For Dale: The Art Thing Revisited

Posted in General with tags , , , on July 28, 2008 by Kit

You should check out DaleCooper’s most recent rant on the topic for background. He is specifically responding to Roger Ebert’s (by now infamous) opinion that video games simply aren’t art.

By the way, I’m not going to make a larger working definition for “art.” I don’t think it matters. I’m not a hippy-dippy fuzzy-thinker who thinks you can call anything “art, maaan.” But everything that I have to say here would apply to any serious definition of the term. I’m not willing to engage in hair splitting between different ideas about what art is. Y’all can work it out for yourselves, please.

Ebert’s reasoning that the presence of player choice renders games artless is shallow on its face. This attitude would classify Andy Warhol as just a clever graphic designer. It’s revealing that Ebert dismissively references Warhol in the article linked above. Warhol’s art required the viewer to have some familiarity with the cultural icons that he repackaged and recontextualized (a word that I despise but can’t seem to find a replacement for). It also required some familiarity with the conventions of art itself. Without the participation of the viewer, the can of soup really was just a can of soup.

I discard the idea that player agency has anything to do with whether games are art, because it’s a dead end. I don’t think there’s any useful way to think about art that precludes the participation of an audience. More importantly, as Dale points out, it also reveals Ebert’s lack of experience with most modern videogames — which are usually as crushingly linear and predictable as a Mike Myers vehicle.

For Chrissake, this is something that we started deciding on long ago. If Ebert wants to argue that any work that requires the viewer to participate in its outcome isn’t art… he’s going to have to go back and argue with the surrealists, the absurdists, the expressionists, the existentialists, the modernists, the post-modernists, etc. The dynamic interaction between artist and audience is a fundamental obsession of much of 20th century thought.

So, putting that aside… can games be art? The debate is a good one, and I think there’s still plenty to be had here. I think they can. But I also think that they aren’t.

Sure, they are all art in the sense that they are all artifacts made by people, and they all “express something.” So in that sense, most of today’s video games are art in the same way that The Love Guru is art. Entertaining but highly disposable.

I think that Ebert (and Dale [and I]) are probably talking about something more when we use the word “art.”

So far, I don’t think any game has really earned the “serious art” label to the same degree that the Very Serious Filmmakers that Ebert enjoys have. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I think it’s only a matter of time.

SweatyB points out in the comments on Dale’s blog that it’s unfair to apply the measure of an established art form like film to a fledging art form like games. New art forms need time to mature and develop conventions. To this I would add:

The development of film and the development of video games both suffer from technological dependence… each generation is made to look obsolete by the next generation. This is more true of video games that depend entirely on the advance of computer graphics technology. It’s difficult to make a permanent mark when your art looks terribly dated within a few months. Eventually filmmakers developed enough tools and the viewing culture developed enough literacy that this limitation was mostly overcome. The language of film and our understanding of it has developed enough that today most culturally literate people can jump easily between Jurassic Park, The Birds, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Star Wars without being too bothered by the accompanying radical shifts in film technology.

Typical of me – I both agree and disagree with SweatyB. Ebert really is missing the point, and risking looking like a cantankerous old biddy in hindsight when the great Game Revolution comes. But I also think that the people creating video games need to take him seriously. Because he is currently basically correct, and the relationship between critic and artist is one that helps an art form mature. To date, people making games haven’t much delivered on everything this medium promises.

Sidetrack: Imagine we brought a 19th century theater critic forward in time in order to visit one of our fabulous cinemaplexes to view a random sampling of just whatever happened to be playing that week. Would our time-traveling critic be justified in going back to the 19th century with the idea that film couldn’t be art?

The games-as-art argument landscape really is bleak right now. I have played many games that had glimmers of real artistry. But I’m not sure if I know of any that I would call “art” in any meaningful sense.

AND NOW I WOULD LIKE TO CHANGE THE SUBJECT SEVERAL TIMES IN RAPID SUCCESSION

Can a game that most people would recognize as “good art” be fun to play?

How would film, television, and popular music have developed if early practitioners had been focused on being artistic instead of being entertaining?

To what extent does this obsession among game fans reveal an inferiority complex about their favorite hobby?

RESET

Posted in General, Rants, Science on July 28, 2008 by Kit

I am now back from my long hiatus. This is the only thing I will give you by way of explanation:

Careful readers (both of you) will remember my plan to visit a bunch of arcades and write about them. This fell by the wayside after one jerky start. Then I moved into a 3 acre homestead built in the 1930s, and all the things that accompany this fell on my head. The Blog was left to rot.

I’ll admit that I have felt a bit of guilt about nearly abandoning this venture. I’ve learned over the years that my reaction to guilt is to drop out and fahgeddaboutit. Some pop psych assholes would call this “avoidant behavior.”

But you know what? I’m not going to do that, dear reader. This is going to be different. This blog … is special.

And so are all of you.

And so it goes

Posted in General on March 10, 2008 by Kit

The first arcade review will be up within the week.

Meanwhile, let’s all doff our +2 Helms for Gary Gygax. He created a fantasy world that sustained many of us through the darkest years of our adolescence.

Rather than reading yet another eulogy, you should just revisit Paul La Farge’s excellent piece on Gygax and D&D in The Believer:

Here I am tempted to advance a wild argument. It goes like this: in a society that conditions people to compete, and rewards those who compete successfully, Dungeons & Dragons is countercultural; its project, when you think about it in these terms, is almost utopian. Show people how to have a good time, a mind-blowing, life-changing, all-night-long good time, by cooperating with each other! And perhaps D&D is socially unacceptable because it encourages its players to drop out of the world of competition, in which the popular people win, and to tune in to another world, where things work differently, and everyone wins (or dies) together.

The State of the Arcade

Posted in Arcade Games, General with tags , , , , , on February 8, 2008 by Kit

Maybe it’s the passing mention of a certain decrepit old arcade machine in my friend Tim’s recent rundown of the late greats of videogame boxing. Or maybe it’s just midwinter cabin-fever. But lately I’ve been thinking about arcades.

Not emulators, homebrew cabinets, or retro downloads from the Playstation Network. I mean real honest-to-goodness arcades: with bubble-gum on the floors, cotton-candy-colored flourescent lighting on the ceilings, sullen teenagers with mullets, scary old men dispensing tokens, and Def Leppard playing on the sound system.

The fading glory of the arcade is a hangup unique to those of us who were old enough to care about video games in the 80s and early 90s. This was the mythical golden-era of the arcade, before Nintendo made it obsolete.

But even as late as the end of the 90s, there were still technological marvels that home game machines simply couldn’t duplicate. So arcades struggled on, but they moved from bowling alleys and skating rinks into upscale niche entertainment complexes for adults, like Jillian’s or the now defunct Block Party.

The current crop of home game machines are superior to almost anything that an arcade can hope to provide. Not only are they more powerful, they are more convenient… and in the end it’s cheaper for a game player to own a machine than it is to keep buying tokens, tickets, or “play cards.” And you can provide your own microwave pizza.

But there are always intangibles to be lost in any trade. No child living today will experience anything like the day I ruled the Double Dragon cabinet at the StarDust Bowl, surrounded by a crowd of the defeated and the curious. Children today will rule online charts from their living room. And that’ll be it’s own reward, but it’ll be different.

The Quest

I’m not going to get into whether or not one experience is better or worse than the other. Suffice to say, it’s always sad when the good things of our lives go away. So I’m embarking on a quest to experience the best arcades my home state (Indiana) has to offer – while they still exist.

I’m going to visit five arcades, ranging from the mom-and-pop mall arcades of the past to the giant adult-centric entertainment complexes of the present. I’m going to give each a traditional review, but along the way I also want to answer a few questions…

  • Is the era of the arcade at its end?
  • Are classic arcade games actually more entertaining, or do more recent arcade games offer anything better?
  • Do arcades still have the social component that I remember so fondly?
  • Is it still possible for a kid to have fun in an arcade? And the corrollary question: can a kid still afford to visit an arcade?

And most importantly:

  • Which arcade has the best snack bar?

The Contestants

After an entire hour of painstaking research, I’ve settled on these five as offering a good mix of classic and new-school arcade experiences:

MegaPlay: Mishawaka, IN

This one’s a bit far for me – about three hours away from Indianapolis. But from what I can see, it is currently Indiana’s reigning champion for golden-era arcade games. The number of classic cabinets this place sports is impressive: Joust (1 AND 2), Asteroids, Centipede, Karate Champ, Ms. Pac Man, Space Invaders, Galaga, Pole Position… and a lot more. I’m willing to make the drive, because I’m itching to play some of these games.

Great X Scape: Bloomington, IN

Slightly closer to home, this mall establishment in Bloomington seems closest to my idea of what an arcade used to be. It’s family owned and operated, they operate off tokens (awesome!), and if the pictures can be trusted they have really weird carpet. All good signs. They don’t have as many classic games as MegaPlay, but they do have a decent selection (including an Arkanoid cabinet).

X-Site Laser Tag & Games: Indianapolis, IN

Continuing the prominent use of the letter X, we have the first entry in my home town. They certainly have games, but details on exactly what games they have are sketchy, and the primary draw of this place appears to be Laser Tag. That’s ok, the best arcade of my memory was in a bowling alley. This is the wildcard of the bunch.

Gameworks Studio: Indianapolis, IN

This joint is on the top floor of our downtown mall. I’ve probably walked by it like 15 billion times. It was once called something else (don’t remember what) and it is prominent in my memory for having once had a virtual reality BattleTech simulator that was insanely detailed. I think that’s gone with the old name, and that the new place is more focused on regular games. It’s also a national chain, and appears to be one of those all-in-one adult-oriented “entertainment complexes” that started sprouting up in the late 90s. Its website boasts that it “…strives to meet a variety of moods and needs by offering finger foods at the snack bar, scrumptious meals at the sizzling grill, drinks with flair at the full-service bar, and a massive, high-intensity gaming floor categorized into separate zones…” None of which sounds particularly encouraging.

Jillian’s: Indianapolis, IN

Another all-in-one entertainment complex. I’ve been here before, but it’s the 800 pound Donkey Kong in the city, so I’m gonna try to give it a fresh look.

The Criteria

I’m a fan of keeping things simple, so there are five criteria. Each gets one of three ratings: Sucks, Cool, or Righteous. I think that’s a fairly self-explanatory system. Many of the ratings are bound to be arbitrary. Sorry.

Game Selection: I’m a gourmand, so places that offer a lot of different kinds of games will score well here. I like classic games, but I’m also interested in seeing some fresh stuff. I really like group racing games, and while I don’t like fighting games at home much, I really like them at the arcade.

Game Quality: Having a ton of games isn’t much good if they all suck. That’s possible: does anybody remember the experience of walking into a room full of games and somehow not finding anything to play?

Atmosphere: Is the place fun to be? I’m not looking for any specific feel, but I want to be comfortable enough with an arcade to want to spend some time there.

Value: It’s becoming fashionable to gouge people with expensive games and questionable “game card” deals that encourage you to spend more money than you normally would. My standard is simple: could an adolescent afford to play games here?

Snacks: This is the most subjective and simultaneously the most important criterion. Are the snacks good but simple snackbar fare? Or are they pretentiously dressed-up pub food? Something different? All snacks will be measured against the glory of the snackbar at the bowling alley that I grew up with. So the bar is admittedly pretty high, but I’m willing to be surprised. Cost is a factor too. I don’t want to spend all my game money on snacks.

The Schedule

Like the rest of this blog, it’s gonna be pretty irregular. Look for updates about once a week. Maybe more. Maybe less. I dunno. Each place will get an entire post, just to give everyone a fair shot. And, this may turn into an obsession, I’m not sure. If you know of a nearby arcade that I haven’t listed here, let me know in the comments. I may drop by. Especially if it has Ms. Pac Man.

In My Nerdiest Hour

Posted in Gadgeteering with tags , , , , , , on February 5, 2008 by Kit

Since we made the switch to Linux in our home, I’ve recently done some really swell things with our home entertainment system. Our home is currently a living advertisement to what can be accomplished with free (as in freedom) software like Ubuntu.

The Rundown

In the course of setting all this up, I’ve managed to fulfill a few lifelong dreams:

  • The ability to access my entire music library from anywhere in my apartment and anywhere else with internet connectivity.
  • The ability to play my favorite old school arcade, NES and SNES games from my couch with an arcade controller rather than hunched over a computer keyboard.
  • The ability to stream any no-DRM video format (DivX, Quicktime, etc.) from my computer to my television.

While setting all this stuff up, I managed to accomplish a few other interesting things as side effects:

  • I can remotely cue up BitTorrent downloads on the server without using my desktop machine.
  • I can play some really great PC games (like Vega Strike) just as if I were using an arcade console.
  • I get the satisfaction of doing it all with software that supports open standards, free speech, and involvement in a real community.

The Equipment

Our old desktop PC – Hiari – is beginning to show her age. Besides a full hard-drive, she doesn’t have much memory and her old CPU isn’t fast enough to do the kinds of things the old lady and I have been wanting to do. We determined that it was time for an entirely new PC, and that Hiari could be fitted with a server OS and moved to the basement to quietly serve up media files in her retirement.

I’m conservative about upgrades, and don’t like to buy new hardware (I average about 5-6 years between major system upgrades). Therefore, I always try to upgrade to a system with enough power to keep me happy for an equally long span.

I set myself a budget of $500, and found that it was pretty easy to stay inside it. In fact, thanks to this Slashdot article, I built a system that can match the performance of many high-end gaming rigs.

After installing Ubuntu 7.10 Desktop on the new system (now named Nakato), I wiped Hiari’s hard drive, installed Ubuntu 7.10 Server, and moved all of our old media, documents, etc. onto her storage drive. After getting the server OS configured, I removed her monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and moved her to place of honor in the basement where she will live out the remainder of her life serving up files and downloading torrents.

A tear or two may have been shed as I took her downstairs… but honestly I think she’ll enjoy having more privacy and a more relaxing environment.

I’ve taken advantage of a previous apartment dweller’s strategically placed hole in one of our vents to get network cable into the basement. I hate wireless for its lack of stability and security. Good old fashioned Cat5 requires a physical connection to gain access and doesn’t flake out when the people upstairs turn on their microwave.

Network Services

File Server: With Hiari in place as our file server and Nakato in place as our main desktop, it was easy to get the two sharing files. Since we only run Linux at home, there was no need to mess with SAMBA or anything like that. The Unix standard file protocol, NFS, worked great.

After setting up a share on Hiari, I modified our fstab to mount the remote drive on our desktop transparently. Our document, video, and music folders act just as if they were on our local hard drive, courtesy of a few symlinks. It’s actually easy to forget that they are stored on Hiari downstairs.

SSH: Unlike Nakato, Hiari has no GUI desktop. Instead I can log in to a command shell via SSH. The connection is encrypted, so I can log in from pretty anywhere without worry.

UPnP: I also installed MediaTomb on Hiari, so she now serves music and video to UPnP devices (like my PS3 and my D-Link network mp3 player).

Internet Music Server: NFS lets me access my mp3s on the local network, and UPnP lets my devices access them. But what about when I’m away from home? GNUMP3d lets me stream my music over the internet from just about anywhere. It was easy to set up, and offers the ability to protect it’s interface with a password. Eventually I hope to upgrade to something that uses SSL to make things a little more secure.

DynamicDNS: We have DSL for internet, which means that our home IP address is constantly changing. I set up a free account on no-ip.com, and installed their (also free) client on Hiari. This gives me a free, easy to remember internet address that is always up to date.

TorrentFlux: TorrentFlux is a BitTorrent client that can be operated off of a remote server through a web interface. The old lady and I can just log onto Hiari’s TorrentFlux admin page and queue up torrents to our hearts content. We can close the browser and forget about them until we decide we want to see if anything new has downloaded.

You’re on TV!

Nakato has a dual-monitor capable graphics card and my television has a VGA port, making me only a few cables away from being able to use all these new multimedia capabilities right from the couch – which is the whole point of this exercise.

Most Linux installations end up using Xinerama for dual-monitors, but it’s not really what I wanted. Since my second monitor is a TV, I don’t actually want the second monitor to be treated as an extension of my desktop – which is Xinerama’s main feature.

With a large shared desktop, windows and dialogs might accidently get switched to a blank monitor when the TV is turned off. What I wanted was to have the monitor itself treated as a second desktop that I can switch to at will for playing games and watching movies. Support for this behavior is actually part of Xorg as-is. A few modifications to my xorg.conf settings and everything was running.

Finishing Hardware Touches

Along with a desktop, I need to get a couple other things over the TV to really make this complete: Audio and a good game controller.

Audio wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped: the VGA channel on my TV doesn’t have its own audio input. This bites, because it means I can’t use my TV speakers for output from Nakato. If I had a sound system hooked up to my TV, it wouldn’t have been a problem… but I don’t really have room for a fancy sound system.

I resolved this with an ultra-cheap (under $15) set of small computer speakers and an audio splitter with long cable. Not the most elegant solution, but it sounds good enough for us.

The game controller was also a challenge. I have a PS3 and several controllers, so I was hoping that they’d work for Linux gaming. No dice. They kinda work, but the button mapping is a mess.

Luckily, USB gamepads are cheap nowadays, and I got this baby for a song. What I really like about it is that the cable retracts into the controller’s housing… I have a real problem with leaving controllers and their cables all over the living room.

The new controller works with Linux out of the box, no messy drivers necessary. But it’s not very convenient to plug it into the desktop when I’m sitting on the couch. I solved this by throwing a long USB cable over to my TV cabinet and duct-taping a little 4-port USB hub to the housing of my cable box.

There are wireless gamepads out there too, but few of them seem to recharge via USB. That’s a deal-breaker for me. I’m not interested in constantly swapping out rechargeable AA batteries. Dear USB device makers: Why do you insist on manufacturing so many devices that require batteries without providing a facility to recharge them through the USB port?

Games

Arcade Games: For arcade machine games, I use sdlmame. Unfortunately, Ubuntu still hasn’t bundled an official build for my CPU (AMD64), but I found a preliminary version here that worked perfectly.

Nintendo and Super Nintendo: GFceu and zSNES work great for Nintendo and Super Nintendo games respectively.

pict0011-b.jpg
(The old lady enjoys a stimulating game of spacial relationships.)

Nintendo 64: This was more of challenge… Mupen64 is the only actively developed Nintendo 64 emulator for Linux. The version in the Ubuntu repos was extremely buggy, so I had to make my own binary – which was a pain. Ubuntu’s focus on being friendly means that it doesn’t come with many dev packages pre-installed. Of course, they are all just an apt-get away… but sometimes figuring out exactly what you are missing can be a challenge.

Watching Movies

This worked out of the box. I had to install some codecs to view things like DivX and Xvid, but Totem prompted me to do this automatically. Here’s a picture of the old lady enjoying some original Star Trek on the big screen, courtesy of our fancy new media setup:

pict0010-b.jpg

Still To Do

Anybody who is into home networking will tell you that there is always something left to do. And anybody who is into home media will tell you the same thing. Bringing the two together is bad magic for the gadget obsessed.

Remote Control: Currently, I have to use the mouse and keyboard on Nakato to control movies and launch games. I already have a gazillion remotes, including 1 bluetooth remote for my PS3, 1 IR remote for the cable, and 1 IR remote for the TV. I’d love a programmable universal remote that does both bluetooth and IR, but I’m afraid that even if such a thing exists, it costs like $500. It takes a special kind of man to spend $500 on a remote control, and I’m not him.

Game Launcher: I want some kind of front end for launching games and other software that can be controlled by a joystick. There are a few things out there … Wah!Cade looks great, but I’m having trouble compiling it for my AMD64 processor.

Thin Clients: The old lady and I are house hunting, and my grand plan is to install thin clients with tiny LCD screens in various rooms to access things like music and Wikipedia (to resolve debates). Obviously, this isn’t really necessary in our tiny apartment. But I’ve been thinking about the various different flavors of client computing available, and what sorts of hardware I’d like to run them on.

Wine: I’m thinking about playing with Wine to get some games from the Windows world working on Nakato. We’ll see, I have so many entertainment options that I’m not sure if I’m going to need to go there for quite some time.

I’ll take Ganesha, You take Muhammad

Posted in General on January 25, 2008 by Kit

I just wanted to share Faith Fighter with everyone. It’s Mortal Kombat between the world’s most popular imaginary friends.

A Series of Interesting Items

Posted in General, Online Gaming, PC Gaming with tags , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2008 by Kit

No time, no excuses – here’s some interesting stuff I’m seeing today.

Online game rivalry ends with real murder

All this shit does is convince me that my all stereotypes of online gamers are correct. Just kidding.

The press slobbers all over this in the same way they slobbered all over Satanic D&D Brainwashing back in the 80s. Fact is, there are some psychos out there who can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. I’m willing to bet this’ll be true with any other new entertainment medium our children invent.

Still, it is a troubling story. Online gamers… will this make you think twice about who you choose to interact with in the game? Does the existence of (a statistically insignificant number of) people who will murder you when you beat them give you any second thoughts?

None of this is why I don’t play World of Warcraft. I just think MMOs suck.

Free Game! Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden!

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I don’t even know where to begin. It’s like a Final Fantasy game only it stars Charles Barkley in a post-cyberpocalyptic New York where basketball has been banned. Just… watch… the trailer.

My Living Room

A man who keeps his computers for an average of 6 years between major upgrades is walking a fine line when it comes to Geek Cred. You are either a luddite who hates technology or an equally frightening sort of uber-geek who corners people at parties to tell jokes about vi, bash, or the latest revision of the GPL.

While I’m probably more of the latter than I care to admit… I plead that mostly I’m just cheap. I hate upgrades and I hate spending money on something I already have. So I tend to run computers until they accumulate so much cruft that the hard drive quietly asks me to take it out behind the shed and just shoot it for pity’s sake.

So my old computer has been moved down to the basement to quietly serve files, stream music, and download torrents. In its place is a shiny new computer with a lot of new and interesting capabilities. I’m nt going to list stats here, because I don’t want to be one of those guys. But let’s just say I can render with the best of ’em.

My current favorite new capability? The ability to use my computer to play Mario Kart 64 on my TV while Shae uses her own time more productively.

That’s right, I’m using my computer to play Mario Kart 64 and that’s my favorite part of this upgrade.

Next post: Remind me to tell you this great vi joke I heard the other day…