Monday, January 28, 2008

Gabe & Tyco's D&D Farewell

Make no bones about it: Gabe and Tyco are wretched little snots. I love them, like one loves a mouthy cornerback who performs obscene dances when they catch an interception. They have great talent, exceptional skill and are entertaining to watch, but I am not sure I’d invite either of them to dinner, because I don’t enjoy that much ego with my soup.

But we like arrogant, loud mouths in America don’t we? This is how and why we still treasure Babe Ruth. This is how Rush Limbaugh makes a living. Tyco and Gabe are just the editorial Babe Ruths of the gaming industry.

To be fair, they are more substantive than radio talk-heads, because at least they inject some craft into their work, but they also pass opinion off as factoid. They also mistakenly believe that their subjective opinion is kept objective, by just claiming that it is objective. They've wallowed in this lie for years now, and believe it. They believe their own myths, and while it is true a monkey can live off its own dung and urine for days, its health slowly deteriorates along the way.

And we have a very unhealthy monkey on our hands here.

Having said all that, I still read them with each update. Reading Gabe and Tyco as a gamer, is as essential as reading Maureen Dowd if you're a politics-nut. You may not agree with her, you may see her as snide, condescending and biased, but you still read her, because her editorials will ripple all around the blogosphere. People react to what she says, like it is "news" all in itself. Gabe and Tyco can make cannon-ball splashes in the gaming waters with a simple cartoon, or even a single sentence in their editorial rants. I admire that fact, and if there is any industry that needs the occasional slap in the head, it is the gaming industry, and Gabe and Tyco slap hard. They take their baseball bats and they beat down a bloated and hypocritical industry with great delight.

On that note, I want to say that I thought Gabe and Tyco hit a homerun today with this comic:

D&D Online Comic

Now don’t worry if you don’t get the joke. This is part of Gabe and Tyco’s schtick, they don’t print cartoon for mass market consumption, in fact sometimes the references in their cartoon are so obscure you need to read Tyco’s 900 word essay accompanying the cartoon to truly understand it.

This cartoon is catered to the semi-casual gamer, but a lot of them come from so deep in the gaming trenches, that they test the trivia of even the most ardent gamer-nerd. Just last week for example, not only did you need to read the editorial to get the joke, the editorial explained that to TRULY understand the reference, you had to download their podcast. Nerds will lovingly do this, because they love exclusivity, they love the illusion of elitism, and there isn’t a hardcore gamer on the planet, that doesn’t think he’s smarter than the average bear.

That lie in itself, is really part of the real problem with gamers in general. Watching Star Trek and slowly developing your Klingon vocabulary isn’t a particularly skillful display of academic prowess, and neither is reaching level 70 in Warcraft. Nerds often equate obsessive behavior with intellectualism, and will dissect any minutia related to their obsession endlessly to prove it.

This behavior, is of course, annoying. That’s why we nerds are a rather annoying sub-culture. We exclude others who are not as obsessed as we are, and we boost our own self-esteem by simply indulging our obsessions even more; until we eventually even exclude each other on ridiculously thin lines of division. So for example, you may play World of Warcraft, but since you don’t play Horde and you like 2v2 Arena PvP, and because you always run a DPS rogue, I cannot include you in my little group. We gamers divide our community into such tiny bits, that in the end we find ourselves alone, with our opinions with only PornoTube to comfort us.

Today’s comic rips the heart of the Dungeons and Dragons brand, and crushes it before our eyes. It was brilliant. It shouted a statement that all of us gamers know in our hearts: our old friend D&D is dead. It has become the “8 Track Tape” of gaming. No amount of 4th Edition and no amount of “gimmickry” on D&D Online will save it now. Cast it adrift onto the sea of history, and reminisce about it, like some 40 year old remembering a KISS concert when he was 12 years old.

It’s a sad truth though that Gabe and Tycho exposed today. If you are old nerd like me, you remember Dungeons and Dragons fondly. Like me, you might even still play the game once in a while (with dice and not a keyboard), but it’s not real gaming anymore, it’s a trip down memory lane. I might catch an old episode of Gilligan’s Island too, but the entertainment derived from it, is purely nostalgic now, as if watching the episode was a small glimmer and slice of your youth. You could get the same experience by thumbing through your old high school yearbook, or finding some old t-shirt you wore as a kid and giving it an unhealthy sniff.

That’s what D&D is now, an anachronism – left behind by bigger, brighter brands that seized the ideals of D&D and took them to new heights. World of Warcraft lore is terrible, it’s one of the worst narratives in an RPG I’ve ever digested. It doesn’t matter, because it’s been absorbed into mainstream culture, it helps sell trucks during commercials of an NFL game. It’s become so pervasive we can identify it on a cereal box, or embroider it on a button down shirt.

Why didn’t D&D become that brand? The answers to that are complicated, but lie firmly on the shoulders of Wizards of the Coast. Note I did not say Hasbro either, I said Wizards. Eat your lumpy gruel, WOTC, you blew it. You held the most identifiable fantasy game in America just twelve years ago, and you squandered it on a litany of sub-par books, that even your most obsessive fans failed to greet with any enthusiasm. You seized some part of the pie with Baldur’s Gate, but then you hemmed and hawed about how to exploit that opportunity on paper. You still won’t license your brand without massive deliberation in your R&D department, despite the fact your R&D department has developed a winning game in over a decade (not to mention producing some of the biggest and worst flops in gaming industry history).

Sure Atari took over with the Hasbro Interactive debacle, that saw Peter Adkinson quit your company in disgust, but what excuse is there for Eberron, and why on Earth would you choose that rubbish as the source for Atari’s first attempt to compete with the monolith WoW?

Six months from now, Gabe and Tyco are going to catch wind of the chicanery in D&D 4th Edition. They’ll see that WoW is not only the winner, but that Grandpa is dressing up in his Granchildren’s clothing and trying to download Amy Winehouse onto his iPod. All 4th Edition is, at its most fundamental level, is a D&D sheep dressed up to look like a WoW Wolf. The master has now been relegated to the apprentice and the funeral pyre has been lit. Come on old man, we’re supposed to look up to you, but now you’re prancing around in your Timberlands and reciting DMX lyrics. D&D 4th Edition is like Pat Boone trying to jam with Metallica, and you just look foolish.

To be fair, D&D Online was a disaster for many reasons, not related to Wizards of the Coast, but the systemic rot within the D&D brand grew out of the dung-infested top soil of WOTC R&D. Gabe and Tyco have declared the brand dead in the online gaming world, and we all now damn well that the cardboard version, has been relegated to clinging to a measly plastic miniatures market to justify itself.

We’ll miss you D&D, and like the Brady Bunch, maybe a delicious parody will be made of you by Hollywood, and we can enjoy you again but this time, knee-deep in irony, and nostalgic sarcasm. Oh what a groovy, groovy time that old D&D game was.

Friday, January 04, 2008

2007 Reflection

So 2007 is behind us.

As I examine the sum of the deeds and events of the year for our family, I feel it was a great year.

Each of us blossomed in unique ways this year.

Desiree (my youngest daughter) grew both emotionally and physically this year. She has become one of the most conscientious children I have ever known. Her empathy and her understanding of others is remarkable. For a child who just celebrated her tenth birthday last month, she exemplifies an emotional strength and an understanding of others, that many of us “adults” have never attained (including myself).

Academically she still struggles in some areas, but even this, she takes in stride. She became excited when told she required additional work in the morning to get up to speed in mathematics. She met the challenge with genuine enthusiasm. Her math skills are blossoming quickly as a result. She’s a giver, a true and genuine giver, and she likes to work hard when given the chance. She’ll also go out of her way to comfort, or aid others around her.

I worry of course, this means her childhood is being rushed too quickly, that she is taking on adult ideals and adult emotions at too young an age. However, my wife points out to me all the time, how much “little girl” there is in her still. This is obvious in her favorite games and toys, the way she interacts with other children, and even the way she decorates her own bedroom.

My favorite moment with Desiree this year is hard to isolate because there were so many. However, one that stands out immediately is one that is fresh in my mind. Recently Desiree had to write an essay over the holidays for her school. She was told to essentially write an editorial about something she was “passionate” about.

She wrote an essay about a television commercial of all things. In fact, she discussed a commercial for a popular children’s cereal. She compared the commercial that airs now, to the commercial that used to air a few years ago. She drew a comparison of the two, and criticized the new campaign. She accurately described the marketing’s focus, and then cleverly deduced how and why the advert had changed, and then expressed strong opinion on why the change had deteriorated the overall strength of the ad.

It was a brilliant analysis of how mass-media markets to young children like herself. She saw through the ad’s gimmicky fa├žade, and then extrapolated her own view.

This is, in my opinion, a clever expression of thought. It required her to view media that was attempting to manipulate her emotionally, compare it to media she had digested before, and then draw independent conclusions. It was independent thought, with an editorial viewpoint. It was strong analysis, and it was entirely her own creation.

Reading this essay, it made me proud that her mind was so open, so capable of combining her emotions with objective analysis to produce a fabulous essay about how television ads attempt to market to children her own age.

Chantal (me eldest daughter) also blossomed this year. She is beginning to show the early signs of teenage life. This means her emotions are becoming more complex, and her reactions to the outside world aren’t as “pretty and perfect” as they used to be. Indeed, she’s begun to experiment with cynicism, and even at times outright rebellion, surely a precursor of what is to come as moves into her teenage phase of life.

I could consider this advancement a loss, as she wiggles out of her childhood cocoon and sheds some of her innocence along the way. However, I don’t see this as regression, or loss. I see this as growth, and I have to admit, as a spectator it is fascinating to watch her find her voice, and her sense of self.

Chantal is very much an individualist. She does not dress like her school mates do, she develops her own eclectic style, one that is unique and all her own. She is famous for trying out unique clothing combinations, accessorizing her appearance in unique ways, and sometimes even “crafting” her own clothes and symbols that she uses to establish her own identity.

I worry at times, that she will suffer socially because of this. Middle school rewards conformity, and indeed it is really the first place where conformity is introduced as a means to social acceptance. Chantal, for better or for worse, has rejected it outright, and has accepted the consequences in return. She is even proud of her decision, and is self-aware she has decided to be this way.

There are many moments that I enjoyed with Chantal this year. She blossomed academically, in a year where there was a lot of pressure on her to improve. She moved to a stricter and more demanding school, and she not only survived, she thrived, bringing home impressive grades and praise from her teachers. This is quite an achievement given some of the challenges Chantal faced in her early development.

However, for me, the proudest moment I had with Chantal was when she was faced with an awful field trip, shortly after the school year began. I can’t imagine the stress of the situation. She was brought to a new school, and all her old friends were no longer in the same class. Everyone in her class was new, and unfamiliar. The teachers were new and unfamiliar, and the school itself was vast and crowded compared to where she had gone to school before.

It was the first year of middle school, and every kid (and even some of the teachers), were stressed out about this new phase in their lives.

To alleviate the stress all the children were feeling at the school year, the teachers took the children on a field trip. Alas, for Chantal, the selection of where to go on their field trip instantly became an issue.

The school had decided to take the children to a live production of “High School Musical”, a Disney television show that is geared to the pre-teen crowd. It is, as you can expect, highly sanitized, and polished into a television product that threatens nobody, says as little as possible, but provides a lot of glamour, pretty boys, pretty girls and sugary music along the way.

Chantal despises the show.

She considers the show beneath her. She can’t stand the clothes they wear; she particularly dislikes how the girls in the show are submissive and seem to obsess about boys and shopping. She even once compared the women on the show to “Barbie” and claimed the show was too “fake” for her to enjoy.

These were her own assessments of the show, in fact, my wife and I had never seen the television program, so her exposure to the show, and her decision to dislike her came all from her.

When the field trip was announced, she made her vehement disapproval of the show known to her class.

She was immediately ostracized and even somewhat vilified for opinion. Many other girls in the class “loved” that show, and it is of course, one of the most popular shows for young girls on television right now. Chantal knew this, and yet she expressed her dissatisfaction with both the show and the field-trip to see a live version of the show.

She came home very disillusioned that day. She was unaware, that going against the grain in a social situation can yield some very nasty backlash. Some of her classmates teased her, even her own teacher seemed unsympathetic to her protests.

When she came home, we had a long talk about it. She expressed beautifully why she felt the field-trip was inappropriate.

“Why not a trip to the art museum?” she asked. “How about a science museum or a trip to a place that celebrated the natural beauty of the northwest?” she wondered. “Why on Earth would you participate in an academic event that was essentially sponsored by Disney?”

I was worried she was becoming an elitist, someone who couldn’t shrug off her concerns and just have fun with a situation. However, her own expression of dismay over the choice was just far too eloquent to deny. She had a point, why was the school rallying around a television show?

As the discussion progressed, she began to protest the fact she had to go. She basically felt, since she thought the trip was a waste of time, she didn’t have to go. For better or for worse, I explained to her that this was her new school, her new class, and even though she did not like the show, she had duties as a student, and just like a regular class she was compelled to attend the event.

She was very disappointed in my decision. Still, she listened to my reasoning, and even listened to my concerns that while she was perfectly entitled to her opinion about the field trip, and in fact, I even admired it - her point of view did not make her “better” than the other kids that did enjoy the show.

On her own, she then deduced, that if her classmates were willing to accept her, for how she feels, for how she dresses, she must in-turn accept them for their differences.

I thought it was a fantastic insight into how society requires tolerance. I also thought it was good of her to attend the field trip with a stiff upper-lip.

She came home the day after the field trip, even more vindicated about her opinion of the show. She pointed out several instances of the show she found offensive. She argued quite strongly that the show was sexist. I have no idea if her opinion is right or wrong, in fact, I do not even care if it is, I just admire that she came to this opinion on her own, of her own free will.

She was proud of the fact though that she attended the field trip without antagonizing those classmates who loved the spectacle. Her own teacher even commented that Chantal behaved extremely well, and while she was clearly unhappy with the show, never showed any sign of “sour grapes” or offered any condescending remarks about the show or her classmates.

She instead went to the event gracefully, and then came home and expressed what it was about the event that she did not like. She stuck to her guns, she didn’t cave into the majority opinion, but neither did she wield a superior attitude about her own point of view either. That is a highly complex reaction to a rather stressful social situation. I thought it showed great maturity, and I will always remember her and admire her for how she handled that situation.

There are so many other proud moments of 2007 for me, too many to catalog here. Overall though, I have to say, it was a good year.

It was not a perfect year, there are moments of 2007 I’d love to forget, moments that made me sad, or disappointed me. Those moments were rare though. For the most part 2007 was one of my fondest years ever.

I hope 2008 provides just as much joy and wonder…