MMOnday: Heart of Thorns Impressions

gw2-hot-logoOne of the most anticipated releases in the MMORPG world this year has been Guild Wars 2‘s first expansion Heart of Thorns. It came two years after the game’s initial launch and boasted the  first raid, new class specializations and even a completely new class (in addition to plenty more). Last week players flooded into the new region to face the game’s recently awakened elder dragon Mordremoth and his hordes of minions.

So how is it? As someone who’s been playing for the last two years, the expansion feels very enjoyable so far. The class specializations take awhile to unlock (too long, according some of the most vocal critics of the new system), but the Hero Points needed offer a nice alternative to simply grinding enemies to gain experience for a new level as many MMOs opt for. Another new mechanic is gliding which feels smooth and offers a great way to traverse the new areas. Very reminiscent to Aion, another NCsoft-published MMORPG released in 2008.

Music and art direction are also strong. The background music is quite enjoyable and gamers may find themselves turning up their volume a bit to enjoy it. Plenty of new enemies have also been added and many feel unique and foreign. One of my favorite additions are the bipedal mushrooms which are happy to dive at players as they cross the jungle. Looking forward to discovering more as I venture further.

I can’t comment too much on the story, but playing the introductory sequence that brings you into the new region felt exciting and also set the tone for the story.

One special note I have to make is about the expansion’s launch: there was no downtime, no queues and little lag. Online games seem rarely prepared for hordes of players at launches or expansions, but ArenaNet did a great job of keeping the experience smooth and pain-free. I remember the launch of Warlords of Draenor and what a nightmare that was, so it was extremely refreshing to be able to play as usual even with such a surge of people.

Have you played yet? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

GaymerGate: Inside the Internet’s most mysogynistic movement

Getting to Know GaymerGate

Completely fabricated image
Completely fabricated image

GaymerGate, often shorted to the acronym GG, is an online movement that began in August 2014 after it came to light that a gaming journalist had engaged in sexual acts with a female game developer whom he had written about without disclosing any type of relationship. Tens of thousands of homosexual gamers took to social media to voice their discontent. The movement claimed to have been against what its members saw as an ethical transgression and fiercely criticized the standards of modern gaming publications in general. Officially, it had nothing to do with the heterosexual nature of the impropriety, but the fact that it had happened at all.

Some were critical of GG and pointed out the double standards of the movement. Developers and journalists had never been criticized for any exclusively-male orgies often held after conventions. Feminist culture critic Anita Snarkiseen called the group a bunch of “gay white nerds” who weren’t willing to let women into the industry.

Getting in with the Gaymers

Ethical disclosure: many bottles were traded for information
For bribing purposes

In order to fully understand GaymerGate and find out what it was really about, I had to infiltrate the movement from within. After familiarizing myself with their home on Reddit in a forum called r/KocktakuInAction, I began speaking with those that personally identified as belonging to the shadowy and leaderless group. One such “GaymerGater” agreed to speak to me, but asked to only be referred to by his initials “A.S.” Repercussions for those who turn their backs on GG are often ridicule and online harrassment… bullying which can only be prevented by completely logging off from social media, something near-impossible to do in today’s connected world.

The first question that had to be asked was, “Is it really about ethics?” I could see A.S. pause over Skype, but he slowly shook his head. “No,” he said, “and I’m sick of pretending it is.” The narrative just kept unwinding from there. It was, he admitted, an organized attempt to get women out of gaming.

Boys’ Club

A joystick can react in different ways depending on where it's touched
A joystick can react in different ways depending on where it’s touched

My link into GaymerGate patiently explained that gaming was never intended to be an activity for females. He pointed out the phallic origins of the joystick which still remains an iconic symbol for the hobby.

“This has always been a unique celebration of male-ness. When you wrap your hands around a controller and start jerking it around… it connects you. You’re right there with your brothers. It’s deep, man. Girls just don’t get that,” A.S. seemed to get a bit choked up a bit and I gave him a moment to collect himself, “It just isn’t fair for women to try to tempt the weaker straight men among us.”

He also admitted that GG would do anything it could to stop the influx of women into gaming, including criticizing their fashion sense and hairstyles on social media. Weight, however, was off-limits because “gaymers understand how tempting chocolate can be”.

Toning Down the Testosterone

lara-croftWomen have not taken kindly to GaymerGate or its facade of caring about “ethics in journalism”. Opponents of the movement have created their own group: Females Against GaymerGate, or faGG for short. They promise to keep shining the light on the misogyny spawned by GG. Multiple YouTube series have demonstrated how important characters such as Lara Croft are to gaming; “She’s definitely one of the most important female role models as far as characters go. For the next game though we really hope that Square Enix highlight her privileges, such as being white, thin, able-bodied, and cisgendered as well as acknowledge the inherent cultural oppression in exploring new territories.”

Girls fighting under the faGG banner have also sharply criticized gaymers for the assumption that they hold a monopoly on geeky men. They point out that some of the most desirable traits can be found among gamers, chief among them being their skilled hands from countless hours spent nimbly nudging analog sticks and timing precise keystrokes during critical moments.

Where do we go from here

GaymerGate wasn’t predicted to be a long-lived, but even today proponents keep the movement going. Likewise, faGG supporters are there at every turn to ensure women are able to get in on the joystick-slamming action in gaming.

The war rages on, but I hope that my exposé brings attention to the real motives behind GG and just how divisive it is in gaming. Bear this information in mind when deciding which side you support.

Nintendo, Google & The Pokémon Company invest $20 million in augmented reality gaming

Niantic, the developer of Ingress and the upcoming Pokémon GO, has announced that it raised its Series A financing round, totaling an initial investment of $20 million and a further $10 million promised upon meeting agreed goals, from Google as well as gaming giant Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. The development studio is known for putting gaming into the real world; Ingress tasks players with physically traveling to locations in order to take control of them. Pokémon GO similarly showed trainers gathering together in New York’s Times Square in its announcement trailer to take part in a massive battle against a legendary Pokémon.

The involvement of Google may come as little surprise, considering that Niantic is headed by John Hanke who was one of the creators of Google Earth. Some may remember 2014’s April Fools joke which added a “Pokémon Challenge” to Google Maps. GO‘s logo bears a striking resemblance to the prank as well.

Fans of the Pokémon franchise should be happy to hear that the company tasked with bringing the monsters to our world seems to be well funded. This will be a drastic departure from the series’ previous games and allow trainers to interact in new ways with beloved characters. It’s clear that corporate knows expectations are high and Nintendo is also committed to develop new technologies, which may even appear in other franchises down the road.

Let us know in the comments what Pokémon you’d like to catch first in GO!

Japonism: Akihabara is only fun once

Electric Town Akihabara

Photo Credit: gcorrin

Many gamers and fans of anime or manga know of Akihabara, the Japanese Mecca for video games and comics. Often it is seen as an ideal destination for travel because of its novelty, after all where else in the world are you going to find such a relatively large area packed with stuff for nerds (and I use that term lovingly)? As a Tokyo resident for going on five years now, I’d like to dispel the notion that it is an end-all and be-all for gamers and share why it may not be that great a second time around.

The Internet Ruined Everything

guilty-gear-figureBefore Amazon and other online retailers gained widespread use, there was a specific draw to Akihabara: you could buy things there that weren’t available anywhere else. Old games, limited edition comics, rare figurines… they’re all there in spades. Fans looking to complete their collections could browse through niche stores and find something they may not have. Unfortunately, the Internet’s ability to put everything at one’s fingertips has made purchasing these rare collectibles much easier than it used to be and taken away Akihabara’s corner on the nerd market.

This might not affect tourists in the same way, because seeing Japanese products in person is much better than window shopping on Amazon, but unfortunately large chain retailers have replaced many smaller shops since the latter have a much harder time paying Tokyo’s exorbitant rent prices and the problem of online shopping has probably contributed to a decline in foot-traffic to many places. Huge stores such as LABI, Yodobashi Camera and more have large locations within Akihabara, but they’re also available to see anywhere else in Japan and lack charm. Droves of foreigners, both Western and Chinese, seem to keep them in business though.

 You May Feel like a Creep

akihabara-maid-cafe2Another famous aspect of Akihabara is its prevalence of so-called “maid cafes”. These women aren’t out to serve your every need, but will be very happy to take a picture with you if you pony up some cash. Young women dressed in suggestive French maid outfits dot the street, often handing out fliers for the cafes they work at. They’ll often call customers “master” or “older brother” in Japanese to show their subservience.

akihabara-maidI visited a maid cafe only once and would not repeat the experience. After reaching the 5th or 6th floor, I stepped out of the elevator and into a world full of “cute”. It was as if a daycare had been designed for adults. As a maid brought out the orders my friend and I had placed she made us do a Japanese chant and corresponding hand motions before we could eat. To fully enjoy anything here you have to give up your sense of dignity and play along with strangers to keep the fantasy alive. It may be worth trying for the experience (unforgettable), but I can’t say it’s guaranteed to be comfortable.

Other than the maids, you may notice that Akihabara shoppers are interesting. Two or three years ago I spent time interviewing people for a project and what piqued my curiosity is what they were sitting on the sidewalk doing: showing off Polaroid collections. These pictures were of AKB48 (AKB = AkiHaBara) singers posing individually. This pop group serves as a religion to some and because of the intense male scrutiny, the girls are not allowed to date while part of it. It is fantasy just as much as the maid cafes and encourages the fan base to pick out a few “favorites” to support and vote for in influential polls (often requiring merchandise purchases).

Akihabara hides itself in flashy electronics and cloying fanservice, but look under that and you see an intense loneliness in the most populous city in the world.

It is Worth One Trip

Photo Credit: Rachel Lovinger

I’ve taken issue with the area’s big-box takeover and the underlying desperation, but there are reasons to visit. The merchandise is fun to see, especially retro games and intricate figures, and the variety of shops will keep you busy for awhile. There’s even a seven floor shop of nothing but adult goods and, if you’re old enough, I definitely recommend. In general the atmosphere is somewhat unique and a five or more hour trip is plausible if you’re really passionate about gaming, anime, manga or computers. Many shops are tucked away in multi-level buildings with little signage, so if you are planning a trip I highly recommend you read up about the area, because it is easy to miss out if you don’t.

Other Places of Interest

There are also other locations which are similar to Akihabara, but are worth visiting for their own reasons. The first, Nakano Broadway, is a must-see if you’re already in Tokyo. Like Akihabara, it focuses primarily on shops that would appeal to our inner nerds, but many offer goods from long ago (#only90skids). Toys from the original Godzilla movie, posters from a wide variety of films and more… it’s all there. This is all in one shopping mall, so it doesn’t have the sprawling presence of Akihabara, but the trip back in time gives great insight into Japanese popular culture and a nuanced look at history.

Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city, also has an electric town called DenDen Town. I haven’t visited for more than 10 years now, but if you take a trip to the Kansai region of Japan instead of Tokyo it shouldn’t be left off the itinerary!

Please feel free to share your own Akihabara experiences in the comments below!

Prophecy fulfilled: Major trans character not good enough for Polygon writer

Almost exactly one month ago I wrote an article asking, “Is there a way to bring trans characters into gaming without offending anyone? ” My hypothesis was a firm “no” and not because I thought a Kim Davis-type conservative would be opposed to a transgender video game character. Quite the opposite; I believed that no character could ever be good enough for the ‘Progressive Left’ and any included would inevitably fall short of their expectations. Polygon has now provided ample support that even if a character, a titular character, may be transgender, or something alien-equivalent, there is still ample room to shit upon the game for not properly handling the issue.

This all stems from Bungie’s latest expansion to Destiny called The Taken King. Lore from out-of-game sources reveal that the King, Oryx, was born a female and during a power-infusing ritual he transitioned to male. I have read various theories about whether this alien species can really be considered transgender or if it is their biology, but for the purpose of this discussion it does not particularly matter, because, as Polygon writer Laura Dale put it, “For now, even if it’s subtle, we can claim Oryx [as trans].”

Although Dale is quick to claim him, she’s also very ready to take issue with him.  The last half of her article is under the, “WE CAN’T PRAISE THIS AS A VICTORY FOR TRANSGENDER REPRESENTATION” header. Wait, what? One of the most important characters of a blockbuster game changes genders and you “claim” him for your cause, but this is not bringing the trans rights movement forward? It isn’t a success for sexual minorities and gender representation?

You can read Dale’s criticism below, pulled from her Polygon article:

It’s tragic that nobody knows Oryx is transgender. I hate that the first example of a transgender character in a titular role is hidden away so much that very few hardcore Destiny players know about it. It’s diversity relegated to the depths of a convoluted and complex set of out of game data logs. 

Author's image
Laura Dale

If we lived in a world without the Internet tools we enjoy today, maybe I would accept this as a valid criticism since information would be harder to disperse. As I already said myself last month, “depicting a transgender character presents a challenge. In such a visual medium gender identity cannot be explained so easily. In fact, just as in real life, you may not know someone identifies as a gender that differs from their biological or birth sex.” Bungie has not provided much in-game lore, which many fans have been disappointed with, but has actually provided resources for those who care. If anything, Oryx’s gender identity could be more of an easter egg.

destiny-oryxAnd where does the gaming press’s responsibility fall into this? Dale found out about the Taken King’s backstory and has a huge platform on which to share it: Polygon (or Destructoid). Gaming sites aren’t just for printing press releases breathlessly sent out by PR firms to sell games. They’re for exactly these sort of situations. To inform video game fans about information they may not know. A whole different narrative approach could have been taken with this article, one of discovery and appreciation. Instead there’s a bit of the latter mixed in with a surprising bitterness. A heaviness pervades the article, just because a character was not portrayed in a way which the author wanted.

Furthermore, would it not be awkward to have Oryx clearly stated as transgender (again, this may not be the best term to describe the situation, but we’re going with it) and then ask players to kill him?! Which is really more offensive? I think Bungie took the better route of relegating lore to its separate app, as it does with most of Destiny, instead of potentially causing a firestorm of outrage among these same writers who are complaining the villain’s gender identity is not given exposure in-game before you take up arms against him.

I just don’t see “Progressives” understanding how progress actually works. Life is a series of small victories and if you’re not willing to acknowledge any but the biggest of them, you may find that there aren’t too many victories to celebrate. So too in video game diversity.

As always I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts and comments about this issue.