Fitting Video Games Into a Well-Lived Life

Last time, I wrote about the recently released souped-up Xbox One X, which is of course a game console. Since that post was pretty heavily gear-centric, I wanted to follow up with a bit of “process” to round it out. Process is the other side of the coin for a thinking consumer. It should start before we even buy something, with a question of whether owning the product will result in a net benefit to some area of our lives. Onwards from that initial implementation of process, it defines how we use the product, and a little bit of how it uses us. Surprised by that last part? You shouldn’t be. What we own and use affects our habits, and habits are a major part of existence on earth. So we need to think about these things – the alternative is to be, in a very real sense, a mindless consumer.

Back to that game console. Video games sure do take up a large space in the modern life. As such, they’ve expanded in many ways, as has the ways we experience them. They’re now extremely complex, insanely expensive to make, and more beautiful and lifelike than ever. It’s easy to get sucked into them, and developers know this: see the rise of the term “games as services” over the past few years. These are games which are supported more actively by developers after launch, often with new content to freshen things and keep players invested. Naturally this model existed long ago with games like World of Warcraft, but the success of games like Destiny, which took that element of in-world refreshes, along with the shared-world aspect of connectedness with other players, has resulted in plenty of developers and publishers looking to claw out a piece of that realm as well.

Destiny is my personal game-as-service, something that I like to go back to regularly. It’s almost as if, alongside the activity that is playing a video game, there is a parallel activity that is playing Destiny, concurrent rather than subservient to the former. It’s existed in the world of sports for a long time, in the form of favorite teams. You grow attached to a team, and when you watch their games, you’re not just watching sports. You’re watching the Cubs. As such, I believe there is a higher risk of becoming rather obsessed with the favorite activity. It’s another term that’s used within the games industry, “games as lifestyle.” Okay, there’s a can of worms. Does your lifestyle consist solely of not just playing games (we’d call you a gamer, or more specifically maybe a hardcore gamer), but playing one game? That sounds a little troublesome.

On the one hand, there’s nothing innately wrong with a degree of exclusivity in the games you play. If you find that one game that fits like a glove, then you enjoy the reward cycles within that game all the more. That’s great – and that’s me with Destiny 2 nowadays. On the other hand, though, it does narrow the amount of experiences I have with video games, which means narrowing the viewpoints I experience in video games down to those of the Destiny developers, Bungie, and the way they want to represent only this one game, Destiny. I generally recommend diversity in the types and genres of media we consume. If you meet someone, for instance, who reads a lot of books in diverse genres and on diverse subjects, they’re probably going to be more well-rounded than those who read an equal amount of books, but only mysteries, or only Stephen King. It’s never a good idea to pigeonhole ourselves. It’s probably worthwhile for me, in this case, to climb out of the familiar groove of Destiny now and then.

This, then, is the first point of Process in this post: make sure you keep your experiences diverse. There’s nothing wrong with the familiar, but the mind thrives on variety.

Another facet of games-as-service is the meta-narrative. It’s the conversation around the game, and it can be a rewarding thing to invest yourself in. Destiny, as the primary example here, has an active community that includes several excellent podcasts. By picking apart the game detail by detail, fans can learn a lot that isn’t part of the primary activity (running around and shooting things). This helps players get better at the game, and usually increases the level of enjoyment they get out of it as well. When you boil it down, it results in self-improvement, which is always valuable and, I would argue, improves other areas of life. That is the best thing you can hope to get out of video games as a whole, or games-as-services in particular. It’s one thing to enjoy an activity, but it’s more worthwhile if it positively affects the rest of the time in some measurable way.

Self-improvement, in this case, means observing and evaluating the decisions made in the heat of the moment. Looking for lessons to learn from the past, and implementing them to improve the future. This can be as simple as listening to the excellent meta-narrative that is available, or can be as complex as recording and rewatching your own gameplay, testing theories in game, and developing personal rituals around managing stress or focus. If you’re going to spend a considerable amount of time at a single activity, especially one as focused as playing a single game, this should at some level be a part of your experience. It’s easy to develop bad habits in games, like running into the middle of the fight and dying (something I still find myself doing when I’m not actively thinking of how to be better), so we need to develop good habits to counteract those.

Good habits start with analyzing your weak points. As a broader benefit, my weak points are often those which create the most frustration and stress within the frenetic atmosphere of a player-versus-player match, so when I counteract those it’s good for my general health and well-being. It teaches restraint, resistance to flying off the handle, awareness of my reactions. Those are important life skills, not just useful video game skills.

I’m hoping that it becomes clear in this post that we are affected by those things which we spend time doing, or, to bring it back to what I said at the beginning, the things we use also use us. The second and most important point of Process here is that everything is connected, and we should be using the things we do for relaxation to better us in small ways. All the small things add up to the big things.

Image credit: Bungie



The Xbox One X, or Project Scorpio as we knew and loved it, drummed up its fair share of buzz prior to release. As a more powerful Xbox One, it inhabited a strange nether realm first broached by the Playstation Pro: mid-cycle upgrades that stopped short of being new console generations. The odd thing is, it’s not too early for a new console generation if you look back into their history- the problem is that the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 had extra long life cycles, and both manufacturers were too afraid to weather the negative publicity that would result in this web-dominated atmosphere (remember, the internet is the platform created for instant sharing of negativity with the entire world) had they announced a new console generation. I do believe the choice of Microsoft and Sony is good for the gamer, since we haven’t really seen what either of the current major consoles can do yet. “AAA” videogames take so long to make these days that optimizations for this console generation are just now visible on the horizon (Zero Dawn, if you want to smugly pun off that sentence).

The problem with just holding off is that media is definitely meandering into a 4K ‘format’ change (not really a change of format since so much media is consumed via streaming platforms now), and the current generation of consoles were created for a pre-4K world. That was shortsighted on both Sony and Microsoft’s parts, and Microsoft was the manufacturer whose first console, the Xbox, came with Ethernet built in long before internet connectivity was considered a requirement for consoles. Not so forward-thinking these days, eh Redmond? The end result is, we have pseudo-new consoles that handle 4K to a varying degree. In Sony’s case, halfheartedly. In Microsoft’s, rather better.

The best side benefit of these new consoles is the potential to run normal games and apps better than the original devices. Just like a PC, having better resources means everything runs better. The first thing I noticed about the Xbox One X was that the dashboard, along with navigation through settings and apps, was faster. The second thing I noticed was that load times are drastically reduced in many cases as well. When you consider how much of a console gamer’s time is often spent watching loading screens, that’s important, and almost worth paying extra money for in and of itself.

While few 4K games are available for the Xbox One X yet, those that are impressed me quite a bit. Halo 5, especially, looks breathtaking, mostly as a result of mainline Halo games always taking better advantage of the console hardware than basically any other game. I don’t know if those folks get access to data about the console that others don’t, but they always put out showstopping graphics. Keep in mind, I haven’t upgraded to 4K yet, and this is on a higher-end Samsung monitor that displays in 1080p. The ability of the console to “supersample” corrects one of what I consider the worst downsides of console games: aliasing. Antialiasing is one setting nearly always thrown out when games are programmed for consoles, and it has always bothered me. I could sacrifice a little bit of detail for the removal of those jaggies that produce distracting visuals during cutscenes or anytime the camera is moving. Now, the high texture quality of 4K games means that aliasing gets largely stopped cold, and that’s a great thing.

Of course, many games are still playing at base resolution for the Xbox One, so non-optimized games don’t show the same level of improvement. However, quite a few games will run at a more consistent 1080p or higher framerate, since a certain amount of scaling is often built in to handle graphically demanding sections of games by dropping a combination of frames per second and resolution, while rendering other less frenetic parts in higher quality. The Xbox One X doesn’t even break a sweat with these types of games.

All in all, I’m pretty impressed by what the Xbox One X offers. Only time will tell, however, what heights it will reach with upcoming games and those in the distant future – and whether it will have time to shine before the inevitable full-digit console upgrade comes along. Given that Sony’s Playstation Pro is a bit lackluster I can see them pushing things forward a bit sooner rather than sitting on their hands while their rival’s device pumps out greater graphical power. Microsoft will then have to respond, maybe a bit early, and then all will be obsolete as the next wave of pixel firepower engulfs everything.

Notwithstanding, there are a couple of things which I’d like to see improved with Microsoft’s new console. The most obvious thing is price. $500 is a lot to spend, even though the cost is fully warranted by the quality of the parts inside the box. But in order to appeal to a more mass audience (who may have just shelled out money for a 4K television) that price needs to get whittled down, especially since price cuts will inevitably come to the already-cheaper Playstation Pro.

The second thing I want to see is more games with settings that give the player some control over graphical fidelity. Naturally this has primarily been the realm of PC games, since that is a platform with a nearly infinite amount of variation in horsepower. But with the duality of budget-versus-premium console, we need to have some abilities in the console space as well. Gears of War 4 already implements something like this, with a couple of settings which prioritize resolution or frames-per-second. I can’t speak to the particular implementation, as I don’t own the game currently. But they’ve got the right idea, and I want to see more of it. Those with 4K televisions will probably want to prioritize resolution, and for many who are used to 30 FPS on consoles, this is a setting that offers some leeway. Others want 60 FPS consistently. Some won’t have upgraded to 4K but still want an improvement with 1080p gaming – here’s where a setting that allows the box to display 1080p textures, but with high levels of antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, as well as high framerate, would be useful.

Manufacturers may consider these settings to be too confusing to the average console gamer, antithetical to the console ethic, which is more or less like this: put the disk in, sit on the couch, and play. But settings like this can hide in the game’s menu without interrupting things for the casual gamer. Given that hardware is no longer uniform, this would be an advantage to a large number of people.

It will be interesting to see where game developers go with the higher-end console hardware in the future, and owning the Xbox One X is definitely the way to be on the right side of that question, since owners of the older console potentially face versions of future games which were not really optimized for the weaker consoles. They might merely lose a lot of the fidelity that was natively baked into the versions of games that release for the premium consoles in the next couple of years. It’s also possible that optimization for the premium consoles will lag due to the smaller userbase, but here’s to hoping developers really want to release the best-looking and playing versions of their games on consoles.

The Thing About Gear Acquisition

Do you have a sickness? I’m talking about gear addiction. It’s something I think that I have. Oh sure, some of the time I’m fine, even smart, with money and balancing my financial choices. But other times… other times not so much. Thankfully I have a pocketbook and a wife who are both more grounded than I am, and I’ve matured past the temptation to put things I can’t really afford on a credit card.

Modern culture is obsessed with cool technology. You don’t have to look any further than smartphones to know this, but if you wanted to, try smart homes, Tesla automobiles, 4K displays, the  list goes on. Now, in theory I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this; we live in the future, after all. The future is all about shiny and inscrutable gadgets being expertly handled by sensual young people with biomechanical implants. Thankfully, the implants aren’t a thing yet (but watch 2018), but the rest of it is firmly entrenched in popular culture.

Where I see a problem is cost. It’s all well and good to have the best stuff – in fact I am a proponent of having high quality stuff – but many desirable objects demand a premium that most people can’t really afford. Yet we have them anyway. Take smartphones. The 2017 crop has seen the high-end lot top the $1000 price point. Does anyone seriously have a thousand bucks for just a phone? They haven’t added any compelling features that I have noticed, they’re just made of nicer materials, with nicer cameras and faster processors. We desire those things, because we’re addicted to the gear. The specs. The bezel-less displays and the dual cameras. What the heck is going on?

There are a couple of alarming mindset themes here to point out as well. One is the monthly cost of such products, comprehended only in abstract. The other is the alarming numbers of people who have no savings. I can’t remember statistics, and this post is still something of an introduction, so you don’t get research (cop-out alert!), but there are a lot of people who don’t put anything away with the idea of retirement, and don’t even have emergency funds. That those same people will soon sport Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X smartphones is just mind boggling to me.

The point is, we need to get smarter about the technology we purchase. The fanciest, newest, most highly-touted micro-machinery out there may not be the best choice. Here’s my experience to prove my point.

I needed to upgrade my phone this year due to failing battery performance and a broken rear camera on my previous device, a Galaxy Note 5. Out of the many phones on the market, nothing struck my fancy, except maybe a Pixel XL, which I was loathe to spend the money for. I actually tried rolling back the clock to a “new old stock” Nexus 6, since that was the phone I owned prior to the Note 5 and I did like quite a bit. Turns out the OLED screens on those decives had a shelf-life, or something, because out of three separate Nexus 6 phones I tried, all had burn-in problems with the screens. I returned them. Then I decided to try the new Nokia 6 that Amazon advertised at $179 with lock screen ads (I had a Fire tablet with those, and knew they were never really that obtrusive). I’d owned several Nokia Lumia smartphones, and they were all totally solid phones. So I gave it a try. Turns out, it’s an extremely solid phone. It feels premium, runs fine, and was stupid cheap. $179 for an unlocked, new smartphone? Wow! It made the prospect of spending $800 for a mainline flagship phone pretty much impalatable.

So, I made an intentional choice to spend less on a phone. I feel like this is something I’m going to make a practice, and recommend to others. We replace our phones all the time anyway. I’ve rarely had a smartphone last longer than a year and a half. Batteries wear out, updates make the software run slower, etc. I’m now out of a contract, I spend $47 less a month on my phone bill since I’m not paying an installment plan and don’t worry about carrying insurance on a phone which cost less than $200. No, my screen isn’t quad-HD and my camera isn’t anything to write home about. But I’m saving a lot of money!

Due to the fact that I didn’t blow a bunch of money on a new phone, I had expendable income. That meant that, on November 7 when Amazon inexplicably had Microsoft’s new console, the Xbox One X, in stock in limited edition Project Scorpio livery, I was able to buy it. Yes, it’s another of those desirable products that no one needs. But I can look back on a time when I would have felt like I needed the $850 smartphone AND the $499 console. Instead, I’m bucking the prevailing wisdom and judging with each technology purchase just what I need, and nothing more. The funny thing is, there’s probably just what you need on the market. There are so many products. You just have to find the right one, it turns out, instead of being a follower. I have to remind myself of that when I read gear reviews, but at the same time, it allows me to look at that shiny new, collector-edition console and know that I don’t have to spend a year paying it off.


A Gear and Process Blog?

My intention behind this blog is to dwell on the intersection of two things which are as fascinating (to me, at least) as they are (frequently) at odds. It’s in the tagline: a gear and process blog. The internet is great for discussions about gear. No matter what you’re into, you can find communities built to disect every facet of every product, ad nauseum. It may be an effect of our heavily consumption-based culture, but it’s engrossing nonetheless.

Process is what I call the other half, the antimatter to the matter of consumerism. It’s how to use things, to really get your money’s worth, to master the particular skill of using something.

It’s something of a contradiction that we spend time pursuing both of these ends, because they’re kind of antithetical. Your obsession over a new product on the market stands in opposition to learning to use the product you already have to its full potential. It’s a tension, an uneasiness, that artists and creative types especially deal with; the new camera may do some things your current camera doesn’t, but if you buy it, you also have to learn the many intangible ins and outs of the new one, while you already have an inkling of what those are with your current gear.

I get the idea that many people own things which they frequently never truly master before moving on to something else. It may be possible that engineers know this, and they design things with features that they know only a small subset of people will use. Still, it’s unfortunate to own something and never really progress beyond novice status with it. Mastering something puts it in a whole new category: it takes it out of the rut of what the internet thinks about it, and elevates it to mastercraft tool. But it takes an investment by the user, and it’s as much an investment of mindset as it is attention or skill. The mindset that says “I want to master this product which I like” rather than “I want to see how soon something better comes out.”

So, what you will see here is the intersection. I like to talk about new gear, but I like to discover new and better ways of using what i already have as well. Does the intersection provide a hospitable enough spot to park my posterior for a whole blog? That, my friend, is an excellent question. Stay tuned to find out.