Thursday, May 24, 2012

Moderation – the key to healthy video gaming?

When Ramon Rivera brought his six-year-old son Christian to a Newburgh GameStop store earlier this month, he said he was concerned that the boy might be exposed to violence while playing video games.
“And then he’ll probably start acting the same way that they’re acting [in the game],” he said.
Christian left with a copy of NBA Live 2K10, a basketball game, but the boy had gone into the store with a much different outcome in mind.
“What was the name of that game you asked for?” Rivera asked his son. “You told the guy that you wanted it and he said it was no good for you; it had a lot of violence in it.”
Grand Theft Auto,” Christian replied.
Rivera said, “He [the GameStop employee] told me it has a lot of bad stuff going on in there.”

Grand Theft Auto III, 2001

Rivera shares a concern held by many parents: Are violent video games, as Rivera suggests, a factor in children committing real life violence?
 “There’s a lot of research on the subject,” said Dr. Paul Schwartz, a professor of Psychology at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. “Certainly violent video game viewing is not beneficial to the health and development of kids.
 “But what it comes down to is … there’s always been a boogieman for kids and adolescents. It used to be rock n’ roll, then it was television, then it was computers, [now] it’s violent video games.”
Schwartz says that just like any hobby, gaming can be a normal part of an adolescent’s life. Imagine a 14-year-old boy who plays on the school’s soccer team, is a member of the school band, and also plays video games both alone and with his friends for about an hour each day.
“There’s no evidence that that, in any way, would be a trigger for him to act in a violent manner,” said Schwartz. “There is no specific research that says, ‘Here’s [an adolescent]. He plays Grand Theft Auto; now he’s going to look to buy a black market 9mm gun and go out and shoot Newburgh police.’”
However, that doesn’t mean that parents should allow children equal access to kid-friendly titles like Super Mario Galaxy and bloody shooting games like the Call of Duty series.
“We’re very, very complex. And people don’t like complexity and certainly psychologists don’t like complexity. So we look to find some causative factors,” said Schwartz. “But just because there’s some level of correlation doesn’t mean that one causes the other. There may be a correlation between kids who play violent video games and their being violent, but the question remains: Are the video games the cause of the violence? Or the fact is that these kids are violent, and that’s why they play violent video games?
“These are all unanswered questions.”
Schwartz said that violence in movies, games and television programs is prevalent in today’s society. It’s impossible to know which children might find such violence to be a cathartic experience and which children might act more violently as a direct result of consuming such media.
Like the GameStop employee who said that Grand Theft Auto games aren’t appropriate for young children like Christian Rivera, Schwartz agreed that adolescents should be exposed to age-appropriate material. Fortunately for parents, there’s a video game rating system that mirrors the one used for films. On the front of every game dating back to approximately 1995, in the bottom left corner, is a rating: “E” for Everyone, “E10+” for Everyone 10 and Up, “T” for Teen, “M” for Mature, meaning for players 17 or older, or “AO” for adults only. On the back of the game is a list of specific content that a parent might find objectionable, from “comic mischief” to “intense violence.”
For those wondering, Grand Theft Auto titles have consistently earned a “Mature” rating since the original offering in 1997.
Rivera said he’s worried about his young son’s mind, but what about his body? What about the physical effects of gaming?
Daniel Valentin, a 26-year-old secondary education teacher at Albertus Magnus High School in Bardonia, N.Y. has been a gamer since the age of four or five. He says he routinely experiences pain in his hands, wrists and thumbs.
Gaming pains are the worst. Monkey Ball on the 3DS busted my thumb and 50 hours of Soul Calibur has officially given me joint pain in my wrists and the base of my fingers,” he said. “Very few understand the plight of the gamer.”
This reporter suffered similar, recurring injuries after approximately 240 hours and 1,700 online bouts of Street Fighter IV and its successor, Super Street Fighter IV.
Though not everyone experiences repetitive motion injuries from gaming, there’s a simple way for parents to help prevent them from happening: Set a reasonable limit on your child’s play time. It’s also a good way to help your child develop in a balanced manner, said Schwartz.
“Video games can be a hobby. Video games can be an outlet. Video games can be a very positive social interaction. Why is gaming any more negative than stamp collecting; people spending three or four hours a day with stamps or coins?” he said. “The downside of gaming would be the downside of any extensive amount of time in front of a screen.
“If you spend five hours a day in front of your computer screen… than that’s negative because it limits your time face to face with friends, your other interaction time, and it keeps you for five hours in front of a computer screen – and we know about childhood and adolescent obesity.
“It’s like anything else: It can be very positive if done in moderation and there are other outlets.”
However, there’s one segment of the population, said Schwartz, who might benefit from many hours of gaming.
“Video games would be great for somebody who is old and retired,” he said, “because they can sit for five hours a day in front of a video screen and then go out and take a walk for an hour because that’s all they need [as mature adults]. But developing adolescents need more,” especially face to face social interaction and old fashioned family time.
While Christian looked over his new basketball software in the GameStop parking lot, Rivera said he wished he knew more about gaming so that he could make more informed choices for his son.
There’s a simple strategy parents can follow to do just that: Sit down and play video games with your children. One can learn a lot from the type of games a child prefers and the way he or she plays them. If nothing else, your child will enjoy some quality social interaction and family time – and it doesn’t take a psychologist to understand the benefits of that.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Journey to the Cave of Monsters

A dense fog covers the lonely back road. A young man descends from the darkness and enters the dimly lit Irish pub before him. He orders a drink – a double bloody strumpet with a twist of lime – almost mechanically.

She approaches him slowly; seductively. Her curly, white-blond hair bouncing with every step. She discretely removes the man sitting next to her target, dispatching him with a well placed blow to the head with a catfish. She sits down.

“I see you like Nintendo,” she mutters flirtatiously, pointing at the man’s Super Mario Bros. T-shirt.

“Yeah, I’ve had this shirt since I was nine,” he replies, smiling.

“I figured as much; it’s about 17 sizes too small. But I still like it. Seeing your nipples peering out and your bellybutton is a major turn on,” the she replies. “What do you say we go back to my place and play some Bubble Bobble?"

She winks at him seductively.

“Okay, babe,” the manly man returns. “As long as we don’t stay up past my bed time. Mommy gets angry and spanks me when I do that.”

“Whatever you want, Super Mario,” she replies sexually. “May I call you that?”

“Why would you call me ‘That?’ My name is…”

“Never mind. Just know that I’m going to call you Super Mario from now on,” says the woman.

They begin to stand up, and she adds, “You know, you really should stop smoking,” waving the carbon monoxide away from her face.

“I don’t,” Super Mario admits. “It’s the bartender. He’s on fire.”

“Oh, right,” the vixen replies. They leave quietly.

A few moments later, they find themselves in a dark, dripping alley. Super Mario is confused.

“I thought you said we were going to play some Bubble Bobble…!”

“Oh, we certainly are,” she laughs, moving away from him.

I step out from behind a strategically placed garbage can that’s somehow large enough to conceal me. I am tapping my fist in my hand. “You owe us money, Bubba. A lot of it. Where’s my money?”

“What…?!” Super Mario/Bubba exclaims. I can smell the fear he radiates as he realizes who is standing in front of him. “No! It’s you! I… Uh, well… Gimmie a few more days, won’t you? I swear I’ll…”

“I’m tired of waiting, Bubba,” I say. “I’d like you to meet some of my friends.”

A large man with long blonde hair reveals himself. He is wearing a cheaply made cardboard dragon suit, spray-painted blue. Another man emerges from the inside of the garbage can I was hiding behind; this one with a dark beard and an identical cardboard suit, only green.

“This is Bub,” I say, pointing to the bearded man in green. “And this is Bob,” I continue, pointing at the man in blue.

“No they’re not; That’s Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan!” Bubba exclaims, fear building in his voice.

“Where’s my money, Bubba?” I ask again, my voice calm and unfaltering.

Art thou bored?
“I… I don’t have it!” Bubba yells frantically, looking for a way out. But there is none. We stand, staring at each other, in a dead end.

“Well then, Bubba, now it is the beginning of a fantastic story! Let us make a journey to the cave of monsters. Good luck, fatass!”

I let out a small chuckle.

The makeshift dragons close in on Bubba, cracking their knuckles, as a hick band materializes out of nowhere. “Come on, Bubba, let’s play some Bubble Bobble! Yee - haw!” bellows the lead hick.

The cheery Bubble Bobble theme fills the dense air as the double dragons pound a flailing Bubba. The girl and I walk away as Bubba screams something about being an organ donor.

As we travel the calm streets, the girl and I, I look at her and smile. I tell her that she means a lot to me.

“You’re the refrain of my life, kid. I just keep coming back to you.”

She looks at me with her soft blue eyes, smiles, and says, “That’s because I’m the only person left who will tie your shoes for you anymore.”

“Right,” I reply, as we continue through the fog.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Not Responsible for Missing (Intellectual) Property

My gaming diet consists mostly of sequels and remakes of titles that I discovered back when elementary school seemed tough and my biggest fear was that my baseball cap would fly off my head as I whizzed around the neighborhood on a secondhand Huffy. Over the last decade or so, I’ve felt a void left by a lack of new and noteworthy intellectual properties.

It’s a void that grows larger as my old obsessions get less substantial with every new iteration, slowly fading from my favor. On Tuesday, Final Fantasy XIII-2 hit the shelves here in America, but I was more excited that morning when I got Final Fantasy II (US) working on an SNES emulator for PlayStation 2.

Serah, the main character of Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Ten out of 29: That’s the number of PS3 games I have that are entirely new intellectual properties. Gaming is getting stale and there’s nothing but a bunch of cookie cutter clones to replace those fallen titans of the past.

It hardly seems possible that Street Fighter II was ever new and that the likes of Chun-Li, Blanka and Guile haven’t existed since the beginning of gaming itself. But there was a time when Capcom’s cash cow was vibrant and fresh; I think they called it “1991.” The House that Megaman built took a chance on a genre that had, up to that point, been mostly gaming trash. The company’s gambit paid off and SFII paved the way for big boys like Mortal Kombat, King of Fighters and even 3D brawlers like Tekken and Soul Calibur.

Thankfully, the only polar bear you'll see in SFII is from Russia.

But consider this: If Street Fighter II had been as much fun as a polar bear with dysentery, players still had a diverse sable of games to give them their next challenge. The Adventures of Willy Beamish, Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, Fatal Fury, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Immortal, Princess Salad in the Tomato Kingdom, the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Toejam & Earl, Street of Rage and even Final Fantasy II (US)  – they all came out the same year as SFII and they were all unique games.

By contrast, when I walk into Best Buy or GameStop today, I have a choice of a yet another first person shooter, a Grand Theft Auto wannabe or some arm-flailing shovelware for the Wii. Of course I’m going to buy a sequel to something I loved as a kid because there’s not much else to play. New IPs are becoming harder and harder to come by.

In the days when Nintendo’s grey toaster ruled the gaming world and during the 16-bit console wars era that followed, companies were willing to chance failure in the seemingly endless quest for the Next Big Thing. There were hundreds of platformers trying to steal Mario’s success to be sure, but there was also new, innovative stuff like Snake, Rattle and Roll, Ecco the Dolphin and Panic! But with the multimillion dollar budgets games have in the current era, failure isn’t exactly something companies can just shrug off anymore. Indie games on PSN and Xbox Live sometimes bring back a bit of that ground-breaking magic, but they lack the “wow” factor of professional, disc-based releases. Unless you’re playing something like Braid, these games are little more than a pleasant distraction.

At work last Tuesday, my friend Chris wandered over to my desk and we were talking about how video games have changed. I pointed out how it’s expensive to take a chance on a new intellectual property nowadays.

“But if you can change only a few things and make a new game, it makes sense from a business standpoint. So why not?” he asked.

That sentiment echoes the business practices of the Atari era – the same practices that contributed to the gaming crash of 1983. I fear that if gaming companies keep going down this path, we’re going to wind up with another gaming blackout.

It’s already begun in my world, were I’ve been daydreaming not of the PlayStation Vita or Final Fantasy XIII-2, but of finding the time to play though my favorite Super Nintendo classics while games like Infamous 2, Mortal Kombat 9 and the Wii version of Punch-Out!! sit unopened and unplayed on my shelf.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Feelin' Down Over DLC

The infamous Mr. Karate
Think back to a time before Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were the heavy hitters of the home video game console industry, while the once-mighty Nintendo amuses fewer and fewer fans with its parlor tricks. Now go back even further, past the PS2 era and the original Xbox Live. If someone had told you then that you could download extra features for your existing games for a few dollars, you’d probably have been pretty psyched; I would have been too.

Now hop on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. We’ve all become used to how downloadable content (DLC)  is bundled and sold, but try to look at it from the point of view of your old self. You check on Street Fighter IV content and instead of new characters and stages, you see that it’s $3.99 for four or five ho-hum alternate outfits. Then you find out that characters for Marvel vs. Capcom 3 were made and put on the disc, but cost $4.99 each to play.

I bet your old self is pretty disappointed right about now.

Earlier this week, a character called Mr. Karate was released for King of Fighters XIII for $4.99. He’s a minor variation of a normal, you-got-him-already-when-you-bought-the-game character. Mr. Karate is also a 6 kilobyte download, which mean’s he’s already on the disc but is being held for ransom by SNK-Playmore. It’s not content that was made at a later date, which one could consider a true add-on; it’s content that was made from the get-go with the intention of chagrining you for it later.

If Mr. Karate were $1 or $2, I’d have been excited and picked him up. But even from the perspective of this longtime King of Fighters fan, Mr. Karate is not worth $4.99.

Businesses are out to make money and no one is forced to purchase DLC. Capcom, SNK-Playmore and every other gaming company has the right do what they want with their intellectual properties. But if they don’t start using DLC in more creative, interesting ways – or at least start pricing things more reasonably – fewer and fewer players are going to purchase it.

The best DLC is what you probably would have come up with when you were younger: New levels or another campaign to kill an afternoon with, like Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare add-on; not a freaking hat for Ryu that costs more than a bottle of cheap wine.

Like I said before, companies are out to make money. Speak with your wallet and eventually they’ll eventually get the picture. Example: I purchased all of the alternate costumes for the Street Fighter IV series. It was a waste of money to be sure, but as a Street Fighter fanatic, it’s what I wanted.

Later on, there were a whole slew of new costumes for another $3.99 a pop – this time requiring a large download, meaning that the content was truly new. So what would have happened if guys like me hadn’t dropped the dough for the first set of new duds?

From now on, unless they’re substantial or at least reasonably priced, no more add-ons for me.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Because Joe Said So #2: Android Assault: Revenge of the Bari-Arm

A.D. 2192 – The independent military nation Zias, established on Saturn presumably so no one finds out about its silly name, builds an army of titanium-reinforced killing machines and outfits them all with the “living-fighting computer geo system,” which is apparently much more sinister than having Neo-Geo systems in the cockpits like I had hoped. The Zias fleet begins attacking the United Nations, which for whatever reason is stationed on Jupiter – probably because they needed the space for a Target parking lot no one on Earth knew it was missing anyway. Somehow, the mighty United Nations’ usual stall tactics and easily ignored edicts had no effect on the laser-breathing, flesh-searing deathbot armada. The U.N.’s only option was to equip their final (read: only) space ship with their own Neo-Geo, pat it on its shiny metal hiney, and send it off to take on the entire red-eyed, child-gnashing horde by itself.

“Problem solved!” exclaimed the U.N. and they went back to endlessly negotiating Earth’s world peace.

On Jupiter.

That’s the ever-so-slightly paraphrased story of the space shooter classic, Android Assault: Revenge of the Bari-Arm for much maligned Sega CD. I’ve always thought that sending one ship to destroy thousands of snarling mechinoids is a terrible idea, yet somehow that’s the only thing that video game protagonists can think to do in times of crisis. From a real-life point of view, if one side of a conflict has a convoy of motorized horrors ready to pry open the other side’s rocket jalopy like a dented can of Cambell’s soup and suck the pilot’s soul though their platinum groinal hoses, the smart money is on the other team.

Though I respect their historical significance and contributions to the industry, I never really liked shoot-‘em-ups – or as some heathens call them, “shmups,” which sounds too much like “schmucks” to be a viable name for anything but the U.N.  But Android Assault is different. This shoot-‘em-up has something special that resonates with me to this day; something that makes it one of the few Sega CDs that’s really worth owning.

That something is the soundtrack.

No doubt that the interstellar jams surround the Bari-Arm like a sonorous cocoon and protect it from harm on its suicide mission; given the futility of the ship’s mission, it’s the only realistic explanation for things like “scoring” and “Stage 2.” Many a time have I rocked out to the soundtrack’s robo-righteousness while whizzing around in my 2006 Hyundai Bari-Sonata. In fact, I’ve spent more time listing to Android Assault than actually playing it. It’s taking a spin in my CD-ROM drive right now and I feel like my computer is nearly indestructible as a result.

But there’s a game on this awesome electro-rock album too and despite my position on shoot-‘em-ups, it’s pretty good. Though the graphics are sprite-based, they’re vivid, colorful, and a step above what could have been pulled off on a normal Sega Genesis. From almost serene, rural landscapes (minus the desperate space struggle occurring in the foreground of course) to futuristic factories and cities, Android Assault is a tour de force through a dystopian wasteland spotted with the odd oasis that resists the bloodshed surrounding it. In other words, it’s just as one would imagine a world run by the United Nations.

On Jupiter.

Vertical and horizontal flying sections – which at the time were not often in the same game – are populated with the expected assortment of upgrades like murderous missiles, lasers of atomic death and that one weapon no one knows how to use properly, so everyone goes for the heat-seekers instead.

I never made it past stage four or five of this seven-stage game and I don’t ever intend to. But that’s not necessarily a negative reflection on Android Assault: The thought of jumping into the cockpit of the Bari-Arm, grabbing that Neo-Geo joystick and blasting away until the soundtrack can no longer deflect the fiery death raining down upon me is still appealing, even though I’ve owned the game since Clinton’s second term. Some games become a chore to play after awhile, but Android Assault is not one of them. Though I’ll never ride the Bari-Arm to victory for the United Nations

on Jupiter,

I’ll always be willing to give it a shot. For the Sega CD, a system with so little to get excited about, that’s a great accomplishment.

To be fair, I consider another shoot-‘em- up, U.N. Squadron for the Super Nintendo, to be a better game overall. But U.N. Squadron doesn’t have alliteration in the title, it’s named after the same asshats who think Jupiter is a great place to talk about Earth’s problems, and still I can’t figure out how to ram the SNES cart into my car’s CD player. Therefore, Android Assault: Revenge of the Bari-Arm gets my vote as best soundtrack shoot-‘em-up of all time.