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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why Can't Real Life Be More Like Double Dragon?

"People get really tired of having all the tough villains front-loaded against them and resent getting short changed on play time because some fat mouth-breather's hogging it all with a stack of quarters that could knock out a Clydesdale. If that's all on offer, can you blame folks for staying home?"

Games are the repositories of our culture's most primal values.  As ostensible objects of complete fancy, they (can) deftly sidestep at will many of the extraneous ambiguities that force us to compromise our deepest values and thus help give clearest expression to our highest ideals. 

For starters, game consequences are not so final or existential as they are in real life.  You're typically given at least 3 initial 'lives' to perform strategy experiments and become comfortable with play options before you're fatally croaked.  And even then you're usually offered the option to restart the game.  You have an opportunity to weigh options with some level of maturity and develop a play style that suits you personally.

Not so in the real world.  Even if you're bright enough to have intuited that Ayn Rand and Niccolo Machiavelli wrote the cheat book at a fairly young age, you're faced with the ugly reality that there will be no restarts available for you.  Mainly because that fat kid who breathes through his mouth will just keep shoving quarters in the machine before you can get anywhere near it.

I'm sure I'm dating myself a bit here by referring to such an archaic feature of video gaming culture, but bear with me.  Way back in your great-grandfathers day, when I could still count my birthdays on my fingers and toes, most people encountered video games within public establishments known as 'arcades', large buildings or mall outlets where the hottest new games were available to anyone to play.  They'd be stacked next to each other at intervals of 3 feet or so, in mammoth cabinets that must strike anyone born after 1980 as hilariously kitsch symbols of antiquated technology, more akin to a Medieval armoire than a modern video game console.

Equality and entrepreneurship in the era of the video arcade
But a little context might be in order here:  the notion of selling copies of these games for play within the privacy of one's home hadn't been thought of yet--or at least wasn't yet feasible on a mass scale, as not enough people owned PC's or consoles.  As the marketing folks like to say, there was not yet an "installed base" from which to launch this type of distribution strategy.

So we were forced, more or less, to play the things wherever we could encounter them, generally in areas susceptible to high levels of youth foot traffic, like shopping malls.  This was a capitalist venture, no doubt about it.  Asymmetries of availability are the single indispensable enabling feature of capitalism. 

But the asymmetries weren't quite so glaring then, as the video game technology itself was something of a novelty that game producers, publishers and arcade owners had yet to fully explore and exploit.  If you young 'uns are having a hard time grasping the severity of this point, let me point out that Tetris (tm) was considered an exciting new property at the time.

Hundreds of small software and hardware development companies were entering the highly competitive fray almost daily.  Given the relatively low base of technology that I'd referred to earlier, almost anybody with enough pluck, brains and natural inclination could make a truly significant contribution to the state of the art.  Graphics, game play and even fundamental formatting (e.g., 1st person shooters, role playing, 3rd person strategy, etc.) were evolving at an exponentially increasing pace.

Of course, Joe Blow wouldn't have been able to turn his programming hobby into a commercially viable venture without capital.  Trust fund brats have never formed a significant percentage of programmers, so embarking upon an entrepreneurial venture has always represented a real personal risk.  The opportunity cost of stepping outside the settled career track of a more mature industry would have aborted these innovations outright were it not for a vibrant capital market that still needed to take risks on developing new markets and technologies, instead of relying on rents from automatic day trading algorithms.  Although the U.S. had only 6,000 independent banks in 2005, there had been nearly 10,000 in 1987--or a capital market roughly 66% larger than today.[1]

The availability of capital allowed a fairly broad spectrum of folks to go into arcade ownership, too.  So even though as a group arcade owners had a near monopoly on the availability of video games, they still had to make serious efforts to respond to public opinion and preferences.  If they wanted to beat out the competition, maximize revenues per square foot of their premises, they'd have to identify and obtain the hottest new games as soon as possible, and maintain an optimal diversity of titles.  If you walked by an arcade in 1989 and the only open games you saw were Whack-A-Mole(tm) or Pacman(tm) you'd just keep on walking to the next arcade.  To stay viable, they had to keep just one step ahead of popular trends, titillating their audiences with novelty and challenge--and not let the game be hogged all day by some lardy mouthbreather.

This was reflected in the core structure of the games themselves.  In order to entice newcomers designers had to ride the edge of players' comfort zones, providing just enough challenge to engage, without alienating them with impossible obstacles or clumsy, unfriendly game interface.  In my youthful recollections, this principle was nowhere more clearly reflected than in the carefully calibrated levels of difficulty of the level bosses in the hit game Double Dragon, a scrolling beat 'em up from the early golden age of video gaming.

Enter the dragon:  not perfect, but at least reasonable
The original version of Double Dragon came out in 1987 and spawned several highly popular sequels and spin-offs, including Double Dragon II in 1988.  To be sure, it was crude by today's standards, not only in terms of graphic resolution and the realization of the game world--movement was impossible outside of a narrowly defined track bounded by dystopic inner city landscapes and rusting industrial machinery and grim chain-link fences--but also in terms of play options. 

I think both playable characters, Billy Lee and Jimmy, were basically interchangeable clones with no distinguishing features beyond the colour of their hair and generic dojo outfits.  I think they may have had a total of 5 combat maneuvers--6 tops, if you want to include the ability to toss barrels at an enemy, on the rare screen where the game world was articulated enough to allow you to actually interact with it.

But at least the developers had the sense to stock each successive stage of game play with opponents of appropriate difficulty.  Level one offered you the beer-bellied, punch-throwing Brunov to hone your skills against before you encountered the monstrous Big Boss Willy wielding an automatic rifle in level five.  That graduated approach, and the cooperative 2-player option, gave you enough time to familiarize yourself with the various joystick and button options required to realize your character's full potential.

I don't think that's a trivial point.  These developers, arcade owners and players knew that they were just scraping the surface of the graphic wizardry the technology would later provide, so they had to come up with a basic structural paradigm that closely tracked our cultural notions of fairness and engagement.  If they wanted to draw you in, they'd have to present some villains that at least looked like bad-asses before you got to know their quirks; and they were never gonna keep you hooked unless they gave you a reasonable shot at defeating them.

So as crude as Double Dragon may seem today to kids raised on cinematic wonders the likes of L.A. Noire, the game clearly possessed a level of charm that the current crop of political and economic elites don't. 

Double flaggin': why current economic and political trends suck in comparison
I already alluded to the current hyper-concentration of capital in the nation's largest banks.  I don't think it'd take you long to draw up your own list of cultural casualties this restriction of opportunity has occasioned.  For starters, the very concept of a mom-and-pop grocery store or clothing outlet is now an absurdity clearly out of the question.  You can't blame radical new cabbage technologies or shoe paradigms for that.

But I think the lack of options in the political arena is even worse.  Even if you're able to convince yourself that there are real, significant differences between the plastic Mitt Romney and the automotonic Barack Obama with regard to a small, select set of policies, you have to admit that neither major party offers very exciting game play or meaningful challenges for the voter.

Which lemon did you pick:  Gingrich, Santorum or Romney?
The Republican primary was the most savagely futile game ever played.  The base essentially tore itself apart rooting for the one-dimensional Rick Santorum or comically ineffectual Newt Gingrich.  If I had to draw up a video gaming metaphor for those two non-entities, I'd say that Santorum's signature move would be to constantly shoot himself in the foot upon down-down-down-right-right-right, and Gingrich's would be to perpetually punch himself in the nuts upon up-up-up-right-right-right.

Hardly a surprise then that trust-funder Mitt Romney took the day, despite having a game vocabulary no more sophisticated than left-right-left-right.

Did the 2010 mid-term elections reveal Obama as a broken "leader"?

What of the great Barack Obama, then?  The story there is even sadder.  Even some of the reviewers who were most enthusiastic about him upon his initial release have admitted that the actual game play is far less varied and challenging than the promotional trailers suggested.  In fact, the whole national Democratic Party franchise seems so disappointed that they can't interest enough people in a primary.  The general election this fall looks to be a grim duke 'em out between two equally unappealing titles that haven't changed a lick since 1988.

L to R:  Barrett, Falk, Vinehout, La Follette
The situation in Wisconsin's Democratic gubernatorial primary offers a little more prospect of actual engagement, however.  There are four candidates on the May 8 ballot, and while 2 of them don't have the name recognition or endorsements to be considered contenders, there is a real tete-a-tete brewing between front runners Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee, and Kathleen Falk, former county executive of Dane County.

Distinctions might be lost on Republicans who haven't yet taken the time to scout out the opposition, but they are real.  Barrett, the former U.S. congressman and twice-failed Democratic candidate for governor clearly represents the party establishment.  He readily acknowledges his close relationship with Obama, "regaling" (not "regurgitating"?) audiences with his Super Bowl Day attendance at His Majesty's court.

While Kathleen Falk isn't some kind of freakish video game vixen with lightening-bolt attacks, she does represent a true contrast with Barrett.  Her entire career has been focused on state and local offices, including Wisconsin Attorney General.  She has garnered the endorsement of AFL-CIO, the largest umbrella labor union in the state, and a particularly valuable attribute considering that the current recall elections owe their very existence to Scott Walker's failed attempts to destroy unions.

Recent polls give Barrett a double-digit lead over Falk for the nomination.  Electoral politics (as opposed to actual governance policy) is a bit of a black box, to some extent, due to the heavily subjective nature of the voters' preferences.  So I maintain that what propels a candidate to success in an internal, primary election should not be taken unthinkingly to be indicative of their chances in a general election.  My gut instinct is that, despite, or maybe because of, Falk's limited connections to the highest levels of the state and national Democratic machines, she is actually the best candidate.

But I'm absolutely clear of one thing: This Wisconsin Democratic thing is a helluva lot more engaging than the rope-a-dope operation Walker has rigged up for himself.  Aside from policy matters, even if you aren't offended by what nearly 1 million recall petition signers seem to feel is cheating on his part, you have to admit that the Wisconsin Republican Party hasn't offered up a particularly wide range of options:  You can choose from either Scott Walker, criminal defendant, or Scott Walker, tool of East Coast establishment pols.

Chris Chrisite:  East Coast pol, Walker fan and mouth breather
You'd think that the very real prospect of Walker's term being cut short by jail time would prompt some more committed Republicans to set up a contingency plan, offer a variety of challenges to the Democrats, or at least test their own mettle a bit.  Instead they're lying down without a fight, locked into a disappointingly known quantity with little room for maneuver.

People get really tired of having all the tough villains front-loaded against them and resent getting short changed on play time because some fat mouth-breather's hogging it all with a stack of quarters that could knock out a Clydesdale[2].  If that's all on offer, can you blame folks for staying home?

[1] Table 1, page 2, "Changes in the Size Distribution of U.S. Banks 1960 to 2005", by Hubert P. Janicki and Edward Simpson Prescott, available at the linked document on the Federal Reserve Bank.

[2] Read here about how over $ 8 million or roughly 65% of Walker's total contributions came from out of state--with approximately 74% of his individual (i.e., non-institutional) donors not being Wisconsinites.