Monday, 19 June 2017

My Childhood Digital Teachers

Originally written for Forces Of Geek 26th May 2017

I was one of the first generations to have access to a computer in school (there was just one in the entire school) and my teachers used archaic things like chalk, paper registers and handwriting pens. Today, the majority of schools have ditched traditional equipment like chalkboards and replaced them with technological alternatives and many are using video games in lessons. 

Looking back on my school days it amuses me that computers were considered so rare. Nowadays kids as young as 5 can learn basic programming, that would have been an amazing skill to learn and might have stopped me creating hideously embarrassing MySpace profiles with badly formatted html in my teenage years. 

There are also plenty of educational versions of popular games like MinecraftEDU that can help to teach mathematical concepts and SimCityEDU which is often used as an assessment tool. 

The educational games I experienced were not nearly as advanced but they were fun and took some of the boredom of school away. Here are 5 educational games that will either induce nostalgia or cause you to shrug and go back to talking selfies on Snapchat:

The Carmen Sandiego series (Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?)

This series taught me many things, useless…I mean, useful facts, geography, logic and reasoning skills and it even taught me to be respectful and to empathise with other cultures, though much of that was already in place because I was a smart kid. I mean, why else would I sometimes choose to play educational video games at home even though I had a Sega MegaDrive? Yeah, I was total nerd.

This game spawned my enjoyment of fictional detective mysteries but despite the titular character being a master thief, the game didn’t teach me how to steal…I guess that explains why I’m so poor. The games depictions of woman and minority women in particular are amazing and the series has consistently and rightly so, been praised for this.

Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing

This game…or more apt, this software was an instructional program that taught me how to type more efficiently. No one knows exactly who Mavis Beacon is or why she is the oracle of Qwerty keyboards everywhere but in 1985, the face of Mavis Beacon became Haitian born Renee L’Esperance which caused slight controversy and a reluctance from many retailers because…yep, you guessed it, racism. Even the hazy, rose-tinted nostalgia of the 80s isn’t safe from racist idiots. 

Norwich Gaming Festival 2017

Note: I wrote this for Forces Of Geek two weeks ago but forgot to post it on here, sorry for the delay!

I’ve yet to reach the dizzy heights of E3 but that’s okay because I’ve attended multiple UK based conventions including Eurogamer. I’ll come and visit the states one day, I promise. However, there’s one particular gaming festival that takes place in the city where I live, it’s still relatively new, and ran from May 29th to June 3rd this year so I wanted to write about it.

The Norwich Gaming Festival (NGF) has been running since 2014 and with every year has grown in size and notoriety. Norwich is no stranger to gaming events with Norwich Retro Arcade exhibiting at The Forum for many years, the growing interest eventually spawned the NGF with the help of the Norfolk Indie Game Developers group and of course Norwich Retro Arcade is still a big part of the event every year. 

Yep...that's me
Last month One Life Left, a video game café who were also taking part in the Norwich Gaming Festival this year, opened it’s doors nearby offering drinks, snacks and a place to play games with your friends in the city. Multiple second-hand gaming stores have popped up in my city too, included one called Regenerating Gaming, its part of the East Anglia Nintendo Street Pass community and holds regular events and tournaments.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Ridin' High On Love's True Bluish Light - my journey from dad's vinyl to the real thing

Something a bit different for me. This is a piece I wrote for UEA Gig History in April about the time I saw Blondie live. Here's the link. 

The very first time I witnessed Blondie live was at UEA in 2005. It was November, about a week before my birthday and I was beyond excited. I was working at the student union bar on the evening of the gig and my particular shift meant I only had to work for the support act. That way, I could watch the band properly and not from afar, standing precariously on a beer crate as I usually did.

As soon as the shift ended I didn’t even wait to remove my work shirt. I ran to the front of the crowd, pushing my way through the other gig-goers and waited in anticipation. As the lights dimmed, the butterflies in my stomach increased and as the band stepped on stage, the metaphorical lepidopterans were replaced with pure adrenal excitement. I was euphoric. 

If you asked me now, I would be unable to recall the first song played as I was so completely overwhelmed by the presence of Debbie Harry on stage. To use the lyrics of Heart of Glass (which I do remember was one of the encore tracks) I was “riding high on love’s true bluish light”. She was in her sixties back then and still seemed as glamorous and as energetic as ever. 

Halfway through the show, I was taken by the way the wind machine whipped through her golden locks as she belted out the lyrics to Maria and I was in awe. It’s a surreal feeling when you find yourself so close to your heroes, I had always imagined how she’d be in real life and was overjoyed to find her self-assured, badass demeanour was exactly as I expected. 

Ever since I was a small person in the 1980s I’ve loved the music of Blondie. My dad would always play vinyls and read comics on a Saturday afternoon and I would listen along intently, humming out of tune, nodding my head and eventually learning all the words. 

Seventeen years after the group disbanded, their comeback album No Exit was released. It was 1999 and I was almost fifteen years old. I bought the single Maria on CD with my pocket money and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the new album. The best part was that I purchased it before my dad could, so it was now my turn to play Blondie for him. 

During my formative years, I shaped my personality around the idea of being a “rock chick” like Debbie Harry and even asked my parents for a guitar (they obliged but unfortunately I was terrible). Attempting to emulate Harry’s style I begged my mum to let me dye my hair. I persisted until she agreed but sadly, blonde didn’t pair with my freckled pale skin so I dyed over it with red without asking permission and got myself into a lot of trouble. Oh, teenage rebellion, what fun you were!

Whenever you see a band with several albums under their belt play live, chances are you won’t hear your favourite song. The song Rapture is one of mine; I was delighted when I heard the opening drum fill. In fact, it’s because of that song that I probably began to develop an early appreciation of rap music. 

I think it’s that versatility that kept me listening to them over the years, the way they would jump from a 50s sound to new wave to rap to punk to reggae to disco and then back again. Few bands have the skill to create or even replicate an ever-changing sound without it sounding experimental, for Blondie it seemed to come so natural.

The band name Blondie might be synonymous with Queen Deborah Harry herself, but the rest of the group have been just as influential. Co-founder of the group and guitarist Chris Stein alongside drummer Clem Burke have definitely left their mark in musical history. While I might not offer as much prestige and subsequent accolades, as the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, the band have certainly left their mark on me and I will never forget that particular autumn of 2005 because of it.

It was without a doubt, one of the best gigs I had the pleasure of experiencing during my time as a student at UEA.

Video Game Hall Of Fame 2016/2017

Originally written for Forces Of Geek sometime in May, apologies for vagueness but the month of May has been a manic one!

I first wrote about the Video Game Hall of Fame a few years ago when it announced it’s first six inductees. The inaugural 2015 class included Pong, Pac-Man, Tetris, Doom, World Of Warcraft and Super Mario Bros. 

In 2016 the Strong Museum Of Play - located in New York - welcomed six more into the fold including Grand Theft Auto 3, The Legend of Zelda, The Oregon Trail, The Sims, Sonic The Hedgehog and Space Invaders.

This month, it initiated just four games from a list of twelve finalists into the class of 2017. The ones who didn’t quite make the list were Final Fantasy VII, Microsoft Windows Solitaire, Mortal Kombat, Myst, Portal, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider and Wii Sports. Personally, I’m a little sad that some of these didn’t make the final cut but looking at the four that won I find it hard to stay disappointed. 

The winning quartet was devised of Donkey Kong, Halo: Combat Evolved, Pokémon Red and Green and Street Fighter 2. 

As I missed out on last years entries, I’m going to take a look at the inductees of both 2016 and 2017 and consider whether they deserve their esteemed accolades. 

Space Invaders

This game caused mass hysteria in the late seventies and it even spawned an urban legend which claimed the game had caused a 100 Yen coin shortage in Japan. Of course, it turned out to be false but the point is, people believed it because Space Invaders was everywhere after its release in 1978, it literally invaded space in arcades everywhere and in Japan, there were entire arcades dedicated to Space Invader cabinets. 

Without Space Invaders, many of the industries best games designers might have taken very different career paths as Shigeru Miyamoto, John Romero and John Carmack have all cited it as being the first to piqued their interest in games, not to mention the game paved the way for the entire shooting genre to come. 

Gaming Copyrights and Wrongs

Written for Forces of Geek and originally published on 14th April 2017

Big companies know how important branding and characters are and whatever the industry you’ll find mascots or iconic characters featuring in advertisements. Here in the UK, one particular insurance company has made themselves a huge success by utilising meerkat mascots, most Brits will know of or be aware of these insufferable creations and many will have bought insurance or purchased meerkat soft toys because of them. 

Gaming companies are no different and know the importance of being ‘on brand’ and the subsequent effect it often has on their fans. The value of their characters comes inherently from the gravity we place on their characters and even our own relationships to them. We treat them like idols but we also integrate them into our own lives and personal history. 

Sonic the Hedgehog is one of Sega’s biggest poster boys…or hedgehogs, I guess. Not unlike most fans I would happily buy and have purchased Sonic the Hedgehog merchandise but that’s because the character of Sonic is important to me in both a personal and historical context. He is part of my childhood and is deeply ingrained in it. I consider Sonic a cherished part of my childhood memories, no different to the time I was first taught how to ride a bike or climb a tree. 

One company who has realised the value of a childhood association is Halifax Bank here in the UK. In a desperate bid to make everyone forget about the financial crisis and government bailouts a few years back, they have enlisted Fred Flintstone, Top Cat, Scooby Doo and a whole host of other Hanna Barbera characters to sell bank accounts, insurance and even mortgages. 

This kind of marketing is extremely exploitative but luckily, I don’t think I’ve seen video game characters being used in this way. Sure, to sell a few t-shirts or a lunch box or two but not to sell you a potentially life-changing financial responsibility.

What makes games companies different to the Halifax/Hanna Barbera partnership or the creation of a new mascot to sell a product, is that gaming fans associate idols with their childhoods in a way that gives us a false sense of communal ownership over them. This perception is extremely problematic for both fans and the gaming companies alike, causing some serious rifts between companies who are protecting their rights and fans who wanting express their love and enjoyment of characters.

Of course, some companies or games like to encourage fans to reference their brand as long as they are not commercially exploiting those references for monetary gain, Bungie and Blizzard spring to mind especially. Yet, we’ve all seen various iterations of unauthorised usage on merchandise before and dare say, purchased said merch, right? While we as fans like to buy 100% official products, sometimes those on offer fall short, don’t live up to expectation or just aren’t visually interesting enough.

Licensing and copyright laws are so varied throughout the world and can be extremely subjective in their interpretations, meaning legal disputes are not uncommon. Some of my own friends have had their work plagiarised, it’s an awful situation for an independent artist to be in because not only do a lot of freelance creators struggle financially but there seems to be grey area surrounding what is and isn’t considered acceptable. 

The most recent furore has revolved around Nintendo and Japan based city tour company MariCar, which enables tourists to dress up like Mario and co. and drive around the city in go-karts. I was so excited when I heard about this last month yet equally disappointed because I only learnt about it when Nintendo announced it was suing the tour company as they did not ask permission to offer a Mario Kart experience. 

Nintendo is notorious for keeping tight control over any intellectual property it owns and insists on taking ad-revenue from Let’s Play videos on YouTube even if the creator doesn’t monetise their account.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Gaming Encounters Of The Furred Kind

Written for Forces of Geek and published on the 30th March 2017.

The recent release of Horizon Zero Dawn has given me a lot to think about lately, in the game you find yourself in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by robots and mechanical animals. Some of these mechanised creatures resemble animals that already exist and others are…giant, rocket launching, dinosaur robots! I began thinking about how other animals are depicted in games and it prompted me to write about the fictional animals, critters and beasts I’ve encountered over the years.

This isn’t about fictional humanoid races like the Asari from Mass Effect, the Argonians from The Elder Scrolls games or the ancient Cetra of the Final Fantasy series, nor is it about anthropomorphic characters like Sonic the Hedgehog or Fox McCloud. More specifically, I’m exploring those fictional creatures that bear resemblance to real animals or are reminiscent of them in some way. This is why one of the first fictional animals that came to mind was a Chocobo. 

Chocobos are large, flightless bird-like creatures most often used as transport in the Final Fantasy universe. Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi has cited Hayao Miyazaki as an inspiration for their design and if you look at the horseclaws in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind you can see a definite similarity between the two. It’s said that Miyazaki’s own inspiration came from a prehistoric bird called a Gastornis. 

Personally I find horses quite intimidating and so I like the idea of an avian mount, especially if I could have the Chocobo theme music playing every time I rode. The closest real life experience to riding a chocobo you can get is riding an ostrich. 

There are even ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting humans riding large ostrich-like birds and some people in Africa still ride them today. Though, if it’s anything like the ostrich riding videos I’ve seen online I can see why it’s not as common practice as it once was. People seem to fall off more often than not, even the professional jockeys…yep, that’s right there are professional ostrich riders!

Moving on from cute, flightless birds to mythical flying beasts, the creatures I’m focusing on next are the Dragons from The Elder Scrolls franchise, though let’s get things straight, technically by definition they are wyverns but the games refer to them as dragons. Admittedly, I can’t say I blame Bethesda for that as ‘Wyvernborn’ doesn’t sound quite as cool as ‘Dragonborn' does. 

You might think this is a controversial choice as these dragons do have a language. However, to most of the regular NPC folk in Skyrim, their language is unintelligible and viewed much in the in the same way as a dog barking at another for example. 

Wait, maybe the dogs of Tamriel do speak to one another, it’s just no one understands them or is aware? I mean, Barbas the dog can speak! Though, he is a supernatural being who takes the form of a dog. Hmm, I guess pets of the Ancient Daedra Gods don’t count.

Back to the dragons, they are viewed as fearsome creatures with no reasoning abilities. They exist as predators who wreak havoc on the lives of NPCs living in Skyrim. They destroy crops, homes, whole villages and I’m pretty sure they eat people too. I mean how else do Stormcloak army uniforms end up inside a dragon? On second thoughts, maybe don’t try to answer that.

Monday, 13 March 2017

One Of Us: Geeky Video Game Characters

Originally written for Forces of Geek 3rd March 2017

It’s only reasonable to make the assumption that most gamers are passionate about playing games and is not entirely unfair to suggest many gamers (myself included) fall under the all-encompassing, highly stereotypical descriptive term ‘geek’. 

Etmologically speaking the word ‘geek’ was coined as a mixture of the old English word ‘geck’ which has its origins in German and the Dutch ‘gek’ which means silly or mad. It was first used in the late19th century and was a word that simply meant fool or freak. It found its way into circus and carnival slang in the early 1900s and was used to describe those who couldn’t be categorised and were touted and paraded as freaks of nature. 

Wow, I mean, Forces Of Geek is great but Forces of Sideshow Geek has a nice ring to it if you ask me!

The word evolved and moved away from circuses in the 1970s where it was coined as an insult to describe anyone who didn’t fit in, enjoyed learning or had interests which were considered non-conformist or weird. These days, while still considered as an insult by some, the word has slowly been reclaimed. Things that used to be considered geeky are now the norm and it dominates mainstream culture. 

My cousin and his wife’s seven year old son is currently obsessed with Marvel cinematic universe. During a family gathering, I commented that it felt bizarre to me that geek culture was so accepted these days and how I was once bullied and excluded for liking those non-conformist things that are now considered extremely cool. 

Their response was “Marvel stuff isn’t geeky because it is everywhere!” and “What are you talking about, Marvel and DC stuff is cool!”. I got the impression from their agape jaws that they thought I was talking in tongues. Naturally I was completely taken aback by their response but it highlights that all those things that were once demonised are now so deeply ingrained into mainstream culture that the negative connotations associated with them will soon be distant memories. 

As I consider myself a geek and I have a passion for gaming, I began looking to the games industry for examples of characters that embody ‘geek’ or represent it in some way. We often turn to games as a way to escape reality but I wanted to seek out those characters that are more like us. It was tough to find examples amidst a sea of white, cis-male protagonists, who are in such high numbers, they’re practically plankton.