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2014 in Gaming Cover Art

The end of the year is drawing upon us and in the first of two posts reviewing this year of gaming, I thought I’d analyze the cover or box art of some of this year’s new console releases. For the sake of simplicity I will be focusing only on some of the best selling titles this year. I will put a disclaimer here: in an era of digital downloads, less reliance on hard copies of games, and extensive pre-release trailers, box art has ceased to play as integral a role in a game’s marketing and sales. Nevertheless, the box art still acts as a “public face” for the game and provides an almost candid look into the presence female characters have in the game and how they are treated. So with that perspective in mind, let’s look at how women are displayed in the covers of some of the top selling console video games of 2014.

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Power Hour Review: Game of Thrones: Iron from Ice (XBox One)

Winter (break) is coming! And that means that there is going to be a whole lot of catch up up going on among gamers everywhere. I think that I am starting off my run to diminish my pile of shame a bit. With the release of the next gen systems my pile of shame has been growing more and invisibly thanks to digital distribution.

So this week I am finally getting around to doing my Power Hour review of Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones Episode One. After playing the Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us I have to say that I came to GoT with some specific expectations. And Telltale kinda said, “Screw your expectations!”. GoT doesn’t play like either of the previous episodic games that I played. And I don’t think that it’s necessarily that the mechanics have changed that greatly.

garedLet me start by saying the game is pretty, much prettier than the comic styled Wolf Among Us. The art style adds to the tone of the game. You feel your surroundings as much as you just see them. But I’m kind of putting the cart ahead of the horse. This game is not following the narrative strand of the HBO series or the first book. The game revolves around the Forrester family who have been loyal bannermen to the Starks for centuries and it picks up on the evening of the Red Wedding with you playing as Gared Tuttle, squire to House Forrester (I won’t say more than that for those of you who haven’t played the game, seen the show, or read the books…in other words, those of you living under a rock).  Read more »

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Episode 91: The Happy Meal Argument: No Such Thing as a Boy/Girl Toy

Episode 91: The Happy Meal Argument: No Such Thing as a Boy/Girl Toy (“Save As” to download or head over to iTunes to subscribe)

This week we talk about gendered marketing of new toys (and the toys themselves) and wax nostalgic on toys in our own past. Join us as we talk about everything from the new Lego Fusion sets to Monster High dolls. Just in time for winter holiday shopping for your favorite children (or adults)!

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Power Hour Review: Tales from Deep Space

This week, with all of the terrible news, I wanted to play something light, so I picked up Tales from Deep Space. An Amazon Game Studios Kindle adventure, Tales from Deep Space is a cute adventure game for the Kindle Fire HDX and 2014 Kindle Fires, so the game is pretty limited platform-wise. But, I have a ton of Amazon coins that I got for free along the way, so I figured I would pick it up and give it a shot. My initial impression of the game was that it’s super cute. The main character, E, and his luggage droid are sent on various missions throughout an intergalactic airport. Along the way, they must solve puzzles, find their way around the airport, and fight the guards (Red Meeks).

I played my first tablet game, Spirits of Spring on the iPad a few weeks ago. I liked that game, but I wasn’t sure how much I liked playing on a tablet. The controls in Spirits of Spring are a bit wonky; the game was constantly doing the opposite of what I wanted it to do. I find the same problem a bit in Tales from Deep Space, although to a lessor extent. So far, in Tales from Deep Space, I find the trigger to shoot is very sensitive, although random shots don’t seem to affect anything. Given that there are a lot of NPCs standing around, I would think they would react in some way, but they don’t. But, I think the main reason I don’t love playing games on tablets is because I like to become immersed in the story and the graphics. This is hard to do with my finger right in the middle of the screen. I love the handheld experience of curling up with a good game on the couch, but I like controls. Playing games on a tablet feels somewhat awkward to me.

The game is beautiful, though, and the characters are cute and quirky. I was pretty impressed with how good the game looked on my Kindle. They have included a surprising (to me anyway) amount of detail in each of the levels. I did get a little confused when I was given the map to the airport; the map is not as intuitive as I’m used to or would like. In my admittedly limited play experience in this game, I found the map to be useful only in telling me which direction to go, but it’s not that great at giving me a sense of my progress. For example, I felt like my character walked forever and I was still in the same section, but then suddenly he jumped past 3 sections, and I have no idea why or how that happened.

In the first hour, I found the narrative somewhat entertaining and somewhat disappointing. It’s not a terribly difficult game, and I never came even close to dying. Amazon lists it as rated for all ages, and I think kids might find this game fun. I like the narrative and it sort of sets up a mystery (i.e. why the Red Meeks are taking over), and the dialogue is cute at times, but I wished for more depth both in narrative and dialogue and in game play and mechanics. But, if you have a Kindle Fire HDX or 2014 Kindle Fire and are looking for a cute game, you might want to give this one a try. Currently, it’s selling for $6.99, and I haven’t noticed a sale. But, as it’s an Amazon Game Studios title, it wouldn’t surprise me if the game does go on sale soon. You can also buy it with Amazon coins, and Amazon often offers coin promos, so, if you watch, you could get it for cheap or even free. I’ll probably keep the game around for something mindless to play when I’m away from my other consoles, but I’m not sure it’s something I’ll ever want to drop everything to play.

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It’s Christmas, Girls and Boys: How do we shop for toys?

Over the past few years, I have found myself mostly uninterested in Black Friday (or, is it now Black Thursday?). My mom and I used to go every year, although we never did any hardcore shopping. Instead, we just got up early and shopped around a bit for fun. My mom and I don’t live in the same state anymore, so I usually just ignore the whole thing now because if you pay enough attention, you’ll find the deals all year long, not just on those couple of days. But, this year, I was drawn back in a little with Walmart’s advertisement for a 1600 piece LEGO set for $30. That’s a steal! And, it was offered online, so I didn’t even have to go to Walmart. Going to Walmart on any given day of the week, much less Black Friday, removes any joy I get from a “deal.”

Anyway, I get online to see if I can get this set, and I see this:

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-27 at 7.46.33 AM

 

Toys for Boys. With LEGOs as the picture. Read more »

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Mechanics, Part II

This week I’m following up on a discussion of game mechanics started last week. To read part I, check here.

So a quick recap: Mechanics are a special subset of game rules. Rules are the foundations of games, and they do all sorts of things. In poker, for example, hand rules in poker define particular concepts: a straight flush is a sequence of five cards in the same suit in the correct order. The lines on a football field create the boundaries players have to stay within. And so on and so forth with rules. Mechanics are rules that govern player interaction with the game system, typically thought of as part of the input-output feedback loop between the user/player and the system/game. In my last post I argued that mechanics cannot (or at least, should not) be considered outside of the system of representation that they’re a part of. Read more »

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Let’s Get Mechanical

In this series we’ll be looking at some principles of game design, particularly as they relate to analysis and criticism. Check out the first part, about genre in gaming, here.

While calls for objectivity in games reviewing have been with the media for quite some time, Gamergate seems to have brought a renewed interest in separating what many see as overly-political or personal responses from a strictly mechanical, “just the facts, ma’am” sort of review. However, doing so ignores the simple fact that game mechanics are always (already!) part of a system (the game and all of its rules, mechanics, narrative elements, etc.). Mechanics only make sense in the context of that system, and thus it doesn’t make sense to try to imagine a purely mechanics-based review. So, let’s talk about mechanics: how do they work?
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These “Difficult” Decisions

I know that it’s a bit early for sweeping comments 2014 seems to be the year of a lack of female character creation options. Or, more specifically, the removal of female character creation options for the sake of the game’s “quality.” This not so pleasant instance in this year’s list of noteworthy gaming news first reared its head in the form of Ubisoft’s “women are too hard to animate” controversy that served as a flimsy excuse for why Assassin’s Creed Unity did not feature any female assassin options in its multi-character arsenal. What was already a bad situation – a lack of female playable characters despite customizable male options – was made infinitely worse by ridiculous and poorly thought out statements as to why it happened as well as a non-apology apology. At first this seemed like an isolated incident; something that was an embarrassing mistake or snafu on Ubisoft’s part but hopefully something other companies would learn from and never repeat. That is, until I learned that a nearly identical incident recently occurred with the release of WWE2K15, the latest installment of the WWE based wrestling simulator published by 2K Games.

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40 Years of LEGO

The latest viral letter from LEGO made me a bit sad. The message is great, but reading it makes me sad because it was written in 1974, before I was born. Forty years ago LEGO wrote

To Parents.
The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls.
It’s the imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship.
A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses.
The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.

But, today we still fight against these stereotypes. We still have the “pink” aisle in Target, and the “regular” LEGO sets are still separate, and they get their own aisle. When I shop with friends and family, I still hear things like “Barbies are for girls; Hotwheels are for boys.” Many of my recent columns have addressed how LEGO is moving forward (slowly) in the area of gender marketing, so it makes me sad that they had the right idea 40 years ago, but somehow, somewhere they lost their way.

This is important to me because these toys can be limiting and they can reinforce the stereotype in children. Girls are supposed to like shopping and fashion, while boys get to do the exciting stuff. I didn’t grow up with gendered toys; instead I had them all Barbies, Hot Wheels, Transformers, and, of course, LEGOs. I was spoiled, I guess, but at least I wasn’t limited to the “pink” aisle. I did, however, feel a lot of pressure from friends and from those outside of my immediate family to like certain toys or have certain interests. I remember friends who didn’t at all understand my fascination with Transformers. (I had Optimus Prime, which was all of the awesome.) I read this letter, which reflects how I was raised, and I wonder why we are always sliding backwards.

Transformers

These stereotypes of what children and adults should like based on gender are everywhere, but people often don’t want to see the slippery slope that gender stereotypes can cause. These stereotypes bleed into the gaming world. In September we read that 52% of gamers are now women. But, the stereotypes persist, as women are evidently playing mobile games, and that somehow doesn’t count as “gaming.” (Or, at least, that seems to be how the argument goes.) I don’t play mobile games, but I don’t have anything against them either. We have all of this technology and a hugely diverse group of people interested in games and interested in making games. It makes me so sad that it’s 2014 and we still think “this” game/toy is for girls and “this” game/toy is for boys.

1974.

2014.

40 years.

When are we really going to “get” that gendered norms are socially constructed? When are we going to realize that girls aren’t born with a “pink” gene, and vice versa? I read comments under these articles and blogs that indicate a certain preference for toys is genetic. I find that argument utterly depressing and destructive. Even now, as an adult, I hear this. When I first got back into LEGO, someone close to me laughed and told me to go ahead and buy them and he would take them off my hands when I got bored. It’s been two years, and I’m not bored yet. Am I genetically flawed?

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We’ve All Got Skin in the Game

Bear with me. This is raw. But raw is the best that I can muster right now. This post is not about games…but it is. I am a writer, a gamer, and an activist in no particular order and in no particular manner. I process things through my writing so today I am writing out of turn (in a number of different ways).

I write about games because I recognize them for what they are, powerful cultural artifacts. Games can not only affect the ways that people see the world, but are also affected by the world views of the people who create them. It is why I think that I am a Social Justice Warrior of my own ilk. It is because social justice is something that not only want, but must have if we are to survive as a (human) race. Yesterday a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer who had sworn to protect and serve for the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, in Ferguson, MO. This was just one of a series of recent killings of people of color in the United States.

Trayvon Martin

Renisha McBride

Darrien Hunt

John Crawford III

Jordan Davis

Tamir Rice

I could go on and on. Everyday this list gets longer and longer and the victims get younger and younger. Tamir Rice was only 12 years old when he was killed on a playground in Cleveland this week. With last night’s announcement in Ferguson I see more and more pronouncements of the fact that it is open season on our young Black boys, but I see this as so much more. Open season extends far beyond young Black people being shot down in streets, on porches, on playgrounds, and in superstore aisles. I grieve for the parents of these children whose lives have been cut short. I grieve for the communities that are left behind to wallow in the aftermath of their deaths. I grieve for my own child who does not fit the demographic (the proverbial profile) in any obvious way, but who is still a victim of racism in that she is the White child of a Black mother. Every racist comment, snide question, police interaction, or other act of racism is an act of violence that she is forced to endure. As she gets older I become ever more vigilant in my attempts to shield her from this violence and preserve her innocence for just a moment more. The threats of violence are real both to her and to myself. Every questionable police interaction, every racist asshole in restaurants or restrooms. every parent or teacher in schools who treat her or me differently because of the color of my skin. And yet…this is not the same as having to try to shield your children from bullets that rip through their bodies and steal their lives.

So today I want to recognize that there is no fun in our lives. I recognize that this is not a tragedy that is limited to Black boys and girls, but affects all boys and girls regardless of their race and that we all have a very real material investment in this.

And for these reasons and many, many more I grieve. I mourn. I rage. I cry. While people say pray for peace. Pray for justice. I say FUCK THAT! Pray for CHANGE. Work for CHANGE.