Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No "Queens" In Afrika: Steamfunk Writer Gives You A History Lesson

Photo courtesy of ProfessorOfTruth
Balogun, an important name in the category of steamfunk (a mix of African-American culture and steampunk), also penned an interesting and insightful essay about the role African women rules played in actual history and how that impacts African-inspired world building in general and also Charles Saunders' Soul and Sword series in particular.

The biggest assertation? That even when it's done with the best of intentions, when you look at women rules in African history-- from Hatshepsut to Nzinga of Ndongo (pictured at left), if you call them "queens", you're doing it wrong! Why? Well, for one thing, African power stuctures don't always map neatly, one to one, over European based power structures:
Traditional rulers throughout Africa were not always given the title and responsibilities of rule by birth or by blood. More often than not, the people chose their ruler and if the ruler did not serve and / or represent the people well, the ruler could be removed from his or her throne. It was the people who governed and, to the people, gender was rarely a factor in who they chose to lead them. Among the Yoruba, anyone born under the Odu – the 256 patterns of life / containers of destiny in which all creation exists – Irete Ogbe (aka Irentegbe, or Ategbe) is destined to be an «™ba, or “king”; gender be damned. The term “queen” is a product of recent history and the English language. In Ancient African, Asian and Pacific cultures, and even some European countries, women rulers were given the title king or its equivalent, such as pharaoh.

The essay then gives a quick overview on a number of rulers, where they fit in African history, how they ruled and where they fit in society, from Hatshepsut to the modern era. Whether you're  looking for a good starting point for world-building of your own, or are just interested in history, the entire article is a great read.

Incredible Lego Vampire Hunter Kit

Photo via Guy Himber
For the Lego enthusiast that also has the grim duty of hunting the (tiny) undead, V & A Steamworks has unveiled this incredibly detailed Lego-based "Steampunk Vampire Hunter's Kit".  V&A Steamworks, also known as Guy Himber has done some incredibly detailed work on the kit, with everything from a crucifix and tiny bottles of various potions to a stake-shooting gun and holy water bombs-- all in an attractive looking case that gives a satisfying creak at the hinges when you open it!

You can check out more photos and get more details at his flickr page for the project here.

Toyota Uses Chocobo Theme In New Ad

Photo illustration via autoevelution.com
Toyota's been making waves in the past past year in Japan by pairing its line of hybrid cars with iconic JRPG games. Last year saw the release of a commercial using the Dragon Quest 3 overworld theme:

In a cute touch, the car colors in the above commercial match one of the more common party configurations for the game: Hero, Priest, Sage and Soldier. So earlier this week, they debuted a new commercial spot to sell the latest model of the Toyota Aqua X-URBAN (known here in the USA as the Prius C): The Chocobo Theme! Personally, I think this marketing idea is genius? Want to target the gekky thirty-something market with some nostaligia, this is the perfect way to scratch that itch.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Stupid Sexy Loki: The Problem With LGBT Villains

So when Loki: Agent of Asgard was announced, hot on the heels of the first Avengers movie taking heaters by storm, Andrew Wheeler noted something about how it could all go down, at least within the Marvel comics universe:

Good news; Marvel is launching a new ongoing series with an LGBT lead character. Loki: Agent of Asgard debuts in February from the creative team of writer Al Ewing and artist Lee Garbett, and Ewing confirmed via Tumblr that the lead character will not only be portrayed as bisexual –but be able to change gender. Bad news; Loki is not exactly a good guy. He’s a trickster, a manipulator, a supervillain. He’s also the second bisexual male to get his own ongoing book at Marvel, and here’s the problem; the other one was Daken, son of Wolverine, and he was also a trickster, a manipulator and a supervillain.

So why was that a big deal? As Wheeler, points out, it's a well-worn storytelling trope with some unfortunate implications in what it draws upon in the name of creating dramatic tension or offering what it attempts to frame as some sort of ambiguity:
That’s the role that the queer villain plays; a threat to the “correct” order, intrinsically maladjusted to the way the world works. It’s a fear that manifests in the real world in dangerous ways. Being gay, bi or trans has too often been presented as a threat; to children, to marriage, to public health, to everything sacred, up to and including God and democracy... Otherness is also one reason why queer kids struggle so much with their identity. Not only does the perception that their existence is a challenge to the status quo make them a target, but being gay, bi or trans often means they feel cut off from the ways of life they’ve been raised to cherish as normal. Works of fiction that draw a parallel between queerness and wickedness can perpetuates that alienation. 

So does that meant that queer characters can't be villians? Wheeler says no, but...
The very qualities that can make an LGBT character seem dangerous and transgressive can also make them glamorous and seductive. Yes, queer identities have established cultural value as signifiers of deviancy, but they also have value as signifiers of radical reinvention, of rock and roll. That’s really the same quality through a different lens. 
Now that that the series has come (and some would say, gone as the lead-in to the new Secret Wars), though, have these worries borne fruit? I caught issue one and two when they first came out and was very impressed.

Follow Me: On The Beautiful and Tragic Weirdness of Sonic Adventure

US Sonic Adventure cover art courtesy of the Sonic Wiki
Sonic, for better of for worse, has been the face of SEGA back in the long-ago when SEGA was also in the console business. So of course there was lots and lots of hype in 1998 when Sonic Adventure was released-- it was the first Sonic the Hedgehog game for the SEGA Dreamcast. Hollywood Video had a promotion that let you rent a Dreamcast system and Sonic Adventure. Fans talked about how sales of Sonic Adventure might just save the Dreamcast's flagging sales. And in a 3-part essay, mammon machine's ZEAL looks at the hopeful hpe and the wasted potential of the series. From part one:
It is immediately apparent, from the first moments of its introduction movie to its title screen logo, what Sonic Adventure is trying to prove. It is a game suffixed with the word “Adventure” because it wants to communicate certain things about itself and its goals. “Adventure” is meant to be expansive... 
...It’s a very peculiar failure from the game, to communicate a simple idea about its setting, and a moment that’s emblematic of Sonic Adventure’s existential dilemma. As Sonic Adventure works harder to convince us that it is sprawling and expansive, it becomes increasingly insular and recursive... The first time we hear Sonic speak is the first of Sonic Adventure’s many, many, jarring moments, the points where the thing Sonic Adventure wants to be and what it unavoidably is crash into each other like a beautiful accident.

And yes, there were worse things about the game's presentation than the above, or the fact that even over 15 years later, that "Open Your Heart" song is STILL stuck in my head:

As they point out in part two of the essay, lots of the level design just doesn't make any sense. They're worse than bad, they're boring, as in the case of the Casinopolis level:

That a Casino is a place where you do a boring, laborious task of endless accumulation to gain a resource, and that the space is somehow built to coerce you into continuing that task, perhaps against your better judgement. That a Casino is a place you can stay in for a long time, but it isn’t designed to end itself, it cannot accommodate the conception of an end. It is a complex thing that would probably need a special area for people who would need to be taught how it works. And that, maybe, Casinos really are just empty, pointless, lonely places to exist in.

What do you think, readers?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Pushing Pixels: How Shovel Knight Was Inspired By 8-Bit Limits

A before and after look at the original and then simplified look of the King Knight
Released last year by indie developer Yacht Club Games to critical and fan acclaim, Shovel Knight was an action platformer that paid homage to the design sensibilities of the 8-bit era in general and the NES in particular, staying close to the limited color palette of the console. But what limitations did the design team have to work with? With the power of the PC and modern console at their command, what did limitations did they choose to keep and what did they choose to discard?

David D'Angelo, a programmer for Yacht Club Games, answers those questions and more in a recent blog post on Gamasutra entitled "Breaking The NES For Shovel Knight". The image above is accompanied by an explanation on how limiting sprite detail wasn't just slavish devotion to NES hardware limits but a deliberate design choice:
A character with too many colors stuck out like a sore thumb. We worked back and forth with detail levels and colors until we found a combo that looked great, [because] a sprite too detailed is also really hard to animate! In this example, you can see the original King Knight design. While the left sprite has only 5 colors (as was our stated limitation), it was too detailed and almost felt closer to a 16 bit sprite. After taking a few passes to simplify the shapes for readability and simplicity, we ended up with the sprite that you see in game!
The entire post is a really interesting look into the design choices that were made in the goal for capturing a gaming aesthetic, so if you want to know more, check it out!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Intel Apologizes for #Gamergate, Funding 300M Diversity Initiative

Photo courtesy theverge.com
Intel recently announced at the Consumer Electronics Show that it invest $300,000,000 in a "Diversity in Technology" initiative.  The initiative will see Intel investing in and partnering with the National Center for Women in Technology, Feminist Frequency, Rainbow PUSH, Girls Who Code, the Cybersmile Foundation, the IDGA and more.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in his keynote address that "It's not good enough to say we value diversity, and then have our industry not fully represent..." women and other minorities, and that the aim goes beyond the company's bottom line. "This isn't just good business," said Krzanich, "this is the right thing to do... We're calling on our industry to again make the seemingly impossible possible by making a commitment to real change and clarity in our goals. Without a workforce that more closely mirrors the population, we are missing opportunities, including not understanding and designing for our own customers." To show the effort is more than just talk, he said will make sure its hiring practices reflect this going forward and will tie its leaders' pay to the progress toward this goal, which will be closely tracked and monitored.

Last year, after the #gamergate-led groups directed an email astrotufing campaign to Intel attacking a blog post Leigh Alexander made about the hate group on Gamasutra, a video-game industry-focused site, and succeeded in convincing the company to temporarily withdraw its advertising contract. Intel later reinstated its advertising and released a statement saying "Intel does not support any organization or movement that discriminates against women. We apologize and we are deeply sorry if we offended anyone."

How Nerds Dreamt of Rebel Alliance But Became The Empire

 Laurie Penny, author of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies & Revolution, is also a prolific columnist and blogger and has written on everything from capitalism and feminism to pop culture and science fiction. She recently read Scott Aaronson's comment on a blog post about sexism and the roles of men and women on the STEM fields, where Aaronson writes of the pain, confusion and isolation he experienced for years and how while he felt he agreed with most of the ideas behind feminism, when it came to discussions of privilege, he stopped dead in his tracks, saying the be was sure that "...being a nerdy male might not make me 'privileged' — that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes" and that he spent years growing up "... feeling not 'entitled', not 'privileged', but terrified."

Penny, in her personal essay "On Nerd Entitlement" responds with understanding and empathy:

"As a child and a teenager, I was shy, and nerdy, and had crippling anxiety... desperate for a boyfriend or, failing that, a fuck... I hated myself and had suicidal thoughts. I was extremely lonely, and felt ugly and unloveable. Eventually I developed severe anorexia and nearly died... Having been a lonely, anxious, horny young person who hated herself and was bullied I can categorically say that it is an awful place to be. I have seen responses to nerd anti-feminism along the lines of  being bullied at school doesn't make you oppressed. Maybe it's not a vector of oppression in the same way, but it’s not nothing. It burns. It takes a long time to heal... [S]hy, nerdy boys. Your suffering was and is real. I really fucking hope that it got better, or at least is getting better, At the same time, I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright. Privilege doesn't mean you don't suffer, which, I know, totally blows."
She points out though, that unlike Anderson, she also had additional barriers in her way. "I was also female, so when I tried to pull myself out of that hell into a life of the mind, I found sexism standing in my way. I am still punished every day by men who believe that I do not deserve my work as a writer and scholar." In fact, men outnumber women in STEM fields, and a recent Yale study showed that when faced with equally qualified men and women applicants in a STEM field, professors were more likely to offer the man a job than the woman. If the woman was hired, her starting salary was, on the average, $4,000 LESS.

Penny further explains:
"...imagine what it's like to have all the problems you had and then putting up with structural misogyny on top of that [or] also faces sexism and racism. This is why Silicon Valley is fucked up. Because it's built and run by some of the most privileged people in the world who are convinced that they are among the least. People whose received trauma makes them disinclined to listen to pleas from people whose trauma was compounded by structural oppression. People who don't want to hear that there is anyone more oppressed than them, who definitely don't want to hear that maybe women and people of color had to go through the hell of nerd puberty as well..."

The entire essay is a nuanced, empathetic response, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Now You're Playing With (Word) Power

Screenshot via Dejobaan Games
Text-based games have been a part of interactive entertainment since the first home computers. Ask most people what sort of game comes to mind when they hear "text based gaming" and most people will probably answer "interactive fiction" (which has undergone a bit of a renaissance in the bast few years thanks to the development and popularity of Twine). But developer of critical hits The Wonderful End of the World and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! has a new entry into the field. Dejobaan Games' latest release, Elegy For A Dead World, makes writing an integral part of its game-play.

Elegy For A Dead World was successfully funded via Kickstarter in October, and its premise is pretty interesting. It is a text-driven adventure game about sifting through the remains of long-dead civilizations and chronicling what you find. You do this by wandering past sumptuously hand-drawn scenes and then giving your reaction via prompts-- sort of like filling in the blanks. The game then takes your writing and stitches it into a narrative which you can then share with others via Steam Workshop.

In "A Videogame That Teaches You to Write Poetry, Even if It Intimidates You" by Bryan Lufkin in Wired, the specific scenarios and how you complete them are intriguing:

Elegy lets players write prose and poetry as they explore distant planets and dead civilizations. The player faces 27 challenges in three worlds, each riffing on a specific British Romance-era poem: “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” by John Keats, and “Darkness” by Lord Byron. The different challenges find the player in various roles: an emperor rallying his troops before a doomed battle, for example, or a schoolgirl evacuating a city being bombed. Players travel through beautifully designed backgrounds, while on-screen text narrates the story. But much of the text is left blank—that’s when players tap their inner Wordsworths, finishing the tale with their own imaginations.

Is it any good? I've enjoyed my time with it, and PC Magazine named Elegy For A Dead World as one of its 2014 Games of the Year. It's out now, and you can pick it up from the Steam Store here for PC, Mac and Linux.

Steam Users to Valve: #GamerGate Group's Gotta Go

A few months ago, Steam introduced what was called the "Discovery Update" to the service. One of its biggest additions was introducing something called "Steam Curators". Curators can be any individual or organization who has opinions about games and wants to share them, and Steam offers a home page where the group list its recommendations.

Unfortunately, Steam helpfully will recommend groups to you whether you want to or not, which is how users have reported being shown the Gamergate Recommends curator recommendations:

And when a group is recognized as a Curator, there's more than just a homepage with game recommendations. These recommendations also appear in the official Steam stores, right near the "add to cart" button. User [FoH]Fansy screencapped what appeared on the official Steam store for Shantae: Risky's Revenge The Director's Cut:

I wrote about the harassment , the misogynistic, and hate-group roots of the the gamegate movement, and it's sadly chugged along, making increasingly desperate stabs at relevancy. While Steam added the ability to hide recommendations it's both poorly documented and a band-aid solution. You can read the discussion [FoH]Fansy started in the official Steam Suggestions forum here.

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