Friday, September 17, 2010

50 Cent Blood on the Sand Reminds Me I'm a Dork

The year was 1990. I wore thick glasses, a red polo shirt, long, multi-colored striped shorts and an ill-advised perm. I was seated in front of a jelly-soaked PB&J, a-day-too-old banana that had smelled up my lunch bag and the rest of its contents: the saran wrapped pile of chocolate chip cookies, a bag of Fritos and a carton of chocolate milk, all of which contributed to the thirty pounds of extra chunk around my everything. On my side of the table sat two or three of my white friends. On the other side of the table sat three black kids in my class. Our school was purposely desegregated, but the kids, for the most part, segregated themselves anyway - not for any actual reason - just out of comfort and code. I was ten and I was involved in a minor racial skirmish, though, at the time, I'm not sure I realized that the argument had anything to do with anything other than musical preference. The debate? New Kids on the Block vs. MC Hammer.

I'm not saying that these two groups epitomized the racial divide in the country at the time. Looking back now, they both actually seem to bridge the racial gap more than divide it. But that day, in the school cafeteria, it was NKOTB vs. the MC, dorky pop-loving us vs. way cooler rap-loving them. Racial awkwardness is a different beast when you're ten. It is subtle. Less electric. More innocent, yet distressing because of how ignorant it is. I soon discovered that I should have kept my musical tastes to myself. I learned that day what being a “white girl” was like. I felt like a stereotype. I suddenly wished that I wasn't in love with New Kid Jonathan Knight and that his poster did not grace the ceiling over my bed.

I don't remember what the argument was like or what we were attempting to achieve with the debate. Was our goal simply to recruit more fans to our side of the table? All I know is that I lost that popularity contest. My side did not win.

I have felt awkward, dorky, and “white” since then, but it wasn't until I popped in 50 Cent Blood on the Sand that I felt all three at once and with such potency. Perhaps that is the ultimate superpower of this era's African American rap stars. They have the power to make a middle class southern white girl feel like the lamest person alive.

Like most school cafeteria fights, the premise of this game is pretty dumb. The rapper 50 Cent is in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where he has played a concert. Afterward, he visits the concert promoter looking for the $10 million he's owed (That much?!?). To 50 Cent's chagrin, the concert promoter no longer has the cash. The concert promoter is “persuaded” to pony up some method of payment which turns out to be a diamond and pearl encrusted skull he happens to have lying around (of course!) However, the moment 50 Cent has the skull in his very large hands, it is promptly stolen by a paramilitary gang. 50 Cent and a buddy then decide to do whatever they have to do to get it back. Tell me that doesn't sound like elementary school. Someone promises to give someone their lunch money, the kid comes to collect and the lunch money has mysteriously disappeared so the kid gives up a Twinkie in payment which a gang of other kids promptly steals. It's silly.

The game is a third-person shooter – my first. I'll have to post a video of me playing this game so you can really get a feel for the hilarity of it. Remember, my playing will be terrible in the video, but nothing like when I first started. Me playing this game today is about 500-diamond encrusted skulls better than my first attempts and that is really sad. You know the feeling you get when you show pictures of yourself as a kid to a friend and you get around to your adolescent stage and remember how completely hideous and awkward you were? And you know how physically and emotionally uncomfortable it is to see those pictures again and remember how it felt to be that person? And you know how you definitely don't ever want your friend to get a glimpse of you looking that way so you hide those pictures real fast....then maybe burn them after? That's how I think both Ben and I felt watching me play this game.

First of all, I couldn't even make 50 Cent walk forward. It was the most ridiculous thing to witness this pit bull-of-a-man walk up a staircase sideways because I can't figure out how to make him look straight ahead. One joystick controls his movement, the other joystick controls the camera, or where he is looking (also what you end up seeing as the player). I could make him move forward and backward just fine, but I couldn't physically get the hang of looking around! I can't describe in words the silliness of me playing this game. Ben inverted the controls for me after a while which helped a little bit. Still, most of my time in the game was spent staring at the ceiling or the floor while Middle Easterners shot and launched hand grenades at me.

Since the third-person bit was difficult to master, the shooting bit was nearly impossible. I aimed my gun based on some nonexistent vantage point I created in my imagination, all the while completely forgetting that the little white x in the middle of the screen was there for a reason. Then, when I actually remembered that I should use the x to aim, I didn't seem to have the dexterity or subtlety of hand movement required to aim the x on my target! It took me a good 30 seconds or more to get the x on my target and, by that time, I was dead. So...I can't look where I'm going, I can't aim, and I didn't know until Ben told me three playing sessions in that I could hide to heal myself and that I could just run at the guys and fight them in hand-to-hand combat to avoid some of the shooting altogether.

If the real 50 Cent could have only seen what a bumbling idiot his likeness had become under my control. He had lost all street cred, that's for sure. (Is that the “whitest” thing I could ever say? I don't even know. How sad is that?)

It is appropriate that this game is a third-person shooter, because that's how I feel when I think about myself at ten years old. I feel like I'm looking at myself as an outsider. When I talk about that girl, I think in third person; I'm an older, wiser narrator telling someone else's story. The way I play this game is completely reminiscent of the way I dealt with those elementary school gangs of kids who bullied or teased or argued with me all those years ago. Avoid eye contact so they don't notice you. Stare at the ceiling or stare at the floor, but whatever you do, don't let your eyes meet theirs. Blend in. Walk along the perimeter of the crowd. Send your braver buddy in first and follow her lead. If you have to cry or heal, hide behind the first wall you see. Run away. Figure out a plan of attack, grit your teeth and run at them head-on when they aren't expecting it.

Face-to-face confrontation has never gone well for me in or out of the game. To prove just how stereotypically white I am, while studying abroad in England, my friend and I met a British man named Richard and his best friend, Simon (That really was their names. Wow, the stereotypes-come-to-life abound in this post!) Richard was a history buff and a medieval weapons expert, a trained sword-fighter. I remember one day, while visiting Richard in his tiny village somewhere near Nottingham, he took us to the local pub where we drank pints of ale and then headed out behind the pub where we found a pile of metal helmets and swords. Right there in the small, dirt and grass parking lot of this English pub, Richard gave us a sword-fighting lesson. I learned all the moves pretty well and was enjoying myself. But then he said he was going to fight us and we needed to use our defensive moves against him. The moves I had so perfectly learned just minutes before disappeared at the sight of a sword swinging at my head. Not only did I forget the defensive moves, I lost the ability to move my body.

That's exactly what happened to me when playing this game. I practiced aiming. I practiced shooting. I knew I had to go hide behind a particular wall and then run towards the shooting tank. But then enemies started streaming out of the tank and shooting at me and I locked up. I'd forget which button did what. I'd forget to look where I was going. I'd run in circles and lose sight of the tank. I'd run at the guys and forget to hit B in time to complete the Counter-Kills.

I may have had a million reasons for liking the New Kids on the Block better than MC Hammer, but they didn't occur to me at that lunch. I can debate like crazy with you. Just give me two hours and let me write out my arguments that I will then read to you...or let you yourself. Otherwise, I'll just stare at you while my face turns red and I get sick to my stomach. Then I'll remember what I was going to say halfway through math.

Video games and school lunchrooms exist in a strangely similar plane. Entering their hyper reality, you can escape a bit from authority and explore boundaries, your own and other's. In everyday life, it isn't acceptable to demand payment in diamond skulls or mow down gangs of people with a hum-vee or launch grenades at foreign tanks. I'm not a tough, fearless, cussing, gun-wielding rap artist, but this game lets me pretend that I am for a little bit. You have so little freedom in school to figure out what other kids are all about and figure out who you are and how you're going to treat and interact with other people. Places like the bus or the cafeteria were not always the most comfortable, pleasant places, but they were oftentimes the most educational places where you could try out behaviors you might not want your parents to know about or behaviors that were unusual or foreign to you. The result was not often nice. In the lunchroom, kids could get away with calling people mean things, stealing lunch money, creating the grossest possible food combination and then daring their friends to eat it. In 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, you can get away with insane violence, bigotry, foul language, and greed. If parents only knew what you did and what you discussed at lunch, they probably wouldn't let you go to school. And if they saw what you were doing in this game, they probably wouldn't let you play it.

Still, Ben told me I needed to practice playing 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand because I would need to improve my shooting skills and learn how to look where I'm going in order to play my next game, Halo: Reach, a first-person shooter. My perspective is about to shift...or maybe it already has. It's coincidental that I'm moving from a third person shooter to a first person shooter because that's the transformation that occurred for me while playing 50 Cent and thinking about those days back at Orange River Elementary. Most times I look back at that ten-year-old girl and feel like she's someone else, a character in a movie I've watched a thousand times. But when I look inward, shift back to my first-person perspective I know that I am still that intimidated, awkward girl, the “cracker” I was referred to so often by my classmates.

After all, I'd play a Jason Mraz album way before I'd put on 50 Cent.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What the arcade game Final Fight and other late1980's beat 'em ups taught me about friendship

My Final Fight adventure would have cost me 22 quarters in an arcade. Surprisingly, Ben would have cost us nearly as much! Turns out, Final Fight sucks quarters indiscriminately.

The first time Ben and I sat down to play Final Fight I pepped myself up by talking smack to my husband.

You ready to get beat, loser? You ready for my shirtless fatty Haggar to beat your effeminate, pretty-boy Cody down?”

Hon, this is a co-op game. We're playing together against the bad guys. Not against each other.”

Oh right. Co-op.”

Competitiveness runs through my veins like Carl Lewis. It's my default setting. I can quickly get behind a sports team just to see whether they win or lose. Too many hours of my life have been spent cheering on Casey on Top Chef or the nerdy couple on The Amazing Race or Jeannine on So You Think You Can Dance. I will actually stop to root for Miss Florida in the Miss America pageant. I live for awards shows.

But unlike the characters on Final Fight, I'm multi-dimensional. While I am competitive, I also really want to make other people happy. I remember when I was about five or six and my family was on a boat trip.I was bored and my Dad said he'd play a game of Memory with me. I placed all the red and white marbled cards face-down on the table in the boat cabin. The whole time we were playing, the boat lightly rocking in the river's chop, I was feeling a bit tortured by a dilemma. I didn't know who I wanted to win the game. Of course I wanted to win because winning feels good and winning would make my Dad proud of me. But I also adored my father. I didn't want him to ever feel disappointed or sad about anything. I didn't want him to have to lose, either. I wanted us both to win! Towards the end of the game I started purposely picking up mismatches so I'd lose. I remember my Dad asking me if I was letting him win and I said yes. He told me he didn't want me to do that. He wanted me to try as hard as I could because having fun and challenging yourself was what really mattered, not who won.

I've struggled with competitiveness my entire life. It has affected my friendships, my schooling, my hobbies, and my business decisions – sometimes in positive, and sometimes in negative ways.

I've been making things lately. Inspired by a few very creative, productive, inventive, and brave people I know, I decided it was time to focus on creating, showing, and possibly selling the things I make. I have to stave off the jealous twinges I get when I see other people's work in stores or at festivals or hanging on museum walls. I have to force myself to stop comparing my work against anyone else's and just enjoy the process of making things and sharing those creative moments with my son and husband. But that can be difficult for me....either because of competitiveness or insecurity.

The video game community has really brought this to my attention. I recently played several independent games suggested to me by a friend and reader of CoaGW. I'll speak about those games in depth another time, but what struck me while playing the indie games and what often impresses me most about the independent gaming community of developers, artists, programmers, writers, and designers is their willingness to support each other, share with each other, and advise each other in order to further the art and craft of video game development. I so deeply want to emulate their behavior, to embrace other creators and artists, share with them, learn from them, and support them rather than compete with them.

At the same time, I know the competitive nature of business and video games are a big business. Video game developers must share my struggle. I've seen it in the recent iPhone development gold rush. Two developers have the same idea for a game. One gets the game out more quickly than the other. One receives accolades and millions of dollars, the other quits or tries to somehow find a way of improving upon the original. I saw it in my own small business. I felt the constant pressure to be the best, the feeling that one mistake with a customer could affect your business's ultimate success or failure. Competition can lead you to be the best you've ever been and can make you feel like you could crash to your death at any moment should you make one wrong move.

Final Fight, one of the first of these arcade beat 'em up games of the late 80's, early 90's was one of those originals that set off a chain reaction of a dozen copy cat versions: X-Men, Spiderman, Ninja Turtles, etc. For anyone who has never played Final Fight, the game is a side-scrolling beat 'em up in which the mayor of the city, Haggar, a former professional wrestler, his daughter's boyfriend, Cody, a martial arts master, and Cody's sparring partner, Guy, tear through the big city fighting a street gang who has kidnapped Haggar's daughter, Jessica (THE perfect name for a game made in the 1980's...I can vouch for that!). The goal is to fight your way through Metro City's many districts to retrieve Jessica and hopefully bring an end to the city's crime problem.

Ben and I played on arcade sticks and I pretty quickly learned Haggar's fighting moves, although I didn't master the jump-kick until the end which is a shame, because that move is essential! Ben refers to these games as bro-op, and I can see why. It really does seem like an adolescent boy's ideal way to spend a roll of quarters. Pretend for a while that you're the toughest guy in the city, beating up bigger hairier men to save the blonde damsel in distress with your best friend by your side. You pick up whole turkeys and giant hamburgers for your vigilante characters to consume to restore their health. I can see the appeal. Plus, for being so old, the game's graphics are big and pretty impressive, the controls easy to master.

After about an hour of A and B button mashing while watching my muscle man punch and kick people of all shapes and sizes, I started to glaze over a bit. The game doesn't present much variety. But I hung in there and we beat the game and returned Jessica to the muscular arms of her father and her boyfriend.

One thing that separates Final Fight from many of its copies is friendly fire. I once asked my parents what friendly fire was. Their answer made me feel sick. I couldn't imagine a worse reason for a soldier to have to die. Wrong place, wrong time. An accident at the hands of one's peer. I guess that's what happens when you are surrounded by people trying to learn how to shoot machine guns and blow things up.

When Ben and I started playing Final Fight,Ben said that we'd need to communicate about who we were going to go after so we didn't get in each other's way. He warned me that we could punch and kick each other and accidentally deal damage. “Friendly fire,” he called it. I quickly realized what he meant. I kept forgetting what his character looked like! When six dudes rush at me simultaneously, I tend to start punching and kicking with wild abandon. Sometimes Guy or Cody got in the way...especially when I figured out the jump-kick timing and got a little jump-kick happy.

I played a little of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men knockoffs of Final Fight that didn't allow the main characters to accidentally inflict damage on one another. Strangely, I missed the friendly fire. I mean, not being able to accidentally hurt each other was certainly one less thing to worry about, but that worry was what made Final Fight interesting. In a real fight, you would have to watch out for your friend. You would have to make sure your buddy was out of the way before throwing the enemy across the subway car. You'd need to make sure you weren't going to land on your buddy while performing a crazy body slam on the bad guy. The times when I did accidentally punch or kick Ben's character were some of the funniest of the game. And sometimes Ben had to sacrifice a little health so that I could get in one last deadly blow to the enemy.

In any venture you need your friends alongside you. You need people to support you, get your back when you're ganged up on, carry on the fight while you put in another quarter. Sure, you might have to share the burgers and turkeys when you'd rather eat them all yourself. Your poor fighting might bring down your partner's game for awhile and vice versa. You might compare your scores to your partner and occasionally wish you'd done better than them. You might even get caught up in a little friendly fire along the way, But this is a bro-op! You need each other, because there are way too many giant men running at you at once. Because there's a pretty girl in trouble who needs your help.

Learn from Final Fight. Avoid an accidental punch to the gut through communication and care, and when you accidentally and inevitably whack your friend instead of the other guy, say you're sorry and keep fighting your way to that final boss...together.

Next game: TBA