The Brilliance of the Wiimote (and other thoughts on game controllers)

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Video game controllers. Gotta love ’em. Where would we be without them? (Besides playing XBox Kinect?)

Back in 1985, Nintendo set the standard for the video game industry. Now, there were many game consoles that predated the Nintendo Entertainment System, some by almost a decade, but the gray box forever changed gaming.

For those who are unfamiliar with game controllers of the past, here is a visual for you.

As much as I love the whole idea of Kinect and controlling a game without a physical controller, there is something about holding a controller in your hand while you play a video game. Maybe it’s the tangibility, maybe it’s the finger aerobics, who knows. Whatever the case, I love holding controllers. I love pushing the buttons. Heck, I even love spinning the 64 joystick around until I get Bowser stigmata on my hands! My favorite game manufacturer is Nintendo, always has been, always will be. They are great, even down to controller design!

For those of you who live under a rock, this is the NES controller. Very simple and straightforward: A, B, Select, Start, and a D-Pad. With this layout, Nintendo cemented the standard of game controls: the left hand toggles the joystick or D-Pad, while the right hand does the button pushing. Pretty standard, but before this, gamers had systems like Atari (Element 8 on the Periodic Table), which, though simpler, was the reverse. It had a joystick to be controlled by the right hand and a single action button for the left.

The NES arguably saved the entire game industry from a complete market crash in 1984, so it’s no surprise that it was the most popular system of its day. In fact, up until very recently, Super Mario Bros. on the NES was the most sold game in history! (And it was dethroned by yet another Nintendo title, Wii Sports!) With such wide exposure, it makes sense that the efficient design of the NES controller set the standard for later consoles.

The basic layout of left hand directional control and right hand button pushing can be seen in just about any system to this day. The NES spawned the SNES in the early 90s, and its controller maintains the same basic formula, though a bit more sleek and comfortable. With the rise of the 64-bit era, however, the D-Pad was no longer good enough.

Enter the N64 controller in all its 3-pronged glory. Let’s be honest here, I can think of ONE GAME that used the D-Pad on the N64, and it was some crappy wrestling game I played at my friend’s house in 3rd grade. (Come to think of it, have you ever noticed that used entertainment stores always have like 500 copies of wrestling games?) As such, I think it’s safe to say that everything else used the center and right prongs for grip, as they would employ A, B, Z, maybe the C buttons or R, and the joystick. But, even with the update to full three-dimensionality, the controller layout remained the same. Even the cockeyed placement of the A and B buttons echo the SNES controller, which echoes the NES controller! It’s like a family tree!

I must admit, waaaaay back when the Wii was in production, and it was under codename “Nintendo Revolution,” I read that it would use a one-handed controller. I immediately thought of the benefits of having a free hand while gaming. I mean, not having to pause the game to get more pizza? Sweet. What I didn’t realize, though, was the sheer ingenuity of the Wiimote.

It is every controller in one. And boy, is it a thing of beauty.

In and of itself, the Wii was revolutionary. For the first time ever, we got to move with the game. We could go bowling in our living room! To this day, almost 5 years after its release (bet you feel old now, huh?), it remains quite innovative. But the controller. Wow. By turning it sideways (a la New Super Mario Bros. Wii), it becomes the NES controller, paying homage to the days of old. If you plug in the Nunchuck, it becomes the N64 controller. If you plug in a GameCube controller, it becomes Gam… wait. Scratch that last one. And, if you can’t decide which controller you want to play with, use the Classic Controller to get the best of everything!

Nintendo obviously thought the Wiimote through very thoroughly, and it shows. Below I have compiled a list of some of the innovations of each progressive handheld Nintendo controller.

NES: A, B, Select, Start, D-Pad

SNES: Addition of X, Y, and top triggers L and R

N64: Lost X and Y and Select, addition of back trigger Z and directional C Buttons

GameCube: Regained X and Y (make up your mind, Nintendo), Z moves to become a top trigger, and C becomes a secondary joystick

Wii (with Nunchuck): Addition of 1, 2, +, -, and Home, B becomes back trigger, C and Z become left triggers on Nunchuck, joystick on Nunchuck attachment

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Bored Games?

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As I said before, I love good video games. N64 is wonderful. I could sit in my room for hours playing “Ocarina of Time” and be completely and utterly fine. But what about tabletop games?

My friend Andrew and I are in the process of starting a tabletop gamers club at the University of Arizona which will primarily focus on board, dice, and card games; Magic: The Gathering, D&D, Settlers of Catan, Fluxx, Dominion, Puerto Rico… for lack of a better term, geek games.

I have noticed that there seems to have been a resurgence of popularity in geek gaming over the past decade or two. While video gaming remains, as it has for over 30 years, big business, board gaming is booming once again. Why is this? Why choose Ticket to Ride over Call of Duty? Why pick Pandemic over BioShock? Allow me to try to break this down for you.

It used to be that D&D players would run campaigns in the back rooms of dimly-lit comic book stores (no offense if this is you), and games of Magic would be planned on the DL for an underground group of geeks. Why is it, then, that nowadays, it has suddenly become more socially acceptable to play Magic publicly in the light of day? Why has Settlers of Catan become such a worldwide phenomenon? Why is Monopoly seemingly on the way out?

I can think of a few answers to these questions.

First, what has changed since the beginnings of geek gaming? Well, Dungeons and Dragons, for example, is one of the oldest RPGs still played today. While it may still be a bit of a taboo subject to speak of, D&D players are “coming out” more now than ever. How can it be that such an unspoken game has maintained such international popularity for so long? Imagination. It’s as simple as that. It takes very little imagination to play Left 4 Dead, let’s be honest. While it may be fun to rage on a zombie hoard, it involves little thought (not to mention little blinking). In D&D, player are forced to make the game, rather than having it simply presented to them. If the only necessary supplies to play D&D are some books and a dice set, the rest of the adventure must lie within the imaginations of the players. Do you choose to face the Cyclops? Do you run away from the oncoming hoard of Half-Elves? Do you stand your ground against a high-stat fighter Dwarf? Whatever you do, it is rarely shown to you. Thus, players are forced to mentally create the scenario. This makes room for endless possibilities. As Barney always told us, if you use your imagination, anything can happen. Thanks, purple dinosaur.

When playing Super Smash Bros., while you may be “interacting” with your fellow players, it’s a completely different type of interaction, one that probably looks more like a button-mashing, Falcon-punching, smack-talking, PK-thundering, hammer fest.

Jerry Seinfeld said it best: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” While I stand by my argument that there is a plethora of artistic merit to be found in beating the snot out of one another with beam swords, tabletop gaming is equally, if not even more artful. Let’s take, for example, pretty much the most basic, foundational geek game there is: Mayfair Games’ The Settlers of Catan. If you are unfamiliar with this game, it is sort of like Civilization or Age of Empires in board game form. (If you don’t know what any of these games are, stop reading, go eat a gallon of ice cream, and play Scrabble.) I have seen some great games of Catan in my life. The game in and of itself is quite simple: settle and inhabit a resource-rich island. The simple gameplay mixed with limitless room for strategy is awesome. Even within the simple box art of the game, the 4th Edition of the game features superb art that is not unlike Millet’s famous genre painting “The Gleaners.” (My apologies, the Art Historian in me is coming out.) The strategy of Monopoly mixed with the concept of Risk, combined with the opponent-screwing joy of Sorry makes for one heck of a game.

But perhaps the best thing about tabletop games, something that video games may never match, is community. Sorry, XBox Live. When playing a board game, one usually plays with friends or loved ones. Good conversation, laughs, Bagel Bites and Red Bull, dramatic comebacks from almost certain loss, these are what makes board games wonderful. I mean, come on, that redneck breathing loudly into the microphone on Halo is just not as enjoyable to be with as your best friends. Maybe it’s the strategy, maybe it’s the fellowship, maybe it’s the face-to-face conversation, maybe it’s the pure joy of placing the Robber on your best friend’s 8, 3-city brick space just before he would get Longest Road, maybe it’s simply the fun of unleashing the imagination and letting it run wild, but whatever it is, tabletop games, both geeky and non-geeky, can truly be magical.

Just be sure you don’t have more than 7 cards in your hand.

P.S. I am thinking of doing a post about game box art. Any thoughts on that?

I <3 the D-Pad

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It seems preposterous to think that video games are not more widely accepted as an emerging art form. I myself identify with the subculture of retrogamers, those players so deeply in love with the classics that everything new-age just doesn’t compare. I love my N64 and my NES, in my opinion two of the best consoles of all time. Yet, there are so very few of us left who play platforms such as NES or Genesis, or, reaching even further back, systems like Atari, ColecoVision, and Vectrex (most of the younger readers probably don’t even know those last two).

We all know the Overworld music from Super Mario Bros. for NES, without a doubt, the most widely-recognized game music in history. Talk about classic. Not only classic, but so hugely influential that this one game literally saved the quickly dying industry of video games during the famous Video Game Crash of 1983. After Mario was released for home platforms, the entire culture of gaming, from economic and social standpoints, was revolutionized. Super Mario Bros. was, is, an will forever remain the standard by which all games are measured.

Throughout the history of the video game, many titles have been released that have become instant hits. Zelda, Mario, Donkey Kong, Tetris, Metal Gear, Sonic, Mega Man, Mortal Kombat, etc. These are all recognized as some of the most classic, timeless masterworks of gaming ever. So why are they brushed aside in 2010, not to be considered art?

A large majority of my friends from college have at least one member of the reigning trifecta of game consoles: the Wii, PS3, or XBox 360, and play them substantially more frequently than any other systems, especially older ones. (As I am not terribly well-versed in these newer systems, I can’t speak with much authority on the subject of Call of Duty, Halo, or other hot new games. I can say without a doubt that the graphics and gameplay are truly superb, but for now I’m going to stick to retrogaming, because it’s what I know and love.)

Let’s think for a moment of what a movie is. Basically, if broken down to the bare bones, a movie is a cinematic representation of a story, right? Roger Ebert obviously considers movies an art form (at least I hope so, because if not, he’s out of a job), and yet, in his eyes, video games cannot be art. What is a video game exactly? Is it not a similar concept? The visual, moving picture representation of an epic story, the only difference being a dose of interaction on part of the audience. Be it the adventure of an Italian plumber traversing colorful worlds to rescue that damn Princess who is always getting kidnapped or the mindless slaying of a massive zombie hoard, is it not essentially the same thing?

I love my NES. There is a certain beauty in it’s simplicity. Simple graphics, catchy 8-bit synth music, and the need to beat the gray box with a baseball bat while it cycles through a whole rainbow of screens just to make it play? Beautiful. It is art at it’s finest. Some of the most incredible art is interactive. Look at any piece of public art! Viewers are not only welcome but encouraged to touch and interact with it, so how are video games any different? Interactive movies? Anyone who has ever played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty knows that it is a movie with a side of game. With literally hours of cinematic interlude between stages of play, there is certainly a movie aspect to this and other games! So why, Ebert? Why, closed-minded critics? Why is gaming not an art? Tell me, please.

Perhaps we are looking at gaming the wrong way. If an 18 year-old in 2010 has only been exposed to PS3, then the idea of a Magnavox Odyssey is so radically different, it is almost incomparable. In the eyes of someone who just bought Halo: Reach (which, by the way, is sweet), this and other so-called “blinking dot” games are about as interesting as the label on a tube of toothpaste. This young person would be much more likely to play Resident Evil 4 than Duck Hunt. Why? Because they are looking at the classics through PS3-colored glasses. At present, technology is at its finest (that seems to be the case most of the time). Wireless, motion sensitive, portable, touch screen, 3D–these seem to be the direction gaming is headed. What if that 18 year-old could time travel to 1985? Duck Hunt would be the most incredible thing they had ever seen. I have heard stories from adults about endless hours of the fascinated enchantment of Pong. I’m sure that to the average gaming-age viewer back then, Pong was truly amazing, and yet, to play Pong today for more than about 15 minutes may lead gamers to the brink of insanity.

The NES alone was WAY ahead of its time. Some of the accessories that were available for the system were extremely advanced (though most of them had their certain quirks about them). Just to name a few, a robot (actually, it was more than likely just an electronic companion to make up for the friends that gamers of the time didn’t have), a light gun, a piano (yes, a piano, look it up), a voice-activated headset that was advertised to respond to the vocal command “FIRE!” (although it really responded to just about any profanity you could throw at it), even a DDR-style floor mat compatible for Konami workout games! These are just a select few of the plethora of accessories that were extremely innovative. Keep in mind, also, that I have only included one single system here. There are plenty more, believe me.

Some of the most widely recognized artistic movements began because someone was not okay with the norm. Claude Monet decided that he wanted to evoke an emotional response from viewers through use of soft, blended brushstrokes, calming colors, and the idea of capturing a singular moment in time. Enter, Impressionism. Parmigianino decided that the Renaissance art of his time was becoming a thing of the past, so he innovated. Hence Mannerism. Pablo Picasso thought the world looked too normal and he wanted to depict the world in a new way. So began Cubism. People began to notice that the movie industry was well developed, and becoming (I say with caution) stale. Someone saw a market for interactive, living room, controlled movies. Thus was born the video game.

Even within the subgenre of gaming as an art, there have been numerous breakthroughs, countless innovations, and in a mere 30-40 years, debatably, we have witnessed a number of “movements.” Gaming has progressed from a blinking blob of pixels on a tube TV to high-definition action so real it can take a while before a spectator realizes it’s just a game. Continuing the argument comparing games to movies, movies never change. I can watch Transformers all day, but the plot line will never change. What about Marvel Ultimate Alliance? Do you save Jean Grey or Nightcrawler? Okay, bad example, that’s way too obvious. But let’s take the sequel, for instance. Do you side with Iron Man or Captain America? The plot changes depending upon your choice. This makes the replay value very high, seemingly higher than the rewatch value of a movie. While it’s always fun to watch Troll 2 again, I already know what happens. At least, I think I do. I’m still trying to figure out the corn scene…

Anyway, this is starting to become more of an essay than a blog, so I’m going to cut it off now. But, as Arnold would say “I’ll be back.”

Let’s hear what you think!

What is Art?

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Possibly the most loaded question of all time: What is art? Does anyone really have the answer to this age-old question? In the various Art History classes I have taken in college, my professors often begin the semester by asking this question. I have yet to find an answer, or anything even remotely close.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to attempt narrow this question down a bit. I believe that when the average person hears the term “art,” they think of the Mona Lisa or some other stuffy, gaudy painting hanging on a museum wall, something that rich, snobby wine-tasters like to discuss while eating gouda and smoking a corn pipe. Others say it’s “something that I can’t do.” Still others classify art as overpriced, high-brow filling for an empty wall.

Visual art–Does this define what art is? A painting on a wall? Classical music buffs would likely be inclined to say no, that art is more than that. “Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, these are artists,” they would say. Further still, what about philosophers? Actors? Is it even fair to classify art as being something outwardly experienced? I’m hesitant to say so. Could thinking be an art? Arguably, yes. Could athletics be considered art? Probably. Thus, it even becomes difficult to identify an overarching, general definition of what art is. Marcel Duchamp, the great Dada artist of the early 1900’s stirred up quite a ruckus with his piece “The Fountain,” a readymade piece employing an inverted men’s urinal placed on a pedestal in a museum.

How dare he defame art? How could Duchamp justify this crime of aesthetics? Simple. He was arguing then what I am arguing now: art cannot be defined. Does it have to be pretty? Duchamp’s “Fountain” seems to suggest that it doesn’t. Many people look at a piece by Jackson Pollock, the famous splatter painter (or, for that matter, seemingly any Abstract Expressionist piece), and scoff. “My 3 year-old could do that.” Well then, mom, your 3 year-old is an artist! Encourage him to express himself!

What is art? You tell me. I don’t know, nor do I believe anyone does. Art is a supernatural experience. Perhaps that is the best way to define it: an experience. Is it outward? Maybe. Is it visual? Perhaps. Is it pretty? Could be. Is it tangible? Possibly. If you think you know what art is, please, tell me, because even after the many classes, tests, textbooks, and papers, I’m still unsure.

Okay, I know that this blog is about the relationship of Art and Nerd Culture, but I had to get that out of the way. Obviously, the above is by no means an in-depth analysis, nor do I claim it to be infallible fact; remember, this is an opinion blog. If you want to argue about what art is and what art is not, visit any number of other websites. I’m sure there will be plenty of people there who would love to debate for hours.

Anyway, upon asking the question of the relationship to art and all things nerdy, as mentioned in the last post, there are many differing views on the subject. Can comic books be considered art? I myself am an avid Spider-Man fan, probably one of the nerdiest people around when it comes to the topic of the Web-Slinging Wonder, but in various conversations with friends and classmates, I have heard yay’s and nay’s in reference to comic books’ as an art form. When someone says comic books are merely child’s play, or the kind of thing that creepy, single, 40 year-old men read, I’m hesitant to agree. Maybe it’s because I read them and I don’t wish to be classified as childlike or old and creepy? I don’t know, but whatever the reason, I would argue that there is truly artistic merit to be found in comic books.

Visual artists of the Pop Art movement produced countless works that seem to support my hypothesis. Mel Ramos and Roy Lichtenstein had huge influence on the popularizing of comic book art, just to name a few. Ramos painted portrait-like images of recognizable comic book characters like the famous Batman.  Lichtenstein can be considered the father of modern comic book art, with his extensive use of dot-matrix coloring, and cartoonesque quality of his figures, often employing words or sound effects not dissimilar from those found in comic books then and now. If these Pop masters can produce museum-quality images of “child’s play,” can it not still be considered art if it similar imagery is mass-produced and put into the hands of comic enthusiasts? Think of 18th Century French Rococo art. The many breathtaking works of Antoine Watteau and a plethora of others were mass produced and sold in print shops for very little, making art collecting a common practice, something available to even the bourgeoisie class.

What is art? I don’t know. The best definition that I can muster is that it is an experience. This is just a bit of what this blog will explore. I hope to delve deeply into the culture of the nerdy, exploring how comic books, gaming of all sorts, and other such of geeky, under-the-table pastimes are truly art.

Whatever that is.