Flunking On Extra Credits

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Extra Credits is an educational webshow that teaches viewers about issues important to video games and their studies, discussing issues such as video game development, the legitimacy of video games as art, amongst other things with the intent of creating discourse on important subjects within gamer culture.

For the few unfamiliar with Extra Credits, let me break down their approach to analyzing games media. There is some worth in this, even if you haven’t watched any of their videos. I’ll also be bringing up a few similar channels that do a much better job at delivering the same kind of critical content at the end, so please bear with me. I’m not only going to comment on their general style and approach, but also take a look at their history online, as well as critique points they directly made in some of their own videos. I also feel the need to point out that I will be linking directly to their videos, so if you do not wish to give them views, don’t click the links provided.

Extra Credits started as a series of two video presentations for college level history and media theory classes by Daniel Floyd. The series was “loosely based” off of Zero Punctuation, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that they would later push to have their series on the same website as that to make it abundantly clear what they were going for. After the two initial presentations, he teamed up with James Portnow, who became the main writer for the series. Allison Theus was added at the last moment to produce the art, and the three set their sights on making videos for The Escapist. Ironically starting with an episode titled “Bad Writing.”

It’s worth noting that Portnow worked for Zynga as a flavor text writer for FarmVille before creating this video. A game where the flavortext just come across as uninspired throwaway dialogue that most people will just click past without looking at. The episode was most likely written as a rallying call to tell himself it wasn’t his own fault that the job was as soulless as it turned out to be. Equally, Portnow’s characteristic hatred of the Call of Duty franchise very likely stems from his previous work on a canceled one. Whenever sites want to state how the Extra Credits staff are insiders with the know-how telling others how game development works, these are the examples of previous work stated. Considering texts like that are promotional in nature and try to fluff up the truth, that’s actually very sad. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” comes to mind. Portnow tried and couldn’t, so he turned to teaching instead. His teachings are so bare-bones and pessimistic that it betrays a lack of passion for the industry. He just doesn’t have anything else going for him so tries to hang in there out of desperation.

I can understand if you think that I’m reaching with these claims, but I’m really not. When Extra Credits moved away from The Escapist they released a series of videos starting with Daniel Floyd saying there is no such thing as game addiction in the first video. A stance I actually agree with, for a lot of the same reasons as he brings to the table. The second video however, featured James Portnow complaining about how his gaming addiction and how it ruined his life. Considering the place they were coming from at the time, it’s understandable why the episode turned as damning as it did, but that doesn’t change that the feelings portrayed aren’t new or fresh. They’re old and deep-rooted problems that they couldn’t untangle to make a proper coherent video out of, and they’re feelings that still show themselves in the way they cover the subject material in their other videos.

As with just about everything that exists for the sake of “creating discourse”, most of their arguments are shallow, haven’t really been fleshed out, and provide little more than a few silent nods of agreement of people who just glanced through the material at hand. Occasionally making people feel informed about games they never played, but never really letting someone who experienced the subject matter themselves feel like anything was actually stated during the entire duration of the video. Extra Credits claims to be educational, but doesn’t actually teach anything. Something that doesn’t stop them from preaching anyway, which comes especially easy to them given the subject matter and audience they have. Of course preaching “Games are art!” to a group of gamers is going to be met with a round of applause. A half-hearted rallying cry isn’t going to bring in any non-gamers to share these beliefs though. You would need a more mature approach to get something like that across.

Seeking validation from Big Brother Traditional Media isn’t going to make them think you’re a big boy now, taking care of yourself for your own sake does. The lack of emotional maturity shining through these attempts at being validated makes it impossible to objectively cover the mechanics that make games good.

And you should be able to objectively cover the mechanics and unique tricks that gaming employs to prove what makes gaming unique. It’s those that things that make games matter beyond blind escapism. There’s that constant argument that you can’t objectively cover art, and while I do agree with that in terms of critiquing something along the lines of it being an entertainment product worth experiencing, an educational course about the elements that make games special, makes them work, should be able to do exactly this. Especially now that people have figured out how to record videos and properly critique videos, we see more and more people do exactly that because the old guard, the traditional route of paid authoritarian figures, have failed at properly providing this content.

This also brings me to my biggest problem with the presentation of Extra Credits. Simple stylized art and memetic internet images do not get your point across very well when you’re discussing complicated aspects of videogames and how they work. Games are a visual medium that uses a lot of sound engineering to make players pick up on traditional sound clues that have been there since the Game and Watch days. When covering the elements that build up games, show them. It gets the idea across much more cleanly than any amount of memes or soapbox preaching drawn characters can do. It also helps you dive into much deeper conversations as to why something works or doesn’t work, instead of relying on overly simple blanket statements that don’t really amount to all that much.

Extra Credits especially loves impartial language to invoke a neutral voice, without actually doing anything to maintain one. Just like the presentation not actually helping their arguments, their actual arguments themselves are worded so loosely that they end up not saying anything at all if you listen carefully enough. Even with the intent of sparking debate, it doesn’t really do much more raising the tiniest spark and promoting it as giant bonfire. They don’t give enough information for people to properly be able to have a back and forth because of their overly simplified back and forth. Even the PBS Idea Channel, while still overly simplified and full of strawman arguments to try to persuade people to a particular line of thought, does a better job at starting a conversation.

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Despite all of this, I’m very doubtful that there’s any real malice behind their words. Looking at the second Game Addiction video, and cross-referencing it with the controversies they’ve stumbled their way through, I can’t think of them as competent enough to willingly do wrong. They really believe in their material, approach, and conduct, but that’s just a part of their own naivety.

One shining example of their lack of professionalism and their abundance of naivety is the gigantic mess that they created when they stopped working for The Escapist. The story itself is a gigantic mess, much like the situation itself, but the general gist of it is easy to summarize.

  • Escapist mentioned money being tight. James Portnow said not to worry about it, pay other contributors first.
  • Extra Credits starts crowdsourcing to pay for surgery for their artist. Escapist helps promote them through their platform, gives out tshirts and Escapist premium subscriptions to donators.
  • Much larger amount of money is donated than needed.
  • Extra Credits plans what to do with this money. Doesn’t consider contacting their employers. Rallies people into agreeing with them creating “Extra Credits LLC” so hold the IPs for future indie games.
  • Escapist wants a cut of the overflow to pay for the subscription and tshirts that they handed out despite being in a terrible monetary position
  • Extra Credits guys make a huge stink about not being paid for months, about Escapist wanting to take all of the money raised, about their terrible treatment in general, decides to cancel their contract and leave.

While it’s very easy to rally the underdog, the small independent group of artist being wronged by the larger greedy media company over a financial dispute, the way that the entire situation gave them the biggest amount of publicity and ensured they’d find another home makes me scratch my head about the way it was all handled. No, I don’t think The Escapist handled the situation correctly, but neither did the Extra Credits crew. They were evasive during the proceedings while sitting on a large sum of money. The kind that they likely never had to think about previously, which is why they were so desperate to keep it. Especially in combination with the Game Addiction videos, it sounds like it was a life changing sum of money that made them change their view on what they were making these videos for.

Some time after that they were picked up by Penny Arcade. Only to be dropped alongside of Ben Kuchera of all people.

Lately, Portnow has been going after TotalBiscuit. Making entire arguments out of false assumptions about the GamerGate hashtag, because grasping at straws is about all the pull they have within the industry. The most interesting thing to note about this mess is that, going by their very own “Facing Controvery” video, they should actually agree with most of the things at the core of GamerGate. But when push comes to shove, they’re not interested in actually following through with what they preach. This video, a mashup of their Facing Controversy video and a lot of recent statements from within the games media, really drives home how quickly they turned away from their own teachings when it was convenient to them. Extra Credits vs #GamerGate. Naming the video in case it gets pulled because of a false DMCA claim, someone will most likely have reuploaded under the same name it if you dig around enough.

So, who cares about all of this background stuff if the content of the videos is actually good, right? At least they’re making people think about aspects of game design! They’re doing good! Because games matter! You’re just an anti-intellectual who is afraid of your games being given criticism!

First off, no I’m not. If games matter, and they’ll only improve in substance when customers start demanding this from their products, then shouldn’t the reasoning behind the demand also stand up to inspection? If criticism of games media helps gaming evolve to whatever the next step in its evolution is, shouldn’t the criticism be expected to have merit upon closer look?

Their video series is a presentation of simple facts most people are already aware of under the guise of teaching people new information so that they feel clever about having already understood these facts. At least, in the cases that their statements are actually facts. They’re often incredibly wrong about a lot of the things they make videos about, as you’ll see in the following segments.

p4 kanji

Sexual Diversity

Kanji Tatsumi is gay. The developers stepped back from stating this outright in the English version of the game. They even went on record for saying they made things “more subtle” for the English release. A choice that doesn’t do our industry credit, but it’s not what we’re here to talk about today. This has led some fans to justify that Kanji isn’t actually gay, perhaps because his sexuality made some of them uncomfortable. There’s a great interview with Troy Baker, the voice actor for Kanji. In the interview, Troy talks about Kanji and the direction he received from people at Atlus who in short, told him that Kanji was gay.

Maybe the reason that Atlus didn’t outright state Kanji is gay in Persona 4 is because he isn’t gay. One of the main key themes of Persona 4 is that all of the characters have impulses and complexes that they don’t want to admit to, but that makes them who they are. Every cast member in the game has similar story arcs. Chie has an inferiority complex that makes her want to manipulate Yukiko for her own self-esteem. Yukiko is afraid of being stuck inheriting her family’s inn and wants to travel and be free instead. Kanji is a sensitive and nurturing person who enjoys a lot of activities typically considered girly and has self-esteem issues because of gender roles enforced by society, leading him to doubt his sexuality. Rise is stuck between her own professional self and the way the media portrays her as an idol. Naoto’s pursuit of being a detective leads her to adopt male normative gender roles without even realizing it to a point of being confused with her own identity.

What makes Persona 4 interesting is that the characters overcome these problems by accepting their inner thoughts as part of themselves. There’s nothing ambiguous about it. That’s why Kanji says that the Other “him” is still him. All of the characters say similar lines throughout the game. People hoping Kanji is gay or Naoto is trans tend to get frustrated with the portrayal of these issues because the issues actually aren’t being addressed. They’re trying to impose their own problems on characters that aren’t fit to hold that burden because it’s not their struggle. Persona 4 is not that deep a game, and rightly doesn’t attempt to cover these issues because it’s not their playing field.

This doesn’t mean that the game is better or worse for it. The underlying message is that Kanji is Kanji, no matter how people perceive him.

But hey, we don’t take much stock in authorial intent her at Extra Credits anyways, so who cares what the developers say his sexuality is? What is important here is that Kanji’s sexuality is what makes him interesting. It’s a key part in making him a compelling multi-dimensional character.

Except for the part where you’re reading too far into dialogue to see him as something he is not, despite the entire game being forward about this subject. It really makes me wonder if these lines in the EC video were written with full understanding of the game’s content. Kanji even develops a love interest with one of the female cast members later on in the game. Now, I might be wrong here, but I think this means that he might not be gay. Bisexual, maybe. But not gay. If he was, you would’ve been able to romance him.

So, would Persona 4 have been a better game if it didn’t accept sexual diversity? Would it have been anywhere near as good if the developers had been complacent and written another story about a heterosexual white or asian male?

No.

It would’ve just been another JRPG.

Because one character in the entirety of an 80 hour game doesn’t meet the diversity quota, the entire game goes from fantastic and original to “just another JRPG.” Those sure are words of love towards a gaming genre from people enthused about the media format. Not the words of a jaded soul at all.

Forgetting that the things that really set Persona 4 apart from the rest of the genre at the time were the modern setting, J-pop soundtrack, time management elements, approach towards missable content, feel-good aesthetic, and dating sim elements that were very much unlike most other JRPGs out at the time, that really would’ve made it just like all the other games. Just because one character’s sexuality isn’t what you want it to be. That’s awfully narrow-minded.

It’s also worth noting that the same video started with this pearl:

Who cares if you’re playing an Italian Plumber or Grave Robbing Bimbo?

Now, I’m not the one preaching the plight of gender norms here, but that sounds like an awfully sexist way to describe a character.

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Spectrum Crunch

We’re running out of bandwidth in the air.

I don’t even know where to begin with this. We are not running out of bandwidth. There’s a limited amount of IP numbers available. Every time we run out of possible IPs, we upgrade our numeric system. We’re at IPv6 now. We’ve faced this problem six times total now. We’ll run into it again. We’ll increase the numbers of IPs again. Problem solved. There is no need for this level clickbait style of fear mongering.

According to this video, we’d have run out of bandwidth by 2014. I’m writing this in 2015. Internet works just fine. Nothing happened.

Dwarf_Fortress_AsciiRoguelike Returns – How to Revive a Genre

This video is such a terrible constructed rambling piece, that it’s actually very hard to properly address the problems. The points addressed go all over the place without saying anything meaningful, even contradicting themselves within the same minute they were brought up.

So let’s get a couple of facts straight, and then you can go watch the video and see how little research they did.

Roguelikes never went away, even during the years of “downtime” there was a very popular spinoff series following most of the true Roguelike elements, barring perma-death. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. This franchise was actually a cross-over with the Mystery Dungeon series, which a lot of people really into the genre will know because of the excellent Shiren the Wanderer on the SNES, which later was ported to the Nintendo DS. On the PC end, a lot of Roguelikes quietly lived on. Elona RPG, Dwarf Fortress, Nethack, Stone Soup, the list goes on. Most of them weren’t in the public eye at first, even Spelunky largely went under the radar as a freeware title for being too difficult and obtuse for most players until the later remake. By then the list of indie developers citing the game as a major influence was long enough for the game to rise to popularity.

The game that really kicked off the big modern Roguelike hype was The Binding of Isaac. The first major success that cited Spelunky as a source of inspiration. It’s because of the rogue mechanics prevalent in The Binding of Isaac that most games presenting themselves as Roguelike have the gameplay mechanics they now associate with the genre, even if they’re not inherently part of it. The randomly generated secret rooms, ability to kill the shopkeepers, persistent unlocks, focus on boss fights, random effect pills, these are all things that by and large, The Binding of Isaac popularized. A lot of them already existed since the original Rogue, but not in the form that they’ve been presented in since The Binding of Isaac.

Interestingly enough, Extra Credits suggests people come to the genre for a sense of familiarity, not wanting to be confused by hard to understand game mechanics, but then immediately contradict themselves by saying that people love these games because of the way they have to learn these hard to understand game mechanics. It’s like they based the entire video on a couple of wikipedia page without any prior understand or experience with the genre itself.

Also, the main reason so many roguelikes have been coming out recently has less to do with their popularity as it’s only the rare few that actually reach memorable heights. The reason so many developers insist on making roguelikes is because random generation is a very good reason to not learn about basic map design. Who even needs to waste their time carefully crafting areas and locations for players to explore when you can just create a system that automatically generates a new one? It’s why so many of the modern ilk of roguelikes called uninspired and bland, and why there is such a push against the term, despite popular ones still coming out, often beloved by the same people saying they’re sick of a lot of the terrible games released under the label.

mona-lisa-updateMicrotransactions

I was about to write about this, but then realized LordKat covered the same subject matter in a better way than I could. Mostly because he’s got a better understand of the nature of Eve Online, a game I never played. So please read his article instead.

From their Steam Curator’s profile:

valkyriaLet me just respond by saying the following:

  • Wolfenstein New Order
  • Prisoner of War

To keep it Japan-focused. Lloyd practically lived next door to a concentration camp at the start of Tales of Symphonia. There’s also that unsuccessful Ayuschwitz-based Wolfenstein mod that kept attracting controversy years ago. One minute of thinking and a simple Google search gave me four games besides Valkyria Chronicles already.

395-1-1368477746The series of videos about difficulty levels in videogames:

Call of Duty 4 isn’t a straightfoward shooter.

Simon Says is complex.

Tutorials should have the feeling of danger without posing any real danger, and completing it should make the player feel accomplished, using Demon’s Souls as a prime example, in spite of killing off the player early in the tutorial and leaving most of the actual gameplay mechanics (What do stats do? How do you get special items? Should you use those demon souls after boss fights or save them?)  up for the player to learn by themselves afterwards, with the ability to fuck yourself over during your run.

Dark Souls II is amazing for letting players decide their own difficulty setting by doing things other major modern games do and it’s special for doing this because of reasons. Weapon choices, class choices, upgradeable items, and online co-op or not new or exclusive to this game. Here’s a quick GameFAQs style guide to min-max the game because we only just figured out these guides exist.

Games need to follow their own rules, but we’re not going to explore what the difference is between what the viewed rules and the actual game’s rules are. Which is where most people go wrong when it comes to exploring their understanding of videogames. Their problems with Super Mario Bros 3 and Fire Emblem: Awakening especially underline that there’s a large gap between their understanding of the rules that they ended up made up for the game through confirmation bias, and the actual rules the game plays by. There is no effort to obfuscate the ruleset, just a lack of attention played at the way the game teaches its own internal logic.

Using Dark Souls as a positive example seems especially odd in this, because of how many times Dark Souls seemingly breaks its own internal logic to rely on the online messaging system instead. Forcing players to communally relay information to the next group of players.

I’m not slamming the Souls series by the way. I fucking love Demon’s Souls, but their points made across three separate videos make it abundantly clear they have no real idea of the underlying logic of these games. They’re meant to be obscure and punishing in all the ways they don’t want games to be, relying on the community to interact with one another to convey solutions to problems that they came across with each other. This isn’t even touched upon in any of the videos because they’re likely not even aware of these facts, instead min-maxing their way through the games using guides.

Speaking of a failure to understand communities surrounding the games:

Guilty_Gear_Xrd_SIGN_01The Fighting Game Problem – How To Teach Complicated Mechanics

A genre entirely dedicated around playing with people, thus wanting you to learn with others are bad because the games aren’t focused on single player.

The entire solution to the problem is to sit down with a fighting game loving friend and opening up the tutorial mode with them, and having them teach you in an environment where you cannot take damage and play endlessly. Playing against the AI actually make you a lesser player because the entire basis of the genre relies on anticipating players and their habits. Playing against people with terrible habits teaches you bad habits in return.

Again, a video about a genre without any real understanding of what makes it appealing to people who enjoy them. Getting to the top level of anything requires patience and practice, especially in a competitive field. It’s not for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly acceptable for games to lock players out who don’t want to sit down and learn the intricacies about them. This is not an elitist stance, I just don’t agree that everything needs to appeal to everyone and people need to stop pretending like going for the broadest audience is the only way for something to be considered good. Games like chess require you to do a combination of study and play in order to really grasp the theory behind it, so why is it a bad thing when a game wants you to do something similar, especially when you readily compare it to the inner working of chess yourself?

[Coalgirls]_Serial_Experiments_Lain_04_(1008x720_Blu-Ray_FLAC)_[260D7CF9].mkv_snapshot_17.57_[2015.01.29_19.28.12]After looking at nine individual pieces from their content, I hope I’ve made my message clear. Extra Credits is not an educational series.

They barely know what they’re talking about.

The statements they make tend to border between ridiculous and too unclear to have any worth.

They have a tendency to speak about concepts they don’t have a real understanding about, often basing their assumptions on information that’s even less than a Google search away.

Worse yet, they tend to speak in broad terms, but then focus on one single example in one single game, rather than giving multiple examples to give a clear idea of why they’re talking about these things beyond “So, I played this one game last week…” It would’ve been much better if they’d narrow their focus on the singular mechanic or narrative trick they wanted to talk about instead of speaking in grand terms, but I guess this would also highlight the underlying problems of unclear phrasing and lack of research that are already present.

Instead of listening to anything Extra Credits has to say, I’d consider more well-reasoned and focused channels on YouTube that do a much better job of delivering the same kind of content. There’s quite a few of them out there. Here are some personal recommendations:

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3 thoughts on “Flunking On Extra Credits

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