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    • Video Game Review: American McGee’s Alice
      After the recent release of “Alice: Madness Returns,” I  picked up a copy. With each copy, console gamers also got a free download of  the original “American McGee’s Alice.” Before playing the new Alice, I had to  go back and beat the original again. While many things were just as I had  remembered, I’m glad […]
    • Video Game Rant: Donkey Kong Country Returns
      One of my favorite games of all time is Donkey Kong Country 1 and 2. When I heard they were making a new one, I was super excited, but also somewhat skeptical. So a few months ago, I picked up a copy of Donkey Kong Country Returns to try out the new game. My fiancee also joined […]
    • Scott Pilgrim Versus the World: Movie Review
       (Warning: some spoilers) When they decided to turn this Canadian comic into a movie, I’m not sure they were aware of what a cult smash hit this would be. Topping the charts for Blu-rays on the first day it was released on home video, it’s also been on several top ten lists. It appeals to […]
    • Good Kitty: WoW Feral Cat DPS Rotation
      ***Note: this information is from before Cataclysm. There have been major changes to the class. See my sources below for more updated information.*** When I rolled Druid on the first character I legitimately got to level 80, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I leveled Feral Cat, and when I hit 80, I realized […]
    • Finding a Job
      This is a digression from my usual topics, but I wanted to share some of my strategies with other unemployed or soon to be unemployed people out there. My job search has been the focus of my free time lately, so I figured it would be the perfect topic for my next post. 1)      Assess […]
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Games in Pop Culture

As video games have become more popular and accessible to everyone, they’ve been featured in more tv shows and movies than ever. No longer do people plug away at the Nintendo GameBoy “brick;” now Grandma’s got a Wii in her living room (and has no idea how to use it). Yet the changes in the way games are depicted in popular media have largely been superficial, and often make certain implications about games and the people who play them.

When people play games in movies or on tv, it’s usually a teenaged or young boy with a handheld device that makes the same sounds as old arcade games. Yes, the same stereotype that men are the only ones who game prevails quite often, though sometimes young girls play games too (Gaz from Invader Zim kicks way more gaming ass than her brother). Perhaps the reasoning behind the beeps and pews is because the earliest games for the masses were games like Space Invaders and Mario, and that’s the only exposure many people have had to games. The GameBoy is certainly one of the most recognized symbols for games even after the switch to the PSP and DS, though now it’s more common to see a PSP-like handheld in the media.

Haven’t games moved beyond 8-bit graphics and music? For that matter, most people mute games when playing in public, and to always assign annoying beeps and pews to every game not only assumes games lack finesse in musical qualities, it also assumes that gamers are thoughtless, selfish, and undiscerning. This is not to denigrate Mario, with some of the most often played video game music of all time; this is simply to say that not all games look and sound like Mario. Games now run the gamut from racing and puzzle to FPS and RPG, all with a variety of music, and tv and movies have not changed to reflect this.

Popular media sometimes features people talking about or playing Xbox, or maybe Wii. But the 360 is usually a symbol for the hardcore gamer, or someone who has no life (see Grandma’s Boy). The computer is a more commonly seen console now, although many interface elements are eliminated for the sake of the uninitiated viewer (World of Warcraft is featured in Zombieland and a recent episode in South Park). It’s rare to see people playing racing or shooting games, and when people play DDR in movies they look like “retards trying to hump a doorknob” without regard for actually hitting the buttons (–Dodgeball).

The way people play games on tv is often mindless. It is the same attitude people take when playing Mario Kart; concentrating and competitive. They never seem happy or smile; their eyes are glued to the screen as, emotionless, they go about some noisy task.

Games in commercials are completely different. Players are usually only featured in Wii games, because the focus is on the player and less on the game. Nintendo wants people to see people having fun doing traditional activities in new ways, like cooking or bowling. They have people of all ages, races, and genders enjoying playing trivial games together, or fit women exercising. This is partially because many Wii games are for casual gamers, and it doesn’t really matter to these people if they’re playing Wii Lacrosse or Wii Luge, as long as they perceive that they are “having fun.” Most other game commercials simply feature the game, because they are targeting people who actually know something about games.

Gamefly ran a funny game commercial with people freaking out, screaming, crying, throwing tvs and controllers, and generally carrying on. Their tag was ‘never buy another bad game again.’ This is a pretty accurate depiction of how frustrated gamers can get if they lose their save, die and have to redo everything, or generally are playing a bad game. I think this commercial also reflects how engaged gamers get in the virtual worlds they temporarily inhabit.

Stereotypes are powerful things. The more people are aware of these stereotypes, the more they’ll use them. Sure it’s funny to watch people leaping furiously at a game of DDR, but it may offend the true gamer in its complete inaccuracy. All of these depictions reflect a different kind of genre/gamer. Playing Mario Party with casual gamers can bring the kind of laughter so common in Wii commercials, and playing Bejeweled or Peggle may turn you into a zombie, but I believe it’s more common to see people getting engaged in games for their own sake. Maybe years from now, when the current gamer generation grows up, we will see middle-aged moms on tv  playing Final Fantasy, or old men reminiscing about the Wii’s great retro games. The landscape of gaming is changing, and media has a lot of work to do to catch up.

Games for Guys

Hope: Because she just might want to hear about your 12th level Paladin.

I keep coming across articles about women in gaming, and a repeated topic is how to introduce women to games. What’s with the supposed hordes of guy gamers who lament their girlfriends’ unwillingness to pick up a controller or keyboard? ‘How to get your girl into gaming’ sounds like a bad romance movie to me. Should women try to get their boyfriends to start scrapbooking and sewing, since those are girl hobbies and gaming is a man hobby? ‘How to get your man to do yoga’ will be my next article. Or maybe ‘How to get your boyfriend to play video games’ would be more appropriate, considering women now outnumber men in online gaming.

Lots of sites have beaten me to gaming for guys, including WikiHow, though it seems to have been written before the joystick was invented. Wiki says: “Find a few games he likes and play the ones he is better at. Mix it up, but always go back to the game he is good at. Racing games are generally easier for you to lose at without showing it.” Purposely lose at a game just because he’s a n00b? Men are our equals, so we shouldn’t go easy or treat them any differently just because they button mash and haven’t learned any combos yet.

WikiHow has more to say: “Consider your girlfriend’s personality when picking out a game. Some girls may prefer the brightly colored, all-ages games like Katamari Damacy, Bust A Move, Lego Star Wars, Sims, or just about any Mario game. But remember that your girlfriend is an individual who could just as well go for Halo, Resident Evil, or Grand Theft Auto.”  This is exactly right. The ‘games for girls’ like Cooking Mama or Barbie Horse Adventures are just recommended based on gender stereotyped hobbies. I like cooking but would much prefer Fallout 3 over Cooking Mama, and I’m sure there are guys who watch football but aren’t Madden fanatics and love Viva Pinata.

So remember, anyone can be a gamer; you don’t need a Y chromosome to hit the Y button. A follow-up on games to play as a couple will be posted next week. Readers, what are your thoughts on introducing men (or women) to gaming?

‘Girl’ is a four letter word

I have sometimes found it a bad idea to reveal my membership of the female sex to online gamers. Sure, it’s a great way to meet gamer guys, but all that attention isn’t necessarily a good thing.

I was playing my Alliance Priest on World of Warcraft, with my boyfriend at the time sitting next to me leveling his Hordie. I was partied with some random people heading over to an instance. Some guy referred to me repeatedly as ‘man’ or ‘he,’ which got my boyfriend a bit upset, so he told me to tell the player that I was not a ‘he.’ I think this can be interpreted by some as being aggressive about one’s gender, which is understandable. Most men would probably be offended if they were called ‘she’ by default.

One player seemed to think that since I was a girl, I would need all the help I could get, so he made it his job to protect me in the raid group. And since I was seemingly offended by ‘he,’ rather than just calling me ‘she,’ I became ‘honey’ or ‘sweetie.’ This didn’t go over too well with me, and it was even worse for my boyfriend.

He felt he had to defend my honor, so he logged onto his high level Horde Tauren Warrior (a most imposing figure) and proceeded to chase us down. Our lower level raiding party was ambushed by a very angry Tauren on a PvP server, though of course the Allies had no idea why.

Some random players came in to the fight, so it developed into a kind of faction war. The Hordies and Allies fought to the death in a prolonged epic battle. I was healing my Tauren “champion” and my allies. Amazingly, in the end we managed to put down the mad cow. I then explained to my party members that the rampaging bull was my boyfriend, and that he was sitting right next to me.

That’s why it’s easier to just let people think I’m a guy when playing online. No stereotypes, no pet names, no being looked down on. Sometimes it’s just easier to let others believe what they want.

But I wonder… is it right? Should I politely correct others if they make the easy mistake of assuming I’m a guy? I’m not ashamed of being a female gamer; in fact I’m quite proud of it, so why should I feel the need to hide my gender?  If more female gamers were open about their gender, maybe male gamers would become more comfortable with encountering us. Perhaps my mistake was in letting the insult stand and in letting my boyfriend defend me. I should have stood up for my gender as equal to his, rather than ignoring his attitude. If someone called me ‘honey’ in such a derogatory manner in real life, I would be offended.

Readers, is it better to ignore sexism or try to correct it?

Busting Down the Glass Ceiling: Female Characters in Video Games

With game companies targeting their growing female audiences more, numerous games have been released in recent years with gender issues in mind. There are many strong female leads to choose from; Metroid’s Samus Aran, Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine, Yuna from Final Fantasy X, Lara Croft, etc. Now it seems the list of weak or stereotypical female characters is limited to the genres of retro, arcade, and fighting.

Part of the reason is that, like the feminist movement, it takes a while for people to change their attitudes towards gender roles. Take Half Life as an example. Half Life 1 starred a male protagonist and male scientists, security guards, and soldiers (much like Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy from Pokemon). Half Life 2 introduced Alyx Vance, the gifted daughter of one of Gordon Freeman’s colleagues, who does get into trouble a few times (as does Gordon), but is just as ass-kicking as our crowbar-wielding hero.

Several story and gameplay issues are involved here. One is the nature of video game characters and how we view them. If a game to you is just something to play to blow off steam or play with friends, then gender doesn’t matter. When you play Mario Party, do you really care if you’re Yoshi or Daisy (though her annoying voice may make this a moot point)?

Help me Mariobi Wan Kenobi!It also matters how game developers view games. Does it matter that Mario must rescue the princess from Donkey Kong, or is it just a player navigating a virtual world by way of a sprite that just happens to look like a plumber? If video game developers do not aspire to tell stories with their games, then their characters, male or female, are simply placeholders and nothing else.

As game designers change the way they approach games, their stories have become more developed and thus have room for real characterization, more than just sticking a bow on Pac-Man’s head and calling it Ms. Pac-Man. Let’s take a look at the Resident Evil series. Female and male characters alike are developed to various lengths, and there is usually a male and female lead in each game. For example, Resident Evil 4 had two returning characters, Leon and Ada, and both are zombie-killing machines. RE characters run the gamut from pathetic Sherry to Wesker the badass, and everything in between. Some are stereotypes (Ashley, the damsel in distress) and others have a bit more depth (Claire the biker chick).

The point is that gender is not a factor here. Jill may be stacked like older video game icon Lara Croft, but she can decapitate a zombie faster than you can say “objectify.” And we have a variety of macho and not so macho guys to choose from for our protagonists (there’s a reason Chris has been in more games than Steve). In this series, it is character, not gender that matters. I take this as a sign that video game stories have seen improvement in the way women are portrayed, and I predict we will see even more development in other aspects of storytelling and social issues as well.

Skittles’ Story

DSCF1806My own cat’s story is just as surprising. I originally had my eye on a small long-haired kitten at the shelter, but she got adopted by a very nice lady at the shelter before I had a chance to adopt her (the kitten, I am told, grew into a serious lap and neck cat). I chose a slightly older tortoiseshell kitten named Stacy.

DSCF2616Shortly after I re-named her Skittles and brought her home with me, there was an FIP epidemic at the kitten wing in the shelter. The majority of the cats in Skittles’ litter passed away because of being in such close quarters with a highly contagious disease. Luckily Skittles was only a carrier for the disease and she never developed symptoms for it. If she had remained in the shelter, which as an older kitten was likely, she almost certainly would have died. I knew I had made the right decision. Just like with Matilda, we had saved the stray from Barker Field simply by giving her a loving home.

I can’t remember when I knew I had picked the perfect cat for me. I enjoyed her playfulness, her cat-like penchant for hiding in things like boxes, plants, and blankets. I loved her cuddliness, how she would sleep by me at night, purring loudly, or try to curl up in my lap when I sat in bed. I loved how she got kind of pudgy and started calling her my squishy muffin.

DSCF2671Last year, when she was only middle-aged in cat years, her kidneys started failing. It was not improbable given her unknown genetics, but it caused my fattie to slowly lose weight, lose the healthy sheen to her fur and the elasticity to her skin, and her energy to decline. The vet gave my parents some medicine, pills to keep up her appetite, and fluid to inject into her several times a week.  Few families would do that much for a seriously sick cat.  I was away at college, so sadly I couldn’t really do much to help, except on vacations. In March, her condition severely declined, and I went home to say goodbye to my kitty. That was the saddest day of my life.

Skittles' final resting place in our Kitty Garden.

My mom says animals like to do this to us, to cause us to cry, but it’s our own fault for caring so much. So to all those people who say they don’t want an animal because they can’t handle the pain of losing them, I say what a bunch of sissies! Why do anything if you’ll be sad when it’s done? That’s like saying why make friends because you might lose them, or why date someone because they might leave.

The more strongly you feel about something, the more you know what is really meaningful, what matters to you, what is worth getting up for in the morning. Just because you’re sad doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t worth it. I still miss her, but I have no regrets about choosing Skittles, and I am looking forward to the next cat who chooses me. I might have had more time with another cat, and I might not have had to be so sad so soon. But she would have died in the shelter, and I loved the time we did have. I’m glad I got to spend 9 years with my squishy, purring, loving, playful Skittles.


Round 2: Revenge of the Generics

Last post, so long ago I know, I compared some music player computer programs. Today I shall review Open Office, for all those who don’t want to line Bill Gates’ massive pockets by paying for Microsoft Office (seriously, Microsoft is the final boss in Shadow of the Colossus).

Open Office
Open Office has equivalents to all of the Microsoft Office programs, like Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. I’ve used Open Office’s version of Word, called Writer, the most, and it really is just like Word. Some of the buttons are changed around, but they’re both pretty similar word processors.

I do have a complaint- they try to do the same thing that newer versions of Microsoft Office have done, with the .docx file extension. The default file format to save in is an Open Office only format, which you can change, but it’s just annoying that they’re claiming to be different from Microsoft by being a free alternative, but then pulling the same crap that can screw people up. Other than this, there is nothing wrong with finding your freeware at http://www.openoffice.org.

Mac or PC?
I’m going to do this rant-style, because I really don’t have anything good to say about Macs. Those commercials they’ve been playing recently about Mac vs. PC, how Macs are so much better, are oversimplified propaganda, for these reasons.

1) Macs are usually more difficult to use because people are used to PCs. When I use a Mac, it takes me some time to remember which buttons do what I want, and how to access certain things.

2) Right click is possible on Macs, but you have to ENABLE it. Newer Macs have mice with right click buttons, but seriously. What’s the deal with that? It’s like putting on an eye patch because you don’t really need two eyes to see. (Because depth perception? Totally overrated.)

3) Based on personal experience, I have only ever had 1 serious virus on a PC, and have dealt with much crappier Macs even when they were running correctly. I also know several Macs at my work have been screwing up lately. My own PC issues have been significant only because of how long I’ve been using PCs, compared to my limited Mac usage.

4) The claim that PCs have “hundreds of headaches” that Macs don’t seems to be a lie to me. This is just propaganda designed to convince people that they have an alternative to PCs, when Mac really isn’t much better. Both Oss can run most of the same programs, so the stereotype of artists using Macs doesn’t really hold anymore. You don’t have to buy a Mac as soon as you declare an Art major. You can’t play many video games on a Mac either.

5) Okay, I will say one good thing about Macs. At least they give Microsoft some competition. Bill Gates does not have a complete monopoly yet. Sure, he’s got Boardwalk, but Mac has Park Place, so those of us who can barely afford an apartment on Baltic Avenue can still afford a laptop (or a Macbook, for those of you who completely disagree with this entire post).

Lastly, I have not mentioned Linux in this post until this point, mostly because I have never seen a Linux machine that worked. People talk about how great Linux is, yet can’t ever seem to get it to function correctly on their own machines. So until I see something positive about this freeware, I think it’s safe for me to say that sometimes, you do get what you pay for.

Off Brand Programs Part 1

Left 4 Dead proves that generics work just as well as the real thing.

Left 4 Dead proves that generics work just as well as the real thing.

Why pay full price for something just because everyone else uses it? You’re just paying for a name, for the advertising, right? Is the same true of computer programs? I’ve grown up using the popular ones — Windows operating system, Microsoft Office, iTunes. I never knew there were many other options. So for all those people who used to be like me, here is my review of a few nifty ways to save some money and support freeware.

Great alternatives to iTunes: Winamp, Mediamonkey

I received an iPod as a gift, so naturally I downloaded iTunes to manage it and all my music. It worked great for a while, until I noticed how messy the organization system was. iTunes made double copies of all my music folders, and so I went in and re-organized it all myself, which took a while but freed up some space. And for some reason all of my music was physically downloaded onto my iPod, which took some time to sort out.

Anyway, you can blame my low knowledge of iTunes for most of that stuff, which was mostly just based on ignorance of what the crap iTunes was doing to my music. So, instead of dealing with iTunes on my next computer, I made the switch to Winamp. I’m still getting used to all the functions, and it was not nearly as easy to manage my iPod at first, but I figured it out eventually and now Winamp runs much more smoothly on my computer than iTunes ever did. It uses 1/3 the CPU power (see below site), among other things, and has tons of plugins and support.

After re-formatting my old computer, I decided to check out my other media player options and found this site: http://www.skytopia.com/project/articles/music/players.html I gave Mediamonkey a try, but I couldn’t figure out how to import my ipod playlists, and lots of people had had the same problem, so I’m back to Winamp.

My particular problem aside, Mediamonkey is actually slightly better than Winamp at things like customizing tags, smart playlists, being able to burn MP3s to CD, etc. So, though MM didn’t work so well for me, it’s an interesting player to try without dumping Windows Media Player and iTunes bloatware on your comp.

Overall: Winamp’s my favorite so far, but Mediamonkey would be a close second if its iPod support was improved. This post has gotten a bit longer than I expected, so let’s make it a two-parter and finish it off later with a review of Open Office and Mac/Linux vs. PC.