other?" James asked.
"Ask 1861," I told him.
"How do you get to 9/11?" he asked a little later.
I didn't have an answer, but he probably wasn't expecting one. James often poses rhetorical questions that might be counted in the Socratic tradition as well as the Dadaist. (Now that I think of it, he was probably asked that same question by some yahoo tourist asking for directions to Ground Zero.)
Grim days in the Republic. But I hadn't come to Manhattan for any kind of political or patriotic reasons. James and I had set the day aside to mount a pair of bikes and ride from Canal Street to the west end of the George Washington Bridge and back.
I became disenchanted with New York years ago. It's clogged and filthy and overpriced. You can't even take a piss without five dollars cash in your pocket. Times Square is an infected pimple on the East Coast's ass. Brooklyn is a profound argument for the worthlessness of Generation Y. New York is a city of drunks, lunatics, narcissists, materialists, bullshit artists, crooks, robber barons, and jaded cynicism. The folks who refer to it by the old "urban jungle" colloquialism are only half-right. The metaphorical New York forest between the Hudson and East River has reached that stage in the ecological life cycle where the soil is waterlogged, widespread tree rot has set in and the mammals have abandoned the place to the vultures and amphibians. Jungle, nothing. New York is the urban swamp.
The farther we got from the former site of the World Trade Center, the more I thought of Walt Whitman and his romanticized Manahatta. On the River Greenway we passed three or four thousand people – which I suspect might be a low estimate. The "Great Melting Pot" cliche is parroted so tirelessly by teachers and politicians that you barely consider what it means until you're confronted by it. James and I chatted with a man from India or Pakistan (perhaps Tamil?), sharing concern about a baby skunk adrift on the green. We got directions from an Irishwoman and gave directions to a queer cyclist coming from where we were going. I counted the vertebrae on the back of a Chinese cyclist wearing a shirt seamed down the back, split halfway down. Wondered at a drunk black man who vaulted over a rail onto incoming traffic and laughed crazily at his girlfriend's admonishments – "only God can judge me!" Admired the bodies of the Latinos barbecuing and playing volleyball in Riverside Park. Regarded the middle-aged Cubans smoking cigarettes and playing cards at a fold in table they brought onto the sidewalk overlooking West Harlem Piers Park. Thousands of people from a hundred of nations, sharing a September afternoon in peace and civility by the river while the demonstrators shouted and the TV cameras rolled downtown. If our bike ride had been my first impressive glance of America, I might have suspected it were a sane place.
We observed the sunset from across the New Jersey state line on the bridge and discussed Huxley, Orwell, Thucydides, and where America was going. When James stopped talking to take a few snapshots, I wondered what New York was and meant – if anything – and what the world would be the day its last foundation stone sank into the earth or sea. Standing 600 feet above the Hudson on the busiest bridge on the planet, looking out across twenty miles of towers, roads, and river scintillating in the setting sunlight, it was hard to believe it would ever happen – I found myself thinking, oh, New York. You fucking bastard. You may be a stinking cesspool, but I can't ever say I don't love you. Happy 9/11, you old sewer pipe.
Unrelated epilogue: it was after dark when we arrived back in James's neighborhood, and the twin beams of light radiating upwards from Ground Zero were clearly visible. I noticed hundreds of tiny white specks floating within them, like you might see when you turn on a flashlight in a dusty room. James and I couldn't figure out what it was, but this was the explanation we were told by a photographer in the neighborhood: the lights attract moths; the moths attract bats. I very much hope that this is accurate.
EDIT: They are not bats. They are birds. Ecologists are concerned.
(Mr. James Foehrenbach responsible for photos.)