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GameSetWatch.com is the alt.video game weblog and sister site of Gamasutra.com. It is dedicated to collecting curious links and media for offbeat and oft-ignored games from consoles old and new, as well as from the digital download, iOS, and indie spaces.

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Column: The Game Anthropologist

The Game Anthropologist: Mega Man 9 And The Bridging of Generations

October 17, 2008 4:00 PM |

['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week, he analyzes how Mega Man 9 doesn't only represent the distant past, but how far we've come, and what's changed about all gamers.]

Okay, so I've gotten to play Mega Man 9 a bit and I think the game is a great specimen, gaming's first meta-period-piece. Some people call Upton Sinclair's The Jungle a snapshot of culture and a piece of history, but not a very literary or entertaining read. It maintains its importance as a cultural artifact, a turning point, something that matters.

Mega Man 9 doesn't particularly innovate or call itself art or revolutionary, but it is a great piece of our period, something that will help old gamers understand new and new understand old.

The game may not have consciously meant to do that, but it had to be in the developers' minds. The thing I love most is that it manages to display the developers' opinions (or at least, the opinions they're allowed to express) of video games in an open state. What I mean is that, while the message Mega Man 9 sends is not readily apparent to those not critical of games, it's not exactly invisible.

The Game Anthropologist: 'Warhammer Online - A Community Analysis'

October 3, 2008 8:00 AM |

war_highelf.jpg['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week he speaks from the trenches about the developing community of EA/Mythic's new MMO, Warhammer Online.]

If you want the real dirt on Warhammer Online, the best reading comes from those who've played. Electronic Arts, Mythic, and the publications covering WAR can discuss features all they want, but that hasn't always kept those investigating satiated, which is why you'll see forums, comment threads, and sometimes published articles directed toward what it's like to play WAR with other people. There's playing a game by yourself, and there's playing a game with people, and when we have a rare challenger to World of Warcraft, we need to compare both parts.

So, what's the community like in WAR? Plenty of factors make this question a very personal one, but I'll attempt to answer it from these two simple viewpoints of trying it alone and trying it with someone else.

If you try WAR alone, it'll feel lonelier than some other MMOs. For starters, grouping requires less communication, which enhances play time but lessens bonding or memory of other players. I've not yet added a single person to my friends list because it simply doesn't enter into my mind.

Because WAR gives you multiple paths to level your characters, there's no urgency to find someone you can rely on for a specific task—if a task is difficult, it is not an opportunity you regret skipping. Continuing to explore or saying “you know, I'd rather do something else instead, I don't want to wait around” give the journey a different flavor.

The path to glory is still heavily shaped by the game design, but it makes players feel like they have more control due to the abundance of options and the ease with which a person rotates among those options. More control means less submission to imposed standards, which means less cohesive socialization.

The Game Anthropologist: Games' Influencing of Players

September 14, 2008 4:00 PM |

stanford.jpg['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's take on gaming communities. One time he participated in a psychology experiment that colored his outlook on game rules, game communities, and the influence each has on the other - and here's some ensuing thoughts.]

The "Game Anthropologist" emphasizes game communities because a game is only as good as the community it spawns; not only are games more interesting because of their communities, but the communities that participate in a game and its network tells us a lot about the game.

This begs a question: "Which more strongly influences the other: the demands of game communities and players on the games that are created, or the games on the communities and players that play them?"

I have an anecdote on the matter.

At college I majored in one of the most overpopulated lib arts programs: psychology. At the rather large university I attended, requests for test subjects are frequent. One experiment I participated in involved a computer game a professor had designed.

I don't remember the mechanics perfectly. Participants were told they'd be playing a game and start with forty dollars, represented digitally in the game. The sum of money would increase or decrease in size depending on choices made during the game and upon the game's conclusion an assistant would present the participants with the cash equivalent of what they'd made during the game.

Each round, the players were required to give a certain amount of money to the other three players as they saw fit; the minimum amount was about five dollars. If players gave a lot of it to certain people, and everyone chose that route, everyone would get more money from the game, but if one person chose not to participate in that mechanic, that person would benefit at everyone else's expense. Each participant did this all alone by using a computer in a tiny room; we'd make our choices, and within a minute we'd find out how much each person gave to us each round.

Column: The Game Anthropologist: The World Behind The World Of Warcraft

August 23, 2008 8:00 AM |

[Regular GSW column 'The Game Anthropologist' is all about gaming communities. This week, Michael Walbridge attempts to summarize the world of the World of Warcraft in its entirety.]

"Oh no, not another article about World of Warcraft. Tired of hearing about it." If you've ever thought that, stop reading. You won't find this interesting.

Some of you still are reading, though, and we both know why that is: because the topic is humongous. There is the universe, and there are galaxies, solar systems, and planets. There are development platforms and genres, there is World of Warcraft, and there are individual games and their communities.

World of Warcraft has spawned at least two books of published essays. One of them has an entire chapter on the most mundane of the most mundane--fishing. World of Warcraft spawns entire blogs and sites that are dedicated to the many, many corners of WoW. To the experienced gamer, games have the ability to be an entirely different experience from person to person.

To the beginning gamer who plays WoW as one of his first games, this is understood quickly instead of gradually. This leads to an opportunity for intelligent observation, the scale of which equals insight into an entire country. Take a comment from a non-official WoW forum: "At 70, you can choose from one of three factions: Raider, PVP, and Casual. You then blame the other two factions for 'ruining the game.'"

Only in an MMO that is as large as World of Warcraft is it made clearly apparent that there are all kinds of players (people) and that video games can be a setting for social interaction, larger than life. You can meet another player and that player can feel, unlike the ones you regularly play with, like someone from another country, another world, another clique.

Even the division of the players into over 100 server still leaves your own cities populated with people who make themselves authority figures, public artists, savants, professionals, entrepreneurs, professors, thieves, beggars, preachers, and thugs. All who play it, know it.

Column: The Game Anthropologist: 'Game Community Interviews, Part 4 - The Brainy Gamer's Michael Abbott

August 10, 2008 8:00 AM |

typewriter.jpg[Regular GSW column 'The Game Anthropologist' is all about gaming communities. Recently, Michael Walbridge interviewed a number of game writers and summarized their thoughts on why so many game writers spend their spare time writing even more on their personal spaces. This week highlights some of the thoughts from professor Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer.]

Of the seven people I interviewed, Michael Abbott is the only one who is not a game journalist; he is, however, accurately classified as a games writer. His persona matches his writing: confident, mild, wise, and academic. Still, the two words that keep coming to my mind are "gentle" and "enthusiastic." While the Brainy Gamer is an experiment, he is not far removed from his subject material. It isn't just in text that he gets really excited about games and even more excited that people are talking about them with maturity in an open forum.

Brainy Gamer started in August 2007, a blog dedicated to "thoughtful conversation about video games". Before one year had passed, it had received over 270,000 unique visits, 1,000 RSS subscribers, and an average of 15-20 comments per post. (For those who dig Google Page Rank: 5, purely by word of mouth and text.)

I asked about why he had started it and what it was for. As many know, he is a professor at Wabash College. Brainy Gamer was initially simply a work project, but Brainy Gamer, a living and breathing creature, took on a different life. Even Abbott's opinions have been shaped by the discussion taking place, and now he has new and informed ideas about a myriad of topics, including gaming communities, their formation and evolution, and the place of games in academia.

"I took a sabbatical from teaching; this is my project. It's my attempt to bridge the gap from game community to a new form of game scholarship. Initially, my real purpose was to demonstrate at Wabash that you can be serious about games. The blog started, and it became clear to me that this is something that could be integrated into the liberal arts. It was a lightbulb moment."

"It all started as conversation, but now part of my mission with Brainy Gamer is to convince people that games can and should be a part of a curriculum. It's difficult: we have people who are saying 'just let me play games and have fun,' but there are also those who have never played games and who are saying 'how can we let this in the academy'? I think both groups are resistant, but for totally different reasons."

Column: The Game Anthropologist: 'Game Community Interviews, Part 3 - Leigh Alexander

July 30, 2008 12:00 AM |

typewriter.jpg[Regular GSW column 'The Game Anthropologist' is all about gaming communities. Recently, Michael Walbridge interviewed a number of game writers and summarized their thoughts on why so many game writers spend their spare time writing even more on their personal spaces. In the coming weeks, Walbridge will be detailing some of the key points from the individual interviews conducted for the piece. This week describes his third interview with former GSW columnist and current Kotaku writer Leigh Alexander.]

My wife and I went on a disaster of a vacation for over a week after I had talked to Kieron Gillen. My wife had a work party thing at the worst theme park of all time on the day of our return. I originally had thought I could interview Leigh inside of this park, but decided that no, I really couldn't, even if background noise was minimized. We went home and I rushed inside and called Leigh immediately because a car wreck on I-15 had made late (five minutes) to calling her.

Just as with the other New Yorker I interviewed, I talked to Leigh on Friday as the weekend dawned. I think I looked forward to talking to her more than anyone else because her blog was the first or second one I discovered and I had really based my own doctrine, if you will, on the content and style of what is written there and at the Aberrant Gamer.

Instead of immediately asking about the whole label or community thing, I simply asked why she had her personal weblog SVGL. Kotaku must take a heavy toll--that's a lot of writing and a lot of work and yet she still writes on her personal, non-ad-supplemented blog.

Why did she start it?

"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to say yet, so it was simply a repository for my thoughts and a place to practice my voice," she told me.

"Well, don't you get a hell of a lot of practice now without it? There must be another reason, a reason you still keep it."

"It's still important for me to be able to say things I want when there is nowhere to publish them," she told me. "I mean, it'd be a misconception to say that we are getting paid for our opinions all day and write thoughtful stuff--that's not what our jobs are." She did stress that thoughtfulness and opinions are still part of journalism as a whole; it's just that "think-pieces and editorials" are not the bulk of what she is getting paid to do.

Then I shifted, and asked if there's a commonality, a common, unacknowledged sort of creed all those blogs kept. "Game journalists are constantly having an identity crisis," she told me. "Fans have so few places to go," she told me. "Lots of people don't know about this kind of discussion, and many still don't. If more people knew this discussion was taking place I think we'd have more people who are interested."

"I didn't even know about this kind of discussion myself," I said. "I'd have gotten into a long time ago had I known about it. Gamasutra and GameSetWatch introduced me to it and from there I found the Aberrant Gamer and from there I found your blog and eventually decided to write this piece. Would you say there is a name for this? What do you all do?"

Unlike the last two people I talked to, there was no caution or hesitance with Leigh, at least not on this question. I'd never seen it written anywhere, but she'd obviously been thinking about it longer than I had. "Oh, I'd call it game criticism," she said.

Column: The Game Anthropologist: Culdcept Saga - On the Brink of Extinction

July 24, 2008 8:00 AM |

cs_box.jpg[The Game Anthopologist is about gaming communities. This week, Michael Walbridge explores the Culdcept Saga community and its struggles to survive and grow.]

If a game is beloved by its players, but doesn’t have the desired support from the developer or those who control the only networks you can play it on, what happens to the community? If it’s a game on Xbox LIVE, it dies, and you can only play by scouring the Internet for a partner and scheduling a match or co-op.

Most games on LIVE manage to find a replacement: another sports, FPS, or LIVE Arcade game to migrate to. But a few games are so unique that there is no PC equivalent and no foreseeable replacement for the nomadic community designate as the next oasis.

But there is an exception, a species we could put on the endangered list: Culdcept Saga, a game so unique and intensely loved by its few supporters that the community is going to extra effort to prevent its death.

A history: Culdcept Saga was released in February of this year and is a sequel to the cult classic Culcept, released in December of 2003 for the PS2. It combines strategy, cards, and dice rolls on a board and has puzzling game design choices, such as the revealing of each player’s hand when his turn comes.

The game is not built with the Xbox 360’s abilities in mind: it is fairly limited graphic-wise - or at least, not that different from what you see on a PlayStation 2 - and this is the main reason that at release, it only cost 40 dollars. It still has an “Only on Xbox 360” logo on the top, despite not being the system’s proudest game (unless, of course, you play it).

Reviews were highly mixed. Most games have a general consensus, but not here: Metacritic scores have a wide range, and in the February 2008 Game Informer, where the reviews come with a “second opinion” mini-review, the two scores were 7 and 8.5 (they usually come within half a point of each other).

Column: The Game Anthropologist: 'Game Community Interviews, Part 2 - Kieron 'NGJ' Gillen'

July 17, 2008 4:02 PM |

typewriter.jpg[Regular GSW column 'The Game Anthropologist' is all about gaming communities. Recently, Michael Walbridge interviewed a number of game writers and summarized their thoughts on why so many game writers spend their spare time writing even more on their personal spaces. In the coming weeks, Walbridge will be detailing some of the key points from the individual interviews conducted for the piece. This week describes the second interview with Kieron Gillen of Rock Paper Shotgun.]

My second interview was with a writer from the blog Rock Paper Shotgun, a place that covers my favorite games format, the PC. Not knowing how to approach, I thought, “Well, they’re four game journalists and they’re all British.” So I tried my best to do what an intelligent British gamer would: I mailed all four of them with the subject “I request a sacrifice”. One of them replied in part with

"Hi Mr Walbridge

You have prompted a shadowy gathering of the RPS hive mind. I step forth, and give the answer. Imagine this in a voice that's very deep, and flames are spouting from my nostrils.

Anyway - pleasure to meet you. Sorry that Carless has talked you into doing work for his evil GSW. I fear and shun him."

That’s how I met Kieron Gillen. I chose to talk to him over talking to all four of the RPS writers because I'm not sure how to talk to four people at once at this point, and I'm still collecting my thoughts. It turned out to be the right choice.

Column: The Game Anthropologist: 'Game Community Interviews, Part 1 - THE CROAL'

July 11, 2008 4:00 PM |

typewriter.jpg[Regular GSW column 'The Game Anthropologist' is all about gaming communities. So, last week, Michael Walbridge interviewed a number of game writers and summarized their thoughts on why so many game writers spend their spare time writing even more on their personal spaces. In the coming weeks, Walbridge will be detailing some of the key points from the individual interviews conducted for the piece. This week describes the first interview with Newsweek writer N'Gai Croal.]

N'gai was the first writer I interviewed, but not the first person I contacted. On the first day I started asking, which was June 6th, N'gai responds with "Can you do a phone interview at 4pm EST...i.e. in 20 minutes?"

Um.

I realize that it's Friday. He's a busy man, he happened to be in his office, and he has about an hour left before his work week, if it has any semblance of normal standards, is over. In short, I get lucky, and I also don't have my questions because I assumed that I'd have the weekend to write them. Guess not.

So I don't have a way of recording phone calls. I still wonder how a good way to do this would be--not everyone will agree to Skype. They may have better things to do, and they may not be interested in using a headset.

I called him in what seemed an instant later--the last time I felt like this was when I called up a girl to go on a date, a feeling I thought would never resurface in my lifetime. Who the hell do I think I am? I could talk to some of these other people, sure, but an editor at Newsweek? As my very first interview that I'm doing in video games land? When I just have one commentless little first article on a column at GameSetWatch?

"Hi," I say. My first question is incredibly stupid, yet I don't realize how laughably bad it is until weeks later; I'm still embarrassed every time I remember. "So uh, how do you pronounce your name?"
"Guy," he says. Stupid Sprint service blind spot in my stupid apartment! "Excuse me, what?" I say politely.

"Guy," I hear again.

Column: The Game Anthropologist: 'A Community That Writes About Games'

June 30, 2008 4:00 PM |

typewriter.jpg[The Game Anthropologist chronicles Michael Walbridge's ventures into gaming communities as he reports on their inhabitants and culture. This column is a summary of Michael's interviews with six prominent and prolific game writers and one professor who all have one thing in common: they spend a lot of time blogging, too.]

A Changing Industry

It’s no secret that game journalism and writing about games is dramatically changing, but what’s not so simple is describing or naming those changes. Even more difficult is determining whether personal, alternative writing spaces can be considered communities, and how they function.

Chris Dahlen’s Save the Robot and Leigh Alexander’s now retired The Aberrant Gamer are two of my favorite GameSetWatch columns. I have since followed these writers to their blogs, Save the Robot and Sexy Videogameland. I noted that in the blog chain they are a part of, sites such as Dubious Quality and Giant Bomb kept reappearing, as if there are common ties. I couldn’t see any explicit mention of these ties, however.

As a newcomer with a puny blog and very few paying game writing assignments to call my own, I thought it fascinating that so many overworked, 50+ hours a week journalists were, for no pay and not necessarily as part of their work, keeping frequently updated blogs. At work they write and when they’re taking a break they’re…still writing. “Why, when they’re taking a break, are they still writing? Why aren’t they, I don’t know, playing video games? They certainly don’t get to do that as much as they’d like….”