Monday, March 29, 2010

PAX East Day Three- The Play's The Thing

I was originally not planning to return to PAX on Sunday, as various family obligations seemed to rule out a third day at the conference. Having been given a last-minute pass on all of the above, however (just in case there's any doubt, which there isn't, my wife rules!), I caught the early train into Boston so that I could take advantage of my media badge. I'd hit the Exhibit Floor an hour early, perhaps sign up for a demonstration of the new Dark Sun setting for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and just squeeze as much game time as I could out of the final day of PAX East. After all, that's what brought us all here in the first place, right?

Although I had god intelligence that media badges have allowed early access to the game floor on previous days, I was very disappointed to find that security was barring those of us with yellow passes from getting into the Exhibit Halls until general admission at 10am. That being said, those of us representing the Fourth Estate did have first dibs on whatever it was we wanted to see by virtue of already being at the doors when said doors opened, and so I strategically positioned myself opposite the one vendor demo I absolutely, positively wanted to get my hands on before the gamer hordes turned every line into an hour-plus long queue:

That's right, folks. I made a beeline for Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption, their much-anticipated Western epic built on the Great Theft Auto engine. I am a huge fan of Westerns, and have always waited for a videogame that did the genre the justice it deserves. Just looking at the giant LCD screens showing previews of gameplay to passersby you could tell that if nothing else, this game was a cinematic tour de force. The Old West is rendered in loving detail, all the way down to the dust and the tumbleweeds, and just like GTA you are given the freedom you want to explore this virtual world by foot, by horse, or even by rail, from the Southwestern U.S. circa 1900 down into Old Mexico.

I'm not going to attempt to review Red Dead Redemption since our media walkthrough was fairly scripted and each of us only had a precious few minutes at the controls-- though I did have the stick long enough to jump my horse off a cliff and kill the protagonist! -- but the game got me to thinking about the intersection of virtual worlds and education. While educational games often fall flat with the gaming public, one can see in a game like Red Dead Redemption real potential for teaching gamers about the Old West. While the historical details are admittedly mixed and matched and the level of violence is what you'd expect from Rockstar's studios, immersive virtual worlds such as Red Dead Redemption are getting so good that the INCIDENTAL educational value they contain rivals the content being produced in games or simulations designed explicitly for educational purposes (like Second Life's Deadwood).

Think about this for another second, because when I made this realization it totally blew my mind: the gaming industry is now capable of bringing to bear so much creative power when designing an historical FPS that they can't help but produce something that has some absolute educational merit. And assuming that Red Dead Redemption will be a huge seller (something the buzz seems to suggest and the demo seems to validate), this may very well open the floodgates for other similarly-conceived projects. We have already witnesses the success of early Renaissance Italy as a setting in the very popular Assassin's Creed series- the historical backdrop to these games is becoming less and less wallpaper and more and more interactive virtual history.

Granted, because the primary purpose of these games is not educational one must always be wary of the liberties that will be taken by designers with actual historical details and events, but as the whole of history becomes the fodder for games like this with ever more granularity how long will it be before gamers derive their primary knowledge of history through games such as Assassin's Creed, Red Dead Redemption, and their successors instead of through other forms of media? I can definitely see, for example, a college history professor asking his students to play a game like this and compare its depictions of the Old West with accounts from primary sources, or for communications or literature faculty to ask their students what role historical appropriation plays in modern media. The mind truly boggles.

Alas, because I was getting the media tour of Red Dead Redemption I missed my chance to sign up for the Dark Sun demo, but I promise I will contribute some thoughts and reviews about pen and paper role-playing games such as D&D in future posts at! What I'd like to close my Day Three Recap, however, is a look back at old school gaming, thanks to the Retro Arcade Lounge provided by the folks at ACAM- the American Classic Arcade Museum, located in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire. ACAM brought a subset of their vast collection of arcade games from the 20th century, including Frogger, Space Invaders, Sinistar, Donkey Kong 3, Food Fight, and the laserdisc interactive fantasy cartoon Dragon's Lair (which incidentally I dumped who knows how many hundreds of dollars into back when I was a kid in order to "solve" on the Ocean City Boardwalk in New Jersey!).

While we talk about how librarians can incorporate games into their collections and the classroom, the founders of ACAM have gone and actually created a playable library of classic arcade games. As an all-80's soundtrack blared and ACAM staff members kept feeding a bottomless supply of quarters into the machines so that we could all enjoy as many free plays as our hearts desired, I realized in between my attempts to destroy the Sinistar (whose evil floating head still managed to quicken my pulse even all these years when I saw it appear on screen again) and try to remember all of the winning moves to Dragon's Lair that this is as much about having fun as it is about preserving an important era in American history for posterity or study.

The play's the thing, after all.

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