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Renaissance and Medieval gastronomy on the Web

3 Feb

Click for source

Due to having some unexpected time off these last few weeks, I have decided to go back to do a bit of reading and dug out old classics from my collection. I don’t know about you but historical novels are a favourite of mine, right up there with fantasy and science-fiction. The reason for which I love historical fiction is not only delving in lost or less know periods of our history but mostly because I like love to check and cross-check facts. How many novels have you read, set in a historical perspective, but without any notes or references at the end? So when I look for histories, I look for those who are well-written and referenced… so I always can go a little further in the reading experience. A wonderful example of this is the novel Secretum, by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti published in 2009 (in English).

For those who don’t know that fabulous writer’s couple yet, maybe you have heard of a novel, Imprimatur, published in Italy in 2002. Here is an excerpt of the plot taken from Amazon Uk:

“11 September 1683, Rome. Rome is a city on a knife-edge. The citizens wait anxiously for news of the outcome of the Battle of Vienna, as the Islamic forces of the Ottoman Empire lay siege to the defenders of Catholic Europe. Meanwhile a suspected outbreak of plague causes a famous Roman tavern to be placed under quarantine. Among this detained in the Locanda Donzello is the mysterious Atto Melani, a spy in the service of the French king. With the help of the young serving boy, he discovers a secret passage leading to a network of tunnels under the city.Their nocturnal journeys into the Roman underworld lead them to some startling discoveries about the deadly enmity between Pope Innocent XI and Louis XIV, and a plot to unleash a weapon of mass destruction in the battle between Islam and the West.”

Yes, we are talking intelligent, dedicated and professional historical research, she is a philology graduate and a specialist in religious history, he is a musicologist passionate about the baroque period. Originally, they were published in their native italian language by Mondadori but this novel sparked so much controversy that :

“The couple say they were forced to flee Italy – although they now live in Rome. Mondadori (which is owned by PM Silvio Berlusconi) has never offered comment.”

I could write dozens of pages just on this subject but not today. Apart from their amazing storytelling talent, Monaldi et Sorti are even better at bringing to life pages and pages of mouth-watering 17th century food. In Secretum, their second novel, the setting is a roman palazzo in the Lazio region where a great wedding banquet is being held for the niece of an important cardinal. Being a food-lover myself, I really couldn’t resist reading these pages over and over again, then I got curious : I wanted to know where the authors got their inspiration to recreate meals like this.

So I started with a search in library collections like the Library of Congress, The British Library, Bibliotheque Nationale de France. I also launched a simple search in Google, using terms like “renaissance gastronomy OR medieval gastronomy OR italian renaissance gastronomy” (I didn’t restrict myself with a specific century because I wanted to find general resources about the history of gastronomy as well). The wonderful thing about random searches like this is not the quality of the first results but where they bring me. Of course, I could spend hours browsing, navigate by clicking on links but I was starting to feel that I was getting lost instead of truly finding treasures. So back to my findings :

The Barilla Academia has compiled a list of italian cookbooks, one hundred to be exact, a historical survey of what is to be considered as the founding texts of italian gastronomy. Most of the books can be accessed in digital format completed by excellent bibliographic information. Here is a very interesting example :

Libreto de lo excellentissimo physico maistro Michele Savonarola: de tutte le cose che se manzano comunamente, 1515

[Small book by great physician Michele Savonarola: on all things that one eats regularly]

Author : Giovanni Michele Savonarola

Click for source

Now does that name ring a bell? This Savonarola was a great physician and humanist during the 15th century in Italy. He studied medecine extensively in Padua before becoming famous (in a sense) for giving specific instructions to doctors and priests during the bubonic plague onslaught of that time. He wrote tracts, dissertations… and cookbooks. His grandson, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), was a Dominican priest leading the city of Florence to book burning and destruction of immoral works of art. Now I’m thinking that the grandson should have stuck to medecine like his forefather… but that is another story.

So, I leave Italy and turn my attention to the rest of Europe. Back to the search basics, or more specifically to my training, I started another search with the British Library. Bingo on the first hit: Books for Cooks. A superb digital collection of cookbooks compiled by the British Library, from medieval times right up until World War 2. I am interested in the 15th-17th century so:

In this 16th century book The Accomplisht Cook we find:

The book was written in the year of the restoration, and May wrote that his recipes ‘were formerly the delights of the Nobility, before good housekeeping had left England .’ His books give directions for many extravagant dishes, including a pastry stag filled with blood-like claret, a tortoise stewed with eggs, nutmeg and sweet herbs, and a ‘pudding of swan’ made with rose water and lemon peel.”

Also have a look at a digitized page from the book on cheesecakes, with about seven different varieties of them!

17th century cheesecakes

Click for source and transcript

Next, crossing the English Channel to France. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France had also something to offer, mostly in digital reproductions of illuminated manuscripts. This wonderful online exhibition intitled “Gastronomie Medievale” offers rich and detailed images about types of food, food rituals, ingredients, etc. According to this image in “Le Decameron” by Boccace in 1432, meals were had twice a day, completed by a dutiful kiss to the wife of the household it seems.

Two meals a day during medieval times

Click image for source

Apart from online exhibition and collections like the ones you just saw, there is also a plethora of individual websites compiled by enthusiastic amateurs & professionals all over the planet. Some of the more detailed one are great resources for medieval food lovers accompanied often with modern translation and original source text.

My first hit was Medieval Cookery, a excellent website to start with your research into medieval gastronomy. It features medieval menus, cookbooks and recipes by countries, category and type of meals. There are also translated in modern english for those of us who haven’t acquired a mastery of Old English, French or Latin.

So how about a modern twist on a chicken pasty? This recipe not only features in Le Menagier de Paris but also in Danish, Icelandic and northern German cookbooks of the 13th century.

Source [Libellus De Arte Coquinaria, Rudolf Grewe, Constance B. Hieatt (eds.)]: Recipe XXX. Quomodo condiatur pullus in pastello. Man skal et unct høns i tu skæræ oc swepæ thær um helæ salviæ blath, oc skær i spæk oc salt, oc hyli thæt hø mæth degh; oc latæ bakæ i en hogn swa sum brøth. Swa mughæ man gøræ allæ handæ fiskæ pastel, oc fughlæ oc annæt køt.

Recipe XXX. How to prepare a chicken pasty. One should cut a young chicken in two and cover it with whole leaves of sage, and add diced bacon and salt. And wrap this chicken with dough and bake it in an oven like bread. In the same way one can make all kinds of pasties: of fish, of fowl, and of other meats.

Another excellent resource is Gode Cookery, running since 1997. This website offers access to recipes, illustrations, glossaries of medieval terms, botanic plants directory, etc. Basically, everything you need to embark on a medieval gastronomy tour. So how about a Queen’s Potage?

Take Almonds, beat them and boil them with good broth, a bundle of Herbs, and the inside of a Lemon, a few crums of Bread, then season them with Salt, stir them often and strain them. Then take your Bread and soak it with the best broth, which is thus to be made.

When you have boned a Capon or Partridge, take the bones and beat them in a Morter, then seethe these bones in strong both with Mushromes, and strain all through a linnen cloth, and with this broth soak your Bread, as it soaks, sprinkle it with Almond broth, then put unto it a little minced meat, either of Partridge or Capon, and still, as it soaks, put in more Almond-broth until it be full, then take the Fire-shovel red hot, and hold it over, garnish your Dish with Cocks-combs, Pistaches and Pome-granates.”

Gode Cookery also offers a rich section of weblinks and their online bookshop (in parternship with Amazon). You can purchase their modernized recipes book or browse through the selection of medieval cookbooks both new and old.

Talking about old books, I mean really old books, I remember years ago when I arrived in Geneva I stumbled in a antique bookshop near St-Pierre Cathedral. There I found a marvelous (and costly!) reproduction of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. For those who aren’t familiar with this work, it is based on an 11th century Arab medical treatise. It was then translated in Latin during the 13th century. The title can be translated to “Maintenance of Health“. Without it being a cookbook like we have come to know them, it was one of the first text describing beneficial and/or harmful effects of plants and common food ingredients. Although considered to be of therapeutic expertise, this codex offers incredibly detailed images (a lot of them!) and insights about food and agriculture in the 13th-14th century in Europe.

Honey making according to Tacuinum Sanitatis

Click for source and text (in French)

Before ending this post, I would like also to share my two recent finds. Some background first : some of you may have read (or are reading) the excellent fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin. Without going into detail in the story, because it would take me ages and I don’t want to spoil it for you, let’s just say that Martin is a profilic food-lover and enthusiat. No matter where in his world the characters and story are set, you will always get the local flavour by reading about what people eat. So much is this passion for recipes in the book series that I have found two dedicated blogs. The first is : Inn at the Crossroads exploring the mouth-watering foods of the books by two passionate ladies.

How about Gulls Eggs and Seaweed Soup?

Click image for source (and recipe)

A more recent approach is Cooking Ice and Fire, started by Adam Bruski: attorney by day, food lover by night. Here is a little spoiler recipe from the latest Ice and Fire book (A Dance with Dragons) : A cold Egg Lime Soup

Click image for source (and recipe)

There you go food-book lovers and kitchen fiends! Hope you liked this post and feel free to share on some of your historical cooking inspiration!

About Gaming: Part 2 of 3 – We are all gamers

1 Dec
Girl gamer

Click image for source

So now we get to the juicy bit of this series of articles on video games; namely existing and perpetuating gender issues in the gaming world. A bit of warning in advance, I will be brutally honest but respectful however do not just expect a feminist rant… but also a gamer rant.

Let’s get a few fact straights : men and women both play games, apparently it seems that female gamers are on the rise according to (again) the Entertainment Software Association :

“Forty-two percent of all players are women and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry’s fastest growing demographics.” (Source)

I could corroborate this number with yet another survey conducted by Harris Interactive for GameHouse® stating basically that 55% of people who play games online are women. It is completed by a nifty infographic showing that women are also happier and have more sex than non gamers. First of all, I’m clearly happy about those numbers as it corroborates the fact that, yes indeed, they are women gamers out there. But I still get a queasy feeling (I am not the only one but for different reasons) when I see the Gamehouse survey conducted by a): a male (he is clearly depicted as your geek-tech-guy in the infographic) b): refers to women gamers as a “new breed” of gamers (are we really an oddity?) and c): fuels the well-known and much debated stereotypes about female playing games by inserting a bra in the title (why?) and mentioning our sexual activity level.

So where should we start? Let’s attack the core of the problem without hesitation: gender based-stereotypes. For those who have read the first part of this series, you know I love video games. I consider myself lucky to have grown up playing them with my dad and my younger brother because this meant that there were games all over the place, all the time. So no, I wasn’t raised to think about the fact that I would get resentment or crappy remarks because I am a woman who enjoys video games. I first experienced these when I started playing dice-and-paper RPG’s with a group of male friends in late high school. And, surprisingly, I got it from people on the outside of our gaming circle : I was dubbed as a geek, uninteresting and definitely un-sexy by some male counterparts. I did not fight it, nor answered any of it because it seemed like a waste of my time and energy: which I much prefered to be focused on gaming.

So now, twenty years later, games have matured, genres have diversified and yet I still get surprised looks in my male entourage when I mention that I play a lot of video games. Why? I thinks it’s a safe bet to answer that this is all based on assumptions.

Assumption 1 : Video games are not made for women

Wrong. They always were, there were not only men playing Pac-Man at the local arcade when I was a kid, I was getting in there and played with the same passion as anybody. Yet, most games available today were designed by men with their specific mindsets. We get clantily-scad female characters with oversized bosoms, big guys with rippling muscles and big guns, big-bad monsters, zombies or orcs and enough explosions to make you deaf. This is where the big money went a decade ago with the launch of video games consoles. So where is it now? The industry has realised that girls want to play games too so they went out of their way to create games that are specifically aimed at female consumers, assuming again that it would satisfy our thirst for the game.  Well, it worked, after a fashion. Social games are on the rise, mostly played by women it seems, cooking & dressing games are abundant on the web and there are games genre designed for female gamers.  So right there you would say :” Hey, some guys like to play those games as well and there are some girls who don’t like them!” I totally agree.  Remember, this is about audience and money, the gaming industry are widening their games genre to sell more and be successful as a franchise. I am not disatisfied with the variety of games available, I am disatisfied because I have to defend myself for being who I am.

Assumption 2 : Women don’t play hardcore games

Wrong again. Some of us get tired of brushing our character’s virtual hair or slicing a digital pizza, we get more demanding, we want a game that will challenge us. So yes, I started playing  the Halo games last year, after more than a decade of abandoning the first-person-shooter genre. The reason is quite simple, I fell in love with a Halo fanatic. At first, I teased him about his gaming habit (who I am to talk when I can have a 5-hour marathon on Oblivion?), and then I got curious about the game. Of course, his teasing comments about me being a girl gave me the impulse to try it out… just to prove a point. I started with Halo 2 : it took me 3 months to finish. It was my first experience of an FPS on a console, I was utterly terrified everytime a grenade landed near me and was turning running into walls into an art form. Second was Halo 3 : it took me 3 weeks to finish. I was less scared, the increased graphics quality helped, I was capable of aiming properly and landing a few choice grenades. Next was Halo ODST: took me 3 days to finish. I got stuck on the first mission because of a  large groups of enemies that kept killing me but I polished my tactics and eventually got the better of the game. Halo Reach? Finished it in a couple of hours. I will get around to playing Halo CE when I have the Anniversary copy. Nowadays I routinely go on Xbox live in Halo Reach with or without my significant other, I’m getting better and better every time I play, I learn from my mistakes and I don’t assume I will be treated differently because I am female as well my online avatar.

So no, I will not flaunt the fact that I’m a girl online playing games, I am, that’s it. I sometimes get nasty comments, it happened to me a while back on a Living Dead Halo Reach playlist. I had a group of english guys on my team, it must have been the first time I played a:) with the headset b:) the zombie killing game. Bottom line: I got it handed to me. Big time. And the thing is my fellow male players laughed outright at me. You know what I did? Instead of  arguing and throwing a fit… I took my headset off and carried on playing. Frankly, I don’t care if some men think of me as fat, ugly, bitchy or feminist because I play “their” video games, it’s their problem, not mine. I play because I love the game, always did. This post was initially more about how stereotypes affect women in the gaming “industry” and not just female gamers, but I do admit getting sidetracked after reading a some articles on stereotypes in general in the gaming world, have a look at some of them at the end of this post.

I have already said that I am a huge strategy games fan, I think I must have tried every single one that came out in the last few years because I wanted to see new features in the layout of units, the replayability of maps, multiplayer capabilities, etc. I disliked certain additions or features like the Total War series, even though it’s turn-based too much of the game is concentrated on rendering the combat scenes in 3d cutscenes than on the actual game engine itself. Nevertheless, I am faitful to strategy games because I like their pace and, of course, the preparation phase of your units before sending them to a horrid virtual death. I was handed a few years back a copy of Supreme Commander on PC, with it came the notion that I probably wouldn’t like this game because it relied too much on military strategy and I, being a female, clearly could not understand that. Not saying a word, I installed the game, it did take me a few moments to understand how to deploy my units in proper fashion, control my production and prepare for a strike. Even with my aging PC, I managed to finish the first campaign (and win it) in a couple of hours much to the dismay of the person that handed it to me. He eventually had to rescind his earlier comment about women not understanding strategy and left me the game…probably because it was too hard for him.

So no this is not a list of my gaming exploits but a means to demonstrate my point: there are some type of games that demand a higher level of concentration, where you have to be on the lookout for anything.  Some other games demand skill and precision: press that button at that specific time for the action to compute. Some games rely on strategy: prepare and build up your troops initially before launching a strike against an enemy. Each of those games are as diverse as we are, so no, there are no “girly” or “un-girly” games, I will not accept being categorized (yet again) because I don’t play Wii games nor will I insult any female gamer who likes to play them. It’s a question of personal taste, it is not about gender.

Assumption 3 : Female characters are not realistic

Part of this assumption is the case some women have against some video games is the portrayal of female characters in the stories; let’s go back and have a look at Lara Croft with her oversized bust and tight shorts in 1996. I am not here to make the case against her, it’s been in the making since then with her unrealistic breast size that either attracted a legion of fans or fierce adversaries. In this, I will not pick a side because I really don’t mind the way she looks but prefer the way she re-acts in the game. This is a strong female character, she will take you out even if you’re six feet tall with oversized muscles, and her hair will still be gorgeous. What does that tell us: that we (females) should endeavour to look like her? Certainly not, but there is much to be admired in a female heroine that stands her own.

Let’s look at this from another angle.What is the most common stereotype associated with male hardcore gamers…. need I spell it out? The majority of these boys would either be shunned by (some) girls because they are “weird” or “geeks”: it clashes with the stereotype that says that men should be big, strong, productive and certainly not indulging in the dubious pleasure of playing silly video games. In other cases, even they admit feeling scared of revealing their passion to their new girl in case they are made fun of (aka the single most destructive blow you can hit a man with). So, when it comes down to it, characters like Lara Croft might reassure them that as lonely geek gamers they could still attract wonderful looking girls, if only they could go beyond….stereotypes!

So, was there ever a game that made women feel better about themselves? When I play Dragon Age, Mass Effect or Oblivion, my husband always asks me why I choose to portray a female character (when in reality it doesn’t change my gaming experience; NPC’s don’t care if I’m female, male or just an oversized scaled fish, they react to my character race, skills and attributes) instead of a male one. My answer was (and still is) why not? Early RPG’s like Dark Sun AD&D or Baldur’s Gate made it possible to portray a female hero with the same skill set as a male one. When playing Dragon Age 2 you have many female characters that will join you on your quest : for those who played the game did anybody forget Isabella’s massive chest? Or the fact that Varric, your dwarven narrator, depicts your character’s sister Bethany with unrealistic cleavage when he tells the story for his point of view?  I asked myself if I wanted to see Fenris or Sebastien (or any other male characters in video games) with a huge codpiece to make things even but it holds little interest for me but I would like to see it in a MOD someday, just to see the reaction of my male counterparts. Don’t say no, it would be funny.

So, the bottom line is both men and women are trapped with their stereotypes : men for being female-fearing-cave-nerds playing endless video games and female for being afraid (or feeling pressured) to act (or portray) like men in games. Aren’t we all “gamers”? Isn’t it time to go beyond that and let anybody with skill participate in the development of our future video games? I guess that might sound a little bit over optimistic, especially for women who want to pursue a career in video games design (in the USA mainly) but times are changing.

Assumption 4 : Video game design is for men

Considering all that has been said until now, is it really a surprise that the video game industry are still missing the mark with female game designers? Apparently not. We are clearly considered as customers by the marketing departement but what about game design itself? Let’s look at what has been happening recently.

The fact is that since the industry is predominently made up of male designers and requires of them to be avid video game players, it was never assumed that there would be a place for women in it. Or so we thought. A look back on a New York Times article in 2004:

“It’s a chicken-or-egg thing,” said Ms. Fulton, who sees a lot of résumés in her job, almost all from men. “If more women were playing games, they might get interested in games as a medium and might choose to pursue that as a career. But it’s still stigmatized as a boy thing.”

There you have it, we should play more games, but remember that this was written seven years ago and we have seen just how much women have been getting in the game since then. I outlined earlier how female character development have pushed away female gamers because they felt that too much emphasis was being put in breast enlargement and skimpy costumes, clearly male designers are missing something: a female’s point of view. If you have a look at this article on Geeks Are Sexy, the author Natiana echoes some of my concerns :

“I’m not saying that sexy women have no place in video games. On the contrary, I’m not calling for the obliteration of sexiness—I think the female form is beautiful, and ought to celebrated. But we should, like in the real world, have a choice whether or not to let it all hang out, so to speak, or look just like any other soldier in the army.”

This is why female developers have their place in the gaming industry, we can bring these modifications that, while not changing the game experience, can attract more female players without antagonizing them because of gender issues. So do we want a female-designed Halo or Modern Warfare? I can hear some fans screaming already, but that is clearly not the objective that female designers might want to achieve, they want to create video games and make them better… for everybody. Of course that does not change the fact that women still have a hard time being accepted as skilled and capable individuals in the gaming industry. Most women in any technology career are already being confronted with the same old boring stereotypes. My answer: ignore them, carry on with what you’re doing and stay focused. You can’t change mentalities in a hearbeat. Your work and contribution will make the difference in the end.

So yes, there are recurring stereotypes in the video game industry but these are ultimately failing because the bigger the audience gets, the more you will need skilled designers to make it work : both male and female. Paris’ Ubisoft CEO, Yves Guillemot, said :

“[…]he’s proud of the fact his company has about a 20-per-cent female workforce, which is significantly higher than the industry average of about 11 per cent.” (Source)

So what are we waiting for girls? Get your game on!

Next week, the final part of this article on gaming : specifically about video games and libraries

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About Gaming: Part 1 of 3 : Why I love video games

17 Nov

According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board , the average gamer is 34 years-old and has been playing video games for 12 years. Furthermore, if you have a look at the Pew Report on Adults and Video Games, by Amanda Lenhart, Sydney Jones, Alexandra Macgill (published in 2008), you will find that:

“More than half – 53% – of all American adults play video games of some kind, whether on a computer, on a gaming console, on a cell phone or other handheld device, on a portable gaming device, or online.”

By far, these statistics are on the spot when it comes to me and members of my generation. So, scratch the argument : “Video games are for kids” and also erase from your minds the traditional myths about video games . In the last few years video games have emerged as a respected and creative industry, denying it would be pointless and surreal as (for the United States alone) 32.000 people are employed by the video game software industry.

It will be no surprise then that I chose these circumstances to write about an industry that has always fascinated me. At first, when I thought about this article, I decided to jote down as many ideas as I could about video games. I realized then that were would be many themes to explore : video games as art, gender issues in the gaming industry, women gamers myths, gaming and education, gaming in public spaces (such as libraries), etc.  In the hopes of making my thoughts on this legible, I will separate this article in three distinct parts : the first one will be about my personal relationship to video games, their actual formats, the genres I play and (naturally), the many arguments about “real” game(r)s or not. The second part will broach another issue I find important : debunking myths about female gamers and women in this industry. Finally the last part will show how video games are becoming more and more important in education programs and how libraries are using them (and incorporating them) in their collections.

I love video games

This is a simple as it gets, I love gaming, I always did. In fact I have come to realise that I have played video games for the last 30 years. It started with Pong at the local arcade, then with the Intellivision console (do you remember the controllers?), then my first PC stricto-sensu, with 5.25 inch floppy disks, succeeded by 3.5 inch floppy disks.  In the late 80’s I remember a Commodore 64, our first Nintendo, the long serie of Microsoft Windows,  a Mac in 2003, back to a portable HP in 2007. Finally, add to this two Xbox consoles and my Android Smartphone.

Real Gamer or not?

This is all technical and hardware talk, nobody wants to know what I play “on” but rather…. what kind of video games do I like to play? I never realised until recently (when I started playing Halo on the Xbox 360) that the answer to the above question, in a world where video games have never been more popular, is suppose to define you as being a real gamer or not.

Most of the games that I started playing fifteen years agon were on a standard PC and remain my favourite games today: Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Age of Empires, Heroes of Might and Magic, Simcity, Caesar… you get my drift, I loved role-playing and management games. However, I also played with my brother and my father over the years games such as : Doom, Castelvania, Wolfenstein, Goldeneye… you again get my drift, the first-generation first-person-shooter. I chose to devote more my time to rpg and empire-building than killing zombies and monsters. Even before the advent of consoles and extreme virtual reality gaming, I was being categorized as a “soft gamer” compared to the (majority) of males playing “real games”. Call it a gender issue but I will detail my arguments about this in part 2, so you will have to be patient.

Yet that was not the core of the problem for me, I resented being called a soft-gamer simply because I never got into online multiplayer gaming. That last statement is not entirely true as I have devoted dozen of hours in the past  to play BBS games and MUD games but when World of Warcraft came out  in 2004, I gave up online gaming. Why? Because for me gaming was (and still is) a solo experience, be it with a keyboard/mouse or a controller. I wanted to immerse myself in storylines, not come up head-to-head with lone gamers spending their real money online acquiring a flaming blue mohawk and who wanted to crack my skull with an axe. Even digital.

Video games were a means to test my intellectual skills against an AI, develop strategies to achieve objectives and resolve puzzles that would take me further into a story or specific set world. By doing this, I believed I have acquired distinct skills and abilities over time that have enabled me to be more efficient, grasp complex issues quickly and find practical solutions to problems. I spent countless years as a teenager creating a complex machine that would enable me to fire up my toaster using a baseball, conveyor belts and fans.

The Incredible Machine

For the nostalgic: The Incredible Machine

As an illustration of the skills I hone regurlary, there is my ongoing addiction to Hidden Object Games, or more commonly know as HOG; it is clear to me that finding objects hidden throughout a scene keeps my observation skills sharp. As a matter of fact, this is not the first time that the cognitive effects of gaming have been researched. However there seems to be some recent counter arguments against this:

“Despite the hype, in reality, there is little solid evidence that games enhance cognition at all,” said assistant professor Walter Boot. “The idea that video games could enhance cognition was exciting because it represented one of the few cases in which cognitive training enhanced abilities that weren’t directly practiced,” Boot stated. “But we found no benefits of video game training.” Not only did some of his studies fail to replicate those earlier findings, but “no study has yet met the ‘gold standard’ methods necessary in intervention studies of this sort.” (Source) – Link to research article

As I am no psychology specialist, I will not even attempt to refute those arguments, their purpose is to highlight the fact that video games (enhancing cognitive skills or not) are part of my learning experience.

The PC vs Console argument

Another reason I was deemed being a soft gamer; it took me years to abandon my PC and it’s 2d isometric-view board games to make the leap to the new generation 3d games that were developped for computers and consoles. As more and more game sequels (and later on movies) were making the shift towards 3d, I had the distinct impression that it was killing storylines and scenarios of previous board games. A perfect example for me is the Heroes of Might and Magic series : I played the first three installments religiously, the launch of Heroes 4 marked the end of the era as nothing better could be achieved by means of replayability value and customization features…. there was simply no way that this game could incorporate lenghty video animations that 3d brought. And yet it did, with Heroes 5, that left behind most of the mapmaking abilities and scripting possibilities of  Heroes 3 and 4. For yet another example : try to imagine the empire-building game of a generation of gamers, namely Age of Empires, being remade entirely in 3d mode… can you imagine the difficulty of switching to your peasants and troops back and forth on a sluggish game engine? Some games (or so I thought) were simply not made to be virtual environments : especially turn-based and role-playing games. As years rolled on, I saw superb graphic combat animations in new games franchises, exceptional realism and immersive universe that you can spend hours exploring to the gradual loss of well-designed menus, dungeon-loot systems, customizing and modding abilities.

So yes, my initial disdain towards consoles was more due to the 2d-3d argument (read the 1998 post from Jakob Nielsen’s about it) than the gaming system itself, but then I realized that it was one of the reasons that made consoles so good: 3D is fun on a decent gaming console, as a player you are totally immersed, two hands on your controller, in the same way that we used to do it with keyboard shortcuts and a mouse on a PC. As stories and universes got more complex and detailed, I happily dived in with The Elder Scrolls series, Dragon Age 1 & 2, Mass Effect 1 & 2 and even Assassin’s Creed.

As this IGN articles relates:

“There was a time when there was a very strong separation of church and state between cinematics and gameplay – the cinematics told the story and then the player played the game and that was just how it was. In the last ten years, however, we’ve seen a very clear drive towards unifying both areas with a view to creating a form of storytelling that is unique to gaming.” (Source)

We love heroes, we want to be heroes

Long-time gamers like me may be nostalgic of our old classics and characters, but there is no way that we could go back to those linear games without cringing all the way through. Thanks to creative programers, artists and interactive storytelling we have the ability to immerse ourselves even deeper in complex virtual environments. Long gone are the days where we were told to follow a story rigidly : today we want to create, customize and craft our unique character(s), we want to claim their actions and decide their fate. This is why there is such emotional appeal to the stories that incorporate your decisions in the completion of a game. If you look at Dragon Age Origins, you have a clear example on how with choices comes… responsibility. The possibility for your character to do “the right thing” (or not) does not necessarily mean that you get what you hoped (quest completion, artifact, romance development) for also but considerably enriches your gaming experience by making you feel as a part of the universe you’re exploring. This is largely why I reject the theory that video games make people violent : violence is a part of us, we can choose to express or not and by that choice we accept consequences. By and all, we are crafting ourselves as heroes. Why? Because we love them, our cultural history is filled with them and now we have the possibility of becoming one.

In definitive, do games genres need to have an affixed “real” tag next to them or not? The reality of gaming today is not simply just about sneaking in the dark with a virtual sniper rifle pointed at your enemies in Halo or fierce-button mashing combinations in Street Fighter; gaming is not just about looting endless dungeons or exploring moutain caves in Oblivion; gaming is about our own human need for achievement. This is why we play video games: we are confronted by simulations and have to react accordingly in order to pass to the next level: we rack our brains, we sprain our wrists and thumbs, we occasionally forget to blink but enjoy every bit of the experience. As a experienced and demanding gamer, I could not be happier by living in an era where we have the ability to learn from our distinct gaming experiences, shape our unique stories and share them with the rest of the world.

Lastly, for the well-know skeptics out there who still think that video games are only some underground phenomenon, have a look at the superb online voting site for an exhibition (planned for March 2012) by the Smithsonian American Art Museum : The Art of Video Games.

Next week, part two of this article on gaming : more specifically about women gamers and women in the gaming industry.

Have any thoughts? Reactions? Comments? You are most welcome to join the conversation!

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