In What Are You Playing This Weekend? we discuss gaming and such with prominent figures in the pop-culture arena. We always start with the same question.
Clive Thompson is a Canadian tech writer, journalist, and blogger who is a regular contributor to Wired and The New York Times Magazine. His most recent book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better was released last month and argues against the idea that over-reliance on Google spells doom for humanity.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
Clive Thompson: There’s two games I’ve been playing. One is called Dodonpachi Resurrection. Basically it’s what they call a Japanese “bullet hell” game. I got into it in the arcades back in the ’90s when they first started emerging. I grew up in Toronto, and I was living there until I was 30, and one of the great things about Toronto was that they never had a big moral campaign against horrible arcades ruining our youth the way they had in the U.S. So well into the ’90s they still had a lot of terrific arcades in downtown Toronto. I would go there a lot to blow off steam. The bullet hell games started emerging, and what they are are essentially top-down 2D games, where you’re flying a ship around, and you’re continually flying upward. It’s a vertically scrolling game. What makes them fun is that the enemies come on increasingly fast and furious, and they’re all firing an ungodly amount of bullets at you, to the point where the screen is just filled with mayhem. Within 20 to 30 seconds, you go from starting the game to being pushed to the absolute limit of your perceptual apparatus.
The bullet hell games didn’t even do well in the U.S. at first, because they were just so crazy and insane and demanding. People would die within seconds after putting 50 cents in. Somehow I kind of got into them, and I wasn’t great at them, but I just found them fascinating and compelling because they were so utterly hectic. I didn’t play them for a long time. But the last couple of years they started emerging on the mobile phone. What the Dodonpachi Revolution is, it’s actually a port of an arcade game onto a mobile phone. Again, it’s just this hallucinogenic spray of weapons material. Sometimes you can’t figure out just what the heck it is you’re trying to do. Because they’re so hard to play and you die so quickly, the other nice thing about them is that I don’t play them for two hours, the way I would if I sat down with Skyrim or something. You start working on a quest, you look up and…
Gameological: It’s two months later.
Thompson: Exactly. So the nice thing about the bullet hell game, because it is inherently so impossible to play, you’re dying pretty quickly, and it’s a really great interstitial moment to just sort of clean out my brain in the middle of doing a bunch of reporting or eating lunch or something like that. I’ve also been playing this delightful little adventure game called Reaper: Tale Of A Pale Swordsman. It’s a nice little game that is distinguished by the fact that it has a really terrific set of fight controls based on a bunch of up, downs, swipes, and taps on the screen. I’ve found a lot of attempts at RPG games on the phone sort of flounder over the control mechanisms. They’re sort of trying to emulate game pad controls, and it just doesn’t work very well. Where as this one they just made a bunch of swipe controls, and each one is kind of cool and intuitive, and they all chain together in unpredictable ways. The truth is I’ve always been more of a twitch gamer. I’ve always gravitated more toward those games. I always wished I was one of those people that were like I’m really into Civilization III because I really like the idea of building a civilization over four months. But I’m really just someone who wants to get in there and wreak havoc for like five minutes.
Gameological: The phone works pretty well for that kind of thing.
Thompson: Yeah, it is. And like I said, because you can sort of pull it out and do it, I find that a bunch of my game systems kind of languish for a long time. When you sit down with a console, you’re really making a statement that I’m going to sit here for an hour or hours. And, you know, I’ve got a couple young kids and a job, and I’ve written about this in the past, is that one of the problems with really big immersive games is that you have to play them for like three hours to get deep enough into the problem that they’re facing, so you’re really enjoying what’s deep and complex about the experience. If you only play for 20 minutes, you spend the first 15 minutes just sort of getting back into the groove of how the game works, figuring out what the problem space is, figuring out the controls, and then you play for five minutes. So they’re exquisitely unsatisfying if you play them in increments less than five hours.
Gameological: It’s really difficult to reengage with those games if you’ve put them down for any length of time.
Thompson: Yes, exactly. When they say a game has 40 hours of play, what they mean is that this game has 40 hours of play if you play basically non-stop. If you break it up in any way it becomes 80 hours of play, and it becomes a chore by that time. But I’m not really a fan of the casual click management games, you know. I don’t like casual games on that level either. So I think I really found a bunch of games that really hit that sweet spot for me that are portable on the phone. I haven’t pulled it out in awhile, but my DS has a lot of games like that too. One of the things I’ve always like about the Mario games for the DS is that they’re kind of fractal. You actually can get in there and play for ten minutes and have an absolute blast, and you can also play for four hours without feeling like you’re doing the same thing over and over again. I think that’s actually the peculiar genius of the Mario genre; the fun scales from three minutes to three hours.
Gameological: Your book argues that, contrary to many doomsayers, technology as it is currently arrayed is a net good—that it’s not making us dumber and atrophying natural abilities. Does this apply to games as well?
Thompson: You know, actually I don’t talk much about games in the book, apart from my education section. In a weird way, I think it’s because I’ve always been suspicious of arguments that games improve our mind or somehow improve our skills, because to me they’re an artistic entertainment form, and I don’t turn to art to sort of make me more productive and more efficient. In fact, sometimes I turn to art to make me less efficient and less productive and unhappy, frankly. So there has been this attempt over the last 10 years or so by people like me, who grew up playing video games, to sort of argue that these are good things. That they’re not horrible experiences for kids. They’re not going to turn them into robots or violent monsters. And one of the first lines of attack was to make a counter argument, that games increase your spatial awareness and all these things. I’ve always regarded that as not only beside the point, but maybe a bad point. Art shouldn’t have to justify itself on the level of how it improves our lives. It’s intended to be a metaphysically, or spiritually, or culturally interesting and thoughtful and entertaining and troubling experience, and that’s what games do when they’re really good. So in one sense, I could care less whether they make us smarter or better people, in the same way that I’ve often defended games when people say oh they’re just time wasters. I’m like, yeah, I’m not sure wasting time is always a bad thing. The phrase “wasting time” implies that every moment on Earth should be spent productively, which is some Ben Franklin-like nightmare if you ask me. I enjoy, to use Walt Whitman’s phrase, these moments of idle loafing, you know, where I’m simply being alive, and games are shockingly good at doing that.
And now, we put the question to you. Tell us what you’ve been playing lately, and which games—video or otherwise—are on your playlist for the weekend.
[Photo: Tom Igoe]