lovehate: Spore v. Reality

Far be it from me to take a cynical view on things (cue crickets and an Edna Krabappel laugh) but am I the only one who thinks that the release of this season's most eagerly anticipated video game experience is surreptitiously constraining its players under the guise of freedom and creativity?

Spore, for those who don't care for video games at all, is a Massively Multiplayer Online game that allows every player to be the god of their own world from the "pimp my bacterium" stage all the way up to their own private Death Star. It promises the freedom to create shared environments that go beyond anything before. It sells itself with the self-gratifying narrative hook: "What they never realized was that all along the way, from humble microbes to starship captains, someone had guided them at every turn... and that someone is you."

Now I suppose my following rationale will all come down to construct of reality that are probably far better left for a professor of metaphysics or Jeff Spicoli, but since neither of them are around, try this on for size. Spore is selling itself on three core ideas: 1) that you will have freedom to exercise your creativity, 2) that your ego will be so satisfied by the fact that you made a creature with a phallus sticking out of its chest, you will have no choice but to propogate your species, and 3) that the game itself holds more creative license over your time and energy than your actual life does.

Let's really take a critical look at a product that's supposed to "foster" creativity.

I realize that the creative process in most aspects of life is frought with parameters that we must learn to live with or submit to in frustration. While a piano player is limited by the instrument and the painter is limited by the canvas, we certainly applaud the pursuits of those artists and craftspeople who, within the boundaries of their fields, work creative achievement to levels we never thought possible. A game like Spore (and Civilization, the Sims and Sim City before it) may work as a noble attempt at entertainment (as subjective as the appreciation for various media is) but it is certainly a step down in basic creativity from even the act of picking up a crayon and coloring outside the lines.

I apologize in advance, but I'm gonna go all aesthetic here (and that doesn't mean I'm getting my eyebrows waxed). The artistic process must be unabridged, untethered, unfetterd and any other "un-" word you care to include. Spore, as any game, is like a giant jigsaw puzzle that needs to be assembled to complete the experience (and I'll admit, in Spore's case, the puzzle look wicked cool and contains millions of pieces). The only way to exercise individual creativity in assembling a puzzle is to screw it up to the point that the picture on the box becomes irrelevant.

One G4TV review of Spore includes: "Just as The Sims tapped into the human need to interact, Spore taps into a very deep and similar experience that few games dare to touch - to create and share." No matter how successful the marketing demographic is for this game, think of how restrictive the concepts of creation and sharing in the manner have become. Players are exercising  constrained "creating" and "sharing" with one type of person (other Spore players) in one type of environment (sitting in front of a monitor) with a mouse and a keyboard. While, to some, this might be entertainment - and party hard Spore-style with your mating dances if it is - the only artistry and creationism I see is on the part of the gamemaker. He has begun to create an unmatched  piece of concept art which includes screenshots of millions of people with glazed eyes and carpal tunnel syndrome playing virtual gods. Will Wright, I doff my cap to the master artist whose powers of manipulation may outstrip most world leaders. Other gamemakers may have more people staring at screens for entertainment value, but you've actually convinced many of your players that their doing something fruitful. You are indeed a master.

The review of Spore in PC Gamer UK reads much more interestingly, "Spore's triumph is painfully ironic. By setting out to instill a sense of wonderment at creation and the majesty of the universe, it's shown us that it's actually a lot more interesting to sit here at our computers and explore the contents of each other's brains." In one sense, I completely agree; it is a lot more interesting to explore the contents of each other's brains... although I would rather say minds so as not to sound zombie-like. It's just a shame that where the platform of interaction used to be face to face, the new exploration consists of keystokes and double clicks.

I've really got nothing against Spore. I do, however, hate the fact that someone, somewhere is going to beatify the game as manna from the heavens when it's hardly that different from the days I used to jack up the taxes in Sim City by one percent so I could build a football stadium... what an artist I was back then!

lovehate: Bogged Down in Blogs

T.S. Eliot promoted the idea of the literary canon. The concept that there were works that should be read by an educated individual to create a standard template, and in order to claim the rank of "educated". Some of the more esoteric aspects of the canon theory implied the idea that works (in true Elaine Benis assurance) were either "canon-worthy" or not, even as they were being written. While I never believed that canon theory needed to be extended to ridiculous levels. There still seems to be a certain belief that literature contains a bunch of "must-reads", just as film contains its "must-sees" and music contains its "must-hears". And while I suppose the canon can be applied to just about subject where so-called expertise can be expressed, I'm starting to wonder if the concept (as it pertains to the leviathan-like stature of the worldwide web) should be cannonballed out of existence.

Is there a canon of websites? Places that anyone who considers themself a web afficionado must visit on a regular basis to be considered "webjucated"? Must my web travelling habits include occasional visits to The Onion, Rotten Tomatoes, You Tube, Wikipedia? Do I lose any web geek cred without regular trips to io9, Ars Technica, Cnet, Engadget, Lifehacker, 1up, Slashdot, Sourceforge, TechCrunch or Digg?

Is there any piece of the web that has outlasted the transitory nature of the medium? Novels, short stories and poetry and rather constant. I haven't yet seen a story on Digg concerning a press release for Finnegan's Wake 2.0 or rumors that Prufrock is finally coming out of beta. Is there a website that contains content that is always enjoyable to go back to and remains unchanged? Many people have the ability to devote hours, days and weeks to re-reading novels on repeated occasions and enjoy them in unique ways each time. Does a website contain this same quality? I'll admit, that even years later, I can return to some of the early homestarrunner and Strongbad shorts and laugh as much as ever at Fluffy Puff Marshmallows and Trogdor the Burninator, but, other than content created as sheer entertainment, it's hard for me to think of an non-updated site that I will go back to over and over. And even with this, I would argue we are increasingly engrossed in the web than any single novel in spite of its transitory and unfinished quality.

While I would not say that, with regards to the web, the dissolution of the canon concept is tragic, there is an aspect to a wide-ranging common experience that I see becoming lost. The blog has made it easy for anyone to publish. I wish I could say "even though most shouldn't", yet that wouldn't only be antithetical to my populist belief in the medium, but the nature of the medium itself. Where Eliot's canon came from a few hundred years of white male Euro-centric writers, the demographics of web creators have blown that parameter wide open. And with this acknowledgement I pose two questions: will we ever have another William Shakespeare? Does anyone care?

If Bill was competing with hundreds of millions of playwrights instead of a relative handful, would his work have shone through the rest or would it have drown in a sea of obscurity? Does the web, as a medium, have the ability to create a wordsmith superstar or a "canon-worthy" podcaster? While I love the web's diversity, I am often frustrated by it's magnitude. While I clamour for the fresh and new, I still find myself with an inexhaustible list of bookmarks.

It seems the "suggestion" phenomenon is the latest attempt at a solution to navigate through the ocean. By data and trend and mathematic formula StumbleUpon wants to suggest what sites I might like, Digg wants to tell me what everyone else thinks is cool, the Internet Movie Database wants to aggregate films by previous users preferences and Apple's Genuis wants to emulate Pandora's ability to recommend not only what music I may like, but how my existing music should be organized. While the power of suggestion can be a great tool in sifting the through the dreck, it does have an insidious limitation: how is one supposed to be shocked anymore? Can I find a song that blows my mind through suggestions of music I'm already used to? Will I pick up a film that offends my senses but makes me see the world in a new way if the suggestions come from what I'm already comfortable with? And how does one find the truly inventive on the web when the recommendations come from a social demographic that, while admittedly more diverse than Eliot's "educated" society, has become relatively narrow in its own focus. Bloggers of a feather flock together. I love that we are canon-free but mourn the loss of greatness found.

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lovehate: The New TV Season

After, so recently, having any remaining faith in television programming executives quashed with Fox's Japanese rehash of Hole in the Wall, I do have to admit that perhaps my second favorite season is the new network television season that, while becoming more staggered in it's tenure over the past decade, usually spirals out of Labor Day with great aplomb. Sure, the parameters of the network season were blown wide open with cable and access to some of the great programming on the BBC that often run more like epic mini-series than seasons, but there is no comparable storefront of the magnificent to the craptastic as one can get when the big US four crank out the pablum every fall.

The BitTorrent movement has created the ultimate time-shifting for me. There will be entire seasons I download that I will not watch until the following summer. Bruce Springsteen once sang of 500 channels and nothing on. There's plenty of stuff on; it's just that the viewing public used to only have to wade through 13 channels to find a good show. The time it takes to sift through the 500 channel sandbox means there's now a good chance the good stuff remains buried.

Incredibly, last season I managed to follow, through the torrent time-shift or otherwise, a roster of shows that was way too great in numbers for the average viewer, including some I'm loathe to having to admit watching. This fall I'm looking forward to a major network roster that includes The Big Bang Theory, Chuck, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, How I Met Your Mother, Heroes, Boston Legal, Fringe, Bones, Pushing Daisies, Sons of Anarchy, Dirty Sexy Money, Smallville, My Name is Earl, The Office, Supernatural, Grey's Anatomy, 30 Rock, Eleventh Hour, Life on Mars (although the BBC version of this show will NEVER be outdone by this already tweaked US attempt), Ghost Whisperer, Sanctuary, Numb3rs, The Simpsons, Dexter, True Blood, Family Guy, American Dad, The Unit, Californication (strangely, both not about porn), and Entourage.

Of course this is in addition to whenever they show new episodes of 24, Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, Doctor Who, Torchwood, Bonekickers, The Sarah Jane Adventures, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and South Park.

Some of these shows are guaranteed for the season, but some may die off, which is good because now that football season is well in swing and my favorite season (hockey) is on its way... I'm going to have to schedule to time on my Google Calendar to work on my cloning project.

While I'm happy to count on reality TV providing hours' worth programming I will never watch, I really need to find a way to pair down some of these shows, but when the winter storms roll in on weekends and I have a new 67" HDTV with a hard drive full of commercial-free programming... I'll be a happy man. Strap on your crap waders people. TV season is upon us. Build your hopes, clear your schedules, oil your recliner and tell people that being the media connoiseur you are, you have the ability to watch television on a macro-level that far exceeds their "idiot box" criticisms... it's better than Rabbit Season and Duck Season combined.

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