Saturday, September 8, 2018

How to play an addictive video game

We often think about addiction as a personal failing - something that lives inside poor, unlucky souls. This disorder sits dormant, waiting for the key to unleash it's self-destructive habits upon us.

We also may think of some physical substances - tobacco, drugs - that contain innate addictive qualities as well.

It's a rare occasion we realize human beings, from nothing, can create things that are addictive. Like software (e.g. Facebook or the internet). And, of course, video games.

Which brings me to Battlehand.  My cousin turned me this mobile game it as a way of spending time together despite being in separate parts of the U.S. It's a combination of RPG, card game and crafting. It's extremely well-made. But I immediately recognized it for what it was. Which is Step 1 in my "How to Play an Addictive Video Game" list:

Step 1: Remember: Free games are the most dangerous

In the beginning of the App Store game, very few games were free. The vast majority were 99 cents, and were begging for downloads. But South Park predicted the future in 2014 with their Freemium Isn't Free episode, which talks about how free games are designed to ramp up in difficulty while simultaneously giving you lots of micro bonuses to make you feel accomplished.

In the olden days, most video games weren't addictive per se - but they were so amazing you didn't want to stop playing. Freemium games exploit this feeling of greatness. They modify your behaviors so you begin craving the micro-accomplishments, and confuse that feeling with actual quality.

Now, as you can see at left, most games are free. So if you download a free game, be aware it is almost certainly designed to make you addicted.

Step 2: Set reasonable limits

Addictive games hook you by creating incentives for coming back again and again. Research has shown that the more time you spend on something, the more it becomes a learned behavior. Learned behaviors require less effort, and can happen almost without thinking. So the more time you spend in a game, the more likely you are to become addicted.

Battlehand enables repeat play in many ways:
1. Giving you a super-powerful card if you play for 30 days
2. Giving you a present every day you DO play
3. Giving you "bounties" where your characters run off to rescue someone, and a clock ticks until you return. This means it incentivizes efficiency - the sooner you play after the timer hits zero and the sooner you send your party on new adventures, the more rewards you get. Avoiding play means you miss out.
4. Using notifications to tell you EXACTLY when certain quests are finished

So resist their cruel designs and set limits for yourself - play at night when all your chores are done, etc.

Step 3: Don't put the game first

As you find yourself playing more and more, it may begin to conflict with things you want to do, like cook meals or clean up. Those things will still be there when you stop playing, however, so do your best to juggle your game with other things in your life. Yes, the game is important too, but there are other things.

Step 4: Avoid playing for more than two hours at a time

By now, you're getting really good at this game. You know how to extract efficiencies by choosing the quickest quests, using Raid tickets to get quick XP, and autoplaying the grinding parts in order to level up your cards. You work hard, so the game is a good reward. And you deserve a reward, right? Just make sure you remember to eat dinner. And it might be a good idea to get some sleep soon. After all, the game will still be there in the morning.

Step 5: Prioritize

It's clear you are better at this game than anyone. You are so good at Battlehand it feels right to play it, like you're a natural. You understand that evolving cards requires you to do lots of side quests. And you know that just a few dollars will let you speed the whole thing up tremendously. And yes, it seems all the enemies are looking the same, just in different colors. But you're keeping to your original goal: This game is free! By playing it without spending any money, I am winning. The game developer, who tried so hard to get my money, is losing.
Because there is no limit to how much money you can spend, spending even 99 cents is a gateway to a lot of hurt. So you need to just put more time into the game to get around this financial trap. You an do it - don't give up!

Step 6: Delete

Well, you tried. But the game was better than you. They were indeed smarter than you. You did resist giving them even one penny, but you probably gave them more than 30 hours. So you deleted it. The first few days you were in a fog - all you could see was moves you should be making and items you should be improving. But then - the world opened up. You have all this free time now. Life is good.

And that is how you play an addictive video game.

Review: Random roadside Papa Gino's in New England

Papa Gino’s is a a parking lot strewn with cardboard boxes bearing its name.

A tacked-together assembly of faded colors with ample amounts of beige.

It was exactly what I wanted during my three hour car drive.

I had history at this place. Skipping school to play Russian Attack in their two-console arcade. Eating their $2.29 breadsticks because it was the only thing I could afford. Watching the Prize is Right on their wall-mounted TV. And bogarting someone else's soda cup for the unlimited refills.

You don’t go to Papa Gino’s for the food. You pay for nostalgia.

But I wasn't able to go inside - I was watching my daughter. So all I had was the food. Which is like paying for a stripper and just getting an empty cardboard cake.

When you think of Italian food, what comes to mind first? That’s right - Spicy Sriracha Fries. They did an excellent job channeling the taste equivalent of a squat Pasta Mama belting me in the jaw. My wife couldn’t eat any of them. I suffered through a handful, and gained another authentic Italian keepsake: Red hot Cheeto-esque dust smeared on the steering wheel. 

And then there was my custom sub - steak and peppers minus the cheese. I cannot disparage it. It tasted exactly how I expected it to. How many things in life perfectly meet our estimations? It is not a victory to be met Perfectly, to be Casually embraced Like brothers?

Really, inside that faux cardboard sleeve was not a sub at all but a pie, a most humble one. Who the hell was I, thinking I was too good for this? Who am I to get on airs and shit on the hard efforts of others? Do I get a warm feeling in my belly in this sport- taking potshots at a faded pizza chain chased out of all decent cities and fighting for survival in distant, lawless border towns?

Why do I feel the need to prove I’m superior to others? What does my snark and smarm get me? Why do I need to find someone ugly to feel beautiful? What am I, in high school again?

And then it hit me, and I laughed, waking my sleeping daughter in the backseat. Nostalgia. It had brought me back to high school after all, and once again filled up my self- loathing tank to the brim.

Well played, Papa.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Overanalyzing Pop Culture: Unsupported Boasts

"If I was a rich girl 
(na na na na x2)
See, I'd have all the money in the world,
If I was a wealthy girl"

 - Gwen Stefani, "Rich Girl"

OK, Gwen. I love you. But just because you had wealth doesn't mean you'd have all the money in the world. Also, saying you'd be rich IF only you were rich... doesn't say much.

She can be forgiven, however, because her statement is at least fun and catchy. There is certainly a degree of effort there, while perhaps slight.

But she is the shining example of good lyrics compared to some. On the far end of the bad spectrum, past even where black holes and dark matter lie, past where time and space even things, there, in that abyss, there is Mims:

"This is why I'm hot
I'm hot 'coz I'm fly
You ain't 'coz you're not"

Read those lyrics. Read them again.

If you are brave, even listen to the song.

Whole books could be written about the sheer nothingness contained by this phrase. I'm not sure it counts as a semantically null sentence, but it's damn close to the absolute zero of meaning.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

On leaving Facebook

There is nothing terribly interesting about leaving Facebook nowadays.

A lot of people have done it before me. Some friends joined years after me (Hi Geo). And some, to my amazement, never did.

Certainly I had gotten a lot out of using it. But of course it has all those terrible effects.

So two weeks ago I posted a "see ya later for a while" post and stepped away.

I had already taken some steps in this direction - removed all social media from my phone and only checked FB before and after work. I had stopped trying to post the "best" pictures I've taken, or foods that I've made (mostly) or eaten. And I've even (!) taken vacations or done interesting things without proudly or smugly documenting it. And I've kept it almost entirely free of pics of my daughter.

But now, it was in the rear-view mirror.

Immediately after doing it, I did feel like I had done something radical and irreversible, like burning a Rolodex or flushing your keys down the toilet. And I could feel it pawing at me. It wanted me to use it. I wanted to use it. It's definitely in the realm of addiction when objects become chatty, and persuasive.

The next thing I felt was disconnected. How was a I going to talk to people? How was I to know who was having kids? Who I need to check up on because they are having a tough time? And weird to get odd recommendations?

Then an ugly truth revealed itself - where was I going to use my clever one-liners? How could I engage in those fun and random silly threads? How could I see if the odd thoughts in my head were normal or not?

And it got worse.

How could I tell if I was funny without the likes? Or smart? How could I keep friendships together if I had just made myself permanently invisible?

The one significant change was forgoing the power for mass communication. Facebook was a great way to send form letters to everyone you know. The way you can post up comments and conversations in a weird sort of thread is like pinning notes to my high school bulletin board with someone's name written on them.

I realize this had actual impact - when you lose the ability to call out to everyone on your megaphone, you need to do things "the old way" - e.g. communicate with people individually. Or, at the very least, consciously decide which group individuals you want to email or text with. It's like now you have to chose your posse rather than hang out with the whole crowd.

Something about that appealed to me.

As time passed, I saw Facebook differently - it began to resemble a strange mall, where everyone you know has a store. In that store is them, standing at the entrance, and performing as you walk by. They stand there, frozen, waiting for you, and then release their rehearsed message for you as many times as you like. You don't have to stay - you can walk on. There are hundreds of other performances waiting for you ahead, and behind as well. It felt ugly.

This new type of "conscious friendship" felt very much like... entire life before Facebook. Which was about 29 years or so. During that time, I learned the craft of writing letters and emails, calling folks, and picking whom I wanted to speak with at any time.

Yes, it meant often there would be droughts, and you'd fall out of touch with some people. It also meant everything you did was more meaningful, because you had to have a person(s) in mind when you communicate.

I didn't realize how important that was.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review: 7-11 Select Gummis

People of a certain age will remember renting videos at "the store."

I don't mean from a Redbox kiosk. No, from a Blockbuster or Major Video (both RIP).

This experience was like shopping for a car, and the window shopping was half the fun. Under the not-very-watchful eyes of the teenage staff, you would peruse and discuss from the many thousands of choices.

Half of the time was spent pointing to movies you loved but would never rent again. Or guffawing over terrible ones whose very existence brought tears of joy (Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. - I'm pouring one out for you, homie).

Which brings me to the humble 7-11. When they are not being raided by ICE agents, 7-11's are a wonderful oasis in a world gone mad. There are wonders inside that are a siren's call to your inner child, and an airhorn of warning to your adult sensibilities.

Questions swirl about your dazzled brain:
  • How long has that pizza been there? 
  • Just how many different types of Doritos are there, anyway? 
  • And how can they sell three quotations for a dollar?
7-11's are like an old abandoned seaside carnival - enticing, magical, and a bit scary.
And they are bold. They are not content to sell high-quality Haribo gummi bears alone.
No, they enter the fray themselves with their own brand of gummified products. Let's look at two:

7-11 Select Gummi Worms
The packaging sports some highly literate and flexible "book worms," which I must admit do seem out of place near so many copies of Hustler.
They cost like 40 cents a bag.
The worms themselves have that thick generic look, and smell like a Solo cup left in the sun. Their cooking staff somehow managed to make them taste exactly as advertised - like worms.

7-11 Select Gummi Bears - 12 Flavors
I am a simple man. When I purchase candy, I have reasonable, Skittle-esque expectations: 5 flavors or so will suffice. Most gummi bears follow the "Big Five" rule as well.
So offering 12 flavors? TWELVE? You have my attention.
At first glance... no.
It can't be.
The mold of the gummis is incredibly similar to ANOTHER Top Three gummi bear - that of the rare and majestic Albanese:

For a second, I think I had somehow transmuted lead into gold. Is it possible to pay 90 cents for top shelf gummis that normally cost $5 or more? Could I actually make a living flipping gummis for profit? Did I finally find my hustle?

The taste brought me back to earth.

12 colors was accurate. 12 flavors was a bit of a stretch.

I was able to classify a few: Hot tar, sugar packet, old sock, and, I believe, litter box.

So I must bid you farewell as I brush my teeth for the next 12 hours. Adieu. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Review: Star Wars - The Last Jedi (obviously spoilers)

Saw it last night. Lots to say.

First, I do need to describe an exacting ritual I undertake with movies I care a lot about. Recently, it's been pretty much just for Star Wars, although I think maybe some Marvel movies fit in here as well.
And the ritual is: Zero information. None. No trailers. No movie posters. No "rumor" articles before it comes out. No toys. No toy commercials. No interviews.


The amount of effort it takes nowadays to NOT see something is incredible. And it's usually incredibly annoying to those with me, who see me averting my eyes on a regular basis like I am avoiding a horde of basilisk.

Back to Star Wars.  It's been a long and bumpy road for us Star Wars fans. I'll never forget the excitement of when Episode I came out (soon to be extinguished), or how delightfully surprised I was when Rogue One turned out to be excellent.

I'll admit that my expectations were low. It begins with the famed "A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away"  in that magical blue font, and the trumpets calling forth John William's majestic intro. I didn't feel the awe they were going for - there's only so many times you can be stirred by the same spectacle.

As the movie unfolded, I started writing this review in my head. I tried to think of the most succinct summary.

I think it might be: "This may be the worst Star Wars movie of them all biggest failure of any Star Wars movie.

I take no joy in saying that. I don't enjoy crapping on beloved franchises for no reason. And I know this is the era of hyperbole and over-indulging in throw-away phrases like "the worst EVER." Undoubtedly the prequels were ineffective, amateurish and lacked any real spark or impactful storytelling. But I think this movie is a bigger letdown, even while the professionalism may have increased and Jar Jar is pleasant absent.

Here's my reasoning:

Your eyes resist it

You don't want to keep watching this movie. After wincing at some of the issues I mention below for a while, I was prepared to tell my friend he didn't need to pay me back for the ticket. During the last third I actually couldn't watch a few scenes because I was embarrassed for everyone in the movie. Scenes that should have had huge emotional impact - Luke reuniting with Leah, Luke reuniting with R2 - were wasted and barely registered. They wanted us to go"Awwww" but they phoned it in. I confirmed with my friend that at a certain point, you actually feel like you are enduring the movie.

You don't care about the characters 

 They set up some nice characters in the previous film. Supreme Leader Snope was menacing and mysterious, but lost all the mystique in person. Finn was this unique turncoat Storm Trooper, and in this movie he becomes  a two-dimensional "Whoo-hoo!" action hero. Other characters haven't been sufficiently rounded out for you to care about them (the silvery Captain Phasma and purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, most prominently). And don't get me started on the totally unconvincing and overpromoted red-haired boss General Hux, who is neither "bad guy" nor comic relief.

The dialogue is awful 

There were lots of moments for great one liners: every second with Luke or Leia, when Rey and Kylo have their telepathy conference calls, and certainly with Snope.
But there's nothing memorable said in the movie at all. Really - what lines did you find yourself quoting afterward?
Rey: You're a monster.
Kylo: Yes, I am.
Luke: I failed you, Ben. I'm sorry. 
Kylo: I'm sure you are! The Resistance is dead, the war is over, and when I kill you, I will have killed the last Jedi! 
This sounds like bad high school writing, of which I am very familiar. There's also whatever forgettable dialogue happened between Rose and Finn during the end of the flick as well.
It doesn't inspire.

It punches holes in itself 

The movie makes a few huge mistakes that greatly impact the entire Star Wars universe.

Lightspeed Attack - First, I have been saying to anyone who will listen for the past 10 years that Star Wars did a good job of not including an obvious flaw with Lightspeed Technology: That's it's clearly the best weapon ever. Why bother to send a huge Star Destroyer against a transport ship when a tiny escape pod can reach lightspeed and blow it apart? But it appeared this was scientifically impossible, which gave way to the amazing space battles we all know and love.
But in this movie, when Vice Admiral Holdo lightspeeds her ship through the enemy fleet, it clearly was possible all along.
So they are saying no one ever thought of this before? (And I'll leave aside why, if there are only 50 rebels left alive, they would sacrifice a VICE ADMIRAL on that suicide run).
But there's even a bigger plothole revealed here. Most science says that a ship traveling at lightspeed would have almost limitless mass. That's enough to destroy... a whole planet. Why build a Death Star, exactly?

It's raining Jedis - In the Star Wars Universe, Jedis are clearly a big deal. Their name evokes feelings of great respect and fear, and the Jedi Council basically functioned as high-caste Samurai in powerful leadership roles. And their abilities, of course, are devastating. So the loss of Jedi Masters is seen as a loss to the universe, a dimming of goodness throughout the entire galaxy. Why else are Snope and Kylo so interested in killing Luke - the "Last Jedi?" Why else did they invent those awful midichlorians but to show how rare Jedi powers were?
But Luke here reveals that the Force really does touch everyone, and that the potential for there to be lots more Jedis (infinite Jedis?). If that's the case, then it's like all those rare Jedis turned out to be as common as Dixie Cups. If the Force as a resource is widespread, it devalues all of the movies and makes the deaths of all other Jedis to be much more meh. This was hugely destructive.

Not so stealthy -  Unless I am incorrect, the movie suddenly introduces "cloaking technology." This is a huge technological achievement that transforms the nature of every space battle. Even if we allow that this technology was invited in the 30 years since the end of Return of The Jedi, why isn't it ubiquitous? Why doesn't the newly rebranded Empire with limitless resources have it? Why do only the Lesser Codebreaker and the Escape Shuttles have them?
Stealth technology might have been a good thing to put on those bombers at the beginning of the film, hmmm?

U-Turn - The entire giant subplot with Finn and Rose and the fate of the fleet was to stop the tracking device on the Star Destroyer. But they never destroyed the tracking device, so their entire jaunt to the Casino and the Codebreak was a meaningless detour.

Wimpy in Red -  Of course I loved seeing the ninja Crimson Guard commanders fight Kylo and Ren. Until... it occurred to me that ninjas don't have any powers. Kylo could have mopped them up in three seconds and gotten back to moping.

All of these faults sting even more because of this final point:

They had time to make it perfect 

Disney had this incredible body of work, an effectively unlimited budget, and access to any actors or actresses they possibly needed (included beloved originals like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher). They also had their pick of the best writers and cinematographers. But even more importantly, they learned from the awful Prequels what NOT to do.
And yet here we are.
In summary, even the minor bright spots (good effects, diverse cast, the return of Yoda, Daisy in every scene) couldn't make up for these lapses.
It hurts me to say, but this movie is such garbage that it belongs in the trash compactor from Episode IV.
Maybe Star Wars was never supposed to be for adults. Maybe it's become a kids movie and I had no business watching it.
It did leave with one big question to ponder: Am I a good parent if I show this movie to my kids?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

In praise of... McDonalds?

I had an epiphany buying a Big Mac.

Which in, itself, was a rare occurrence.

For years, it has been more than fashionable to trash big business. It has been expected.

And with good reason - the stories of hegemonic mega-corporations crushing smaller businesses, avoiding taxes and being generally hellions are legion.

At the same time, it's easy to fall into polarized states where we ignore realities, especially ones that run counter to our own narrative.

And the realization I had inside that McDonalds was: They were helping a lot of people as well.

It was a hot day, and the AC inside was crisp. And quite a few folks who appeared to be down on their luck were taking advantage of this. Seated at tables, in groups or alone, they were experiencing one of the most important human emotions: Something a little closer to comfort.

Those who had money were able to buy something to eat or drink. I saw people's eyes close in pleasure as they bit into a sandwich or a toasty french fry.

Many of them are gathering points for people to get together, especially senior citizens with little cash to spare.

At a times where poverty and homelessness are almost criminalized, this particular McDonalds had an open door policy (I know not all of them do, and I understand the tough calls owners must make if there are certain people they feel they need to expel in order to run a pleasant business).

I also know, from watching the superb movie The Founder, that many enterprising men and women buy McDonald's franchises and do OK.

I'm still troubled by their deskilled labor process, their low wages, lack of benefits and anti-union stances. But that's from my point of view. From the people who were enjoying their food and a little rest, they didn't seem to have any issues.