Video Games Don’t Kill People, Guns Do!

Since the tragedy in Connecticut, a lot of people are crying that we should do something, and I think we should do something too.  But since reports have come out that the person responsible for this tragedy enjoyed playing hours of Call of Duty in his basement, they are blaming video game culture for this.  That would be a mistake.  Study after study has shown that society has grown less violent since video games have grown in popularity.

I would point to Japan and South Korea, two countries that play a lot more video games than we do in America.  They also have strict gun laws in both countries, and significantly lower levels of violent crime than America too.

Another reason to not blame video games: The blame video game talk is coming from the NRA, or from its supporters.  Why?  Gun manufacturers, who the NRA represents, blame video games for declining sales of guns.  Just like mp3s are killing record stores, Kindle is killing bookstores, Netflix is killing video stores, free amateur porn is killing the porn industry, apparently video games are killing the gun industry.

The first four kind of make me sad. The last just makes me happy.

This week NRA President Wayne LaPierre gave a speech about their take on the Connecticut shooting.  The most obvious take on the speech is that they blame everybody but guns and gun culture on this tragedy.  They want armed guards at all schools in America, even though there were armed guards at Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and Fort Hood, and yet mass shootings happened there.  Guns in the schools is not the answer.

I will tell you my take on this: The NRA is promoting fear and hatred, as are most pro NRA politicians, and pro gun commentators in the media.  Why? Because fear and hatred leads to more gun sales.

The thing is, I was raised in Arizona, in a pro gun society.  Most gun owners are not fear and hatred types, they enjoy shooting, target practice, and legally approved hunting.  Most are very responsible, keeping guns locked in safes.  Some are not, and they are the problem.  I want to see a license and registration system set up to separate the responsible ones from the non responsible ones.  Many responsible gun owners would appreciate such a system in place, too.  The gun lobby, and its media spokespeople would not, because it would cut into new gun sales.  Fear and hatred increases sales, that is why they promote it.

Video games have reduced the interest in shooting, and target practice and hunting as recreational activities.  The people still interested already have the guns they need.  Hence the real reason the gun lobbyists hate video games.

An Introduction to Guild Wars 2

This weekend is the head start for Guild Wars 2, the official launch is Aug 28th.  I have been involved with beta and thought I’d throw out some advice to those looking to join the game.  Let me just say that Guild Wars 2 is an MMORPG, a type of online game that has been dominated by World of Warcraft for 8 years.  Based on what I have seen, GW2 is very good candidate to unseat the current champion.  WoW became popular  by redesigning the MMORPG for a wider audience. Since then every MMORPG has mirrored the WoW model.  Guild Wars 2 is a completely different design for hopefully an even wider audience.

For those familiar with MMORPGs, GW2 represents a new redefinition. Outleveling content is gone, kill stealing is gone, forced team missions is gone, running back and forth to NPCs for missions is gone, wasting time trying to recruit a healing specialist for your team is gone, annoyingly expensive and time consuming crafting is gone, grinding is… ok some of the heart missions get a little grindy, but it is not a constant grind.  Basically, everything you found annoying about MMORPGs of the past is gone, and replaced by some really cool fun stuff to do instead.  That is why I think GW2 is the first of the genre to unseat WoW.  Oh and I failed to mention, monthly subscription fees is gone!  GW2 is the first free to play MMORPG designed from the ground up to be free to play.  So hopefully I got your attention, Lets play!

What’s an MMO?

For those not familiar with MMORPGs,  an MMO is a Massively Multiplayer Online game. A lot of this blog is devoted to Second Life, which is an MMO, but not an RPG.  As you play the vast majority of the characters, correction “friendly” characters, are other players from around the world.

What’s an RPG?

A role playing game is where you invent a character to play within a (usually) fantasy realm.  Dungeons and Dragons was considered the first. It was played with manuals, paper and dice.  Everything is on computer these days. Recent popular RPG video games include Dragon Age, Skyrim, and Diablo 3. 

Put the two together and you get an MMORPG. The most popular and famous is World of Warcraft, but there are hundreds of them out there. I have played Lineage 2, spent the better part of a year in City of Heroes, 7 years off and on in Guild Wars 1, Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online, DC Universe Online, and now by far the best is Guild Wars 2.

Creating a Character

If you are new to the whole MMORPG and want to check out Guild Wars 2 to see what everyone is talking about, here are a few basics.  First thing that you do is create a character.  There are 5 races to choose from.  Except for their looks and a few minor skills, there is little difference between them play wise.  Each race has a different starting zone and major city to explore, though all races can visit all cities.  Your character’s personal story will center around your races zones and city.  If its your first time ever in an RPG, you probably want to go with Human, but much of the fun is experimenting.

Next up you pick a profession.  If you are new to the whole MMORPG experience, I highly recommend starting out with either a Warrior or a Ranger.  Easy to learn, lots of weapon choices, very versatile.  As you play, you will find certain play styles might fit you better.  There are 6 other professions to choose based on your play style.

If you like running up to bad guys and smacking them around, then you probably will prefer melee classes.  Two professions specialize in melee, the Guardians, and the Thiefs.  If you like running up and putting the smackdown on the bad guys, you will like the Guardians.  If you prefer the sneaking up from behind and stabbing them in the back, you will like the Thief better.  Thiefs are a profession that requires lots of motion, jumping, evading, stealth.  If you grew up on Super Marios 3D type games, you will probably make a good thief.

If you prefer to stand back and do your damage from afar, there are two classes that specialize in that too: Engineers, and Elementalists.  Another thing these two have in common is lots and lots of skills to choose from.  No matter what you need to do, you probably have a skill to do it somewhere in your bag of tricks.  Elementalists are spellcaster types.  Each weapon has 20 skills, 5 fire, 5 water/ice, 5 air/lightning, 5 earth/stone.  Engineers are tech heads.  The hardest part of Engineer is that your bag of tricks come in the form of kits that you cannot get access to for quite a few levels, making the first 20 or so levels of the engineer profession a bit lame.  Don’t worry, you will get better.

That leaves Necromancer and Mesmer.  These two spellcasters rely on raising minions to dish out and take damage.  Their play styles are very different from the rest, so if you are looking for something very different than melee or range, well here you go.  Note that while I am saying that certain professions cater to certain kinds of play style, all professions are pretty flexible.  All can do range, all can do melee, all can cause conditions to happen, and remove conditions, all can do “Area of Effect” damage to multiple foes at the same time, and all can support and defend their fellow players.  All are capable of self heal.  There are no dedicated healers or tanks or damage dealers as every player is capable of all 3.

All 8 professions are available to all 5 races, so that’s 40 different types of characters to play, all of which come in male and female versions too.

The First Mission

In Guild Wars 1 (and most other RPGs I have played), after you create your character and watch an introductory video and find yourself in world, it is typically a good 5 to 10 minutes of tutorial stuff until you finally get to actually fight something.  In Guild Wars 2, after an introductory video, it is typically a good 10 seconds until you are attacked by something.  Basically, you learn by doing, so you are thrown to the wolves right out of the gate.  Each race has an opening conflict that ends in a giant boss fight.  You are given a weapon with one skill unlocked. Two more skills will unlock very quickly.  As you go through the opening mission, you will see what talking to an NPC looks like, what an event looks like, and what happens when you nearly die. It also shows you how to follow your personal storyline.

Here is the biggest difference between Guild Wars 2 and a typical MMORPG, I’ll pick on Lord of the Rings Online, but my problems with that game are common in many MMORPGs.  One of my biggest pet peeves is standing around waiting for a team to form for a group mission you need to progress in the story.   You are given a mission that requires a team of 4 to 6 players and it begins at point A. So you run to point A and start spamming the chat channel “LFT Dungeon Run” until someone finally answers back that they need the mission too, and then you wait some more for others until you got 4 players.  You start the mission, and it goes on for 20 minutes or so, and it goes OK until someone gets disconnected from the game, you don’t have enough players left to finish, and you end up right back at point A spamming the chat channel again.  This is why I quit Lord of the Rings Online among others.

In Guild Wars 2, a message appears on the screen that a nearby character needs help, for example a merchant is trying to get a load of goods to the next town and needs protection from the bad guys trying to rob him.  You jump in to help, but you are the only one.  Suddenly, bad guys attack! There’s about 3 of them, they are a challenge for you but you can handle it (or maybe not and the event fails).  Another player sees what is happening and joins the battle.  Suddenly you are a team fighting together, no spam needed.  The next attack on the caravan has 5 or 6  bad guys that the two of you have to take on.  Other players join in.  Suddenly there are about 10 players protecting this caravan.  The next attack of bad guys has 20 to 30 bad guys attacking.  There is no waiting around, events just happen, and events automatically scale depending how many people are participating in the event, meaning it will always be a fun challenge.

These events tend to “chain” where one event leads to another.  If you manage to get the caravan to the next town, then the town gets attacked.  All the players in the area now have to defend the town.  Once the town is saved you find out three townspeople were kidnapped back to the bad guys hideout, so now any players that want to can run to attack the enemy base to free hostages, which usually includes a big boss to fight.  This stuff is happening all the time everywhere around you, and always at a level of difficulty that is challenging and fun (unless you accidentally wander into an area designed for much higher leveled players).  You cannot “outlevel” any area.  If you go to a low level area your character will drop in strength to that low level.  With mods, traits, and skills you might have an advantage with the “downlevel” over players that really are at that level, but not enough advantage to make it super easy.  It does not work the other way though, you are not upleveled if you go to high level zones, so watch where you are going.  The exception to the “no upleveling” rule is WvWvW which I will explain below.

Cool Stuff to Do

If missions, story lines, and events are not enough for you, there is plenty of other stuff to occupy your time and get experience points doing it.  Besides fighting, you can explore the world and get experience as you discover new points of interest.  There is a large crafting component that is totally optional, but better weapons, armor, and other enhancements are obtainable if you do.  There are “renown heart” activities which often are odd jobs to do like watering plants, cleaning the yard, harvesting apples, etc.  Bad guys often show up while you do this stuff to make it harder. If you do enough, you get paid.

The primary activities are cooperative PvE (player vs environment) stuff that all the players help each other do.  Guild Wars 2 also has PvP (player vs player) activities too.  Early MMORPGs forced you to play against other players. The “hard core” RPGers love this stuff, but casual players find it annoying as hell.  This is why the first successful MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, allowed people to choose whether or not they would participate in “duels” with other players. The hard core players find this pretty lame, as they have a hard time finding people to duel with.

Guild Wars 2 has something for the hard core players called structured PvP, where you can form a group with 4 of your friends, or be randomly assigned into a group of 5, and you battle another group of 5. In structured PvP, everyone is given the same armor, the same scaled weapon damage, and the same skills to choose from (varying on your profession of course).  No one can have a huge advantage, unless they happen to be good players.

For us non hard core players, there is an intermediate PvP environment called World vs World vs World (WvW).  In this environment, you can join one of 4 “battlegrounds”.  These are huge zones, and contain a lot of the same stuff PvE zones have (creatures to fight, events to participate in, stuff to explore), but enemy players are also there.  Your team gets rewards by holding land and important places on these 4 battlegrounds, so the primary activity in these battlegrounds is take and hold land.  There are always big battles to participate in.  Three of the battlegrounds are “borderlands” which are low key zones with occasional battles.  The 4th is an “Eternal Battleground” where goals are really close to one another so the fighting is intense all the time.  You can choose which to participate.  Upon entering these zones, you are upleveled to level 80. Everyone has the armor, the health, and can do the damage of a level 80 player in these zones.  Unlike structured PvP, your player can get an advantage in WvW by getting better armor, weapons, traits, and unlocking skills in PvE.  None of this can make you super powerful, but every little bit of an edge can’t hurt.  WvW is the primary activity that is attracting gamers to Guild Wars 2, so it is definitely worth checking out even if (like me) you are not into PvP.

More Information

So I gave you a basic run down of the game which I hope got you interested.  For more basic information, check out the official online manual, which includes a nice intro video.  Another very good intro video is this one by a player named Geekasaurus, which covers a lot of the same stuff I mentioned but in video so you can see it in action.  His You Tube channel is filled with lots of helpful and well done videos on what there is to see and do in GW2. I highly recommend it.

As I write this, the game is just a few hours from the headstart weekend launch.  If I don’t post for a while, it is probably because I’m playing Guild Wars 2.

Book Review: “Ready Player One”

ready player1So far I have only done one book review on this blog.  I read more than that of course, I just stick to talking about books that echo the themes of this blog.  The novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline does just that.

Ready Player One is one of the latest young adult dystopian books, though not as sick and twisted as the highly overrated Hunger Games.  It is set in the 2040’s when gas is so scarce that everyone abandons the suburbs for the big cities, but the cities don’t have room.  Oklahoma City comes up with the idea to build high rise trailer parks.  The books protagonist 17 year old Wade lives in the laundry room of a double wide, occupied by his aunt, her latest boyfriend, and two other families.

But Wade spends most of his time hiding in an abandoned van in a junk yard which he powers with a bicycle powered generator.  He jacks into a 3D Virtual World called OASIS, which thanks to technology allowing thousands of players to play in an area lag free, OASIS has become the 3D internet.  Wade attends a virtual high school, getting a better education than he would in an overcrowded school he lives in.

You can probably understand why I like this book so much.  The world is very similar to Snow Crash in that there are two worlds, a dystopian stink hole called the real world, and a utopian paradise everyone prefers to live in.  Ready Player One has a distinct advantage over Snow Crash, however, 20 years of hindsight.  Many of the conceptual ideas of the “Metaverse” in Snow Crash seem rather dumb with today’s technology.  OASIS, on the other hand, seems plausible if you take today’s technology and project it forward three decades.

A major theme of the book is the difference between the online world and the real world.  Our avatar personification vs. who we really are; Living in a fantasy world vs. dealing with the real world.  I have delved deeper than the novel has on these topics, but the novel does a good job dealing with them.

The central plot involves the creator of OASIS, a game designer turned multibillionaire  who upon his death wills nearly the entirety of his estate, including control of OASIS to whoever can solve the hidden puzzle he left behind hidden somewhere in the OASIS world.

With such a huge prize everyone goes out looking for it, but the puzzle is so well hidden, that 5 years go by before anyone manages to discover the beginning of the puzzle (which has 6 parts, 3 keys and 3 gates).  The person who discovers it is Wade.

I have mentioned a couple of times how different the world will get once energy starts to get scarce, and how gaming will become a welcome escape from that reality.  Here is a book that echoes that theme in a very entertaining way.

There is another interesting part I have yet to mention.  It seems that the mad gaming designer grew up during the 1980’s, and is obsessed with the books, games, comics, music and movies of that decade.  Solving the central puzzle requires expert knowledge of this material, and the players dedicated to solving the puzzle have to become experts on the 1980’s pop culture.  Lots of this novel is filled with references to  the ’80s.  Being someone who grew up in the 80’s as well, I got all the references and knew all the songs referenced in the novel.

This unfortunately may be the biggest negative of the book, there is too much 80’s references which are likely to get lost on kids who grew up in later decades.  Since this is a “young adult” novel aimed at teen audiences, I’m not sure how well it will go over with the target audience.  But it did go over well with me.  Ernest Cline created an “official soundtrack” here if you want to hear many of the songs referenced in the novel.  You might also want to familiarize yourself with the movies WarGames, Ladyhawke, Blade Runner, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail if you don’t already know them (If you don’t then shame on you, they are classics).  There are major references to the games Pac Man, Tempest, Joust, Adventure, Black Tiger, Dungeons of Daggorath and Zork, too.

Since this book seems like it was written specifically for me, I ran through it in a few days time.  General audiences may not be as well versed in these subjects as I am, though the author does spend a lot of time explaining things for the general reader’s benefit (mostly unnecessary in my case).

The book is currently available hard copy and e-book via links at the Official Site, paperback and cheaper e-books coming in June.

Reality Is Broken: A Book Review

I have never actually done a book review before on this blog, but my previous two blogs I did them all the time.  After reading Reality is Broken, I felt compelled to write a full formal review, as its contents are perfect fodder for this blog.  In fact there is enough here to fill a good half a dozen blog posts, but then why would you need to read the book?  So for now here is a brief introduction to the themes and ideas contained.

Reality is Broken is a new book by first time author Jane McGonigal, a professional game designer.   She starts off quoting economist Edward Castronova, who said “We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”, then goes on to quote some amazing stats like, the total amount time spent in World of Warcraft by all players adds up to 5.8 million years, and 500 million people spend at least an hour a day in online games for a total of 3 billion hours a week, and the average child will spend over 10,000 hours playing video games before the age of 21, the same amount of time they spend in school from 5th grade to 12th grade.

While many people react negatively to such huge numbers, considering it a waste of time.  McGonigal insists that it is not enough, that we should have more people playing online gaming.  She believes the world is better off with more gamers.  Being a fan of ideas that defy conventional wisdom (as my last two essays demonstrate), I had to find out more.  I have a hard time figuring out if Reality is Broken is a book about games disguised as a book about social issues, or a book about social issues disguised as a book about games.  I guess if you are librarian trying to figure out where to put the book, this would matter, but for us average readers it does not.

There are basically three themes to this book.  The first is the one that resonates the most for me:  Games make us happy.

The emotional impact of games is something game designers are very interested in, and spend a lot of money researching, so it is no surprise that many modern video games are designed with making players happy.  Consider what I wrote about last week in regards to “finding a purpose” to our lives. The four types of purposes that bring us meaning and lasting happiness:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success.  We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others.  We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves.  We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

Now consider these four categories of “purpose” in the context of playing video games.  Almost all games can hit 2 or 3 of those, and the MMORPG can hit all four categories.  From a positive psychologists stand point, gamers are some of the happiest people on the planet.

I know what some of you are thinking.  Is the happiness you get playing in virtual worlds just virtual happiness? frivolous, fleeting and temporary?  No, not according positive psychologists.  Dan Gilbert himself (see Happiness 101) says there is no discernible difference between synthesized happiness and real happiness.

Which leads to the second theme of the book: Gamers are escaping from a broken reality.  McGonigal list 14 ways that gaming worlds are superior to real worlds.  She is not talking specifically about online video games at this point, but many different kinds of games that help us deal with reality.  The majority of the book is about these 14 “Reality Fixes”, and as she goes through each one she discusses two or three different games or gaming systems that encourage these reality fixes.  She discusses dozens of different games, some I am familiar with, some I’d love to play, and some I do not.

Anyone looking into game design should read the book if nothing else than for the various ideas that are likely to come to mind while reading.  I came up with an idea myself while reading, and have gone as far as researching some special programming I would need to do to get it to work.  More on that later, maybe.

And finally the third theme: Games can save the world, and gamers are our best resource to do just that.

Games can, and have been designed to help us focus on real world issues.  McGonigal is a game designer who works primarily on a category of games know as Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, which are designed to form communities and tackle problems, primarily problems created by the game authors, but they can also tackle real world problems like “peak oil” which I discussed 2 posts ago.   In 2007, McGonigal was part of a design team for an experimental ARG called World Without Oil.  The original 1,900 players from all walks of life did not find any solutions, but came away mostly optimistic that people can come together in a crisis and adjust their lifestyles to fit new realities.  Since then McGonigal has been part of other socially conscious ARGs, and is confident that games like this can one day change the world.  But in order to make these world changing games to work, we need gifted people to play them.  Enter the “gamers”.

She discusses the fact that more than half of the students today spend 10,000 hours playing games before they turn 21.  That by definition, that makes them “virtuosos” at gaming.  The biggest question is what are all these “virtuosos” capable of?  She breaks down 4 qualities that long time gamers possess: 1. Blissful productivity — the understanding that happiness comes from hard work and not from passive activities like watching TV.  2. Urgent optimism — the desire to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that there is a reasonable hope of success, or desiring the “epic win”.  3. Social fabric — the ability to form tight communities built on trust, like guilds.   4. Epic meaning — the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger thing may just be fictional.  Notice that these four qualities correspond to the four “categories of purpose” listed above.

McGongal’s goal is to find a way to focus the talents inherent in gamers to tackle the problems the world face today and “fix reality”.

If you are interested in these ideas, but not up to spending $14 on the e-book, you can get a 20 minute summary from her speech at ted.com, or there is also a website realityisbroken.org you can read, or sign up to find out about the latest world changing ARG games.

Is it true?

I have not decided how true the thesis is.   Being a gamer, an amateur game designer, and a participant in ARGs, I at least understand the thesis.  I want to believe the thesis is true, but understanding the worlds problems and finding solutions is unfortunately a fraction of the problem.  Experience is that all new ideas that diverge from the “business as usual” tends to face overwhelming political opposition no matter how good or true they are.  The corporate powers that be seem to think that video games are a form of soma to pacify the masses into complacency, and I am not sure that they are wrong.

At the very least I accept the first theme: Games do make us happy, and I mostly accept the second theme: Games are an escape from reality.  I constantly hear complaints from politicians that video games are too violent and inspire more violence.  The evidence is not there to back that up.  As games have gotten more popular, violent crime has gone down, not up.  Places where sex games are common, like Japan, have actually seen a reduction of sex related crimes.  Maybe sex games should be more popular everywhere.  In these respects games have already changed the world for the better.

But there is another way that games can change the world and it is outlined in my last three blog posts.  From The Energy Situation, I pointed out that we are quickly running out of resources needed to grow the economy.  From Happiness 102 I pointed out that materialism, the driving force behind the running out of resources, does not really bring us happiness anyways.  And finally with Reality is Broken we learn one activity, gaming, can be a real source of happiness.  While gaming is not always a carbon neutral activity, it can be.  Thus gaming is a way to reduce our need for diminishing resources while still making life livable. Oddly, I previously posted this idea before.

But it is important to keep all of this in balance.  McGonigal concludes her book:

Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It is unproductive, and hopeless. It is disconnected, and trivial. It’s hard to get into. It’s pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It’s hard to swallow. It’s unsustainable. it’s disorganized and divided. It’s stuck in the present.

Reality is all of these things. But in  at least one crucially important way, reality is also better. Reality is our destiny. This is why our single most urgent mission in life is to engage with reality, as fully and as deeply as we can.

That does not mean we can’t play games. It simply means that we have to stop thinking of games as only escapist entertainment.

Good games can play an important role in improving our real quality of life. They support social cooperation and civic participation at very big scales. And they help us lead more sustainable lives and become a more resilient species.

Games don’t distract us from our real lives. they fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.

Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They are leading us to its reinvention.