Friday, April 19, 2013

The Value of the Archivist



As you may or may not know, this week is National Library Week, and---as I may or may not have mentioned here, I work at a library.

I'm given mostly free reign over anything that gets plugged into a power socket here so oftentimes I go out of my way to make games or the culture surrounding them available to people, but it's been weird going these past few years as getting some of it to take has shown progress in certain areas and very little in others.


Outside of a few niche and obscure attempts[1], I've yet to see any earnest attempt by this industry to competently preserve its content in the long term. Sure, we have access to older games via XBL, PSN, and the virtual console, but there's often red tape and funky 'but...'s added to the situation. For example, I've always been wary about buying anything on the aforementioned services that I'm not willing to lose in the next generation change, hack attempt, or simply because publishers may God forbid---lose three cents on it. I run my personal collection mostly through emulators and content that is about as 'open' as I can get it, even if I have to resort to hacks to get it that way (i.e. how it was originally released).


Yet the only people who I can find that cares about this kind of stuff are the developers themselves (sort of...), who by the way, aren't usually all that interested in seeing returns on their creations. They typically just want someone to play their games and experience what they labored on in some fashion long after its hayday. Publishers are only interested in returns and rights-holding, and gamers---while they may pretend to value it, the truth is that it's often just a disposable luxury. The hubbub over backwards compatibility in the next batch of consoles is a perfect example of this, as people have already made concessions why backwards compatibility was just an accident on Sony's part that we shouldn't be so demanding of in any future consoles. Some of these points are reasonable and some are just the rationalizations necessary for some people to justify being stupid with their money later this year. Early adoption is rarely a smart choice.

I've always wondered at what point where gamers will draw the line for themselves, as the way we're being presented games now is similar to any sort of horrible reality slowly creeping its way into existence. People seem to be far more willing to accept a terrible situation as long as they're eased into it properly enough. It's subtle, it's effective, and it most importantly---it lasts. It also seems weird to me how what I try to do at work is tethered so viciously by where games are supposedly heading now. Sure, I expected a leash, but even I'm surprised at how short it actually is---and I'm set to actually lose a few more inches in the near future. Semi-locked consoles, harsher definitions on the value of used games, and a premature push for digital distribution/always-online in many places that just can't support the market in that fashion (The U.S. is just one country with terrible broadband penetration/infrastructure and it's a first world nation).

One of the areas where I've eased up in some respects is social gaming. Personally, I still feel threatened that my primary penchant for single player styles of engagement is somewhat endangered these days, but I've learned how valuable social play is as well---specifically in getting people to value these damn things to begin with.

Socially Awkward >>

My four-year old nephew is obsessed with any game he can get his hands on and he makes sure I bring at least one of my consoles or my computer when I come to visit. He'll play my DS's battery to its limit and even test out random stuff he's not used to playing. My six-year old niece on the other hand only seems to want to play when he is. She'll give up eventually and find something to go do by herself (because half the time she's just purposefully annoying him), but her interest in games in almost entirely social. How she plays is solely determined by who she's playing with. I've never seen her play a game on her own  and she often freaks out at the slightest irritation when it's just me and her playing. I assume some of this is just my family as the younger niece shares this trait with her seventeen-year old sister who only liked watching me play games when she was growing up, but almost hated playing anything that wasn't Super Mario Bros. This in turn is a trait my oldest niece shares with her mother---my sister, who only plays games that are 2D Mario titles and literally nothing else (I did peak her interest with last years The Walking Dead season of games though).

My sister never grasped the fundamental skills necessary to play a 3D game so to her all 3D Marios are an unnecessary evolution, but my eldest niece loves them and is one of the few people in the known universe with an unabashed preference for Sunshine over Galaxy. For as long as I've know all of them, these people's enjoyment has always relied entirely on whether or not I was in the room watching or playing with them (except my nephew). I found this reached its most fascinating eventuality when I saw my eldest niece who threw a temper tantrum because she couldn't beat Riku in Kingdom Hearts's opening footrace complete the first level of fucking Demon's Souls simply because I was reading a book in the room while she played. An easily irritated fifteen year old girl with the patience and attention span of a rodent made it to Phalanx all because she could speak to me whilst doing so. I'm not big on aiding first time players either, so it's not like I held her hand doing it. I've known grown people who play games religiously give up on Demon's Souls's tutorial level. So yeah, over the years I've come to value simply being in the room.

Let Them Eat Cake >>

So let me reign this back into my work by saying---kids don't really like video-games all that much anymore, at least not in the same way. I guess it has something to do with the 90's subculture and limitations of games at the time, but it's still an interesting place to be now. That and it's sort of always been like that depending on the perspective. Out of all the children and teenagers I'm left to look over week after week, most are more interested in watching YouTube videos than playing the three game consoles I have left by public television. Out of about twenty kids, ranging from ages 6-17, maybe two or three of those will play a game by themselves while at the library.

As much shit as I give Nintendo, the Wii U is the console that gets picked up the most. Not only that, but it's the only one I like dealing with as I can set protected user accounts for each person that wants to play it. Microsoft only wants you to sign up for their tacky online paywall, and the PS3's user accounts setup is essentially worthless outside of having a name attached. The Wii U is the console of course that best facilitates social play as well, though I have much less praise towards this being a result of the hardware itself and simply the fun factor of some of the games. NintendoLand, New Super Mario Bros. U, and Trine 2 are the most played games on it. A few weeks ago, there were enough people playing it to warrant a goddamn Nintendo commercial. Adults, children, teens---about twenty people were in here playing the same game.

What game was it?

Wii Sports Resort.

I tried ZombiU, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, hell I even tried Halo 2-4 on our X-Box, but nothing seems to grab as much attention as Nintendo's easy pick-up-and-play titles in addition to some games that essentially fall into the same category (e.g. during our monthly Wii tournaments, the Just Dance series is the game that gets voted for use the most).

Achievement Unlocked - 100G: Closing the Generation Gap >>

The only reason I'll buy is a Playstation 4 at this point is the same reason I bought a Wii U, to leave at work. Not because I find the console itself or the games particularly interesting right now, but because I've become very interested in how people are playing games with each other (and by themselves) now. I want to see how the limitations and focus that some of these other things the next two consoles are chasing (social play, streaming content, facilitating more indie titles) will gel with just random people I meet throughout the week (admittedly, Microsoft interests me less as their priority seems to be subsidizing their brand connection with XBL).

Another interesting thing I've come to accomplish lies with another generation entirely, adults over fifty-years old. I still have yet to get one past the hump of proficiently tackling the interface, but I can however get some of them to watch me play through games such as Portal, or BioShock[2]. I can either rip my playthroughs directly to a DVD-R or link them to a hosted video I've uploaded somewhere. Usually they make it all the way through, and though most of them are pretty critical of them, I've often found it's also criticism worth listening to rather than the 'get off my lawn with these serial killer training programs' sentiment. When not one, but two unrelated military veterans tell me that something is odd about the way Infinite approaches violence, I could muster nothing more than a sick grin.

Gaming Libraries >>

I find it ironic how I've become so interested in this arena of thought because I'm a lot of things when it comes to gaming, but I've never been a collector. In fact, I actively hate the notion of accumulating things as an end in of itself, least of which encompass hobbies I'm invested in even outside of games.  I suppose I could be an archivist, but nobody seems to be ready for that at the moment and I sure as hell don't have the money to drive it home more than I already am. I keep maybe a third of my personal selection of games at the library and maybe five of them regularly get played (out of about thirty titles).


The teens are most welcoming to sites like GOG and Steam[3], but they rarely have the means to buy the titles they want, even when they go on ridiculous sales, so they're left with meager libraries that they quickly lose interest in. Even Steam is imperfect here as they ban people left and right for finding any workaround to share games (not to mention their customer support is notoriously terrible). Steam is also more focused on newer titles which is fine for someone like me, but not so much for showing kids how far games have come and plenty actually prefer GOG as the older games usually have low requirements and can be played on any computer made after 2005. Teenagers are also far more welcoming of older games than I would have given them credit for as well. They just want to build up a library of titles they like, they don't necessarily have to be new---just decent. I shouldn't have to walk a kid through on often irritating pitfalls of emulation to invigorate his newfound love for PSX Final Fantasies when a half decent port would suffice. Sure, he might be better off for it in the end, but this is certainly a case where accessibility would be paramount to needless barriers.

One thing that I haven't tried yet is something I have planned for story hour in the coming months, Minecraft[4]. I'm currently waiting to see how Minecraft Realms turns out[5] but I can always just create my own server if all else fails (I'd much rather pay a monthly fee than ass around with that crap again). Videogames are essentially just the bait here[4] and can be used in dozens of ways to get people familiar with concepts totally unrelated---and in some cases far more valuable than gaming. Getting the trio of girls I see on a weekly basis to build things in Minecraft would certainly be more more interesting, less expensive, and less messy than having them glue foam letters all over me again...

While there are some libraries out there that carry video-games for checkout, they are very few and very far in between. The concept of having games in the libraries is still something they're not considering to adopt at large because of how they're still culturally seen and because libraries themselves are going through a far more important paradigm shift at the moment. Many are just realizing they're not a place where dusty and obsolete reference books reside and homely looking white women tell you to 'shhhh' a lot (though I do still tell people to shut up quite a bit), but community hubs where people are shown how to most effectively engage with the increasingly most valuable commodity in this time, information.


1. One of my favorite episodes of A Life Well Wasted from years ago. [Link]
2. And I was amused at how close one gentleman's criticism's of the game echoed the critical backlash of the game with no interest or connection into the subculture of writing associated with it. I'm still surprised at how many people are making my post on the game look somewhat tame at this point. IN THE WAKE OF COLUMBIA: A Follow-Up [Link], There's Subtlety, Then There's Cowardice | BioShock Infinite [Link]
3. GOG is effectively better than Steam in a lot of ways for this type of thing, so I tend to recommend it first.
4. Maybe I am just getting old. Camp Minecraft: How educators use the block-building game to inspire kids to code [Link]
5. A sale or two every now and then wouldn't hurt either Mojang...