PAX East Day 3

This was my third year at PAX East, but it was the first time I’d been able to stay for all three days.  The first year I had a three day pass, but commuted and was exhausted by Sunday.  Last year we only had Friday and Saturday passes, and Sunday was Easter anyway.  This year we had a nearby hotel and three day passes and believe me, we took full advantage of it!

MLHawke’s husband drove down to meet us, and brought along Bard’s sister.  I didn’t do a cosplay, but after two full days in costume it felt nice to wear jeans and a t-shirt (and my snazzy new N7 jacket) and just my normal hair and makeup!

Bard and I met up with his sister; MLHawke was in line for the Elder Scrolls Online demo, but from the point she was at, it was a 3 hour wait.  She wound up getting out of line, and she and her husband went to wait for the Education Gamification panel (since he’s a teacher, and her job involves a lot of classroom/curriculum work).  I wandered around with Bard and his sister for a bit, then joined MLHawke for the panel.  I’d gone to the games and education panel on Friday, and this one was also awesome.  It gave me some incredible ideas and links for resources.  I left inspired to roll out an experimental learning model to my classes.  More on that later though.

Sunday’s panels were a little sparse for me; I didn’t really have much I wanted to do.  Bard and I knew we wanted to paint miniatures again, so we put our names on the 2-hour waitlist, then headed to a panel done by OC Remix.  He and his sister are really into them, so it was nice to see them really enjoy the panel.  I found it interesting for certain; I love when things are mixed up and done in different genres and such.  We got back and did our mini painting.  Bard, myself, and his sister all painted minis of our current D&D characters.  My bard, Indiana Jenn, is a human and an archer who occasionally pulls out a rapier, so I picked the archer figurine (even though it looked a touch elven).  Bard’s a fighter and his sister is a sorceress.  MLHawke, her husband, and one of our friends came over, but the wait was another two hours and by then it was nearly four o’clock.

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Most of the last couple hours was spent in classic console, chilling with our friend Ted and charging my phone.  The day wasn’t quite over, but I was already starting to feel withdrawal symptoms.  I kept trying to think about my new ideas to roll out at school the next day, rather than the drive home, or the amount of laundry I was going to have to do.  The last day was relaxing, but at the same time it was a slight downer because there was none of the crazy excitement of the first two days.  No, that won’t be my incentive to make three separate cosplays for next year, however.  I think it was the knowing it was ending; we’d had two days full days of complete awesomeness.  This day was also awesome, but there was the knowledge that we would have to be leaving.

However, when we did go to leave, we found that though we were done with PAX, it wasn’t done with us!  My car battery was dead!  We ended up being delayed about 45 minutes while we waited for AAA and let my engine run and recharge the battery.  By the time we finally got back home it was about 9 and we were exhausted.  Neither of us (nor our companions for the weekend) took Monday off, so collapsing into bed was met with the knowledge that the alarm was going off in mere hours, marking our return to the real world.

Of course, the return to the “real world” means the onset of post-PAX withdrawal.  Withdrawal is pretty common after any con, from what I’ve heard (and felt after things like PAX and ICON).  You go nearly nonstop for a whole weekend, set apart in a world of people who mostly think like you and have the same interests as you.  You see amazing things and make new friends.  You learn new information.  You want to burst with excitement from it all… and then it’s back to jobs and classes and people who don’t always feel the same way about these things.  Oh, and the con-cold.  I’ve kind of been fighting something off since the Sunday of PAX, but thanks to vitamin C, rest, and fluids, it’s not really turning into much.  Still, it’s a reminder that I had such an awesome weekend my body wants to punish me.  Hehe.

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While Day 3 was a lot more relaxed and low-key, and there was much more sitting around, it was still a good day.  I got that one last day to wander aimlessly and see the show floor and experience it with Bard’s sister at her first ever PAX.  She really had a good time, which is awesome.  Our PAX contingent is growing!  And the nice thing is I left not only with some great merchandise and awesome swag, but also with knowledge of a new model for my classroom.

The event may have ended on Sunday, but the lessons from this year’s PAX East will carry through for far longer.  Now it’s onto thinking about next year’s PAX East.  And of course, the costumes!

PAX East Day 2: or, on being a fan

PAX East is always awesome; from the demos to the panels, and everything else, it’s just awesome to be a fan of gaming surrounded by thousands of other similarly-minded individuals.  Day 2 of this year’s PAX, however, truly drove home how awesome it is to be a fan who is deeply passionate about something.

First off, today was the day of the BioWare costume contest, so Bard and I donned our matching Jowan and Lily (from the mage origin in Dragon Age Origins) cosplays:

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We wanted to head over to see PopCap as well; they’d just released the mobile Solitaire Blitz app, and it was the one year “splashy-versary” of the game, so we wanted to show off our Otis the worm plushie.

I was initially going to go to a panel about showing off your love of gaming in real life.  But… I already do that.  A lot.  So instead I headed down to the show floor to meet up with MLHawke, who was in line with our friend Amanda for Assassin’s Creed 4. I wasn’t too interested in seeing it, but the booth did have a free photo stage.  Chantry sister plus coffee plus pirate gun equals a little crazy!  Next I was going to hit a panel about geeks and crafting, but since I do a lot of that anyway, I decided I’d go to the BioWare panel about The World of Thedas.

It was a good talk, and makes me even more excited to get the book; Dragon Age has such a deep, richly detailed world that something like this was a long time coming.  I’ve done my share of scouring lore and codex entries and writing my own analytical pieces about it, so having a definitive work from the developers themselves will be an excellent resource.  And it’s only volume 1!  When the panel was over I hung out a little talking with some other fans, and got to meet and speak with Sheila of the cosplay duo Aicosu. Her tutorials on makeup and wigs were extremely helpful, particularly with Day 1’s Serana costume.  She was extremely nice, and after viewing and admiring her cosplays it was awesome to stop and say hello.  Plus, her Dishonored cosplays were incredible.

Bard and I had time to kill, so we headed back to the show floor with Otis.  The PopCap carnival booth was in full swing, but we found a marketing person who loved Otis and actually called out the Solitaire Blitz community manager!  Tara came out to see Otis and absolutely LOVED him!  We explained how we loved how cute he is in all his little outfits, and how we were hoping to have a chance to show him off.  And yes, we’d downloaded the app the previous day!  She took pictures of him to show at the office, then handed us Solitaire Blitz card decks and Energy Eel energy shots.  Later on we found out she’d told people it was the highlight of her weekend.  That made me so happy to hear, because I’d really enjoyed making Otis back in the summer, and being able to bring him by the PopCap station was a lot of fun.

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We headed back to the hotel for some light costume repair, then it was over to the BioWare base for the Dragon Age signings and costume contest! We weren’t too far back in line, but as we were waiting, Chris Priestly, a community manager, spied our DA costumes and invited us to jump the line and go in early.  I love how much BioWare understands its fanbase, and appreciates things like cosplays.  We hung out for a bit; I was able to get a signed postcard from Raphael Sbarge, who voiced Kaiden Alenko in Mass Effect.

When the DA developers came back, I got in line to get my DA2 game signed (got DA:O ultimate edition signed last year) and scored a hard copy of “Asunder”, last year’s DA novel.  They commented on my Chantry outfit, and I was able to explain how, because of DA, Bard and I met.  (Long story short, I played DA, got obsessed, joined a Facebook community, met MLHawke, who then introduced me to Bard).  It was nice to be able to share with them what the game meant, not just as a game, but as something that helped as a catalyst for the most important thing in my life.

The costume contest started a short while later.  Let me tell you, there are some VERY talented people out there!  What they are able to accomplish, and how they are able to bring the game to life, is amazing.  I was and still am impressed by how many people make the Shepard N7 armor from Mass Effect; it’s a difficult costume to pull off, requires a lot of material, and is multipart.  And that’s just the armor; never mind if you want to add on weapons, which most do for accuracy.  LOTS of amazing Shepards were there, as were quite a few Asari!  I’m also an admirer of Asari cosplayers, because not only do you have the armor issue (if you’re going that route) but then you have the headpieces and makeup.

There weren’t many Dragon Age cosplayers; maybe only four of us or so.  There was me and Bard of course, but then two Wardens in the blue armor uniform introduced in DA2.  One was my friend Gabby, whose armor is amazing!  The scale work, hand riveting on the shrug, and overall attention to details is great (even down to a leather belt case for her iPhone!) And she even had the rose from Alistair.   She looked like she could have just stepped right out of the game.

When it got to us we got to tell the judges (and a room full of people) that we’d met through a friend I’d only met because of DA, and that we were getting married in four months.  And yes, we’d turn out better than Jowan and Lily did!  We got lots of applause and commentary on our costumes (including a note on the paisley fabric I’d found for Jowan’s sleeves) and then went on our way to see the rest of the cosplay.  We scored N7 jackets from Mass Effect for our participation!  THAT was awesome.  Then came the judging.

In a room full of such excellent, well-crafted costumes made by so many talented people (and I will tell you that most all of them make these things themselves) I didn’t expect to win anything, which was fine.  Being in the contest and having the new jacket was awesome enough.  But BioWare took it a step further.  Before announcing the winners they called up the “Dragon Age couple”.  They gave us the two hardcover comics, a deck of Dragon Age cards, and a Flemeth dragon statue as “an early wedding present from BioWare”!  I was floored!  We went to show our appreciation for their games, and then they turned it around for us.  We got pictures with Chris Priestly at the photobooth, who then tweeted them immediately; when I tweeted a thank you for making our day so special he replied!  They truly know how to treat fans and make us feel appreciated; there are so many things they don’t have to do, but do anyway, so thank you BioWare again for making our day beyond special; Amanda later said that it was “transcendent”.  And to top it all off, there was a four-way tie for the contest, but Gabby’s Warden armor took the grand prize!

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Then it was back to the hotel to get changed; after two days in costume it felt good to kick back in jeans and a t-shirt, and my new jacket of course! Bard was in the Tetris Attack tournament, defending his gold medal from last year.  It was a smaller group, and missing some of the guys from last year, but Ted was there attacking away.  The first few rounds went as expected, but toward the end things got intense.  Ted wound up losing to someone, and Bard lost two matches because his opponent psyched him out.  He got back on track though, and won his match, then went up against Ted’s defeater.  It was intensive, but in the end Bard pulled off another victory and got another gold medal to clank against the one he got last year.

When all was said and done, it was almost a dreamlike day at PAX East.  If a day could be perfect, day 2 may have been it.  It was extremely validating as a crafter, cosplayer, and all around fan.  PopCap and BioWare made my weekend, and I was glad I got to share it with Bard, MLHawke, and Amanda (for whom it was a first PAX experience).  Up next, Day 3, or how everything I know about doing my job is about to change!

PAX East 2013, Part 1

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This was my third time at PAX East.  Each year it’s different for me: in 2011 I drove down each day, I was singlemost , and went alone because hey, PAX East, why not!  I loved it and it was amazing, and I was excited to go the following year.  In 2012 it fell on Easter weekend, so I only went Friday and Saturday; I had a boyfriend, we had a hotel, and it was across Boston from the convention center so we had to pay double in parking because we had to drive.  It was also my first year cosplaying, and I learned a lot about the process of costume making and the aftermath of it all.

This year I have a fiance, we went for three days, and we scored a hotel across the street from the convention center, making things extremely convenient.  I had people I met last year and got to meet up with and share our love of gaming.  And I did two costumes for myself.  All in all this year’s PAX may have been the best yet, as this and the next couple posts will likely show.

I came to the decision that I need PAX East.  I look forward to it like most people look forward to a Disney vacation.  There is something exhilarating about being surrounded by 20,000 other gamers; not to mention the bright colors, bright lights, swag, costumes, demos… the list goes on.  And this year I was able to, unlike in past years, truly experience the joy of being a fan.  But more on that later.

So first off: Friday.  Bard and I left the house a little after 7:30am, in costume and me in costume and full makeup for my first cosplay of the weekend, Serana from the Dawnguard DLC for Skyrim:

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(Funny enough, I got a Facebook message later that day from a friend whose wife was pretty sure she’d seen me stopping for coffee, but the black wig confused her!)

We were making good time in light traffic until about Winchester, which is only a few miles outside Boston, when we hit the crawling traffic.  From Winchester to the top of the exit 23 ramp, it took us a full hour of stop and go, inching along traffic.  Good thing we weren’t planning on attending much of anything at 10am!  I’d thought of trying out the Con Cosplay Survival panel, but I’d read a lot on good preparation and such for costuming, and felt fine missing it.  Bard and I found the parking garage for our hotel, and a friend who was,  staying with us met up to stow his gear in my car.  I finished up putting on my costume, we clipped on our badges, and we were off to the BCEC!

When we got inside we met up with MLHawke, checked our mutual schedules (MLHawke, Bard and myself all used the Guidebook App–VERY handy for scheduling, mapping, and figuring things out!) and decided to meet back up later in the afternoon to check out the Elder Scrolls Online food truck.  Hey, free lunch provided by #ESO?  Yes please!

My first panel was about education and gaming.  The speaker, Steve Swink, is a gamer, game designer, and educator who really knew his stuff, and was very passionate about where we have things wrong as far as education in this country goes.  We treat our students like flashdrives.  They sit down (plug in), we load them with knowledge that sometimes seems randomized and is often impersonal, then expect we can just get that info back later on in the form of a test.  The issue is that they’re not flashdrives.  Flashdrives process information the same way whether they’re 4GB or 64GB; students are people who process differently.  Swink’s presentation dealt with how we can use games to reach students, and now they don’t have to just be supplementary to the curriculum, but could even be the curriculum itself!  It’s a great idea, though I’m not sure that the district I work in will ever embrace it (or at least get the technology for it) during my time there.  We’ll see.  At least it gave me some ideas to go off of.

Then we all met up and hit the #ESOFoodtruck for lunch.  It was located on Congress Street.  We started walking, all happily discussing our mornings.  It was a bit farther away than I’d thought or expected, and MLHawke and Bard were FREEZING by the time we arrived!  Luckily Serana is a multi-part costume with a lot of layers, so I didn’t do too badly in that regard.  Lunch was good, and they had a photo station with a green screen, where I got the greatest picture of my cosplay:

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We headed back to the hotel after that, and Bard changed out of his costume because he was super cold in it.  Silly wind.  I fixed my makeup and my wig, then it was back to the BCEC.  I went to a panel on parents as characters in video games, on which Mike Laidlaw of Dragon Age sat.  It was interesting, and it has made me more aware of the changing role of parents in games, and given me stuff to work with in class with the books we read.  Bard and I met up again and I saw our friend Ted, a Tetris Attack beast, and caught up on life since last year.  My final panel of the night was on curing chemicals and special effects cosplay, which was interesting.  While I know that some of that will improve my cosplays immensely in the future, it’s a little daunting.  There’s a lot of prep work and measuring involved, but anything worth doing comes with some difficulties, so who knows.  Maybe I will attempt it at some point, just out of curiosity!

Then it was back to the hotel for the evening to make myself human again (sort of literally, since Serana is a vampire after all!).  The night was spent debriefing about our day’s experiences, and plans for the next.

Tomorrow’s recap will cover Saturday, with cosplay number two, and the awesomeness that is BioWare!

I Just Saved the World! (Now What?)

This is something that’s been on my mind for awhile, but it wasn’t until recently that I decided I should sit down and write about it in earnest.  See, I did something important a month ago or so.  I saved the world.  Twice, if you think about it.  And nothing happened.  Life went on.

Okay, so I didn’t save our world.  I saved Skyrim.  But I’m still rather perturbed about it, because it is the most anticlimactic thing I’ve ever experienced.  I spent hours scouring the countryside helping villagers on their quests.  I stole thousands of dollars of merchandise, picked dozens of pockets, altered hundreds of books, and picked a few hundred locks to restore the Thieves’ Guild to its former glory.  I overtook the Dark Brotherhood.  I killed a few dozen dragons, and then I killed the mightiest dragon of all: Alduin.  I sundered the space-time continuum to travel to Sovngarde and meet the beast on his plane of existence, and I killed him and restored peace.

At least I thought I did.  When I came back I was on the top of the mountain surrounded by Paarthurnax and his buddies, and they were like, “Good work.”  And that was it.  So I figured I should fix the whole Imperials vs. Stormcloaks thing, and maybe then I would feel better about saving the world.  And maybe other people would, too.  Because I didn’t get a single thank you from any villagers, even in dragon-ravaged towns, for killing Alduin.  If anything, I had to keep my head down because of all that Dark Brotherhood/Thieves’ Guild stuff.  Everywhere I went I heard, “Wait, I know you!” and I did wait, because I wanted to say, “Yes, yes you do; I’m the badass who killed Alduin and saved your world!”  But as it turned out they knew me because I was a wanted man and I had to bribe them, or else kill everyone in sight.

So I went off and spoke with Ulfric Stormcloak and made Windhelm my new home.  My affiliations with Whiterun were over, and I led the charge on that first fair city that had welcomed me in after I escaped from Helgen.  I betrayed the Jarl and oversaw the change of power there, and then helped Ulfric take Solitude.  I killed General Tullius and freed Skyrim from the clutches of the Empire.  I returned it to the true Sons of Skyrim!

And when I went to talk to Ulfric, he said it would take some time for him to become high king, but now that the Empire was gone his chances looked good.  He thanked me for my help, which was nice, but then… what?

I helped end the civil war tearing my country to bits.  And life went on in Skyrim, much as it had prior to the war and to Alduin.  In fact, I even got attacked by several dragons along the way.  I found myself wandering aimlessly through the land of Skyrim, lacking purpose and function.  Even when Dawnguard came out… wait.  Spoilers ahead.  You’ve been warned!

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30 Days of Video Games: Day 20, Favorite Genre

I’ve never been one of those types to have a favorite genre; I look at my bookshelves and see an equal spread of classic literature, fantasy, and general fiction and nonfiction.  I look at my DVDs and see action/adventure, fantasy, comedy, animated… all sorts of films.  So when I have to think about my favorite game genre, I naturally look to my game shelf and see shooters, RPGs, and action/adventure games.  I don’t prefer any one type over the other, so choosing a favorite genre is a bit difficult for me.

I could say I like the involvement that shooters give.  When I play Halo, I am Master Chief or Noble 6, slaughtering the Covenant forces and loving every minute of it.  When I play Left 4 Dead, I’m constantly on the move for fear of more undead rushing out of the shadows and killing me.  With BioShock, which is a combination shooter/RPG, I’m actually there, in Rapture.

But when I play something like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, my choices are having a direct effect on the storyline.  In effect, I’m creating the story as I go.  The protagonist is my character, and I’m guiding him or her through this strange land trying to unite different races against one common enemy.  When I’m playing Skyrim I’m immersed in the world of Skyrim and helping to shape the future of that land one dragon soul at a time.  There’s something very gratifying about that.

So I think in the end, really, my favorite genre comes down to what I’m in the mood to play and the kind of experience I want.  Each genre serves a different purpose, so I can’t really narrow down what I like best.  So in the interest of brevity, I simply won’t try to do it.  I will stick to playing the games I like because I like them, not because they’re the latest shooter/RPG/survival-horror/whathaveyou.  I know there are people out there who have favorite genres and will play any RPG or whatnot they can get their hands on, but I think for me personally I can’t really narrow it down.

And all it takes is one look at my bookshelves or DVD shelves to prove that to be true.

Next: Day 21, Game with the best story.

May’s Project: The 30 Days of Games Meme

I don’t normally hop on the meme bandwagon, but I tried doing this one a year ago or so, and liked it, and think it’ll get me back into blogging regularly now that PAX East is over and I’m home from a vacation in California. With tomorrow being May 1st, I figure it’s as good a day as any to start a month-long prompt-fest. Here’s the list:

Day 1 – Very first video game.
Day 2 – Your favorite character.
Day 3 – A game that is underrated.
Day 4 – Your guilty pleasure game.
Day 5 – Game character you feel you are most like (or wish you were).
Day 6 – Most annoying character.
Day 7 – Favorite game couple.
Day 8 – Best soundtrack.
Day 9 – Saddest game scene.
Day 10 – Best gameplay.
Day 11 – Gaming system of choice.
Day 12 – A game everyone should play.
Day 13 – A game you’ve played more than five times.
Day 14 – Current (or most recent) gaming wallpaper.
Day 15 – Post a screenshot from the game you’re playing right now.
Day 16 – Game with the best cut scenes.
Day 17 – Favorite antagonist.
Day 18 – Favorite protagonist.
Day 19 – Picture of a game setting you wish you lived in.
Day 20 – Favorite genre.
Day 21 – Game with the best story.
Day 22 – A game sequel which disappointed you.
Day 23 – Game you think had the best graphics or art style.
Day 24 – Favorite classic game.
Day 25 – A game you plan on playing.
Day 26 – Best voice acting.
Day 27 – Most epic scene ever.
Day 28 – Favorite game developer.
Day 29 – A game you thought you wouldn’t like, but ended up loving.
Day 30 – Your favorite game of all time.

I tried doing this on my long-defunct tumblr, but only got about halfway through. Though many of my responses will still be the same for some days in terms of what the game is, other games will be different, and I’m not going to take the easy road and copy/paste from the old list. So goodbye April, and hello to May and 30 Days of Games!

Rated M, for Different Reasons

Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the concept of M-rated.  Most of the games I own are M-rated.  It’s more of a coincidence than anything else.  I didn’t go out looking to get only games appropriate for those over age 17, nor did I consider that those would be the only things in my collection.  It just happens that the games I enjoy that have a good story and characters and settings also happen to be judged as appropriate for those 17 and up by the ESRB.

Most of the games explain why they’re rated M for mature audiences.  Usually it’s because of violence, other times due to nudity and/or sexual situations.  But after some conversation that’s been going on in my Dragon Age writing forum, I’ve begun to wonder if mature audiences means only those situations such as gore, violence, sex, nudity, and/or drugs. 

As a writer and literature lover I tend to approach video games from the perspective of story, character, and most of all, themes.  And it happens that the themes of such games as BioShock, Dragon Age, and Gears of War transcend the levels of violence and sexuality as far as maturity is concerned.  In those games and many others there is far more going on that I would almost call subtext that isn’t always meant for young audiences.

I began to think about this when a new forum member on the younger side said she disliked Anders and dared us to change her mind.  A forum member who loves Andes (and has analyzed him extensively and writes him beautifully) took up the challenge and wrote up a very mature, eloquent post explaining her analysis of his character as it related to the situation in Kirkwall in DA2.  The crux of her argument was that what Anders does isn’t just for Anders; it’s for the freedom of mages everywhere, and the more one understand of mages the more one will understand Anders and his motives.  The response?  It was along the lines of “good point and thanks for trying, but I got a laugh out of the fact you even did try, I still hate him.” (paraphrased, of course).

The second member’s post was well-researched, well-worded, and addressed the validity of the first member’s claims, while stating her beliefs.  The response she received was… well… typical for the age range.  I remember being that age and wanting to be right all the time.  But as I’ve grown I’ve learned to listen to other arguments and consider them, and reply in kind–or more eloquently, depending on the person with whom I’m debating.  And that’s a sign of maturity.

So is understanding what’s beneath the surface of Dragon Age 2, and even Dragon Age Origins.  Yes, both games qualify for an M rating under ESRB standards.  Another friend and I laugh over the fact that in your first fight as a human noble in DA:O, you slaughter a few large rats, and come out of it covered in blood.  And of course there’s the not-so-subtle love scene, and Morrigan’s offer.  But the choices you must make along the way: to listen to various party members, to accept the assistance of mage v. templar or wolves v. elves… while your world is being torn apart by civil war even as a Blight of darkspawn threatens everything you know and love… it’s a lot to consider and think about.  While it is just a game, many of us have to make choices that will affect the well-being of others.  As a teacher I face choices of that nature every day.  While the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, it’s still a great responsibility.

Dragon Age 2 is even more mature in terms of theme and subtext.  The game’s story has a much larger scope.  And while Meredith’s tyranny threatens only Kirkwall, the ripple effect affects the rest of Thedas.  Dragon Age 2 is about more than hacking and slashing, and exploring identical sewers, dungeons, and caves.  It’s about more than just deciding who to romance, and is Anders or Fenris cuter or a better love interest.  It’s about city struggling to run itself under a broken system, as its citizens begin to expose the system for what it is.  There are religious zealots who kill the Viscount’s son to make a point.  There are gangs preying on the weak and impoverished while the wealthy flourish and pretend it doesn’t exist.  There are people living in squalor and no one willing or even able to do much of anything about it.  Once Viscount Dumar is killed by the Arishok, Meredith refuses to allow anyone else to take his seat, becoming the sole power in Kirkwall.  And with that she wields martial law, has citizens hanged on suspicion of harboring apostates, and suspects all mages of blood magic.  Kirkwall is a broken town running on a system so broken it’s nearly impossible to fix without destroying it entirely and starting fresh.

This is what Anders seeks to do by blowing up the Chantry.  And Hawke and company are all caught up in the midst of this, looking for a better way.  You don’t have to be mature (mentally) to handle the combat aspect of it.  But to truly understand what’s going on and how the characters fit in requires a level of intellectual and emotional maturity.

Take for example BioShock.  BioShock is brilliant on so many levels.  The setting, gameplay, graphics, all of it makes for a truly beautiful, haunting game.  But it’s the story and themes that is really haunting, and must be approached with a level of intellect and emotional maturity to truly understand the irony.  Now, you can play BioShock as just a game, and enjoy killing Splicers; that’s fine.  But I’m looking at it from the perspective of what’s below the surface of gameplay.

One of the beauties of BioShock is the literary allusions.  The setting is Rapture, which is an ironic name given what’s happened there.  And of course the game reflects and alludes to the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, down even to the philosophies explored through the game’s characters.  One of the final areas of Rapture you can explore is chock full of mythological references.  And then you realize that the Splicers you’ve been shooting up have become that way because of the way Rapture has fallen apart.  They’re not just enemies; they’re people who placed their trust in Rapture, and it failed them.  One of the most haunting scenes in the game is when you’re in an empty theater, and a young man is told to play the piano; when he fails to complete the task an insane director blows him up.  Yes, the violent death is worthy of the M-rating; but it’s comprehending the senselessness behind it that truly requires maturity.

I think even of Gears of War.  The game is beyond violent, and yet it’s still highly character-driven.  The interactions of Delta Squad, and their relationships, and seeing how they hold up while trying to save their planet, make this game an intensive experience.  While it’s easily an action-adventure game and far from role-playing, seeing the characters at work is interesting.  There are so many ghosts that Marcus Fenix must deal with; Cole is a Gear now, but he still relives his Thrashball glory days.  And then there is the heartbreak of Dom searching for his beloved Maria, which is just a minor character point in the first game, but become a major plot point in the second, and finally motivates his actions in the third.  Honestly that point in Gears 3 may have been the first time a video game drove me to tears with the sheer power of character and story.

It’s cool to run around with a machine gun that’s also part chainsaw.  It’s fun to blast the soulless bad guys back to where they came from.  I love doing it, don’t get me wrong.  But to understand what’s behind the characters as they do this is truly powerful and requires a level of understanding that comes with maturity.  And maybe it’s not even conscious maturity, in the vein of “I’m old enough to handle this” or “I know exactly what’s going on here.”

I’m not trying to come across as some holier-than-thou intellectual, or trying to overly analyze or intellectualize gaming.  But mostly I’m looking at the idea that while blood, violence, sex and drugs (and maybe some rock and roll?) certainly warrant an M for Mature rating, some of these games’ themes are also more mature and should be considered by parents thinking of picking up such a game for their not-quite-M-aged child.

Lessons Learned

Who says video games and sci-fi/fantasy are a waste of time?  Who says you can’t learn anything from them?  For those that do, I present 10 lessons learned from my gaming and sci-fi/fantasy career:

1. Try not.  Do, or do not.  There is no try.  – Yoda

This is one maxim that is used quite frequently, but it’s true.  There are many things in life that you can’t try to do; you simply have to just do them.  While Nike has the market on the “Just do it” slogan, Yoda one-ups it with the idea that there is no try.  Some things just must be done; trying  is weakness.  Things must be done, or remain undone.  Think of it in terms of laundry (which is what got me thinking about this).  You can’t try to do your laundry; you do it or you don’t.  When it’s done you feel accomplished, when it’s not it’s a pile of clothes threatening to eat you every time you walk by it.  Trying is tantamount to not doing.  So do, or do not.  Don’t try.

2. Keep your head down and your mouth shut and everything will be fine.  – Delvin Mallory, Skyrim

This has been on my mind a lot lately.  The problem I’m having is it’s good advice in that it keeps you out of drama and away from other peoples’ business.  But it also keeps you from getting involved in things and speaking up when you need to.  Delvin is a member of the Riften Thieves’ Guild, so his advice is pretty sound when it comes to Thieves’ Guild activity.  It’s all illegal; so keeping your head down and your mouth shut helps you avoid notice, and therefore trouble.  But what about when you’re trying to do the right thing?  Keeping your head down and your mouth shut keeps you from getting on the bad side of things, but you also have to be able to look yourself in the eye every time you look in a mirror.  It’s good advice at times, but definitely something to ponder.

3. Funny how the Blight brings people together.  – Alistair, Dragon Age: Origins

Well, not always a Blight.  But a disaster brings people together in ways that peace does not.  I remember back to September 11th 2001.  I was a senior in college, just north of Boston when everything happened.  I still remember the fear, the disbelief, the uncertainty.  But what I remember most of all is how for the next few days, everyone, everywhere, was just a bit nicer.  We all shared the experience on some level, and knew we were in it together, so we were all a bit nicer and more willing to help one another. 

On another level, it’s amazing and funny how the smallest, strangest things can bring people together as well.  Dragon Age stands as a great example.  Without Dragon Age I would not have met the most awesome group of friends, ever.  Without fanfiction I would not have met my best friend.  Bottom line?  We never know what will bring us together, so it’s important to be on the lookout for those opportunities.

4. We make our own luck. – Master Chief, Halo

Luck is described in many ways: blind, dumb, a lady… luck is fickle and changeable.  We can’t always rely on it, and must do our part to help ourselves along.  What some people would call luck, others would call the result of training, hard work, and perseverance.  In the Halo universe Master Chief is known for his luck, but if you look deeper into his backstory you’ll also see that in spite of the fact that he was considered lucky, he still worked his arse off.  He knew what he needed to do to win, and didn’t rely on his ‘luck’, preferring instead to make his own luck.  In short, his actions paid off because he was willing to work for it; when the moment of truth came he had what it took to follow through.

5. I fight so all the fighting I’ve already done hasn’t been for nothing. – Ulfric Stormcloak, Skyrim

I started out my Skyrim game wanting to join the Imperial Legion.  But the more I played and saw of them, and the more I heard and saw of Ulfric Stormcloak, the more I lean toward the Stormcloak rebellion.  And this line is one of the reasons.  There are many reasons to fight, and to keep fighting.  Maybe it’s your convictions, maybe it’s survival, maybe it’s to move ahead.  To stop fighting, and essentially give in, is to nullify all the fighting you’ve done to get where you are.  This hit me hard when it came to last week’s disappointment with the writing contest.  I had a few moments where I was ready to give up because I didn’t know why I should bother anymore.  But then I realized that allowing that one thing to stop my writing would make a mockery of all the work I’ve done to get where I am as a writer.  To keep fighting, even when it seems hopeless, shows conviction and strength of character.  Maybe Ulfric is a jerk about some things, but he has conviction, and in this at least he gives sound advice.

6. Artists use lies to tell the truth; I created a lie and because you believed it, you discovered something true about yourself. -V, V for Vendetta

This always sticks with me, especially as a reader, writer, and lover of fantasy.  Most people criticize fantasy as being too escapist, and think people read it to get away from reality.  This is true sometimes, but what many critics don’t realize is that fantasy doesn’t nullify reality.  In his On Fairy Stories essay, Tolkien posits that fantasy actually can enhance reality and bring it to a higher level.  As such we discover truths about humanity and about life through the lens of a fictional reality.  In The Neverending Story Bastian’s first reaction to Mr. Coreander is that “it’s just a story.”  Coreander says that it’s more than that, and if we allow stories to cast the spell over us, we may be swept away but we also learn something true about ourselves.

7. I’m not locked in here with you.  You’re locked in here with me. – Rorschach, Watchmen

Life is all about perspective, and Rorschack is all about challenging our perspectives.  He never compromises; he has strong convictions and sticks with them.  Though this makes him a bit of a vigilante and definitely morally ambiguous, he certainly challenges and changes our perceptions of things.  Sometimes when the numbers seem like they’re not in our favor we have to look at the situation and decide if we’re going to accept the status quo or view it differently.  Rorschach was in prison, surrounded by inmates; most of whom were in there because of him.  Theoretically he doesn’t stand a chance; but he chooses to see things from a different perspective and as a result comes out on top.  I don’t advocate coming out on top the way he does; violence of that caliber isn’t a good thing.  But the idea of changing the way you look at things is.

8. You can’t predict how people will act… But you can control how you’ll respond. In the end, that’s what really matters. – Commander Shepard, Mass Effect

Life is full of things we can’t control or predict.  The uncertainties can make life fun, but also terrifying.  There are so many things that worrying can’t change, and the actions of others are part of that.  When we try to change people and control their actions we set ourselves up for disappointment and failure.  But we can control our own reactions and responses.  We can decide what we will do in a given situation, or say to a particular person.  That choice is ours to make, and it is definitely something we can control.  In the end we have to be able to look at ourselves and say “Yes, I can live with what I said/did.”  That’s what matters most, because that’s what you have to live with.

9. We stand upon the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment… and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly.  – Flemeth, Dragon Age 2

While it’s nice to do things right and feel like you have them under control, the true test of abilities is how you react when you’re out of control.  When you’re in freefall will you feel out of control and fear crashing into the ground?  Or will you realize you have wings to spread and learn to fly?  It’s a scary thing, making that leap, especially when you don’t know what to expect.  Again, you can’t always predict things, but you can predict your reactions and choices.  So will you keep falling, giving into forces beyond your control, or will you choose to fly?  Flemeth is a great example of this because she has such a long history.  On my Dragon Age forum on ff.net we were talking about her and how in her long history she had to have gone through a lot of trial and error to become who and what she is.  It would be easy to give up, but just when she was falling, she discovered she could fly.

10. All we can decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  – Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

Again, we can’t control time; we can’t control what befalls us.  But we can decide what to do with what time we are given.  Will we settle into a rut dreaming of if-onlies and what-ifs?  What happens isn’t for us to decide.  The decision we have, and can control, is what to do with what happens.  How will we as individuals react?  Will we do, will we fly?  Will we change our perspective, or just keep our heads down and our mouths shut and hope to avoid trouble, even if it nullifies all the fighting we’ve done up to this point?  It doesn’t matter what we decide.  What matters is that we decide.

Adventures of a Crossclasser

I begin by openly admitting that there are extensive gaps in my RPG gaming repertoire.  Growing up I preferred platformers to turn-based RPGs.  As such I’ve never played a single Final Fantasy game; in fact, my biggest issue with Final Fantasy is why there are well over a dozen games when it was supposed to be the final fantasy.  But that leaves me in danger of digressing.  I haven’t played… well… name an RPG and I probably haven’t played it, because I’m having issues coming up with titles.

My first RPG, aside from Dragon Warrior for the NES when I was twelve or so, was Mass Effect on the xbox 360.  Prior to ME I had mostly shooters: Bioshock, Halo, Borderlands, Gears of War… that sort of thing.  My gaming library is far from extensive in terms of most anything.  So when I picked up ME I was skeptical about it being an “RPG” because my limited experience left me thinking RPGs were clunky, turn-based, and too drawn out.

But ME managed to combine the best aspects of an RPG, as far as story and character, with the aspects of a good shooter.  I found myself getting into the character development, and forging a relationship with Kaiden Alenko.  I loved the story and the exploration, and once I got the hang of the game I was in love.  My cousin got my ME2 for my birthday last year, and I played through that to the exclusion of some of my work (not my proudest moment, but it makes for a good teachable thing).  One element of the Mass Effect franchise was, however, that you need to choose a class based on how you fight.  ME has some basics, and then makes combinations of them.  It’s been awhile so I don’t recall what I am, but I think I chose one of the combo classes because I felt it afforded me the most options.

Mass Effect was my gateway to Dragon Age.  In Origins, the first of the series, you can choose your character’s backstory and a basic class: warrior, rogue, or mage.  You get to specialize between those, but in general, DA doesn’t really allow for a lot of cross-classing.  My first rogue fought mostly with sword and shield, and it was passable, but when I started using her rogue skills and and using lighter weapons, she throve.  Mages can specialize as Arcane Warriors, who channel magic through their bodies and into weapons, but they’re still mages at their core.  It’s very similar in DA2.  You’re one or the other, and very rarely can you be both.

Now, this worked for me.  I chose a class and went with it, and found ways to specialize within my class to be the best rogue or mage or warrior I could be.  I was comfortable with this system.  I generally play rogues because they’re versatile, though my mage Hawke in DA2 is quite enjoyable to play.  I specialized her as a Force Mage, which means she basically picks people up and slams them down… with her mind.  It’s a lot of fun.

Enter Skyrim.

I’ve also never played an Elder Scrolls game before this one, so please don’t chastise me about how I should have realized this, and the like.  I created my character: went through designing him, choosing his background, that sort of thing.  And when I saved, the game started up again.  “But I haven’t chosen a class yet!” I said to myself, and probably one of the cats who was sitting nearby.  I played through the opening escape from Helgen and as I followed a fellow escapee out of the sacked town I still hadn’t chosen a class.

As the game began in earnest I found myself just going with it.  I named my male Nord Cailan, after the king in Dragon Age: Origins, and thought to class him as a two-handed warrior, like his ill-fated namesake.  I started out using various axes and greatswords.  And then I hit one particularly difficult quest where no matter how much I blocked or healed or shouted I couldn’t do it.  While talking to MLHawke, she mentioned that she had a good one-handed sword and was working on strengthening her destructive spells.

Weapons+Magic?  Huh.  I’d never thought to learn to be a mage.  I was going to be a warrior!… who’d already picked a few dozen locks and upped his sneaking (also appropriate for Cailan, for any of you who know my Dragon Age fic about him).  Well, I was already on my way toward cross-classing two ways; why not go three, since I could?

Cross-classing has made a huge difference in how I enjoy the game.  I feel like I can experience a huge variety of things and do many more that I wasn’t previously able to as a single-class character.  Now, I don’t use magic as often as I would if I were going for a full mage; but the fact that I can use it as I wish, and most importantly am not limited to only using it, is what makes it enjoyable.  I fight primarily with the Nightingale Blade, though I’ve done my fair share of archery as well.  I’m good at sneaking, and have a high lock-picking rate.  And while I’m on my way to leading the Thieves’ Guild, I’m also a pretty good assassin for the Dark Brotherhood and take down dragons like no one’s business.

In short, by combining classes and skills I’m getting a fuller experience and developing what I feel is a more well-rounded character.  And I think that’s not only the key to moving forward with the game, but in life as well.  Yes, there are people who specialize in life; there are people who decide on one career path and follow it without deviation.  But then there are people who branch out and try new things.  They’re unpredictable, but it keeps things exciting.  These are the cross-classers of life.  The people who are not just professionals, but professionals who maybe game or sing or play an instrument on the side.  The ones who play sports as well as music, or do art in addition to games.  Basically, having a wide range of interests and abilities enriches the self, and enriches the world.

So maybe I haven’t really played many RPGs, and maybe I’m completely off.  But my experiences in life are translating into my Skyrim play, and my Skyrim playing is making me think more about life.  In the end, isn’t that all we ask of media?  That it makes us think, or helps us reflect on our world in a new way?  Even though my RPG experience may be limited, the experiences I have gained from the ones I have played have definitely given me pause.  Though classifying oneself into one class may be comfortable, and overall easier, cross-classing and being a little bit of everything opens one’s eyes to a whole new way of seeing and experiencing the world, both in the game and in real life.

The Nerdom Hierarchy

As with most things I’m writing about lately, this is something that’s been on my mind but only recently have I decided I should write about it.  Today’s musings come courtesy of an experience I had yesterday that made me start rethinking the ideas of the Nerd Hierarchy.

We nerds/geeks/dorks pride ourselves on our individuality.  It’s our hallmark.  We are different and darn it, we own it.  No nerves or self-consciousness here, baby.  But it gets complicated when we go walk among others like us.  We’d think that because we place so much emphasis on our individuality that we’d be accepting of all who are individuals.  And yet we’re not.  Put a bunch of nerds together, and we’re as petty and clique-y as anyone else.  It’s disappointing, because I’d love to think that nerds would happily embrace other nerds as kindred spirits, and yet like any other person or group of people that acceptance is conditional.

To start off, I don’t really, personally, differentiate between nerds, geeks, and dorks.  However, I might be alone there.  A google search for Nerd vs. Geek turns up a veritable feast of images.  The general consensus is that geeks like technology, t-shirts, gaming, and movies.  Nerds are more academic, and into sci-fi and role-playing.  Further examination shows that geeks can assimilate into society better than nerds, but neither really cares if they do or don’t.  So what happens if you fit both profiles?  What do you then call yourself?  For a person who prides herself on not sticking into on category, when society tries to categorize me, it’s frustrating.  It’s even more frustrating when geek/nerd/dork society tries to do it.

Thus is born a hierarchy in our world.  My first experience with the hierarcy was going to ICON on Long Island, a large convention at Stonybrook University catering to fans of fantasy, sci-fi, anime, gaming, costuming, and the like.  I was fortunate that my best friend and her now-husband were part of the staff, so I got to be, as well.  I learned a lot of backstage information and con shop-talk.  But it was also my first exposure to the concept of the hierarchy that exists in our subculture.  ICON has an Anthropomorphic track, colloquially referred to as “Furries”.  And I learned that in general at these sorts of things, people who like large animals that act like humans are generally at the bottom of the barrel.  Most other con-goers would avoid them and though the con provided programming for them, it was limited and there was no desire to expand it.

As I reestablished my love of gaming, I became aware of more prejudice within the community.  One could not simply be a gamer.  How one gamed had to be taken into consideration.  PC vs. console gaming was a big factor.  Generally because you can do more on a PC, it’s considered superior.  But console gaming definitely has its place.  Why does it matter if I’m shooting my way through zombies in Left 4 Dead with a controlleror a keyboard?  And then there’s other gaming: card, tabletop, and the like.  I was just learning to play Magic, when I picked up the subtle cues that Magic is sometimes considered a “lesser” game, and those who play it may be subjected to head shakes, face palms, and general pity.

The big question with both scenarios is why.  If people like big humanoid animals (or like being big humanoid animals), why does that automatically grant them the short end of the stick in terms of programming at a con?  If people prefer consoles over PCs, why should that make them any less of a gamer?  And why should people who play card games face scrutiny based on the type of card game they’re playing?  Isn’t the entire point of being unabashed nerds/geeks/dorks to embrace our individuality and appreciate it for what it is?

Sadly, that’s the ideal, and we know full well in our world that the ideal is one achievement we’ll never add to our gamer score.  The reality is that we’re human, and as humans we look at things that are different and that we don’t understand, and we automatically categorize them and assign a value of good or bad based on either our preferences or our understanding of those things.  If I prefer PC gaming, consoles must be bad.  If I don’t understand Furries, they must be bad.  I think Magic is silly, so it’s bad.  Nevermind that the people who are engaging in those things are people like us, and more importantly, are peole who have decided to embrace their individuality and own it.  Just like us.

I saw this in action yesterday when I went to Birka.  It’s a large-scale market put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism.  It is an “Organisation dedicated to researching and recreating pre-17th century European history”.  Yesterday I saw a lot of peasants, nobles, and knights.  There were people in full armor walking around like it was completely normal (because there, it was).  I watched fencing and melee battles.  The hotel where it was held even had a roasted pig as part of the luncheon you could purchase.  Birka is primarily a market, but the SCA does all sorts of things where you can camp out and engage in non-modern activity for a day or even a week or two.

Now, I’m used to going to cons where your garb is a costume, but there are SCA members whose attendance at these things is an entirely different persona that exists in pre-17th century Europe.  It’s awesome, and I’d probably get in trouble from the hierarchy by calling it another form of roleplaying, but that’s how I look at it.  Now me, I have ‘garb’.  I love wearing it, but when I do, I’m still 21st century JayRain in a Medieval/Renaissance dress.  So naturally I brought my camera.  I’d read the rules on the Birka website and the only one I’d seen was that we had to be dressed appropriately, which I was.  There was a lot to take in, and I’d seen something interesting in the lobby and decided to take a picture of it.  In doing so I committed a major SCA faux-pas.

The woman at the table (who wasn’t in the picture) said, “Ma’am you need to ask before taking pictures.”  I was incredibly chagrined, because in my mind it was a compliment to her that I thought her display was cool enough to warrant a photo.  So I asked if she’d like me to delete it.  She said “Yes.”  And that was it.  No please, no thank you.  When I brought it up to two of my friends who do these events on a regular basis, one said she probably should have told me in advance that it’s proper form to ask before photographing anything or anyone (and her husband helpfully added in that yes, some people here can be real jerks about stuff).  And the reasoning wasn’t artistic license or anything like that, but the fact that even though we were in a hotel, watching the news while waiting for our burgers and fries to arrive, some members look down upon technology being present at events.  Capturing the memories of the events photographically is a no-no, and cell phones are bad.  Some people take these things so seriously that they become ‘garb nazis’, who are attentive to every detail: if your gown is 13th century but your cloak design is 15th century, and your knickers are briefs made of cotton and elastic (aka 21st century), you don’t belong.

I totally understand the desire to recreate something and be a part of a large-scale event surrounded by others who share that same love.  But when the hierarchy kicks in and it comes down to who’s “serious” about it versus who’s merely “having fun with it” it’s… well…not fun to be a part of it for some people.  I know that the purpose of the SCA is to research and recreate that era of European history, and I don’t fault them for their mission or those who strictly adhere to it.  But I know myself, and know that while I’ll go to Birka again to see all the awesome stuff, I’ll go with different expectations, and I won’t be joining the SCA anytime soon.  Or ever.  And because I constantly feel the need to clarify myself and apologize, I know I was in the wrong, and I know now that the SCA operates completely differently from a con; I know that my expectations were wrong.  I think what they do is wonderful, and it’s very important when it comes to keeping history alive.  And I also know that it’s just not for me.

What is for me, however, is PAX East.  I went for the first time last year, and I saw what is, in my mind, what nerd culture is meant to be.  For one weekend thousands of gamers of all sorts descended upon Boston and just loved gaming.  Our swag bags had mini playable decks of Magic cards so we could play Magic with strangers while waiting in line.  One huge room had consoles from the past that could be played, while another was a Call of Duty and Halo Reach tournament room.  The Classic Arcade Museum brought their retro arcade machines and let us play for free as long as we wanted.  For one weekend PC, console, card, and tabletop gamers came together and just loved gaming and one another.

Yes, there were people in epic full costumes, but they didn’t look down on those without costumes.  We could talk about shooters and RPGs without worrying if one was better than the other.  We platform to our hearts’ content, go get lunch, listen to a talk about how games are assisting the disabled, and then go down on the floor and try the demos that various developers were showing.  There wasn’t any of the segregation or snobbery I’d seen at other cons, where the anime loves stick together and the gamers go somewhere else… no PC gamers avoiding console or card gamers here!  For 48 hours I experienced the ideal in nerd culture.  And interestingly enough, PAX is the Latin word for peace.

Now I’m sure people who’ve been to PAX East or PAX Prime will tell me that it does exist, and I will accept that as truth.  Just because one experience contradicts my own doesn’t make it false, after all.  But what would the nerd world be like if instead of our differences we just accepted our similarities, even if our only similarity is the fact that we are proud do be individuals that don’t conform to the norm?  Even if we can’t forget the labels of geek or nerd or dork, could we stop trying to force one another into those categories, and just be?