Thursday, June 17, 2010

Confessions and Extra Lives

(This piece was originally posted at Ditching Otis.)

I have a confession to make. I’m not an unbiased reader of Tom Bissell. I have a not-entirely rational investment in writers from my alma mater, and Bissell’s background comes tantalizingly close to neglecting to fail entirely to overlap with my own. He graduated from Michigan State a year or two before I started attending. He worked on the campus literary magazine that wasn’t the one I worked for. He has longstanding acquaintances with the older MSU writers whose books I obsessively collect, catalog, and for the most part do not read. I had lunch with him once when he visited campus and he was friendly and interesting without leaving the impression that he was working harder than he should to like you or make you like him. He signed my copy of his collection of stories (which I had actually read) and included his email address.

I have a second confession to make. Tom Bissell is the reason that I write about video games. While trawling the interwebs I stumbled across a piece Bissell had written about the game Dead Souls which spiraled out to consider the role difficulty plays in video games. Bissell used Dead Souls as a way to talk about the complaint that recent generations of video games, with in-depth tutorials, frequent save points, and repetitive game play minimized in favor of cinematic cutscenes, lack the level of challenge found in the earliest console games, which demanded split-second reflexes and/or hours of repetitive “grinding” in order to raise characters to a level sufficient to defeat the monsters guarding the next area to be explored. I knew that Bissell was going to be a game writer worth following when it became clear that he was not entirely nostalgic for the days of difficulty ├╝ber alles.

I have a third confession to make. Tom Bissell is the reason that this column is titled “Diary of a Casual Gamer.” Bissell includes his Playstion Network and Xbox Live usernames in the author bio of his new book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, and when he accepted my friend request (don’t read too much into that gesture—one doesn’t make such information so broadly available if one is disinclined to accept such requests), it was brutally clear just how much homework I had to do to even be able to really even participate in the conversation. I have trophies (markers of progress) from six PS3 games (one of which I don’t even own). Bissell has trophies from 18, and it’s pretty clear from his writing that Bissell’s PS3 receives substantially less use than his Xbox 360, a console he has purchased no fewer than four times in three different countries. (Seriously. Page 160.)

I have a fourth (and hopefully final) confession to make. Bissell discusses a wide variety of games in Extra Lives. I have played almost none of them. Happily, this in no way adversely impacted my enjoyment of the book.

Bissell’s book is subtitled Why Video Games Matter, but more than a philosophical or aesthetic treatise, Extra Lives is an embodiment of the pleasures of close observation and careful description. I chuckled in moments of recognition—Bissell’s initial reaction to the overwhelming number of buttons on the original Playstation controller “(seventeen!)”—and allowed myself to follow Bissell through the twists and turns of games I’ve never played (and probably will never play). I’m pretty sure that Bissell has an opinion on the relative merits of the Xbox 360 vs. the PS3, and it’s somewhat striking that he claims to own a GameCube and not a Wii, but Bissell wisely avoids such debates, and casts an ironic eye on the possibility of a final qualitative distinction. At the end of the chapter "The Unbearable Lightness of Games," Bissell writes:
I once raved about Left 4 Dead in a video-game emporium within earshot of the manager, a man I had previously heard angrily defend the proposition that lightsaber wounds are not necessarily cauterized. . . . “Left 4 Dead?” he asked me. “You liked it?” I admitted that I did. Very, very much. And him? “I liked it,” he said grudgingly. “I just wish it had more story.” . . . I then realized I was contrasting my aesthetic sensibility to that of some teenagers about a game that concerns itself with shooting as many zombies as possible. It is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.
Coming at the end of a chapter in which Bissell has shown how the cooperative features and brilliant interactive design of Left 4 Dead actually creates narrative moments by forcing players into situations where their choices really seem to matter and create tangible (if entirely contingent) outcomes, the manager’s criticism is especially damning. Left 4 Dead, according to Bissell, creates experiences—I abandoned my group, because they were all dying and it seemed better for me to survive, but through shame and peer pressure, I was coerced back into the game and was able to save my teammates—but he is forced to concede that experience is not always the same as story. Given the way that open-ended gameplay is at odds with the sort of authorially-determined story that we’re familiar with from novels and film, Bissell is rightly and fascinatingly conflicted over whether making video games “matter” means arguing that they offer narrative possibilities equal to (if different than) those offered by film and literature, or casting an entire outmoded idea of narrative aside in favor of an entirely new set of possibilities.

Extra Lives doesn’t answer this question (and it probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun to read if it thought it necessary to do so). One of the underrated (or at least under-discussed) pleasures of video games is to watch a better gamer than oneself in action. (In this way, video games might be considered in analogy to sports as much as other forms of narrative.) This is one of the pleasures of reading Extra Lives as well.

The coach and the professor

Mitch Albom on MSU criticism of media coverage of Tom Izzo's flirtation with the Cleveland Cavaliers:
Tuesday night's gathering bordered on choosing a pope. A school president gushing over keeping -- not hiring, simply keeping -- a sports coach makes you ponder if she'd do the same over a beloved English professor who touches more than 15 kids a year?
Albom, like me, has a great deal of both respect and affection for Izzo, but I'm deeply grateful for the nod to the skewed priorities of the University, the state, and the nation at large.

I love MSU basketball, but it is just basketball.

Read the full column here.

Friday, June 04, 2010

A modest proposal

(This piece was originally posted at Ditching Otis.)

There has been a small outcry in the sports world over the past few days after a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game on the very last out. Replays shown by broadcasters clearly and immediately showed that first baseman Miguel Cabrera’s throw beat Jason Donald to the bag. Joyce reviewed footage after the game and admitted as much to Galarraga in a tearful apology. Calls to institute instant replay into the game of baseball have been insistent and widespread. This was an objective error, fans and commentators say, with concrete consequences that could have been corrected immediately. In fact, if he so chose, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig could still reverse Joyce’s error, erase the subsequent batter groundout to third, and award Galarraga a perfect game. Fortunately, Selig has rightly declined to do so.

Galarraga’s game is irrevocably tainted by Joyce’s error. If placed in the record books it would be entered with an asterisk. It, at this point, cannot be perfect. Joyce’s error cannot be corrected, and is an essential expression of the inherent failure of asking a subjective umpire to make an objective determination. If we can electronically time bobsled runs to the hundredth of a second, we can objectively determine who got to the bag first. Baseball fails as a game because of its reliance on umpires, and we should get rid of them.

Major League Baseball relies on umpires because baseball, in its current form, is a deeply subjective game. There is perhaps no better expression of this than the strike zone, upon which every pitch, every play of the game is entirely dependent, and which exists as an imaginary box in the head of the home plate umpire. Major League Baseball defines the strike zone as “that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the knee cap.” The home plate umpire bears sole responsibility for determining and enforcing this magical imaginary set of boundaries, and is accountable to no review of his determination. Even more ludicrous is that this set of boundaries, upon which the entire game hinges, is different for every single player. A taller player will have a larger strike zone than a shorter player, which was famously exploited by the Cleveland Browns when they sent a 3’7” Eddie Gaedel to the plate on August 19, 1951. Gaedel, whose strike zone was less than a foot tall, walked on four pitches. In a more respectable and more objective game like basketball or football, this would be equivalent to lowering the basket for shorter players, or adjusting the length of the field depending on each player’s 40-yard split time. In addition to variations based on differences in physical size, the batter himself can alter the strike zone by changing his stance at the plate, since the official rules state that “The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.” Thus, a player who stands at full height at the plate, like Craig Counsell will have a larger strike zone than a player like Ricky Henderson, who crouched at the plate.

Left, Craig Counsell; right, Ricky Henderson.

Baseball’s current reliance on human judgment is a relic of its antiquated, rustic origins. While precision electronics may not have been available in 19th century Cooperstown, we have them now, and it’s time to fix baseball. Basic touch sensors can be used to determine whether a runner or a fielder has made contact with a base, and motion-sensitive devices in both the ball and the mitt can exactly determine when a fielder has possession. Playing fields should be standardized, with the distance and height of the outfield fences dictated in the rulebook. Fenway’s green monster need not be torn down, but it would need to have a line set above which any ball which strikes the wall would be ruled a home run. Alternatively, left field walls identical to the green monster could be built in every stadium. Objectivity demands not that the field be symmetrical, only that like a basketball court, a football field, or baseball’s own infield diamond, its dimensions be identical in every park.

The crowning glory of this plan, however, will be the strike zone. Dictated by the rulebook as a precise and specific polygon suspended above home plate, identical for every player, we can embed laser proximity sensors around and in the plate itself. We will not rely upon the umpire to judge that a pitch hit the inside corner. We will know. There will be no arguments over a called third strike. There will be no inconsistency. There will be no variation based on player size, stance, or umpire’s whim. Every pitcher and every batter will have the same target. With the right eyewear, we can even make it visible, if we wish. Imagine every player and spectator wearing glasses in which the lenses are polarized screens, making the laser-determined strike zone clear to all, and perhaps even programmed to illuminate the ball if and when it passes through this no-longer-subjective space. The umpires can even remain on the field if we wish, nearly invisible headsets informing them of what has just happened, allowing them to give voice to an objective, correct result. There would be no more perfect performances marred by subjective error. There would be only perfection.