Work the room

That first time I went to Classic Gaming Expo was quite something. I had won, in a contest on the Digital Press forum, a pass to attend the alumni dinner held the night before the opening of the show proper. This event was a closed-doors event where the game designers, programmers and executives got to mingle and have a bite to eat and a few drinks without the pressure of the paying guests who’d be asking, the next day, “what was it like when…” questions that they probably get asked every year. Me, I was neither a game designer nor a programmer. I had, in fact, played Atari today, but I hadn’t worked there. I liked to think of myself as a historian and a game journalist at best, but definitely felt out of my depth. To my mind, this meant one thing: sit back, shut up, soak it all up and remember it. Listen, don’t interject. This ain’t your party, but you got in anyway, just relax and enjoy like you belong there. In short, it’s advice I’ve given to my kids as they grow up: it’s not all about you.

Well, that’s what I thought going in anyway. Some of the show’s honored guests graced us with their presence on the forums and we were already acquainted in an internet kind of way. I was almost immediately greeted by ex-Apple-and-Atari programmer Steve Woita, who is a bundle of almost-zen-like friendly in a Hawaiian shirt, and he immediately introduced me to Keith Robinson, president of Intellivision Productions. Keith and his cohorts – the “Blue Sky Rangers” – had been the original programmers for the Intellivision game console in the ’80s, and when Mattel Electronics dropped the video game business like the hot potato fad they thought it was, Keith bought the rights to the software, the hardware, and the name. It has to be pointed out what a unique situation this was: the Atari that releases games now is neither the Atari that Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney started in Ted’s guest room, nor is it the boom-years giant that it became after Warner Bros. bought it from Nolan. Modern Atari is an intellectual property holding company that scooped up the remains of 1980s Atari at fire-sale clearance prices. Same with the current holders of the Colecovision name and IP. These IP portfolios have changed hands many a time. Intellivision Productions, though? That was always the same bunch of people who had made the games in the first place. And at the center of that web, as its organizing force and its public face, was Keith Robinson.

Keith Robinson
Continue reading

Two sources

This has been one hell of a week, hasn’t it?

But since I’ve been waxing rhapsodic about 30+ year old student newspapers, let me share with you something that was drilled into my head in college journalism: two sources.

Two sources, or go find a second source. Two sources, or it doesn’t see print.

This applied equally to hot-button political topics, or whether or not the school physical plant was planning on repainting the yellow stripes in the parking lots. Two sources. Get two sources, or you don’t actually have a story.

That was in the early ’90s, though, before there was universal usage of the world wide web, before the Drudge Report, before TMZ, before Fox News and Breitbart and leaning-fully-to-the-left MSNBC, and before nut cases like Alex Jones were going on about FEMA death camps and vacant big box stores being set up as concentration camp processing centers.

About a year and a half ago, I worked a brief contract job at Fort Chaffee, taking part as a civilian “prop” in some National Guard exercises. We were given robes (in the dead of summer!), headdresses, bottled water, and maybe a couple of basic phrases in Arabic, and we went to work. Oh, and we had what I called “laser tag harnesses”, sensors that would be pinged by lasers attached to the guardsmen’s weapons. If we were “shot” and injured, the harness would emit a loud, intermittent tone. If we were dead, it was a loud steady tone, as in flatlining. The point of the exercise is that: none of us were supposed to be shot at all. Opposing forces (OpFor in military lingo) were another unit from out of town, dressed more or less like us (or in camouflage), and they were badasses. By mingling with us, they got us “killed” a few times. But by and large…we were props in a shooting gallery. The wrong targets. I could write a whole book about my experiences over the five or six weeks of that exercise, because so help me, it was fun. And I hope the Guardsmen who were trying really hard not to “shoot” us are still with us as a result of that exercise.

When I tried to explain this to a few people, one acquaintance in particular got ridiculously excited about it. “You’re a crisis actor for Jade Helm ’15?” he sputtered excitedly. “That’s awesome! What else can you tell me about it?”

“Um…that’s pretty much it,” I replied. “What’s Jade Helm ’15? If this training exercise has some fancy operational name, no one’s told me.”

He then sent me about four thousand links to InfoWars, each more utterly ridiculous than the last. I then replied that I wasn’t a “crisis actor”; in fact I wouldn’t even describe it as an acting job (and I’ve had one of those before). The response was, “Yeah…well…whatever they tell you to tell people.” As if I was in on…something.

The news is supposed to keep us informed. The internet was supposed to put the sum total of human knowledge and amusingly captioned pictures of cats at our fingertips.

Somewhere at the intersection of the two, the machinery of news distribution has failed us, and we have failed to be skeptical, informed consumers of news.

Gone are the days when the people on the other side of the screen won’t go to air or print or pixel without two sources. That job is left to us.

In the wake of the 2016 election, which has put a repugnant boar of a reality TV “star” next in line to be the leader of the free world, this is more important now than ever.

I don’t doubt that hate crimes are on the rise, committed by those emboldened by the outcome of the election. Do I believe every such story that I read? No.

I don’t doubt that the president-elect is gathering a sort of StuporFriends cabal of people who have no place in public office, either appointed or elected. Do I believe every story that I read about how they’re ready to piss the very concept of freedom down the shower drain? Not without verification.

Two sources. Learn it. Live by it. Because the media has ceased to do so. It’s now up to us to do the legwork.

We will get through this. But we won’t get very far through it by being willfully ignorant and keeping our heads in an echo chamber.

Head ’em off at the past

If my kids were to ask me what had changed the most about the world around me in my lifetime, I could tell them about computers. About how a world that was one dominated by paper files is now dominated by electronically kept records. About how video games have gone from giant bloopy pixels to photorealism teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley in just 40 years. But it’s not that.

I could tell them about the internet, which has had such a seismic effect on the world that it deserves separate consideration from computers themselves. About how we’ve gone from letters, newspapers and magazines, and class/family reunions to inescapable e-mail, the worldwide web, and social media. About how the sum total of human knowledge is out there, if only one can slice through the misinformation and bullshit. But it’s not that.

I could tell them about the Cold War, and how we’ve gone from a pit-of-the-stomach stone-cold dread of Russian missiles raining down on us to a fear of lone-wolf bad actors doing something terrible from within the major population centers of the world’s greatest cities, and how the civil defense sirens that used to scare the crap out of me are now relics that are all but useless unless you’re in tornado alley. But it’s not that. (And in any case, we’re apparently worrying about Russian missiles again.)

I could tell them about the media, where firebrands like Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite once held court and demanded journalistic integrity and fairness above all else, and how, even when I was attending journalism classes in college in the early ’90s at a junior college in Arkansas, you didn’t have jack shit if you didn’t have two verifiable sources, and how TV and radio stations actually used to sign off for the night as recently as when I was working in this media. Now news is a 24 hour thing, and it’s barely news because it’s really hard to find something substantive to say for 86,500 seconds per day (minus omnipresent commercial breaks. But it’s not that.

What has changed, terrifyingly, is that it seems like it’s never been easier to dehumanized and demonize anyone, anyone, who disagrees with you, and how people has simply stopped listening, period. Somewhere during my lifetime, empathy and compassion seem to have died. No public memorial service was held; you can be forgiven for having missed the news.

But if we don’t rediscover these essential parts of being human, and soon, the end result will be a funeral pyre for all of us. The lack of empathy has culminated in what has, frankly, been an absolutely horrific election cycle that nominally ends in 48 hours’ time or so; the reality of it is that it’s likely to wind up in the courts for an extended period of time. This home has been without cable TV for many years now; I’ve never been so happy about that as I have in the past few months, with two boys growing up in an age where we have a presidential candidate – or someone playing at being one – bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia. I’ve also never been as happy no longer working in the media as I have this past year.

Somewhere in the anonymity of computers and the internet, and the switch from the Cold War to constant fear of anyone who isn’t exactly like us, and the media’s abandonment of impartiality and adoption of constantly stoking the fires of paranoia, hate has become easy. Paranoia has become all-pervading. And the other, it seems, must be utterly destroyed: we must all be armed at all times, because they, whoever they might be, are probably out to get us.

It’s not any one of those things. It’s all of them together, twisted by people who lack compassion and empathy.

And I refuse to subscribe to that worldview. I’m voting for the candidates who I think stand the best chance of doing the most good for the greatest number of people, even if some of those people live in fingers-in-ears, eyes-screwed-shut denial that they, too, may benefit from those people being in office. I’d like to think that the vast majority of voters will choose the same way.

Regardless of who wins, however, if we don’t collectively strive to rediscover compassion and empathy, we are done as a culture. Done. And we’ll deserve it.

Our kids deserve better. I wish more people were determined not to fail them. This year, British voters failed to vote for the future instead of the past. Will we repeat that mistake?

On the passing of Joyce Worley-Katz

I was saddened this morning to hear that Joyce Worley-Katz, 1/3 of the editorial team of the pioneering ‘80s Electronic Games Magazine, has passed away. She was married to fellow EG editor Arnie Katz, and together with the late Bill Kunkel, they opened up a whole new area of entertainment journalism that many take for granted today.

I corresponded with Joyce early in the 2000s, at the urging of Bill K. (who was a mentor to many of us trying to follow in the gaming journalism field), about her experience in working with many of the behind-the-scenes personnel at Magnavox during the Odyssey2 years. I was working on a book to chronicle the system’s rise, shaky flight, and fall, and Joyce was happy to pass along any remaining contacts from those years, though some of them had already left us, leaving me without enough story for a whole book. (Which was a bummer – when two of your writing/editorial heroes who set you on the path you’re on today tell you that yes, you are the guy to tell this story…that’s a lot of validation right there.) What notes I was able to gather… form some of the backbone of the Select Game podcast covering the Odyssey2 and Videopac libraries.

Joyce will be missed. She plowed a new road alongside an emerging art form. And she is proof that, from the very beginning, women were a vital force in video games, and those trying to marginalize or silence their voices in that medium betray a complete lack of understanding of its history.

A brief note about the universe

Sagan doing what Sagan does bestA controlled explosion.

The same science that’s behind a gun is the same science that’s behind a rocket.

Set off an explosion in a chamber capable of withstanding the pressure. Channel the force of the explosion to create thrust at the open end of the chamber, or to discharge a projectile from the open end of the chamber.

Fire a bullet to satisfy some sense of tribal pride, some sense of fury that someone dares to believe or dares to have simply been born differently than you.

Or fire a rocket into space and learn more about how we were all actually born the same, and how the differences barely matter because when you look back, the borders don’t exist.

It’s all about controlled explosions. Chemical explosions, or bursts of passion.

We can choose to learn, or choose to burn. It’s. that. simple.

I know I’ve probably driven half of everyone reading my Facebook and Twitter feeds crazy in the past few days/weeks/more-than-weeks (remember how Pluto-happy I was about 350-odd days ago?) with all of the space stuff. But it matters. You may not see how it applies directly to you. But it does.

I try to share that awe and wonder with everyone who wants to know more. Articles…podcasts…websites. “But you run a sci-fi site, right?” Sorta. The focus has shifted in recent years. In a way, the sci-fi is there to lure you in so I can talk about that awe and wonder.

I figured out a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be an astronaut or a scientist. I’d read National Geographic and Astonomy Magazine articles about the people playing various roles on the Voyager and Viking missions, and I’d idolize them like rock stars.

Did/do I ever have the mental agility to join their ranks? No. Found that out pretty early too. Only later in life have I figured out why. Why some days I can hold this whole universe of knowledge in my head, and synthesize it successfully, while other days I have the mental acuity of a particularly gited sea cucumber.

But one gift I do have is to smoosh some words together and tell a story and draw you in to learning more than I know about this stuff. (Spoiler: that’s a skill you acquire as a parent.) So if it really drives you batty, I’m not insulted by anyone who wants to exercise the unfriend/unfollow option…

…because I’m not going to stop going on and on about it anytime soon. There’s a whole universe out there waiting to be explored. I’ve long since moved past the point where I care if one person attributes that universe to God, another attributes it to Allah, a third attributes it to the Big Bang, and yet a fourth attributes it to the Great Green Arkleseizure.

None of that changes the fact that the universe is out there.

Waiting.

We just have to judiciously harness the right kind of controlled explosions so we can stop harming one another and go see it.