A Copywriter’s Blog
Anyone Order a Mindfuck? Ben Levy 16, October

The other day, I got a strong sense of deja vu.

The place I was at was the Brooklyn Night Bazaar. A really cool street fair created out of recycled shipping containers.

The place it reminded me of was the shipyards in Empire City. They had corridors made of shipping containers.

What’s weird is I’ve never been to the shipyards in Empire City. Because Empire City doesn’t exist. Except in the PS3 game InFamous.

Here’s a crappy shot from my phone:


Here’s a crappy screenshot from Empire City.

Screen Shot 2011-10-16 at 10.13.51 AM

I felt like I was wandering through a place I’d been before. Only this time I wasn’t shooting lightning from my fingertips. (I tried once, just to be sure)

Debates about gaming aren’t unique. Usually it’s over something like whether games can be art (sure, why not) or whether violent games are bad for children (no, actual violence is bad for children). But I remember reading a post once that argued that game memories carry the same weight as “real” memories. At the time, I laughed.

Now, I think gaming is a “real” experience in the sense that it is a thing I have done with my time. I have shotgunned zombies, dominated planets, and assassinated corrupt politicians in quasi-historical settings. But I’m not about to put any of those on my resume.

Still, I spent an entire night unable to shake those feelings of deja vu. And this guy has a whole, amazing sight dedicated to game tourism photos. So maybe there’s more to these fictional experiences and memories than I thought.

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I went through a period of about 3 months where I had no free time. When my schedule loosened up enough that I had an hour or two to relax, I let my brain flatline by playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good technique. 60 minutes of video games or TV equal the kind of mental rest usually reserved for six-week coma patients.

But when my schedule became semi-normal again, I forgot to adjust. I wasn’t just gaming for an hour or two to try and make up for thinking the last 18 hours straight. No. I was gaming for 8 hours because, well, this guy here needed me to go get this thing from that other guy, who would only give it to me if I did something for him, and don’t you realize the fate of the princess/country/world/universe depends on this shit?

But I didn’t appreciate just how far down the rabbit hole I’d fallen until I got home one day to find The Wife glued to the TV over a midget marathon. I swear, TLC stands for The Little Channel. It’s fucking ridiculous. 3 footers, 24/7. I digress.

I did some chores I normally would have done days earlier. Then, after seeing that I still couldn’t repel the alien invasion because the little people were in the middle of adopting a little dog, I came and typed this post. On a Wednesday. Because this is what I used to fill my time with. Writing. Drawing. Creating. Not just consuming.

I love gaming and letting my mind take a break, but gdamn it’s dangerous. And while I wouldn’t say I was addicted (she told me the marathon ended 20 minutes ago, but I’m finishing this post first) I am going to keep an even closer watch on how I’m spending my time. Killing stuff to unwind is fine. But if I let my brain flatline too long, I might not be able to start it up again.

Related: This awesome post by Seth Godin

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I saved the world. Again. Ben Levy 22, August

This time from aliens. And, having now saved mankind from extinction more times than I can count, I’d just like to say the following:

No thanks to you jerks.

Seriously, whether it’s been zombies, aliens, or evil wizards, the population in danger has insisted on offering no help whatsoever. I’m saving you bums from total annihilation, subjugation, and/or extinction, and not one of you cuts me a break.

Yeah, merchant with the bazooka who refuses to sell it to me for four dollars less than the listed price forcing me to take on a Sherman tank with a handgun, I’m talking to you. Look, it’s not like I’m asking you to pick up the damn thing and join me in my single-handed fight to save the world from an eternity of darkness. Heaven forbid. No, no, don’t get up, I’ll save humanity all on my own. All I’m asking is that you hand me the freaking anti-tank weapon so that I can KILL THE TANK.

And don’t act all smug, Random Civilians. You’re no better. This may come as a shock to you, but I get shot at. A lot. And it’d be just super if you gave me something to hide behind. A place of cover, if you will. Like, I don’t know, your home? Never happens. Instead, I wind up hunkered down behind a wooden crate in the middle of the street because every door -regardless of it being a mud hut or an apartment in a 20 mile high skyscraper- every door is practically welded shut. I’m not asking for much, I think. Just leave the door open so I can duck inside and restock one of the 10 guns, crossbows, wands or other random projectiles I’m carrying. You don’t even have to do anything special. In fact, I’m asking you to remember one less thing when fleeing for your worthless lives. Don’t. Lock. The door.

Honestly, the only people that ever helped me out were those nice elves from Hyrule. Decent folk, those Hyrulians. Hyrulites. Um, Hyranians? Damn good people, anyway. Y’know what they do? They take all their rupees and leave ‘em in pots. Hide ‘em on their front lawn. Bury ‘em in the backyard. It’s great. All I have to do is break some pots. Money in the bank. Then I can buy healing potions, better swords, a magic shield or two. That’s a population that appreciates being saved. Why can’t the rest of you bastards be more like Hyrule?

Of course, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if you idiots would just stop experimenting with bio-weapons and waking evil wizards. Just saying.

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Take a second to realize just how quickly this digital gaming thing has grown. Before the Atari, there was no “gaming”. The whole concept didn’t exist. Then it became a thing the kids did with their neat little nintendo boxes. Then it was something nerds did who had an easier time interfacing with those boxes than they did women. Then it was something everyone did, as long as they didn’t do it too much, or seem too enthusiastic about it, or played games with words like NFL and NBA in the title.

And then came the Wii and Facebook.

And casual gaming was born.

So now it’s ok, this obsession with digital games. You can admit in public that you enjoy playing them. Terms geeks coined- like RPG, n00b, pwned- these are everyday words now. Which is why you get articles like this one.

The short version is- a professor at Indiana University replaced grades with an RPG system of leveling. He’s observing higher-than-normal interest levels among his students, and a marked increase in the amount of effort put into the class.

If you look at the comments, a lot of people aren’t sure what to think about this. Some think we’re giving too much credit to games. Some think this will only work with a game-related class. Some think this is exactly what schools need and are ready and willing to go to class dressed like an Orc.

I think they’re all missing the point. It’s not about whether or not your class should be a game. It’s about how game mechanics can improve your class.

This quote from the article talks about work, but it applies in the classroom as well:

Many specifics of game design could also be directly applied to the workforce, he said. These included: clearly defining goals for workers; providing incremental rewards; and balancing effort and reward.

Clearly defined goals. In this case the emphasis is on the “clearly”. You know what I always hated about those classes where there’s only a midterm and final? You get two shots. You screw up the first, you’re doomed. It sucks because the rules aren’t explained. Sure you’re told what they are-a big test in the middle and a big test at the end- but you don’t really know what the midterm is like until you see it. It’s technically defined, but not clearly so. Having a chance to see how the teacher thinks in the homework and in smaller tests makes it easier to anticipate and prepare for the huge tests. It’s a time-honored tradition in RPGs to go kill giant rats before you work your way up to dragons. This is part of why.

The balancing of effort and reward. World of Warcraft made infamous an aspect of RPGs called “grinding”. This is the practice of repetitively performing an action in-game until you reap the reward you want. It could be hitting things over the head until you level up, or hitting things over the head until they drop a particular item you’ve been searching for. In most cases it’s monotonous and shoot-yourself-in-the-face boring. So why are so many gamers willing to hit things over the head until their eyes bleed?

Think about it. When was the last time in life that you knew- beyond all shadow of a doubt- that if you do X for long enough, Y will happen? I’ll be good, and good things will happen…usually. Maybe. I hope. I work hard at my job, so I’ll get a promotion…right? I spend hours at the gym, so women will find me more attractive…in theory. Life is uncertain. In World of Warcraft, no matter how many hours it takes, you are certain of one thing- hit enough things on the head, and you’ll get what you want.

If a student tries to pass a test and fails, they failed right? In traditional classes, yes. In a class set up like an RPG, if they fail, they just try again. And again. And again. Until they get it right. Isn’t that what we want our students to do? Teachers out there- tell me this isn’t a fantastic idea. The student will do whatever extra work is necessary because he believes he can succeed if he keeps trying. This is ten times better than the student who shrugs because they failed the unit and resolves to “make it up on the next one”.

Providing incremental rewards. It’s the other thing good about grinding. You do get something along the way. Even if the things you hit in the head take a while to give you a specific item you want, you might level up in the process. Or get a new weapon. Or unlock a new area to explore. In RPGs, almost everything grants you experience, which means that nothing you do ever feels like it’s wasted. In other words, in a class run like an RPG you wouldn’t hear anyone say “why should I read the whole book if all this material won’t be on the test?” Sure it might not be on the test (ie-slay the big dragon) but it might give you another benefit, such as the opportunity for extra credit (side quest).

Games can be won- There’s another aspect of gaming that isn’t mentioned in the article, but I think it might be the best reason of all to turn classes, jobs, and even cancer research into a game: People approach games with the belief that they can win.

Not that it will be easy. Not that they know how. Not even that they will win. But they believe it has been designed in such a way that winning is possible. Whatever the challenge, there is a way to overcome it. They just have to find it.

The enormity of this psychological benefit was shown in an exchange between a reporter and a game developer. The reporter- who clearly thought “game” meant “toy”- asked how anyone could possibly consider a game as an appropriate way to educate children about world hunger and ways to solve it. The developer replied “People approach games with a belief that there is a way to win. That already puts them in a different mindset from 99% of the people who have tackled these problems before.”

That’s huge. Ever read Ender’s Game? If you haven’t, we can’t be friends. So go read it. The rest of you probably just gained a new appreciation for the idea behind that book.

So let’s review shall we? We’re talking about setting up a class where the goals and challenges are clearly defined. Every action is made beneficial for the student in some way- so that they are inspired to take it all in, rather than only those parts they perceive as being required. We’re talking about setting up a psychological environment where students A) believe they are capable of excelling and B) are not just encouraged but rewarded to try repeatedly until they master the lessons.

This isn’t about a generation gap. This is about building a better mousetrap. We stopped teaching in one room school houses because splitting up classes by grade was more effective. Let’s stop grading and start leveling for the same reasons.

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Stop writing in 8-bit Ben Levy 29, March

There is a fantastic conversation going on right now over at James regarding story-telling in video games. For the uninitiated, James is a blog by one Tom Francis, aka Pentadact. Tom has penned perhaps the greatest game review in existence, and is high on my list of people I would murder and devour if it meant I could gain one one-hundredth of their writing ability.I heartily suggest anyone interested in writing or gaming go check it out.

The short version is, people would really like the stories in their games to start living up to the graphics. It’s just that no one knows how to do it.

It’s a conversation that’s plenty relevant to advertising. The conventional wisdom is that while no one reads anymore, story-telling is more important than ever. And particularly in the online space, it’s pretty undefined.

I think the problem is that games (and most sites) are a visual medium. Stick with me here.

In our society today, we essentially have two broad methods of story-telling: literary and visual. Books are just words on paper. While I’m thrilled with that format, I recognize I’m in the minority.

Then there’s the visual method. Video. TV. Movies. They relate a tale with color and sound. Generally, they’re held to be more immersive, more emotional for the viewer.

One thing that both methods have in common is that they’re a linear way to relate a story. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. Even if you Tarantino it, the story is told from start to finish in one way only, and the viewer/listener is along for the ride.

But in games, that’s not true. The user has a measure of control over the events, and that comes at the expense of narrative. The simplest example I can think of is Street Fighter. The game had a simple story: I play a fighter, I beat up other fighters. At the end, I beat the final boss and win. Hooray.

If it were a movie, every ounce of that story would be told with drama and perfection. Each time I beat the boss, it would be with a massive uppercut delivered in slow motion. And in fact, in Street Fighter, your final hit is automatically slowed down to add emphasis. Perfect interactive story-telling?

Not always. I remember playing through a whole game, getting to the boss, and beating him with a vicious sweep. A sweep. I kicked the guy in the shin, in slow motion, and that’s how I won the day. It felt weak. A movie would never finish that way.

So let’s try something else. How about, when I do enough damage, the fight ends and I watch a cutscene where my fighter delivers that cinema-perfect slow uppercut we were talking about? Looks great, but now I’m annoyed as a gamer because I didn’t do that. The game did. The final moment, and I feel like I was robbed of my victory. Like I wasn’t good enough to do it myself.

This is an intentionally simple example, but hopefully you begin to see the issues involved. Players control the game, but don’t control the story. Which means the story can’t be perfect, since the people writing it don’t know exactly how it will play out- even something as simple as a kick can ruin a scene.

Because games are a visual medium, we expect them to deliver a story like one we get at the movies. After all, they look sort of like movies.They’re even written in that same, linear fashion. But I think that’s where we’re going wrong.

There is a third method of story-telling. One that isn’t used much at all anymore. But I think it’s where we’ll find the answer. Oral.

I love to hear myself talk, so I do it a lot. And one thing I’l say about it is this- I do it consciously. The act of verbally relating a story involves audience participation. You want to make sure they give a damn about what you’re saying. If they laugh at one part, you add more detail to enhance the hilarity. If they express disbelief, you go out of your way to make it even more unbelievable (even while you swear the whole thing is true). It’s telling a story with audience participation, changing small details so that your listener appreciates the bigger picture even more. You give up some measure of narrative control but do so in order to enhance the overall tale being told.

I think figuring out that balance online and in-game will be the key. I’ve got another very specific reason why I think I’m right, and another 800 words to write on the topic. But I’ll save that for next post, along with a shocking admission that at least several people who read this blog don’t know about.