Monday, November 14, 2011

Not a game you can win.

When you write almost nothing, knowing what to write about can be a tricky biscuit. Most of my daily, procrastination-assisting reading these days arrives via political blogs by liberals, feminists, and the odd liberal feminist. Media and ethics come up frequently on these blogs, because it turns out that liberals and feminists have a thing about media and ethics. Who knew?

Yet, very often, I have little of substance to say about any of these posts, beyond the occasional comment. Occasionally, the blogosphere will go into a tizzy over an issue which, on paper, seems to be exactly my area of interest, and in these cases it's usually something rather dull and obvious that inspires me to write out of a kind of spiritual vindictiveness. I generally don't get far on those topics, and try not to make the attempt.

I have worked hard, very hard, to avoid blogging about Penny Arcade. For serious.

So now I'm feeling compelled to write about the Pick-Up Artist...thing? What is it, anyway? Motivational lecture series? LARP scenario? The ads I see on filesharing sites suggest it's a practical, monetized application of CIA's MKULTRA project, but I assume this to be bullshit. Not only because, to paraphrase Morbo, HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY, but because if it were true, I'd be reading about guys raising zombie armies of girlfriend-samurai.

For some reason--by which I mean apparently offensive and poorly thought-out comments on Penny Arcade--whenever videogames come up on my daily blog roundup, PUAs usually follow; certainly, whenever PUAs come up, videogames make a quick appearance. It's part of the bouquet of the New Male thing we're working out, somewhere on the spectrum alongside Asperger's and Nice Guys. (I am too lazy to post the appropriate trademark symbol. If you want it there, get a permanent marker and apply it directly to your screen. If you're using a screen-reader, you can save time by just marking up your fingers.) Nice Guys, affable ensigns of the rape apology Federation, are a topic dear to my heart, in a "there but for the grace of God go I" sort of way, and deserve a prose exploration significantly longer than I intend this one to be. Suffice to say there a lot of young dudes out there who don't seem to be very good at dealing with people, and since mandatory military conscription is no longer in vogue, they find themselves ignoring the problem until it interferes with what we are collectively told is a God-given right to get laid.

Yes, flirting is tricky. I, personally, am utterly insensate to it: even in my seven annual minutes of being friendly and communicative, if a woman attempts to flirt or flirt back, the romantic intentions bend around me, like light around the Predator, and quietly raise the self-esteem of the guy standing behind me.

What pricks my academic ears up--my academic ears, incidentally, are smaller, more muscular appendages located near the base of my neck--is the persistent use of "game."

We have lots of games. We have the spy game, the fame game, the political game. Anything in which multiple parties with differing, potentially mutually exclusive interests has likely been likened to a game in some dusty corner of the common parlance.

(Note to self: write book of poetry, title it "some dusty corner of the common parlance.")

And let's take a look at that. As any self-respecting American knows, the CIA doesn't train spies, per se, but rather trains operatives to recruit spies on the ground. What an operative primarily does is convince people to help them. Money, patriotism, ideology, blackmail, and good old-fashioned cash payoffs: the tools of the trade when you want to convince someone to do something that is certainly in your interest, but probably a disastrous, life-ending mistake for them.

Politics, by definition, means making strategic alliances with people you don't like, because people you like even less are making strategic alliances with people they like only slightly more than you.

Fame...fuck it, I dunno. Lady Gaga seems to have a good handle on it, ask her.

So games are tricky. Games might involve compromise or deception. But the most salient thing about the pick-up game, to my reading, is Bernard Suits' claim that the defining characteristic of a game, often as opposed to "free" play, is a layer of unnecessary complication or difficulty.

To wit, a game requires an opponent of sorts. And what is the difficulty involved in...whatever the hell the PUAs are selling cheat codes for?

You want to have sex with women, right? So why all the training? Why the hilarious Soviet mind control techniques? Why the carefully employed scripts? Because they want to have sex with you, right?

Oh, wait. They don't?

Well, shit. You do have a problem then. Because, as we've currently configured the sexy sex-language landscape, if they don't want you, it's not sex. It's a sin, and a crime, and (if you're a conservative) a persistent metaphor for everything bad that happens to you ever.

And the thing is, at no point in human history is it as easy as it is now to find people who want to have sex with you. We have the internet, we have craigslist, we have (out of pocket) birth control and (sort of) legal abortion. We have fetish forums and online dating and Chat Roulette. We have speed dating and Facebook and, well, dormitories. In the Western world, young adult men and women are allowed to hang out together, in a wide variety of ways, with the most minimal outside supervision.

Working these various social affordances can be complex, of course, not the least for their sheer variety. If you want to have sex--and, being male, you're more than allowed to be open about it--finding someone who wants to have sex with you can, in fact, be rather gamelike. There's not really a problem with that. Trying to alter or conceal your personality or intentions to gain sex from someone who'd run screaming the other way if you presented yourself honestly, well, that's sort of a game too. It's just that the win condition is a valorization of the skill it took to get there, not a thing freely joined, to be appreciated in and of itself. The story of this kind of hook-up is one of triumph over adversity, and reduces the hunted to a disposable, replaceable entity.

Which is why we refer to this sort of thing as rape culture.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Surviving the Winter

Hey, kids. It's winter in the Greater Boston Area, and if you're depressed and taking care of a chronically ill person, that means you're stuck in a time loop, revisiting the narratively compelling artifacts of your more rockin' years, and, appropriately, watching a lot of Doctor Who.

(We will not, in this previously-on-Undisciplined entry, deal with Torchwood. Because, come fucking on, Davies. Scrap it, try again with Crowd Hoot or Hot Rod Cow.)

The piece de resistance, or "piece of resistance," of my current domicile is my first-run PlayStation 3. The wood-burning model. It weighs seventy pounds, gives off 5,000 BTUs, it can theoretically run Linux, and it's completely fucking irreplaceable, since Sony has apparently blinded or executed everyone who worked on it. This means that I have hardware emulation of previous PS games, in the sense of having a PS2 emulator that contains a PS1 emulator. This represents the holy grail of gaming, because now I can play games that are a decade and a half old. Because I am an idiot. (For further research, check every other entry.)

When life is stressful and the sun itself has abandoned you, the logical thing to do is to hunker down and do a Silent Hill marathon. The first game weathers the ravages of time quite competently; the resolution drop is jarring at first, especially on an HDTV, but not seeing shit is kind of the sine qua non of Silent Hill's visuals, so you get used to it pretty quickly. What does stand out is the ear-splitting, high-pitched squeal the game will occasionally emit when you use the handgun too often. Since the handgun is the only firearm with which the player is provided adequate ammo, this does change the gameplay experience significantly. Apparently this flaw is also in the PSone classic download from PSN, because Sony hates us and wants us to suffer.

The internet is less than specific about the pervasiveness of the glitch; I don't much remember it, but some people seem to have reported it while playing in PS2 emulation. It's possible the only way to play Silent Hill correctly is with an out-of-production console, in the dark, while high on mescaline.

Which raises a curious problem for games studies. Obviously, access to earlier texts is something you're going to need in any serious (or comical!) study of a medium. Literature students have libraries, the bastards, and an adorable print industry that pretends to keep the medium relevant. Film schools tend to have extensive archives, and film archiving in general is an ongoing and respected cultural project. And I hear now and then about university libraries stockpiling videogames for the apocalypse.

A problem occurs. One, are we really going to need to keep all this fucking hardware on hand forever? Does the future need GameCubes? PC emulation solves some of this, I suppose, but leaves the purists grumbling. More to the point, not everyone has the opportunity to see Othello performed between two of their English classes. We developed a workaround, providing students with the "text" of the text, and asking them to "read" the play. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I intend to be entirely unreasonable about it for the remainder of my life. The screenplay for Casablanca is not fucking Casablanca.

But what if it were? It's good enough for a citation. Similarly, if you just need to swipe some plot elements from Metal Gear Solid 2, a transcript will do nicely. But if you need mechanics, architecture, need the original game, on the original platform. In the dark. High on mescaline.

Except you don't. If we're to drop our narrative infatuations, it seems appropriate to ask where we draw the line between the text and a given performance of the text. If dialogue isn't key, spice it up or lose it. If graphics don't matter, spruce 'em up or trim 'em down. Does Silent Hill actually need low-res redraw to be Silent Hill? Can we get a better translation of the Japanese text? Can Konami hire people to write better Japanese dialogue? (The answer to this last question, as evidenced by MGS Twin Snakes, is: no.)

Preservation is obviously going to be a concern down the line, and every medium struggles with it at some level. I don't really know whether it's important to see The Great Dictator on film, or whether a digital copy is sufficient. But I also don't know where the line between "remake" and "restoration" lies for videogames.