Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The God Mode: In Defense of Cheat Codes

Infinite lives. No gravity. Endless ammo. Playing as Spiderman in a dress.

These are all things you can have with cheat codes. Cheating in video games is almost as old as the industry itself. The first cheat codes were completely accidental, left in by game designers after testing and later revealed to the public. The idea caught on quick and Nintendo's popular subscription magazine, Nintendo Power, cashed in on the craze. They turned cheating into a market, branching out from cheat codes to hints and walk-throughs.

Players made cheating popular because it was fun! Now, new generation video games feature fewer and fewer cheat codes and more and more boring perks, like the ability to regenerate life whenever you want or spawn a random car. Gone are the days of big headed characters, fun character skins, and extreme strength.

Big titles like Call of Duty and Little Big Planet either have no cheat codes or repetitive, dull ones that we've seen time and time again. It seems cheat codes have been written right out of games, but they used to be such an integral part of gaming. We need them back.

In no way do I advocate cheating in multi-player games. I'm not talking about hackers either. You guys do your thing; I just want mine back. Well, as long as your thing doesn't bother anyone else(that's another post).


Some might say cheat codes disturb the integrity of a game, that it distorts reality, but what happens when you put in a cheat code is actually a moment of suspension. The game is put on pause and at that time, you're playing with a game, not in a game. It becomes a plaything then. You're invincible. The story doesn't matter. The new story is yours.

The famous Konami Code
A game, like life, has rules. For example, there's gravity. Physics. Life or death. Cheat codes let you create your own rules as you go along. This type of game-play is completely different from the story or plot line. Sometimes, content isn't what we're looking for. 

A few weeks back, I was frustrated. Just those normal average stresses that come with being a student. I slipped Infamous into my PS3, started a new file, so as not to disturb my morally good file, and prepared for world domination. What I got instead was more frustration, frustration with the fact that my powers at the beginning of the game were so weak, that beating up people on the street just wasn't fun. So I quit and thought about writing this post.

What happened to sandboxes? To unlimited power? Stress release is a good reason for playing a game, no?
And you know what justifies buying a sandbox?

Consumer Codes

Face it. Video games are expensive. There are times we shell out 60 bucks for 9 hours of disappointment(Prototype...). Wouldn't you, the consumer, like some guarantee that even if a game is terrible, it'll have some use to you in the future? Cheat codes, my friends, cheat codes.

But having the ability to enjoy the game outside of its story has other pros as well. A lot of these new, story intensive games don't have the highest replay value. After one run through, you've pretty much done it all. That's when your buck stops with a bang. The game sits on a shelf simply for the purpose of player proof*. Definitely, cheat codes can make an old dog new again. 

Still not convinced? Well, I love gaming. I love it so much, I want everyone to play video games. But I'll admit, picking up a controller nowadays isn't as easy as it once was. When I started playing, Nintendo controllers had three basic buttons: the directional pad, "B," and "A."
Hemingwayesque, isn't it?

Gradually, over time, the controls became more complicated, but we grew along with them. Somehow, three buttons turned into 16 buttons. I didn't even notice it was happening! Hell, if I didn't play video games now, just looking at a PS3 controller would send me running back to Monopoly. Not to mention each console has its own type of controller.
It's alive!

Between constantly losing health and looking at the buttons, life as a new gamer isn't easy. Games can be difficult, even hard to understand. A walkthrough can easily help a new player move past a frustrating section in the game instead of giving up. Come on, game designers! Cheat codes are in your favor!

Easy Clean-Up

Besides what I've already mentioned, cheat codes provide an outlet for creativity.  Minecraft, a modifiable block world, originally began as an indie sandbox game. As it grew in popularity, cheat codes appeared that allowed players to fly and easily build structures. It became so popular that Minecraft officially incorporated it as "Creative Mode." 

Will Wright, creator of SimCity and Spore, has this to say about creativity:
"It’s really been about trying to construct games around the user, making them the center of the universe. How can you give players more creative leverage and let them show off that creativity to other people?"
It's not difficult to see the potential in cheat codes for self-expression or creativity. Entire games are devoted to it. Professors encourage it. Filmmakers live in it--Why shouldn't video games?

As games advance, cheat codes devolve. We have more complicated plots, controls, and graphics but our cheat codes are limited to changing the colors of our shirts from white to grey. But let's not forget that games are also easier today than they were when they first came out. Some games like Contra required codes just to beat them. So games today are definitely not as challenging as they were before, what with save files and unlimited lives, short chapters and incredibly quick ammo spawn times, but you can always add to the fun, to the replay value, and the creativity of a game.


Yo momma so fat, she has cheat codes for Wii Fit!

Ooh, what?! Ya'll been told.

*Player Proof: Games that sit on your shelf only to make you feel more cultured or experienced. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Can Saving the World be Fun?

Friday, September 21st is a day that means nothing to a good portion of the world. To many, it’s the end of the work week and the start of the weekend. But most don’t know that Jeremy Gilley put forth immense effort to have September 21st recognized by the United Nations as Peace Day.

And succeeded.

September 21st is officially Peace Day! This isn’t news, though. Peace Day has been around for over a decade, but the news hasn’t reached our ears yet. How can there be peace if no one knows it exists? Part of the problem is spreading the word, but the other half of the problem is that awareness can only go so far, and that distance is about 30 feet in any direction.

We hear about social issues all the time. Organizations try to catch our eye with emotionally appealing commercials and guilt trips. Sarah McLaughlin’s depressing song does wonders for reflexes as we trip over ourselves to change the channel. They may be able to put some tears in our eyes, but as soon as Friends comes back on, the tears evaporate. God forbid you should be walking by the university library on the day someone’s advocating global warming. In which case, you get something like this:

Can you spot the students? Eight of them are in this picture.

The problem isn’t us (sort of)—it’s the medium. Television doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Advocators are annoying so we avoid them. And donations, while helpful, are just a way to clear out the change. “Well,” you say. “You sure are talking high n’ mighty there. If you know so much, how do we fix it then?”

Simple—with video games.

Now, I’m not the first to say that, and I probably won’t be the last, but using video games as a medium to not only raise awareness, but also involvement, is an excellent option. Beneath the bloodshed and the grenade explosions, the nymphs and the dragons, there’s also a desire for peace. We want it in video games. We want to restore the world to a proper state, where all its inhabitants can be happy. So why not merge one of the most expansive mediums with some of the more engrossing social issues?

The United Nations’ World Food Programme(WFP) released its first PC game—Food Force—in 2005, for the fight against hunger. The game itself registered over 10 million users, prompting the WFP to cozy up with Konami Digital. This led to the 2011 release of Food Force…for social media. Playable on Facebook, the game takes advantage of this social media perk by leading the player, and their chosen Facebook friends, though six levels where they face obstacles while sending out humanitarian aid, growing crops, and raising farm animals in order to create a “real world impact.”

Not unlike Food Force, Zynga, a social media game developer, helped raise money for Water.org by offering a blue water bison for purchase, raising $300,000 for the organization!

Yeah, all of these are organizations dedicated to helping social causes, but what if I told you it's not just lobbyists and hippies*?  MTv has put their best foot forward in an attempt to raise awareness about the problems in Darfur. In 2006, MTv released Darfur is Dying, a video game aimed at illustrating the lives of Darfurian people in refugee camps. You play as 1 of 10 characters, each of which has to increase the survival of the camp by doing things like foraging for water. The game does a good job of interweaving action with purpose, having dire consequences for failing, such as losing a character to death or possibly even rape. As you play, the back story of the Darfur conflict unwinds.

Games like Darfur is Dying revolve around survival, but there are also games that promote peace. After the September 11th attacks, NewsGaming.com unveiled its first game, September 12th. In the game, the more violence you use to stop terrorism, the more terrorists are made. The goal of the game is to decrease violence and also to show how "current US tactics on the war on terror affect the civilian population and generate more terrorism." After the Madrid bombing, NewsGaming.com released Madrid, which paid homage to the victims.

People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance
Steve York also created A Force More Powerful, based on the 1999 documentary, which is credited as being the "first interactive teaching tool in the field of nonviolent conflict." Players used several nonviolent strategies and tactics like boycotting and protesting to successfully solve conflicts around the world. The game has since been discontinued, paving the way for The International Center for Nonviolent Conflict to create a more updated game based on the same principles, People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance. This one is far more personal, as you embody a leader of a popular movement.

Funding is an issue. It's always an issue. For an advocacy video game to be interesting, it needs to look good and feel good. Making a commercial video game can cost more than most films. In fact, A Force More Powerful required $3 million dollars, while the game sold for about $20. Darfur is Dying was created on a
$50,000 grant and despite its much smaller budget, it gets the point across. Funding will affect the reach a game may have, but it doesn't detract from the deeper sentiment of the game.

Video games reflect a billion dollar industry. They're growing with this generation and are just begging to be put to work, even more so then what's already out there. Just in commercial games alone, you find the need for peace and the binary of morality. Games like Deus Ex and Infamous don't reward you for being good. Actually, being good is difficult, and in some cases, way harder than being good (i.e. sneaking around to avoid casualties).

And yes, there are violent games. Just like there are violent movies and violent books and violent music and round and round we go. But those games that can be classified as more violent than others--shooters in specific--are not the top selling genre(granted they're the second, but only one genre of many).

The complexity of our cultures and our world is what makes video games so accessible, interesting, and personal. Such intimacy created between game and gamer is a strong one. It puts you right there, in the area of conflict. Sometimes you're in trouble. Sometimes only you can save the world. In this case, only we can save the world. This type of interactive intimacy brings us closer to the issues people face every day, to the community, and to ourselves. It's time to get serious about gaming and connect with the millions that are already playing them.

Can saving the world be fun? Yeah, why not?

*Don't hit me.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Baseline is: Video Game Writers Suck

On September 12, The Atlantic interviewed Junot Diaz on his new book, but what came out was probably the most sought after explanation for tawdry, scantily-clad video game females this world over. Plainly said:

Guys, you suck.

In Mr.Diaz’s own delicate, refined prose, he states:

“The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck. The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women's representations of men are. For me, I always want to do better. I wish I had another 10 years to work those muscles so that I can write better women characters. I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am.”

Some part of me, honestly, gave men the benefit of the doubt. I simply assumed that they were doing it for marketing purposes or just illustrating the female form as it has been for centuries—as a sexualized object. But no, it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, men can’t write.

Can’t write women, of course.

When you take a look at the few female game designers that are out there, it’s easy to understand why so many Croftesque* characters make it to the shelves. In the UK alone, women make up only 12% of the industry. But the few women who work hard for their wages have made memorable games.

Amy Hennig, head writer and creative director for the immensely successful Uncharted series, helped create believable women, rooted in reality. The series' three main female characters—Elena, Chloe, and Marlowe—feature full clothes, strong wills, independence, and the average bust. None of that impossible bust to waist ratio. These are women you could picture seeing, maybe having a meal at the mall or walking their dogs.
Take a look at those massively average breasts (Source: Naughty Dog)

Hennig isn’t the only woman known for creating down to earth women. You’d be surprised to know that quite a few leading games have women behind the scenes, including Gears of War 3 and Deus Ex.
Now, this isn’t a new topic at all. This is an industry that has been dominated by misogynistic thinking since it's beginning, leading to the creation of many fantastic characters like Heavenly Sword's Nariko or Resident Evil's Jill Valentine, but also some that lacked, say, a women’s touch. This includes female characters that are extremely masculine, have no thought process, can’t dress (more so my own nitpick), and/or  are solely for rescuing.

Quite a good deal of games feature a male protagonist, or rather, a mandatory male protagonist. Many titles, like Infamous or Grand Theft Auto,  focus on solely one character's journey, who tends to be male.As such, it's easy for other characters, namely female ones, to fall short of grandeur and become a prop. Eventually, however, this wasn't the only option. One of the few genres of video games that first began adding the gender choice were MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. Now we have PC and console games like Dragon Age and Fallout, which allow the player to customize their characters, gonads included.

Of course, the notion of what is a "real woman" will always come into play here, and by allowing customization, the "real woman" is up to the player's own definition. And like most things, this quick fix can also perpetuate these same misogynistic norms, but it's a step in the right direction (and maybe another post).

It’s clear that we could use more choice in the hands of the player, since, Mr.Diaz so eloquently put it, male writers suck at creating the real woman. More customization means more happiness for all of us. The boys get their bimbos and the girls get their heroes. In this way, women can become more immersed in the game world, as they play what could be a representation of themselves, instead of living out someone else's story. But writers also need to step up to the plate and reinvent the idea of woman as strong, yet sentimental, brave, but not afraid to admit fear, and real. Just real.

*Croftesque: Qualities of Lara Croft, including large breasts, tiny waist, and a huge...you get the point.

Monday, September 10, 2012

You Should Read This #1

“What we’re seeing in games is art at a world-class stage design that is almost unmatched anywhere else. It has been very exciting to me to see so many ideas that integrate social good and efforts to make the world a better place into games.”
 -Al gore


Friday, September 7, 2012

The Average Gamer

“The Princess is in another castle!”

If you recognize that line (don’t you dare google it), then welcome to the exclusive, super-secret world of video gamers! Membership is selective and offers a lifetime of good times.

A lifetime!

That’s a lot of time. But wait! Why dedicate your life to videogames? Well, everyone else is doing it. Over 50% of American households enjoy some kind of console, ranging from the family friendly Wii to the hard brick of Xbox. You might be thinking to yourself “Wow, that’s over half of the population!”

Yeah, it is, you smart cookie.*

Credit: Entertainment Software Association
Video games are popular, not just in the U.S, but around the world.  This is due partly to their success as entertainment, but like television, music, and books, video games, too, have a higher calling. They reflect the life and culture around us and make some serious social commentaries about the world we live in.

Games take actuality’s afflictions and shove them in your face, force you to play through them, to realize and grow with them. Video games are about us, about humans, the human condition, and the perils we may face. They place you in the center of the action—your own backyard.

While video games might have been for 12 year olds once upon a time, they have been elevated in terms of respect and opinion. I believe this day and age is a huge turning point for the role video games play in our society. They are becoming less and less a young boy’s toy or an unemployed 40 year old man’s only escape from his mother's basement and more of an interaction between us and our inner thoughts.

Video games offer a type of personal intimacy that no film or music can. Playing a video game, more often than not, requires your full attention and interaction. There’s not much else you can do while that control is in your hand. The whole world is at your fingertips, and you must save it.

It is because of this intimacy that young and old alike are plunged into a constant fight against the plights of humanity. We engage in what is not an alternate reality, but another lens to view our surroundings with instead. There are many reasons why we play video games, stemming from the urge for entertainment to the desire for superhuman abilities, but behind the cartoon characters and the imaginative fiction lies a truth.

And that is what we hope to discover.

Join me as we examine video games from some new angles…and some old ones too.

*Cookies aren't smart, but I'm bad at math.

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