Preacher With A Shotgun

Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
– Matthew 15:11 (KJV)

shotgun preacherPaul Hall is not an imposing man; he smiles easily, his glasses are thick as a byproduct of his age, and he is quick to offer a joke. He’s a motorcycle enthusiast, a fisherman, a fan of classic rock music, an acoustic guitarist, a father, a grandfather, a preacher and Biblical scholar, and in his spare time he unwinds by teleporting to mars and shooting demons in the face with a double-barreled shotgun.

Paul is a living embodiment of the challenge of marketing videogames. In his lifetime, he’s worked as a professional chef, he’s served in the Australian Military, he’s worked in IT sales and support, full-time work in the church ministry, and even today he works as IT support for the Department of Education, alongside his part-time duty as a chaplain at a school for troubled children. When videogame demographics are discussed, there’s no box for a person like Paul.

Overwhelmingly, videogame marketing seeks to appeal to a demographic of 25-30 year old white men, who primarily consume videogames. According to longterm industry developre Warren Specter, these consumers have ‘read one book, and seen one movie.’

What then do you make of a man like Paul?

Paul is no Wii-Sports pickup, a newcomer to the gaming scene. Paul’s first personal computer arrived in his home in 1984, and he was gaming before that, on a friend’s Tandy computer. The name of the game then was Volcano Hunter, and Paul still remembers the game fondly today.

An avid motorcycle and car afficionado, Paul found driving videogames shortly after getting his own computer. Formula 1 by Geoff Crammond (and its sequels) featured core in this experience, with him and his brother pushing the envelope in how the game could be played – bringing two home computers together to do a simulation of a real, six-hour-plus Formula One race against one another.

When not driving around the streets of Phoenix and Monaco, Paul’s gaming took to first-person shooters, beginning with Wolfenstein 3D. From Wolfenstein, Paul moved on to Doom and its sequel, Doom II, and he’s been playing that family of games ever since. Most days, Paul plays a videogame, sometimes for an hour or two, and he routinely seeks ways to re-experience the games he loves, through modding and expanded fan-made levels.

If there’s such a thing as a hardcore gamer, Paul clearly has to be one. Few people can claim to have played the same game for twenty years!

Yet, Paul isn’t what people think of when they mean a hardcore gamer. Paul is a longstanding church member, he preaches regularly at his own church, and at another church he’s been fostering for about 20 years. Paul is a member of multiple communities, both online and off – and he plays games. When asked about the stereotype of the ‘hardcore gamer,’ those who are socially rejected and retreat into the game world, Paul is definitive on his view:

“I don’t think that gamer exists. I think he exists in urban mythology because he fulfills a role which people can then build a social paradigm on… I think he exists, but I don’t think he exists in the numbers suggested, and I think he exists because people want him to exist.”

Further, Paul says “the people I know who are involved in computer games are people like me. They have games on their computer and play them when they’re not doing other things they need to do.”

When the subject comes to more modern gaming, from portable devices, Paul recalls an old joke: “There are two types of people: those who play games and those who lie about it,” then says that this view is more true than it ever has been.

As for videogames instigating violence in consumers, Paul’s time as a chaplain illuminates further: “I think that the idea that games influence behaviour is a very convenient construct for people to demonise gamers and game writers. Society has always needed something to demonise, and the reason why a child may be violent needs to be far more rigorously examined than flippantly dismissed.”

“… There are other factors that are far more significant to who they are and who they are becoming. They … don’t play Doom. They probably don’t know Doom exists.”

Sticky, Arm, Growth

The University of Wollongong Computer Game Making Club flew this past month to the Queensland University of Technology to partake in the 48 Hour Game Competition. The team of six, comprised of Tristan Taylor, Alexander Kelly, Fox Lee, Shannon Archer and Jane Aubiorg went, saw, and barely slept on their way to not-quite conquering.

The purpose of these competitions is to force focus and set a hard deadline forĀ finishing a thing, and the compressed development cycle creates an atmosphere of activity. With only three words – Sticky, Arm, Growth – to work with and no fixed goals beyond that, the team spent their forty-eight hours barely awake, working hard, and pooling all their talents together into a single coherent whole. In this time, the thing crucial to the success or failure of the game is creating a core mechanic that’s fun to do for hours and hours on end; it’s about iterating and being willing to reject some ideas that don’t work properly.

The game the group made was an endless runner where, rather than move around obstacles, the player played a UFO, gathering up passersby on a sticky arm, then throwing them to be fed to a rampaging alien slug. The slug grows and becomes more capable of eating larger and larger things.

More memorable than any of these things, though, the team remarked upon the availability and size of a monstrous pizza, of sleeping under the tables, of the hostel they stayed. Unlike most other attendees, the Wollongong students weren’t local.

When not working on game-jam projects, the students split their attention between private projects and their university homework.

Denoument

Well, with that, we’re at the end of our need for this little blog. If you’ve been reading along, and find what I have to say at least partially interesting, I’d like to let you know about how you can read more of what I have to say. First, there’s My personal blog, which hosts my fiction writing, promoting things I like, game reviews, and general opinion. If you’re in my creative writing class, I do apologise for anything I’ve said in the heat of irritation. There’s also my journalism blog, Irony Exports.

Contextually Angry

Compare and Contrast.

Set aside for a moment that the CNN website has small bullet-point headlines. Set aside that the main story out of Africa for CNN was about a conservation effort of an animal, set aside that the CNN narrative explicitly cites hip-hop lyrics and more subtly paints Kenya’s government as struggling to manage finance. Set those things aside, and just look at the core page.

Look at the headlines. Look at the way Al-Jazeera’s headlines speak about the news in Africa. It’s not just stories about politics, about peace, about the massive, complicated web of interconnected nations in Africa. They reference politicans and places by name, in the headlines, something that respects the importance of the topic at hand by assuming context. The Al-Jazeera website has sidebars to provide that context, but more than that, this is a page of news that assumes you understand some of the topics it’s talking about.

The CNN webpage doesn’t. The CNN webpage can tell you numbers dead, it can tell you nation locations, but the website’s Africa section is written like you don’t know anything about Africa.

This irritates me no end. Journalism should be the illuminiation of the public, the conversion of data into information, information into narrative.

The narrative presented by CNN is a minimal, bite-sized outline of ‘Africa,’ painting it as a place with dying animals, broken economies and strange, random violence being perpetuated by strange, shaped groups of ‘extremists.’ Al-Jazeera is pretty much the straight opposite: The articles assume context, and just comparing the two makes me feel like CNN think I’m an idiot.

Lords, this makes me angry.

Word Of No Mouth

ImageHistory by definition doesn’t often make the news. Yet, in videogame journalism, we are often confronted with events that should be historically significant falling by the wayside. One such example was in 1997, when the videogame company Cyberdreams, creators of the fairly forgettable Darkseed game series, collapsed. Noteworthy in this shutdown, however, was the strange fate of one of their games, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, an expanded retelling of the Harlan Ellison classic science-fiction story. The eventual ownership of those rights bounced around for sixteen years until the game was resurrected on GoG.com, only recently.

The narrative of game history is one fraught with sad stories of undead companies clinging to rights they can’t exploit for fear of potential losses of things they won’t make. It’s very satisfying as videogame consumers to embrace this perspective, as it paints corporate entities as incompetent or evil. Thanks to an errant tweet, I was fortunate enough to be able to contact David Mullich, the producer of the original I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, and talk to him about this for a bit.

Mullich offered a simple, but powerful reminder against this outlook: “We were all paid for our work, and so didn’t share in the risk if the game failed to make a profit.” While his part in the creation of the game was something game consumers have vaulted to a near-deific status, as the producer and part-designer of such a historically significant title, he reminds us that the sacrifice of rights was also distance from risk.

Despite this, Mullich notes that the historicity of videogames is important, and thus reinforces the value of preservation-based services like GoG: “I think that it’s important to preserve video games, especially if they were innovative or influential, so that there is a record of how the art form has progressed.”

Superheroes and the Lure of False Profits

main-bgDecember 1st, 2012 was a distinctly less heroic day for MMORPG players. Paragon Studios, the studio responsible for City of Heroes shut down the servers for the last time. No hard reason as to why was released at the time, given that information indicated that the game was profitable. The eventual cite was simply that in a business negotiation that would exchange hands of the property from one studio to another fell through, and, therefore, the whole game had to shut down. Essentially, normal business operation deemed the profit presented by the game to be inadequate, and therefore, the game was shut down.

To clarify, MMORPGs exist in a special kind of ecosystem, where a game either crashes and burns very early in its life cycle, and is shut down (Tabula Rasa, The Matrix Online), or hits a stable population number and simply exists in stasis for a very long time. City of Heroes hit its stable population quite early, predating World of Warcraft, and existed for over seven years before the shutdown announcement hit.

So what killed City of Heroes? It seems a matter of business communication, a shutdown as a tool in a negotiation, to receive nothing rather than something in the name of profit. If this sounds crazy, that’s good, because it is crazy.

This historical tidbit could not be less news, though, if not for the launch of the spiritual successor project, City of Titans. The discussion around City of Titans has been defined by its comparisons to City of Heroes, and the discussion of whether or not Missing Worlds Media can successfully run a MMORPG-style videogame without its priority being profit. The focus is on community – and if it works, it will provide yet another data point indicating a sickness that runs deep through an industry already too-focused on Return On Investment

Breaks And Checks

Arthur Jensen gave voice in this scene to a terrified Mr Beale of the notion of a multi-cultural, trans-national interface of corporations, referring to them as an interconnected system of systems. It seems fitting that our prior week’s presentation brought to our attention the nature of climate change, because there, we once again see that same meme. Climate is not weather in Canada or water levels in Tuvalu; Climate is, again, an interconnected system of systems.

It is all too easy for us to stand in our position as citizens of this world, and post on the internet, clucking our tongues about the American Empire. We can speak in doleful tones of the way that a nation so possessed of power and influence exerts that will over others. It seems rich, however, to me, as a white Australian, son of a British woman, daughter of a Welsh woman, to act as if all international influence, as if all transmission of culture and technology and people is somehow brand new and always bad.

We have learned in BCM that media capitals, centerpieces of information-based power, grow not in the middle of hegemony, but at the edges, where cultures combine. We have learned that information can drive economies, and that the economies drive what information moves. We have seen how we pass information along informs what information we pass along, and we have seen how the gaps in what people value determine their news, their comedy, and their views on people outside their worlds. Some of those lessons have been chilling, some hopeful, and some just funny. In each case, I am reminded repeatedly of two simple phrases. First, Truth Resists Simplicity. Second, that one phrase from Network, over and over: An Interconnected System Of Systems.

In the 1940s, an English actor, inspired by German politics, made an American film, quoting from a Hebrew religious text.

Let us remember humbly our connections.