The Vile Idolatry of Content Consumption

As someone whose brain is attuned to language and its use – at times painfully so – there are certain phrases that inspire negative reactions within me. In the context of gaming, one of those phrases is content consumption and its variants. It’s not that I think that people should stop using it (I’m not so arrogant as to impose my preferences and dislikes on others via the categorical imperative) – it simply rubs me entirely the wrong way when it comes to interacting with and inhabiting a form of entertainment which I would rather not label as “entertainment.”

From my perspective, games are forms of creative expression, works of art, worlds, stories, myths, fora for exploration, and theatrical backdrops for roleplaying. I don’t necessarily engage with all of those modalities, but those things are what games mean to me. I suss their significance and derive their value from the myriad of (inter)personal interactions within a medium that is better not thought of as a medium. Anyone who’s ever uttered the aphorism “the medium is the message” is likely to be unaware or unconcerned that what they are really saying is that the medium via which something is transmitted is very important and that they would like to emphasize this and/or they are very, very excited about it.

So if you’re one of those people who enjoys making cost analysis and “bang for the buck” spreadsheets when it comes to potential game purchases, well, then, go right ahead and do your thing. Just consider for a moment that being very interested in particular criteria or constituent elements does not legitimize the reduction of games to those elements. We have decided, for example, that that physical world is made up of molecules and atoms and protons and neutrons and electrons and quarks and so forth – this is very, very useful stuff. It’s just one perspective, however, and doesn’t help us explain the stadiums full of books on the topic of love, true love, that have been written without reference to the chemical equations associated with hormones.

When games are therefore reduced to their commercial and financial aspects, my jimmies are rustled. I fully acknowledge that these are complicit co-wizards in the black magic that brings games to life and keeps them alive. I just don’t expect people to walk into the Sistine Chapel and say to themselves, “That’s a wonderful bit of commercial art work.”

Anyone who enjoys playing games is well within their right to research their gaming purchase decisions in the manner of their choosing and apply those personal metrics which appeal to their sensibilities. One person may be looking for a game that provides enough longevity and enjoyment to justify the buy-in cost, while another may say “OOH SHINY” and throw down fat stacks of cash provided the game does not feature a prohibitively expensive early access founder’s pack. In my case, a few simple questions are enough to describe my thought process when looking at buying a game: Do I have enough money to buy it? Would buying other things with that money be better? Will I feel comfortable playing as one of the game’s characters? Do the game’s aesthetics and world appeal to me? Do the mechanics and the experience of having played appear to be satisfying?

In my particular case, finances serve only as a barrier to entry; they do not retain their primacy throughout the rest of the decision-making process. Despite the fact that I find it rather wretched that others base their purchase decisions and subsequent analyses in large part on financial considerations, I do not begrudge them their perspective. I’m a hobbyist, a layperson, one of those obnoxious people who plays games for fun without having to worry about funding and development costs and staff salaries. So if you ask me, well, it’s not all about the Benjamins, baby.

A World Without Players

A World Without…Games?

I decided today to click on “So Many Games. So Little Time.” in a blogroll sidebar. I was curious to see which games would be mentioned in the post as I’ve developed a sudden interest in trying out unfamiliar titles that go beyond the standard thematic and mechanical fare offered by my historical standbys. I didn’t see anything particularly relevant to my interests given that I’m not much of a console player and WoW is out of the picture now that Blizzard has finally followed through on my request to delete my account. What caught my eye and prompted me to write this short post was actually a comment left by an individual named Baa Baa Black Sheep:

I had a really odd thing happen to me in the last year or so. I basically quit playing all multi and single player games after decades of non stop playing in all my spare time after work. I’m still reading because in my mind I’ve only stopped for a little while. Perhaps I’ll find a game tomorrow and dive right back in. And I’d miss this blog so I stick with it.

But because I used to spend all my time either leveling or thinking about leveling in games, it was kind of dull there for a while. So I started leveling at work instead. And the results have just been ridiculously good and stunning. Two promotions. Etc.

I’m only posting here cause who the heck else would I tell? I’m not even suggesting you try it, but I sort of wish I had 10 years ago.

This got me to thinking: what would I actually do if my default free time activity were not “playing MMOs”? What would happen if I were to suddenly just stop playing all the things? What would a gaming world without Player 1 look like?

I already know the answer. It’s what happens whenever I work for long periods with only short breaks (or no breaks) between shifts and end up doing things like reading or cleaning up after the kids during my downtime: I would…(wait for it)…stop playing games and eventually the background hum of their collected essence would fade away. I’m already tanking Real Life reasonably well (or so I think), so I suppose I’d probably start leveling up my Domestic Warrior. It’s only when I finally have a couple of consecutive hours to myself and consciously jump back into games that I start craving them and thinking about them again.

Somewhat tautological, I know. It did bend my brain a little bit, though. A world in which I don’t play games? How utterly unthinkable and yet entirely plausible.

The Death of Innocence

It turns out that Guild Wars 2 is just another game I play, so I’ve decided to close the book on the site that started my blogging adventures. The Mystical Mesmer has been mothballed and its relevant content folded into this website. The GW2 fiction from that site is now found under the Guild Wars 2 link on the main page of this site. Any future fiction will go there as well and may be posted on the front page as part of a weekly or monthly batch depending on how often I decide to write. I may adopt the convention that some other bloggers use which involves including the name of the game somewhere in the title of each blog post. In terms of housekeeping, I’ve pruned the TMM posts from this site and curated the 40 or so LFG-specific posts to point to the appropriate blog as necessary, removing categories and updating tags to be more informative and representative.

TMM no longer exists in search engines and won’t show up in your feeds. None of your links should be broken unless they were pointing to pages rather than posts, which I doubt. Additionally, I no longer have a blogroll. I may at some point create a custom page which highlights meritorious blogs and gives reasons for lauding them; this may or may not coincide with an upgrade to my hosting package. Right now it’s free and the lack of sensible blogroll creation options reflects this.

What it comes down to is that I found that my most authentic writings were coming from a place in which I just talked as someone who plays several different games. Heaven knows there’s already a sufficiently rabid fanbase out there ready to micro-analyze the exquisite minutiae of every content update and Heart of Thorns beta weekend.

Well, then. I’ve now set you up for another post on TERA. I bet you can’t wait.

Kelestria's Private Chambers

Blaugust 2015, Day 31 – Don’t Dream It’s Over

It seems everyone is slowing down before the finish line. It’s supposed to be thirty-one days of blog posts! What’s that, you say? This is a blog post? Oh, well, then, I suppose technically a wrap-up post on the thirty-first day still counts. Might as well join the herd since this is a marathon in which the journey is the destination. Where have I heard that before?

I can’t say that I really learned anything this time ‘round. It’s the same pain as before only much easier because I cheated a whole bunch by using writing prompts until they ceased to interest me. All I had to do on my other blog was write fiction and chunk it up. In any case, if I were to do it again next year I’d feel compelled to do it on three blogs which is simply too much. It’s why we’re not having any more children in this house: first a son, then twin daughters…next up would be triplets which is simply not going to happen. So there you have it.

On reflection, I retract the first sentence of the above paragraph. It was not intended to be a factual statement. (Actual words from actual American politicians. Take notes, world at large.) I learned that writing a minimum word count each day gets novel chapter drafts created. It actually felt good to compartmentalize each day’s story events because I only had to think about generating that particular bit of the story. I’ve come to the conclusion that my style of writing is best referred to as “fragments of consciousness” (as opposed to stream of consciousness). I write about whatever’s being sensed in the moment and string together a series of such events like a row of pearls. Later on, details are filled in via research to the extent that they are necessary or relevant. The devil is in the details.

Eyes On Me
The devil you know has Eyes On Me.

I became acquainted with a plethora of word spam sources. You can see many of them in the blogroll I keep on The Mystical Mesmer. (I keep it there because default non-self-hosted WordPress is terrible at rolling blogs.) I chopped down my Twitter and bulked up my Feedly. I did a lot more skimming than I would have liked to. I may prune my internal reading list at some point without telling anyone so as not to turn any reverse frowns upside down. It happens, you know, just like not everyone wants to read libraries of Guild Wars 2 fiction and listen to me nerd out about the latest content update from ArenaNet that added 2 bugs and a feature.

I won’t be doing it again. It’s really not for me. Creation is borne of passion and my ardor comes crashing in like the ocean waves. I don’t have the energy to be making love to a dictionary every night of the week. Thanks to Belghast for sponsoring this year’s bout of temporary insanity. Best wishes to everyone who decides to do it again next year. I’m off to take a long nap.

Blaugust 2015 Initiative Page

Angel Wings

Blaugust 2015, Day 29 – Parsing Visual Complexity

Today’s entirely unintentional writing prompt comes from Jeromai whose comment has had the wheels in my head spinning ‘round and ‘round without coming to a stop ‘cause I’m mostly too tired from working overtime every week and watching kids to give anything more than a head-nod in response to the wonderful people who leave comments on this here blog. Anon, the comment and my rough-around-the-edges response:

I like how some people manage to play MMOs with a million add-ons and tweak their UIs to super-complexity, and then still manage to complain that GW2 has too many things going on to keep track of and is too complex for them.

(Not referring to you in specific, btw, just in general. The thought just idly occurred to me looking at your screenshot of Wildstar’s UI. In one case, people use a UI icon to identify their focus, or look at a cast bar, in another, people just learn to recognize the specific armor, or silhouette, or animation or whatever. One puts the focus on the UI, the other puts the focus on what’s happening in the world.

Aren’t both -equally- complex? It’s just about knowing where to look and what it means.)

Objectively, yes. The rules of play in both situations are of sufficient breadth that they can be accurately characterized as complex.

Subjectively – if we care about humans, that is – there are various factors we must take into account. I will list some non-exclusive, non-exhaustive examples. Psychological: what types of visual stimuli do players prefer and/or react to most effectively? Behavioral: how have players been conditioned to respond to events in games that they play? Cultural: how do a game’s style and aesthetics shape its visual markers? Structural: what is the systemic relationship between UI elements and the game world (built-in, addons, overlays)?

Jeromai isn’t picking on me, but because I can’t speak for players in general, I’ll have to talk about myself. I’ve been conditioned to respond to elements that are visually distinct (psychological) from the environment of the game world via World of Warcraft (behavioral). I experience tunnel vision in intense situations which exacerbates this need. Coming into a game like Guild Wars 2 in which the “painterly” UI elements (cultural) are built in (structural), blend in to the game’s visual presentation, and generally do not function to tell one what an enemy is doing as it is doing it, I found the initial goings to be fairly rough.

Guild Wars 2 is designed in much the same way that I prefer to write my fiction: it’s done from the perspective of the protagonist and requires the reader/player to interpret events to figure out what’s going on. In my Mesmer’s origin story, for example, I tell you that I hear wood on wood, then turn my head to see an indent in the snow from which Aunt Margaret picks up her cane. I don’t tell you directly – you, the reader, surmise from the evidence and previous knowledge of her temperament and personality that Auntie M got pissed off and threw her cane at the door. Contrast this with what you would call an omniscient third-person narrator who knows everything and tells us about it as it happens. They would have described the way in which Aunt Margaret threw her cane at the door. Compartmentalized UI elements and addons are that third-person omniscient narrator. Guild Wars 2 uses a first-person non-omniscient narrator.

So, it’s “boring” for me to write that way, but “difficult” when I’m expected to play that way? Um, WTF mate?

I enjoy reading both styles of writing and playing both styles of game (one less grudgingly than the other, though). Although I prefer to write in the first person, learning to “play in the first person” was difficult for me because I had been trained to look for things like cast bars to tell me when something was happening. Mordrem wolves, for example, do not have a cast bar for their might self-buff followed by a lunge-and-flank attack. One must observe these animations as they are happening and then remember the sequence of attack events. Reading the wolf’s tooltip tells one that flanking attacks do massive damage, so one must also position oneself so as not to have one’s ass chewed to pieces.

Having been trained as such, coupled with my propensity for tunnel vision in dynamic situations, having something like cast bars and telegraphs in a chaotic situation with three wolves and a thrasher and two leechers in a virgin encounter would have made things easier for me. I personally complained that it was difficult because I hadn’t yet learned to visually “parse” animations in the midst of an unfamiliar, chaotic situation in which I was already having a heck of a time trying to keep track of my own abilities and movement. Not only that, but I was not internally motivated to learn to do so because it didn’t tap into familiar fun veins. Hence, “it’s too hard to keep track of these things.”

Anyone who plans on raiding in Guild Wars 2 had better learn to love this approach. ArenaNet specifically addresses some of these things in its description of raiding expectations, a sort of anti-Healslinger manifesto, if you will (emphasis mine in both cases):

Expecting to be able to just watch the UI to beat a boss? Guess again! Raiding in Guild Wars 2 is an action-oriented, engaging experience. You’ll have to actively manage your position, dodge, coordinate on objectives, and much more. You’ll have moments of anticipation where your next action could spell victory or death. And with a diverse range of difficult challenges, being able to customize your build will really pay off. You’ll be dependent on keeping yourself alive and helping support your team while playing your profession. Everyone will be expected to pitch in and execute at a high level to ensure success.

Raids in Guild Wars 2 are not about waiting to have fun. You don’t need to wait for your healer to get online. Our build-customization and weapon-swapping systems allow anyone to change their build to meet a particular challenge. And while a warrior might support a group differently than an elementalist would in terms of playstyle, our systems allow you to adjust your team’s composition and strategy to overcome any challenge.

That third sentence in the second paragraph got me wondering: perhaps having build templates would run counter to the game’s philosophy of having to knowledgeably and skillfully reassign your gear, weapons, traits, and abilities? ‘Twould be interesting…

Blaugust 2015 Initiative Page

Blaugust 2015, Day 28 – Heart of Miscellany

I’m going to write about random Guild Wars 2 news today because there are enough interesting things to fill up a short blog post about it. I prefer to write opinion pieces as opposed to pithy news aggregation squibs but I’ve got enough fiction to last the rest of the month at The Mystical Mesmer and I don’t want to interrupt it again. What follows should be fairly interesting even to those who do not play the game or actively follow it with the exception of perhaps the last news item. It’s fairly short, so feel free to skim away.

The biggest news with regard to Guild Wars 2 is that Heart of Thorns finally has a release date: October 23rd, 2015. I played enough of the beta to get a sense for what it’s going to be about thematically but didn’t go much further beyond that as I’d like to experience the majority of the content in its post-release state. I’ve already pre-purchased my copy and will be running around Chronomancing everything in sight. I can’t say that any of the other Elite specializations are attractive enough to me to get me to invest heavily in another profession; I’ll add them to the other toys in my play room.

Heart of Thorns Release Date

The next bit of news comes to us courtesy of a certain news source that shall not be directly named which supposedly leaked the major features of Saturday’s big announcement. It’s already all over reddit and has been picked up by Ravious and Bhagpuss as well (who found out about it in map chat) so I suppose the cat’s out of the bag: raids and some form of free-to-play. I’m not going to speculate on the particulars; I’ll leave that to more knowledgeable individuals.

Yak's Bend WvW T1

The final bit of news is that Yak’s Bend, those scrappy siege turtling underdogs, have managed to boot Blackgate out of T1 in World versus World and have moved up to the big time. Is there a 2v1 in the Yaks’ future? Will they be ultra-blobbed and mega-zerged back into T2 oblivion? It’s clear from the map queues across the board on reset night that there are many Yaks out there who are interested in influencing the answers to these questions. Even if I don’t manage to engage in Blob versus Blob action this weekend, it’ll be interesting to observe how things shake out.

Yak's Bend T1 Queues on Reset Night

Blaugust 2015 Initiative Page

Blaugust 2015, Day 27 – Player Alignment

I’ve decided to jump on the Dungeons and Dragons alignment bandwagon. The chain spirals back to Starshadow’s original post here. Several bloggers have already answered; I now join their ranks.

I’ve decided to do the quiz from the perspective of the Real Life Player as well as from the perspective of my Mesmer in Guild Wars 2. Just for fun. I should note that these questions suffer from the same issues that I am faced with every time I take one of these types of “What Are You?” quizzes: the answer options often don’t resonate with me at all, resulting in a situation wherein I’m forced to choose the least unattractive statement. The results are therefore flawed but offer useful orienting generalizations.

Real Life Player

Chaotic Neutral

A chaotic neutral character follows his whims. He is an individualist first and last. He values his own liberty but doesn’t strive to protect others’ freedom. He avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions. The chaotic neutral character does not intentionally disrupt organizations as part of a campaign of anarchy. To do so, he would have to be motivated either by good (and a desire to liberate others) or evil (and a desire to make those different from himself suffer). The common phrase for chaotic neutral is “true chaotic.” Remember that the chaotic neutral character may be unpredictable, but his behavior is not totally random. He is not as likely to jump off a bridge as to cross it. Chaotic neutral is the best alignment you can be because it represents true freedom both from society’s restrictions and from a do-gooder’s zeal.

–excerpted from the Player’s Handbook, Chapter 6

I’m distant from most of my family. They taught me how not to live. I don’t know how to put it any other way. I typically prioritize myself first. I follow laws in general. I despise corruption and mistrust authorities by default.

Fantasy Life Player (Miss Mesmer)

Neutral Good

A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. The common phrase for neutral good is “true good.” Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias toward or against order.

–excerpted from the Player’s Handbook, Chapter 6

My Mesmer is close to her family and values it above any other affiliation. She is distrustful of nobles and openly hostile to those who engage in egregious conduct. Her sense of right and wrong is dictated entirely by her internal sense of morality. She places her trust in authorities by default. She is prepared to replace them, perhaps personally, if they are ineffective or corrupt.

In terms of character, then, she’s an idealized version of myself. Fantasy is fun, isn’t it? It allows us to choose the way we were born, our circumstances, and our upbringing.

Blaugust 2015 Initiative Page