Wednesday, July 27, 2011

CBR-III Book #6: The Ultimate History of Video Games - Steven L. Kent

Despite my husband claiming that I am as much a gamer as they come, I don't really feel like one. I think video games are fun and can actually improve our happiness levels and teach us a few new things as well. But beyond that, I really just play the one game. So from my point of view, I don't have a good reason as to why I picked up this book. It has been sitting on my husband's shelf for years before one day I just picked it up and decided to see what it said. A few hours later I was well into it and did not want to put it down. So from my husband's point of view, he says I picked up the book because that's just what a gamer does :)

I absolutely loved this book, much more than I ever expected to. It's as hefty as any college history textbook and so it took me several months to get through (plus I've developed a snail's pace for reading, putting in usually just under 30 minutes a day...I'm pretty bad). But at no point did I feel like putting it down, and it never stopped being interesting and incredibly informative.

Clearly my favorite parts were when Kent writes about video games (and this implies there's more to write about in the book than just games...well, in fact, there is, and more on that later). He provides an excellent history of the origin of video games, way back to the roots of pinball machines (back when they were viewed as sources of gambling and restricted to pool halls and bars, and downright outlawed in some states), through Spacewar, Pong, the arcade explosion, Atari, Odyssey, Coleco, all the way through to Sega, Nintendo, Sony, and so on. Kent attempts to lay out how the technology behind video games originated and evolved (paralleling the history of computers from the vacuum tube to the transistor era). He also follows the evolution of game design, from the surprisingly addicting Pong (a simple tennis simulator) to the intricacy of level design and game world design in The Legend of Zelda. He provides the history behind some of the all-time classics of video games: Space Invaders, Centipede, Pacman, Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, and trust me I could go on and on.

Beyond being a book about video games, it is ultimately a book about the birth, rise, decline, and rebirth of a now multi-billion dollar business. It tells the story of the rise of this huge industry, as told by the very people that built it from the ground up, and those that came later to push it into world-wide phenomenon. It details the humble beginnings of some of the most important business people in the industry today, told in part through actual interviews: Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari), Ralph Baer (inventor of the Odyssey), Steve Jobs (his stint at Atari), Trip Hawkins (founder of Electronic Arts), Minoru Arakawa (first president of Nintendo of America), Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, Zelda, and Star Fox), David Rosen (CEO of Sega), and, again, I could go on and on. And what shouldn't come as a shock at all: the birth of an empire can be downright nasty. Kent doesn't hold back in detailing all the scheming, sleight of hands, out-manuevering, and strong-arming that took place.

Another informative aspect of the book is its account of the societal and cultural impact of video games. There are the funny stories: like Japan having to increase its production of coins because so many were tied up in arcades after Space Invaders was released. The slightly paranoid ones: like all the news coverage devoted to how Japan was trying to slowly take over the American economy given their massive sales of Nintendo Entertainment Systems and even their purchase of the Seattle Mariners baseball team (even though that was Nintendo of America, not of Japan). And the really controversial ones.

Controversy over games and their content has existed from the very beginning, back to the Lieberman hearings in 1993 that focused on Mortal Kombat's realistic use of blood and overly-gruesome fatalities (that hearing brought about the development of the ESRB rating system, similar to what is in place for movies), and through to the tragic events that occurred at Littleton, Colorado in 1999 and how the killers related their crimes to Doom (a first person shooter). The events at Columbine renewed the urgency to address violence in video games and how it was being advertised to children, with hearings beginning just two weeks later (though much more dramatic than the 1993 hearings, no new outcomes or laws came about from this hearing). Kent provides a detailed and non-biased account of both hearings, providing the actual transcripts from the sessions. And I have to mention, in another show of how things really are cosmically aligned, I read through these chapters just as the Supreme Court reached a decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which finally ruled this summer that video games fall under the same rights as the First Amendment.

The only drawback to the book is just a matter of time. The book was published in 2001, shortly after SEGA discontinued the Dreamcast and Sony released the Playstation 2, and prior to the release of the Game Cube and Xbox. That's a good chunk of history missing. Lord, a full decade! Now I feel old... But really, the book is just begging for a sequel. I sincerely hope Kent decides to pick up the story where he left off and take us through the recent bout of video game innovation, from motion accelerators and sensors to online gaming communities (in my biased opinion, I was sorely disappointed that there was absolutely no mention of Blizzard, creators of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo, and World of Warcraft).

As a study of a business and how it impacted our culture, and also as a fun and interesting account of video games, it was very enjoyable. Highly recommend.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

CBR-III Book #5: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World - Jane McGonigal

Reality is Broken was a wonderfully thoughtful gift from Subie, who heard McGonigal talk in Boston earlier this year and managed to score a personal signed copy for Rock and me. Thanks Subie!

I had heard about McGonigal just a few days before Subie gave us the book when she was featured over at WoW Insider (World of Warcraft-related news and blog site). I liked her message even though I felt the practical application of what she was saying was not quiet there yet. After reading the book, I still like the message, and I still think the practical application is not quite there yet, but I have a new understanding of how it's possible.

So what is her message? In a nutshell, it is the premise that if we could apply the same kind of productivity and enjoyment to our everyday lives that we devote to games, we could appreciably improve the quality of our lives and make a difference in the world around us. Couched in there too is a defense against those that would claim that games are purely escapist time-wasting activities, that gamers (specifically video gamers) are missing out on life by immersing themselves in games, and that games cannot incite useful or productive work or bring about life-changing opportunities.

McGonigal arranges her book in three sections. The first explores why people like to play games, any games: board games, video games, sports games, puzzle games, word games, pen and paper games, "playground" games, strategy games, and so on and so on. At the surface, games obviously make us happy because they are pastimes, like watching T.V. or reading a book. But deeper down, games make us happy because they challenge us; they push us into tackling seemingly insurmountable odds that we can overcome through creativity, ingenuity, and persistence; and they reward us with intrinsic values such as pride, awe, self-fulfillment, and satisfaction. Games also have the possibility of connecting us as communities (depends on the game).

The second section examines how established game mechanics could potentially be applied to our everyday lives to provide the same challenges and rewards that make games so fun to play. McGonigal argues that one could make a game out of life's difficulties (as she did when she turned her medical recovery following an accident into a game), or our everyday responsibilities, or our social interactions.

The final section presents several examples of real (i.e. currently existing) games that have real-world effects. The argument is that people spend, and have spent, numerous productive man-hours playing games. What if that productivity could be applied in a game that brings about actual change? She discusses several examples of such games (most of which she helped design), but my favorite example she talks about is Foldit, a game in which people manipulate proteins in a 3D virtual environment (comparable to Tetris) to learn what patterns are the most stable. The project's goal is to get gamers to contribute to science by playing.

That is my summary (though not very short) of the major parts I got out of the book, but McGonigal goes into so much more detail about a variety of game-related issues. There is certainly a lot of information here and a lot of insight into the potential future of games and where they're going (specifically, these life-changing games). Like I said, I don't think games are quite there yet. Personally, I think gamers are more likely to spend more hours next week playing the Ocarina of Time re-release than Foldit...but I'm also a jaded, short-sighted person with little to no imagination or foresight. Honestly, I would love to participate in a game that produced real-life results as much as I currently participate in WoW. It would be truly amazing if this is actually where gaming ended up going (and after reading the book I think it's very possible it will).

This brings me to what I liked about the book the best, which was the first section that deals with why games are meaningful, why they make us happy, and why it can be a very good thing to play games. I was nodding in agreement to pretty much every sentence written in the first six chapters (though less so in the chapters that explore how social connections can grow from gaming, contradicting the idea that all gamers are socially stunted recluses...cause, see, I'm socially stunted because I hate people and think every single person out there is an asshole, whether they're in physical or virtual form... but that's just me).

In addition to recommending this book to self-classified gamers, I would highly recommend it to people who don't consider themselves gamers, or who can't comprehend what the big deal is about games, but who have an open mind and interest to learn how games can be important, both for personal happiness and in a potentially larger world-changing sense. In any case, I've always thought that every single person out there is a gamer to some degree. And if you truly are not playing a game of any kind, I would seriously urge you to give it a try. It's quite fun.

Friday, May 13, 2011

CB-III Book #4: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey

This is another selection from my deck of cards that I just got around to reading last month. Though, for some reason, I've had a copy of this book since high school. The same copy, mind you. Which means that for ten years (jesus, ten years!) I moved this exact same book across countries and states, from college dormitories, to graduate family housing, to cheap apartment living, to this new house...without having even read it. I swear I'm not a hoarder.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was written by Ken Kesey and published in 1962. Kesey drew from his own experiences as an orderly at a mental health institute to write the book. Told from the perspective of half-Native American patient "Chief" Bromden, it tells the story of Randle McMurphy after he joins the psychiatric ward to avoid staying at a work farm to serve out his prison sentence. The story focuses on the power struggle between McMurphy and the ward's overseer, Nurse Ratched. During the course of the book, McMurphy antagonizes Nurse Ratched, upsets the established routines and rules, and incites the patients to stand up for themselves instead of being intimidated and emasculated. By virtue of his strong, independent, and sexually liberated (for the 50s) character, he becomes a natural leader and source of inspiration for the mentally ill patients, most of whom are in the ward voluntarily (and therefore in control of when they can deem themselves as cured). The narrator's story (Chief Bromden) is also told during the course of the book, though he immediately proves to be an unreliable narrator. Highly paranoid, he is convinced that the entire ward is operated by a mechanical collective known as The Combine that seeks to control society. The story culminates in a series of disturbing events, with some interesting role reversals (that's about as much as I want to say about where the book goes from the main premise so as not to spoil anything, though I imagine it's a fairly well known story at this point).

As a book, it is very straightforward. The narrator may be unreliable but never in the sense that you don't understand or believe what is going on, only in the sense that he is irrationally paranoid and prone to (obvious) hallucinations. The main themes regard authority and rebellion, and the insidious control exerted by Nurse Ratched. The book also comments on the oppressive nature of mental wards at the time that made them comparable to prisons.

The book was successful during the time it was published, particularly as it criticized American institutions during a time of social upheaval. Kesey would go on to consume massive quantities of LSD and become a main figure of the hippy movement (among many other notable things).

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It is a slow starter and doesn't really count as radical or eye-opening in today's age, but it is a good yarn. McMurphy ends up a much more complicated character than I've described here, and there are several notable supporting characters. The ending really shouldn't have taken me by surprise but the last quarter of the book was the most gripping portion for me.

Also, an aside (cause where else can I say it?): the movie is really not that much like the book. I didn't finish the movie because it was all crazy people and lots of yelling and Doc Brown throwing a hissy fit...and the book was not that at all. Unless I missed something in the book, what I took away from it was that the inmates were not that crazy at all, they just weren't conforming to what people expected and they weren't able to conform. Sure, there was some degree of mental instability, but overall I got the impression that they could mostly be helped if not for the domineering and dehumanizing nature of their care. But Jack Nicholson is awesome.

32 down, 20 to go.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

CB-III Book #3: The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell

Damn. Well, here I am, finally. It's a very awkward moment right now, finally writing a post after such a long absence. I got no excuse. You would think that my newfound free time would have resulted in an overabundance of posts detailing every tired minutiae of my day. In fact, unemployment has been a very weird time. Sure, I spend a lot of time job-hunting, nitpicking my resume, and writing and rewriting cover letters to suit each job description. But you may be surprised to know that I haven't been playing WoW nonstop for 8 hours for the last two months (which is kind of where I saw my days devolving at first). I think this is a very good thing. I haven't been reading that much either. That's not so good. I have been watching a lot of Netflix streaming. This has had mixed results: on the one hand, I've caught up with some shows I always wanted to try; on the other hand, my brain very nearly turned to mush when I tried to cram as much Buffy and Angel as I could in one week because the stupid PS3 led me to believe that Netflix was removing them from the instant stream (but that will be another post...maybe). And I've been very good about going to the gym every day. The house is generally very clean. Most of the windows finally have curtains, which was no small task actually. I guess I'm saying that it's been a weird time in no specific way but it clearly translated into me losing interest in writing.

On to a book review. This was a very nice birthday present from Subie. I actually finished reading this a couple of months ago.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is told in two alternating halves, both of them centered on Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit missionary. One half details Sandoz's experiences back on Earth following a scientific exploration mission to an alien planet with a diverse team of scientists and other missionaries. The other half details how the space exploration mission came about, beginning with how the different team members came to know each other, how the alien planet was discovered, how the mission was put together, and what happened when the team arrived on the planet. If it was a movie, the scenes following the mission would be very dark and gloomy, probably with an overall blue hue to the film, with very somber dialogue and scenes of human despair; the other half would be very bright and colorful, with quick and witty dialogue, beautiful locations and people, and the overall tone would be one of exploration, adventure, and awe. Eventually, the two halves would meet, on the alien planet, as Sandoz retells the fateful events that occurred towards the end of the mission. The scenes prior to Sandoz's return to Earth would take a dark turn, almost (almost) horror movie-style, while the scenes after his return would see the main character gain some clarity and peace. I see Alfred Molina in the starring role, but I guess those higher up see things differently. The tagline and plot synopsis would reference the overall themes of the book, which are religious faith clashing or coexisting with scientific discovery, the meaning of fate, and the difficulties of First Contact.

Without giving plot points away, I think that describes the overall feeling and story of the book.

At the center of it, the book is really about religious and philosophical inquiry set in the science fiction trope of meeting an alien race for the first time. Several of the characters in the book struggle with their faith when confronted with extreme adversity, asking themselves the typical question of why do bad things happen to good people, how can a path of fate or divine intervention lead to suffering, how can God allow bad things to happen. While I'm not an overly religious person, or a creationist, my own personal faith allows the possibility that something initiated that first super spark that put us here, that there are dusty blueprints sitting in some long-forgotten past. However, I don't really think of God as sitting in a control room, watching over football games, deciding what babies are born alive or stillborn, watching people get married, and jotting down the names of murderers, thieves, and adulterers in a little black book. I think bad things happen to good people because shit happens, life is a crap shoot and often unfair, it is what we make of it, but it is also the random hand we are dealt. While the theological discussion in the book is interesting and well presented, it was not personally compelling and, because of that, I did feel like it slogged down the pace of the book. This is probably the complete opposite of what Russell was going for.

Much more interesting to me was the science fiction storyline that brings together a ragtag group of people as they make an amazing discovery, how they are able to explore the vast reaches of space, and what they find when they get there (though this is by no means completely new territory). I'm fascinated by science fiction stories of First Contact, even though I bet any First Contact with alien intelligent life would lead to violent confrontations and laser blasts in the face. Although the mystery of what happened to the science team on the alien planet kept me somewhat hooked, it's not really that important (you know something happened right off the bat, you just don't know how bad it got).

Overall, it was an interesting read, but not as important to me as it might be to someone else.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Real Life Crits

This post is about a month late. And it was supposed to only be a happy post, dammit, but, as they say, shit happens.

I'll start with the happy part of the post. Rock and I actually moved into our new home on January 14th. It took a tad longer than I expected to settle in (I was still unpacking boxes about two weeks later), but I think things are more or less in place. It does kind of suck that New England decided to have one of the heaviest snow seasons in memory. After hours that turned into days of snow shoveling, snow blower duty, roof raking, roof shoveling, ice sanding, etc., I am officially sick of winter. The downside being that it was a bad time to get a driveway, a roof, and an oil-burning furnace. The upside, of course, being that we have a house! :)

The absolute bitch of it being that I was laid off two days after closing. Yeah...

I don't necessarily want to get into it here. It was devastating for the first week but I've adjusted by now. I've had the house to keep me busy at least. Somewhere in between all the free time and the added responsibility I found the inner housewife that cleans the house every day, cooks and bakes new recipes at least three times a week, and watches hours of Buffy at a time. The job situation is on hold at the moment until my employment authorization kicks in (which may not happen until around May). Though I will start doing the resume polishing/job application thing this week.

Would be nice if winter could be over soon.

Monday, January 10, 2011

CB-III Book #2: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This is a selection from my deck of cards. Is it something of a testament to the pervasiveness of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov that despite having never read it, or talked to others who have read it, or seen adaptations on it, I already know what it's about? Who doesn't know, more or less, what the book is about? As Nabokov himself suggested, is it any wonder the name Dolores or Lolita stopped being so popular after the publication of this book?

So, I'm not going to delve into the plot. The one sentence plot summary is that this book is about middle-aged Humbert Humbert's obsession with young girls and his eventual relationship with 12-year-old Lolita.

The heart of the book is a study on desire and obsession, a portrait of sexual abuse, and a view of one man's madness. The window dressing, though much more than that because it is the reason why this book is such a masterpiece, is Nabokov's prose. I wouldn't trade the difficult subject matter, or the visceral reaction this book got out of me because of the depth of sexual abuse, for a kinder or less uncomfortable plot if it meant giving up the intricate literary style. Full of puns, allegories, satire, parody, it was, at times, a struggle to read through. I can't remember the last time a book had me running for the dictionary quite as often. There is more allusion, double entendre, sarcasm, mordant wit, and meaning in one sentence of Humbert's ramblings than in any of the best and most long-winded Internet trolls and/or savants out there. Truth be told, it gets to be a bit too much. It was the same thing that happened to me halfway through book 3 or 4 of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Sometimes I just want plain English. That's a slight on me. The book's prose is just perfect.

The subject matter, like I said...much more uncomfortable than I expected. It is not a pornographic book, as many early publishers claimed (and for which they refused to publish). There is nothing explicit but it is still unsettling to tread the mind of a man so obsessed with young children. Because 12-year-old Lo is a child. After reading the book, I am mostly upset at how Lolita has become synonymous with a willfully seductive and sexual young girl, almost laying the blame on the girl for the ensuing sexual adulation by grown men. Lolita in the book is never willfully seductive, she does not seduce Humbert. There is a passage where Humbert says he was, in fact, seduced by Lolita, but I'm not inclined to believe him because throughout the book Humbert proves to be a pretty unreliable narrator, and because on more than one occasion he alters the telling to excuse his behavior to himself. And even if I could be convinced that Lolita actively seduced Humbert, it still does not excuse the years of sexual abuse, dominance, emotional abuse, and near imprisonment that followed. And the fake patriarchy and implied incest just pushes the subject into a whole different level of repulsive. But I'm also being very harsh because the focus could have just as well been any other form of desire, and in that sense it's not so much a story about peadeophilia, but a story of obsession.

It is an interesting picture of an unhealthy obsession, as I more or less expected from what little I knew about the book. I confess I did not expect it to be a description of abuse. I also assumed before starting that Lolita was complicit, but we actually learn so little about her and she is hardly ever given her own voice. All this is just what I gathered from the book. After reading different reviews on it, I see another reason why it's become such a classic novel. There are several different ways of interpreting it and you are very likely to walk away with a different view altogether.

After all that, though, I'm not sure I recommend it. But I wouldn't discourage it, either. I'd say, find out what the fuss is all about for yourself, if you're prepared to go there.

31 down, 21 to go.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

CB-III Book #1: The Shattering by Christie Golden

Maybe I shouldn’t have started my Cannonball read with this particular book. It immediately sets up an image that could leave me ostracized. I’ll become that girl. The WoW geek, the fantasy nerd, irredeemably fat and lonely. Though I suppose I shouldn’t cry too much because you would have come to the same conclusion if you took even a passing glance at the rest of my posts. So, the hell with it, here is my review of World of Warcraft: The Shattering.

I will say that this is my first WoW novel. I love the game but the lore behind it is, to put it mildly, confusing. If the Warcraft lore and the LOTR lore were part of the same universe, the entire LOTR trilogy would be the Cliff’s notes version of the Warcraft encyclopedia. It’s pretty massive, so I never bothered to read any canon outside of what the game itself offered.

Then the Cataclysm happened. Suffice it to say that the game I’ve gotten to know over the course of four years changed so drastically that I was back to square one. In terms of game design, it was a huge undertaking by Blizzard when they decided to not just add new pieces or components to the existing game (new levels, if you will), but to rework the entire existing structure nearly from the ground up. In terms of lore, it advanced the story to the next level. MMOs are, almost by definition, static worlds that rarely see any changes. Your character may level up to the cap and defeat the hardest boss to exist in the game...but that same boss will be back there next week, as if nothing happened. With this expansion though, the entire story changed and moved forward and it will never be the same as it was just a month ago.

It was a pretty big deal, is what I’m saying. I decided to pick up this particular book because it sets the stage for what happened between expansions, before and after the world shattering. Despite having some amount of cheese that plagues nearly all fantasy, I was very glad I picked this up, and ended up tearing through it rather quickly.

The book is less about fantasy and magic and more about political machinations, cultural divides, and social interactions. The story focuses on major political shifts happening both for the Horde (the “bad” faction if you will, that includes orcs, trolls, undead, goblins, blood elves, and tauren*) and for the Alliance (the “good” guys, made up of humans, night elves, dwarfs, gnomes, worgen (werewolves!) and draenei (space goat aliens)). Coups, murder plots, honor battles to the death, it’s all here and it takes center stage. There is some amount of good vs. evil simplification, but for the most part, the battles (both internal and external) are never black or white, and no character is without her flaws. This is the first book in a planned trilogy, so not every storyline gets squared away at the end.

As much as I play the game and have some familiarity with the lore characters presented in the book, I still tend to get lost whenever I read WoW blogs. But Golden manages to provide just enough background on the characters to set them up without bogging down the book in excessive detail, while continuing to move the main plot forward. I feel very confident saying that anyone not familiar with this universe could still pick this book up and become immersed in an interesting story with decent characters.

I will admit that some of the dialogue is too happy-go-lucky to ring particularly true, especially when severity would have made the scene better (I’m thinking of one scene in particular when the human king decides to help out the dwarven kingdom). These moments are thankfully rare.

All in all, it’s not a bad way to while away a lazy train commute or a few minutes before bed. It certainly doesn’t break molds in fantasy; rather, it’s soft enough on the fantasy aspect to not scare away those that feel squeamish about it. And it’s definitely a good read for anyone playing the game, who is wondering just what the hell happened to the Warcraft world.

*aside: the tauren are a race of humanoid cows, which is probably the main reason I started playing this in the first place