Thursday, July 02, 2015

Baer's Office In a Museum!

Worthy of a mention - The National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. has finished and opened up their latest display. It’s Ralph Baer’s workshop. Those of us who are old enough to remember the 1980’s and the early days of gaming, we know Baer as the ‘father of video games.’ He created the first console, the Odyssey, and held over 150 patents. He is one of the first to hold a degree in Science in Television Engineering, worked for NASA, and fought in WWII.

The man is a legend among the video game nerds of old. He passed away in December of 2014 at the age of 92. But now! You can see his workshop where he built some of his creations, including the video game console. While some of the pieces in the display are recreations, a number of items are original pieces. Furniture and computers were given the preservation treatment so Baer’s shop could come to life.

You’ll also find a trademark jacket that he wore, some stuffed animals, and a few gaming Easter Eggs. We gamers like our eggs.

The display is open now, and there isn’t an end date listed for it. Looks like it may be a part of their permanent collection.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

The 5 Best Movie Opening Sequences

I’ve been in a movie kick lately. And hearing a song on the way to work from a favorite film of mine, it spurred me to start up another list.

The 5 Best Movie Opening Sequences!

These are the scenes that kick off the movie. They bring the audience into the story and keep their butts in the seats for 2 hours. They can be humorous, full of action, or really depressing – but then why would you stay in the movie if you know you’re going to spend the rest of it crying your eyes out? This is why I will never understand The Notebook or movies of the like. Even Grave of the Fireflies has a softer opening to ease people into the drama-laden plot…I’m digressing again.

To make it clear, I don’t mean title sequences. These are portions of the story told at the beginning before the opening credits, or while the credits are rolling over the story.

So, let’s roll.

Not out. We are not rolling out. No Transformers in this list.
5: Halloween

The original. Not the remakes or sequels or any of those Horror Character A vs Horror Character B movies. I’m talking about the first, the one, the only, with a young Jamie Lee Curtis before she became an action star in the 1990’s rocking against Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s a very underrated opening sequence, and really long. From the get-go the camera settles in on a first person perspective. It feels very claustrophobic while maintaining it’s voyeuristic feel. You’re stuck in this person’s mind, caught behind their mask, and it’s quite eerie. Even more so when you continue on and you figure out that this person you’re looking through is the killer. THE killer. You watch as the camera continues through the house that you have apparently broken into. You walk up the stairs and go to a young girl’s bedroom. You see her get murdered in front of your eyes. There is no finessing. It happens!

When you think you can’t handle anymore, the killer leaves the house and is stopped by someone. The camera tilts up and you see it’s someone taller than you. And adult. That’s when it hits the audience like a ton of bricks that the killer is a child - as the camera finally changes and he is unmasked.

It sends chills through one’s spine seeing this. It’s not a flashy opening and doesn’t rely on a lot of fluff. But it gives you the right frame of mind to watch the movie.

4: Memento

There is no denying that Christopher Nolan is a genius of non-linear storytelling, and Memento is a fine example of this. The opening sequence of this film was shot in reverse order, unknown to the audience until you hit the conclusion of the film. But you see the early set-up for this out-of-the-box story technique through the opening. It starts out with a series of photos. The audience can’t really identify what’s on the photos, and the more you start to look, the more they begin to fade into a giant puddle of ‘wtf’. It isn’t until you see the photo is being taken by a man, and that the shots are taken in reverse order, does it start to make sense.

And once you can make out the photos, you realize there is more going on. Is the photo a crime scene? Why is this man taking photos? Is he the shooter?

The opening is a crazy mix that tells the audience yes, you have to think through this movie if you want to understand it. And in it, you realize that Memento is a game of revealing the truth while asking more questions about truth.

3: Rear Window

No list would be complete without a Hitchcock movie. What makes this opening sequence so great is that it is 100% visual. There is no dialogue! It’s bitchin. Especially from a master of suspense and the spoken word.

The scene begins with the camera going outside a window, and then giving a 360 degree perspective of the entire neighborhood setting. Full. 360. That breaks so many cinematography rules I don’t know where to begin! You just don’t cross that 180 line. It messes with people’s heads (see my comments about the new Game Awards show). But Hitchcock said screw it! I’m doing it.

The camera then cuts back to the living room of the male character (we soon find out his name is Jeff), using two shots to indicate how stupidly high the temperature is in the neighborhood. The camera goes back outside giving more details about the people living in the area, and Jeff looking longingly outside.

When we see Jeff again, the camera shows us why Jeff is stuck in his home, and reflects on what he does for a living. All of the objects in the shot tell you exactly who Jeff is - you know the protagonist within a few seconds of a camera shot.

You see his name written on his leg cast. Then it’s a broken camera that was used before the accident, along with a photo of said accident that has left Jeff in a wheelchair. There are more photos and a pile of fashion magazines, and from all of this you can figure out that Jeff is a photographer. He was in a bad accident that has now robbed him of his work, temporarily, and he’s going stir crazy in his home.

This is cinema at it’s best. No narrator. No dialogue. No dumb clues to tell you the plot. Items used all have a very specific meaning, and are not haphazardly placed. Rear Window is a visual story, just a movie should be.

2: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Star Wars is on this list for two very distinct reasons: the way it began a movie was completely unconventional and unheard of because it did not include any of the actors. It started out telling you the story and bringing you into the setting. Movies before this had a very strict formula of ‘title,’ ‘actor credit,’ ‘producer/director credit,’ ‘start story,’ and Star Wars jacked it all up. And now it’s totally normal to do that, so thanks Star Wars! Second: it’s still a really awesome way to start a movie. For its simplicity with a title cards and scrolling text, you feel the sense of excitement and boldness from the first note of the music played by the London Symphony Orchestra.
It all ties in so well.

And then you have the Alderan convoy ship crossing in front of the screen at an angle, followed by an Imperial Cruiser arching and pulling all your attention – the massive scale and scope of the vessel drawing awe from the audience…for as simple as the first 2 minutes of Star Wars is, it is beautifully complicated and grand. On a scale of grand that cannot be measured. Even now, 30+ years later (holy crap it’s almost been 40 years since release... O_O) the opening still produces excitement in the viewer. You see their faces light up as they get swept into the excitement of it all; whether it’s the first time or the hundredth.

It’s simplistic beauty.

1: Zombieland

Yes. I placed Zombieland in front of Star Wars. Nerds of the world, before you accost me, let me defend my decision.

The opening to Zombieland does everything right and wrong with a sequence. It blends in classic film-making techniques with modern storytelling in a seamless way that you don’t realize that the movie is doing a lot of things that a number of people would find sinful in Hollywood. Here’s why the movie should be panned:

Let’s start off with the use of a narrator. The number one rule for screenwriters is to never, ever, ever, EVER have a narrator for your script. It is a crutch and generally screams “this piece of work is horrible and the only way people will like it is if we have a narrator.” Zombieland totally abuses the narrator clause, in spades.

Second, text in a movie. Film is a visual medium. You are meant to watch actions and react to them. It’s not about reading. While it doesn’t signify that the movie is crap, any excessive text can detract from the story because you’re forcing the audience to do additional work - versus sitting back and enjoying the show. Zombieland is well known for having text appear during the scenes covering the lead character’s rules for surviving the apocalypse.
Next: “He’s right behind me, isn’t he?” The gag that if you are talking about someone, or in this case, a zombie, and then bam! They pop up on the screen? It’s an abused classic that has now become a pit of distaste for screen writers. Guess what happens in the first 2 minutes of Zombieland?

We’ll follow that with the pointless jump-scare tactic, where you think something bad is going to happen and you get faked out because it’s actually a cat or nothing at all. This happens to our leading man when he wants to use the bathroom at the gas station, and is scared off by nothing. But then the “he’s right behind me” kicks in and starts the action sequence.

There are a number of tropes and bad plot devices that Zombieland abuses, but it works. The point of this movie is to give a satirical perspective of the apocalypse. It doesn’t take itself seriously, aside from the gorey zombie kill effects. We all know that the premise is ridiculous, and the production crew did as well. And the best thing this movie could have done was throw in as many tropes as possible.

That’s why Zombieland stands out in my mind. By blending in all of the things an opening sequence should do (lighting, sound, music, the premise, wonderfully detailing the life of the main male lead without smacking us in the face) with a smart use of camera techniques and editing, and throwing in all the tropes screen writers avoid (narrator, text, fake-out jumps, etc.), it’s everything a 2 minute opening should have.

The follow-up title sequence is equally as entertaining, going for broke and really creating an experience that will always remain with you. It’s a great use of stereoscope and computer technology with a delicate balance that current filmmakers could learn from. And Metallica. Because, Metallica.

Video game tie-in! Gamespresso looks at why video game movies are not great adaptations of the source material. While the writer harkens on some of the things many have said before, there are some new thoughts that provide a fresh perspective. He also mentions Prince of Persia, which in itself is not a bad movie, even if it’s not quite like the source material.  

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Art of the Video Game Box and It's Untimely Demise

First off, I'd like to apologize for the image. Googling "broken video game case" came up with a number of interesting results. None of which were appropriate for the topic. So I went with the next best thing: a broken AssCreed game. Enjoy the creepiness of the no-face!

Down to business. Last week the expansion pack to Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn was released. I pre-ordered a physical copy of the game. While I still advocate that pre-ordering a game on the scale of Final Fantasy or Call of Duty is completely arbitrary, unnecessary even (and as was the case with Assassins Creed: Unity, you guaranteed a sale of a broken product), I did it in this scenario so I wouldn't forget to buy a copy. My brain has been so focused on doing well at my new job and not screwing up within the first 90 days, that my timelines are off. I keep forgetting that Dragon*Con is just two months away, and I've been waiting for that trip all year - thinking I still had another 5 months to go. So yeah. It's bad. I needed to pre-order this or I would have forgotten and been made fun of this upcoming weekend by my friends for my mental lapse.

In spite of the shipping issues with Amazon (seriously guys, you shipped the product 4 days AFTER release? What happened to that pre-order guarantee?), I received the game early this morning. Again, I'd like to point out that it was a week after release so my entire purpose of pre-ordering was moot. I would have remembered to pick it up in the store after a week. Thanks Amazon. (Please note the sarcasm.)

It has been just under a year from the time I last purchased a physical game. It would have been Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, but Gearbox gave away free copies at PAX East 2014 and those came through a digital download. Since then I've been mostly sticking to indie games and Steam downloads, less console content. But I still love the feel of a physical game in my hands. Final Fantasy in particular, since I'm a collector of FF games. With FF11, they always had some of the best boxes and artwork to accompany the disc. I can look at my shelf of games and FF11 always stands out among the pile for being unique and one hell of a package. You spent $49.99 and you get $49.99 of durable content.

Opening my slim package from Amazon this morning, I was disappointed to see that the PC box is no more. The game was in a plastic case, no different then what is seen with a console. It was flimsy. Even with my lame-ass arm strength, I could have crushed this thing in two. Even worse is that no instruction manual was included. Yes I'm old and I'm a purist. If I'm buying the physical game, I want a freekin' manual to come with it. And with Square-Enix, they always made the game manual an art-form unto it's own.

I spent $39.99 on a game that came in a plastic case that could easily be broken, and a sheet of paper with my registration code.

The art of the game box is dying, if not dead already. Checking with those who purchased the Collector's Edition, there was no value in getting the physical version. The "box" was also the crummy plastic case. You bought the CE to get the in-game items. Funny enough, you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition at any time through the Mog Services website.

As people are moving more and more towards digital for distribution, the boxes are dying out and being replaced by cheap plastic casing. I understand from a cost standpoint, it's cheaper. Way cheaper. But you also lose that touch of quality by going for the least expensive method.

I miss the joy of opening the package and seeing the box art. How it can enrapture and mesmerize it's owner. The weight of the game box in your hand. The scent of opening the box for the first time, with the crisp pages of the manual. I'm still a book nerd here. I have a Kindle, but I'll take a paper-book over it any day of the week. You can't beat the smell and the feeling of a good book.

But those days are a distant memory now. I sat there, with the flimsy case in one hand, looking incredulously at the registration code in the other, wondering what the hell happened over the course of the year to reduce the box to this state.

I now understand why collector's have stayed away from next-gen content. If this is the quality we can expect of the packaging, there is no way these discs will survive in 5 years.

I guess it's digital all the way now. And that makes me a little sad.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Social Gaming Evolving for New Generation

Is social gaming still alive, or is a persistent problem in video games?

That's the question I would like to pose today. What you may view as social, may be different for your friends, your neighbors, or that person in Germany who is kicking your ass in StarCraft right now.

TechTimes writer Vamien McKalin believes that online multiplayer is killing off true social gaming, arguing that the features of split-screen design are necessary to have a real social experience. Also, I have learned that in order to have a job in game journalism, you need to have a really cool/unique name. He uses the upcoming Halo 5 as an example. When the game was initially announced, split-screen multiplayer was an added feature, to the delight of some fans. It allowed you to team up with your friends and family on the same console, and provide a classic Halo experience. At E3 this year, 343 Industries axed the idea and have returned focus to the core game play and improving online content. McKalin feels that this change in tactic is spelling doom for traditional social gaming. That we are becoming less involved, less social through online gaming, versus instant human contact by having your opponent sit next to you in the living room. Nintendo is McKalin's safe-haven, being one of the few developers/publishers that promotes same-console gaming.

Social gaming has evolved since the early days. Most of us over the age of 25 remember it being a hassle to get someone to join you in a game. Why? Because they needed to be in the same room as you. If you ever wanted a non-computer opponent in Mario Kart (Super Nintendo), or Pong (Atari), you had to have another living being sit to your right. Or train your cat how to use a controller. Both come with equally amusing results.

And for a while it was good. Much of the gaming experienced still relied on solo adventures of you, being the hero, stopping the bad guy, and saving the day. But you could take interludes to call your friends over and play Goldeneye to do the outrageous multiplayer modes with oversize heads and paintball ammo. For games like Rock Band, the in-house multiplayer element makes sense. There's nothing more entertaining then having 3 of your friends or family members try to play a Nirvana song, missing half of the lyrics and drum beats, and trying to not laugh as you muddle through the song. Online play for those games lacks the face to face interaction that make those games special.

But is social gaming dead? Not at all. It's changing to fit with today's world.

As we become more mobile, gaming is transforming itself to work within our needs. This is why cell phone and iPad games are a huge deal to developers right now. There is an expanding market of people wanting games that fit their daily phone addiction. Pick it up, put it down at your own pace. Because of this, the social aspect of console and PC games has been tailoring itself to fit those needs. I'll use World of Warcraft as examples. One of the smartest things WoW could have done was introduce a dungeon/raid system that allows you to push a button and be randomly placed into a group of people that fit the specs of the map. You don't have to spend hours shouting across the server for people to join in on the dungeon. The game does it for you.

Now, you may say that this decreases the need for the player to interact with others to ensure success for their raid. I would say that it enhances social cooperation, more-so because it's designed to help players who don't have 12 hours to spend on a game that day. With the auto-group system, you have to collaborate with your team. Going in silently and doing your job abilities isn't enough. To be effective, you need to communicate. That means holding discussions with new players you have never met before. While there is a chance that this would occur in your 12 hour stint shouting for help, more then likely you'll have a friend or two take pity on you and build a group that way. It doesn't create the social environment that games like WoW and Final Fantasy 14 are attempting to build. Though it is good to know that you have reliable friends.

Their goal is to provide a fun, user-experience that allows you to meet new people with a natural ease that playing games has always provided to building relationships. There once was a time when the only games available were Monopoly and Backgammon. Imagine meeting your friends at a Monopoly game, and tell me if you come out of that as the same person that went in. But I digress.

As someone who has too many games to play and little time to actually play them, I love the auto-group features. It gives me the interactivity and human interaction that I crave for, and doesn't penalize me for having a life outside of video games. It still allows me to meet new people, strike up conversations, and fit within my one hour window of game time.

Do I miss having a person next to me that I can taunt while shooting their pixilated character with a paintball gun? On occasion. But online games were not developed to fit that setting. They are meant for consumers of the ever-changing digital realm, and that means a new state of social interaction.

I don't believe social gaming is dead, and not in the traditional sense either. There will always be games from Nintendo to fill that void, and another Rock Band is on the way. But we would be silly to think that it's not evolving. It has to if we expect video games to survive.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Keep Gone with the Wind for Film History

My post today is not about video games. There's your warning. But it is geeky and movie related, if that helps change your mind! Stay. Keep reading.

In the wake of multiple retailers, large and small, removing all merchandise with the Confederate flag, more groups are attempting to push for other products to be taken away as well. Understandably, the Confederate flag, used as a symbol for the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War, is seen by many to have racists implications. If was posted at a time where many in the Confederate States fought to maintain their rights to own people as property. Most of them were African (and before anyone gets on their high horse, I know that other races and even white Europeans were slaves as well). Today a number of people still see it as such, and find it offensive. It's been a debate with state governments for years. South Carolina recently removed their flag from their capital hill, something that has been pushed for centuries. Proponents say that the flag not only represents history, but a freedom of expression: not in the right to own people. And this is the U.S. We have a lot of freedoms and liberties that some countries will never see. Taking down the flag is restricting a freedom, some would argue.

Whatever side of the debate you're on, that's your call. This post is not about the flag debate.

This post is about the movie Gone with the Wind (GWTW). The book turned film is a Hollywood classic. It's in the national film society, honored by the Library of Congress, and in more archives then I can count. It won 8 Academy Awards in 1939 and it's studied across the globe by film historians and students for it's technical achievements, and elevating the medium to how we know film today.

Someone at the NY Post wants to get rid of it. " 'Gone with the Wind' should go the way of the Confederate flag," Lou Lumenick's headline reads. I couldn't help but laugh when I read this on my Facebook feed. Really? You want to dismantle the history of a film icon? Okay. Go ahead Mr. Lumenick. Try it. Let's see what happens.

I realize that the NY Post is not the most "newsworthy" but I couldn't help myself. I had to read the article.

The film scholar in me thinks this is hilarious. While a number of people have heard the film, and possibly seen it, what most don't realize is that GWTW revolutionized how movies were made. I've brought it up before whenever someone decides there should be a 'Citizen Kane of video games.' Movies before GWTW were static. Stories were simple. Dialogue was dummed down. Music and sound were an afterthought. Before GWTW, movies were still viewed as a passing fad. People were more concerned about making a quick buck and moving on to the next project, so productions were fast, cheap, and easy.

When GWTW came out, it completely transformed how audiences and businesses looked at movies. It provided validity and longevity to the entertainment medium, and help spur development of television and, some could argue, video games. Watch a movie before GWTW and watch a movie after it was released, and you'll realize how special that film is to the history of the medium. Long, sweeping camera pans - fully orchestrated music - action sequences that really dove into the fighting (close ups and cut-aways) versus long, static shots - Technicolor (with a matte overlay; still a new thing in Hollywood, kids). These are just a few of the aspects that make GWTW stand out among it's competitors. It's interesting to see how much movies changed after GWTW was released, and many of those techniques are still used today.

For the story, you could argue the racist undertones, but not as conniving or underhanded as Lumenick implies. The story takes place during the Civil War in Georgia. There are issues and implications of slavery and racism as part of the books adaptation. I'm not saying that I agree with the concept, but it was, unfortunately, part of history. The book and the movie wanted to capture those aspects to maintain some form of accuracy. I realize that a number of people see GWTW as a fantasy for rich, white individuals with the sweeping camera movement, and dress made of fine drapes that was too unreal to have been whipped together. And I also realize that the movie doesn't portray everyone else accurately. Some characters are stereotyped and the book has a gloss-over of "North bad, South good." And I'm not saying that this is acceptable behavior; certainly not for today's audience.

But it happened. This was the mindset for a lot of people throughout the Civil War and through a good chunk of history for the last century. I don't agree with it, but there it is. You can't shy away from the confrontation. You have to read it, research it, understand it, in order to develop your opinions. And this was the way people thought for decades. To them, it seemed normal. It doesn't make it right, but we shouldn't dismiss history because of the thoughts of others. A lot of people were good, but misguided in their stereotypes. It doesn't mean that every white person was a slave owner (more then half of the country was proof of this during the Civil War)...what I'm getting at is we shouldn't throw aside history. Things happen. We learn from them. We grow into better people because of it. When we disregard the past, we are doomed to repeat events.

And if you want to be realistic here, GWTW holds a fraction of racism by comparison to Stagecoach, a John Wayne classic.

If we were to go through and remove every racist movie, tv show, play/theater production, song, painting, sculpture - well we wouldn't have history then would we? What influences art is our past. Sometimes it's not great. In fact, a lot of it is pretty crappy. But through a creative medium we are able to express our longing for a better future, and help influence others to read, research, and learn. When we remove movies like GWTW from our history, we're not allowing ourselves the opportunity to discuss. "What has changed since GWTW? How are we improving as a nation? What can we learn from this film that will encourage us to be better people?"

See. Life lessons that can be learned from a movie through discussion.

Let's be adults here. I'm not defending GWTW in terms of it's story. But even things that we don't like, or we may feel are crap (Call of Duty), do have value in our society if we take the time to talk about them.

I rambled. If you're too lazy or didn't read: don't ban GWTW. Talk about it. It's an important part of film history and help developed many of the tools that we still use today in Hollywood. Sticking it in a museum or a library and pretending it "didn't happen" doesn't resolve the issues the movie brings the light. Being proactive and discussing them, not starting arguments, fights, and wars, but talking as civilized human beings - that's where the film can help.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Playing at the Movies

As movie theaters look for alternate ways to drum up business (the chain I frequent now sells t-shirts and collectible pins), more are seeking out video games to bring in the younger crowd. We saw it at E3 this year where Sony held their press conference not only at the convention center, but through theaters around the country, providing swag to those who attended. Cinemark has been showing League of Legends tournaments from time to time over the past year. Aside: Did you know you can have a corporate event at movie theaters? I've been to 2 over the past 5 months. It's strange, cramped, and the food is questionable.

A theater in LA, iPic, took it a step further and hosted a game night for Minecraft aficionados. A local group, Super League Gaming, approached the theater with a suggestion to start up a tournament to be held during the week. $20 at the door and the theater and the league would split the profits.

What most people don't realize is that theaters tend to hold a low occupancy from Monday-Thursday midday. Most attendance and sales come from the weekend, when the bulk of people are out of work and school. Which is exactly why I love to go to the movies in the middle of the week. No one is there. O_O Some theaters will average about 16% occupancy over the course of a week. It's a lot of opportunity for those empty chairs to be filled. Thus theaters are looking outside of their frame to get corporate events and gaming tournaments to step in.

And why not? Take the experience of gaming and put it on the big screen. Get the full effect of the surround sound (which oh my goodness is so glorious with certain games), or work with the entire theater to play a few hours of Pokémon. Cinemark Plays Pokémon. That's a seller.

Logistics and technical issues are the biggest set-back one would have with gaming at the movies. As ticket sales for movies have dropped over the past decade, fewer theaters are renovating in order to off-set the loss. I can only name 5 of the 40 theaters within my area that have HDMI capabilities, digital projectors and screens, dining (because if you're going to be at a theater for more then 6 hours you need to have something other then popcorn in your body), and seats with tray tables (for food and your laptop). Planning needs to take place and you can't expect an event to crop up overnight. But, if you know a few hundred people who might be interested in a mini-game tournament, hit up your local movie theater. You might be surprised at how much they're willing to accommodate you for a cut of the profits.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Digital Play and Education: A Book Review

A little while ago I was given a copy of The Game Believes In You by Greg Toppo. He reached out to me after seeing a post on The Geek Spot and forwarded me a copy. I was able to finish it over the past few days (a convention and E3 coverage kind of wiped out my free time), and my review of the book is going to be bias. Because I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I liked it mostly because Toppo describes James Paul Gee, who is one of the first to create learning principles and theories about video games, as the “irascible uncle, [who] storms around the stage, his shaggy white eyebrows sometimes looking like they’ll swallow his eyes.” Not only is it a fantastic visualization, it explains how Gee approaches his video game discussions (through a lens that is sometimes cloudy, and you have to muddle through his work before you reach a point of clarity).

Toppo, you have made me a fan of your work.

But let’s take a step back. I’ll do my best to give a thoughtful review without picking on Gee. Toppo is USA Today’s National K-12 Educational writer/reporter. His past work has focused on video games and the use of technology in the classroom, so it’s no surprise that he would write a book that focuses on such a topic. From the first page until the last, it’s obvious that Toppo took the time to research everything. Thoroughly. A number of statements were backed up with facts, studies, and speaking to experts from developers to psychologists. Eighteen pages of the book were set aside for notes and references. That’s on par with most college text books.

The premise of the book is to introduce video games and education as two entities that can work together to promote a stronger learning system. Toppo examines digital play by reviewing its history, the evolution of games, and examines the current ideology of the U.S. educational system. For every problem that occurs, both in learning games and in education, Toppo brings up solutions that allow the factions to work together.

The biggest hurdle I have had in teaching video games and discussing anime in an academic setting is getting educators to see how incorporating these entertainment mediums will improve their students’ livelihood. Education can be fun. But simply slapping a game onto it (gamification, run away!) doesn’t promote learning or fun. Games and scholastic endeavors need to work in tandem so that both can be utilized successfully. That’s what Toppo tackles with his book by providing examples on how games can work in the classroom. It also shows the need for U.S. educators to start thinking outside of their small box. Because right now, school is not fun. It hasn’t been for decades. And it’s not the fault of cell phones and Facebook. Our test scores are pretty pitiful by comparison to other First World Nations, and it’s been like that since I remember going to school.

I’ll be honest in my assessment of the U.S. public system for scholastic endeavors: it sucks. I was never prepared for college and what it threw at me, in spite of taking AP classes throughout my high school years. My parents did a wonderful job of preparing me for life. School did nothing. I hate math. I respect science, but I can’t tell you the difference between molecules and atoms – if there is a difference? My writing style for high school was perfect for A’s, but it was horrible for everything in life that I would be using it for. If you could see how I use to write in high school, you would think that the pieces were written by two entirely different people. And a lot of my dislike for high school and middle school came from the lack of interest by my teachers. I grew up at a time where video games were out there, and used as teaching tools for memorization and typing tests. Most schools didn’t bother with them feeling they were a waste of time. Distractions in the classroom. Given the vast amount of new content out there for kids, it surprises me that more districts are not embracing the new climate that games offer. Our test scores still suck. The teaching methods of 50 years ago are still not working. Something has to change. That’s where I see Toppo’s book coming in – to provide inspiration to educators and content to the scholastic nerds like me who want to shove proof in everyone’s face.

See! It can work! Look! Toppo's examples are plentiful and varied for anyone dubious about video game's effect in the classroom.

As a researcher, there are a few things that I felt the book could have addressed, but danced over. As a whole, the primary argument of games for learning is strong. I don’t want to dismiss it. Toppo provides a very balanced, thoughtful argument. But one of my areas of concern is competition. There is a lot of research out there that supports cooperative learning. Competition and even team-based contests do not result in education gains by comparison to co-op learning. Unfortunately some of the games Toppo provides examples for in the book are centered on competing with your peers. I would argue that it doesn’t provide a stronger learning environment. While the effect of the games like Call of Duty could prove useful, studies have shown that cooperative peer work has a greater benefit overall. So more Minecraft, please.

There is also the issue of how to rate games and their data. Right now in the academic world there isn’t a set method. We have a content rating classification for entertainment purposes, but that doesn’t affects scholastic aptitude. A system needs to be developed and implemented (look to film theory as an example) before we can fully embrace games in the classroom. I didn’t expect Toppo to build one from scratch, but it should be mentioned. For our education to grow, we need to be able to track and report a student’s progress. Internal systems within the game are all well and good, but how can we see the results long-term? Will a game from 5 years ago still have the impact on a child’s education today when new models are introduced? Are the products reliable? Are the methods for scoring accurate? Is the content still being retained by the child or is it through repetition without understanding? All are key points that should be reviewed.

What captured my attention the most was how fluid Toppo’s writing is. His years as a reporter greatly assisted him with this book. I didn’t feel like I was being corralled from one point to the next. Nor was a chapter labored to the point where I wanted to just move on and ignore the rest of the text. The ebb and flow of the book kept me interested. It’s so easy with these types of texts to feel overwhelmed that you have to take a break to digest the information presented. Toppo’s mastery of the written word speaks volumes. This is one of the few thought-provoking books that I have read in a while where I could veg and read in a few days and understand the content.

For anyone who is interested in video games and education, or is looking for an alternative to the text heavy James Paul Gee, get this book. It’ll provide you with all of the insight you are looking for without the need to bang your head into the desk as you try to decipher Gee’s words.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Retro at GameStop

Time to hide, kids. GameStop is selling old games again. Earlier this week the retailer launched the "retro" section of their site, with video games from the NES, Sega Genesis, SNES, N64, Playstation 1, and Sega Dreamcast under their "Vintage Software" label. Prices range from $6.99 to $69.99 (that would be PowerStone for the Dreamcast), and you can purchased refurbished consoles as well.

There are caveats, of course. This isn't a big library like you would expect at some pawn shops or smaller game stores, so don't expect a big inventory to be available. All of these items are online only. You can not buy retro games at your local GameStop brick store. Most of the items are not available, so have fun finding the ones that are in-stock online. Each game comes with the "pre-owned guarantee," which means there are no guarantees for boxed and manuals, but the game should work if you use it in the proper system. And no, GameStop will not ship you a box and manual. Most games are sold to GS as is without those features. They will also not allow returns because you didn't get the box and manual.

Also, GameStop is not accepting retro games for trade. So don't clean out your collection and hand them over to the retailer. They won't take it. Besides, you'll only get pennies on the dollar. May as well EBay your games for a better price. It appears that they're using a third party company to procure their stock.

The consoles are another story. You'll get the basics, one controller, AC adapter, and A/V cable. These are also online only. But! Some select stores are accepting them for trades. Which ones and what are the terms? Well GameStop didn't post this info anywhere, so you get to have fun calling every store location and asking questions. That'll make the employees really happy. :) I'd imagine that if it's anything like their current used system trade, the system needs to be clean, in working condition, and have at least one controller and all cables associated with it. Any grime or corrosion and it's a no-go.

There are also shipping restrictions on these items. US addresses only. No APO/FPO or PO Box. It needs to be a physical mailing location.

While it seems okay on the surface, GameStop is getting into retro gaming a bit late. And they already have spent decades turning away older consoles in favor of pushing what's out now. Trade-in's are typically only valuable for last gen content, systems that are still in people's homes. So to now do an about face and say "oh hey, we have the older stuff too" tends to create a jaded customer. Why was my old stuff not good 2 years ago, but it's okay to buy and sell now?

So take it as you will GS and non-GS fans. I'll stick to my current vendors of retro stock who can guarantee me a box and manual. What's the point in collecting if you don't have the box?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Disney Going VR?

At E3 this week, a few of Disney's team members dropped hints that they were exploring virtual reality with Disney Interactive, and bringing in Disney Infinity as one of the starting titles. Given the hype over Occulus Rift and Hologram Minecraft this week, there's no surprise that one of the largest entertainment companies in the world wants to jump into the mix.

One of the ways VR could easily be introduced into Infinity is through the new Toy Box mode, which allows different backgrounds and characters to interact with each other. This could be expanded with AR or VR if implemented and allow for more interaction between the users and the game.

Infinity is still doing quite well in sales, enough to introduce a new line of figures from Star Wars, expansions to the game pack. Some of those will be exclusive to the PS4, such as the Boba Fett figure.

The concern with VR is that it'll be another fad like 3D. VR has made attempts in the past with VirtuaBoy and it fell flat. But as a whole, it's still new technology by comparison to 3D. In film, 3D has existed in some form or another since the 1910's. That has always gone through ebbs and flows of interest, and has always, and always will be, a fad. Even James Cameron, who brought it back into style, thinks it's done. VR is still fairly fresh and new to the eyes of the consumer. It's not settled in theme park rides and tourist traps. And the results that we've seen this week have proven that there is an interest.

The real question is will consumers buy it for the long term?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Was there an E3 Winner?

Everyone is going to have an opinion and attempt to answer this for you. First off, think for yourself and you decide if there “is” a winner or not. Because there may well not be in your mind – maybe this year everyone did so well (or badly) that you feel they all represent their brand equally and it’s difficult to claim a winner. Second, this blog post is an opinion piece. I encourage everyone to take the time and watch the events on your own. They’re all available on Twitch and YouTube from each company, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Nintendo’s is the shortest and most highly stylized because they opted for a digital presentation. No audience. No press. It’s Nintendo’s leaders talking to the fans through the internet. But it’s short because they didn’t have to worry about downtime to swap out demos and counter any technical issues.

Let’s jump into it. As a whole, each company went out there to show what they did best. Microsoft took pot shots and initially won over people with their backwards compatibility claim. They soon lost some of those new-found fans when more details were revealed that the first batch of 100 XBox 360 games are either already on XBox Live or are part of the Rare Anniversary Collection coming out this Fall. Not true compatibility. The first full 100 games will not be available until this holiday season, Christmas time, and future games will be released in 2016 – with no word on how many, when, or which ones.

What they did do well was show off a lot of shiny things. The Occulus Rift is the crown déjour. Starting next year it’ll be released as a bundle with Xbox One units, and will work with Windows 10. It jumps from you One to your PC. Not a bad deal. And they previewed a new hologram interface that’s in the works, by using Minecraft. You can turn any flat surface into Minecraft, and it looked great on the demo. Now if we could see into the glasses…

Sony followed up by giving games to gamers that they have been waiting a long time for: The Last Guardian (from the house that produced Shadow of the Colossus and Ico) and Final Fantasy VII (Remake). It got the crowd rolling. And their content in-between was pretty darn nifty too. Lots of new IP’s and not as heavy-handed on the sequels. Sure there was Uncharted 4, and some Call of Duty: Black Ops exclusives, but the content for Sony focused on making the system stand out. Which means brand, new, games. I’m looking forward to 2016 already.

Having said that, I think SquareEnix should have hold off on the Hitman trailer at the very least. They gave all their good stuff to Sony, causing a lack of interest in their own panel. That Hitman trailer was phenomenal! Even for a reboot, it was the right notes throughout the piece. You knew exactly what the story was without having to be narrated through it. The images told you what you needed to know, and left you wanting more, as any trailer should. SE, you need to do that more often. Your other trailers were so text and narrator heavy that I gave up 30 minutes into your presentation, and sped through the rest of it. And that FF7 remake was not that big of a deal. All of the talking to the audience was annoying and completely removed the game from its element. It would have made a greater impact if they had played through the opening movie – or, even better, isolated a key cut scene in the first disc and remade it for the PS4. Simple. Effective. As any trailer should be.

Nintendo rounded out the top three by going in a different direction and not holding a standard panel. They created a digital experience, knowing full well that most of their audience would be at home. Not everyone gets to go to E3 every year. It tends to be more industry and press, less gamers. In doing so, they were able to craft an hour that fit the Nintendo image, with puppets! I’m pretty sure that will be the only time I’ll see the Nintendo gurus dancing, and that was in puppet form. They definitely made waves with the new Star Fox: Zero. And an extra special treat with Mario Maker. The downside is that there really wasn’t anything new. They didn’t talk about their new console in the works, or about peripherals. It was all games that we were fully aware would be released later this year. Oh, and Amiibos, because those took over like a madhouse. One thing I did appreciate is that they took the time to talk to developers and go into their personal stories. The one for Yoshi and how the yarn pieces were created was charming.

Sony would probably be my personal favorite with the heavy focus on new games, new content, and new developers, but all of the companies had highs and lows. It’ll be good to see the reviews that come out about the games being played on the show floor this week.