by Tom Bissell, July 9, 2010 10:56 AM
At my reading the other night at Powell's, the question I had been anticipating during my promotional efforts on behalf of Extra Lives
was finally asked. It happened not during the formal Q&A but while I was signing books, and the young man who put the question to me was obviously slightly embarrassed to be asking it. But he wanted to know. The question was this: "What system do you like better? The Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3?"
The ongoing debate among the systems' partisan fanboys is fascinating, fiercely argued, and profoundly stupid. Everyone concedes that it's a pointless debate, and yet everyone has an opinion. This feature, at Gamespot, which offered a game-by-game graphical comparison of several non-exclusive marquee titles, managed to rack up close to 5,000 comments. To read through them all is to risk losing one's sanity. As far as I can tell, the debate breaks down as follows: "The plastic box I spent $300 on is better than the plastic box you spent $300 on OMG ROLFLMAO." Why only technological products — and Appalachian culture — seem able to generate such uniquely intractable debates is beyond my meager powers of reckoning. Coke v. Pepsi, Dave v. Jay, Jif v. Skippy, Beatles v. Stones, Ginger v. Mary-Ann: these debates, while not known for the quality of their reasoning, rarely descend into the mucky, infantile name-calling that marks the 360 v. PS3 contretemps. I suspect it's largely a matter of personal microeconomics. These systems are expensive, and if you don't have enough money to buy both, you want to be sure you made the right decision. Okay. I get that. But when that desire for surety becomes this, you've lost me.
Happily, I'm liquid enough to have purchased both systems. Because I'm sane, I don't really think too much about which one is "better." But even among my more thoughtful game-playing friends, the question still comes up. Meekly, quietly, ashamedly, but it comes up. And I always answer. My answer is this: I want to like the PlayStation 3 more, but I don't. It's indisputably a more powerful system (this amazing sequence, from Uncharted 2, would not have been possible on the 360, and in fact nearly derailed the processing power of the PS3 itself), and though the PS3's exclusive titles are frequently better looking than the 360's exclusives, closely comparing the graphical quality of titles available on both platforms does not settle much. Indeed, the 360 versions usually look a little better. (The big unspoken assumption here is that superior graphics and processing candlepower make for better games. Obviously, they don't.)
The reason why 360 titles look better, I'm told by people who know, is that the PS3 is much, much harder to program for than the 360. Thus, most big games are developed on the 360 and then ported over to the PS3. I understand roughly nothing of that process, or why it should result that the more powerful system winds up with slightly muddier-looking visuals, though I admit to finding the paradoxical quality of this conundrum rather striking. But provided a game runs the way it's supposed to run, in ways that don't noticeably degrade one's enjoyment of what's running, the question of which system is more powerful is a non-starter. The 360 is a powerful system by any metric. Championing the PS3 for being slightly more powerful is kind of like imagining whether a Mark 12 or Mark 14 nuclear weapon would hurt more.
So let's get down to what really matters. Visually and aesthetically, I prefer the PlayStation 3 by a country mile. It's prettier, sleeker, and most important, runs quietly. When my 360 has been left on for a while, its internal cooling fan often sounds as though a hydrofoil running at full blast has run aground in the middle of my living room. The PS3, by contrast, is as quiet as a baked cake. The PS3's deck — which is to say, the pre-game menu — is more pleasant than the 360's, and I much prefer the noiseless way it lets me know that a friend is online or that I have received a message. The PS3 feels as though it were designed by some arty, edgy scientist. The 360 feels as though it were designed by General Motors. The one design area in which the PS3 most miserably fails, though, is its controllers. This is a fail of epically Homeric proportions. In a word, its controllers are terrible. They feel flimsy and insubstantial, and the downward slope of the right and left triggers, which frequently results in your fingers slipping off the two most prime pieces of controller real estate, might well be the single most mystifying corporate decision since this one. The 360's controllers feel great. Honestly. Simply holding one puts me in a good mood. They have just the right amount of bulk and the triggers are perfectly placed, with just the right amount of give.
What the Xbox 360 really understands and rewards, however, is the phenomenology of player-to-player interaction. I can spy on my Xbox friends, see what they're watching or playing, note how far along they are in certain games, and with the push of a button compare their in-game achievements to mine. The only thing the PS3 tells you about your friends is what game they're playing, not how far along in it they are, and trying to compare my trophies to those of my PS3 friends results in a bizarre trophy synchronization load screen that, far too often, crashes my system. (Okay, this has happened to me only four times, but that is four times too many.) Lastly, you talk online to your 360 friends with a cheap-and-ridiculous-looking-but-fuck-it-because-it-does-the-job headset, while the PS3 demands you purchase an insanely expensive Bluetooth earpiece that spends more of its time sliding out of my cochlear cavity than staying embedded in it. Everything about the PS3's attempt to accommodate people who want nothing more than to quickly jump into a game with their friends is a trainwreck filled with orphans. All of that — and I'm not even going to get into PlayStation Home, an in-system virtual "hang-out" hub area, which is possibly the most gratuitous exercise in futility in the rich history of video-game over-thinking — is what makes me reluctantly come dow
by Tom Bissell, July 8, 2010 9:52 AM
"Tom," no one recently said to me, "it looks like you're really enjoying blogging! Why don't you have your own blog?" Thanks for not actually asking, no one. I have been enjoying blogging here at Powell's, except during the writing of two blog posts I threw out because they stank like fish hidden under a burned truck tire. So why don't I have a blog, as any sensible young writer should? It's a long story. Also, I'm no longer that young.
One of the things that's frequently come up during the process of publishing and promoting Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter concerns the assumption, floated by those who don't know me well, that, because I'm interested in video games, I'm also interested in technology. Indeed, I wound up on a (thankfully, really interesting) panel in Chicago that addressed the troublous matter of technology. My panel cohorts were Jack Fuller, author of What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism, and Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, both deeply intelligent inquiries into what, exactly, the Internet is doing to our culture and our minds. I think I was there in order to provide a "Yay, Technology!" counterpoint to Jack and Nicholas's more somber concerns.
As our audience and my fellow panel members quickly discovered, I have little enthusiasm for technology in and of itself. I like games not because they're technological but because I'm old-fashionedly excited by their storytelling potential and moved by their aesthetic possibilities. I use a Mac because they're easy. My cell phone is Paleozoic. My girlfriend has standing orders to smother me in my sleep if I ever begin Twittering. I know nothing about computers, or, really, about how anything mechanical works, and I've often thought about writing a comical short story about a man like me cast backward in time — to the seventeenth century, say — who finds himself utterly incapable of explaining how the marvelous devices of the twenty-first century function; his only meaningful contribution is to sing a few Beatles songs for everyone. The only reason I'd ever want a Kindle would be to test its Frisbee readiness. I don't have a website. And I don't blog.
I'm thirty-six, which plants me along a rather odd cultural seam. I'm old enough to remember a world without the Internet (I didn't send an email until I was in college, and didn't have a personal email account until I was 27), but young enough not to have known how important it was to pay close attention to the landscape as it changed around me, or how dearly it would affect me. In the late 1990s, when I began publishing, the only writers who had websites or blogs were either tech-savvy or unusually forward thinking. Because I grew up reading magazines and regarded the mere act of publication as promotional effort enough, I simply didn't understand that the world as it was could be meaningfully altered — much less that it would be. By the time I woke up to this, I worried that a blog or website would seem like a late-to-the-party desperation move. (Yes, at one point in my life, I actually believed that someone other than my mom tracked my machinations that closely.) My bigger worry, though, was that a blog or website would give me another thing with which to piddle away my time, which I already managed to do quite well by staring at walls. Plus, there was the whole mortifying possibility that I'd start a blog, work hard to fill it up with interesting material, and in effect be forced to attend a daily version of my own funeral in which no one came, no one commented, and no one cared. (I've rectified that fear while blogging for Powell's this week. My posts have not exactly stirred the commentariat.) Plus, no literary blog is ever going to be better than this one.
I'm hardly a technophobe, though I accept that whatever is happening to us right now is probably going to have some scary cultural ramifications down the line. I also think we'll deal with it like we've dealt with all cultural sea changes: by lamenting the loss of the things we love and grabbing tightly the new, invaluable things we've gained. Well, maybe we won't deal with it so well. But our grandchildren will, for the simple reason that they'll have to. As Nicholas Carr points out in The Shallows, as human culture shifted away from a literary experience based not around oral recitation but private, silent reading, many intelligent people believed this would spell doom. So we lost epic poetry, but gained the novel.
It may be that, as things like video games increase in their sophistication, and some measure of interactivity becomes not a new-fangled storytelling experience but the very foundation of the storytelling experience, the movies and novels we today cherish as irreplaceable will seem as venerably archaic as Virgil. But what if these future interactive experiences happen to be really good, moving, and powerful? Can we not assume that, one day, the Tolstoy or Melville or Eliot of the video game will appear? I don't want to live in a world without traditional literary experiences; indeed, I regard that possibility with horror. I know, however, that I regard it with horror only because I don't understand how I would process life without traditional literary experiences. But here's the thing: the only difference between me and someone who believed that human culture could not endure without, say, epic poetry, is that I am alive and he is dead. In Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers writes, "Everyone who ever lived had lived at a moment of equal astonishment." And, I would say, equal
by Tom Bissell, July 7, 2010 8:29 AM
Last night, Trisha and I hosted our friends B. and J., who were passing through Portland with their son, Cameron, a little boy whose off-the-charts cuteness puts him squarely in Lipnicki
territory. Earlier in the day they had just purchased for Cameron an age-appropriate Star Wars book from Powell's. "Nothing too violent," J. said. After dinner, we returned to Trisha's and my apartment, whereupon Cameron made a beeline for the kingdom of plastic that is my frankly ridiculous number of video-game consoles and assorted peripherals. While they lack a system at home, and have no plans to buy one, J. and B. don't believe in shielding their son from games entirely. "Moderation" was the word they kept using, and wisely so.
I played a ton of games when I was a kid, certainly, but those games were of an entirely more limited magnitude of invention. Despite the enthusiasm of a youthful Jack Black, one can only run Pitfall Harry through the jungle so many times before skull-crushing boredom sets in. I often wonder how I would have turned out if the video games I play today were around when I was, say, seven. Would I have turned into the reader I am? I'd like to say yes, but I'm not sure I can. Given the contours of my obsessive personality, it's just as likely that I would have wound up like one of the characters in Infinite Jest or some South Korean Starcraft player, expiring from dehydration after a 50-hour bivouac on the couch.
I was a little reluctant to let Cameron play anything without B. and J. signing off. They did, and Trisha and I decided that the game we'd let him play would be Flower. Probably the greatest danger inherent to playing a lot of Flower is becoming an out-of-control hugging addict. It's a sweet, lovely little game in which one assumes control of a flower petal and floats around. That's about it — aside from its rather cudgelingly obvious ecological message that nature is beautiful, to which I say, tell that to these guys (and these guys). But Cameron loved Flower — he was also damned good at it — and his parents seemed relieved to discover that there are video games out there that were not organized around the putative pleasures of shooting people in the face.
One of the questions I was asked most frequently on my recent book tour came from parents who wanted to know how I could champion violent video-game experiences. What kind of a message did that send to children? This question enrages me, for two reasons. The first reason the question enrages me is that not everything in the world is meant for children. The second reason the question enrages me is that "not everything in the world is meant for children" is a pretty inadequate answer.
Violent games are so culturally omnipresent, and many are so insidiously and kinetically compelling, that even though they're not made for kids, they might as well be. A lot of kids want to play violent games because they're kids, and there is not a whole lot parents can do about that. You can shield your kids from violent games all you want, but given the vicissitudes of parenting styles, and the well-documented allure of forbidden fruit, a determined kid is going to befriend the neighborhood whippet with the PlayStation 3 and unfettered access to Killzone 2 and come home for dinner all jacked up on headshots and killstreaks and you, as a parent, are going to have to decide whether or not this is tolerable. You can rule your own household but you can't rule someone else's, and all my reassurances to parents that game systems have easy-to-use parental controls and games themselves are subject to a ratings system will amount to a small pile of raccoon scat. No, violent games are not made for kids, and if I had children I would keep them away from the violent games I enjoy with a barge pole. I am also fully aware of how very easy that is for a childless person to say.
In The War against Cliché, Martin Amis writes of his doubt that violent entertainment can really do anything other than determine the style of how a violent person chooses to lash out. I think I agree with that. But I cannot see how allowing a ten- or twelve-year-old to mow down thousands of virtual human beings for hours on end, day after day, can possibly be good for that child's psyche or emotional well-being. I can mow down thousands of virtual human beings because I have a fully formed moral consciousness; I know it's a game, and what that means. The pleasure I'm drawing from that kind of game experience is, believe it or not, more grounded in an appreciation of game-engine physics and AI systems than it is in any will-to-power emotional catharsis.
The other day I finished Columbine, Dave Cullen's unbelievably good and bulldozingly definitive account of the Columbine Massacre. The perpetrators of the massacre were both fans of a modded version of the classic shooter Doom. Much was made of that at the time. Less was made of the fact that one of the boys, Eric Harris, was also a classic-lit buff. Shortly before the massacre, he quoted a line from one of the most transcendent works of literature in the language, The Tempest: "Good wombs have borne bad sons." For Eric Harris, the ecstasies of violent inspiration could be found everywhere. If we dutifully close off those forms of creative expression we find distasteful, the bad son will go elsewhere. He may, like Eric Harris, be able to find in Shakespeare, of all places, beautiful words of evil
by Tom Bissell, July 6, 2010 9:59 AM
Roger Ebert's movingly ambivalent reevaluation
of the video game medium was not the only earth-crackingly significant thing to lately stir the committed gamer. On June 29, the video game Naughty Bear
was released into the world. This is a game in which you assume control of a distinctly mischievous ursine avatar and run around tormenting and, finally, murdering your fellow bears. Softening the nightmarish aspects of this scenario, I guess, is the fact that the game's bears are stuffed toys rather than actual bears. (Vegan friendly!) The game is thus intended to come across as something like "Jason Vorhees Invades the Island of Misfit Toys," except Jason is a bear.
In my household, there has been a lot of anticipation to play Naughty Bear. The person with whom I share my household, the ethereally lovely Trisha, shared with me these sage words as to why she was so looking forward to the game: "If I'm going to be violent, I'd much rather do it as a teddy bear than some stupid military person." I'm on the record (and then some) for loving and appreciating many violent games, but the "stupid military person" violence-delivery-system embedded within the average shooter does indeed feel increasingly empty, tired, stale, boring, and done. Hacking a stuffed bear to death is, if nothing else, a novel approach to game mayhem. And there is much to be said for novel approaches to game mayhem. I'm a huge fan of the downloadable title Pain, for instance, which consists of catapulting celebrities into walls, roller coasters, explosive barrels, billboards, and restaurant patios. If that doesn't sound like fun, think again. Bring on some goddamned teddy bears.
So, the game's been out for a week now, and we still haven't picked it up. The reason for this is the critical reaction. The moment Naughty Bear appeared, it was summarily tranquilized. Mein Kampf was more warmly received than this game. "No game about a psychopathic teddybear should be this boring," says Destructoid. "Watching a psychologically tortured teddy bear blow his brains out is somewhat less hilarious than Naughty Bear seems to think," says the Onion's AV Club. This piece, from gamrReview, contains a sentence that manages to embody everything I both love and hate about the world of video games: "I can't really say that Naughty Bear has any redeeming features. The only thing that comes to mind is the ability to beat other bears to death, and as I've mentioned, this gets monotonous."
The hell of it is, everyone who's responded negatively to the game starts out by saying that they wanted to love it — that the game, as advertised, seemed to be marketed directly to them. Trisha is not alone! It turns out we're all sick of "stupid military people" and in search of something different — all definitive evidence to the contrary. And when it comes to homicide + bears, tell me, what is there not to love? Everything, it looks like. As a wise man once said, "There's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
By now Trisha's read all the reviews (I keep helpfully posting them on her Facebook page), and she's still determined to play it. Soon enough, then, we'll get some bear-on-bear action going here, fully aware that we're probably going to feel terrible about ourselves, the world, and video games in general. Naughty Bear is still a bellwether title to me, though, in that it speaks so clearly to many gamers' longing to find something out there offbeat, funny, and odd. "I want to be a naughty bear!" Trisha says. Don't we
by Tom Bissell, July 5, 2010 11:59 AM
[Editor's Note: Don't miss Tom Bissell reading tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 6) at Powell's City of Books on Burnside at 7:30 pm. Click here for more details
My book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter has now been on the shelves for almost a month, and the response so far has been extremely positive (except for when it wasn't). However, the single most consistent knock against the book — and it so consistent that I reckon there is more than a little to it — is that I do not really make the case as to why video games matter beyond why they matter to me. Thus, for my first blog entry for Powell's, I thought I would try to make this case a little more explicitly.
I do not doubt that, on this point, my book could have used more elaboration (it is, for crying out loud, the subtitle), especially when every adult who plays a lot of video games, and makes no secret of that, is often asked — by parents, bosses, spouses, colleagues, and strangers — to explain what value he or she finds in a medium widely regarded by non-gamers as morally gangrenous. True, this question has lately had a kinder edge, and non-gamers seem increasingly willing to accept that the medium has something to recommend it. (My book's reception proves that, if nothing else.) Oddly enough, though, this has not made identifying what that something is any easier.
So, why do video games matter? There are a lot of possible answers to this question, depending on the gamer and what he or she seeks in games. My own answer starts with the fact that, not too long ago, video games drifted from being goal-oriented experiences with a vague storytelling overlay to storytelling experiences organized around goals. The transition from games that (sort of) told stories to stories endowed with gamelike elements was a choppy one, and a number of people serious about their video games regret that this transition happened at all. But it did. Suddenly, an entirely new form of storytelling was upon us, and almost no one understood how it worked.
To me, what makes games so astounding is the degree to which the medium's storytelling principals are still not completely understood. Think about that: the world's fastest growing and most profitable storytelling medium remains, in many ways, open territory. Filmmaking and fiction writing are comparatively closed territories; their inherent storytelling problems are, by now, familiar, if no less vexing. Not so with video games. Every year a few titles appear that expand the paradigms of video-game storytelling, and there is no sign this will stop anytime soon. The last time anything like this happened on a comparable scale was during the opening innings of the 20th century, when filmmakers began to explore another realm of equally vast storytelling potential.
This lends some urgency to the task of figuring out why video games are so hugely problematic in the minds of so many — even ardent believers in the form. Start with the stickiest tar baby: subject matter. On the one hand, video-game subject matter is far more diverse than is typically supposed by non-gamers. On the other hand, there is no denying that a large percentage of storytelling games are conceived in ways that necessitate absurd quantities of violence. Not only does this limit the kinds of stories games can tell, it has a way of making even great games sound ridiculous in summary. BioShock, for instance, is justly celebrated for its intelligence, formal sophistication, and riveting story. It can also be accurately described as running around an underwater city while shooting lighting out of your hands at Atlantean psychopaths.
Another problem is the sheer amount of orbital stuff you need to understand in order to play video games with any pleasure: where certain types of information are normally found onscreen, how controller schemas generally work, how to orient yourself in a three-dimensional world, how to recognize in-game directional and motivational cues, and so on. I do not blame anyone who picks up a video game controller for the first time and regards it as though it were a detonator. Nor do I blame anyone who would rather learn Finnish than the equally foreign language of gameplay. Some daunting circumstantial boulders block a large number of people from being able to play video games, much less take them seriously, and if you believe that games are a blameless party in this non-exchange, you are kidding yourself.
But I don't think you are kidding yourself quite as tragically as the person whose inability to enjoy video games allows him to believe no intelligent person should, because video-game storytelling, when it really works, can be indescribably powerful. One of the reasons it is so powerful is that it can feel so unfamiliar. The storytelling tools of fiction, for instance, do not appear to work for games at all, and if you judge games by those tools' standards, you will make yourself crazy. The tools of cinema work better, but not much better, and ditto.
Non-gamers frequently assume that, in most video-game storytelling, the author is an AWOL entity, which allows player choice to determine the story. This is not quite accurate. The medium is interactive, of course, but only to a point. The video game author sets the table and the player decides where to sit, but the player cannot sit in a place where there is no provided seat. In video games, player choice has crucial but not necessarily determinative importance, and how best to balance authorial intent with player agency may be the most pressing theoretical matter facing game designers today. (And, in case it is not completely obvious by now, I am currently in the early stages of trying to write and help design a video game.)
Whether or not you believe video games matter, you should, at the very least, concede that this increasingly influential medium's growing pains are not without theoretical interest. Video games matter, in other words, because their fate, what they stand for, what they mean, and what they could mean, are viewed as so important by so many people. It really is that simple. Video games matter because gamers say they do.
Last week, the person with the most notorious disinterest in