What are power-ups?

Power-ups are fundamental to games. This topic is so ubiquitous that I’m not going to do anything crazy like go into the history of power-ups like I might with other topics, luck you. But I do want to talk about why they’re so important. What are they, what do they do, why is that important in a gaming world and of course, how that relates to us as people and the real world.


At the most basic level, a power-up is THE THING, that one element that makes the gaming world differ from the real-world. Pick any game and there’s AT LEAST one thing. That’s why maybe the term “power-up” isn’t the best for describing what I’m trying to talk about, but I’ll stick with it for the purposes of the discussion. Even games where you’re expected to “simulate” real life, there is something in the game, inside the framework of the program, that makes it fundamentally different from the real-world, otherwise it wouldn’t be fun. It goes to the root of why we play games in the first place, to do something different from our day to day lives. This speaks to all genres of game and even format, table-top, pen and paper, electronic/computer, and so forth.


So, whether we’re talking about flight simulators, adventure games, RPG’S, puzzle games it still comes back to at least one thing, but really in almost every game there’s usually a plethora of things. Using those previously listed examples, in flight sims you’re operating craft that you’d never realistically get close to, you’re going places and wielding objects that you’d never see or use in your normal life, RPG’s grant you otherworldly powers and even puzzle games have their own rules that would defy normal real-world rules if you tried to do it with real candy, or blocks or birds or whatever.


Well, interestingly enough, that is why there is continuous debate on the psychological effects games have on their users. That’s the entire premise of this show, the ways that videogames have affected me and Jason and our listeners in our lives. More and more often in recent times we hear stories of people developing all sorts of problems that are the direct result of his or her game playing. People who stop eating, or bathing or much, MUCH worse. Sadly the lives of those gamers’ family and friends are deeply affected.


I can tell you that on more than one occasion I have heard videogames more accurately compared to a drug than entertainment. Especially if you consider the psychological results that most people derive from their game playing. Successful people, that is people who are successful at other things in life besides just videogames (but even them too), can and probably will tell you that the rush you get from succeeding at a videogame you can also receive by succeeding at just about any other activity. Supposed experts on human psychology will tell you that videogames are dangerous because they give you the feeling of success with only the most minimal effort. To the wrong kind of person this can be a bad thing. I’m sure if we were to look deeper here, we might learn more about gamers who end up committing random acts of horrific violence but I’m no (quote) expert (unquote). Nothing exists in a vacuum however and simply feeling good from succeeding in a videogame is not going to push anyone into some kind of psychosis, there have to be other factors in play, factors, obviously unknown to, or ignored by, those who decry games as a danger to the youth of the world. Look at the outcry over pen and paper RPG’s back in the 70’s if you don’t believe me. Statistically you’re more likely to link a random act of violence to a chemical imbalance brought on by prescription pharmaceuticals or illicit drugs.


Huh, drugs. There’s that word again? There’s a reason it keeps coming up here and I may end up pissing some people off here but here goes. What is a power-up? Well, if we want to use the definition from the world of videogames you would likely say it is “an object or device that alters fundamental gameplay.” What is a videogame? For tha matter what is a game? We might say that gamers are “programs or constructs with their own fundamental rules that offers a departure from the every day norm.” Now, if you can’t already tell where I’m going with this, here’s my final question:  what is a drug? A drug is a substance, be it natural or synthetic in composition, that alters the fundamental operation of the users body chemically. All drugs affect the chemical make-up of the human body, but in different ways; some stimulate certain parts of the body, others block the body’s ability to detect or function, and so forth. The danger that comes from drugs is by messing with the chemical make-up of our bodies to alter their dedicated functions is that there can be side-effects.


Side-effects, the dirty little step-child of the drug world, are that thing nobody likes to talk about, but no one can deny is real. Not a single drug commercial on tv has less than 5 seconds of dialogue devoted strictly to the side-effects. Not a single doctor will prescribe for you a drug without making sure you understand them. When they might be a problem, we like to downplay them. When they’re a benefit, the drug companies find other reasons to sell them.  Famous examples are the herpes medication Valtrex which was originally developed as a shingles medicine. Viagra and Cialis were both developed to treat heart problems. Pharmacology devoted to the study of the human brain is constantly learning of beneficial side effects to the chemical compounds they administer. A common ADHD medication was actually developed to be an anti-depressant but upon administering it to depressed patients, was found to have no effect. The commonly accepted explanation for ADHD is that a part of the brain is not functioning properly, therefore a chemical that most people have which helps them remain calm and focused is deficient in ADHD patients. So, despite what was known about the human brain, the chemical compound that was predicted to help people be less depressed didn’t change their depression at all, but people with issues focusing found it easier to do so. Most ADHD medications function in a similar way.


Sorry about the science lesson here, I’m almost done. Sadly, what happens over time with ADHD meds, as with most medication, is that the body begins to develop a relationship with the medication, usually in the form of dependence but just as often in the form of an immunity. People who take medicine for ADHD find themselves increasing the dosage of the medication until the levels become unhealthy. Quitting some meds cold-turkey can have serious withdrawal effects. Many pharmaceuticals actually function in the same way.


So, while power-ups could be described as “drugs” in the reality of the individual games, it’s interesting to note that games themselves actually can have very similar side-effects. Devoted gamers find it difficult to hear, but studies have shown that exposure to videogames at too early of an age can have a lasting effect on the person, both negative and positive. Additionally, for as long as games have existed, educational games have also persisted. We have a fundamental trust that games can teach us things, but what we may not be aware of is that whether we’re trying to learn from them or not, we’re certainly learning SOMETHING while we play them.


I argue that more complex RPG’s could easily teach useful life skills and a more recent study has shown that playing Portal 2 actually yielded an increase in IQ test scores among testees. But what are we taking away from games that we aren’t noticing. Pay to win games might be causing the player’s brain to begin associating success with paying money. Perhaps the ubiquitousness of games thanks to our phones has taught us that our brains constantly have to be active, always solving problems of some kind, so maybe the desire to play games between projects at work or classes at school is less a desire and more a compulsion? How much quiet reflection are we engaging in any more, as individuals or as a society?


A common modern trend is to “disconnect” and get away from technology for a while. Many scoff at the idea. “I could never be without my phone for any length of time,” they say. I’ve described on this show several times how just a couple of years ago my gaming “habit” was so severe that I couldn’t get rid of a game that I hadn’t completed and I was so compelled to play games whenever possible because my backlog continued to grow. My free time is still devoted to games but now only for the purposes of having fun, unless you count the occasional FTL-Faster Than Light session that lasts all day. Which in itself could very well be a “side-effect.” Modern games like the aforementioned pay to win games, but even the more complex MMORPG’s, have taken psychology into account on the development side:  knowing exactly what the human threshold for patience with any given activity before require some kind of impetus to continue is how leveling, difficulty and rewards systems are written. So you’ve reached the level cap and you’re not a PvP fan and you’re not going to buy anymore DLC in DC Universe Online so you decide it’s time to quit forever, you give it one more go and find out that there’s almost 100 more skill points left to earn to raise all of your stats so that you can access all of that other content you had all but given up on playing. That is by design. You may not get a point now every time you play for an hour, but you might be able to buy just one more item of armor to raise your combat rating, you might get one more piece of material to use for creating new items, you will get something just enticing enough for your brain to tell you, “One more hour won’t hurt.”


But why is this the case? Why are we so obsessed with our experiences? As I have mentioned before, our life is the culmination of our experiences so it is only natural for us to want to fill our lives with as many amazing ones as we can. Entire works of fiction have been devoted to this ideal! Most science fiction of the last 70 years would probably fit the bill. This particular genre is filled with fictional examples of amazing chemicals that grant the users an interesting and entertaining altered view of his or her world. The complete works of Philip K. Dick is devoted to the pursuit of experience and what makes us human and how we perceive our reality, often through the lens of drug use. Many dystopian futures are depicted as overrun with synthetic drugs that give the masses an escape from their daily horrors, famous examples would be RoboCop 2’s “Nuke”, Dredd’s “Slo-Mo” or Substance D from “A Scanner Darkly.” In each case, the dark underbelly of the side-effects is also explored however, so it’s not as though we’re ignorant of the dangers of anything potentially addictive. And yet, we’re continually fighting that battle, individually and societally. The debate continues to rage in this country whether marijuana is harmful and should it be legalized at the federal level even as states have individually legalized it and benefitted from it in multiple ways. On one hand we have the medical and military industrial complexes pushing the benefits of synthetic chemicals while natural substances continue to be labelled illegal. Alcohol has been documented to cause permanent damage in many ways, not the least of which is death, smoking tobacco too, while naturally occurring and in some cases even synthetic compounds are prohibited despite their provable and repeatable benefits.


This goes back to my previous episode about cheating. What is right, what is wrong? What is a power-up and what is a “poison mushroom”? It depends on the eye of the beholder and like as before, ultimately the outcome will be decided by the group with the most influence. At least in the mean time we know that power-ups will continue to be in games forever. And there’s always cheat codes.


This has been Jesse, babies to babies, still looks like Billy.




Gamer Gate or Growing Pains?

(This was also released in spoken-word format as an episode of LilTooClinical’s podcast, “VideoGame Construct,” which can be found here: http://vgconstruct.libsyn.com or on iTunes.)

I only have one thing to say to anyone in the Gamer Gate movement: If you consider yourself a gamer and you consider yourself an adult, grow up. I could end the podcast right there but of course, that’s not my style. Rant ensues.
I don’t like Anita Sarkeesian’s video series either but not because she’s a feminist, not because I don’t like the things she has to say, but personal reasons, that have nothing to do with her as journalist or a person, that makes them opinion. Because they’re opinion and by definition not objective, while I have a right to feel any way I choose, I am not entitled to special treatment nor do I have a right to judge.
I can also admit as a calm and rational adult human being that while I might believe that Ms. Sarkeesian’s method is flawed, I defend her right to say it and I defend her overall message which I understand to be one that encourages game designers to stop relying on lazy writing, cliches and tropes in their games but especially any that treat women as a concept and not as people.
My opinion on the state of video game journalism is even less important. I think I can honestly say that I don’t even have one. Once again, as a calm, rational adult human being I can take what I read and separate it from a larger narrative. I can view it with enough healthy cynicism to understand that their may have been a bias in it and recognize what is editorial versus what is information. Additionally, I understand that if I am unhappy with the way something is reported, or unhappy with the circumstances by which it was reported on, I can exercise my right to get my information elsewhere.
On the opposite end of the argument, the ones that believe it is their mission to do something about the state of videogame journalism have been collecting evidence of journalists acting very un-journalist-like. I have seen screenshots and blog posts chronicling these so-called journalists resorting to the same methods of intimidation, hate-spewing person shaming vitriol as the “gamers” (in quotes) that they are asserting are a dying breed.
Websites devoted to videogame journalism, that I will not name because I believe their names to be irrelevant to the larger discussion, have published articles in recent weeks insisting that “gamers” are going extinct. The issue as I see it is that the term gamer is almost as all-encompassing these days as “person” or “human being.” Everyone plays games! I have to assume that the same juveniles who think it’s ok to bombard journalists and video game designers with hate, or worse, have no conception at all that videogames were first created, designed, and played by adults, and not children, before the videogame market crash of the mid-1980’s. When Nintendo managed to reinvent the market with the NES, they did so by marketing it as a toy, something for children, but I knew plenty of adults who bought the systems because they also played games on personal computers, a pastime which was far more complex than it is today which precluded most children, and even the technophobic, from participating.
While the journalists are heralding the end of gamers, I have to assume they’re thinking of the preteen to twenty-something male who plays predominantly action and shooter games, who curses incessantly in multiplayer matches and rages online about social issues of which they likely have no real understanding. What they, the journalists, fail to realize or perhaps are choosing to ignore is that you can find the same attitude by the same relative group in almost every other enthusiast culture. Sports fans, movie buffs, comic book nerds, name a pasttime and I can almost guarantee you that they have their own idiot man-children sub-culture to deal with.
Right now in our country we’re dealing with a brand new civil rights movement revolving around the equal treatment of many different social classes and cultures. The issue of a hateful fandom versus misogny in game design and marketing is just one more example of that larger movement but in every single case, I can assure you that the loudest voices are certainly not the majority. You see, just like Second Amendment supporters like to constantly remind the gun control movement, many gun owners manage to not commit any acts of a gun violence every single day, but unfortunately in our culture, tens of thousands of people abiding by the law of the land and behaving isn’t news. So while thounsands of videogame enthusiasts are happily playing their games without heading to the internet to voice their non-opinion in support of the game, a couple dozen angry, nasty, hateful idiots make news when they harass an indie game developer for expressing an upopular opinion.
Perhaps the videogame culture is too insulated to realize, or once again the angry voices too preoccupied with their petty issues to notice, but NBA basketball fans just drove an owner out of their association because of things he said privately to another individual that became public. Objectively we know that the man’s privacy was violated and he didn’t break any laws but that didn’t stop a culture of calm, rational, adult human-beings from exercising their right to express displeasure. The NFL is fighting a two-pronged public relations battle right as they deal with the socio-political fallout of one team that possesses a name that some find offensive while simultaneously dealing with the fact that members of their organization are potential and confirmed domestic abusers. The NASCAR organization is still reeling from the death of a rookie driver at the hands of veteran driver while the culture fights over who is to blame and continues to apply social pressure that would lead to answers in the still ongoing investigation.
I can admit that none of these three issues are directly analagous to the Gamer GAte (in quotes) issue, I mention them if only to point out that the enthusiasts themselves are just as integral to the culture as the providers. While I am certainly no expert, I can say that videogame culture is experiencing growing pains. The multi-billion corporations that provide the games continue to find ways to entertain the masses at the smallest possible cost to themselves for the biggest possible return, which sadly results in the use of the very tropes that Ms. Sarkeesian is attempting to illuminate. I’m not so gloomy as to say that the industry is headed for another collapse, as game budgets and scope inflate, a large part of the market is already showing dismay for those same games as indie games and smaller, more unique titles gain popularity and continue to grow in the internet age.
This debate doesn’t exist in a vacuum either, as comic book companies struggle to please their growing audience of women the movie and TV industry is doing the same thing. Modern female content consumers are a growing market and not simply content to read and watch and play the same things as their male counterparts. Some of them are, but the larger point is that they have a right to ask for it, to express displeasure about it, to illuminate the problems inherent to that and even do it themselves if they feel others aren’t doing it adequately enough.
They also deserve the respect that we give, or at least should be giving, to everyone else. NOBODY deserves to be bombarded with hateful rhetoric simply because the possessor of an opinion cannot properly express themselves, calmly, rationally and maturely. While I will say that freedom of speech does not mean freedom of the consequences of speaking freely and that goes for both sides in this whole Gamer Gate issue, nobody deserves to have their lives threatened for simply existing in defiance of someone else’s narrow minded view. We are fortunate enough to live in a time and place where people are allowed to express themself any way they choose without being jailed, or worse. We also have a free market through which we can express ourselves, and if you don’t like the content you’re being provided you are free to look elsewhere for it. If such a thing as what you desire specifically does not exist then you need to ask yourself a couple of questions like, is what I’m looking for realistic or reasonable? Would it appeal to others? Would those others be a large enough market to make it viable? Would I be willing to make it and if so would I be willing to deal with the consequences of putting content out there for the world to see and form opinions of? If the answer to any of those questions is no then it might be time to reevaluate what it is you’re after and consider that perhaps your wants and desires do not necessarily reflec the wants and desires of others.
Sadly, the conclusion that I have come to regarding all of this is that on both sides of the argument, like any other socio-political issue being argued and reported on in this country and in this culture today, neither side is blameless. Neither side is behaving completely calmly, rationally and maturely. Widespread assumptions are being made in both directions and ultimately what is being argued isn’t even relevant to the primary issue at its core anymore. Not all videogames, their designers, their players or their reviewers are complete and total misogynists but not all journalists are being perfectly unbiased, objective and staying away from editorializing.
Please don’t misunderstand, I am not blaming Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn for the hate and harrassment they received. While they appear to be the impetus of this whole so-called “movement”, these two individuals are the most blameless for what it has become. When I said that neither side was blameless what I meant was that other journalists and game developers, in their defense, were found to be engaging in the same kind of immature behavior and hate-spewing rhetoric as Ms. Sarkeesian’s and Ms. Quinn’s harrassers. I’m not a journalist, I’m what would probably be referred to as a blogger and ultimately this is just my opinion, but I can say that as a gamer who cannot easily adopt or even identify with either side that I have seen evidence of both sides behaving immaturely. Sadly, like many pioneers, these two women will not be properly upheld and respected until sometime in the future after their contributions have had time to take effect and culture has had time to grow.
I tend to stay away from direct confrontation to the best of my ability the majority of the time, but I have to say, Gamer Gaters, no one is going to take you seriously as long as you act like there is no problem and you certainly can, but most definitely shouldn’t, get angry when someome tries to address the problem with the express purpose of trying to fix or improve it! Journalists, you cannot expect your readers, listeners or viewers to take you seriously if you’re going to make assumptions that color your content but you certainly can’t, or once again rather should not, get angry if those same content consumers want to respond with criticism, corrections or dissenting opinions. I think participants on both sides need to learn both how to be a little more thick-skinned but also be a great deal more open-minded.
I’m sure all sorts of people might listen to this and have plenty of things to say about this episode once it’s out there but if I wasn’t prepared to have the discussion, i wouldn’t be putting it out there in the first place. This is my chosen favorite past time and what happens in the culture and industry matter to me, but I also realize that ultimately none of this is so important to me that it’s going to trump my life and responsibilities. It might irritate or even upset me, but it’s not worth getting angry over and it’s certainly not worth calling names or spewing hate or making threats!
In the end, the conclusion I have drawn is that a handful of insecure people, on both sides, let their emotions get the best of them and reacted before they were able to calmly, rationally and maturely reflect on what it is they had just experienced and work it out before also attempting to defend the various issues and make counter accusations. Assumptions were made, but also assumptions were met, and in the end all that happened was a bunch of people ended up screaming at each other, literally and figuratively, until it escalated to a level that damaged the credibility of EVERYONE WHO MAKES, PLAYS AND COMMENTS ON GAMES.
So with all the sarcasm I can muster I will close by saying, thank you children for embarassing the rest of us with your ridiculous and juvenile behavior. I look forward to your poorly worded, horribly misspelled, ill-informed arguments to fill the various inboxes this show uses for correspondence. I will ignore all of them and continue to enjoy, and talk about my favorite past time as a calm, rational and mature adult.
This has been Jesse, “Babies to babie, still looks like Billy.” PEACE!