Book: The Time Travel Trap

The Time Travel Trap
Dan Jolley
illustrated by Matt Wendt
2008 (Graphic Universe/Lerner)

You’re jazzed about your science fair project until you find out that the guy next to you invented a time machine. Small comfort that he doesn’t really know how to work it, especially when it sucks you back in time! So, now what do you do? Save the princess or run for your life from a dinosaur?

The Time Travel Trap is a Twisted Journeys book. The Twisted Journeys series is in the same vein as the Choose Your Own Adventure one, but much of the story is told in the style of a comic book (with sequential art and word balloons). This style works really well for the time travel story because we actually get to see each time period, not just hear descriptions of it. I found 31 endings and spent time in five different time periods, allowing for numerous interesting twists to the story (many of which don’t turn out very well).

While I enjoyed this story and found that it utilized the format of this series in a more interesting and effective way than any I have previously read, I still found that I wanted more from it. I felt like my choices were largely irrelevant most of the time. There were only a few choices in the book that actually seemed to matter, otherwise it seemed like what I picked didn’t make any difference. I could choose to go through a portal, but I might get stepped on by a mammoth on the other side just as I was about to die on this side, so what difference does it make? I wanted the choices to always matter and I wanted to feel more empowered in my own story.

This is a fun book and well worth the read, especially as a fun summer book. It is also well-suited to a reader ready for longer chapter books. This is the best title I’ve read so far in what is a fun, effective and distinctive series. I definitely recommend this one. I might wish that it had been more robust, but considering the primary target audience and the fact that it’s among the first books to try choose-your-own-path stories in a comic format, I think that it did very well. Hopefully the series will lead to more experimentation along these lines!

- Publisher’s Description

- Dan Jolley’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Books: Knights of the Old Republic

Commencement and Flashpoint
John Jackson Miller
illustrated by Brian Ching, Travel Foreman, Dustin Weaver and Harvey Tolibao
2006-2007 (Dark Horse)

Zayne Carrick is a strangely inept jedi padawan who one day finds himself accused of several murders committed by his jedi masters. As he mourns the loss of his fellow padawans at the hands of their trusted masters he does the only thing he can – he runs. He needs to not only stay out of the hands of his pursuers (who quickly have the public on their side), but also find out what happened and why. Along for the ride is a shady businessman, a mechanic with a slightly faulty memory and a skilled young fighter. Zayne and his new friends find they have quite a mystery on their hands, and barely any resources at their fingertips.

Knights of the Old Republic is an ongoing monthly comic and the first two books collect the first twelve issues of that series. Typically in an ongoing series stories are either fairly short (two to six issue arcs are most common) or tend to wander a bit, showing that they probably weren’t planned out that far in advance. This is absolutely not the case with Knights of the Old Republic. The story here is a classic mystery with plenty of adventure and no extraneous plotlines mucking up the story. The writing is solid and suggests that the story was well planned out ahead of time (the importance of things that happen early on occasionally don’t become evident until much later).

As great as the writing was in this series, however, I was less impressed with the art. It tended to vary a great deal as a few different artists appeared to trade off the illustration of this comic, and they had very different styles. The first book (Commencement) started with a great style – faces had lots of expression and definition, every face was unique and different, details like hands and weapons and clothing were completely drawn, not just suggested. Later in the book, however, a sketchier, looser style appeared – there was less definition in faces (if someone was standing back, they might not even have any face), hands and details were suggested, but often had no definition (fingers and such weren’t actually drawn in). I was far less fond of this sketchy style. It didn’t have as much personality and the writing spent so much time developing personality that the loss of it in the art was noticeable.

After twelve issues, the mystery still isn’t at an end. Some things have been figured out, but others have not and new questions keep arising. I was very intrigued by this story, more so than I ever expected to be. The writing is absolutely fantastic. I was disappointed by the variability of the art and the fact that some of it didn’t fit with the style of the story and writing at all, but it didn’t hurt my enjoyment so much that I won’t seek out more of this series. I highly recommend Knights of the Old Republic. It’s got some great characters and an excellent mystery!

- Publisher’s Description of Commencement
- Publisher’s Description of Flashpoint
- The Official Star Wars Website

- John Jackson Miller’s Website
- Brian Ching’s Blog
- Dustin Weaver’s Blog

- Buy Commencement from Amazon
- Buy Flashpoint from Amazon

Ethics in Studying Online Videogames

A story was posted yesterday on nola.com about a recent study published by a professor from Loyola University concerning social rules in the game City of Heroes/City of Villains. Dr. David Myers has been having a character named “Twixt” play in player vs. player zones for some time on three different servers in ways that go decidedly against how the majority of the player population plays the game. I have some real problems with the ethics of his experiment. I believe that the ethics of this paper should be the real issue, so here’s a look at some of them.

Myers states in his paper, Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt, that social rule-breaking (Garfinkeling) is easier to do in an MMO because it has “rules governing behavior” that are “objective and measurable and, most importantly, uniform” (pages 3-4). He’s correct in that MMOs have rules, but I think that he’s incorrect in two ways here. First, the rules are far from “objective and measurable and, most importantly, uniform”, they are enforced by humans inconsistently and only when reported by humans. Second, he ignored the social rules of the game, even the explicit ones, and only followed the mechanical rules. The rule the Twixt broke consistently was the first one listed in the City of Heroes Rules of Conduct: “While playing City of Heroes , you must respect the rights of others and their rights to play and enjoy the game.”

Other people’s right to enjoy the game is really what Myers was infringing on in how he played Twixt. He disrupted even structured social activities like “fight clubs”. Such activities are well within the bounds of comic book lore and set up, even if not officially by the creators of the game, as environments where heroes and villains mix freely (pages 8-9). When other players objected to his ruining their enjoyment of the game, Myers seems to not understand why they object. He simply tries to point out what happened and how it’s fair and legal. Not all objections were articulated well, but that’s the reality of MMOs. Somehow even getting kicked out of his supergroup didn’t get through to him, he laughed that the other player was upset at his behavior (page 13). One player tells him “thanks for ruining the game for me” (page 14) and, again, Myers doesn’t seem to understand this.

Part of the problem seems to be that Myers appears to only see how Twixt’s actions impact Twixt. He turns off Twixt’s communications channels because of all the hatred (page 14), not thinking about the fact that other people can’t turn off his intrusions into their experiences as easily. He does quote one forum post that explains much of the problem, but other than saying it’s interesting and less confrontational than usual, he still doesn’t seem to get it.

“Twixt seems totally unable to comprehend other players as real people, and plays his own solipsistic game deliberately making others miserable.

I truly believe he simply does not understand the feelings that lay behind people shouting and screaming at him in RV, and just continues to soldier on with his mission, wondering why the other Heroes aren’t helping him rid RV of the bad guys with a sincerity that can almost make you sympathise with him.” (page 15)

He also tells us, late in the paper as he’s discussing what his study found, that “the most important negative consequence of Twixt’s behavior in the eyes of other players, then, was not his failure to achieve game goals – Twixt’s opponents “failed” this test more often than he did — but his failure to garner and sustain social connections: the most repellent consequence of Twixt’s behavior was that it made him unlikable.” (pages 19-20) That his actions made Twixt unlikeable is not their “most important negative consequence… in the eyes of other players”, however, especially since Myers doesn’t seem to care that Twixt was unlikable. The most important consequence to the players involved was that he was impeding their fun. Myers doesn’t seem to be able to see past his own experience, as the forum poster observed (and as becomes evident very early in the paper). He doesn’t talk about his fellow players as if they are real people with real feelings, simply as if they are social constructs with which to play and try to elicit responses.

While it is common to view the internet as a place of anonymity, every avatar and every screen name has a person behind it (bots notwithstanding). I was horrified by Myers’ study. He adhered to absolutely no ethical standards while conducting this study and the implications of that are very scary. Ethical standards are there for a reason. They attempt to ensure that the subjects of a study are protected from undue harm. I know how I would have felt if I had encountered a player like Twixt while playing a game and the comments of his fellow players confirm that many of them felt emotional stress, possibly to a considerable degree, from what he was doing. It certainly seems like they were in no way protected from harm.

If you think about it, what Myers was doing as Twixt was akin to cyber bullying. His victims and many of the gamers now reading about this have called him a griefer, which is a gamer bully. Is it really ok for a professor of sociology to be bullying people, even if that wasn’t his original intention, just to see what happens?

Myers also published their screen and character names in his paper, another breech of ethics, which states that a subjects’ privacy must be protected. Just because they are online doesn’t make them not a part of a person’s identity. As the internet and gaming become ever more a part of our lives, our screen names and gamertags become ever more a part of our identities. They should be protected in such a study the same way a subject’s name would be.

I absolutely believe that sociologists should be studying MMOs and Virtual Worlds, they have the potential to yield all kinds of interesting information. I firmly believe, however, that the rules of ethics still need to apply. There are still real people at stake, even if the researcher never knows anything more about them than what their avatar looks like. Real people deserve to be treated ethically, even when they are participating virtually. I think Myers committed a huge breach of ethics with this study and I think that that’s the real issue that should be discussed about this paper.

- For more information on research ethics in the social sciences and humanities, check out the resources at ResearchEthics.ca

Why Aren’t More Women Playing Videogames?

A few days ago Leigh Alexander posted this video to Sexy Videogameland that was made by Daniel Floyd with her assistance. It’s a fantastic look at some of the reasons women don’t play big blockbuster videogames. I highly recommend watching it. My thoughts follow.

The section that I want to talk about in this video is a little more than half-way through. Everything before that point is great too, but I don’t particularly feel the need to comment on it at this moment. What I do want to talk about is the section about marketing. Mr. Floyd and Ms. Alexander have managed to directly address the biggest problem with the marketing of female characters here. No matter how smart, strong, interesting and well-written a character is, it all becomes irrelevant if she is marketed as a sex object.

I wanted to specifically point this out and bring it up because one of the most common arguments you hear when the issue of how women characters are portrayed comes up is “but she’s really a great, powerful character, you’d know that if you played the game!” That’s lovely and often is very true, but the point here is that it really doesn’t matter. No matter how fantastic the character is, how empowering or how heroic, if she’s posing naked in Playboy or being featured in Play‘s Girls of Gaming that makes it pretty hard to take her seriously. It’s even harder for me to look at that character and believe that female players are being invited to play her game at all.

And yes, you do need to invite women in. This does not mean that the only way to get women to play is to build a big “kiddie pool” out of Imagine games and pink controllers. I’m starting to think that such things are doing more to keep women out than to invite them in. Making “girl games” does more to label everything else as “boy games” than anything else possibly could. Think about it, if The Sims is a “girl game”, what makes it so? And what does that mean? Does it mean that only girls can play it or that girls can only play games with that label on them? If it doesn’t mean either of those things, why have the label on it at all?

But this isn’t to say that the Imagine games or The Sims shouldn’t be made. They should. They have fans, just like Halo or BioShock do. In fact, The Sims has considerably more fans than either of those games. And Bejeweled has probably even more. So why aren’t they taken seriously? And that’s the second point I wanted to talk about from the video. The video claims that casual games could be gateway drugs to bring women into… what? “Real” games? I don’t even know how to phrase that. And that’s the problem. What makes Halo any more real or valid than Bejeweled?

The gaming community has gotten very elitist. We remember things like Pac-Man with nostalgia, but we scoff at modern puzzle games in the same vein like Zuma. Why is that? What made Pac-Man any more a “real” game than Zuma? And how can we honestly say that Halo is a more valid game than Mystery Case Files – Return to Ravenhurst, which is supposedly Pop Cap Games’ most popular download, implying it has more players than Halo ever has? How can we honestly say that my husband is more of a gamer than his mother, when I’m pretty sure she puts in as many hours gaming a week as he does, except that he’s playing Fallout and she’s playing Mystery Case Files? Why doesn’t her game count? It should.

And the fact that it doesn’t might be a reason women aren’t becoming gamers too. They already are gamers and perhaps the fact that they aren’t being treated as such doesn’t make them feel like becoming any more interested in the industry than they already are. My mother loves her Nintendo DS and the games on it and was very proud of herself for being a gamer, but if you told her she wasn’t one just because she pretty much sticks to games like Professor Layton, she would probably be annoyed. Maybe girls stop gaming, or at least don’t play the types of games the industry would like to lure them to (the ones that cost $50 or more a pop), because they get told “oh, girls aren’t as good at this stuff, they’re good at puzzle games and stuff”. Well, if you don’t think I’ll be good at it and no one will want to play with me, why should I spend the money or try this again?

It’s not rocket science, but there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. No one change is going to suddenly bring women into “real” gaming and balance the statistics of who plays. But just because you can’t fix all of it doesn’t mean you can’t help with parts of it. In the industry? Great, work from that angle to make more women-friendly games and characters marketed as if to women, not as if to the readers of Playboy. Just a regular gamer? Awesome, invite women you know to play, don’t condescend to them, treat them like they are every bit as good as any other player. And no matter what, don’t think that just because a girl is a gamer she must be looking to hook up with a gamer. It’s a hobby just like any other. Guy gamers marry and date non-gamer girls all the time. Why should girls be any different? Don’t expect her to fall for you just because you like the same games.

It’s going to take a while for things to change, but that’s just more reason to be working towards it now.

Book: Rest in Peace

Rest in Peace: A History of American Cemeteries
Meg Greene
2008 (Twenty-First Century Books/Lerner)

Benjamin Franklin once said “Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have.” Everyone dies and so every culture in history has had to figure out how to deal with death and what to do with the bodies left over. In the book Rest in Peace: A History of American Cemeteries, Meg Greene takes a look back through American history at the different attitudes towards death and cemeteries to show how our society has changed over time, and where many of our modern conventions when it comes to funerals and burials came from. Franklin was right, a lot can be learned about people from their cemeteries, as this fascinating book shows!

Greene starts with Native American funeral pyres and burial mounds and moves forward in history from there. She discusses how the religious views of the people often very much affected their burial practices and the appearances of their cemeteries. For example, she talks about how Puritans decorated their headstones with gruesome images such as skulls to emphasize the possibility of eternal damnation while the focus by other Christian denominations in later years on eternal life after death led to cherubic angels adorning graves.

While many cultures brought their burial customs with them to America, the great “melting pot”, Greene also shows how American cemeteries grew to be very different from their European counterparts. Family or small rural plots became common in some places while the cemeteries in cites were moved from churchyards to landscaped park areas where people could wander at their leisure (neither of these things is common in Europe). Eventually, they even grew into an entire money-making industry with theme-park like cemeteries and extravagant options for burial. This evolution was very interesting to watch and the parallel with the movement of the rest of society was clear.

This was an absolutely fascinating book. It not only made me want to visit cemeteries, but also protect them from being destroyed and learn more about the history behind them. I now want to know more about the cemetery where my family is buried and I’m considering what kind of burial I might want someday. I’ve thought about what kind of funeral I want before, but I never considered how many things there are to take into account when deciding how and where to be buried! I absolutely recommend this book to anyone. It’s really interesting both as a look at American history and culture and as a collection of interesting facts (even just the collection of unusual and amusing epitaphs peppering this book makes it worth checking out).

- Publisher’s Description

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Confessions of a Blabbermouth

Confessions of a Blabbermouth
Mike Carey and Louise Carey
illustrated by Aaron Alexovich
2007 (Minx/DC Comics)

Warning: This is a very spoiler-heavy post, so if you haven’t read this book and don’t want anything spoiled for you, you might want to read it before reading this.

Every parent wants the best for their children, but sometimes things don’t work out quite the way they intend. Chloe’s father in Confessions of a Blabbermouth has big dreams for his daughter, but her wishes and limitations aren’t even factors as far as he’s concerned. The problem is that her limitations are pretty big, especially since he’s just circumventing and ignoring them rather than helping her work on them. He also never even really asked if she wanted for herself what he wanted for her.

Chloe has dyslexia and writing is hard for her, but her father has decided that she will follow his footsteps and become a writer. To this end, he gets her a position writing a regular newspaper column. When she is unable to write to his standards right away, he simply writes her columns for her. It’s not even like he’s taking her ideas and writing them out nicely, the columns are his words, ideas and phrases with her name at the top. She gets absolutely no input at all. Sometimes she doesn’t even get to read the column before it gets published.

Chloe is not dumb and she’s not overly passive. She’s simply been told her whole life that she couldn’t do something and, while she doesn’t believe it (which is greatly to her credit), she has no idea that she even can change things until a friend helps her out just a little. This story is written brilliantly. It’s from an outsider’s point of view, but Chloe is never, ever portrayed as anything but a bright young woman as capable of charting her own destiny as anyone else. That is probably the biggest reason that I admired this book. Tasha may be the narrator, but it’s Chloe who is the heroine.

Dyslexia is very common in real life (it’s estimated that 15% of the American population has some form of it), but is rarely seen specifically in fiction. This portrayal was brilliant. It gave us a fully-realized character who may have a learning disability, but isn’t unduly hampered by it. She doesn’t proclaim it to the world, but neither does she hide it when it comes down to it. She is honest about the frustrations it causes her and she finds ways to work around and through it. She’s managing just fine. Her problem isn’t Dyslexia, it’s a father who can’t accept his daughter the way she is (and what teenagers, even those without Dyslexia, write perfectly right from the start anyway?). This is an excellent book and I highly recommend it!

- Publisher’s Description

- Mike Carey’s Website
- Aaron Alexovich’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

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