Gaming and Grad School

The fall semester started for me a few weeks ago, and while I have plenty of feelings about it (for better or worse), I wanted to write a little about gaming and grad school, from my own personal experience and perspective.

Grad School

Well, it’s not grad school as much as it is just college, really. I was mostly lazy and disengaged as a high school student, but in college I became incredibly focused and determined to do everything I could to succeed. And at first, it was easy. I wasn’t working while I was getting my associate’s degree, so I was able to play games occasionally and still get my work done. I actually had a system where I would reward myself with game time, only allowing myself to play when I was done with a particular assignment. During the last two years of my undergrad coursework, though, that became impossible.

Well, impossible isn’t the right word, and that’s the reason I’m writing this. I’m sure there are people who have taken five courses in a semester and been able to continue their gaming habit, at least in part. I was not one of them. I wanted to do well in my classes, and the courses I was taking demanded a lot of reading, research, and writing. My life revolved around my work. I didn’t think of “free time” as free, so much as time I had to read or prepare for my next class.

And it paid off, I suppose. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA and I got into the only grad school I applied to. At that point, I hardly felt like a ‘gamer’ anymore. I hadn’t played games regularly in a couple of years, and when I spent time on my winter or summer breaks playing games it was mostly catching up with titles I’d missed out on or squeezing quick sessions in between doing ‘normal’ things, like road trips and running outdoors. It was at this point, one year into graduate school, that I realized that I was losing my favorite hobby. Or, I should say, I had lost it.

There was a notion that maybe it was ‘about time.’ That maybe this was part of growing up. I’d read about professionals that had eventually had to give up gaming because of work or demanding family lives. Maybe it was my turn to become the guy who “used to play games.” I knew, though, that much of this way of thinking comes from cultural norms and expectations, and I’ve always tried to be aware of and fight against societal pressure. It’s my life and I shouldn’t have to lead it to please other people. So I began to get angry. I’ve played video games since I was a small child, I have owned and obsessed over numerous consoles, I have kept regular gaming blogs, I have tattoos of video game characters on my body… so why should I have to give it all up because a portion of my peers think it’s juvenile or wasteful?

But it wasn’t just about peer pressure. Rarely have I heard anyone openly criticize my hobby to my face, or question its value. Like many cultural norms, that stuff bleeds through our cultural output, though. How do you make a middle-aged man look like a ‘man child’ in a movie? Have him play video games with his friends. I was in grad school, so shouldn’t I be doing more important things? Shouldn’t I be networking or working ahead or trying to get published?

And I think that is a large part of the anxiety that comes with wanting to keep up with a hobby like video games in grad school. It feels to me like I should always be making good use of my time, because there is always something to be done. Reading a novel for next week’s literature class. Translating poetry from Middle English. Reading two chapters and an academic journal article for this week’s linguistics class. Lesson planning. Answering student emails. Teaching. Grading. Proposing, outlining, researching, and writing three 20-30 page term papers almost every semester. Coming up with proposals for conferences. And how about social commitments? Family events? Time to exercise?

Doing anything for pleasure becomes a torturous self-interrogation. If I mention reading to friends, I have to clarify whether I’m “reading for school” or “reading for fun.” During the semester, how can I read a book for pleasure when I have more reading than I can keep up with for my classes? And when that extends to video games, it’s even worse. Somehow, reading a book for pleasure feels more productive and less like you’re cheating on your diet of homework and more homework.

So for my first year in grad school, I resigned to waiting for the breaks between semesters to play games. I would “catch up,” though that was a lie because I would only get through a small fraction of the games I’d been wanting to play. I stopped following gaming news, too, because why tempt myself with games I can’t play?

Somewhere between my first and second year of grad school, I found what I thought was a perfect solution: I would study video games. I was taking film courses for my English degree, and I realized that studying video games as a form of literature was virtually the same (or it could be). Of course the crux of many film-lit courses is the adaptation, and video games don’t have the same history of adapting literature into a new form, but many scholars seemed to have been actively moving film study away from its adaptation focus for decades, trying to fully embrace studying film as a storytelling medium on its own, not exclusively tied to written works. So, if we can do it with film, why can’t we do it with video games? I was determined to try.

So in my second year, I began studying ways to bring video games into the classroom, and was able to use that to work gaming into my work. Kind of. I incorporated Minecraft into the composition classes that I taught, so I was able to play at least a few hours of that each week. It was fun, I admit, but not the same as choosing a game I want to immerse myself in, like an RPG, and spending some time getting lost in a virtual world. It was fun but not necessarily relaxing.

And then I started my third year of grad school, my first year as a PhD candidate. I told myself I would do more to carve time out to play games during the school year. Not only were they an important part of my identity, they were also a source of joy and relaxation in what can feel an oppressive blanket of stress. I felt like I was procrastinating too long at doing things like homework or lesson planning, and if I could just focus more and work harder, I’d have more free time to play games.

If only it were that simple. That year, last year, was tough for me. I ran into a serious conflict with my school’s housing office (and then, in the same dispute, the bursar’s office), which made me not only angry and bitter toward the school itself, but also unappreciated and taken advantage of. Couple that with my first encounter with a spiteful and unprofessional professor, among the aforementioned grad school stressors, and video games again became something that was just not in the cards for me.

I played a lot of games over the summer, which was nice. I was finally able to play some of the games I’d had my eye on during the school year. And I am again determined to fit games somewhere into my life while teaching and furthering my studies, but who knows how long it will last. I’ve been playing on weekends and some weeknights, but even now, before the semester really picks up speed, I feel guilty and somehow judged by a faceless audience. I can imagine their thoughts. “How can he afford to waste his time like that? Doesn’t he have better things to do? Doesn’t he want to be successful, like his peers? They probably get all of their work done before doing stuff like that.” Or I feel like they might think I’m being juvenile and selfish for even wanting to enjoy a hobby while going to grad school. It’s supposed to be tough, right? Why can’t I just wait until I’m done and graduated before getting back into gaming?

Maybe I should just wait, and maybe I am making a bigger deal out of this than it deserves, I don’t know. I just know that life is better with video games, and especially with video gaming free of anxiety phantoms hovering over me, making me feel guilt and shame for doing something that I get enjoyment out of. I don’t have a concrete solution, and I know all of the advice I might get (make a time budget, give myself one whole day a week to play games, reward study time with game time, etc.). I just wanted to write about it, since it’s always on my mind and will probably affect the frequency with which I update this blog. Maybe I’ll write up something more cohesive and less rambling later, when I’ve figured something out. Until then, I have some guilt-ridden No Man’s Sky to get back to.

 

Adventure Awaits

My copy of No Man’s Sky will be delivered to my doorstep in less than a week, and I am finally allowing myself to get excited. I’ve been looking forward to it for many months now, but when I feel the tendrils of hype planting themselves too deeply over something, I tend to pull back and avoid all or most news/discussion of whatever it is that has me excited. I want to avoid spoilers, of course, but it’s also about keeping my expectations in check. In the past, the more I allowed myself to dive completely into coverage of some anticipated thing, the more likely I was to get burned by disappointment. Even if something was only slightly less good than I’d expected, I felt massively let down. So, to save myself from that possibility, I’ve learned to avoid, avoid, avoid.

No Man's Sky

I think the release of this game is close enough to allow myself to start getting worked up again, though. And I’m starting by copying an idea that my good friend Tabitha came up with over at agamerssoul.com. She’s set up an “Explorer’s Log” where she is going to document her adventures in No Man’s Sky, as we’ve talked about doing since our earliest days of discussing the game. I’ve done the same on my own site. but I decided to call it “Captain’s Blog,” after the classic Star Trek phrase. I’m still trying to decide how to handle it, since apparently Wix only allows for one blog on each site, but when I figure out I’ll post a little introduction entry explaining my approach to the game and stuff.

 

War Never Changes

I just finished reading Blake J. Harris’s Console Wars, about Sega’s war with Nintendo for dominance in the home console market during the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis era, and my mind is tingling with nostalgia.

Mario and Sonic

Like many videogame-loving kids during that time period, my parents were only willing to buy me one console (and only after months of pleading and a hefty price drop). Having been a proud owner of an NES, the choice for me was clear, especially because, as the book points out, Sega didn’t really start offering much to entice players to switch allegiance until the Sonic games came around. So I was team Nintendo all the way, a willing participant (or consumer pawn) in this ‘war.’

There were times when my loyalty wavered just a bit, though, and the Mortal Kombat blood debacle was one of them. I was used to playing the arcade version of the game at a corner store near my house, and the idea of a watered-down, blood-free version did not sit well with ten year old Joey. I also remember gazing longingly at the screenshots of the Genesis version of Jurassic Park and wishing my SNES version looked as gorgeous.

Genesis

Jurassic Park Gen

SNES

Jurassic Park SNES

There’s something to be said for the SNES version of Jurassic Park combining third person overhead segments and first person interior segments, especially given that the latter made good use of the SNES’s Mode 7 capabilities. But when you’re eleven years old and in love with the superb special effects of the Jurassic Park movie, you want your digital dinos to look as close to the ‘real thing’ as possible, and Genesis delivered in that department.

Aside from spurring a stroll down memory lane, the book prompted me to reflect on my experience as an observer of an ever-changing home console scene. In the late 70s (not that I was alive yet), Atari was huge. Untouchable. Until they weren’t (and they really, really weren’t). Nintendo owned 95% of the home console market during the NES’s reign in the mid-late 80s, and they too seemed invincible, until they weren’t. I would argue that they ‘won’ the SNES vs Genesis war, but not before losing a huge portion of the market to Sega. It seemed unimaginable that the generation after that would be anything but Sega vs Nintendo: Round 2 (well, Round 3, technically), but Sony changed everything with the introduction of the first PlayStation. The Sega Saturn was not very powerful and didn’t have much support in the software department, so it basically came down to Nintendo’s N64 and the PlayStation. The likely victor seemed obvious at the time. The N64 was (arguably) twice as powerful, produced 3D worlds that really felt expansive, had an innovative controller that introduced sensitive joysticks and rumble, launched at $100 less than the PlayStation had, and Nintendo’s first party games remained among the best on the market.

But they lost. It’s a fact we take for granted now, but it bordered on unbelievable at the time. It wasn’t Sega that slayed Nintendo, it was Sony who knocked them both down to size. Sony, who (as the book describes in some detail) had been on the verge of handing their original PlayStation design over to Nintendo and, later, Sega, before dumb corporate politics got in the way. But how? Well, Sega had a lot to do with it. Nintendo had an iron grip on the industry in the 80s and placed strict restrictions on how many games developers could release, and then monitored the quality of these games closely (which saved the market from collapsing in a heap of crap, as it had done in the 70s). To convince those same developers to make games for their Genesis, Sega promised far less restrictive control. While it didn’t help them outright win their war with Nintendo, it did change how business was done in the market and freed developers to seek more than one place to publish their games. While Nintendo failed to learn from this, continuing with expensive (but tightly controlled) cartridge manufacturing, closely monitoring third party output, etc., Sony capitalized on it and made their console easy and cheap to develop for, welcoming companies to produce games more freely than Nintendo had. This quantity over quality approach eventually resulted in a glut of poorly made, ugly, or buggy games, but PlayStation owners enjoyed the freedom of a vast library of games which Nintendo just did not have. And of course there was marketing and the perception that the PlayStation was for adults and the N64 for kids, and plenty of other of factors that contributed to the outcome. But Sony won in a big way.

They won in an even bigger way with the PS2, leaving Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s newly-christened Xbox to fight for second place. But in a huge upset the following generation, the Xbox 360 dominated against the PS3, and Nintendo’s Wii outsold both of them quite handily. In the current generation, it’s all mixed up again. Nintendo’s Wii U is a distant echo, and the PS4 is once again Sony’s claim to home console dominance.

I probably didn’t need to regurgitate all of that, but it’s, in part, what’s been running through my head lately. It’s been hard to determine which console or company will be the victor of any particular generation’s ‘war.’ But what really struck me is this: going all the way back to the NES versus the Sega Master System, consoles seemed to offer something noticeably different than their competition. SNES games looked different than Genesis games. You’d never mistake an N64 game for a PlayStation game. GameCube games were distinct from Xbox games. With the Xbox 360 and PS3, the lines began to blur, and now it seems as if having a home console that boasts any kind of obvious technological advantage is increasingly unlikely. The Wii changed the landscape a lot, forcing Sony and Microsoft to invest in exploring motion control and other avenues of expanding gameplay beyond the controller. So is this generation going to be defined by PlayStation’s virtual reality and Microsoft’s augmented reality? What about next generation?

Microsoft’s openness to cross-platform play with the PS4 was shocking, but could it be indicative of something more? Research and development of console hardware is incredibly costly, but game publishing is lucrative. Could Microsoft plan on moving strictly to Windows gaming in the future, developing and publishing games for the PS4 on the side? I know that people say similar things every generation (Nintendo has been on the verge of giving up the hardware game for 20 years, according to these people), but it’s becoming increasingly hard to not only imagine how consoles from two companies will define themselves in relation to one another, but how they will differ from a moderately priced PC. Those distinctions were easy to make in the past, but other than peripherals or interface or services, I have a hard time believing the next Xbox and PS will be very different at all, in terms of hardware. And if I were looking at having to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to keep up in that race, only to potentially ‘lose’ another round, I might think about other, less risky avenues to stay in the market.

This is all amatuer speculation, of course, and this generation still has plenty of potential surprises in store, I’m sure. But it’s fun to think about this stuff. And you never know what will happen. You might not have ever convinced 12 year old Joey that he would one day buy Sonic Adventure 2 for a Nintendo console, or buy an issue of Nintendo Power with Sonic on the cover, or play a Nintendo fighting game with Sonic as a playable character, or own a Sonic figure with a Nintendo copyright stamped on the bottom. But here we are. What a time to be alive.

Nintendo Power Sonic

 

Farewell, Xbox (Petty Squabbles with a Giant)

This has the distinct possibility of running away with me, but I really will do my best to keep it short. Ish. Short-ish, because there’s a lot to tell.

XBox-Live-Support

Essentially, I bought a song bundle for Rock Band 2 in 2009 and was unable to download it on my Xbox One to play it in my newly purchased Rock Band 4. I am, according to all available sources, supposed to be able to access all previously purchased downloadable content for the game as long as it’s on the same family of consoles (which it is, with both being Xbox). All of the other songs I’d purchased on the 360 downloaded just fine but this specific bundle did not, so I figured there must be some kind of problem with the content or my account.

After speaking with three online chat representatives, one phone rep, a series of Xbox Twitter support reps, two Xbox Support Forum reps, and the game’s publisher (Harmonix, via email), their ultimate conclusion is that I must be lying (or humbly mistaken). I’ll break it down:

Chat rep 1 (Reyan E., July 5): He had me check my Microsoft account purchase history via web browser, but when I revealed that it only went back to purchases made after 2013, he asked me to check the same information through my 360. I didn’t have access to it so I told him I’d check it later in the day and contact them back.

Chat rep 2 (Leo, July 5): I informed him that my 360 purchase history shows the same information that my browser-accessed account does: it lists them as “recent” purchases and only goes back to 2013. He told me that I should contact Harmonix because “all the songs are coming form the Harmonix servers and we do not have a direct access to it.”

So I emailed Harmonix support (July 5) and explained the situation. They responded with: “Unfortunately if Microsoft can not confirm the Export Licences have been previously purchased on your account, under the same GamerTag which you are using for Rock Band 4, then there is nothing further we can do. Harmonix has no way to reference any personal information stored in your first-party account, as this information is handled exclusively by Microsoft.”

Chat rep 3 (Jake G., July 6): After again asking me to check my purchase history in a few different ways and confirming that I can’t see it (or other DLC I purchased around the same time), he instructed me to delete my profile on my Xbox One, reset my console, and reboot my router and modem before reloading my profile and attempting to download the material again. “I can assure you that everything will work fine,” he said. I expressed doubt because if it was indeed a DNS issue then I wouldn’t have been able to download the other songs: “It seems weird that I would be able to download the other songs and not this set, but I’m willing to try anything at this point,” I said. But he assured me, “I’m very positive that this process will resolve the issue that we have today,” and added “I will also make sure to send you follow-ups through email moving forward.”

Side quest: rebooting my router caused it to experience a hardware failure, so it was completely unusable. It was still under warranty, so I was able to get a replacement sent to me by the manufacturer, but I had to wait for it to arrive before trying the last step of Jake’s fix. The router arrived July 11th and I tried loading my profile and accessing the content on my Xbox One the next day. It didn’t work. At this point I was getting frustrated at having to constantly provide the same information and being given solutions that didn’t work, and having to replace my router in the middle of it didn’t help. I was feeling betrayed and disappointed, but I wanted new songs for Rock Band 4 so I (perhaps foolishly, in hindsight) bought $60 worth of new downloadable songs for it. We’ll come back to that later. After a busy few days of doing other things, I got around to calling Xbox Support, hoping that speaking to someone might yield better results.

Phone rep (MJ, July 19): It was around a 45 minute call, during which he asked me to check my purchase history again, checked it on his end, and consulted an “escalation team.” They concluded it was a backwards compatibility issue.  I calmly disagreed, because it has been available for purchase on the Xbox One since October 2015, thus people have been able to download it and play it on both systems since then. He insisted that it must be the issue and said that their engineers would be working to fix it. Less calmly (especially because I began the conversation politely and meekly saying that I was becoming frustrated by this whole ordeal) I disagreed, because I was able to download and play other songs that I had accessed on the 360 just fine, and if it were an issue with compatibility I would not be able to access any of the songs. He again insisted that it was an issue of compatibility, at which point I became enraged. I didn’t curse or yell, but I took a few breaths before explaining that I was staring at the content in the Xbox Live store on my Xbox One as we spoke, and it was available for purchase, and if I purchased it right now I would be able to play it like other people have been doing since October of 2015, and that if it were a compatibility issue that would not be the case. He took a few breaths of his own before again saying it was a compatibility issue, so I asked him if there was someone I could speak to elevate this or complain to that it wasn’t being resolved. He told me I could go to the Xbox Support Forums to complain.

When I hung up with him my hands were literally shaking with anger. I am not a confrontational person, especially because many times I question myself and wonder if I might be in the wrong, but in this case I was certain that I was right, so being repeatedly asked to provide proof (that seemingly doesn’t exist) or given fixes that just waste my time and don’t work, I felt defeated and powerless. I was being denied any actual solutions and I couldn’t do anything about it, aside from posting about it on Facebook to my meager 275 friends. After the call, the same day, I tweeted:

The Xbox Support Twitter team responded with “@Losperman We’d be happy to help, though we could use more info. Could you please follow & DM @Xboxsupport with your Gamertag? ^EZ”

They directed me to yet another site where I could check what content I had previously purchased using my Xbox 360 and asked me to send them pictures of what I saw. I showed them these:

…along with a screenshot of the last item shown on my Microsoft “recent purchases” page, which was in 2013. The first picture above shows “All” of my Xbox 360 purchases, which you’ll note is completely empty. The second picture shows what appears when I click on the “Full Games” category. This does indeed show games that I bought on the 360 going back to the very first game I purchased. So already it seems like there’s an issue with their record keeping. If I look at “All Items” (first picture), the games that show up when I look at “Full Games” should be there, but they’re not. Likewise, when I click on other categories like “Avatars,” “Game Demos,” and “Gamer Pic,” items that I purchased dating back to when I first got my 360 show up. There is one category that shows nothing, though, and that’s picture 3, “Game Addon,” aka DLC. I purchased quite a lot of DLC with my Xbox 360, including all of the Rock Band songs that I was successfully able to access on my Xbox One. Some of the DLC that fails to appear on that site shows up on Microsoft’s billing site, which I’d sent them a screenshot of. So there is direct evidence of their record keeping being sketchy. The Microsoft billing site shows that I bought some Rock Band songs after 2013 and I can access them on my Xbox One, but this site shows that I never purchased any DLC on my 360, for Rock Band or otherwise.

They suggested that I might have bought it under another account. I explained that I only have one account, and I used Microsoft Points to make the purchase, which are tied directly to my account.

They replied with: “Since the items that you are looking to download did not show up on that list it would be best to contact our phone/chat team for more support.”

Yes. They referred me to the team who led me to tweet my frustration in the first place.

In the end, they concluded: “We can definitely take down all the info you’ve provided to make sure we are keeping an eye out for any other possible solutions, we just did not want to promise anything we couldn’t follow through on.”

This response was probably the apex of my already exceedingly breached anger and anxiety. After speaking to three chat reps, a phone rep, and four Twitter reps (direct messages were signed with initials), their response was that they would “keep an eye out for any other possible solutions.” There is a possible solution that they can enact. They can give me a code for the DLC that I purchased. But they would only do that if they believed that I’d actually purchased it at some point. If they believe I’m lying and trying to get $18 worth of DLC from them for free, they would keep asking me to find proof, despite their own web sites proving inconsistent in being able to help me do that. So I tweeted:

A rep DMed me after that, saying “Definitely not implying you are lying or anything, truly hope you don’t feel that way.” But how can I not? If they believed I was telling the truth and I had actually purchased the content and just wasn’t able to access it on my Xbox One, they would give me access to it by crediting my account with it or providing me with a code that would allow me to download it. I’m not asking for anything more. If I get pickles on my Big Mac, despite asking otherwise, I don’t ever bring it back, and if I do I don’t demand for them to throw in a free order of fries because they messed up. I don’t like being ‘that guy.’ I hate being the source of someone’s annoyance or embarrassment. But if I didn’t get a Big Mac that I ordered, I would ask for it. I would expect it to be provided for me if I paid for it. If I was told they would “keep an eye out for it,” I’d be pretty upset. And I am.

At the beginning of this series of DMs on Twitter, I posted a thread at the Xbox Support Community, where the phone rep suggested I go to complain (http://forums.xbox.com/xbox_support/xbox_one_support/f/5574/t/2187543.aspx?pi7962=1). I explained the situation and detailed my grief, ending my post with “I apologize for the lengthy post, but as I said, I am incredibly frustrated with how this has been handled and I’m not sure where I can go to vent, since it doesn’t seem like my issue is going to be resolved.” After a community member tried to offer help, a staff member actually responded and after the other reps had repeatedly danced around directly claiming that I did not own the content, she said it outright: “Unfortunately, if you are unable to locate Peal Jam’s Ten DLC in your purchase history that would indicate that you may not own said content.”

She suggested, like one of the Twitter reps, that it might have been purchased under another account on the same console. I explained that it almost certainly wasn’t, due to the reasons I’ve already stated, and pointed out that there is plenty of content that I bought prior to 2013 (when my recent purchase history ends, according to their records) that I can access fine, so the logic that the content not being on that list means that I don’t own it doesn’t hold water.

A different staff member responded and asked me, again, for the maybe twelfth or fourteenth or twentieth time, to check my purchase history. If it was there, he said, I would have to go to Harmonix’s support forum and ask for help. If it wasn’t there it “would indicate your Xbox Live account may not own the appropriate license.”

If you’ve read this far, or even skimmed, I hope that you can understand how maddening it might be to have that be their final resolution. If my official Microsoft purchase history, which only shows me purchases made in and after 2013, doesn’t show me something that I bought in 2009, then I must not own it. With that logic, I don’t own the games and DLC that I purchased prior to 2013 and have already transferred to my Xbox One.

The insinuation is pretty clear: I’m either an idiot who somehow mistakenly bought DLC for myself under another person’s account (that I don’t have access to), or I’m lying about having ever purchased the content and am just trying to get them to give it to me for free or perhaps trying to get them to just give me the funds to buy it again. Either way, I want to do some math really quick.

I own an Xbox, an Xbox 360, and an Xbox One. I bought them fairly close to their release windows. The original Xbox was $300. The 360 Elite was $479, but I got it on sale for around $350. The Xbox One bundle I got was $400. Total spent on consoles: $1,050.

Not counting controllers that came with the systems, I own two Xbox controllers, four Xbox 360 controllers, and one Xbox One controller. In each case the controllers were around $50, but I might have gotten a couple of them on sale (though controller sales are much more rare than game sales), so I will put them at $45 each. Total spent on controllers: $315.

I have 19 Xbox games, but I am pretty sure I bought four of them used. I won’t count those, because the money I paid probably didn’t go to Microsoft. So I have 15 games, and they were $50 brand new at the time. I probably got some on sale, so let’s just say $40 each. That’s $600. I own 89 Xbox 360 games, which is not surprising when you consider that it was one of my favorite consoles of all time. By that point I very rarely bought used games because I became tired of GameStop and its tactics, and I liked the idea of supporting game developers. And I discovered Amazon.com. I do remember buying one of them from a pawn shop, but I’ll play it safe and say I got four used. That’s 85 games, brand new. Games were $60 at this point, but I got a lot of them on sale. So let’s say $45 on average. That’s $3,825. I bought some collector’s editions on day one, though (the Batman: Arkham games, Gears of War 3, all BioWare games), and some of them were $100 or more. Let’s play it safe and say I bought eight CE games, and I paid an extra $30 each for them. That’s an additional $240. In total, that’s $4,065. I own five Xbox One games. I paid full price for all but one of them, which I got on sale for $35. So that’s $275. I bought the full band kit for Rock Band and Rock Band 4. In both cases I paid the same, actually: $170. If I subtract the estimated $45 for each game, that’s $250. In total, I’ve spent around $5,190 on games across three platforms.

Downloadable content is much harder to guess. I’ve bought a few avatar accessories, wallpapers, downloadable games like Uno, the Penny Arcade games, and Pac-Man: Championship Edition. I’ve bought a lot of Rock Band songs. A lot. Aside from the Pearl Jam songs that started this whole thing, I’ve bought more than an album’s worth of Foo Fighters songs, No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom album and additional song pack, song packs from Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, David Bowie, Queen, and more. And, of course, there’s the $60 that I mentioned earlier, just a few days ago. In all, I’d say $500 is a very conservative figure. But I want to be fair, so I’ll go with that.

And let’s not forget Xbox Live membership. I don’t recall jumping on board with the original Xbox, but I got a Gold account right after getting my 360 and have been an active member since with virtually no gaps. So that’s $50 a year since 2007, or $500.

Consoles: $1,050

Controllers: $315

Games: $5,190

Downloadable content: $500

Xbox Live: $500

Total: $7,555.

This is not including tax, and not including other Microsoft products, like operating systems, Office, PC games, etc. On Xbox products I’ve spent $7,555. At least. So for Xbox Support to consistently act like I must be mistaken in having purchased this or, worse, like I’m lying and trying to get free downloadable content, is repulsive. That might be a strong word, but I choose it decidedly. I can’t explain why their system of record keeping does not allow me to see purchases I’ve made before 2013. Neither can they, as they have offered no explanation for that. So it comes down to my memory and the logic surrounding why I would have been the one to purchase the material, and them claiming that I must surely be mistaken if I can’t currently access it.

Their fix, you’ll remember, is not a fix at all. It’s that they’ll “keep an eye out for any other possible solutions.” Like the rep who promised two weeks ago that he would follow up with me and has failed to do so, I doubt I’ll hear back from them.

These last few days have been rough. The anger and helplessness that I feel distract me even when I’m not actively thinking about it. I’ve spent hours chatting, emailing, talking, messaging, and posting about this and I have nothing to show for it. I’ve been fighting for $18 after having spent over 400 times that amount on Xbox products. These are hours I’ll never get back. For what?

For what, indeed. Part of what’s been making this such a trying time is the questions that tangle throughout my brain at all times of day. Why is this a big deal? Is it even worth it? Would other people fight over something so small? Are you being petty? Is this trivial? Are your friends judging you for this? Maybe you should just drop it.

But I can’t. Sure, it’s only $18. But Microsoft makes a lot of money from people like me, and when we buy things from them we enter into an agreement. I give them money, they give me something in return. In this case, I gave them $18 for access to digital material across platforms. I’m not getting that, and my time is being wasted every time I am told to check my purchase history again and again, and never given an explanation for why my purchase history is incomplete on their end. As I said previously, I was never expecting a “we’re sorry, here’s a gift card that will cover the content and then some.” I didn’t want a handout, I just wanted what I paid for. I still don’t want any extras. At this point I don’t even know if I want the damn content that I was fighting for. After spending years supporting a company with my money, time, and public opinion, it’s physically painful to be treated like this. I feel sick when I think about it too much. I get headaches. I’m not being dramatic. I’m not a hypochondriac.  It’s just what life has been these last few days.

In my response to their message in which they said they’ll “keep an eye out for any other possible solutions,” I told them that I won’t support their products until I get a resolution. I have been a gamer since my earliest memories, and I have almost every home console ever released. I may have had favorites, but my allegiance has always been to myself and my desire to experience it all. I don’t see why I should support a company that doesn’t support me. I was planning on buying another $50 worth of Rock Band DLC this week but I’ve been holding off. I think I’ll pass. And I’ll pass on new Xbox One games, and Xbox Live, and HoloLens, and their next console. They can keep their $18 if they truly feel it’s worth it.

This Magic Moment

When I was writing my top 20 list for this site, I was constantly wavering between games that I thought were objectively great and games that I had a special, personal experience with. I struggle with that every time I make a list or share my favorite video game/movie/book with people, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I make my way through Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

Syndicate

So far, Syndicate is as good as I’ve come to expect from an Assassin’s Creed game. The graphics and dedication to environmental detail is superb, the controls are fluid and intuitive, and the combat feels like a well-choreographed dance (when I get in the groove, anyway). With two years and as many AC games between it and Black Flag, it should be a better game. It is, arguably. The graphics are a bit better, the interface is slightly improved, there are some new features. It’s not hitting me as hard as Black Flag, though. I can play Syndicate for a couple of hours and be satisfied with putting the controller down. With Black Flag, I didn’t want to stop playing. Like, ever. I would play for hours, convincing myself I needed to sleep and maybe shower before jumping right back to my swashbuckling adventures. I thought about playing it when I wasn’t playing it. I dreamed about it. I was legitimately sad when I approached 100% completion.

So what is it that’s so different? Black Flag does have the advantage when it comes to setting. As gorgeously rendered as Syndicate’s Victorian London is, it’s, well, Victorian London. Dim, dirty, and drearily urban. Black Flag had some urban areas, but it was the vast, bright, sparkling Caribbean seas and islands that I most vividly remember. I could do all of the same building hopping and street stalking I can do in Syndicate, but then I could hop on my very own pirate ship and sail into the eye of a vicious tropical storm.

AC Black Flag

But can setting really impact my experience with a game that much? It could also have been when I played Black Flag, which was the winter break just after buying my PS4 at launch. So it was an exciting time, because I had time to devote to games and Black Flag was one of my first of the new generation of consoles. Sometimes I can feel pressure to rush through as many games as I can during the breaks between semesters, but I only had a few PS4 games so I gave myself plenty of time to dedicate to playing them. How much does this ‘right place, right time’ factor affect my reception of games? A lot, I would venture to guess. When I reflect on games that I’ve had a strong reaction to (Dragon Quest VIIIFallout 3Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), I remember the actual act of playing them in addition to the games themselves. The time surrounding their playing seems special in some way. There was a sense of freedom and excitement, despite what my life was like surrounding the game. If I had played any of them, or Black Flag, at a different time, with different expectations/priorities/distractions, would I have become as invested? It seems impossible to know, but the logical part of my brain says that I probably wouldn’t have been ‘pulled in’ or immersed as deeply in some situations. I probably would have liked them, sure, but if I hadn’t had hours to spend playing Dragon Quest VIII while I was on leave, or Fallout 3 when I was job hunting, or Black Flag when I was on break, I probably would not have become as obsessed and overwhelmed by the worlds they presented me with.

Much of this is pointless, I understand that. Who really cares what makes a game a favorite? But it’s interesting to think about, and I do so pretty often, especially as I age and talk with younger gamers about experiences they might not be able to fully appreciate (the transition from 2D to 3D games, for instance). Someone could play Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart: Double Dash back to back and make the obvious judgement that Double Dash is a better game. It’s a much smoother experience, thanks to improved frame rate, the graphics are much improved, there is more diversity in the gameplay, etc. And I would agree with them. Double Dash is a better game. But there is too much magic surrounding the time I spent with Mario Kart 64 for it to be that simple. I liked Mario Kart 64 more in the moment. If I hadn’t played it when it came out and played it just before I tried Double Dash, I’m sure I would had a completely different opinion of it.

Mario Kart 64

I don’t have a point that I’m working toward here, I’m just sort of talking (or, uh, typing) to myself. The question that often spawns these types of thoughts for me is “what is your favorite game of all time?” Will any game ever unseat my current favorite, Chrono Trigger? I have played better games, probably. I will play better games. But time and nostalgia and that nameless sense of timeless magic will likely prevent me from ever ‘liking’ a game more.

 

The Little Things

I’m not quite as old as dirt, but sometimes it feels like it. In my thirty or so years of playing games, I’ve built up a cache of experiences that I draw from every time I play a new game. It’s not a conscious or purposeful thing. I don’t play games to snidely compare them to others like them. It just happens. Sometimes it’s inescapable comparisons of ‘big’ things, like gameplay, mission structure, or premise (think Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, or BioWare and Bethesda games).

Sometimes, though, it’s the little things, and these are the things that catch me off guard and make me think about how far games have come in terms of graphics, design, and narrative. Given the casual, personal nature of this site, I want to write about some of these moments as they happen. I don’t feel like they warrant much attention, but as the whippersnappers say, ‘I do what I want.’ So this will be the first in a series of such observations and commentary.

Having said that, I’ve been playing a lot of Dying Light lately, and I’m enjoying it pretty thoroughly. I’m a fan of Dead Island, though, and this is basically Dead Mainland, so it’s no wonder I took to it so easily. Early in the game I was running around, bashing zombies repeatedly in the head with underpowered melee weapons in the bleak urban setting, when I decided to cut across one of the few grassy areas on the map. As much as the game is designed to encourage constant movement, I had to pause at the top of the hill to admire the grass and other plants.

Dying Light Field
Dying Light – Field

I don’t know if Dying Light has the most beautiful digital greenage ever, but it’s pretty dang pretty. There is a diversity in terms of size, color, and type, and the placement makes it feel like it’s fairly realistically wild, with clumps and gaps placed where it seems they should be. A static image like this does it little justice, though, as the movement of the plants as they sway adds a lot to their realism. It’s oddly calming to behold, despite leaving you utterly vulnerable to the zombies ambling around you.

After admiring the lively field for a few moments, I moved on, but my mind kept working it over. One of my first thoughts was how, as beautiful as it was, it was still far from where it would need to be to exist as a realistic simulation in terms of an immersive virtual experience. I’m hoping that the new wave of virtual reality ‘experiences’ takes off and ushers in a new era of gaming (and general entertainment), but how long will it be before I can bend over and handle a single blade of grass, pulling and tearing it realistically, zooming in to observe individual cells? How long before leaves bounce and twist according to actual laws of physics and the variable wind patterns instead of pre-programmed swaying motions? When will I be able to pluck an apple from a tree, extract the seeds and plant them in fertile soil to grow a new tree that looks different than the last, all in a virtual world where this isn’t some core piece of gameplay? To create a truly realistic virtual reality, it’s these kinds of details that would have to be addressed. But that seems so far away, right?

At this point I was back to hacking at zombie faces in the game, but the thread of thought continued. How far we’ve come. My first memory of an open field in a 3D game was my first steps on Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field.

Ocarina of Time Hyrule Field
Ocarina of Time – Hyrule Field

Stepping out into this field felt magical at the time. A real world in three dimensions. Grass, trees, mountains over the horizon. When compared to recent games, of course, it’s bland and bare, closer to the wastelands of a Fallout game than a lush and realistic field. The ‘grass’ is blurry dabs of color stretched over a flat canvas, and trees are likewise flat images pasted together to give the appearance of branches and leaves.

Hey, I’m not griping. At the time this was breathtaking, and some of gaming’s top designers worked on this. But we really have come a long way in terms of not only graphical capability, but artistic cohesion when it comes to piecing graphical elements together to make a realistic world for players to traverse. If we’ve come this far in twenty years, what will another twenty do? Maybe, just maybe, I’ll live to see a virtual world where I can pull those individual blades of grass or plants those apple seeds that I got from crushing a newly plucked apple from a tree. That would be pretty neat.

 

Welcome! Kinda…

Let me start by saying that I am transferring over my blogs from another site, so this first wave of posts will have their original publication dates on them. Like this one, my welcome blog (kinda) from my other site:

(May 29th, 2016)

Okay, here’s the deal: I set this site up for selfish reasons. I wanted a place to write about games. A place where I can muse about gaming news, games I’ve been playing, rusty old gaming memories, research related to my academic work with gaming, and other odds and ends. To be frank, most of the people I’m connected to through social media don’t care what I think about most of that stuff. Which is understandable, since I usually find myself annoyed by people who post very frequently about a single topic, even if I’m somewhat interested in it.

video-games-1136042_960_720

So I wanted a place where I could vent freely about this hobby which I love so much, where I wouldn’t intrude on anyone’s already lengthy feed. I don’t expect anyone to read what I write, and I don’t mean that in some kind of hipster, too-cool-to-care way. I don’t want the pressures of writing for an audience, so I’m not going to worry too much about it. If you read my stuff, cool. Thanks. If not, cool. Thanks (well, not really, but it sounded cool to mirror the other phrase). I put immense pressure on myself when I consider the various audiences that may be reading my work, so I won’t be doing that here. Which means, if you should choose to stick around, you can expect plenty of semi-coherent tangents, rants, and pointless mental wanderings. These aren’t essays. They’re not even editorials. They’re just logs of my thoughts, on the web. You might call them web logs or, you know what, just call them blogs, for short. I should copyright that. I’m sure no one is using it.

I also have little intention to keep to a very strict publishing schedule, especially once the fall semester starts back up and I’m buried in research, reading, paper grading, etc. I have plenty I’d like to write about, though, so I’ll probably be posting fairly regularly. Keep an eye out, audience-that-I’m-pretending-doesn’t-exist.

Some topics I’m already considering: “Wow, ______ is a cool game”; “Wow, _______ is NOT a cool game”; “I am old and I never have time to play games, please pity me”; “E3”; “There aren’t enough boobs in video games”; “There are too many boobs in video games”; “Just kidding, I won’t be writing about either of those two last things”; and much, much more.

As you can see, I have so much to contribute, but don’t look forward to it too much because I don’t want to imagine that anyone cares about any of this because then I will freak out and just shut down with crippling writer’s anxiety.

Thanks,

Joey