The Demon Within
Sometimes progress doesn’t progress fast enough. Even when you think we should be farther along in our understanding/acceptance/ability, every now and then you realize how slowly the wheel turns.
On the ride into work today I heard a news segment on Minecraft. It started with the reporter — a health reporter, which should indicate the direction this report would take — talking about how she brought her family to her childhood home in extreme rural America (I forget exactly where, but “dirt road” was used as a qualifier). She then added a “tut tut” in the form of a sound clip of her son and his cousin playing and talking about Minecraft…instead of being outside.
Now, I’m not a medical professional; I’m only allowed to prescribe cough drops, and only under adult supervision. I do not dispute the scientific concepts of what happens to the human body when it sits relatively motionless for several hours, versus what happens to the human body when it’s running around all day. The ideal, bereft of any agenda, is that kids grow up healthy and learn healthy habits, so it’s a pretty simple jump from cause to effect.
What I am sure about, however, is that a lot of people refuse to understand activities once they feel that they’ve got a handle on “how it should be”. The National Pediatric Association has guidelines on “screen time” for kids — one hour per day — in order to ensure that they’re “not doing any lasting damage”, which is a vague way of saying “in case they’re doing themselves harm via mechanisms we don’t totally understand”. The doctor who was interviewed was the one responsible for coming up with the “one hour screen time” recommendation, and he admitted that the jury is really out when it comes to understanding the long term effects of using a “screen”. It is universally accepted (maybe even proven as law, I don’t know) that sitting down — like 98% of adult America does, eight hours a day, five days a week — isn’t good without bursts of activity. What they’re not entirely sure of is whether or not staring at a screen, be it a TV, computer monitor, tablet, or smartphone, is inherently bad.
They question as much in this report: is there such a thing as “good screen time” and “bad screen time”? Anyone around these parts should at least be aware that Minecraft is used in schools and in lessons to teach problem solving, team work, and rudimentary programming and engineering concepts. Mavis Beacon teaches us to type, The Oregon Trail teaches us the perils of drinking bad water, and Minecraft can teach kids skills that can prepare them for the upper 2/3 of their life. Too many adults look at a child playing Minecraft and only see “video game” and “not outside”. As a parent of a child who went through a Minecraft obsession, I’ve been in contact with other parents whose children also love Minecraft. I’ve heard those parents refer to the game as “that Minecraft” with the same intonation used when our ancestors spoke of “that rock and roll music” or even “those people”. Their tone is essentially telling me that they know nothing of the game except that their kids play it, talk about it, and that it rules their lives. Worse, these parents apparently do not care to understand what Minecraft actually is, and what it’s really doing for their kids. As far as they’re concerned, Minecraft — and by natural extension, all video games — is a nice diversion for a rainy day, but because they as parents don’t see the benefit of any video game, especially one that has it’s hooks in their children as deeply as Minecraft does, there must not be any at all. That just leaves the NPA’s voice in their ear telling them to kick their kids outside. Add to that the “I played outside when I was a kid, and I didn’t have video games, so that settles that” belief, and there’s a definite stonewall between a parent’s willingness to understand what’s going on in favor of what they think they know about what’s going on.
I’m all for kids going outside when they’re able, although I have to say that my family is not an outdoors kind of family, and my daughter never really spent much time outside. Her neighborhood best-friend moved away to a nearby city when they were both young, and there weren’t too many other kids around that were her age. Instead, they found Minecraft, taught themselves how to set up and add modifications to a server, played with all the features turned on, and built elaborate structures with switches and gates, created towns with rules, currency, and shops. They talked about it when they weren’t playing it, planning projects and figuring out the steps needed to execute those projects.
So I guess what really gets me is this: my daughter knows more about relevant elements of society today through Minecraft than I did when I was her age. She’s learned concepts in engineering and programming, and touched on even more esoteric topics like computer server setup, networking, and systems maintenance. Some people would claim that video games don’t provide the space for imagination like the kind they remember from their outdoor play when they were kids, and I unabashedly call bullshit of the highest order: until you’ve seen die hard Minecrafters arguing over the placement of a sheep farm in a virtual world, you have absolutely no idea what imagination really looks like. Play “cops and robbers” in your backyard if you must, but let’s face it: that’ll prepare you for a job as a cop (or a robber) about as well as it will prepare you for a job as a chef or an airplane pilot. Minecraft, on the other hand, lets kids learn concepts inside an imagination play-space: they learn while they’re having fun. It’s lightning in a bottle, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, and it shouldn’t be ignored or overlooked by parents.
After my internal irritation subsides, I’m left with the knowledge that some day these kids will be in our shoes, and will have a better understanding of why they should get to know not just what their kids are doing, but what it means and what it can mean for them. The out-of-hand dismissal of something because of an unwillingness to understand, or a fear of, or a personal disinterest in a subject is something that’s just way too common even in this “enlightened Internet age”. Maybe it’s selfishness, or a fear of looking stupid on a subject that kids can understand, but I think it’s about time we stop demonizing and lionizing without a level of understanding and a willingness to accept that what we think is bad or the best might not actually always be bad or the best for our kids.
And thanks to the longest segue in blogging history, I spent a lot of this weekend indoors, playing Skyforge.
Saturday evening we went out with friends, and Sunday we were supposed to go kayaking, but the 9000% humidity was wreaking havoc on my lungs, making it impossible for me to manage the boats to and from the car (my wife is only 4’11”, so her reaching the top of the van is impossible), never mind physically kayaking myself up and down and around a waterway.
So I bounced in and out of Skyforge this weekend. I had tried it only a few weeks ago and wasn’t that impressed. I had played Invictus and Dragon Nest and TERA, games that I consider to offer similar aspects to what Skyforge offers: action RPGs, hub-and-instanced-spoke gameplay, boob-physics (it’s on the back of the box, people!). None of those games actually kept my interest for long (I played a fair amount of TERA, though. I like that one). I didn’t expect Skyforge to really have a hook that would change my outlook.
It’s a pretty fun game, though. First, it’s Russian, not Korean, although with a lineage close to the above mentioned titles I think we can be excused for the assumption. I mention that because there’s a lot of assumptions that people raise when they expect a game to be Korean or European or American. You start off as a nameless, faceless “immortal”, a character that rank and file mortals logically assume to be a god because of your ability to respawn after death. You eventually get to create a character appearance (and select a gender) and name thyself, which is an interesting and cool conceit — the delayed character creation.
It’s off to the races after that. You’re on the trail of some “ultimate evil”, code-named Gravedigger, which may be a monster truck or a professional wrestler. Your job is to hit up hotspots around the globe, helping mortals, and ideally undercutting this spread of evil while you work to uncover who or what this Gravedigger is, and what he/she/it is up to. That’s as far in narrative as I’ve been able to discern, so there might be more to it.
The Divine Observatory is the hub. It’s nothing but a giant, circular library with a massive holographic globe in the middle that you use to travel to points of interest. You’ll often return here to give and get missions as part of the story, but you can go wherever you want on the globe. There’s two things about the globe, though. The first is that you’ll often return to the same spots over and over, because part of the concept behind the hub-and-instanced-spoke model is the grind. The second is that the hotspots change every…40 minutes? Some persist, like if you have a leg of the story to work on, but others will pop in and out of existence, allowing you to switch up where you grind every hour or so.
Once you hit the ground, it’s all ass-whuppin’, all the time. Combat is mouse button based for the most part. You trigger combos by the combo of mouse buttons you use. One left, one right; two left, one right; four left, no right…each combo triggers a different attack, so knowing your combo tree is of vital importance. The Paladin, one of the default classes, has AoE and single-target attacks buried in those combos, foe example. Over time, you also unlock keyboard abilities, which can feature defensive and offensive actions.
The graphics are stellar, the story is kinda meh, although a lot of people seem to like the “Roman Legions…In Space!” vibe. What people do not seem to like is the progression difficulty and the lack of clarity when it comes to how to do simple stuff.
Like the companion titles above, Skyforge is pretty grindy. You earn all kinds of tokens used in character advancement by playing through areas, which means you’ll probably revisit areas again and again to farm those tokens. I guess it’s six of one, half dozen of another, because whether you’re killing things here, or killing things there, you’re doing the same thing anyway; it’s just the backdrop that changes or stays the same. Ideally, though, you want to see progression, which is tough with this game. Free players earn loot at what I’m seeing considered to be an abysmal rate; like, in terms of months for people who don’t devote entire days to the game. If you want a shortcut, you can buy Premium status. This increases drops, and also lets you get some Premium specific loot that helps you “jump the line” in terms of character progression. The good news is that you can buy Premium in small packs, like three days of access, for as little as $2.99. That’s a good buy for the occasional weekend. Even their “monthly pass” is something like $12, which is less than industry standard.
But understanding this Premium/non Premium thing, as well as some other aspects, that is proving to be the thorn in some people’s side. Last night, a few of us were struggling to figure out how to add friends to a friends list, because your “Contact List” is not where you add contacts; it’s in a different screen. Once we did that, we had to figure out how to create custom chat rooms. Then how to turn off the obnoxious general chat. And then whether or not these changes persisted between sessions. I had been confused by what Premium status was until the game explained it in tutorial fashion…several hours after I had discovered it on my own, which had allowed the questions to build up. I spent a few hours on the General Internet just trying to piece together under-explained elements of this game, which is not a good way to get people into your game. Meting out info at a design pace instead of at a usability pace is either overconfident or blatantly ignorant. Or, because it’s not a Western-sourced game, maybe it’s a cultural thing.
But overall, I think it’s a decent game. If you want to play an ARPG that looks nice and has a satisfying system of beat-downs, then Skyforge is your candidate. If you want a game that you can play semi-religiously while expecting to progress, you’re going to be outright horrified and disappointed. It doesn’t seem like there’s a comfortable middle ground between “one step above Solitaire” and “close the blinds and ignore the family” levels of dedication that make the game work. You’re either ultra casual with a side of frustration, or ultra hardcore and on the hook for a subscription. Either way, I don’t think you can get away from the grind, because Premium is just a (really significant) leg up, not a game-changer.