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My Keeper of Secrets; Natasha

First.  Head here and read Monte Cook’s excellent blog post about what happened when he tried to have a character who wasn’t a white male be the face of D&D 3rd Edition.

Second.  Head here to hear the late Dwayne McDuffie talk about what it was like to be a black man writing for the Justice League comic book series.

Third.  Head here to read about Irum Abbasi’s experience being booted off a Southwest flight for being Muslim and wearing a headscarf.

Think they’re not connected?  I know they are.  Even though I’ve been playing Warhammer for over 10 years I still have people walk up to me and ask “Did you really paint those yourself?”  I’m always tempted to answer “Well I have to do something in between bearing children and baking cookies.”

Now, I’m not trying to claim I’m constantly discriminated against.  However, it’s worth thinking about when you’re reading a book, or watching someone get pulled aside for a bag check, or cracking open the newest edition of your favorite game: What is the bias?  How does it inform your experience?  Are women represented just as cheesecake, or do they have talents and back stories just like the men?  Are there people of color, and are they viewed as stereotypes or as fully-realized individuals?  Do the white people win just because they’re white?

If the answer to those questions is yes…is that a game you want to be playing?  Or a world you want to be living in?  Can you vote with your money to support policies and game companies which produce a “no” to those questions?

When/where have you been the most surprised by bias?



Picture from Thiophene_Guy's Flickr photostream under the Creative Commons license.

You guys, I was going to write this tongue-in-cheek post about how Japan is where our awesome video games come from so we need to help them out, but I have close friends with family there.  They’re all okay so far, but I’m horrified by the extent of the disasters in Japan and I don’t have a lot of humor in me at the moment.  So if you have a little extra money please consider donating to the American Red Cross to help them give VERY necessary aid to the citizens of Japan.

Back to more whimsical posts later, I promise.

Deceptively Delightful

I saw this '69 Alfa in LA a month is the guy who was settling in with his toolbox for a round of repairs.

From a young age we hear “not all that glitters is gold,” but that doesn’t stop us from buying shiny things all our lives.  Much like Alfa Romeos; cute Italian cars with a rep for needing near-constant maintenance, we are bombarded by images of things that promise to be amazing but don’t quite live up to the hype.

The worlds of travel and gaming intersect beautifully in this arena — specifically with regards to screenshots/photographs.  Amazing box art or “gameplay” screenshots that turn out to be from fully-rendered cutscenes are as common as hotels ordering fake-out photos of their pool carefully cropped to remove the giant mall in the background.

Why do companies do this?  Money, of course.  If you think that every frame of the new Final Fantasy will be as exquisitely rendered as the in-game movies — and you’re someone for whom the art quality is important — won’t you be more likely to buy it?  If you think the hotel you’re staying at is right on the beach rather than a mile away; won’t you be more likely to book a room there?

As I’ve mentioned before, you can’t always depend on “independent reviews,” either.  But really all you need to beat deceptive imaging practices is an internet connection and a search engine.  Open up Google Image Search (or the image search of your choice) and enter “[name of video game] gameplay” or “[name of hotel], [location].”  For hotels, Flikr is another godsend — TONS of people post vacation pictures.  It’s those candid shots from happy honeymooners or from eager gamers sneaking photos at a convention that will give you the best sense of what it is you’ll actually be getting when you make your reservations/purchases.  Everyone has an agenda, but if you seek out people whose agenda is the same as yours you’ll have a much better chance of getting past all the deception.

Have you bought a game or gone on a trip where the packaging was far more impressive than the reality?  What did you do?

Empires Below

The Underempire of the Skaven

In Warhammer Fantasy, the perfidious ratmen known as the Skaven live in a terrifying underground empire of tunnels and caves that stretches across the entire known world.  From the Skaven army book (written by Jeremy Vetock):

The Skaven realm is connected by the Under-way, a great sprawling series of tunnels.  Sections of this hidden byway are crude ans winding, while others make use of the ancient underground passageways built in straight precision by the Dwarfs during their golden age…

I can’t promise that you can find hideous rat-mutants under the city where you live, but the Skaven Under-Empire is based on very real networks of tunnels and caves found beneath almost every major city.

The closest to home for the creators of the Skaven lands is London with its sprawling network of subway tunnels and stations.  Just like in Warhammer, they become the setting for a mysterious land of magical people and unsettling beasts in Neil Gaiman’s novel (and BBC miniseries) Neverwhere.

Right in my home of Seattle there are miles of weird old speakeasies and tunnels to be explored on the Seattle Underground Tour.  If you feel like heading somewhere more stylish — and infinitely more creepy — you can walk the Catacombs of Paris and see the remains of more than six million people.

Finally, if you feel like reading about real-life “mole people,” check out Jennifer Toth’s fascinating book about the lives of people who dwell in the tunnels beneath New York City.  They may not be actual rat-men, but some of the people Ms. Toth meets barely qualify as human — and are easily as terrifying as the scheming Skaven.

What terrifying secrets lurk beneath the city where you live?

Confront Your Shadow

Image from Wikipedia; all rights belong to ATLUS.

More than a year ago, my friend Mike introduced me to the Shin Megami Tensei series in the form of Persona 3.  It took me more than 100 hours to finish The Journey and The Answer, and now I’ve gotten sucked into Persona 4.  Sorry, everyone who wants to spend time with me!

There isn’t really space here for an adequate review of this complex JRPG, but what I do want to talk about is the world of the television within the game.

In Persona 4 you play a character who discovers that someone is killing people by throwing them into a foggy land within “the television.”  In this land, people’s fears and hidden desires manifest in the form of monsters known as “Shadows,” and those who are thrown into the television are usually killed by their Shadows.  The protagonist and his friends have discovered that by defeating their own Shadows they gain the ability to defeat those of other people, and they are seeking the identity of the mysterious murderer.

What interests me is that when people are thrown in the discord in their hearts creates an entire landscape.  When a shy girl who hates being pursued by men finds herself there, her world becomes a “Bachelorette”-style game show featuring her as a man-hungry princess.  A man struggling with his sexual identity finds that he is trapped with his Shadow in a steamy all-male bathhouse.

This is not a place we can physically visit, but it has made me closely examine my own inner landscape.  If I could travel to the land behind the television and confront my own Shadow…what would my world look like?  Would I be able to accept that my Shadow is part of myself, or would I reject it like the victims in the game and be devoured?  I like to think that I would be able to overcome it!

To what landscape would you travel if forced to confront your  Shadow?

Buyer Beware

Watch your step...

There was a short but interesting video that The Consumerist posted on Friday that really got me thinking about user-generated reviews.  (Don’t even get me started on “journalistic” reviews;that’s a rant for another time…)

The man in the clip skews reviews on TripAdvisor by posting great ones for himself and terrible ones for the competition.  Leaving the legality/morality issue aside; what are the implications for the traveler?  Can you trust that the person telling you they had a wonderful time at that hotel in Waikiki isn’t really the proprietor of a fleabag motel two miles from the beach instead of two blocks?

And what about video game reviews?  It’s pretty common for us to react either very well or very poorly to a game, and to judge it by only one set of standards.  This leads to lots of reviews saying either “THIS GAME SUX!!!” or “THIS GAME CURED MY CANCER!!!”

When I first started traveling extensively my reaction to all of the questionable reviews was the same that I took toward games — if it looks like something I’ll like; I’ll do it/buy it — it doesn’t matter what anyone else says.  Truth be told, I still somewhat hold that attitude, but the best advice as always lies somewhere in the middle between believing everything and believing nothing.

So whether you’re traveling or buying a new 360 game; look at the reviews.  First aggregate the numbers — if everyone says it’s a 2 out of 10; they may be on to something.  Then look for why numbers are what they are.  This means throwing out the highest and lowest and looking at the ones in between.  Someone rating a hotel 3 or 4 out of 5 will probably have some realistic caveats for you to consider.

Finally, remember what it is that YOU really want.  If the reviews indicate gorgeous graphics but aggravating gameplay (I’m looking at you, Oblivion), but all you care about is the style…then don’t let anyone stand in your way!  Just remember that just because someone wrote it doesn’t make it automatically true.  🙂

Welcome to GameTravel

Shenmue Box Image from Wikipedia

Shenmue, published in 1999 by Sega for the Dreamcast, was the first game I ever played that was based in a real place  – Yokosuka, in Japan.  (As it happens, I helped with the translation and some of the writing of the Versus Books guide.)  It was a seminal game for a lot of reasons, but for me what struck a chord was that this was a real world I was exploring.

I’ve always loved to travel, and part of the joy for me of reading RPG settings or walking around in Shenmue’s Yokosuka has always been that I can virtually visit astounding locales that I might never have the chance to see in real life.  (Now why isn’t Azeroth on Expedia’s list of destinations…?)

I woke up this morning thinking about this, and so this site was born.  Here you’ll be able to find exposés on the real-life inspirations for game settings, as well as places of interest to gamers around the world and tips on being a savvier traveler and gamer.

What places do you want to learn more about?  Leave a comment for me below!