Analysis, Health

Planting the Seed: Patience & Nurture in Virtual Gardening

I love gardening in video games. Planting the seeds, watering them, watching out for that first little sprout and then seeing it grow. The themes and ideas behind gardening can add so much more depth to a narrative or, in the case of video games, meaning within the player. In the book Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom, Dan O’Brien explains:

“Gardening is not just a pleasant thing to do on a Saturday afternoon, or a way to reduce one’s supermarket bill — gardening is a human activity that engages with core philosophical questions concerning, among other things, human well-being, wisdom, the nature of time, political power and ideals, home, aesthetic experience, metaphysics, and religion.”

Even though gardening is used very rarely as a game mechanic, I’ve found it to be a relaxing and reflective process. Video games have the potential to conjure up vast and unique emotions within a player, and I think the ambient and thoughtful process of gardening makes its own contribution toward this. Some might consider relaxing activities mundane, but there is much to learn from these slow, meaningful styles of play. So, what influence does the act of virtual gardening have on the player?​

When gardening, there is one quality that is of the utmost importance: patience. Waiting for something to grow and bloom after nurturing it for days (or weeks) is a slow and diligent process. To expect immediate gratification is to miss the point of gardening. The want for a quick reward comes from a place of consumption instead of care. It definitely sounds odd talking about patience in relation to gameplay, but gardening games do rely on the patience of the player.

A majority of video games have a constant feedback loop — this action and re-action tends to happen quickly so that the game stays interesting and keeps the player’s attention. Using first-person shooters as an example, running around, shooting enemies, dodging, etc. can all contribute toward keeping the player captivated. They are attuned to the game’s high-intensity gameplay. Although this is most obvious during exciting and intense sequences, I think that this idea can also be applied to relaxing and ambient play.

In relaxing play, the action and re-action loop is slowed down, and the rhythms of the game and the player are set at a sedate pace. It is in these moments that a great deal of emotion and meaning can grow. Walking through a beautiful landscape, pausing to listen to music, or taking the time to nurture and care for plants all hold quiet and humble experiences. It’s the act of humility and care that improves both the garden and the gardener.

Continue reading “Planting the Seed: Patience & Nurture in Virtual Gardening”

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Analysis

Robots Don’t Interact: Why Humans & AI Will Never Understand Each Other

Lindsey is the co-founder of F-BOM.com, a science fiction, fantasy, and feminist book club. Every quarter, F-BOM hand-picks a talented, self-published author and distributes a special edition of her book to club members. F-BOM is more than just a book club — for as little as $5 a month, members will be actively investing in the future of women in science fiction and fantasy.

Artificial Intelligence has long been a mainstay fixture in the science fiction genre. Indeed, AI as a plot device can carry an entire movie or television show and keep us riveted to the screen. The cultural significance of AI in entertainment increases as we grow ever more tantalizingly close to achieving human-like artificial intelligence in real life. As early as a month ago, Snopes investigated the slightly exaggerated claim that Facebook would be shutting down their AI. This was allegedly due to the fact that AI were creating their own incoherent language to more efficiently talk to one another.

It makes sense that human language (especially English) would not be efficient enough for a robot’s taste. Let’s look at some examples of AI that struggle with human communication — and vice versa.

GLaDOS, Portal

This game is a great example of how grammar and vocabulary are not the only thing necessary to communicate. The star robot of the popular Portal series is GLaDOS, an artificial intelligence that has made it her life goal to test humans under inhumane conditions. It’s a fantastic example of misunderstanding human culture.

Not only that, but the laughable (yet paradoxically much-loved in fandom) companion cube is clearly intended to help the human player bond to something. Of course, it’s only a grey metal cube painted with hearts. This makes it difficult to anthropomorphize the cube to form even the smallest attachment, yet GLaDOS is oblivious to this failure. One of her other hilarious incentives for the player is that “you will get cake” at the end of every level. Spoiler: there is never any cake.

Continue reading “Robots Don’t Interact: Why Humans & AI Will Never Understand Each Other”

Analysis, LGBTQA

Stand By Me: Love & Vulnerability in ‘Final Fantasy XV’

Final Fantasy XV centers around love between men. If you’ve played the game, this is not a contentious statement.

It’s been almost a year since the release of the latest installment in the Final Fantasy franchise, and after playing it, I would argue it’s one of the most emotionally nuanced stories in the series’ history. The game follows Noctis Lucis Caelum, a prince of the kingdom of Lucis, as he undertakes a road trip with his closest friends. His goal to wed his fiancée, Oracle Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, is dashed when the expansionist empire of Niflheim invades the capital city of Lucis. Noctis’ journey refocuses on harnessing the power of Lucis’ old rulers to free the land of Niflheim’s corrupting influence.

FFXV continues the series’ legacy of exploring themes of vulnerability, loss, and intimate relationships among its title characters. While there are women in the game, they feature less prominently than the “chocobros,” and struggle with their own host of problematic representation.

Oracle Lunafreya, Noctis’ promised, takes the role of white mage and, while self-sacrificing, is effective at rallying the gods to save the world until she ends up conveniently dead halfway through the story. Iris Amicitia, sister of the burly Gladiolus, is a cutesy tagalong, but it’s only mentioned in passing that she grows up to be a famous monster hunter.

Aranea Highwind is the sarcastic, jaded mercenary and powerful warrior (that boob armor tho) while celestial servant Gentiana is an enigmatic, helpful spirit, but also a giant, dead, half-naked goddess who’s not actually dead. Pure Final Fantasy. There’s also the expert mechanic yet highly sexualized Cindy Sophiar (don’t even get me started). Characters often comment about how she’s married to her work, which is a slight improvement.

The main focus of FFXV is — for better or worse — on the relationships between Noctis and his three friends; the beefy bodyguard Gladiolus Amicitia, his tactical advisor and perennial mother Ignis Scientia, and his best friend and gun-toting precious little cinnamon bun Prompto Argentum.

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Analysis, Feminism

To My Valjean, Carmen Sandiego: History Still Marches On

“A famous writer once said: ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.'”

— Carmen Sandiego, Boyhood’s End: Part Two

To those of you who grew up playing edutainment games, I ask this: what was the biggest lesson that stood out to you? Can you remember the name of every historical figure? The capital of every country in the world? The difference between a preposition and an adverb? Or how to subtract fractions?

Upon revisiting a few of my childhood favorites, I discovered there were some lessons I remembered and others I didn’t. When I replayed Cluefinders 4th Grade Adventures, for example, I learned that I still hate, hate, HATE fractions, but I adore the delightfully over-the-top villain. Edutainment games were gifts I received after attending all of my summer camp lessons, or sometimes as a surprise at the end of the school year. My favorite was always the Carmen Sandiego series. Perhaps it was the spy setting, or the endless puns, or even getting to fantasize that I really could save the world with little more than a basic working knowledge of geography.

But in hindsight, the most fascinating part of the series was — and still is — Carmen herself.

Truth be told, I didn’t know what to make of Carmen as a kid. She could be ruthless, charming, clever enough to get away with legendary thefts, and bold enough to leave her mark on the world. Carmen was the villain; therefore, we should root to bring her down, right? She stole things like the Mona Lisa’s smile. How did she even do that? I didn’t know and couldn’t begin to guess, but that didn’t matter. My role was to catch the crook regardless of intent. Wasn’t Carmen Sandiego the Jean Valjean to my Inspector Javert?

Okay, I didn’t know about Les Misérables back then, but I think the comparison will become clear. Especially because it’s been almost nineteen years since I first played Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time.

Continue reading “To My Valjean, Carmen Sandiego: History Still Marches On”

Analysis, Feminism

Secret of the Scarlet Hand(y Changes): ‘Nancy Drew’ From Page to Screen

[Editor’s Note: All screencaps are courtesy of littlenancydrewthings.]

Last time, I discussed how the adaptation of Stay Tuned for Danger (STFD) was a mixed bag. Most changes were made for the better, but the game could have lived up to and beyond its potential if it were willing to take more risks or otherwise to seize upon missed opportunities from the source material. Secret of the Scarlet Hand (SSH), however, goes in the opposite direction. It takes missed opportunities from the original book, expands upon them, and creates a far more engaging experience. It’s easily one of the strongest titles in the entire game series.

As a book, SSH isn’t really one of the better ones. It has many tedious red herrings that are only tangentially connected to the main mystery, which could have easily been cut or condensed. For example, Nancy goes to a secret society meeting where a suspect is in attendance, temporarily ends up in peril, and is quickly saved by yet another suspect (Alejandro del Rio). In the end, this secret society turns out to have almost nothing to do with the actual mystery — apart from amounting to bored, rich white people appropriating Mayan customs for their own personal amusement.

While that event is somewhat important because it helps Nancy discover that Alejandro isn’t the bad guy, it could have been removed and it wouldn’t have made much difference. Even when the culprit makes a half-hearted attempt on Nancy’s life at that meeting, the threat could have been replaced by anything else.

The game does away with this entirely. Instead, almost everything you learn about is directly connected to the events at the museum in one way or another. Every clue that points to any of the suspects — even ones who are not the culprit — is still relevant and tied in with the mystery and its resolution. You get the chance to learn more about another series of thefts related to the current one, and slowly unravel the deep and tangled web behind the stolen Pacal carving and its history. The game also takes this one step further by setting up two background characters who make recurring appearances over the course of the series: Prudence Rutherford and Sonny Joon.

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Analysis, RPGs

Who Gets to Be a Hero? A Case Against the Default Protagonist

The phrase “default protagonist” has been used quite commonly in recent years in order to examine and critique issues concerning representation in media. This “default” is affected by the cultural context that any given piece of media is produced within, as well as the long-standing canon that has shaped popular cultural and academic perspectives.

Regardless of the medium, you have probably observed what the most common trends are: the protagonist is usually a man or a boy, he is white (or has a noticeably lighter skin tone), and he is heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and neurotypical. Many a marketer in the world of multimedia has claimed that this character is most “relatable” or “identifiable,” but viewers who do not fit one (or all) of these categories will probably tell you differently. Seeing this same protagonist, day in and day out, is boring at best and self-esteem impacting at worst.

Video games provide an interesting take on the discussion of default protagonist. Many video games — especially ones that focus on a specific narrative such as Night in the Woods or the Ace Attorney franchise — follow the story of specific player character(s) through the typical three-act structure. However, not all video games follow this narrative design. Instead, some games provide a story type that no other medium can: one that focuses on the player as the main character.  

Thus, the protagonist of the game is no longer a character with a pre-determined appearance, personality, sexuality, and skills, but rather, they are a character based on the player’s actual or idealized self. Granted, several of these games have their own pre-determined plots for the player to undertake, but the fact that the player is able to play as themselves provides a very different connection to both the story and the game world. This feature is especially prevalent in role-playing video games, which makes a great deal of sense as you are essentially viewing fantastical worlds from the perspective you want to pursue as opposed to a specific linear progression that is associate with other game genres.

With this ability to create one’s player character becoming more widespread, one might assume that developers would continue to expand upon those available customization options. Unfortunately, the video game industry still lags behind in terms of providing gamers with a diverse range of options. This can be seen most recently in the lack of romance options for gay or bisexual men in Mass Effect: Andromeda, the Pokémon franchise’s continued reliance on the gender binary for their player character, and the lack of options available to black gamers who want to create an accurate representation of their hair and/or skin tone when creating a character.

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