Playing Games in Public

I joined the portable gaming community in 2005ish when I used eBay to purchase my first Nintendo DS. It was a second hand eBay job that cost around £60 and was a purchase I think I made when I received my Christmas overtime pay from my time working at The Link. A year or so later, when I left, my colleagues all chipped in and spent £99 on buying me a Nintedo DS Lite model, which will take some beating as a gift from any workplace.

My DS Lite is criminally underplayed now, but as soon as I got it, it was played maybe the most of any games console I've ever owned. The hours playing Mario Kart DS, Sonic Rush, Tetris, Nintendogs, Super Mario 64DS, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney and others, as well as all the Gameboy Advance games I picked up for it, is just shocking. It still works flawlessly over a decade later as well.

One thing I was never comfortable with was, however, playing it truly on the go. I'd happily sit at home for hours and hours (and cramped hands) playing the console, but actually cracking it out on the bus? Felt strange. And it all stems from one interaction I had.

I was sitting on the bus, a 38A, on the way home one evening from Uni and was really into Super Mario 64. I'd play the game on the bus whilst also listening to the brilliant Belle and Sebastian album The Life Pursuit, the album that I discovered the band with surprisingly. This was my moment in time - late 2006 in my final year of Uni in despair at the disaster that was becoming my degree - indeed,  at a time that would be the genesis of this blog.

There was a guy was sitting next to me and I started to notice that he was watching me play the game. In those days people had nothing to do on buses but stare blankly out the windows. The Metro had already been read by the evening, and no one had smartphones (the iPhone was a year away from release) and it was a far simpler time. So when someone wasn't looking ahead, or at the window awaiting their stop, but instead looking down it was obvious they were scoping you out.

So I shuffled slightly and realised they were attentive of me playing a level. I remember this so well I even remember the level - it's the one where you are trying to beat the Penguin to the end of the slope in the winter kingdom Cool, Cool Mountain. I was struggling to beat the big bird, and my frustration must have drawn him in. He glanced at my face, so I looked at him and our eyes met - bare in mind we were less than 20cm (200mm, 9 inches) away from each other. It was close. He then said something, so I removed my 'phones, and he said "Oh man that level's a nightmare."

I nodded, not knowing what to say. He then asked me the strangest question I've ever been asked on public transport - "Do you want me to have a go?".

I said yes. I don't know why I did. But I did. And he completed it. In record time too. And then handed it back and then said "Oh, this is my stop!" and got up and off. I didn't know how to react - and I still think about it to this day that he, of all people, is the only person to have obtained a Star in that game that I didn't - like some sort of guardian angel for Super Mario 64DS.

This interaction made me self conscious anytime I have played in public. I was worried I'd see him again on the bus - as any regular commuter knows the co-commuters become a sort of club, getting on the same time and place every day, even taking the same seats. I didn't see him again, but I wonder if he ever tells the story of the Mario 64 level he beat for some stranger on the 38A.

This interaction also has passed on to me even now. I got a Nintendo Switch as everyone knows and it's a portable games console (which one it is first I am unsure, as it is also a home console). I don't mind playing it occasionally at work, but playing it out and about seems odd. When I first got the console I had a quick trip to Glasgow on the train and had it with me. I didn't get a chance to play with it - Frank had to come along too - but even if I had been alone the idea of getting it out and playing it still makes me feel odd.

I know that it shouldn't! These days everyone's buried in their phones even playing games on them. I see folk still to this day playing Pokémon in the Science Park where there's a gym. I even remember this past summer seeing my first Switch in the "wild" when I was in London on the Tube.

So what is it that is stopping me? Is gaming something that, for me, will never shake the geeky nerdy outlook? Or is it just ostentatious to be playing a games console in the open? People don't feel that way about reading a book or reading the internet on their smartphones, but there is something that is different about sharing a hobby with the world that for decades has been shareable, and I can't quite discern why.

 

 

Children's Television Part II - The Gender Decision

This is the second part in a series on Children's Television. Read Part I here.

I think back to Connie and I's intentions with television and Joni and remember the idea that she wouldn't watch too much of it. That's still true - we try and limit it. But the issue is that with a second child - Etta, who has decided that sitting around on the floor doing nothing is for chumps, much like Joni did - time to have a break is difficult. Television, then, is something that one needs to use sparingly and correctly. Watching and sharing some of the Disney classics with her is a fun experience, but it's also important to make sure that the shows aren't just on constantly.

There is a second choice all parents have to make - what is the right television shows for your child to watch. One of my colleagues once said that he loved having a Amazon Fire TV Stick as he could pop on a Peppa Pig channel from YouTube that had three hours of the show repeated, and he could forget about it. We've actually not done this - apart from the fact that YouTube is an unknown quantity, I read an incredible article a few months back about procedurally generated children's television spiked amongst real shows, and it greatly worried me.

Joni is a kid that has not really been exposed to adverts in her life. With our use of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, downloads and CBeebies, the BBC's own children's television channel for "pre-School" kids. When we were in Canada Connie was amazed to find Family Jr, a channel free of adverts (kind of, we'll come to that in a different blog post at some point) and one that had a few of our big hitters - Teletubbies, Twirlywoos, etc, amongst new favourites that Joni loves to this day, such as Justin Time.

This means that if we carefully select the channels and shows she watches, she will never see anything we don't already know well. For example, Connie and I were intrigued by My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic at first as we knew it was a "big deal". When we watched it, it seemed to... tween for our liking. But later on, we let Joni watch it and now she's got all six Ponies as toys and it's actually an example of a well done children's television show for many reasons.

I'll explore the concept of curating in an another post. This series is going to become quite big.

The reason My Little Pony was so good in my mind was one simple fact - all the main characters are girls. Yes, ponies of course, but strong independent girls that don't all look like girls. For example, take Joni's early favourite - Rainbow Dash, pictured below - who is coded and coloured to a male style, she's the wildest and most independent of the entire crew. There is of course a pink one, and others that love parties and jewellery and stuff like that, but the other main ones includes a Southern US voiced one who works on apple farms.

Rainbow_Dash_Wonderbolt_fantasy_cropped_S1E3.png

What the show does is presenting being a girl as... normal. The funny thing is just how badly other shows do this, and when you start to look at many of the shows you realise they are coding girls and boys so strongly into their "roles" as defined by either the producers and writers, or society at large.

One of the biggest problems with the Family Jr channel was this issue - shows were mostly "for boys" and "for girls" - what I mean is the boy shows had action and adventure, and the girls shows were... well, Strawberry Shortcake.

It's a pink and fluffy show with a great message I'm sure, but the presentation was utterly at odds with an inclusive idea of what makes a girl a girl. It's also something that is done to others; Sofia the First is another Princess show with some agency to the character, but the presentation isn't very good. Now, the problem with me saying that is that there will always be girly and boyish shows because that's a target market. I am not saying all shows need to be gender fluid or gender neutral - there's markets for all of those shows, obviously, and markets for all the toys as well.

The problem I have is when you've got a show that follows my previous post's Thunderbird Blueprint where a team exists - and you've got a gender imbalanced team. Take Go Jetters, where there are four kids at the "Go Jetter Academy", tutored by a male-voiced Unicorn. There are three boys and one girl. Or Paw Patrol, where out of the six pups, one was a girl (dressed in pink because of course). They added a female pup in the second season, which was good, but since have added another male pup.  Same for Thomas the Tank Engine, who when I was kid had almost zero female characters, save for additions of Mavis and Daisy, and all the carriages who were pulled by male engines - talk about a coded embedded patriarchy.

I don't want to come across as someone who thinks all girls and boys shouldn't be brought up in a way that helps them identify themselves - the issue is that when you have a show that has 25% or less of the main characters as female you end up with an implied subordination of them by it seeming like they aren't as important as the males. That's why My Little Pony is so refreshing as it's about a group of girls and is decidedly not obviously "girly", despite also featuring that as well, as a celebration of sorts.

I've seen it a lot with Disney movies who used to be coded in the same way - Aladdin springs to mind as a movie which has a male lead and a Princess that is used as a damsel in distress. Frozen and Tangled manage to give their Princesses agency and empower them, and the more said about Moana and it's incredible message the better, and they really make the older Disney movies stand out for their issues (which are inherent in their origins, of course). What needs to happen, and is happening, is that the constant reinforcement of "boys and girls" needs to stop - my daughters are pretty and beautiful, but also strong and bold. They are funny and clever and all the words that are more commonly used to describe boys when I was growing up. Joni will be a princess, a pony, a pirate and a doctor, and none of them are coded as boys and girls.

I need to wrap this up so here goes - I am a white cis-gendered man who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and was given all of the privilege that that comes with. I am not an authority on this, and also do not have a unique insight - but was is clear from watching these shows and seeing how they are built is this - it's a choice someone has made. That choice needs to be challenged and reframed.

In My Absence: Gaming's Changes

Since my Return to Gaming in August of last year, I've slowly learned that in my absence gaming has become... a little bit shit. There are micro-transactions in most of the biggest games and a massive 2017 controversy about so called "loot boxes" tipped over into the mainstream, shining a light on this practice with many seeing it for what I think it is - it's gambling, isn't it?

As far as I can tell, a loot box is something that gives you something back. A reward, of sorts, for completing a level, like a new set of hats or a new set of stripes for a car - given if you win and dished out randomly. The problem comes when you can buy loot box "keys" to open them without playing for them - turning the purchase of the loot boxes a gamble like a fruit machine (as you don't know what you're going to get) and then if there is something you want (in our analogy, the jackpot) you'll keep paying for the privilege. It's insidious and cheeky to lock items behind a pay wall when you've dropped sometimes serious coin on a game, but it's the way the industry has moved. Many games on smartphones are free-to-play (that's a bit of a misnomer to be frank) but then items are paid for to progress your play.

This is just one oddity of coming back into the industry since 2012. The second is the introduction of "Downloadable Content Season Passes". When I played games, additional DLC was just that - additional levels or storylines superfluous to the main arc of the game, and something that was a neat little addition. I bought a few for Mass Effect 2 I'm sure, and it was great getting a bit of a bonus for the game. It reminded me of the PC days in the 1990s of "expansion packs", where I'd buy £20 of content to expand a game. These days big titles can be actively designed with these additions expected to be bought. I am under no illusions that the SIM City and RollerCoaster Tycoon teams didn't plan for their expansion packs (and the literally tens of expansion packs my sister bought for The Sims) but today single player games are crucially short, with multiplayer bolted on as a time-sink. The content that is added is normally stuff that feels like it should have been there from the start, and the bare bones version you shelled £40+ for is an incomplete game. Instead of it being an expansion pack, it feels like a completion pack, adding back what was there in the first place.

The final thing that has made me feel odd since being back is that games are almost always now both digital and physical. In my day games were only physical. You'd go to Game or EB and pick up the physical box and the disc. This is the way I started to buy games for the Switch too - I have both Mario Kart and Super Mario on the wee gamecarts that the Switch uses. But this is a pain - I forgot Mario Kart once and couldn't play it. That's a frustration. The Switch has the eShop, a huge place where you can buy every game (I think) as a download. That's great for convenience, but there are a few draw backs - the prices are always higher to download (discounts are minimal on the eShop) and you can't trade them in. Also, the Switch is a little hamstrung by storage space, and will in the future need a microSD card to allow games to be downloaded.

Time and the industry has moved on. I need to catch up, because if I don't I'm likely to get burned by something everyone else knows about but I'm ignorant to.

The Donkey Lesson

Joni started nursery school this year, and we sent her to the school that we want her to go to full time when her compulsory education starts next August. We didn't really expect it to be so much like school at first, and when we had to scrambled to get a uniform together for her, and then sent her off on her "first day", it all hit home - she's going to school. For real, like... really going to school.

Since then our involvement in the school has increased a lot - fayres, photo buying, donating to fundraising... it can all be quite overwhelming, in the end. It wasn't until the week before when Connie and I realised that she would be taking part in the Nativity Play.

I've written before about religious schools on this blog before and found the odd, and certainly at odds with Connie's own secular schooling, but JOni has been sent to a Church of England school. This is partly because almost all the schools near to us are that type of school, but also the "best" school we found was the one she went to and it is a CofE school. Connie and I are not religious in any way, but find that for Joni school and religion are linked closely and when the times comes to tell her our beliefs, I hope that she understands and appreciates them.

Hyptocritical, maybe.

My Nativity is something that I distinctly remember; it is one of the earliest memories that I can pinpoint due to the age and time. I was the Inn Keeper who didn't have room, but then gave them space in my barn for the little Big Guy to be born. I remember it vividly; pretty sure I wore a tea towel on my head and my dress gown, so only slightly culturally insensitive. But the whole thing is remembered by me quite fondly - one remembers the strangest things, and I remember the fact that the angels were pretty high and mighty about their costumes at the time.

Joni is, sometimes, quite hard to get information out of like most kids. When we learned there was a play she was asked what role she was and it took a long time to get it out of her - but in the end we found out she was the Donkey, and had ears and a tail. Connie and I were perplexed a bit - what kind of role is the Donkey, for Pete's sake!

On the day of the play Connie and I both were worried that Joni had been shafted. I know, goddam helicopter parents, but that's where your head goes. Joni came out third after Mary and Joseph wearing simply her school uniform and the aforementioned ears and tail. She was beaming, so proud, and so was I. And then the rest of the classes costumes were all brilliant. And for the briefest heart-aching second I was worried she'd been picked as the donkey for a nefarious reason.

Obviously, I'd forgotten the key impact the Donkey has on the story. Mary and Joseph start making their way to Bethlehem from Nazareth, and Joni has a starring role, leading them all around the classroom, whilst everyone sings along to her song. I could've kicked myself for being so petty and silly when thining about this little play, but those moments as she's walking around, parents laughing that she's storming ahead of the Happy Couple. She was even there when Josephy and Mary went around looking for a bed for the night, and then sat at the front next to the Baby Jesus, like Frank used to do when Joni was born and he'd endlessly be scanning the room checking she was still here, or in her little crib.

I realised that I was putting my own projections on Joni, as she was having a blast. Waving at us and giving us the thumnbs up, smiling and being silly with her tail, she didn't care. And neither should have Connie or I, and it was a learning experience. As long as we give Joni the confidence that I never had as a kid to be involved in things like these without any insercurities, maybe it'll cure our own!

I leaned in towards Connie, as Etta was wrestling out of my arms and yelping at the amusement she had when no one in the room was paying attention to her, the fools, and said "This must be what it's like when your kid is up for an Oscar".

 

Wednesday Graveyear 2017

I am on top of this, this year. Except, I have not done my Statistics on My Music this year. I might do it in the new year.

These are my favourite albums of the year. If you're interested, there is a Spotify Playlist with them on it here.

Previous Years: 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016
 

Slowdive - Slowdive

I didn't expect this album to be as incredible as it was. I have listened to Slowdive for years, after getting really into shoegaze back in 2008 or so, and like My Bloody Valentine I never really expected any new material from them, and I was listening to them as a finished product. The album is utterly magical, and shows what can happen when an artist comes back because there is a need.

I didn't expect this album to be as incredible as it was. I have listened to Slowdive for years, after getting really into shoegaze back in 2008 or so, and like My Bloody Valentine I never really expected any new material from them, and I was listening to them as a finished product. The album is utterly magical, and shows what can happen when an artist comes back because there is a need.

Mogwai - Every Country's Sun

Mogwai have had a late-career resurgence, for me. Their last album, Atomic, was massive and brilliant, and before that Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will and Rave Tapes are up there with their brilliant best. If I listen to this album though it is for me their best since Come On Die Young, which is up there as one of my all-time favourites, and this is just brilliant. Stand out track is Don't Believe the Fife, which is one of the best tracks they've ever written.

Mogwai have had a late-career resurgence, for me. Their last album, Atomic, was massive and brilliant, and before that Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will and Rave Tapes are up there with their brilliant best. If I listen to this album though it is for me their best since Come On Die Young, which is up there as one of my all-time favourites, and this is just brilliant. Stand out track is Don't Believe the Fife, which is one of the best tracks they've ever written.

Fever Ray - Plunge

Fever Ray is one half of the most influential artists I've ever listened to - The Knife. Their 2006 album Silent Shout single handedly changed my musical outlook, and since then I've never looked back. They haven't quite made an album I liked as much as that one, but Fever Ray's self-titled debut was close. This is however a brilliant distillation of what makes her so compelling, and has some wicked tracks.

Fever Ray is one half of the most influential artists I've ever listened to - The Knife. Their 2006 album Silent Shout single handedly changed my musical outlook, and since then I've never looked back. They haven't quite made an album I liked as much as that one, but Fever Ray's self-titled debut was close. This is however a brilliant distillation of what makes her so compelling, and has some wicked tracks.

Broken Social Scene - Hug of Thunder

I'll confess that up until Connie and I started dating I'd never really listened to Broken Social Scene. Not sure why - but after she said that Anthems for the 13 Year Old Girl spoke to her, I went back and listened and utterly fell in love. When we saw them in Houston together in went down as a memorable night for a few of the wrong reasons - Houston crowds are shite - but the band played on. This sees Feist return to the group and the results are wonderful. Another album made by artists after waiting the time for an album to ready to be recorded.

I'll confess that up until Connie and I started dating I'd never really listened to Broken Social Scene. Not sure why - but after she said that Anthems for the 13 Year Old Girl spoke to her, I went back and listened and utterly fell in love. When we saw them in Houston together in went down as a memorable night for a few of the wrong reasons - Houston crowds are shite - but the band played on. This sees Feist return to the group and the results are wonderful. Another album made by artists after waiting the time for an album to ready to be recorded.

Grizzly Bear - Painted Ruins

Shields, the band's last album, was a pleasant surprise after the popular early albums, but I didn't love it as much as I love this one - it feels so free-flowing but tight at the same time and is a great journey - I was rinsing the singles before the album came out, and unlike many other times where I do that they are better in the album's context rather than my sporadic unsorted listening.

Shields, the band's last album, was a pleasant surprise after the popular early albums, but I didn't love it as much as I love this one - it feels so free-flowing but tight at the same time and is a great journey - I was rinsing the singles before the album came out, and unlike many other times where I do that they are better in the album's context rather than my sporadic unsorted listening.

The Nintendo Switch: My Thoughts

My first blog post about the Nintendo Switch was brimming with optimism. It ended with the line "it's nice to be a consumer and have one of my wishes fulfilled". That wish was simply a console that wasn't wedded to the one location, welded to my television, to the point where I couldn't play it without also blockading the television and by extension the room. I either wanted games that were system agnostic, ones that my progress would be playable on my phone, or... well, the Nintendo Switch.

It takes the simple approach of a main console that works on your telly and then can be taken away and turned into a portable games console. And it does both of these without compromise. The "docked" mode when it's playing on the TV is superb, pushing full HD graphics without even blinking an eyelid. Then the portable mode - the screen's large and bright, and the controllers feel weighty and strong in my hands.

But it's the switch between the two that had me applauding - like the old mantra of Apple, it just works. You undock it and it's ready to go. Slip it back into the dock and it's there, immediately. It means that when I go to bed - I can take the whole console with me. Like last night, for example, I am playing Colin and Mike at Rocket League on the TV but have to start getting ready for bed. While I wait for Con, I play it in the kitchen, then grab a few extra matches whilst in bed as I wind down. It's a superb use case.

That being said, the console does have a lot of limitations. For example, I bought both Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Mario Odyssey on cartridge like an old school player, and then promptly forgot that was the case and have left Mario Kart behind when travelling. That's a bit frustrating, but the other option - downloading them all - makes me a bit uneasy when the storage on the side.

There are a few other quirks. The friend system is as bad as it was when I owned a Nintendo DS back in 2006, which is just unreal. Entering what is basically a phone number to add friends seems simple, but then the utter lack of messaging and communication options is a bit rubbish. Maybe that will come in time. But the menu system is quite nice, if a bit simplistic, and in truth feels like it needs a bit of a kick up the rear. The lack of video streaming too is a use case I wish it had, and maybe one day it will as well, but for now it's a bit of a missed chance.

There is one other major thing - the system isn't as powerful as the Xbox and PlayStation. As someone who hasn't had a games console in almost six years this disparity is not that noticeable - I've never played an Xbox One and only fleetingly on a PS4, but the thing that is noticeable is the struggle it has when trying to play the powerful titles. It makes cuts on certain things when playing the games right at the peak of the machines power, limiting the games that can run on the thing. With the sales so high though (10 million in 10 months is a record) I imagine that most developers are now busting their gut to make games for all consoles, unlike the Wii which was left behind.

All of that being said, they are minor to me. Maybe not for everyone, but the consensus is that the limitations are far outweighed by the portability and power of the set up. Connie and I, for example, played hours of Mario Kart at my parents... on the portable screen, with each of us using on half of the detachable controllers. Connie turned to me and said "this is brilliant", and she was right. What is also brilliant - taking the dock with my when I'm travelling for work, and plugging it into the hotel's big TVs, and having my full games console on hand anywhere I end up. It's just brilliant, and another reason why the Switch has fitted into my lifestyle so well.

There is one final thing too - every one I've shown it to wants one. Not just says "oh, that's really cool", which they do say, but "Oh, I need to get one". Two people have actually bought one after playing it with me, and maybe don't love it as much as me, but can really believe that it's the future. Yes, there will always be room for 4k 100fps powerhouse machines, but the Switch made me realise that games are great, they are fun, and for the first time they are portable.

I really doubt this will turn into another Wii - lamentable regret. This might turn into another Dreamcast - outright undying love.