Gaming into parenthood

In the digital age, technology is king. I would wager that most people today have played and enjoyed a video game; be it something as accessible as Fruit Ninja or as complicated as Civilization, gaming is becoming part of our culture and, as we become parents, our children’s culture. A recent Observer article discussed the affinity that children have with computers and games and how this can leave “their parents baffled”. Does this mean, therefore, that the next generation of parents, those who themselves grew up playing video games, will be able to understand and connect with their children more? Probably not seems the likely answer; the child parent relationship is unlikely to change that drastically just because parents understand the interests of their children a little better, but, for the gaming industry and for children, a better understanding of the role games can play in growing up might not be a bad thing.

Children like video games and pressure their parents to buy them, this is undeniably true. The advantage that the gaming generation might have as parents is the willingness and ability to research and test what their children want. Rather that simply relying on what the media and shop assistants advise, gamer parents can inform themselves and make their own judgements for their children. The worry that is expressed in the Observer is that the author can’t interact with her son over games:

“…computer games still bother me. It’s the knowledge gap. I have no idea what Patrick’s up to when he plays Zelda, or cries over penalties in Classics XI, because, other than the odd game of Space Invaders, I’ve never got into computer games.”

This is a problem that can be rectified by gaming knowledge. Moreover, gaming parents can change the way games are viewed by making informed decisions.

This WILL happen

Too often have I heard of children playing games that are completely inappropriate for their age group. One could argue that this shows a lack of parental involvement but I think it is, at least in part, caused by a lack of understanding of games. Most people know what a 15 or an 18 rating means in terms of movies but for games they don’t. Gaming parents, however, will understand the likely cause of these ratings and can play the games before allowing their children anywhere near them. On the other hand, for some parents there seems to be the view that video games are universally “bad for children”. This too is damaging and misguided. I’ll say it again, children like video games; many of them will tire of games quickly, many will grow out of them eventually and many of them will become avid gamers.  Think of games like chocolate. I am not suggesting that children should do nothing but play games but nor should games be seen as “bad”. If properly regulated, games are harmless fun for children and perhaps it is this view that will become more accepted as more gamers become parents.

This WILL NOT happen

I am not a parent and perhaps I am naive to think that being a gamer will change the type of parent I am or affect my kids in any way; but I do believe that a lack of understanding is giving games a bad image and allowing children to play games that are inappropriate. Not every parent of my generation will be a gamer but perhaps they will all have a better understanding of games and the gaming industry will be better off for it.

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Is this the real life?

As an industry that moves forward with technology, video gaming advances in sophistication very rapidly. In 1980 Pac-Man was the height of gaming, a 2D yellow blob eating smaller yellow blobs in a maze whilst being chased by ghost shapes. 20 years later, the Sims allowed us to take complete control over a character’s life. Now we have games with open worlds, morals, communities of real people playing together and Pac-Man playable on our already obsolete mobile phones. One of the industries greatest strengths is its ability to adopt the latest technology and push it to produce fantastic entertainment. But, while the advancement of technology is seemingly infinite, is there a point in the advancement of video games that will be too far?

Morals have been finding their way into games lately. At the moment they tend not to be greatly developed. Actions are either good or bad leaving no grey area; your character can either be a hero or a villain, but we can assume that morals will play a bigger and more developed role in the future . In current games, however, I find it hard to be the bad guy. I know the villains always have the best weapons and powers but I just can’t bring myself to be that much of a dick. As the industry advances this is only going to get worse, with more excruciating decisions, maybe making games more difficult to play. Realism is something that games seem to aim for but I don’t believe that is why we play games.

It doesn’t end with morals either, advancement in graphics could be an even bigger problem. Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain has one particularly difficult point where you have to cut off your character’s finger. It is amazing that a game can immerse you to the point where you have an emotional response, but how much is too much? Heavy Rain is not the most graphically accomplished game but perhaps that’s a good thing; if it was too realistic then it might be difficult to play.

How did you chop?

There are a number problems that could arise if games become too realistic. Arguments around violence in games could gain momentum (perhaps rightly so) and gamers might be alienated from newer systems because games hit too close to home. Can you imaging playing a Call of Duty where your character looks real and you have to kill AI that looks real? I think that such a game would be unsaleable. But does that mean that at some point the games industry will reach a plateau where no technical advancements are made? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that the industry will have to evolve, changing the type of games it makes and the type of style it uses in visuals. No one plays games purely for their realism; in 1980 Pac-Man was the height of gaming and it is still played and loved today. Games should first and foremost be enjoyable experiences and let’s hope that as they become more sophisticated they don’t lose sight of that.

The plumber must die!

Of late, Nintendo have become an entirely predictable and frankly lazy company. Like a home owner standing over their failed DIY as water spews mercilessly into the kitchen, I blame the plumber. It’s true that not all of it is Mario’s fault, Link and Pikachu, among others, could also be held accountable, but as Nintendo’s poster boy, Mario should really know better.

They’re all the same!

In the late ’90s I had a Playstation and after that a Playstation 2 so it was with wonder and excitement that I purchased a Wii having heard tales of the joys offered by the N64 and the Gamecube. But I was to be disappointed. While I enjoyed Twilight Princess and had fun with Mario Galaxy, the console never seemed to progress and in the end I gave up waiting for something special and went crawling back to Sony. I feel like I have missed out on Nintendo’s prime years but Nintendo seem to be doing little to change their current form. Go to the Nintendo category on any games website and I guarantee that the new instalment of an established franchise will be under discussion. People will be commenting on how exciting it is, how new innovations are being used and how the systems are being pushed to their limits, all the while ignoring (or perhaps embracing) the fact that nothing has really changed. So while Sony can discuss new exclusives and franchises, Nintendo relies on the old guard, a small group of franchises that it knows will make money. And we reward them for this behaviour. Every year we flock to the shops to see what the little Italian has been up to now, so every year Nintendo see no reason to branch out into something new; it’s a viscous cycle.

At this point I realise that perhaps I’m being a bit of a hypocrite. Sequels, prequels and remakes are a staple of gaming across all platforms and, unlike films, game sequels often improve on their predecessors. I buy, enjoy and get excited about such games, from Civilization to Hitman. So maybe I’m being harsh on Nintendo. The difference, however,  is that no other platforms rely entirely on such franchises for their success; Sony and Microsoft have franchises but they could survive without them and they continue to welcome new ones.

Getting rid of Mario and chums is probably not the answer; after all, they make money and we still love them. A focus shift is what needs to happen. Nintendo have decided to avoid competing with other platforms in terms of graphics and online content by offering what they see as fun and innovative gaming; that’s all well and good but these things have to be used to better effect. By making a bigger deal about new games and third party creations Nintendo will attract more current gamers to their platform and they can continue to sweeten the deal with old franchises. Adopt this strategy Nintendo and maybe, just maybe I’ll take Mario off the dart board and consider your next console (probably the one after the Wii U).

Point and click: A love story

I know where I have to go, just down the ladder, but there’s a goat in the way and it’s mean. I surely have to find a distraction but I have scoured, and I mean scoured, the available locations and nothing have I found. I’ll check the online walkthrough, NO, be strong, you can do this. The bar, I only gave that a cursory scour, I’ll check there again. A towel; the game has let me pick up a towel; and I can use the towel to whip the goat, of course!

Point and click adventures make you stupid through desperation. They make you think that a toilet brush and a bouncy ball will go together to make something useful, they make you think that talking to the man a fifth time will make all the difference and they make you think that a towel can distract a goat. They are difficult, they are infuriating and I love them.

My love began with Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars, a game that I believe to be underrated. It is beautiful, it is well written and above all it completely engrossed me from start to finish. To this day it is one of the few games I have completed multiple times, not because the second or third play through was any different but just to experience the story again.

People, people! How do I beat the goat?

Nowadays games have moved on from the 2D majesty of Broken Swords 1 and 2 but something that still draws me to a game is a good storyline.

Heavy Rain is a fantastic game with some true innovation and an interesting and often complex story. If there is one criticism of the game, however, it’s that it trades gameplay for storytelling. Quick-time events are used a fair bit and often it feels like you’re reading one of those books with decision points, prompting you to “turn to page 39 to enter the cave”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and Heavy Rain still stands as one of the finest games ever made (a list that Broken Sword should be on), but it highlights that games seem to have a choice between story and gameplay, a choice that is likely to see story lose out. Games can be hugely successful with rubbish, little or no story as long as they are fun to play, this will always be true. On the other hand, a cracking storyline doth not a good game make; so if a choice has to be made, story will fall to gameplay. But maybe it’s time to buck this trend.

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is a modern point and click adventure and it’s success suggests that gamers are becoming more interested in story. You control the character of Lee as he tries to survive and protect his companions thorough the zombie apocalypse. Choice making and conversation dominate the gameplay and good scripting and voice acting play out the plot based on the popular comics. Suffice to say I think it’s excellent, a well made immersing experience; but in my play through of the first episode I never did anything stupid. This may be a modern point and click, but it’s not a modern Broken Sword. Like so many other game types it seems that the challenge has been lost, to a degree, in this generation. Good games with good story lines are, however, being made and this is wonderful. Telltale games and Quantic Dream are at the forefront of this and I’m very excited to see what they do next.

Today the best games often get by on good gameplay and good writing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I hope that story can start to become a bigger part of gaming and who knows, maybe soon I will once again be trying to move ill-tempered animals with hand drying equipment.

Art imitating better art

I think there’s a problem with handheld gaming. It has an issue with identity. It seems to me that the systems are terrified we’ll find out that they can’t do what consoles can. I have a 3DS and, bar the current lack of games, I think it’s pretty cool. 3D without glasses, pretty awesome eh? People say it’s gimmicky and they’re right; but this system isn’t for spending hours with at home, it’s for dipping into on trains and in waiting rooms, so gimmicks are good. The problem is that the games try too hard to give you a console experience that the system simply cannot deliver.

One of the best games on the 3DS at the moment is Resident Evil Revelations and it is, indeed, a good game. I won’t be buying it though. I won’t be buying it because I have Resident Evil 5 on PS3 and for me the 3DS game just looks and plays worse than that. Perhaps I shouldn’t be comparing the 3DS to the PS3 but when you make a game that is similar to others on consoles you provoke such comparisons, and the 3DS is never going to measure up. It needs to play to its strengths in order to compete with the encroaching mobile gaming market.

It looks good, but not good enough

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is another game that was a console staple and has been placed on handheld systems. The difference is that the developers didn’t try to replicate the console experience, they created a completely different style of game that works with the system, rather than forcing a diluted copy of other GTAs. The result is a game that is unique, good and seldom compared to its console counterparts. This is what handheld systems should be aiming for; rather than games that make apologies for the limitations of the system, games that utilise the system’s strengths. And the 3DS has plenty of strengths, not least of all its 3D (without glasses!). Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is the first game I got for my 3DS and beyond the abysmal story line there is a good game. This is a mission based game that lends itself well to the dipping-in mode of play and the 3D is used to provide nice environments and effects. I’m not compelled to play for hours on end but for part of a bus journey it holds my attention and entertains. That is what I need from my 3DS, fun in moderation.

What the mobile gaming industry knows is its capabilities and its target market, this is what handheld gaming has to grasp. Embrace the ability of your system with innovative use of the tools available and recognise that the system is designed for short bursts of gaming not sustained periods of immersion like with consoles. In order to beat the mobile gaming market, handhelds must learn from it.

Bringing down the local

I’m playing Max Payne 3 with my friend and it’s not going well. I am once again on my face as he shoots me in the back. I curse him loudly as this is the fourth time in a row that he’s killed me without reply and it’s beginning to get embarrassing. I’m furious and I know he’s laughing at me; but like the last time and the time before that, I respawn and go after revenge with greater vigour than ever. It’s this competition that makes playing games with others so compelling, as it has done for centuries. The difference here is that my friend is hundreds of miles away. Take a second to think about that. In the digital age, my friend can press a button and 200 miles away I get pissed off. It’s amazing; and if I didn’t have my friend to play with it wouldn’t matter because I can play with anyone, from anywhere. This is online mutiplayer and it is a big deal in gaming.

Take Battlefield 3 for example. This is a game that has received widespread critical acclaim, IGN.com gave it 9/10 but right at the start of their review they say the game:

 “…stumbles over a generic single-player campaign…”

So how can they justify giving such a high score? The answer is, of course, its multiplayer. While the ability of a game to stand on its multiplayer is not necessarily a new phenomenon (Mario Kart has always been about playing with friends), Battlefield 3 is among numerous others that only come with online multiplayer. So, while my friend is able show how inadequate I am from 200 miles away, if he was sat in my living room, we couldn’t play. Surely there’s something wrong with this? While I must admit that I’m enjoying Max Payne 3’s multiplayer, online play isn’t really my thing. I don’t like the feeling of embarrassment that comes with my name at the bottom of a scoreboard that strangers can see, I don’t like the 12 year-olds who swear at me, I don’t like the lack of laughter and I don’t like the realisation that the beer and snacks I bought were just for me, even if I am playing with friends. I know I’m in a minority with this opinion but why should I only be given access to half of the game? Gaming used to be an experience shared with friends, but now it’s difficult to feel like you’re sharing. Now that we can play with anyone online, does it really matter who we play with? If someone hacks into my friend’s account and plays Max Payne with me, will it make a difference? I doubt it, and I find that quite sad.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a part of the online gaming community and I’m ok with that. I’m happy for that community to exist without me but I still want to play games with my friends. I want to invite them round and make a little party of it. Online gaming will continue to grow but I hope that my children will still be able to know the joy of playing with people, real people who are really there really playing with them. Games are for sharing so let’s not bring down local multiplayer, because it brings us together.