Lessons From…Satoru Iwata

If you have not heard, Satoru Iwata, the current President and CEO of Nintendo Corp., died on July 11, 2015 in Kyoto, Japan due to medical complications from a tumor in his bile duct. The next day, word spread of the tragic loss and gamers and game enthusiasts the world over mourned the loss to the industry and the spirit of Iwata and what he represented, not only for Nintendo, but for the entire games industry.

For all the criticisms and complaints lauded at Nintendo over the last few years, it is still an influential force in video games and without the company, it is very likely that the industry would not be the powerhouse of entertainment that it is. While he may not have been there since its inception, Iwata was the man in charge for the last 15 years and responsible for Nintendo’s direction, both good and bad.

He understood this and never faltered under the pressure or attention his actions and decisions would receive. He was an anomaly as far as the concept of CEO’s goes, at least in the U.S. When his company’s projections were low, he took a massive pay cut instead of letting hundreds of employees go. He kept developing and programming even after he became the CEO of Nintendo. And he was always engaging with the fans and audience because he still, after rising so high and so many years, saw himself as simply a gamer.

There is much to learn from this man’s incredible life and mind and it is probably best left up to him to impart his knowledge. So, in this case, I’ll leave you with a collection of this man’s wisdom. And a short tribute:

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

Lessons From…Reus (The Game)

I don’t know if you have succumbed to the allure and power of the Steam Summer Sale yet, but I got hit bad last week. If the preceding sentence makes no sense to you and seems like childish gibberish, consider yourself lucky. It’s basically like crack to your close gamer/nerd friends. Right now, most of your gamer friends are probably trying to figure out how many meals they can replace with instant noodles without suffering too much. Have pity on them and maybe buy them a beer.

Thankfully, there were plenty of good deals that didn’t completely bankrupt me. Among them was a nice, inexpensive little indie gem, Reus. Even without the sale, it is still a pretty good deal and well worth the investment of time and money. I highly recommend it. Of course, as I was testing it out, two things stood out about the game and obviously, I had to write a post on the educational potential. Remember, SPOILERS ahead.

Only the gods can speak of secrets...

Only the gods can speak of secrets…

The game is pretty simple. You control (play as?) four gods who are essentially elementals. Each one has specific abilities that you must use intelligently to terraform the planet you are on. However, no one god can do so by him/herself (unclear if the “gods” have genders or not) as each one is limited to a single element. For example, if you want to create forests or harvests for food, you need the Forest Giant. Want lakes, rivers, etc. you’ll need to use the Ocean Giant. In other words, you must use your full team effectively.

It’s an obvious life lesson of teamwork and being able to work with diverse tools, people, and circumstances. Unlike other games, you actually have to understand and use each god/Giant to be able to advance and win the game. Without each one, you won’t get ahead. Most games, and gamers, that have supposed teams and teamwork missions end up simply ordering the non-primaries to complete a mission or being able to advance by just relying on your favorite player. Reus does not allow the player to get off so easy. You must learn the interplay of characters and abilities; otherwise, you lose.

What am I if I command the gods themselves?

What am I if I command the gods themselves?

Another interesting and intriguing mechanic is the inclusion of people in the game. This may seem like a minor detail or element, but in many ways it makes the game. You see, the villagers/townspeople/humans react to the Giant’s actions. They can either praise or revile any of the Giants depending on the actions they perform. The best part is that there is really no way to alter humanity’s interest or perception of the Giants.

You must find the right balance between humanity’s desires, interests, and advances and the Giants’ will to terraform and alter the planet. Like most things in life finding a balance, in this case between nature and technological/economic advances, is tantamount to success. Keep the people happy and nature working. One feeds the other without overtaking one another. Keep the balance; keep the peace.

Look at all the little people. Bow to me as I choose whether you live or die!

Look at all the little people. Bow to me as I choose whether you live or die!

Thus endeth today’s lessons.

Lessons From…Mortal Kombat (Game Series. Not the sub-par movies)

I remember playing Mortal Kombat for the first time at my friend’s house across the street. Neither one of us had ever been big Sega, so we played the watered down Super Nintendo version. Even without the blood and violent finishing moves, it was still a spectacular experience playing through the tower of increasingly difficult opponents. While I have never been a die hard fighting game fanatic, Mortal Kombat holds a special place in my game roster, and I usually at least pay attention to any new developments the series tries.

This trip down memory lane in my mind was fueled by news, and videos, of the newest game in the franchise, Mortal Kombat X. As I recalled my experiences playing several iterations of the franchise, thoughts on what lessons the game had imparted flooded my mind. Of course, I had to write a post on what I recollected. As always SPOILERS ahead.

To be fair, if I am spoiling Mortal Kombat for you, it's your own damn fault at this point.

To be fair, if I am spoiling Mortal Kombat for you, it’s your own damn fault at this point.

Video games have been proven to have beneficial elements like increased concentration, increased emotional state, better hand eye coordination (though to be fair, if you do anything with your hands and eyes working in conjunction this would improve), etc. However, for me the potential of electronic entertainment as a means of instruction and education went beyond these simple measures and tests. One thing that Mortal Kombat taught me, and a lesson all should take to heart, is somethings should just be for the pursuit of fun. Personally, I have never been good at fighting games. At best, all I could manage is a series of superb button mashes that resulted in awesomeness on the screen. Of course, this never stopped me from having fun with the game. For all the randomness I employed, the experience of lounging with friends, talking trash, and trying to best one another was the true joy of Mortal Kombat. I don’t recall all the matches I played, but I remember the laughs and the thrill of mindlessly executing a cool maneuver.

This all looks like a giant mess that I could never purposely accomplish.

This all looks like a giant mess that I could never purposely accomplish.

As much fun as button mashing was, the best game play and matches occurred when the two best players would eventually go head to head. Seriously, randomness and talent will always lose out to skill and there is nothing more beautiful or elegant than seeing pure skill on display. I don’t remember the exact players, but I recall their chosen characters. It was always the ninjas: Sub-Zero versus Scorpion. When I played them. it was a flurry of flashes and random moves. But when they played them, it was poetry in motion. Each move flawlessly executed; only to be expertly blocked and countered. It was almost like watching a real fight between two hungry human fighters. Whatever the craft or art, there is perfection in seeing masters perform. If you are lucky enough to see it, treasure the experience.

It's always the ninjas.

It’s always the ninjas.

Obviously, there is far more to learn from this decades long series, but for now, I simply suggest that you go and play the game as soon and as long as you can.

Thus endeth today’s lessons.

On Retention & Application

I was playing Borderlands on a friend’s Steam account last week. If you have not played the game or started your own Steam account, what the hell have you been doing with your life?! Seriously, it is such a fun game, and Steam lets you access virtually every major title available, and an impressive slew of indie titles, right from the convenience of your computer. Go get both, now!

Truth be told, I have never been much of a PC gamer personally. Could not really be one without a halfway decent rig, and they were not as affordable when I was younger as they are now. Suffice to say, I was raised on a console and will die gripping a controller in one hand while flipping the bird with the other. (This should be taken as a legitimate desire to be added to any last will and testament. Anyone who reads this qualifies as a witness. Please and thank you)

Anyhow, I was playing the game and managed to get farther in an hour or two than my friend who had been playing the game for about a week. Now, to be fair, he is not the greatest gamer out there, but then again neither am I. The major difference is that I have more experience playing games in general than he does. See, he is of the traditionally “good looking” variety. Thus, his adolescence was spent primarily going to parties, dating, and being social while I read and played video games at home. Yeah, I, at times, do not fully understand our relationship either.

Still my background gave me the skill set and understanding of how to intuitively approach the game and controls even though I had never played Borderlands before and had never really used a keyboard and mouse to play games. Whereas he struggled, I excelled. This is not meant as a means of bragging or bravado. I was just as surprised as he was that I adjusted to the game so quickly. However, I should not have been so astonished since games have a specific literacy that comes from playing them, much like anything else.

It is similar to how once you learn to ride a bike, you never really forget. In fact, you can pretty much ride any bike after figuring it out the first time. Your body memorized the mechanics of keeping balance on the bicycle and how to keep it while moving without requiring active engagement. There are various skills we pick up throughout our lives that we are not even aware of. I cannot for the life of me remember how or when I learned to read, but I devour books of all types and levels with little to no difficulty. (Same thing with basic math for some weird reason)

Of course, these soft skills are applicable to other aspects of life. I use the innate trial and error and understanding that comes from playing video games to solve problems and issues in the real world. Amazingly, it actually does help in most situations. We all have these weird little skills and tricks we picked up from somewhere along the way. They help us manage our lives and deal with the various obstacles we face.

So what random skills have you managed to develop? How do you randomly apply them in your life?

Lessons From…Never Alone

For many in the United States of America, this week is known as “Spring Break,” a time when students of all levels take a week off from their studies to “recuperate” by going to more tropical locations and consuming massive amounts of alcohol while attempting to woo and entice sexual partners. At least, that is the dream for many students during this time. Most will be unable to participate in the traditionally, stereotypical debauchery of the week for many reasons and will instead be at home drinking, burning through their Netflix queue, and attempting to beat their highest score on their favorite video game. In consideration of this, I thought that a video game lesson discussion was in order especially since I have been leaning heavily on films. So, today’s examination will focus on Never Alone by Upper One Games.

Not really any spoilers here, but tradition mandates the image.

Not really any spoilers here, but tradition mandates the image.

Never Alone is a platformer game revolving around Nuna, an Inupiaq girl, and her arctic fox. These two work in conjunction solving puzzles through a harsh frozen landscape in order to restore balance to the land. The game is split into eight chapters (levels) based on Alaskan indigenous folklore stories. Nuna traverses these chapters gaining wisdom from the narratives she is involved in to get closer to the source of the terrible winter and bring back harmony to it.

While admittedly the game mechanics and play are pretty simplistic and at times ill responsive, the narrative and artwork are incredible and worth the price alone, particularly because the few bugs are nothing game breaking and pretty insignificant bearing in mind it was produced by a new independent studio on a budget in conjunction with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Beyond this small consideration, the new stories and perspectives the game provides and explores are worth the price of admission alone, which brings us to the first of two lessons: Stories matter. 

I know I have stated this before in some context, but it bares repeating. Stories, tales, narratives, prose, poems, letters, and every other form of storytelling are of the utmost importance. It is the way we learn and teach about everything. We are nothing without our stories. They inspire us to dream beyond our means and achieve greatness regardless of the foolishness of the endeavor. We use stories to understand the unknowable and glimpse at the veils of immortality and omnipotence. We do not follow regulations and rules simply because they are there. No, we obey them because the heroes of our stories do and because we have heard the tales of what happens to those who dare go outside the boundaries of law and order.

In anyone else's hands but Alaskan indigenous people, this would have been a scene played for comedy with little to no respect.

In anyone else’s hands but Alaskan indigenous people, this would have been a scene played for comedy with little to no respect.

Stories are needed in every age and culture because it is how we transfer knowledge and identity and presence and understanding. Without the power of storytelling, humanity would be nothing. This leads to the next lesson: people should be allowed to tell their own stories. This game is of particular importance because it is Alaskan indigenous people telling their own stories in their own way. Yes, they are using modern technology and media, but those are just tools that allow them to express their tales to larger, younger, and more modern audiences.

Think of the legends and myths that still permeate popular culture today and the vast influence they hold. For millions of people, ancient Roman and Greek civilizations are a mixture of various white people with differing British accents. It may sound ridiculous, but it is no less true. When you have a specific group primarily telling and shaping the stories that everyone reads, listens to, and sees, you are stuck with a narrow view that ignores the vibrant richness and worth of so many cultures. After decades of being spoken for, don’t people have the right to use their own voice for once?

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

On Video Games (Or The Players)

I love video games. I have been playing them since I was about seven and my parents bought my sister and me an original Nintendo. Technically, it was my sister’s, but she could never beat a game, so it ended up being solely mine for the duration of our childhood. From there I moved on to the original Gameboy (Tetris was my original addiction) then to the next system onto the next system. It is a major part of my life to this day as I try to keep up with the journalism, development, production, and the entire industry entirely.

It is because of my love of this medium and its amazing potential that events of the past week have completely disgusted me. If you are blissfully unaware of what has transpired, I suggest you simply Google (weird that this is a verb, right?) “Zoe Quinn“, “Phil Fish“, or “Anita Sarkeesian.” (I even helped a bit). All three have been at the center of a massive Internet shit storm, though more accurately Zoe Quinn is the epicenter and Phil Fish came under fire for defending her. Anita Sarkeesian is, at this point, a constant target for Internet trolls for her series of online videos.

Basically, all three have been harassed and victims of online attacks (hacks of private and professional information). As well, friends, family members, and colleagues have also been victims of this harassment. All this had been done because of supposed nepotism of gaming journalism and supposed sexual favors exchanged for positive game reviews. Yeah, you read that last statement correctly.

Honestly, I think Fish is kind of an asshole, I find Sarkeesian’s criticism shallow and lacking actual video game experience, and I am unfamiliar with Quinn’s work. Steam is currently offering her game for free, so I will check it out and then formulate an opinion of her as a developer. Here is the basic truth, regardless of what I think of these individuals or their work, they are not deserving of the harassment that has transpired, and there is no other word to describe what they have gone through.

Frankly, even if Quinn did do half the shit she is being accused of, it still would not justify the kind of crap she has dealt with in the last week. Look, video games are an amazing medium and the possibility of what they can become and do is mind melting. However, this kind of shit has to stop. We can do, be better. We have to.

For a few different perspectives on the issue, I’ll provide the following by David Auerbach, John Bain (TotalBiscuit), and Andrew Todd. They offer a balanced view of the ongoing mess.

On Video Games (A Treatise and Plea)

So, I am a huge fan of the video game medium, in case it was apparent from past posts, and recently there has been some, shall we say, kerfuffles concerning the industry and medium. For instance, Ubisoft’s whole “no female avatars” situation in their newest Assassin’s Creed game.

No Girls Allowed in Our Expansive Tree-house!

No Girls Allowed in Our Expansive Tree-house!

Now, personally I do find it a bit odd that no one in the company thought to find it in the budget or schedule to include possible female avatars considering how it is essentially an expected default at this point. Seriously, most popular games, particularly big budget triple A titles, tend to have female avatar options, with few exceptions, at least for the multi-player. However, it really was not the lack of available female avatars that bugged people, but more so Ubisoft’s response that really caused an uproar within the community.

To be perfectly honest, I am tired of hearing these conversations and discussions coming from the video game community on all levels: from the industry, the consumers, the fans. It is not the content, itself, that frustrates me, but the fact that we still have to have these conversations in general. Frankly, we should always constantly be striving for more inclusion and diversity and not rejecting criticism and observations. Not because it is right or appropriate but because we are selfish bastards that want video games to improve.

This is Anita Sarkeesian. She gets death and rape threats because she states an opinion on video games. WTF!?

This is Anita Sarkeesian. She gets death and rape threats because she states an opinion on video games. WTF!?

Take movies, for example. At first, movies were simply a carbon copy of plays and then evolved into a more developed narrative form. For the next few decades, we would merely have stories from the same perspectives, usually that of white, middle aged males. These films were not bad, per se, and I consider some of them classics that everyone should watch, criticize, and learn from. Still, film was greatly improved from the involvement and influence of different points of view, stories, and techniques brought by including women, minorities, and non traditional tales and techniques.

The film industry is by no means perfect, but the difference and improvement in available narratives and experiences brought on by this inclusion is obvious. Now, imagine how much better video games would be if we got over our idiotic, toxic bullshit and focused on simply making video games, and the industry, better. Video games, among the various mediums, has the most potential to truly be a revolutionary and ground breaking force.

To some extent, we have already seen that in the past with the various technological advances and, more recently, with the development of tools like the Oculus Rift that holds so much promise, but what are going to be the available experiences and stories once full immersion has been achieved? Are we going to simply rely on and repeat the same power fantasies and tropes of the past? Or will there be some movement on the dial toward more diverse voices, perspectives, and experiences? Will that goal really be achieved if the community still argues and debates as to whether more women should be hired or that maybe once in awhile the protagonist of a major game does not have to be a white guy. Like, really?

Don’t get me wrong. I love being a super powered, indestructible soldier mowing down hordes and hordes of enemies, but every once in awhile I would like my avatar to have a different skin tone or maybe be a woman. Also, I sometimes don’t want to fight through masses of monsters, zombies, or people and try something different. Games that don’t focus on battle have already been made, very well, on rather small budgets. I can only imagine what the results could be if even a fraction of the resources given to the next Call of Duty was put toward an independent or non traditional title.

So, why am I, practically, ranting about this? Books, films, and music came long before me, but I grew up with video games. I was born in 1987 and Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment system in the US in 1985, pretty much reviving the video game industry. Obviously, there was a history of the medium before this, but the resurgence of what eventually became the modern video game behemoth started at this time. Thus, in my mind, video games, as we know them, are only two years older than I am.

Half the reason I even still buy a Nintendo system is to play the newest Zelda game. Fuck you, Water Temple!

Half the reason I even still buy a Nintendo system is to play the newest Zelda game. Fuck you, Water Temple!

Accordingly, I have a personal stake and relationship with the video game community and industry. Part of my personality and world view revolves around the concept of being a “gamer.” It’s not my sole defining characteristic, but it definitely is part of my personal make up. I see the potential that video games have as an industry and creative force.

As I’ve said before stories matter, and the possibilities for story telling, empathy, trading of experiences, and immersive aspects boggle the mind. Hell, we have no idea where they might evolve to in the future. I truly believe that video games will not only be the most used entertainment option, but an incorporation into culture that allows for people to actually be able to “walk in another’s shoes” and experience things that were originally thought of as impossible. The possibilities that this medium holds excites every fabric of my being, but in order to get there, we need to get over these dumb issues and problems and realize how much further we can get with the help and perspectives of others.

Progress is inevitable. People of all genders, races, religions, and backgrounds play video games. A disservice is done by not including their stories, voices, and views into the medium. Will it be uncomfortable? Sure. Will we have to reevaluate and possibly change some deep seated thoughts and manners? Of course. Will there be come casualties along the way? Probably. Will it be worth it? Abso-fucking-lutely. We can do better. We need to do better because doing so will only improve the thing we play with and love.