Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Marvel Movie News

San Diego Comic Con was the weekend before last, and there was a LOT of great information that came out of it. Whether you're interested in the movies that are being produced or the written comics, they had everything there. Even if you're there just for general geek/nerd news, there was plenty to satiate your geeky hunger.

Avengers 2: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon finally told us what the next Avengers movie was going to be called and, I think, mostly what it's going to be about: Ultron. When I heard the news, I admit I peed a little. Thanks to the comic series Conquest, Ultron became of the coolest Marvel baddies around.

In summary, Ultron is an android created by Doctor Hank Pym. Some of you may know him as Ant Man (or giant man). Currently, they're making a movie about him, so pop culture will get to know him better soon. Like all comic characters, Ultron's backstory is not easy to decipher, but in one of the more recent shows - Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, which you should totally watch - He was created by Pym to be a security guard for a super-villain prison. Stuff happened, and he became a baddie. What makes him great is his ability to adapt. As long as Ultron has access to a computer, he can transfer his mind to a suitable storage device. This is significant because when you think you've finally defeated him, he'll come back with upgrades designed to destroy whatever flaw was exploited the last time he was defeated.

There are some awesome Ultron scenes.

For the next Avengers movie, Ant Man will not be present, which raises some interesting questions about where he comes from in this movieverse. The fan-favorite origin is that Tony Stark will create him. I can see how this could happen after the results of Iron Man 3. If any of you are interested, you can view an interview with Joss Whedon about Avengers 2 here.

Guardians of the Galaxy

The other news that really caught my eye was more news from another movie Marvel making: Guardians of the Galaxy. First of all, I want it known that the Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favorite story lines in comics. Coming out of the Annihilation Wave in a very organic way, Dan Abnett was able to create an extremely fun team of superheroes. This group of individuals is such a mis-match of characters that it was a risk - but it really paid off. The character interactions are wonderful, and the comics have a ton of great humor mixed in with a cosmic story... and I likes me some space opera.

Most of the Guardians pictured here.

The guardians have a wonderful lineup of varied characters some I like, some I love. One of the best aspects of the comic is the relationship between the members of the guardians - it adds a layer that isn't in a lot of other comics. Plus, this one has a talking tree in it, who's best friends with a talking raccoon... so there you go. James Gunn directing this movie is an unknown for me, but if he can bring the same quirkiness of "Super" to this film, I think it'll be a great experience. 

Surprisingly, only 10 days after shooting some footage, they were able to show a fair amount of material to the audience. I'm particularly excited at the prospect of Chris Pratt playing Star Lord. What is supposed to be a funny character is being played by an extremely funny person. It should be pretty great. In addition, the movie features the physical and acting talents of Dave Bautista of WWE fame. Yes, I remember him from then... that dude is HUGE. I'm eager to see what he brings to the screen since, I believe, this is his first real venture into the movieverse.

Most excited? I admit, I'm most excited about Cosmo.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Video Games and Mental Health Science vs Stigma

At RTX 2013, I had the rare opportunity to listen to an extremely educational panel about mental health among gamers. The study was/is being performed by Kelli Dunlap, also known as Goosechecka through the Grifballhub community. Currently, Goose is finishing her doctorate in psychology and is trying to get her research published. The research she chose to do is on the mental health of regular gamers. Specifically, she is trying to focus on the current stigma that gamers are in some way damaged people. At one point, she told a story about how she "outed" herself as a gamer to her colleagues and was met with responses like, "I didn't know you were one of them." Pure comedy, that.
One of Us!
The panel was quite enjoyable to watch, and extremely informative. Kelli is clearly passionate about her research (and about her hobby!) and it comes out when she speaks about it. Of note is her ability to understand the  current research. It's one thing to read a study that someone else has published, but it's something entirely different to be able to take it apart and see where it is most flawed. In the case of Kelli, she not only disassembled the most widely cited research to date, she very clearly showed how these studies are flawed and damaging to the current views of gaming.

Mrs. Dunlap's research is targeted towards testing the current media and social stigmas that surround video games. I don't think anyone will disagree that there is still a negative stigma about gaming and gamers. The panel addressed the current belief that violent video games causing violent behavior - something that most of us have heard about. Kelli also addressed the stigma of who plays video games -  the current image of gamers being overweight, awkward, children who hang out in their parents' basements. Interestingly, one of the more popular shows on television, Big Bang Theory, includes most of these stereotypes. It is important to Kelli, in addressing mental heath of gamers, to discuss these current stigmas.

As Mrs. Dunlap began by pointed out that her study was performed on gamers themselves. In many of the previous studies, this sort of research was performed on everyone, not just people who identify themselves as gamers. This is the difference between studying animals in a zoo vs in their own habitat. The participants in her study were asked to take a survey that included a number of questions about their perceived mental health, their gaming habits, their work lives, their home lives - all sorts of things. In total, these surveys had over 400 questions. They waited 30 days to send out the same survey to the people taking the studies. During the 30 day time lapse, Kelli used Raptor data on gamer's gaming habits. Raptor is a program that monitors length of play and types of games. This is important because you're sampling gamers in their "natural habitat" you're not giving them a random game that they may not like, you're testing them playing the games they want to play in their own homes under their own schedules. It's an important distinction that observing gamers, rather than anyone who is available for the test. Additionally, these people are not in a laboratory setting, which has a tendency to modify behavior on its own.

Kelli ended up taking all this data and collating it in a few ways that would address the issues from her study. Interestingly, one of the only things that accurately predicted mental states was a gamer's expectations of playtime vs. actual playtime. What this means it that the gamers that didn't play as much as they have expected to (wanted to?) play were the ones to show more mental health symptoms like depression and "trait anger," which is a fancy way of saying their normal level of anger - without external stimuli. Additionally, this result only explained a very small effect. Something like 1% of her samples had this correlation. Of note at this point is that people who live in an altered mental state (like depression, like constant anger) tend to see the world differently than normal people. I know... it's shocking and I was just as blown away as you are...

This opened the door to another question that Kelli wanted to answer: do your beliefs about gaming affect your gaming habits? In order to answer this question, it had to be broken down even further:

Do you use video gaming as a replacement for therapy?
-are you using gaming in stead of seeking professional help?
Do you use video games to socialize or are video games your main way to socialize?
-do you socialize while you game, or are you of the opinion that gaming is the only way you can socialize?
Do you use video games to relax or are you using video games to lose yourself?
-do you play games to relax, or are you finding that you lose track of time and that you only reluctantly stop playing games?

According to the data collected in the study, Kelli found that the only group of people who accurately predicted their play habits were those people who use gaming as a form of relaxation. The other two groups didn't show any real connection to their expected play vs actual play.

 Now Kelli addressed the juicy part of her study: Do games cause any sort of pathology? Meaning, do playing video games actually change your behaviors or cause any sort of long-term affect on mood? What Kelli found was that duration of play in video games causes NO affect on mental state. Based on the responses of the people taking the study, the gamers that played games much more than others had no difference in their mental health. Second, the results showed that people who played shooters - games like Halo and Call of Duty - showed a reduction in anxiety. When I asked Kelli if there was anything in her study that really blew her mind, she said it was this. No one expected that this type of game would actually help reduce anxiety. Lastly, their study showed that anyone who plays a non-shooter game showed a slight increase in state anger - the type of anger one feels caused by something outside themselves and is temporary. Of note, however, was the fact that gamers show less state anger than the average person, even with their "heightened" levels.

So what does all this mean? That's a very good question and it was addressed during the panel. It turns out that using gaming another way to interact socially tends to reduce depression levels. Those people that play games with their friends or to make new friends tended to have a lowered state of depression. Those people that play video games as a way to relax after work or after a difficult week showed reduced levels of anxiety after playing first-person shooters like Halo and Call of Duty. If you want to chill out and just play some Halo, chances are that it will reduce your anxiety. People who use video games as a form of therapy, and this is clinical levels of depression or anxiety disorders, should know that gaming showed no affect on mood. If you need therapy, you should get it. Video games will not substitute proper therapy. Of note is that these affects only work on people who are in a currently healthy state of mind. Meaning that people who would be on the negative spectrum of gaming (only happy while playing, or can't socialize other than gaming) would have little benefit from playing games.

The last point I would like to address from this panel is one that cannot be answered by this study. Does a negative use of gaming affect your mood or does the current negative perception of gaming affect your mood? To make the distinction, negative use of gaming is when you can't make friends outside of gaming, or using gaming as therapy could be what actually affects your mood. Constant lack of success in endeavors outside of gaming, and going to gaming to fix your problems, could be what is creating a mood disorder. On the other side of this issue: is it people in your life telling you that gaming is only for socially ostracized people, or people who can't make friends, what's actually causing your pathology? Have you learned from their negative perceptions of gaming to view gaming as a negative activity? The study can't address these issues and it's a fundamental question that would be very difficult to study.

To Summarize, according to this study:
1) Gamers are not any crazier than anyone else.
2) In the absence of external stimuli, gaming will not make you crazy.
3) Gaming is a great way to socialize so long as it's not your only way to socialize.
4) Games are a great way to relax, but people can get lost in them.
5) Video games will NOT replace therapy - seek help if you need it.

Kelli won a $10k scholarship from, Alienware, and SteelSeries to aid her research

Please, those of us who are gamers: don't let society dictate how you feel about gaming. We love the games we play and we love the hobby. This is not something we should ever apologize for. Keep things in moderation, and make sure you are happy with who you are.


If you'd like to see a similar panel at PAX, check here

Thank you, Kelli, for proofreading this for me <3

Images courtesy of

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

RTX 2013

Over the 4th of July weekend, I was able to attend the Rooster Teeth Expo called RTX. Rooster Teeth is a production company based in Austin, TX that specializes in internet content. Their most famous production is probably Red vs. Blue, but they've managed to grow and branch out to other projects. Currently, one of their more favored segments is Achievement Hunter, for example.

Characters from Red vs Blue

Sweet Cosplay
This year they played host to some 10,000 convention goers, no small feat considering the first convention was in 2010. There were many different booths to see, and many different panels to go to. Admittedly, I thought the convention floor got a little stale after the first day. Despite the fact that there were plenty of people there, I found that the convention was a bit small. I know you're probably thinking that 10k people isn't a small convention, but when you consider that you can see all the exhibits within an hour, what are you going to do with the other 2 days of the convention?
The 501st always does the best Cosplay
The answer is: Panels. I really loved the panels here. The top panel on my list is probably the Richard Garriott panel about the new game that he's developing called Shroud of the Avatar. In an unfortunate turn of events, the game is going to be an MMO. I say unfortunate because I never really got involved in this type of game. However, after seeing the demo they put out, I can honestly say that I'm pretty eager to see more of this game. Also on the panel with Garriott was his trusted coworker Starr Long. While Garriott's alter-ego from the Ultima universe is Lord British, Long's alter-ego is Blackthorn. I know for most of you this is way over your head... so let me just tell you this: Ultima is the game that basically started online and adventure gaming in general. You know what... that's an irresponsible comparison. It basically started modern gaming as we see it now. Garriott is what I would consider the visionary and dreamer while Long is more in charge of the business side of things - a person to ground Garriott.
Starr Long on left, Richard Garriott on right

Second on my list of panels that I truly enjoyed was one put on by a young woman currently pursuing her PhD. Her panel was about how mental health is connected to video games and the myths that we often see on television and in the news. This was a remarkable panel with a lot of information. The speaker herself, Kelli, was extremely well-poised and definitely knew her audience. She was able to lay out all the info in a way that made sense and was pretty easy to follow. I would love nothing more than to tell you more about this panel, but I'll try to save that for it's own post later.

That brings me to something I wanted to talk to you about: Conventions. For those of you that have never gone to a convention about something you care about, I urge you to go. There is a certain type of energy there that feeds on itself - something caused by being surrounded by like-minded people. It's exhilarating, it's terrifying, and it's addicting in equal parts. At a convention such as this, there is something for everyone. I loved speaking with the people about the deeper philosophical issues of gaming and gaming culture. For example, the panel about Mental Health and Video Games was extremely stimulating and I had some very lovely conversations with people before and after the panel. I was able to speak with game developers about their games, about my lamentations of the current status of the gaming industry, and about my hopes for their games. I was even able to give them some "advice" to put it generously.
I think that guy on the left is in every one of my spartan pictures...
I will fully admit that I'm a pretty niche kind of market, and have some pretty esoteric knowledge when it comes to video games (have any of you seen or played Cataclysm? How about Dwarf Fortress? Salem?). My thanks to my friends for tolerating my habit... my love to Lady Kay for supporting it.
This was a great costume
I digress, conventions are a place where I can go and be fully immersed in a hobby that I love. It's a place where I can talk to the people that create these things that I love. Currently, I'm in love with Borderlands 2, and I was able to speak face-to-face with one of the 2K developers at PAX last year, it was incredible. This year, I got to speak with one of the developers from Cadenza Interactive, Nick Mazmanian, about the game they are currently developing, The Wanderer, and their most recent game Retrovirus. In all honesty, I'm thrilled to have been given the chance to speak with Maz. It's was a great conversation about the industry and about gaming in general, and it left me feeling more excited about what's possible. Maz is a great guy, thanks to him for giving me something to write about.

Cadenza Interactive's next game

To wrap it up, find a convention for something that you are enthused about. I'm sure there are quilting conventions if that's your thing. There are tons of nerd-type conventions that you can go to (sci-fi, fantasy, comics, video games, film), and I know there are conventions for many other hobbies as well. Go talk to the people that share your interests and ask them questions, be enthusiastic. You'll make friends and hopefully you'll learn something new.

It's a good time for being a geek/nerd!

That's a lady on the left. Seriously.