Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Basics: Video Games

As I explained in one of my very first posts for this blog, everyone plays video games. Video games have a broad appeal, reaching males and females of all ages, races, classes, and levels. (Wait--not "levels"--this isn't Dungeons & Dragons.) There are diehard fans who have played every video game known to man, and there are fans so casual that they subconsciously like video games but barely realize they've ever played one.

If you're interacting with what you see on a screen, and if what you see on the screen is classified as an electronic "game," then you're playing a video game. Heck, you don't even need to have a TV or computer screen--back in college, we used a projector to put the images on the wall. High tech, that was.

Perhaps you've heard people say that video games are childish toys that rot your brain, make you socially maladjusted, and cause violent behavior. While there may be shreds of truth in there for very specific circumstances, video games are no different than books, television, cinema, paintings, sculpture, or any other medium through which stories and ideas are expressed. Video games in general are not inherently good or bad; rather, it's the content of the games and the role they play in your life that determines what kind of an influence they are.

There are many good reasons to play video games, but there are just as many reasons not to. To help explain the benefits and drawbacks of being a gamer, I have compiled a list (in no particular order) of my favorite and least favorite aspects of this fine hobby. Overall, I think the positive far outweighs the negative, but I'll try not to let my opinion sway you too much.

The Top Ten Best Aspects of Gaming:

1. Like many other hobbies, gaming is a form of escapism. Maybe you can't find a job, but you can find the sword that will slay the villain who's trying to take over the world. Maybe washing dishes every day is boring, but washing black goop off the streets of an island paradise town is more interesting. Maybe being a real astronaut is too stressful and you just want to go home and feed your virtual kitten. Video games allow us to break from our problems and embrace a more favorable reality.

2. Video games are interactive entertainment: you have direct control over what happens during the course of a game. Your choices, reactions, strategies, solutions, techniques, and creativity determine (or at least strongly influence) whether the heroes win or lose, what the city you are building will look like, etc. Video games allow you to take ownership of how you are being entertained.

3. There are enough types of video games out there to appeal to virtually everybody. Video games cover all sorts of genres and styles: there's horror, fantasy, mystery, and comedy; there's racing, fighting, puzzle-solving, and sandbox-style creating; and there's everything inbetween.

There are all sorts of control schemes as well; whether it's a controller, keyboard, mouse, joystick, touch screen, paddle, or motion-sensitive baton, video games are rapidly becoming more accessible to the masses, and many games have customizable controls that only further the widespread appeal. Many games have an adjustable level of difficulty, and some are just flat-out easy or mind-numbingly impossible, so there are appropriate challenges for all types of gamers.

4. Multiplayer games are a great way for two or more people to actively spend time together. Whether you're working with your significant other to save the world or dropping bombs on your best friends' heads, video games can provide all the friendly competition of a real-life sports game without ever leaving the house, and there's usually plenty of opportunities to chat and to laugh and to bond.

5. Whether you're discovering hidden power-ups, defeating powerful bosses, or unlocking Achievements, most video games give you a sense of accomplishment as you play them; you don't need to beat the game before you feel rewarded for playing.

6. Because success in video games is often decided by skill, video games are a breeding ground for bragging rights, especially with the popularity of Achievements. Not everyone can finish the entire game in under an hour. Not everyone can completely max out the high score meter. Not everyone can carry a lawn gnome through almost the entire game and launch it off in a rocket. If you can do something impressive, no matter how small, no matter how many other people can do it (or can do it better than you), you've still got a valid claim to fame in the gaming community.

7. Long car trips and waiting in line can get boring. Video games are usually more fun than staring off into space.

8. Though you may continue to find things you didn't notice before when rereading books and rewatching movies, books and movies do not change every time you experience them. Video games, on the other hand, can be a totally different experience each time you play, depending on the game. And you can still notice things you didn't notice the first time. Video games have a better potential for longevity than many other forms of entertainment.

9. Depending on the games you play, video games might improve your hand-eye coordination, develop your puzzle-solving skills, or even increase your vocabulary. I learned words such as "obliterate" from the Mega Man 4 instruction manual, you know.

10. Video games can be an excellent way to relieve stress. Whether you feel that sense of accomplishment when nothing else in your life is being accomplished, or whether it just feels really good to lop off a few stormtrooper helmets with your lightsaber, video games can be fun.

The Top Ten Worst Aspects of Gaming:

1. As any World of Warcraft player can tell you, games have the potential to become dangerously addicting. The most extreme cases require the kind of intervention you'd expect to hear about with drug addictions, but even the less-extreme cases can disrupt your sleep schedule, make you late for class, and strain relationships with people who aren't interested in watching you play Peggle all day long.

More often than not, the dangerously addictive games are ones with no clear stopping point or an extremely high level of variety and replayability, but I've lost track of the hours just trying to get a little farther in some very linear games. My advice: Get into the habit of setting time limits as early as possible and do what it takes to stick with them. Not everyone who plays video games gets addicted, and not every video game is addicting, but gaming is one hobby where you would do well to monitor your playing habits, just in case.

2. Even though the Internet is chock-full of video game reviews, developers often release videos and demos of their games, and many modern and popular games are available for rental, sometimes it's just not possible to know for sure whether or not you'll like a game until you go out and spend the money on it. Even if you've got the cash to spare, it may not be worth the time or effort to take a chance on the unknown.

3. As time goes on, it becomes more difficult to get older games to work. Controllers wear out, especially when the games you play require a lot of button pounding. Decades of pushing a game cartridge into place and yanking it out of the game system will wear down both the cartridge and the system. Newer computer operating systems can't always run older games, meaning you'll need some tech savvy and additional programs to play those games properly, if at all.

Even well-maintained games and systems are bound to wear out eventually; fortunately, people who know how to repair ancient consoles or troubleshoot compatability issues do exist, but replacement games and controllers decrease in supply and degrade in quality every day.

If you want your retro gaming habit to last--specifically, if you want to continue playing older games "authentically," using all the original systems and controllers--I suggest you be very gentle with your games and buy backups of anything you figure is most likely to wear out. As a general rule of thumb, grab an extra copy of your portable gaming system (such as a Game Boy) when the price has dropped considerably, and always have an extra controller in reserve for your console systems.

4. Video games don't cause people to become violent--rather, they bring out the violence already inside people. Competitive multiplayer games and single-player games with a high level of difficulty are notorious for causing people to throw controllers, scream, shout, throw tantrums, and punch the person next to them. If you are easily frustrated, are a sore loser, or become scary when you lose your temper, you owe it to yourself and the people around you to take a break when necessary. Once again, healthy videogaming requires a certain degree of self-monitoring and self-control.

5. While most comics shops and movie stores tend to keep a respectable amount of older material on hand, several video game stores keep only the most modern game systems in stock, so if you're looking for a game or a controller that's more than about five years old, you're probably out of luck (unless you look online, but availability and quality will vary).

6. Gaming is not the most expensive hobby out there, but it requires a very large initial investment. First you need to buy a video game system, or else a computer that will play the games you want. You'll also need to connect certain systems to a television or other viewing device, so there's even more money you need to spend. Next you'll need at least one game to get started, but of course you'll be buying more.

Also consider that you'll need extra controllers for multiplayer games, and possibly memory cards so you can save your game progress, and batteries for your wireless controllers and older portable systems, and you'll need to keep upgrading your computer to keep up with the system requirements of newer games. Ooh, and let's not forget a carrying case for your portable system.

Bottom line: Unless you're inheriting a system or getting an amazing deal from a friend, you're looking at maybe a $100-$500 initial investment for just the essentials, and additional games can run anywhere from a dollar to $80 on average, depending on the age and rarity of the game. (I emphasize the on average part; there are incredibly rare games that are much, much more expensive, but you know better than to blow a few thousand dollars on those, right?)

On the other hand, if you've got an Internet connection, there are countless video games you can play absolutely for free online. And I'm not talking about illegally downloading old games that you don't own, either. For a few quick ideas about where to get started, check out any one of my Flash Flood articles on GameCola.net; each month I review games and videos created using Flash.

7. Keeping up with your favorite video game series can be potentially more difficult than keeping up with your favorite television, movie, or book series, or your favorite music artist. Video games are subject to the same popularity as, say, comics, where people can clean out the store before you arrive; some series are too prolific for their own good (*cough*Megaman*cough*), which means you might have three games from just one series to play and not enough time to get through them all; and sometimes video game series go places that you cannot follow, such as when the next installment is on a system you don't own, when the style of gameplay begins to shift significantly, or when the control scheme of the next installment is too complicated or uncomfortable for you to handle.

8. Staring at a screen for too long and gripping that controller or stylus or whatever and maybe swinging it around nonstop for hours on end is bound to give you eye cramps and strain your hands. Or something like that.

9. All video games require power to play. Whether your system runs on disposable batteries, a rechargeable battery, or power from a wall outlet, there's always a situation where you won't be able to play video games, and these situations usually have to do with REALLY long car trips or severe thunderstorms. So, charge everything up before you go, and bring extra batteries. Now you're playing with power!

10. Oodles of video games come from Japan, and Japan likes to keep some of those games to itself. Sneaky and dedicated gamers know how to get around this problem, but the solution isn't always exactly legal. As for the average gamer, if there's a sequel (it's usually the sequels) that you're really interested in playing but is only available in Japan, the most you'll probably be able to do is keep your fingers crossed that someday, someday they'll decide to translate the game and send it overseas.

If you're looking to become a gamer or simply play more video games, there are a number of websites that provide free games. There are way too many sites to name, but I'd recommend trying Newgrounds, Arcadebomb, Addicting Games, and PopCap. (Note: People make games of anything. Don't blame me if you find something you don't like.)

If you are more interested in buying console or computer games, you can usually find a GameStop or EB Games within a reasonable distance of where you are (unless you don't live in the United States, in which case I have no idea what I'm talking about), and I'd suggest you either go to one of them or an independent gaming store if you can help it--other places such as Toys "R" Us and FYE sell video games, but in my experience they're usually a little more expensive and less limited in the selection. Also, Amazon is a pretty safe bet.

If you're looking for older games, you're most likely to find something at garage/rummage/tag sales, on eBay, or on video game forums, such as the Buy/Sell/Trade forum on Racketboy. Racketboy also has a Retro Gaming 101 column that gives overviews of various retro gaming systems, in case you're expanding your search to some truly ancient and obscure consoles.

If you've never owned a game system before and can't decide which one to buy, be sure to first ask for advice from any gamer friends or acquaintances you have (or you can ask for help either here or on a message board somewhere, and you'll be sure to get some answers).

In general, try to look at the genres of games that are prevalent on a system you're considering; for example, if you know you like roleplaying or action games, go with a system that carries a lot of roleplaying or action games. Better yet, find a few games that you know for sure you want to play, and go with the system that runs them. When games are available on multiple platforms, reviews will usually tell you which version has superior controls, graphics, special features, etc.

Video game reviews are a dime a dozen, but you might consider mainstream sources such as G4, Gamespot, GameSpy, and IGN; you could check out GameRankings and Metacritic, which compile the scores and reviews of many other sources for a more objective view of what reviewers of all kinds are saying about a game; or, you could check out some reviews with a (sometimes crude) sense of humor from GameLemon, The Escapist Magazine's Zero Punctuation, or from GameCola (of course!), where I'm a staff writer (or, for that matter, from GameFAQs, where I've also contributed reviews).

Lastly, if you can't/won't play video games and just want to watch someone else play them, take a peek at GameCola's YouTube channel (or just search YouTube for gaming videos--there are plenty). No, I'm not shamelessly plugging GameCola or the GameCola YouTube channel. Click here if you don't believe me.

There's plenty of ways to get into gaming, and plenty of ways to keep the hobby going. Regardless of your age, level of gaming ability, financial situation, or any other factors, I promise there is at least one game out there for you.

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