on social anxiety, solitude, and multiplayer shooters

I’ve said that I’m not really into multiplayer a number of times, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I started to figure out why.

This was a rough weekend, personally speaking.

Saturday in particular was a busy day – a morning playdate at the first of many 1-year birthday parties we’ll be attending this year, and then, in the evening, a housewarming party at the astoundingly beautiful home of some college friends.  Both of these events were fun, in and of themselves – and it was nice to be out and about as a family, the three of us moving about the city with ease – but at the end of the day I was emotionally spent.  Sunday was decidedly less busy – an afternoon trek out to the local department store for baby supplies and foodstuffs – but it also required driving, which is almost always a source of anxiety (especially in Brooklyn).  When I went to bed, I did end up sleeping soundly, but not necessarily restfully.

A year ago, I’m not sure I’d have made it to even one of these things, let alone all three.  So the fact that I was able to do all these things, and spend quality time out and about with my family – this should be a good thing, right?  And it is; it’s absolutely a good thing.

Except: I’m drained.  I feel hollowed out, exhausted, melancholic.  I feel adrift, really; I feel like I just want to curl away somewhere, where the world can’t hurt me (and where I can’t hurt it back, however unintentionally).

As for why I’m writing about this here?  Well, as I think about all this, it occurs to me that my social anxiety issues are probably the main reason why I’m generally reluctant to participate in multiplayer games.

Case in point.  On Friday, my rental copy of Battlefield 4 for the PS4 showed up.  My good buddy Gred, who’d been hounding me for weeks to get it, wasn’t going to be able to jump on until later Friday night, so I figured I’d take the early part of the evening to play through the campaign while the rest of the disc installed itself.  I lost interest in the campaign quickly enough (specifically in the 2nd mission, the one where you have to rescue two people from the top of a hotel; I ultimately bailed when, after I finally succeeded in destroying a tank with a land mine, I had to destroy another tank with a land mine), but fortunately Gred was available by that point.

Gred was a wonderful tour guide, showing me how the game worked, which of the classes was best suited to my playstyle, how this particular map was laid out (I can’t remember the name, but there’s islands and sunken aircraft carriers and a giant hurricane eventually sweeps through the map towards the end of the session), etc. etc.  And it all looked incredible; 64 people in a session yields some pretty spectacular sights, even from far away – I’m dodging sniper fire while watching two airplanes dogfighting on the other side of the map, blowing the hell out of buildings and radio towers, 10-foot waves slamming jetskis into the rocky island shore, helicopters blitzing strafing fire on either side of the building I’m taking cover in, all hell breaking loose for 60 full minutes.

In a weird way, it was kinda refreshing that the session was so big – it meant that my failings as a player didn’t stand out quite so obviously.  I was a bit of a wallflower, to be honest – I’d tag along behind Gred, occasionally firing wildly at enemies, but mostly getting headshotted from unseen snipers.  I was there really just as a visitor, a tourist, seeing what all the fuss was about, trying not to hurt my team too badly.  And I’m happy to say that in spite of my dreadful K/D ratio, our team ending up winning.

This is, more or less, my approach in real-life situations, too; I’ll attach myself to one person for most of the night, taking in the sights, listening to the music, gradually getting drunk and hoping that the buzz takes some of the anxiety’s edge off a little, and generally just hoping against hope that I don’t embarrass myself in front of a room full of strangers.

I was grateful to have Gred there, is the thing.  Because without him, I would’ve been completely at sea; overwhelmed by the madness of 63 other strangers with guns, or else simply retreating to a corner of the map, watching but not participating, afraid of screwing everything up.

I tend to handle life much better when I’m alone.  I can experience a thing on my own terms, at my own pace, and be alone with my own thoughts.  Solitude can get lonely at times, to be sure, but there can be profound meaning in a solitary experience.  I am (again) reminded of something Tom Bissell wrote in his review of GTA V:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person.  Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience…

For me, the single-player experience is, by and large, comforting.  And with a good game the experience can often times feel more engrossing than books or films, because it’s an experience that I get to directly participate in; I get to literally inject myself into the narrative and have a direct influence on the story.  I can’t be judged by other people (until after the fact, I guess, if they’re looking at my gamerscore), I can’t offend anyone, I can’t embarrass myself.  If I need to go to the bathroom, I can pause the game and not annoy anyone; if I need a break, I can walk away and not get teabagged by some douchebag on a camp-out kill spree.

I don’t play games to win; I play just to play.

I suppose that, when it comes to the real world, my social anxiety kicks in because I don’t want to “lose”, whatever that might mean.  It’s been a difficult struggle to acknowledge that the vast majority of social situations don’t actually have this win/loss structure, and that I can have a good time simply by being present in the moment, surrounded by friends (or strangers, as the case may be), and allowing the experience to simply happen, and to just be.

It’s not so cut-and-dry in the game world, though.

on Lester Bangs and the ethics of game journalism

There were a bunch of things I had intended to write about today – the Tiger Woods / EA split, the generally, startlingly positive reviews for Assassins Creed IV and if that was enough to push me back into a franchise that I’d all but sworn off, etc. – but in light of Lou Reed’s death*, and the subsequent discussions of his life and, specifically, his notoriously hostile relationships with music critics, especially with Lester Bangs (Exhibit A), I started thinking about the current state of game journalism.

Everyone (including me) talks about “the Citizen Kane of video games”, but back in 2006 Chuck Klosterman wrote, rather infamously, about the lack of a corresponding “Lester Bangs of Video Games“, and how the gaming press desperately needed one.  Some people suggested that Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw and his Zero Punctuation series fit the bill; I’d argue, rather inevitably, that Tom Bissell, Leigh Alexander and maybe even Jim Sterling should be in the discussion, too, if we’re assuming that this particular discussion is “necessary”.

In this 2008 response, Kirk Battle (writing as L.B. Jeffries) broke down Klosterman’s agrument and wondered if Lester Bangs was the right person for game journalists to emulate.  There are pros and cons, but he ends the piece with this bit of insight:

What can the video game critic draw from the lessons of the critic of another medium? Stand up for the games that are critically panned for not fitting the mold. Criticize games that are stuck in boring molds and doing nothing but repeat what has already been done. Don’t get frustrated when things don’t change, because that isn’t your function. Like Johnson’s critic predicting the weather, talking about the games that are challenging and moving the medium forward is all one needs to do. These are all essential elements and represent what Bangs contributed to rock ‘n’ roll. Yet at the core of that is the idea of having an image about what that artistic medium should be doing and talking about the moments where that is happening. For every article or blog post about the failings of game criticism, there is an implicit idea about what video games should be doing and this defending or panning of a video game is what defines that vision.

This is all well and good, but there’s something larger at issue here, and that’s what I’m actually here to talk about.

Monday’s Scoops & the Wolf podcast talked in very vague terms about some sort of inside-baseball controversy that cropped up over the weekend; they succeeded in keeping it vague, so I’m not 100% sure I know what happened, but my impression is that certain high-profile journalists at certain high-profile outlets made certain vague tweets concerning… something that may or may not be related to the new console launches, and the console manufacturers being somewhat withholding, and the subsequent difficulty of those sites’ planned coverage for their launch events.  More to the point, Klepek mentioned something about how there’s a “tiered” system – certain outlets have “favored” status among publishers and therefore are afforded better and earlier access than others, and this strikes me, as an outsider, as deeply fucked up.

Here’s the relevant transcript snippet, edited for clarity – they start talking about this thing at 6:27, and the snippet below starts at 7:14:

PK: …Several members of the media over the weekend were tweeting vaguely about stuff (AN: “cryptic things”)… one of the things that people should keep in mind when we talk about console launches is that media outlets are bracketed, there is a tiered system, different outlets are treated differently; that turns into access, that turns into what they get ahead of time or how much they get of something ahead of time… the reasoning[ ] behind that, from what I understand, vary wildly; depends on – maybe they want to target a certain audience that they think that site is better suited for, maybe they’re targeting a more mainstream audience… and every outlet has different things that they use to cover or how they cover or why they cover; some outlets are very specific about wanting to have reviews of every game… The only [concern] that I will throw water on is this idea that publishers somehow have control over final review text… There is no way that is true, I’ve heard nothing to that, that is never something I have heard to be a legitimate or realistic [demand]…

I’d like to think that I’m not naive, and that I understand that the business of game journalism is first and foremost a business, and that there is, inevitably, some necessary degree of symbiosis between journalists and publishers, and that both sides do their best to sidestep whatever ethical weirdness such a relationship may entail.  But how can a professional game critic truly be objective if they’re writing for an outlet that has this sort of “preferred” status?

I understand that as objective as any professional game critic tries to be, they can’t truly be an independent voice.  I’m not suggesting that they can’t pan a tremendously hyped game if that game is deserving of a shitty review; but I am suggesting that tremendously hyped games might not get as objectively reviewed as they otherwise could, especially if the reviewer has had prior access.

This is why “preview events” seem so fucked up to me.  I understand why they exist – game companies want consumers to know about their upcoming games, and game outlets need things to write about – but the tremendous leverage that the game companies have over the outlets (i.e., embargoes) means that it’s very, very difficult for those previews to be truly objective – even if those writing the previews are desperately trying to remain objective.  There’s a very big difference between privately interviewing a game creator and going to a preview event where a publisher only shows a very tightly controlled “vertical gameplay slice”.

Rhetorical questions:  Do movies studios fly New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis to visit film sets and see dailies?  Did Lester Bangs get to watch Lou Reed write, rehearse and record his albums?  The music industry (and the outlets who cover it) is so tremendously fucked up these days that I’m not sure Lester Bangs could even exist anymore; I mean, Pitchfork used to be the vanguard of independent music criticism, and yet now they have an annual music festival featuring the same bands they claim to objectively review.

I’m not sure I know what the answer is.  (Or, at this point, what the question I’m asking is.)  I mean, I’m an aspiring journalist; I’m actively trying to become a cog in this same machine that I’m tearing down.  I’ve heard about “mock reviews” and how ethically horrible they are, but I’m not 100% sure I know the difference between a mock review and a prominently-featured preview article beyond where the paycheck came from.

And so I remain very much on the outside looking in, wondering just what the hell it is I’m looking at.

___________________________________

* I haven’t really talked about Lou Reed’s death yet, as it turns out.  Obviously, he is a mythic, titanic figure of rock and roll, a singular legendary figure on par with Dylan or Lennon or Bowie.  But I must confess I came to him too late for me to feel his loss personally.  It’s a failing on my part, to be sure; in my formative years, I was never introduced to those 4 VU albums, or Transformer, or any of the other many classics in his catalog.  I’m not sure I would’ve gotten into him, though, if I had; I was a prog-rock kid, who valued technical proficiency over all else, and so I probably would’ve heard 5 seconds of his singing and cringed and turned it off.  (Similarly, the primary reason why I got into The Smiths as heavily as I did in my high school years is in spite of Morrissey’s voice – it’s because of Johnny Marr’s guitar playing.  I wasn’t until much later that I appreciated Morrissey on his own terms.)  In recent years I’ve grown to appreciate the Velvets a great deal, and certainly in the last few days I’ve dived deep into Reed’s catalog on Spotify, but I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to soak him in, the way that I used to, back when I had endless time and no distractions.

Tom Bissell on GTA V

Not a GTA V post from me; instead, it’s Tom Bissell writing about GTAV for Grantland.  I’ve not even yet finished it, but this particular bit was worth reposting:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person.Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience. Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. …I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.

before the first few hours: Bioshock Infinite

I’d been suffering from shooter fatigue for quite a long time before I found that I was enjoying Far Cry 3 almost in spite of myself.   The endless slaughter of virtual enemies was still somewhat tiresome, but FC3 had enough distractions and side projects to take on that I felt like I could still enjoy what the game had to offer.

And then the Newtown shooting happened, and suddenly I felt sick again.

From that link, which I wrote back in December:

The narrative [in FC3] is where the game’s more or less fallen apart for me, is the thing.  While I appreciate that the game is actually attempting to say something (in that you start out as a whimpering trust-fund douchebag and gradually turn into a sociopathic killing-machine douchebag whose friends (the same friends who you’ve been trying to rescue) are super-creeped out by you and your murder-lust (they actually look into the camera (i.e., your eyes) as if they don’t recognize you)) – in other words, the game is saying that killing hundreds of people doesn’t necessarily make you a hero – the game also requires you to kill hundreds of people in order to advance the narrative; you don’t have a choice in the matter.

And then, a few paragraphs down, I wrote this:

I was originally going to start this post with a hypothetical challenge; would it be possible for me to play any games in 2013 that didn’t involve the firing of a gun?  Then I remembered that Bioshock InfiniteTomb Raider and GTA5 were coming, and that pretty much ended that – I won’t be missing any of those games unless my wife or my newborn son is on fire.  BUT.  I think I’m going to try and get through as much of 2013 as possible without playing any shooters.

Well, here we are.  I’ve finished Tomb Raider – and enjoyed it, for the most part.  And I have not played Gears of War: Judgment, or Crysis 3, or Metal Gear Revengeance, or Dead Space 3.

And when I get home tonight, I’m going to be firing up Bioshock Infinite.  It’s one of the only big AAA games that’s coming out this year that I promised I wouldn’t miss.  The original Bioshock is one of the watershed moments of this generation, after all – and even if the gameplay doesn’t quite hold up these days, the atmosphere and the storytelling still do.

But as much as I’m looking forward to checking it out, I’d be lying if I weren’t apprehensive about all the murdering I’m going to have to do.  What does it say about games as a medium when the game that’s being touted and hyped as the most important story-driven game of the generation still makes you kill lots of things as you get from Point A to Point B – and how one of the game’s selling points is that you can kill these things in lots of interesting and unique ways?

*   *   *

I’ve been trying with all my might to avoid any and all preview coverage of Bioshock Infinite.   This even extends to reviews; I’m aware that it’s been getting very high scores, but I’ve not read any actual reviews or analysis.  This has been very hard of late, as the game’s presence has blanketed pretty much every website I visit with ubiquitous advertising.

But I’m also contractually obliged to link to anything that Tom Bissell writes, and his Grantland interview with Ken Levine is, as usual, very interesting and informative without even really getting into the game itself.  They talk about the game mostly from a writer’s point of view; how game writing differs from novels and screenplays, and they even get into this shooting business a little bit:

[TB:]  Here’s the weird thing, to me, about BioShock. It draws in first-person-shooter nuts who love to electrocute people and set them on fire. It also draws in the disaffected philosophy PhD candidate and gives him something to think about while running amok. A belief of mine is that shooters are made for naughty children, and we all like to become naughty children sometimes. When a shooter can take that mischievous core impulse and enrich it with something that feels genuinely thoughtful, well, that’s lightning in a bottle, isn’t it?

[KL:] Look, I can’t say I’m a man of high taste. I’m a man of low taste. I like action movies and comic books — not that all comic books are of low taste. Not that all action movies are of low taste. I like things exploding. I like candy and cookies. I’m not a sophisticate in any way, shape, or form. My wife and I live the lives of 14-year-old kids; we just happen to be married and have enough disposable income that we don’t necessarily have a bedtime. If I could sit around and eat pizza and ice cream — and not fancy pizza — and watch Lord of the Rings and play video games, I’m a pretty happy guy.

Ken doesn’t quite answer the question, and even Tom’s question addresses the perception that I find somewhat troubling, which is that we should at least be grateful that Infinite is offering something more than just an opportunity to kill hundreds of things, even if killing hundreds of things is a vital, integral part of the experience.

Wouldn’t it be something if we could find something else to do to fill in the time between story beats besides shooting a gun?

Murder, Mayhem and the Matching of Colored Spheres

Couple things to talk about today:

1.  I think I’m done with Diablo 3.  Haven’t touched it in over a week.  It’s basically come down to this choice:  I can either keep re-running Act 3/4 of Hell difficulty until I scrounge up enough gold to buy the equipment I’d need to survive Inferno, or I can just move on with my life.  Starting over with new characters is not really all that appealing to me, either; I’ve played every level so many goddamned times now, and being a wizard or a witch doctor instead of a monk won’t make left-clicking any more interesting.  Ultimately, I definitely got my money’s worth, even if I’m still unsure about how much I actually enjoyed the experience.

2.  My shift from the PC back to the couch meant that I got to play (and finish) Spec Ops: The Line over the weekend.  I wasn’t really planning on playing it;  I only rented after listening to a bunch of Giant Bombcasts.  It’s a hard game to recommend based purely on its gameplay – it’s a third-person action shooter in a military setting, and it’s not like that’s an empty genre that needs filling.  That being said, it takes some very bold moves with its storytelling, and it asks you to do some pretty unsavory things, the repercussions of which are somewhat hard to swallow.  It’s an ambitious game, even if it doesn’t really appear to be at first glance.  It’s also gruesomely, spectacularly violent, and if it makes you feel guilty about all the murdering you’re doing, it also makes sure you see it in slow-motion, where a well-placed head shot literally makes your target’s head explode.  Also, Nolan North says “fuck” a lot and gradually goes insane, which is in many ways the proper response after killing hundreds and hundreds of people (unlike, say, Nathan Drake, who manages to stay calm, cool and collected after killing hundreds and hundreds of people).   As usual, I highly recommend checking out Tom Bissell’s piece in Grantland for further, better-written insight.  (And I’ll probably do a more spoiler-heavy write-up later this week; while the game’s story is based on Heart of Darkness, and while it wears its Apocalypse Now influence proudly on its sleeves (perhaps too proudly – the 60’s soundtrack feels downright anachronistic), there’s another movie whose influence on the story – particularly the ending – is perhaps even more obvious, but to say it basically gives it away.)

3.  Speaking of incredibly dark videogames, I am now fully caught up with The Walking Dead.  I don’t watch the TV show, but my wife is a big fan, and so we’re playing the game together – I drive, she makes the decisions.  Both episodes thus far are quite good – great writing, great voice acting, great art direction.  Tough choices.  And I love the touch at the end, where the game shows you how your decisions compare with everyone else who’s played.   It seems that Episode 1 was pretty even-handed, with the general public mostly split around 50/50 – Episode 2’s results, on the other hand, seemed to be pretty one-sided.  Curious to see how that’ll affect Episode 3’s beats.

4.  All this grisly murder requires an occasional cleansing of the palate, and to that end I am profoundly grateful for last week’s XBLA release of Zuma’s Revenge.  Nothing feels so refreshing after slaughtering thousands of virtual people quite like the matching of brightly colored spheres.  Similarly, I am very much looking forward to this week’s release of Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD.

5.  I’m not the Achievement Whore that I used to be, but I guess it’s worth noting that at some point last week I crossed 80,000.

6.  Finally, I just want to give Valve’s Steam Summer Sale a hearty “fuck you.”  I’ve bought too much already, and we’re not even a week into this thing:

  • SOL: Exodus
  • Legend of Grimrock
  • Saints Row the Third (which I’ve already finished on the 360 – but how could I pass it up for 75% off?)
  • Indie Bundle 2 (Botanicula, EYE, Universe Sandbox, Oil Rush, Splice)
  • Anno 2770

 

 

 

 

the calm before the storm

So this is just a quick check-in before I am utterly consumed by Skyrim, Saints Row 3, and Assassins Creed Revelations.  And also Modern Warfare 3 and Rayman Origins and even perhaps the Metal Gear HD Collection and Need For Speed: The Run.

1.  I’m kinda scared of Skyrim, to be honest.  Was listening to yesterday’s Bombcast this morning and Brad mentioned that he’d put in 50 hours and had “barely touched the side stuff.”  Now, I’ve got no problem sinking tons of hours into a game – I sunk at least 100 in Oblivion and I’ve approached similar numbers in many Rockstar titles.  But it should be noted that I’ve been binge-gaming of late – I’ve been sick a lot lately and so I’ve been spending more time at home than usual, and as such I’ve been engaged in marathon gaming sessions.  (I blasted through Uncharted 3 in two sittings, and Lord of the Rings: War In the North in one, and LOTR wasn’t very good, either.)  Point being, I’m already predisposed to hunker down with a game for long stretches of time, and if Skyrim is even half as good as Oblivion was, I may not leave the house until the spring.

2.  This has happened a few times recently, I think in both Uncharted 3 and LOTR, where I’ve been in a seemingly endless battle with hordes of enemies, and then more enemies have swarmed the scene, and my player character quips something to the effect of – “Again with this?”  or “Don’t these guys ever quit?”  I think it’s supposed to be funny, or at least some sort of nod from the designers that maybe this is what you, the player, are thinking as well; but it isn’t funny, and if you as the designer decide to mock the player’s frustration with your tedious bullshit by giving them even more tedious bullshit, then that’s basically just you being a dick.

3.  I wasn’t planning on playing Modern Warfare 3, but here it is in my hands.  (Thanks, Amazon, for your goddamned pack-in deals.)  My antipathy towards the franchise is probably a little bit unfair considering that I’ve played most of the campaigns in the franchise, dating back to COD2, and while I don’t particularly care for multiplayer shooters in general, I can’t deny that it’s generally pretty fun, and certainly many millions of people love it.  I think my antipathy is more directed at Activision’s merciless whoring of the franchise, which (to me) appears somehow even more greed-induced than even EA’s relentless shilling of Madden.  I get that this is a business, and the Modern Warfare franchise is among the biggest in that business, and there’s nothing wrong with making money (especially in this economy).  But I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to feeling a tremendous amount of shooter fatigue these days.  I’m playing it mostly just so that I can be part of the larger conversation about it, and yet I suspect that there probably won’t be very much to talk about.

4.  I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about the question of Games being Art.  It’s a question that seemed pretty loud back when “arty” games were coming out (i.e., Braid, Flower, Bioshock), and it’s more or less died down these days (since, well, there’s almost nothing super-popular this year that qualifies).  And I guess I arrived at the conclusion that it’s a totally irrelevant question.  Most games are not striving to be art (as is the case with most popular films and TV and even music).  They are striving to be fun, certainly, and they are striving to be entertaining, obviously, but they are mostly striving to be purchased.  This realization is not particularly profound, I know, but I was somewhat taken aback by the realization that I kinda don’t care.  If a game comes along that truly knocks me on my ass in a deep, profound, metaphysical way, I’ll be all for it.  I’ll appreciate the effort.   But I’m not sure that I’m looking for an artistic experience when I fire up my 360.  Most of the time, I’m looking to escape into the game’s story – or, since most game stories suck, I’m looking to get lost in the moment-to-moment thrill of the game itself.

5.  I know the audience of this blog is small, so this probably won’t make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, but I must recommend Tom Bissell’s excellent book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.  For one thing, I’ve played pretty much every game he talks about, so I understood where he was coming from.  But he’s also probably my favorite writer in today’s videogame space; his pieces for Grantland (especially this L.A. Noire essay) are incredibly insightful and knowledgeable and just plain readable, frankly.  I am hoping to emulate his quality here in the future.