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Column: The Aberrant Gamer

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': No More Complaints

January 31, 2008 12:00 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

The core of the game market is its very own culture, and at times it can be a bit tricky to understand, a tangle of contradictions. We’re geeks – we don’t want to be cool by anyone’s standard, and yet we retain the right to judge nearly anything outside of our world as lame.

We’re often deemed as antisocial or isolationist, and in many cases embrace that judgment – but we want to find each other online, to play together, network and discuss en masse nearly constantly. We’re annoyed whenever the mainstream media misunderstands our pastime – and yet we love to brawl with them. We don’t want to be part of the mainstream – and yet, we often wish our non-gaming friends would just “get it.” Alone and yet in a crowd, immersed in fantasy and yet immediately reactionary to real-world events, craving challenge while longing for accessibility.

With that in mind, it’s no small challenge game developers face trying to produce something that will appeal to us. We want games to be fun, but when we’re not occasionally frustrated, we dismiss the lightweight, relegating the title to the realm of the casual. We want depth and engagement – but we’ll snooze through too much dialogue, cinematics and story. We want emotion, but characters being “emo” is something to be mocked.

We know we’re a reactionary bunch – even the best among us as individuals have been caught up in the mob psychology from time to time, with a little help from the internet. And for quite a while now, it’s seemed like the core of the gaming audience is impossible to please, continually frustrated on a real emotional level by games that try to pretend they “get it,” but are really just trying superficially to hit all the right notes.

But with No More Heroes, it’s finally happened – someone’s made a game that knows who we are.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': What Are You Fighting For?

January 27, 2008 12:00 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Shooting has always been, and will probably always be, a core game mechanic. Not that this necessarily needs to involve violence – we’ve shot bubbles, fireballs that turn plants into coins, and portals, to name just a few, without ever harming anyone. But in successful story-driven games, the cultural relevance of a given game mechanic is often extrapolated to create a story. And the easiest story that can be spun from projectile-attack game mechanics is war.

War is so often a component of video games not just because the mechanics lend themselves easily, but because, over centuries of humanity, war has often been a component of the human condition. The morality of war, or lack thereof, is an issue discussed and debated in every era, across every facet of global society. And sometimes, as a result, we end up discussing the morality of war video games.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Playing The Field'

January 18, 2008 12:01 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

I started with nothing but an empty lot, overrun with stones and weeds. And over the course of years, I labored from sunup to sundown, building my humble farm. The seasons marched on, sometimes singing my nape with blazing heat, at other times blanketing my fields in a mantle of snow. But I persevered.

Now, I am the proprietor of a successful dairy farm where ten cows earn me hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in cheese. Tiny sprites, masters of their craft, labor dutifully across my acres of seasonal crops. I own a private island, a vacation cottage, and a barn built entirely out of golden lumber. I’m a billionaire.

The only thing left for me, as master of this fruitful domain, is to find one special girl to make my wife.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

January 11, 2008 8:00 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Last week, the Aberrant Gamer was forced to acknowledge spending an alarmingly significant number of hours on games. And not just playing – thinking about them, writing about them, chatting about them and making amateurish game-related craft projects. In and of itself, it wasn’t so alarming.

What gave me pause was how nervous the idea of stopping made me.

To that end, the Aberrant Gamer declared a week-long moratorium on gaming of any kind, in the hopes of learning something about a chronic, habitual game user’s relationship with the behavior, the nature of gaming, and the abiding nature of the soul, or something. In other words, I wanted to see what would happen. And I invited readers, both in the original column and in a challenge extended to the readers of my workblog, Sexy Videogameland.

So how’d we do?

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Resolution

January 3, 2008 8:00 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

During the holiday break, Aberrant Gamer took a hiatus from whence it’s happy to return. And over said holidays, I put in a lot of game time, and received an array of game-related presents. I received a package of Sculpey craft clay, and promptly used it (amateurishly) to mold tiny Chocobos -- which match the Chocobo mug I received as another present –and an array of Harvest Moon farm animals.

I also made a Weighted Companion Cube cell phone strap to go with my Portal ringtone. I spent all of Christmas Eve playing Guitar Hero 3 with my friend, and then we spent all of New Year’s Eve playing Umbrella Chronicles. When the Times Square ball dropped, we paused the game, switched to the TV, counted down with the rest of the world. Then we went back to the game.

We live in New York City. Does this seem, perhaps, just slightly unhealthy?

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': The Year's Most Poignant Moments

December 19, 2007 8:00 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

With the march of time, the games we remember from years past are those defined by a pivotal moment wherein we made a transition, even briefly, from players in the seat of control to people at the mercy of a revelation. If games were just toys, we’d still love them, but we follow them as a medium because they affect us. The question of emotional, personal engagement continues to persist this year, widely discussed in industry circles – just how essential it is, how to create it in an authentic way.

In a banner year, what will we remember about this year’s slate of titles? The answers are largely personal and subjective, but here are the Aberrant Gamer’s top five most affecting moments in games. It should be noted that while a couple of game endings are indisputable candidates, they were not included here -- endings are naturally affecting by virtue of being conclusions, and also, simply to avoid spoiling. Nonetheless, spoilers proliferate, so we suggest a quick eye-scan of the header titles before reading.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': The Year's Best Characters

December 12, 2007 8:01 PM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

The end of the year tends to be a time of reflection, and it’s been said that this is one of gaming’s most prolific – if not its best – years yet. 2007 has seen all kinds of evolutions on the experience of gaming, and while we perhaps haven’t hit yet on that elusive formula for true emotional engagement, this year’s offering feels a lot like nudging up against the boundary of everything we’ve previously believed games are capable of being, in terms of the ways they can affect, immerse and even permanently change us.

As the industry struggled to find that magic balance between story and gameplay, compelling characters took front and center. The reasons we play span from getting the opportunity to be a hero – or a villain – to experiencing a new perspective, a different ability, a new angle on the world, a new sense of a self that is not us. It can be argued that the key to a game experience is a lucky cocktail of features that make us love – or loathe – our characters, that our final impression will hinge on what that character was, or was not able to do. With that in mind, we take a look this week at five of the year’s most aberrant, interesting, compelling and effective characters in games. Minor spoilers within...

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Playing The Hero

December 6, 2007 2:10 PM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

If creating motivation in gameplay were a simple matter, designers would be all set. As it is, there are many kinds of gamers, and many kinds of motivation to which they respond. One tried-and-true motivator that has been a standby through the ages is the "save the princess" mechanic -- create some simple emotional or conceptual attachment to a character, and then whisk her away. There are many variations on this, of course -- find the lost relative, rescue all the hostages on the floor, extract the military scientist.

This mechanic works well not only because it can create a high-stakes purpose, but because the idea of being on a rescue mission endows the protagonist -- and, thereby, the player -- with a sense of his or her own heroism. It's rewarding to feel you can make a difference, that you are critical to someone else's survival. Usually, this savior role means defeating a boss, navigating a difficult terrain, or assembling the clues to solve a mystery.

But this is the Aberrant Gamer, and we don't do usual.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Are The Kids Alright?

November 28, 2007 4:30 PM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Combine the veil of anonymity with the community elements the internet supports and you’ve often got a vocal mob. Far from being an exception, gamers are perhaps a case-in-point – off the top of your head, can you think of any other discussion topic, aside perhaps from American politics, that incites such a firestorm? An earlier Aberrant Gamer column took a look at the “hot-button issues” in the gaming community, examining those topics most likely to bunch gamer panties, and theorized that lingering social misconceptions and the fact that we still feel mostly alone in our world despite advances in networked gaming and an increasingly broader audience contributed largely to our defensive attitude and quick rise to anger.

One of the “hot-button issues” Aberrant Gamer highlighted in the past was our often unjust scrutiny at the hands of mainstream media, complete with accusations of violence, maladjustment, addiction and anti-social behavior. We’ve had to defend our favorite hobby from this kind of malign almost since its inception. We’re innocent.

Or, we were. Lately, many have found themselves asking whether, as our own society with its own set of norms and behavioral standards, gamers are approaching – if not already crossed – a line from the justifiably passionate into the alarmingly vitriolic. As certain kinds of gamer behavior, mainly online, reaches a fever pitch, many of us have found it increasingly difficult to take a defensive stance. It’s becoming harder not to ask certain questions about ourselves.

Are we crueler than we were years ago? And have we, as a society, become unhealthy?

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Meet The Family

November 22, 2007 12:01 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

If you’re a regular reader of The Aberrant Gamer, you know by now that hentai game stories tend to hinge on implausible conventions – exaggerated male fantasies that serve as a vehicle for the action. Generally, the h-game protagonist is a markedly ordinary young male of high school or college age, whose poor luck and relationship difficulties are suddenly reversed by a stroke of impossible luck, wherein he finds himself suddenly surrounded by eager beauties. Those women too, follow certain archetypes, and thus we have a formula.

In that respect, The Sagara Family is formulaic in every way; the protagonist, Yusuke, is sent by his father to board nearer to his school with a family consisting of a beautiful, youthful widow and her four equally nubile daughters. The game is billed as “the ultimate homestay fantasy,” and indeed it is – Mom wears skimpy lingerie as she swills sake late in the evening, and the youngest daughter, Ruruka, gets the urge to crawl into bed alongside Yusuke at night. By the way, she’s young enough to be considered innocent in doing so – yet, says the game, she’s 18, of course.

The first sex scene takes place between Yusuke and his host mother, Maria, not ten minutes into the story’s unfolding, once each female and her general, two-dimensional nature has been introduced. With h-game stories often comprised of rather long, elaborate narratives – essentially, the player must click, click and click through a great deal of text to get to the action – it’s not unusual to throw the first bone, so to speak, early. That the game is stereotypical and cheap is apparent – but if you’re a regular reader of the Aberrant Gamer, you know by now that there’s always something else going on.