Sunday, March 29, 2015

What Is The Game Effect?

Image from Wikipedia. A cool game in 2000.
What do video games “mean?”

As a media industry, video games are huge. According to the text my media class is using—“Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture” 8th edition by Stanley Baran—more than 200 million Americans are video game players.

I suppose I’m one of the 200 million, but in a minimal way. When bored, I may play solitaire on the computer, now and then. I have never been in an online, multiplayer game, nor have I played any of the vivid, violent video games that have caused so much controversy.

My own gaming roots are pretty modest. I do recall being a bit curious about pinball and other arcade games as a tween and teen, but I never got into that scene much. A quarter was too precious to spend that way, back in the day. I did enjoy a few games of pinball, and do recall how cool the original “pong” seemed when it appeared way back in the day—but again, I didn’t play it much.

Partly, it was the price, but partly it was skill, or a lack of it. Some kids joined the band because they were good at music. Some kids hung out at the arcade because they had the eye-wrist coordination to win free games on a fairly regular basis. Me, I stayed at home, watched reruns of Stat Trek and read short novels.

From screen.
In the 1980s, when I was a small town newspaper reporter in Boonville, Missouri, the young men on the Daily News staff used to sometimes take longer lunches than they should have so that they could hang out at a local dive diner that had a video game machine. It was called “Zaxxon,” and was briefly all the rage. Again, while I confess I wasted a few precious mid-day hours there, playing that game was never one of my main pastimes.

My own minor game flings came later, after the age of the personal computer when you could play without having to spend quarters at an arcade or diner for the pleasure.

There were two games that were briefly popular for me in the PC era. The first came when one of my wife’s sisters gave us an old Mac SE computer that she didn’t want anymore. It had a game called “Crystal Quest” on it, and both my wife and I were hooked for a while. It was black and white, the sounds were strange and silly, and the goal never made much sense—but the game was oddly entrancing.

From, "Crystal Quest." Ahhhhh.
 Later, early in the current century, there was a brief fling with an action-adventure PC game called “Crimson Skies.”

That, and Flight Simulator, were fun. But Crimson Skies came to an end—there wasn’t much point once you were done with the final mission.

I can’t say that video games were very for me in my formative years. I guess I’m part of the pre-VG generation. I know that there is cultural anxiety about video games—and there is probably reason for concern, given the violent and sexist nature of a lot of game content. But, besides a lack of first-person experience, I think one reason it’s hard for me to generalize about the huge video game industry is that it’s such a diverse medium. From faux bowling with a Wii to on-line quests in Worlds of Warcraft, gaming itself seems like an amorphous concept.

So I’ll be looking for some insight from my students, who are more likely to be children of the video game era. What does gaming mean? Is it a harmless diversion? Does it threaten morals and social skills? When games get good enough and real enough, will we disappear into them and leave this nasty, brutish world behind? Does gaming rob us of skills we’ll need when the zombie apocalypse hits, or are we quietly building technical skills that will make us all computer ninjas?

What do you think?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What Movies (I Have Not Seen) Do You Recommend?

We played a bit of a movie game in my media class today.

We are talking this week about what films do culturally, and today we were reviewing movie genres. As part of our discussion, I asked the class to each name a movie that he or she had seen, but think most of the people in the class have not seen. It had to be a movie that the student recommends, and then the student briefly discussed it.

It was interesting, partly because the descriptions were almost all character driven—that is, the way we described a movie was basically what happened form the point of view of one or two main characters.

The movies that the class named included:

  • Kramer vs. Kramer (actually, that was my example).
  • Stuck in Love.
  • Hotel Rwanda.
  • American History X.
  • Full Metal Jacket.
  • Snatch.
  • Inglourious Basterds.
  • Prisoners.
  • Seven.
  • Crash.

I can’t vouch for all of them, I’ve only seen about a third of them, but I thought it was an interesting list.

I also suggested four more movies that I thought are worth watching, and that I assumed most students had not seen:

My Cousin Vinny. Two New York college students are charged with murder in Alabama, and Joe Pesci plays the lawyer in the family who comes to their rescue. While Pesci is the main star, his co-star Marisa Tomei steals the show. It’s not a great movie, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition of cultures and courtroom drama. Night Court meets The Dukes of Hazard.

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Pieces of April. Several students had seen “My Cousin Vinny,” but none had heard of this movie, in which April, who has run away to New York City as a young adult, invites her family to her first attempt to cook Thanksgiving Dinner. It’s a genuine movie about people who seem “real.” I think Katie Holmes is great as April Burns.

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I also suggested a pair of British comedies. We probably covered too many American movies anyway, and British comedies often seem to aim at more dialogue and character driving humor than their sometimes juvenile American counterparts. Anyway, the two British movies I described in class were:

The World’s End. Directed by Edgar Wright and written by him and the film’s star, Simon Pegg. A mix of apocalyptic science fiction and buddy drinking movie, it is the third of the “Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy,” which includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

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Keeping Mum. Maggie Smith is a murderous housekeeper, secret mother, who solves all of a families problems through blunt force trauma. It’s not a perfect movie, and it is rather dark, but it’s also wickedly funny.

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Those four are not intended to be, by any means, my best loved or favorite movies—the premise was movies that are obscure enough that others may not have seen them.

What movies would you recommend that most people reading this will not have seen? Name the movie, briefly explain it, and maybe link to a trailer in your comment.